Faery Gifts…And Faery Retribution.
Let us also take a brief look at the tale of the maidservant abducted by faeries. When her mistress, a renowned midwife, was called to the girl’s bedside, she did not recognise her former servant for all the glamour surrounding her – the finest furnishings, a room lit with hundreds of candles that cast a burnished glow over everything they touched. When given a herbal salve to apply to the newly born baby, the midwife got some of it in her eye, and immediately saw the room for what it was – a cave, damp, dark and cold, the bed made of heather, her former servant dressed in rags. Later, when she saw her employer in the market, the midwife asked after her former maidservant and the baby and, since she should not have been able to see her faery employer in the first place, she lost the eye that had seen truly.
There is always a price to be paid for knowledge, whether the knowledge itself is the price, or something else entirely – your eye, your firstborn child, the thing that first greets you when you return home. The Trickster always concerns himself most keenly with those who see too much, whether they realise it or not. Perhaps because outwitting them and tripping them up is necessary to teach them humility and wisdom along with their hard earned knowledge, perhaps for the sheer fun of it, who knows? Indeed, given the manyfold tales and legends of the old Fox himself in his many tricksy guises, it is most likely a blend of both. After all, how many tales are we told of rather foolish princes who start their quests full of naivety and end up older, wiser, perhaps having got the girl, perhaps having won their kingdom, but always having gone through trial and tribulation to reach their destination.
A Lincolnshire legend speaks of a girl whose life became bound to the cowslips that flowered around her home. She fell ill in the winter and, though her family hoped she would live to see the spring arrive, there was still no sign of it in April. Finally she told her mother that she would be dead by the following day if the green mist heralding spring had not arrived. Fortunately for her, the green mist did indeed arrive the following morning, and the girl was able to sit out in the sun and gradually recover her health, growing more and more beautiful as the days passed. Strangely enough, on the days when the sun did not appear, she became pale and ill again. When the cowslips finally flowered, her beauty became so ethereal and fey that she greatly unnerved her loved ones – probably even more so when she warned them against gathering any cowslips. Unfortunately one day a young man visiting the cottage picked a cowslip. Her family watched her fade all the rest of that day, the cowslip held to her breast, until finally she died the following morning.
Over in Russia, there is a whimsical and rather charming folk tale that speaks of a girl who fell into a pit full of snakes. The snakes took care of her and raised her, and their queen taught her the language of the plants, on the condition that she never name the herb Mugwort aloud. Unfortunately when she finally got out – climbing up a ladder made of the snakes’ bodies – she named the herb to a male friend of hers when out walking one day, without even thinking about what she was doing, or what the cost would be. She promptly lost the ability to speak to the plants and understand their language.
There are a plethora of tales that involve herbs used to break curses, speed the feet, allow a person to see truly – almost always to bring about change. For example, there is the tale of Baldur, once the most beautiful and beloved God of the Norse pantheon, brought low by a sprig of Mistletoe thrown by the tricksy Loki. Freya must have been pretty annoyed by that one given the amount of time she had spent trying to avert prophecy, speaking to each plant individually and getting their promise not to hurt the young God. Unfortunately she missed one – the shy Mistletoe. By way of reparation for the hapless Mistletoe’s unwilling participation in the murder of Baldur, Freya elevated the plant to the treetops, so that it could always see mischief approaching. For many hundreds of years Mistletoe has been one of the most fabled herbs, perhaps in part due to its reputation as one of the most sacred herbs to the Druids, who used to cut it with a golden sickle on certain days and at special times, and catch it in a white cloth before it touched the ground.
Final part of this article to follow in a day or two!