Leaders grasp nettles

“Leaders grasp nettles” ~ David Ogilvy, (Scottish born British military intelligence officer and later top advertising executive, 1911-1999)

While leaders sometimes must metaphorically grasp nettles, the humans of Seven Trees Farm look forward to a brief frenzy of literal nettle-grasping this time of year. We’ve written a lot about the medicinal, culinary, recreational and agricultural uses for nettles, but not so much about the magickal and metaphorical meanings our ancestors attributed to this prickly plant.Urtica dioicaIn 1838, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story about a girl who saved her brothers from their fate of being turned into swans by weaving them shirts made from nettles. She had to gather the nettles with her bare hands, process the fibers with her bare feet, weave the fabric and sew the shirts without speaking.

Unspoken nettles’ seem to be a standard requirement in getting the most efficacy from the plant, whether for magic or medicine. The Folklore Journal of January 1884 recounts this tale: UnspokenNettles also figure in many proverbs:  “If they would drink nettles in March and eat mugwort in May, so many fine maidens wouldn’t go to the clay.”

“Tender-handed, grasp the nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle, and it soft as silk remains.”

Old Norse/Germanic belief was that nettles were important to Thor/Thunor, and throwing nettles on the fire during a thunderstorm would protect you from his lightning bolts.

Nettles gathered before sunrise will drive evil spirits away from cattle, according to German folklore, ans a pot of nettle under a sick person’s bed indicated recovery if they stayed green, but death if they wilted.

This old Scottish rhyme needs a little translating, but advises harvesting nettles early in the day, cutting them low to the ground, in shady places, and substituting them for ‘kail’ or greens:

“Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle, stoo the nettle

Gin ye be for lang kail coo the nettle early

Coo it laich, coo it sune, coo it in the month o’ June

Stoo it ere it’s in the bloom, coo the nettle early

Coo it by the auld wa’s, coo it where the sun ne’er fa’s

Stoo it when the day daws, coo the nettle early.”

(Old Wives Lore for Gardeners, M & B Boland)

Wikipedia says: Coo, cow, and stoo are all Scottish for cut back or crop (although, curiously, another meaning of “stoo” is to throb or ache), while “laich” means short or low to the ground. Given the repetition of “early,” presumably this is advice to harvest nettles first thing in the morning and to cut them back hard [which seems to contradict the advice of the Royal Horticultural Society].

Nicholas Culpepper, in his classic work Complete Herbal and English Physician says that Mars governs nettles. ” You know Mars is hot and dry, and you know as well that winter is cold and moist; then you may know as well the reason nettle-tops, eaten in the spring, consumeth the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, that the coldness and moistness that winter hath left behind.”

Danes believed nettle patches marked the graves of elves, and Scottish Highlanders thought they marked human graves. Archaeologists know that nettles can mean ground that was disturbed by settlements, and where to start digging.

Gravestones among nettles

One last quote to keep in mind when you’re out harvesting your own nettles: “He who is afraid of every nettle should not piss in the grass” ~Thomas Fuller (British Clergyman and Writer, one of the most prolific authors of the 17th century. 1608-1661)

For more herbal folklore, check out these sites:

The Herb Society – Nettles

Nettles – Weeds or Wonders

The Practical Herbalist

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