flower power in irish mythology
The fields and hedgerows are awash with the blaze of wildflowers right now. And one of the most impressive is this:
It’s called Rosebay Willowherb. It grows up to a height of 2m, in great swathes of vibrant eye-popping purple, and it’s everywhere! Roadsides, embankments, railway sidings, bogland, woodland, building sites, and anywhere the ground has been recently disturbed. It brightens up all the abandoned, un-loved forgotten places, and I just love it!
In ancient times, it was the first plant which grew on the hillsides after the gorse had been burnt back, which is why it was named Lus na Tine in Irish, meaning ‘fireweed’. This has become its popular name.
Medicinally, its root was powdered and thought to stop internal bleeding, whilst an infusion brewed of its leaves was used to treat asthma.
Despite its proliferation and beauty, however, I could find no mention of it in Ireland’s myths, even though it is a native plant.
Other wild flowers I am loving right now, and which are prolifically and delightfully in full bloom are Montbretia, Fealeastram Dearg in Irish, and Fuschia, Fiúise or Deora dé in Irish, although neither of these are native to Ireland.
Monbretia, photographed in Sneem, Co. Kerry
In Irish mythology, Cuchulainn suffered from alternating bouts of malaise and rage. It was quite possibly drug-induced, perhaps through use of Amanita, but according to the stories, he was treated by being bathed in infusions of Meadowsweet.
Blossom from a huge clump of meadowsweet growing in the verge beside my gate.
Its Irish name is Airgead Luachra, which means 'silver rush', perhaps because the underside of its leaves are quite silvery in colour, but it is also known as Crios Conchulainn, which I believe is translated as ‘Cuchulainn’s Belt. Maybe he carried the herb in a little pouch or amulet attached to his belt, in case it was required to soothe the hero's fits and rages.
It was believed to be a herb that could aid in falling asleep, but in folklore, there was danger in that, for it was a sleep from which one might not awake. And according to legend, Cuchulainn fell into a sleep which lasted a whole year, during which time he appeared to leave his body and go into the Otherworld, where he had an affair with Fand, the wife of sea-God, Manannán.
Interestingly, it is from this plant that aspirin is derived; meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which is a disinfectant, pain-killer and anti-inflammatory. Right now, the hedges are a-froth with its downy creamy flowers, and insects love its heady sweet scent.
It may not be the most striking of wildflowers, but it is one of my favourites. It may look a little ragged and fluffy, and it may not be the most colourful, but I love it for its honey-milky-almond sweet scent, which on a warm day hovers all around you. I love it's mythology, and its medicinal properties, and I feel like I wait all summer for its appearance.
In Irish, the Bluebell is known as Coinnle Corra. Of course, these delicate spring-blossoming wild flowers are long gone, but they have their place in Irish mythology: on her wedding night to Fionn mac Cumhall, Grainne was said to have mixed bluebell with tormentil and secreted it into the wedding guests’ wine, thus sending them all to sleep so she could elope with her beloved Diarmuid.
Although it was traditionally used to stop bleeding, and also as a diuretic, I can’t find any reference to it as an anaesthetic. Apparently, in ancient times, the bluebell’s sticky sap was used as a glue to bind books, and to stick feathers to the ends of arrows.
Tormentil is a little yellow flower which looks similar to a buttercup, and which commonly grows all over Ireland between May and September. It was used for pain relief and to treat digestive problems.
In Irish, its name is Néalfartach; neal meaning ‘depression/ gloom’, and fartach meaning ‘hurt/ injury’. In Co Cork, however, it was known as Lus an Chodlata, meaning ‘herb for sleep’, suggesting that it may well have been used for promoting sleep.
According to mythology, the warrior Nera disappeared into the Otherworld at Samhain, the beginning of winter, yet returned bearing summer flowers: wild garlic, golden fern and primroses, Sabhaircín in Irish.
This is a strange and convoluted story in which Nera receives a violent vision from the Sidhe showing the awful fate of his people if they don’t destroy the Hill of Cruachan. He warns Queen Medb and convinces her that he speaks the truth by giving her the summer flowers he brought back from Tir na Nog.
Honeysuckle, known as Féithleann in Irish, is associated with the tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn. These two lovers both died unnecessarily from grief, believing the other already dead. An apple tree grew from Aillinn’s grave mound, and a yew from Baile’s. These were eventually cut down, and tablets made from them, engraved with their stories. When these tablets were brought to King Cormac’s house in Tara, they sprang together and cleaved to each other as tightly as honeysuckle around a branch and could not be parted.
Finally, the foxglove, known as Lus Mór in Irish, meaning the ‘great herb’, is used to describe the beautiful blush of the pure cheeks of Étain, Deirdre, and warrior Conall Cernach.
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