Cultural memory is a very powerful thing. Even when countless attempts have been made to subdue our ancestral heritage, indigenous and native folkways continuously resurface from our collective unconscious. Many elements from our European pagan past still appear in our popular media today; such as wizards and witches and their accoutrements of mystical power. However, when we look to folklore recorded a century or more earlier, we find that there are some things that have slipped between the cracks. Springwort is one of them. What is this magical plant? Let's find out.
*Note: because this article touches on topics that I have expanded on in great detail in other articles, I have linked to related articles throughout the text so you can read more.
Our modern conventions tend to view the realms of fairies and witches separately. Witches have been viewed as evil, while fairies are seen as benevolent, cute, and kind. As scholars reevaluate witch trials and the confessions of those accused, we are coming to new conclusions on accused witches. One subject that has been discussed in the academic field of folklore, but has seemingly not seeped into the popular consciousness, is the connection between fairies and witches.
A note to the reader: Never has it been so evident that history can sometimes be murky and difficult to wade through than during my quest to discover the roots of Christmas caroling! Different sources give different information, conflicting dates, and varying histories.
Ordinarily I would not open with a disclaimer. But, under the circumstances, if the reader were to look up this information on their own, they might find answers different than what I’ve written here. So, I will endeavor to weed through it all and give my own assessment of the material. And, I will try to be clear about where my information came from by citing all sources. - Carolyn
November hearkens the coming of that great American harvest feast wherein we express our gratitude for Nature’s bounty, and for the indigenous people whose generous support ensured the survival of the progenitors of our nation. However, when we dig a little deeper we discover that the tradition of Thanksgiving extends far beyond the borders of the United States.
Canada celebrates her own Thanksgiving in October, and Germany’s version, called Erntedankfest, is celebrated either at the end of September or in early October. The November harvest festival that the British-American pilgrims would have been familiar with, prior to their emigration, is the Feast of Saint Martin,or Martinmas.
Tales of Changelings come up frequently in Celtic folklore. The term “changeling” refers to a human being, usually a child but sometimes an adult, who has been taken by the fairies and replaced by a look-a-like. Technically, the changeling is the look-a-like, while the real person is thought to be held captive by the fairies. This topic is briefly discussed in my article “Ten Reasons Fairies are Scary."
Changeling stories come up often in folklore. So, for this edition of the Archivist’s Corner, I have decided to let the folklore speak for itself. Here is a selection of some folkloric accounts of changeling tales from books that are in the public domain. Both books are available for free download on ProjectGutenberg.org.
Trows are fascinating creatures found only in the folklore of the Orkney and Shetland islands. But, describing them accurately is difficult because sources are not clear. Folklorists have long insisted that the word “trow” is a corruption of “troll,” and that Orkney’s Trows descend from their Viking ancestors’ stories of Trolls.
Sigurd Towrie, author of the comprehensive website covering all things Orkney, disagrees with this assessment. He believes there may be a connection with a different creature from Norse mythology, the Draugr. This connection stems from both creatures’ affiliation with burial mounds.
Scotland is a nation rich in folkloric tradition. Both the highlands and the lowlands preserved distinct cultural folk tradition with influences from Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse influences. These cultures, along with the unique landscape and climate of this hilly northern country, fused to give Scottish folklore a unique flavor. Stories of ghosts and spirits are one common feature of Scottish lore.
Celtic folklore is rife with tales of the Fae. According to the lore, to avoid angering the fairies you should always refer to them by a euphemism, such as “the Good People.” The fairies can be friend or foe, though in Celtic folklore they are more often known for their trickery than in neighboring Germanic lore, where elves are quite helpful. Germanic lore did make its way to Lowland Scotland with the Anglo-Saxons. The stories of helpful Scottish brownies, who do chores around the house are analogous with other Germanic domestic elves such as the German kobold and Scandinavian Tomte. Fairies could travel in groups, known as trooping fairies, or be solitary figures, such as the leprechaun.
Trees and wells have been places of wonder, wishes, offerings, and miracles in Britain since time immemorial. In many cases we can only speculate how long folk customs have been occurring. Northern and Central Europeans did not leave written records, apart from pictograms, sparse runic inscriptions or ogham carvings. Add to that, previous generations used materials that erode or decay. The point is that just because there is no record in no way implies something did not occur. But on the same token, it cannot very well be argued that it did occur unless there is hard evidence. This is the conundrum of the historian, but also of the folklorist who studies both lore and folk practices.