History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Nettles & Mugwort

While I was reading Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes, a too much neglected classic of witchcraft fiction, I was struck by a rhyme Lolly's Nannie Quantrell had taught her as a child, which she had learned from her grandmother:

If they would eat nettles in March

And drink Mugwort in May

So many fine young maidens

Would not go to the clay.

This is one of the keys to Lolly's later decision to become a witch. Her decoctions fill her with a delight as she pursues herbs in the country side. Later when she's exiled to London, living in a kind of fugue state, it is some sprays of beech leaves that open her mind once more to the desire to get back to the natural world.

Something about the rhythm of the rhyme itched at my thoughts and I cast around to find other versions. I was pleased to find there was a Scottish version that seemed to be an older echo of the saying. Sophie Kingshill's Lore of Scotland gives it as:

If they wad drink nettles in March

And eat muggans in May

Sae mony braw maidens

Wadna gang to the clay.

Even better the rhyme is delivered on the Firth of Clyde by a mermaid who pops up seeing a young girl's funeral. In versions of The Mermaid of Galloway, this lore is repeated as she scolds a young man who's lover is dying: Wad ye let the bonnie May die i' yere hand, An' the mugwort flowering i' the land.' He immediately harvests the flowers and presses them to his lover's lips and manages to save her just in time.

Her herbal advice of urticaa dioica and artemesia offers good leechdom for a variety of complaints. The link to virgin goddess Artemis is clear and her traditions of helping maidens. The Anglo-Saxons knew nettle welland the Nine Herbs Charm from Lacnunga tells us:

This is the herb that is called 'Wergulu'.
A seal sent it across the sea-right,
a vexation to poison, a help to others.
it stands against pain, it dashes against poison,
it has power against three and against thirty,
against the hand of a fiend and against mighty devices,
against the spell of mean creatures.

In like manner mugwort's praises are sung:

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

The herbal traditions have been preserved in oral and written traditions for a very long time. How many of you still drink nettle tea? But do you collect mugwort?

Last modified on
K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


Additional information