The Legend of the Rollright Witch

There are a number of legends concerning witches and witchcraft associated with the Rollright Stone circle complex and its wider locale. Here I’ll be focussing on the story of the witch who became an elder tree as mentioned in my last post, “Jesus Tree That Bled”.

Rollrights 047.jpg
The King Stone

 

Many centuries ago, when England was ruled by various tribes, a king was attempting to become ruler of the entire land. During the course of his travels he and his army arrived at Rollright hill. There he met a witch who owned the land standing at the foot of the hill. The witch told the king:

 “Seven long strides shalt thou take.

If Long Compton [a nearby village] thou canst see,

King of England thou shalt be”

The king, convinced that climbing the hill would be an easy endeavour, replied:

“Stick, stock, stone,

As King of England I shall be known.”

However, the witch caused the land to rise so the king was unable to complete his climb in the required seven strides. She then invoked her curse:

“As Long Compton thou canst not see,

King of England thou shalt not be.

Rise up, stick and stand still, stone,

For king of England thou shalt be none;

Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be

And I myself an eldern tree.”

So the king, his army and a group of knights who had been plotting in the background were all turned to stone. The king became the King Stone, his army the stone circle, and the knights, the four stones of the Whispering Knights. The witch then transformed herself into an elder tree. They remain at Rollright to this day.

Rollrights 039.jpg
The Whispering Knights

The (Pre-)History Bit

The Rollright stones were made from oolithic limestone between 3,800 BCE and 1,500 BCE. Aside from the King’s Men stone circle, in a nearby field the group of rocks which make up the Whispering Knights comprised the walls of an ancient burial chamber. Across the road from the stone circle, the King Stone, actually of a much later date than his “army”, acted as a marker for a Bronze Age burial ground.

Rollrights 018.jpg
The King’s Men

 

Next time… back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree (aka Birch Gum).

 

Sources

The Rollright rhyme comes from Meg Elizabeth Atkins, Haunted Warwickshire (London: Robert Hale, 1981), p. 114.

Image credits: Photos of the Rollrights by Simon Noel

 

 

Advertisements

Jesus tree that bled: more trees associated with the Crucifixion

During the course of researching the physic nut or Jatropha curcas, I came across a couple of other trees associated with Christ’s crucifixion. Firstly, there is the European Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea). The blog, God as a Gardener, says of this plant that:

” Many individuals believe that the cross on which Christ was crucified was from a dogwood tree. They associate the dark spot on each petal of the dogwood flower with the wounds on his hands and feet.”

Dogwood,_Wisley_-_geograph_org_uk_-_1089858

 

 

The second tree is the elder (Sambucus nigra). There is a belief in Britain that Christ’s cross was made from elder wood. Possibly because of this connection elders were also used for protection. In Discovering The Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker writes how an elder tree planted by the door of a house shielded “the household from witchcraft, evil and lightning and promoted fertility”. She also mentions that an elder tree growing sturdily on a grave was regarded as good sign as it meant that the grave’s occupant was happy and “would not walk.”

Kenilworth Plants 20180824 005.JPG

 

Conversely, in some parts of Britain, the elder has more negative associations. Particularly the West Country, there is a legend that the elder was the tree from which Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus to the authorities. Baker notes how in Dorset, the elder was called “God’s stinking tree” and was actually banned from domestic use. However, she doesn’t mention exactly when such a ban took place.

In my home county of Warwickshire, the elder is linked with the Devil himself. J. Harvey Bloom, writing on local plant lore in the 1920s noted a belief that if the elder tree were used for firewood not only would the fire not burn but the Devil would sit on the chimney pot. Fifty years later, C.S. Wharton who also collected Warwickshire folklore was told by an informant that “The elder tree is generally thought to be the tree of evil and is associated with the powers of darkness.”

There is also a belief in Warwickshire that the elder tree can bleed. Just as the physic nut tree bleeds on Good Friday, the elder tree bleeds on a specific day: June 23th – Midsummer’s Eve. However, unlike the lore surrounding the physic nut, these elder beliefs are linked to one specific tree and are far from Christian.

Rollrights 017.jpg

 

The elder tree in question is the one growing (or believed to have grown) at the prehistoric Rollrights Stone circle which lies on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire. Here a witch was supposed to have turned herself into an elder. In a 19th-century article on the Rollright Stones, its author, Arthur Evans was told by one local informant that the fact that the tree bled when its bark was pierced was proof that it once had been a witch. However, exactly which tree is the witch is hard to say as Evans mentioned there was some dispute about its exact location and elder trees grow in abundance in the area.

 

Next time…. a brief look at the legend of the Rollrights’ witch and then back to the Caribbean for the God-wood Tree.

 

Sources (in order of first appearance in text)

God as a Gardener blog edited by Carolyn Roth – https://godasgardener.com/2014/04/18/dogwood-cross/

Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008), pp. 52-54

J. Harvey Bloom, Folk Lore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare’s Land (London: Mitchell Hughes and Clarke, 1929), p. 148

C.S. Wharton, “The Folklore of South Warwickshire” (self-published thesis or dissertation, 1974), p. 34.

Arthur J. Evans, ”The Rollright Stones and Their Folk-lore” in the journal Folklore, vol. 6, no. 1 (Mar., 1895), pp. 6-53, p. 20.

Image credits: Picture of dogwood by Colin Smith – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dogwood,_Wisley_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1089858.jpg

Image credits: Elder tree and the Rollright Stones courtesy of Simon Noel

 

Physic Nut (Jatropha curcas)

This month’s post looks at the links between the Physic Nut tree (Jatropha curcas) and Christ’s crucifixion. However, I’m starting on a more prosaic note. In “Jamaican Ethnobotany”, Martha Warren Beckwith  wrote that Physic Nut was “Used generally as a purgative”. As well as being an emetic, according to the Plants for the Future website, Physic Nut has many other healing properties. Here are just a few of them:

 “The leaves … can be used to treat a wide range of medicinal conditions such as coughs, convulsions, jaundice, fevers, rheumatic pains, guinea worm sores, wounds and cuts, sores, etc. The seeds can be used as a purgative but only in small doses. Oil obtained from the seeds are used in the treatment of skin diseases and rheumatic pains. It also stimulates hair growth. The root bark is used for sores, dysentery, and jaundice.”

Plants for a Future also warn that all parts of the plant are poisonous.

Jatropha_curcas5_henning

 

Aside from its medicinal properties, the Physic Nut has strong associations in the Caribbean with Christ’s crucifixion. For example, in the book Bush Doctor which lists examples of the lore surrounding Caribbean plants, Sylvester Ayre calls the tree the Crucifixion Tree, stating that: “according to believers the red blood-like substance that oozes from the tree when cut at Easter, symbolizes the blood Christ shed on the cross, which was reputedly made of physic wood”.

When doing her Caribbean research in the early 1920s, Martha Beckwith was told of the Physic Nut tree’s propensity to bleed on Good Friday at 12 noon and one of her Pukkumerian informants who had tried this herself, said to Beckwith that the substance oozing from the wood “ really was blood’”.

 

Next time…. I’ll be looking at the folklore surrounding a few other trees whose wood was believed to have been used for Christ’s Cross.

 

Sources (in order of appearance in post)

Martha Warren Beckwith, “Jamaica Ethnobotany” in Martha Warren Beckwith, with music recorded in the field by Helen H. Roberts, Jamaica Folklore (New York: The American Folk-Lore Society, 1928), p. 24.

“Plants for a Future” https://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Jatropha+curcas

Sylvester Ayre, Bush Doctor: Jamaica and the Caribbean’s Almost Forgotten Folklore and Remedies (Kingston, Jamaica: LMH Publishing Limited, 2002), p. 10.

Martha Warren Beckwith, Black Roadways: A Study of Jamaica Folk Life (reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969, of orig. edn, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), p. 40.

Image credits: Photograph of West African Jatropha curcas by R.K. Henning at http://www.Jatropha.org