Jo Dunbar: The Spirit of the Hedgerow
Since the beginning of human history, our ancestral roots and those of the hedgerows have been intimately entangled. Now, often forgotten amongst the hedgerows, the ‘wild weeds’ still offer amazing medicinal opportunities, delicious sources of food and fascinating folklore from our past. Many of the secrets of our history lie hidden in the stories of these plants. Our ancestors, living in harmony with the cycles of nature, knew how to prepare wild food and remedies, make protective talismans and so much more. But we have lost our connection with the magic of nature, and are much the poorer for it.
During the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon periods in Britain, large areas of ancient woodland were cleared for agriculture and animal grazing. Small clans of people lived at the forest’s edge, in homes made from mud, wattle and thatch. By cutting back the forest, the regrowth would have produced a rough hedge and inside this would be a clearing that represented domesticity, order and safety. On the other side of the hedge, within the dark forest, lurked fearsome bears, wolves, wild boar, serpents and also dragons, elves and ‘the other folk’.
A highlight during the cycles of the seasons was the visiting bards, with songs of legends and stories from faraway places. Many times these myth-spinners were also healers and their visit would include tending a sickly person or an unproductive field where they worked their magic using incantations and herbs.
After the chores of the day were done, the people would gather in the flickering firelight of their mead halls to listen to the storyteller recount long tales of warriors and heroes, kings, dragons and elves. Perhaps outside the thin walls, the winds would scream and wolves would howl. In those days, the nights were very dark with only the bright moon and sharp stars for light. Sounds were louder, shadows deeper, and images might be glimpsed in the fiery shadows, especially when minds were softened with mead and ale, and the perils of the forest were very close.
Giants and dragons were real to these folk – after all, everyone had seen the firedrakes flying across the starry skies from time to time. Today, we call them comets. Certain wells or pits were known to be the lairs of these fearful dragon worms, or ‘wyrms’. Even today, some places still hold names such as Dragon Hill at Uffington where there is some debate as to whether the ancient chalk engraving into the hill represents a dragon rather than a stylised white horse.
The collective mindset was animistic and magical. In the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon eras and beyond, people believed in faeries and elves. These were not the small winged creatures of our Victorian fairy tales, but a race that lived alongside ours yet for the most part remained unseen. Elf beings could be smaller than us or taller, and they might be as likely to bestow favours and comfort on a homestead as to cause terrible mischief, so they had to be constantly placated. Certainly they were never referred to as fairies, which was considered rude, but rather they were known as ‘the fair folk’, ‘the good folk’, ‘the little people’ or ‘the gentry’ and, even up until the last century, faery folk were sturdily believed in by country folk, particularly of the western counties of Britain.
Something greatly feared by the Anglo-Saxons was ‘elf shot’, experienced as a sudden and unexpected sharp pain such as hiccups or, more severely, a difficulty in breathing with sharp pains in the chest. In these cases it was likely that malicious elves had shot invisible arrows into their victim, allowing the life force to leak out, sometimes to the extent that the victim died. Today we would probably diagnose those symptoms as pleurisy. The Anglo-Saxons cured elf shot with a plant called elf-wort, now known as Inula helenium; modern medical herbalists use the same plant to treat pleurisy. The same disease and the same plant, just a completely different cultural understanding.
Having said that, it is not so very different because science tells us that tiny creatures invisible to the naked eye (bacteria or viruses) do invade our bodies and cause illnesses such as pleurisy. We now understand the plant to have anti-bacterial properties and we have the scientific evidence; but then the Anglo-Saxons also had their own evidence, in the form of elven (Neolithic) arrowheads which they turned up when cultivating the soil.