Mythology, Fairies, Witches
The mythology of the British Isles is probably less well known than Classical or Norse mythology but plants are central to many of its themes. The Celtic warrior Cuchulainn was said to be bathed in baths of meadowsweet to cure his terrible rages and the Gaelic name for the plant ‘crois cuchulain’ (belt of Cuchulain) reflects this. Blodeuwedd (flower face) was created out of the flowers of meadowsweet, broom and oak to become wife of Welsh hero LLew Llaq Gyffes, but was turned into an owl for her infidelity.
The gods, goddesses and heros of Greek and Roman mythology are closely connected with wild plants and give many of our plants their scientific names, such as Artemisia (mugwort) for the goddess Artemis/Diana, and Andromeda (bog rosemary) for the maiden rescued by Perseus. The sacred ash tree Yggdrasil was central to Norse mythology and mistletoe was said to be banished to the tops of trees for its role in the death of Baldur.
Fairies have long been associated with particular plants such as the fairy cap (harebell) and the stone bramble (Subh nam ban sithe – the fairy woman’s strawberry in Gaelic), and the flower fairies created by Cicely Mary Barker have held their popularity for over a hundred years. Some of our best loved and less known fairy tales have plants at their core, such as Rapunzel, the Wild Swans, Cap O’ Rushes and Rushen Coatie.
Similarly witches and witchcraft have an intimate connection with wild plants. Elspeth Reoch was tried as a witch in Orkney in 1616 for collecting yarrow in a ritualised manner, and plants such as foxgloves are known as ‘witches thimbles’. Certain plants are believed to give protection against witches, such as the wreaths of ivy, rowan and honeysuckle hung over barn doors on the Western Isles to keep the livestock safe.
Please download our factsheets to find out more about wild plants and mythology, fairy tales, and witches.