Primroses: lore and life

Two primrose plants in full bloom, growing in a mossy bank.

Every year, the progression of flowers marks the coming of spring: the first tentative growth of light brings up the snowdrops, then the celandine and daffodils and coltsfoot. But the flowers which truly mean spring to me are primroses.

Primrose lore

The place of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) in British folklore is small, and some might say insignificant. In some parts of England, it was considered bad luck to bring primroses into the house except in groups of thirteen blossoms, while in the Victorian era, it was thought that primrose flowers scattered across the threshold of your home had the power to prevent fairies from entering.

In the language of flowers, primroses had a wide range of meanings, including bashfulness, inconstancy in love, one's merits being overlooked, young love, or the message that "I can't live without you," (which strikes me as a melodramatic statement for such a demure flower!).

Primrose is very important to me personally, through its association with Blodeuwedd.

Who is Blodeuwedd?

The story of Blodeuwedd appears in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, a Medieval collection of Welsh lore and mythology, with its roots much further back in pre-Christian Welsh history.

The baby Lleu Llaw Gyffes is cursed by his mother, Arianrhod, to be without name, without weapon and without wife. His wily uncle, Gwydion, tricks Arianrhod into giving Lleu a name and a weapon, but he cannot trick her into giving him a wife. Thus, with the aid of the powerful magician and king Math ap Mathonwy, Gwydion creates a wife for Lleu out of flowers, called Blodeuwedd (which means 'flower face').

In the Mabinogion as we now have it, only three flowers are named: meadowsweet, oak and broom. But according to Robert Graves, in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, from which the Mabinogion is drawn, there is the suggestion of six more flowers woven into Blodeuwedd's creation:

Hanes Blodeuwedd

(Translated and reconstructed from The White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest by Robert Graves.)
Not of father nor of mother 
Was my blood, was my body.
I was spellbound by Gwydion, 
Prime enchanter of the Britons, 
When he formed me from nine blossoms, 
Nine buds of various kind; 
From primrose of the mountain, 
Broom, meadow-sweet and cockle, 
Together intertwined, 
From the bean in its shade bearing 
A white spectral army 
Of earth, of earthly kind, 
From blossoms of the nettle, 
Oak, thorn and bashful chestnut - 
Nine powers of nine flowers, 
Nine powers in me combined, 
Nine buds of plant and tree.
Long and white are my fingers 
As the ninth wave of the sea.

As the story progresses, Blodeuwedd develops from an automaton into an autonomous person, with her own feelings and desires. Eventually, she falls in love with another man, Gronw, and helps him to kill Lleu, so that she can be free to follow her heart. However, Gronw fails, and Gwydion turns Blodeuwedd into an owl as punishment.

Why primrose?

Many regard the story of Lleu, Blodeuwedd and Gronw as symbolic of the cycle of the seasons, with Lleu representing the sun of summer, Gronw the dark and cold of winter which almost 'kills' the sun, and Blodeuwedd the earth itself, flowering for Lleu in summer, but turning to the night time chase of predator and prey in winter.

Thus the flowers named for Blodeuwedd cover the entire span of full spring and summer, from primroses in April to meadowsweet which continues to flower throughout August.

When the primroses emerge, I always think of Bloduewedd, coming forth in her flowery innocence.

Practical uses

Primrose is not only very pretty, and a sign of the full coming of spring; it also has many practical uses.

N.B. Please do not harvest wild primrose, as it is under threat. It is easily grown in your garden or in a window box.

Culinary

All parts of the primrose are safe for humans to eat (although not for pets!). Old recipes for primrose include pottage (a thick soup), and desserts made with almonds, honey and saffron. The flowers look lovely in salads, and can also be crystallised for decorating cakes.

Medicinal

Mrs Grieve lists primrose's primary effects as antispasmodic, vermifuge (getting rid of worms), emetic (encourages vomiting), astringent (drying), sedative, and expectorant (bringing out mucus from the lungs). She recommends an infusion of the root of the primrose to alleviate stress-related headaches.

Culpeper, in the 17th century, has a lot less to say about primrose, mentioning it only as the source of 'an excellent salve to heal green wounds,' made from the leaves.

Gerard, however, has a great deal to say about primrose's medicinal uses. He talks of using different parts of primrose, prepared in different ways, as:

  • a treatment for some form of spring fever or mania;
  • a balm for rheumatic and arthritic pains;
  • a treatment for gout and palsy;
  • relief for convulsions and cramps;
  • a treatment for migraines;
  • alleviation of burns.

Magical

Primrose is ruled, as one might expect, by Venus, and is associated with the element of Earth. Combined with the kinds of medicinal effects it has, this suggests that primrose would lend itself to magic for:

  • releasing tension associated with new beginnings;
  • blessings for new love or newly weds;
  • gentle fertility magic;
  • grounding of frazzled or frenzied energy.

Trying it out

I had some primrose blossoming outside, so I thought I would try some primrose tea. I cut and dried flowers and leaves, then chopped them up and dried them some more, finally infusing them in boiling water for about 10 minutes.

Here is what it looked like:

The dried flowers and leaves together smelt like slightly floral, freshly bought green tea. The infusion's colour ended up a pale, straw-like yellow.

It had a delicate flavour, very similar to its scent. I found the effects to be relaxing, mildly digestive, and soporific.


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Winter blues

It's snowed quite a bit, here at home, and more is forecast. We're up to 38cms (15") so far. This means we're stuck at home, until a thaw. 

It's not so bad (as long as the power stays on). We're warm, and have food, and I have reading and writing and art and knitting to do. But it's also scary, and combined with the exhaustion that's overtaken me the past few days, I have fallen into a slump. I am not reading or writing (well, there's this). I'm not creating art (not quite true; I did finally finish a painting), and only knitting in fits and starts.

I am definitely suffering from what medical professionals refer to as "low mood". I feel anxious, and am full of negative thoughts about myself. But I'm still here, and still glad you're here with me.

🖤

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Country child in the city

I was born in South London (pronounced “Saaarf Laarndun”), in the area of Lewisham. You can't get much more urban than that; I was raised in England's second largest city. And yet, since adolescence, I've felt ill at ease with city life.

My (limited) studies of French philosophy helped me see I wasn't alone in this experience. Durkheim had a word for my situation: l'anomie – the feeling that I lacked community. Sartre had a word for it, too: la nausée – the sense of despair I felt at the world's indifference to my existence.

I got the first intimations that a different life was possible at Glastonbury Festival in 1993. I was volunteering with West Midlands CND, holding fort at the left luggage tents around various of the fields along with my fellow activists. As a volunteer, I was on site for nearly an entire week. I was in a place where I could connect directly with the shape of the land, the state of the ground, the way earth became trees became sky. 

There was nothing but earth and grass on the ground, nothing taller than a sound stage on the horizon. Not only that, but the people...

Whether it was being released from the nine to five into a long weekend of free-wheeling festival living, or getting to hang out with their friends and enjoy their favourite music live, or the availability of the healing field, people were for the most part what I had always dreamed people could be -- what we should be: loving, generous, happy.

This was my first taste of feeling part of a place, being in relationship to a place -- and a community -- rather than being a disconnected dot, scurrying about a Tarmacked surface. It was an experience which shaped my ideas about how I wanted to live.

At first, my focus was on finding a humane, human community, based on reciprocity, mutuality and generosity. I found it for a while in workers' and housing co-operatives, but I had yet to develop the perspective and the personal resilience to deal with the conflicts of personality, perspective and priorities which inevitably arise when working and living in a group -- even a group whose members share ideals. And we were still part of the atomised city, still surrounded by l'anomie and la nausée.

I gave myself a break from idealism, and simply followed life where it led me for a few years. Where it led me in 2000 was to a wee cottage in an isolated rural parish in southern Scotland, along with my partner and our dogs. This was where that different life began to emerge: not from the people I surrounded myself with – there were precious few of those around! – but from the relationship I developed with this new land.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors in that first year in our new home, just noticing. My tools were a curious mind, open senses, and waterproofs. I came to know what rain looked like from a distance, and how to tell if it was coming our way. I learned the scent of clover and moist earth in sunshine. I thrilled at the sight of herons almost within arm's reach. I began to recognise wild plant and animal neighbours which were new to me: vetch, water avens, blueberry, St. John's wort; buzzard, sparrowhawk, hare, red squirrel.

And in coming to know the land and all of its living peoples, I also gradually came to know the spirit species which populated it, too: the devas, the sidhe, the very substantial elements. Above all else, I came to recognise the presence and actions of the Cailleach, of Angus, and of Bride, the legendary shapers of the land of Scotland.

Through this process I have found community with my fellow beings I have learned not only how to listen to and hear the non-human inhabitants of this land, but also how better to relate to the humans in my life. This is because being in relationship with the more-than-human has enabled me to land ever more fully into myself.

Being in relationship, I know that I am not alone, that I have a place, that I am at home, right here, right now. This takes the anxiety and the pressure out of every interaction I have with other humans, whether they are family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances or distant bureaucrats. Through knowing myself connected to the land and its all-species, more-than-human tribe, I also know myself connected to my human kin.

L'anomie and la nausée are gone. While I still experience seasonal depression, I'm hopeful I now have the skills and tools to ensure that, even if I find myself living in a city again, their kind of existential angst will never return.


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The stories I love are old

So why do I feel I have to deliver something new?

Image by Dustin Scarpitti on Unsplash

I'm attending a Scottish Storytelling Apprentice day next week. A big part of the day is telling and receiving feedback on a 10 minute story -- or ten minutes of a story. I enjoy this part of the day a lot, and learn as much from observing others' tellings as I do from feedback on my own. 

But every time, I forget I need to have 10 minutes of story ready to go until the week before, when the reminder email comes round, and every time, it causes me intense anxiety. In fact, it's increasing over time.

It seems that the more stories I gather, the less I feel I have to offer. 

Ridiculous, untrue, but I feel it just the same.

I don't know where it comes from, but the idea that I have to always have something new to offer in order to be of value is deeply embedded in my psyche. 

This morning, I looked out of my bedroom window on a strange and wonderful sight: 

-- the field stretching from our house to the hill from which our water comes is its usual green, fading thistles drooping over the otherwise well-cropped pasture; 

-- at its edge, a stand of spruce trees; 

-- above, a grey sky, waiting for sunrise to brighten it to blue.

And between sky and earth, behind the trees, a white mist, like batting, draped over the form of the hill, ending in a line, near the foot of the hill, as straight as any in nature can be. 

It is the Cailleach's headscarf, lower to the ground than it would normally be found (it usually graces the peaks of bens and mountains), but unmistakable.

The Cailleach's story, the story of her solitary, exhausting, creative existence, her forming of the very land itself, is one with which I am intimately familiar. It is as old as the Scottish hills themselves. 

This is the story I will tell at the Apprentice day. 

I do not need a new story; I do not need to pressure or force myself. I have this story: this gift of land, and ancestors, and tradition, and oracy, that I have a duty and a responsibility to share in my turn, in my own unique way, one thread in a tapestry woven over millennia.


Image by Dustin Scarpitti on Unsplash


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Robin and wren

robin and wren

I'm currently sitting in front of a window that goes all the way to floor level. As usual, every now and again as I'm sitting here, birds come up close to the window, trying to get into the space they can see through the glass, or sit on the fence a few yards away, looking in sceptically. 

Just now, a wren came along, flying low to the ground, and hopping every now and again, along the length of the window, sitting on the window ledge for a moment before flying off.

The birds in these parts are incredibly large, compared to other places I've lived. It's bound, in part, to be the fluffing up of feathers against the chill of the wind, but even taking that into account, we have some beefy birdies. I've always put the rest of it down to the sheer quantity of insects available for them to eat over the summer. 

(To which I say, eat away, little birds, eat away! The fewer midges to bother me the better.)

It means I always second guess myself when I see a wren. In all the other places I've seen wrens, they've been tiny, truly tiny. Here, they're almost the size of sparrows, so I always double check the features that make it definitely a wren. Pale and dark variegation on the wing? Check. White bar above the eye? Check. Tail tipped up perpendicular to the ground? Check.

Amusingly enough, just a few seconds after the wren went on its way, a robin appeared on the fence, big and round, with his beady eye looking at me. 

Why amusing? Because the wren and the robin are important birds in English, Welsh and Irish folklore, with a strong relationship to one another.

The wren is known as the king of the birds, and its name in many European languages means king, king-bird, or little king. This may be because, according to legend, the wren became the highest flying of all the birds when he hitched a lift on the back of an eagle, then launched himself from it's back to fly just a little bit higher. This legend also illustrates the wren's fabled cunning.

The wren is both protected from, and associated with lightning, as well as with oak trees, and the deity Taranis. If you steal a wren's egg or a baby wren, your house will be struck by lightning. The same may apply if you mess with a Druid, as druids and wrens are closely associated.

The robin has much more Christian legend associated with it. One version of how the robin got his red breast recounts how he sang in Christ's ear as he hung on the cross, to distract him from his suffering, and that drops of Christ's blood landed on his breast, permanently marking him. Another version tells how he tried to stop up the wound in Christ's side with his breast, and that is how it was stained red. 

Yet a third story tells of the robin's merciful nature: out of pity for the souls trapped in Hell, he would carry water to them in his beak. In the process, his breast was burned by the fires of that place.

Another story of the robin and fire also brings in the wren. In this tale, the robin stole fire from heaven, and caught fire himself as he brought it to earth. In gratitude for this act, all of the other birds gave him one of their feathers, to cover over the areas where his own had burned away. In the robin's enthusiasm, he did not notice the tiny wren in the crowd, got too close, and so the wren, too, caught fire. The singe marks can still be seen on the wren's wings today.

The robin and the wren are also brought together in a whimsical tradition that if a dead person be left unburied, the robin and wren together will cover over its body with leaves. 

The most famous story of the relationship between the robin and the wren, however, is not one of cooperation, but of conflict. In this tradition, the robin is associated with the rising of the new sun at the winter solstice (around 21st December), and the wren is the old year, which must die for the new to be born. In some tellings of their tale, the robin kills his father, the wren, and gets his red breast from the wren's blood. 

This could also be the origin of the Medieval tradition of hunting and killing a wren on St. Stephen's day (26th December) by stoning. Supposedly, this was in remembrance of the stoning of St. Stephen, but it is easy to see how it could have a more Pagan origin, in the killing of the old year to allow the new one in.

Thankfully, this is a tradition that died out some time back, although 'The Hunting of the Wren' is a festival still celebrated in the Isle of Man, and various places around England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with a wreath or other object taking the place of the wren.


Image credits: "robin" by jans canon, and "Wren" by John Benson, both used under license CC BY 2.0.


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Gathering meadowsweet

Today has been my first day back in the swing of everyday life since teaching at Witchcamp in Shropshire. It's mostly been made up of unpacking and laundry, but I did make the opportunity to gather some meadowsweet while it's in bloom. 

A meadowsweet plant seeded itself in my berry bush bed last year, and I've let it stay there, as an easy access source of flowers and leaves. (Otherwise I have to wander into soggy hillsides and past Roman nettles.) I went out to gather some this afternoon, in clear sunshine. Of course, as soon as I started picking it started raining; however, that's a complaint / contemplation for another day.

Meadowsweet was used in Culpeper's time "...to stay all manner of bleedings, fluxes, vomitings and women's menses, as also their whites...". Gerard also suggests it for eye irritation. 

Medicinally, in modern times, its prime use is for pain relief, especially to relieve cramps of the smooth muscles (gut and uterus). It is gentle on the stomach, and is also a mild astringent, which makes it an excellent choice for diarrhoea, and for heavy, painful periods. It can also help to bring down fevers and has been suggested as a treatment for ulcers — although those with sensitivity to salicylic acid should proceed with great care, and the advice of a fully qualified medical herbalist. 

Emotionally and magically, according to both Gerard and Culpeper, it makes "a merry heart". It falls under the influence of Venus, and is therefore useful in spells for love, money and beauty, especially where a gentle action is required. It is a specific for softening the heart of someone who has it out for you, and is generally good for peace, happiness and harmony. 

It is also a good herb for sweetening the atmosphere of a space. Traditionally, it was added to the straw used to keep floors of great houses fresh. The stalks and seeds, when burned, have a scent very like sweetgrass, which suggests it can be used for similar purposes. 

Meadowsweet has a wide range of culinary uses. It can be made into a very tasty cordial, and is often added to mead and herb beers. It goes very well with strawberries and with milk, and can be used in rice pudding, creme brulée, ice cream, panna cotta, and many other dishes.

It also has mythical fame in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion, as one of the three flowers used by Math ap Mathonwy and Gwydion to make a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, when his mother could not be tricked into lifting her curse on him. Said wife, Blodeuwedd, is a figure of great fascination to me, and part of a broader storytelling work in progress, giving voice to women from myth and legend who were created by or for men.


Important note: none of the information provided in this piece constitutes medical advice. Please do your own research, and consult a qualified medical herbalist if in any doubt.


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Bird messengers, bird messages

A European buzzard gliding in a blue sky, photographed from below.

This morning, I started my day (as I have for the past three days, and hope to continue to do so for the foreseeable future) by greeting the Guardians of the east. I do this by facing east, engaging my attention, using my voice and my body, and resting in stillness.

As well as paying attention to what I am doing, and the Great Beings with which I am communicating, I also pay attention to the world around me, alert for any signs and portents. These often come to me as animal visitors -- although I am always aware that animals are not primarily here for my edification: they have their own lives and goals to pursue.

This morning, I noticed two birds in particular.

First, a dunnock, which looked at me curiously from the fence during my vocal and bodily prayers. 

Dunnocks are what bird-spotters call LBJs ('little brown jobs'), but despite this, they have their own quiet charisma. The brown line above their eyes makes them unmistakeable.

The one I saw was far more sleek and delicate-looking than the one in this picture: it is summer here, so it didn't need to puff itself up to keep warm, which is what the one in this photograph is doing. 

The folklore surrounding dunnocks is charming. According to Tony Locke

"By day it is a happy little bird that tries to outdo every other bird with its song. However, at night particularly at midnight their sad and tender songs are said to reflect the cries of unbaptised babies that have returned from the spirit world in search of their parents. The dunnock’s blue-green eggs were regarded as charms against witches' spells when strung out along the hob. They were especially good for keeping witches and spirits from coming down the chimney."

I take this as an invitation to me to pay attention to the balance of joy and loss in my life (a constant theme), and to refresh the shields around my home.

After I had finished my prayers and was resting in stillness, a common buzzard flew into view (like the one pictured in the header to this post), and proceeded to hover over the hill which stands to the east of my home. 

It glided high in the air for a while, then brought in its wings slightly, took an upright 'stance', and fanned out its tail -- a pose for selecting prey. 

After a moment, it returned to a hover, then glided down a little lower and returned to its hunting pose. It repeated this twice more, before dropping, silently and, to my surprise slowly, onto its selected prey. 

There is no folklore around common buzzards, so I derived a message for my life from this encounter purely from the buzzard's behaviour. What I took from it is this. There is no need to rush. Look at the situation from far away as well as close up. Be still and pay attention. Once you have decided, act calmly and without hurry to achieve your goal.

Of course, another person seeing those exact same birds, in the exact same place, would be bound to interpret them at least a little differently. That is as it should be: no sign, symbol or portent has an entirely fixed meaning; each instance of its arising has a different context, and therefore different significance. 

Just like stories, just like poems, just like art.

Header image: "Common Buzzard" by John Plumber. Used under Creative Commons license.

Dunnock image: from The Folklore and Traditions of the Irish Hedgerow.

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