Cacao Herbal Monograph

I’ve decided to be really cliché and do a Valentine’s kind of theme for my herbal posts this week.  I will start by sharing this short monograph on Cacao that I wrote for Natural Herbal Living Magazine in February of 2015.  ~ Stephany 

One of my fondest childhood memories is coming indoors on a cold winter day and waiting impatiently while Mom whipped up a batch of homemade hot cocoa. Our modern love affair with cocoa and chocolate go back to the days when the early Spanish and British explorers first brought it back from the New World. Although preparations and uses for the plant have changed over the centuries, the fact remains that cacao holds a special place in our culture. Few people stop to consider that what is now considered a confection was once widely used as a medicinal preparation.

 Scientific NameTheobroma cacao
Family: Malvaceae
Other Names: cacao tree, cocoa tree

Origin of Cacao
The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin, but its range spread north to Central America when more cultures began cultivating it. The cacao tree will only flourish in very specific climatic
conditions. It’s a tropical undergrowth plant, and it depends upon high temperatures and humidity only found near the Equator. The trees also require the presence of the Forcipomyia midge, which inhabit these ecosystems, for pollination.

Each of the roughly 12- inch (30 cm) pods growing from the trunk and main branches produce anywhere from 25 to 40 bitter-tasting seeds, or beans, which are surrounded by a white pulp. Cocoa powder and chocolate are both products that come from processing the cacao bean. The beans are processed into powder, cocoa butter, and chocolate; the pulp is harvested for other uses.

You can see how these would be hard to break.

The pods will not open without some sort of mechanical assistance from animals or humans. Spider monkeys,who use the pods as a food source, earned the reputation as the “bringers of cacao” due to their efficient dispersal of the seeds.[1]

The Science

There are a lot of claims about cacao’s superfood status, and even more traditional and modern
suggested uses. I’ve included below a brief summary of what has been investigated through scientific methods.

Constituents
Cacao contains the xanthines theobromine and caffeine. It also contains the fatty acids stearic
acid and oleic acid. Recent scientific research into the phenol content of chocolate has identified thousands of various polyphenols in chocolate including the flavonoid quercetin and the flavonols epicatechin and catechin.[2]

Actions
The theobromine in cacao acts as a central nervous system stimulant, working on both the cardiac and respiratory systems. Theobromine is also a diuretic, a vasodilator, and a smooth- muscle relaxant.[3] Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant and diuretic too. Unlike theobromine, it is a vasoconstrictor.[4]

It seems worth noting that these opposing actions of vasodilation and vasoconstriction could have a toning effect on the vasculature, although more research is needed to confirm this theory. The various phenolic compounds act as antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory actions, which contribute to cacao’s positive “metabolic, antihypertensive,anti-inflammatory, and anti- thrombotic effects.”[5]

In addition to these actions, chocolate has been termed a euphoric, as it has been theorized to impact serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.[6]

Cacaos Many Uses
There is an incredibly rich history of ethnobotanical use that continues up to the present day. While today cacao is thought of as food, historically cacao has been considered ceremonial, medicinal, and nutritive.

History and Tradition
Cacao’s long history of both medicinal and ritual use began in Mesoamerica. The similarity between Aztec and Mayan use of the plant, point towards its use by a common ancestor.[7] According to both cultures, cacao was gifted to humans by the divine and was an integral part of religious rituals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most common preparation was a drink made from cacao powder or paste cakes mixed with water. Depending on the area, the drinks contained additional ingredients such as chili powder, vanilla, or ground maize. The drink was typically frothed by making it in a special cacao pot with a spout for blowing into it, or by quickly transferring the drink between two vessels.[8] Traditional cocoa powder preparations were considered to have antiseptic, diuretic, ecbolic (stimulating uterine contractions), emmenagogue, and parasiticidal actions.

Early Spanish explorers reported that indigenous peoples used cacao to treat angina, constipation, dental problems, dysentery, asthenia, gout, and many other diseases [9] including alopecia, burns, cough, dry lips, eyes, fever, diarrhea, listlessness, malaria, nephrosis, rheumatism, snakebite, and wounds.[10]

The use of cacao as a medicinal plant spread to Spain and Great Britain as these empires settled the Americas. In 1624, Spanish physician Santiago de Valverde Turices was the first to assign energetic qualities to both cacao powder and chocolate. He claimed that while the powder was cold, chocolate drinks were hot, dry, and suitable for cold, damp conditions.[11] Henry Stubbe was one of the first Europeans to write extensively on cacao. His text, titled The Indian Nectar; or A discourse concerning chocolate wherein the nature of the cacao-nut is examined…, was published in 1682. Axtextli, a beverage he mentioned as an aphrodisiac, was a mixture of cacao paste, maize, mecaxochitl (black pepper),and tlilxochitl (vanilla).

InThe English American published in 1648, Thomas Gage mentioned that black pepper mixed with cacao was a remedy for a “cold liver.”[12] King’s American Dispensatory recommends a mixture of cacao and milk as a restorative drink for “persons convalescing from acute diseases.” M. Grieves mentions in A Modern Herbal that in her time, cacao was given as a diuretic along with digitalis to relieve “accumulation of blood in the body resulting from cardiac failure” and as a remedy for hypertension due to the vasodilative action.

Modern Day
Although human studies of theobromine have confirmed its potential usefulness in inhibiting
coughs,[13] for the most part, the use of cacao as a medicinal has faded out of practice. It is,
however, still widely considered a dietary supplement with health- promoting qualities. There is a great deal of research available on the health benefits of adding cacao to our diets.

The phenolic compounds seem to protect against chronic diseases related to oxidative stress, one study concluding, “Several in vivo studies have provided strong support for the hypothesis that the consumption of flavanol-rich foods, such as certain cocoas and chocolates, may be associated with reduced risk for vascular disease.”[14] A study released last year has addressed the potential of cacao polyphenols in preventing “metabolic diseases and chronic inflammation associated with obesity.”[15]

Since “milk proteins inhibit absorption of flavonoids” dark chocolate may be the best way to
consume chocolate for the dietary benefits.15 Cacao may also have mental health benefits.

Ask many people, and they will tell you that they self-medicate on down days with chocolate. This practice seems to be supported by research on how eating chocolate impacts mood. Cocoa butter, which is another by-product of processing the beans, is used extensively in modern cosmetic preparations, due to its rich emollient properties, as well as in the chocolate-making process.

Using Cacao Safely
As with any food plant that is also a medicinal herb, there are some precautions to keep in mind
as you incorporate it into your daily regimen.

Side Effects
Cacao can cause allergic reactions in some people, although that is rare, and it may trigger migraines in some individuals.[16] Many of its side effects are related to the caffeine content.
As with all caffeinated beverages, moderation is key.

Contraindications and Drug Interactions
Avoid cacao if you have an allergy to any member of the Sterculiaceae family. People who suffer from kidney stones or gout may also want to avoid cacao as it increases urinary oxalate levels.[17]

There are a number of pharmaceutical drugs that interact with caffeine including clozapine, beta-adrenergic antagonists, lithium, and drugs used for testing for heart conditions. Be sure to discuss your caffeine intake with your physician before starting a new prescription. The flavanols in cacao may also interact with blood- thinning medications. (Sorry you all…gotta include the CYA disclaimers. The main thing here is to communicate with your providers about excessive consumption.  I am looking at you people who drink a pot a day!)

Use During Pregnancy and Lactation
Follow your physician’s recommendation regarding daily caffeine intake during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. In some studies, excessive caffeine in the maternal diet has resulted in colic in infants.[18]

 Dosage and Administration
There are no established dosages for cacao powder. Administration is generally in the form of a beverage or confection. Half of a 3-ounce chocolate bar contains 86 – 240 mg of theobromine and 9 – 31 mg of caffeine.[19]

[1] 1 Nisao Ogata, Arturo Gómez-Pompa, and Karl A. Taube, “The Domestication and Distribution of Theobroma cacao L. in the Neotropics,” Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao ed. Cameron L. McNeil (University Press of Florida: Gainesville, 2006), 87.

[2] 2 Chiaki Sanbongi, Naomi Osakabe, et al., “Antioxidative Polyphenols Isolated from Theobroma cacao,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 46, (1998).

[3] Lisa Ganora, Herbal Constituents, (Herbalchem Press, 2009), 155.

[4] Ibid.

[5] G. Lippi, M. Franchini, et al., “Dark chocolate: consumption for pleasure or therapy?” Journal of Thrombosis Thrombolysis 28, (2013).

[6] Gordon Parker, Isabella Parker, and Heather Brotchie, “Mood state effects of chocolate,” Journal of Affective Disorders 92 (2006).

[7] “Caroline Seawright. Life Death and Chocolate in Mesoamerica,”(archaeological essay, 2012). Full text: http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/ARC2ZT, pp. 13.

[8] Hillary Christopher, “Cacao’s Relationship with MesoamericanSociety.” Spectrum 3, (2012).

[9] Donatella Lippi, “Chocolate and medicine: Dangerous liaisons?”Nutrition 25, (2009).

[10] 10 “Chocolate,” National Standard Food, Herbs and Supplements Database (2014).

[11] Lippi, “Dangerous liasons.”

[12] Gage, Thomas. The English American. London, England: Printed by A. Clark, and are to be sold by J. Martyn, Robert Horn and Walter Kettilby, (1677). pp. 241.

[13] OS Usmani, MG Belvisi, et al., “Theobromine inhibits sensory nerve activation and cough.” The Journal of the Federation of American Studies for Experimental Biology 19 (2005).

[14] Carl Keen, Roberta Holt, “Cocoa Antioxidants and cardiovascular health,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81, (2005).

[15] Faisal Ali, Amin Ismail, and Sander Kersten. “Molecular mechanisms underlying the potention antiobesity-related diseases effect of cocoa polyphenols Molecular Nutrition Food Research 00 (2013).

[16] Leira, R. and Rodriguez, R. [Diet and migraine]. Rev Neurol. 1996;24(129):534-538.

[17] Massey, L. K., Roman-Smith, H., and Sutton, R. A. Effect of dietary oxalate and calcium on urinary oxalate and risk of formation of calcium oxalate kidney stones. J Am.Diet.Assoc. 1993;93(8):901-906.

[18]Evans, R. W., Fergusson, D. M., Allardyce, R. A., and Taylor, B. Maternal diet and infantile colic in breast-fed infants. Lancet 6-20-1981;1(8234):1340-1342

[19] Mumford GK, Evans SM, Kaminski BJ, et al. Discriminative stimulus and subjective effects of theobromine and caffeine in humans. Psychopharmacology (Berl) . 1994;115(1-2):1-8.

The Truth of the Thing

A student asked me to talk a little about what I mean when I talk about creative nonfiction writers. She might be getting more than she bargained for, but I thought I would throw it up here in case someone else was wondering.  I promise I am going to post some practical stuff this month, too…Stephany

I bet you instantly recognize this as a Celtic Cross, right?  Except that its Anglo Saxon.St Paul’s Church, Irton with Santon, Cumbria, England.

There is a lot of fanciful recreation out there and it’s hard not to fall for it.  Hell, my bachelor’s thesis has errors because of it.  I kind of live in dread fear of crossing over and talking to my great-grandmother like I know all the things, only to have her say “Jesus, Joseph, Mary, child, what the devil are you on about?” and hand me an ear of corn to shuck.

I could probably give hundreds of examples.   Carmichael’s work compiling the charms of the Highlands absolutely employed some creative writing.  Then people muck around with them more by “paganizing” them further and soon they are being cited in academic papers as the original version and no one knows the difference. Luckily there are less creative sources and a good professor will call you on bullshit.  Thanks, Eva.[1]

So, here’s my first tip, if something says it is “adapted from” any source that means the author of the paper has changed the words to suit their own beliefs or worse yet prove an erroneous thesis—thus, creative nonfiction. (This does not pertain to recipes.)

Even some of our beloved authors of the Celtic Twilight were prone to throwing in a little fancy. It seemed to sell books. ( A professor used this phrase a lot.  It’s from a Melville quote: “ It will be a strange sort of a book, tho’, I fear; blubber is blubber you know; tho’ you may get oil out of it, the poetry runs as hard as sap from a frozen maple tree; . . . to cook the thing up, one must needs throw in a little fancy. . . . Yet I mean to give the truth of the thing, spite of this.”)

For example, Lady Wilde wrote that a common saying in Ireland was “The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”  Native Irish speakers of the day quickly scoffed at the idea Douglas Hyde saying

“It would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted.”[2]   Hyde offers up this as likely being the source of her bit of fancy.

Patrick Sarsfield, a man with God are you are,
Blessed the country that you walk upon,
Blessing of sun and shining moon on you,
Since from William you took the day with you.
Och, och hone.

It’s funny to read Hyde’s books of stories because the discussions in his footnotes remind me of the discussions held on my Irish language forum today.   Before you think him perhaps sexist, you should know that he worked frequently with Lady Gregory and wasn’t entirely critical of Lady Wilde’s work.  He just disliked that she never named her sources and was not a native speaker, so unlike Lady Gregory she had to work entirely through translators.  He was equally harsh concerning American Jeremiah Curtin’s appalling handle on the language.  I regret not finding his work until after I wrote my thesis.

The fancy is, of course,  quite appealing to the public.   Frazer shared quite unique explanations of his observations, leaving Edmund Leach a noted anthropologist of the 20th century to criticize Frazer’s assumption that he and other anthropologists “possess some kind of golden key whereby they can blandly assert that a particular piece of stereotyped human behaviour ‘stands for’ or ‘is a symbol of’ this, that, or the other thing.”[3] At least Frazer tried to be objective.  Graves wrote poetic myths and convinced people it was anthropology.

So, there’s another thing to look for.  If someone tries to tell you exactly what something it’s pretty conjecture on their part. As far as Frazer goes, you can generally accept the observation as fact, just ignore his interpretation. Don’t even bother reading Graves.

The poet modern author linguists like to pick on most for “murdering the Irish language” is John O’Donahue. Take the word tenalach which O’Donahue defined as “a relationship one has with the land, air and water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the Earth sing.”

“Tenalach {sic} which would be properly spelled tenlach was a variant spelling for the word tellach[4] the Old Irish word for a fireplace or “those who shared a fireplace” so a family. There are variations of the word in Old and Middle Irish which have a variety of meanings related to fire such as tendálach[5] which translates to fiery.

I suppose a bit of creative license is to be expected, but think what is lost by supplanting the true meaning of the word in this case. I love that there’s a word for those who share a hearth, because I tend to attract stray people.

And then there is his use of the word anamchara.  Despite the words literal translation, the word originally applied to members of the clergy.  Your anamchara was your confessor, offered spiritual advice and read you last rites.  O’Donahue’s claims that this was an extension of a Druidic tradition of priests advising kings kind of falls apart when you understand that at first this was only a thing amongst members of the clergy.  It was common practice in the church. Eventually everyone wanted one, because an anamchara could reduce the penance demanded of people for personal sin, by church doctrine.[6]

“In Ireland, everybody [this was written in the early 1960’s, he means every man] had an anamchara, a pater confessarius. It was a proverb: colann cen ceann, duine cen anamcharaid, a man without an anamchara is like a headless body’. Kings and princes, nobles and commoners, prelates and monks, all had their ‘soul-friends.”[7]

Power distribution in these relationships was not equal.  The anamchara was looking out for the well-being of the eternal souls in his charge and had little concern for their embodied selves’ physical comfort. The anamchara often demanded harsh sacrifice or toil from those they agreed to serve in this role.  One king had to fast for forty days and forty nights on nothing but bread and water.  Frequently, the sadistic priests refused to let their charges have intercourse with their wives and live otherwise ascetic lives.

Not to go off on a weird tangent here but this was kind of significant.  Because the transition to Christianity went fairly smoothly in Ireland, they didn’t have any actual martyrs.  So the holy men got into some freaky stuff.   White martyrs were ascetics and  hermits and green martyrs were in to self-flagellation and penance.

So, please try to understand that when you are talking about your lovely Druidic friendship rite, anamchara, I am imagining Bishop Powertrip getting his jollies by making his penitent little puppets dance.  It detracts from my enjoyment of the word.

As Irish is a living, evolving language Donahue’s “soul friend” definition has been adopted, by enough people to make it perfectly valid as a modern definition. I have plenty of respect for O’Donahue as a poet and a visionary who wanted to make the world a better place, just don’t call him a historian and we get along just fine.

It is the same thing with the word “herbalist.” It’s meaning has clearly evolved over the years, but once I learned its etymology, the word started to remind me of elitist douchebags like Gerard who got the title because he wrote an herbal (in which he advocated beating women), so I stopped using the word to describe myself.  I think I mentioned the other day that I have a problem with authority.

That’s my final tell, if someone is using a word that you can’t find in an dictionary or defining it in some odd way, there is a strong chance that you are reading some creative nonfiction. Here are some online sources: Irish, Irish,  Scottish, Cornish

I am going to take just a minute to share with you what I find to be “the truth of the thing.”

I  have a problem with making shit up while you are invoking the ancestors.  The whole idea of a uniform “Celtic” identity has been pretty much set aside we started mapping the human genome.  My Irish and Scottish ancestors share just as much genetics with Spanish and Russian ancestors as they do the Keltoi.    So I think it is time for us to give up this idea that only Druid and Celtic customs influenced ancient Ireland. I probably get more of those genetics from my Cornish ancestors.

I also contend that it is poor form for people to appropriate Christian charms, “adapt” them and call them their own.  Maybe that’s because I have a good number of my kin still in the Church and I chose to respect their beliefs.  More importantly that’s part of my heritage, too. I am tired of being expected to feel badly about it.

I love the mishmash of beliefs represented in the charms as they were collected by Mackenzie, because it a representation of the beliefs of my ancestors at that time.  That is sacred to me and I don’t appreciate it being “adapted”.

Also, its never as good.  It doesn’t ring true in that part of you where you store the memory of the ancestors. It’s one of those things about the UU that used to bug me.  They used the music for services that I heard sometimes growing up, but gave it new words. It was odd and I always found myself singing the “real” words under my breath.

I’ve probably gone on about this more than enough, but I do want to say that I love the idea of invention.

To me though you make something new, you want to revel it is newness and make everything about it uniquely yours.  Don’t just change the words to the same old song.

           [1] Mackenzie, William. Gaelic incantations, charms, and blessings of the Hebrides… Inverness, Scotland: Northern Counties Newspaper and Printing and Pub. Co., 1895.
           [2] Hyde, Douglas. Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories. London: D. Nutt.
           [3] Leach, Edmund, E. R. “Magical Hair.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 88, no. 2 (1958): 147.
           [4] Royal Irish Academy. “eDIL - Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language.” Royal Irish Academy, 2017. http://edil.qub.ac.uk/40466
```````````[5] Ibid http://edil.qub.ac.uk/40495
           [6] Bradshaw, Brendan. “The Wild and Woolly West: Early Irish Christianity and Latin Orthodoxy.” Studies in Church History 25 (1989): 1–23.
           [7] Ryan, John. “The Sacraments in the Early Irish Church.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 51, no. 204 (1962): 508–520.

 

Discovering the Bean Feasa

This similar to an article  which originally ran in Plant Healer Magazine, but I’ve updated it a bit based on new things I’ve read and questions students have asked.”  <3 Stephany

Recreation of an Iron Age Irish roundhouse.  The early days of domestic medicine.

During my studies with Sean, he shared with me an article written by Kenneth Proefrock in which Kenneth states “the conclusions our ancestors were able to draw regarding the subtleties of health and healing must still be within us.”[1]    I loved it so much, I contacted Kenneth who kindly provided me with enough information that I could cite him in my thesis.

For some reason that single statement spoke to me deeply.  I know I’ve mentioned that before but my explanation didn’t make sense to some people. I guess I felt like it gave I me some direction at a time when I needed it. I had made it through  most of my biomedical training  for the most part unscathed and was studying Ayurveda.  I don’t even know why–probably because all the cool kids like to talk about Ayurveda or TCM and having learned my plants from an old Gaelic dude in the SCA, I didn’t know a lot about those modalities.

Ayurveda is a very rigid, prescriptive practice and  it just wasn’t speaking to me. It’s probably my genetic structure which causes me to rebel against the construct of professionalism. I have Irish, Scottish, Cornish, Dutch Jew, and Quaker heritage.  I am at the very core of myself, a village peasant.  The plants weren’t speaking to me, either.

More importantly my education had made me more aware of the moral gray area that we enter when appropriate the knowledge of other cultures. I decided that I just wanted to avoid the hassle.  Kenneth’s statements encouraged me to maintain the focus of  my anthropological studies on the healers and folkways of own heritage.

And I am on that.  I know my history. I know which translators are pretty solid and who was writing creative nonfiction. That’s part of being a responsible researcher.  I have facsimiles of Irish history books written in the 1600’s and every herbal published in the UK before 1600.  I am such a nerd that when I find a partially legible note scribbled in the front of a copy of Kuno Meyer’s Triads of Ireland about “Professor Binc….”  I know that whoever wrote the note was a student of Daniel Binchy’ s because Binchy used Meyer’s translations as texts.

For the purposes of brevity, this article will focus primarily on the Irish culture, but I contend anyone who has studied the folk healers of their own ancestry will recognize synchronicities as I did when I explored other branches of my heritage.

Scholars who study Irish history face several disadvantages.  The first problem is that the acidity of the soil in Ireland has yielded little in the way of organic remains.  The second is that being a people who were very fond of oral narrative, the Irish didn’t bother with writing much down.   When they finally took to writing, they did so with fervor. Irish scribes preserved the knowledge of ancient societies through the Dark Ages. Manuscripts such as the Rosa Anglica would have been lost to time were it not for these monks.[2]

Unfortunately, the failed attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Irish by the English included the destruction of the monasteries and churches where many of the early Gaelic manuscripts had been hidden.

Written documentation is sparse and generally pertains to professional healers.  There are two surviving Brehon Law tracts which pertained to medical practice: the Bretha Crólige (Judgments of Blood-lying)[3] and the Bretha Déin Cécht (Judgments of Dían Cécht)[4] which were written between the end of the 7th century and the beginning of the 9th, by Irish monastic communities.  The tracts confirm the existence of both male and female physicians known as liaig and ban-liaig, respectively.   They also established norms regarding the responsibility of caring for the injured and ill called folog nothrusa (maintenance of sickness).  Brehon law texts also refer to bags carried by physicians known as línchor.[5]

Commentaries known as glosses, were added to these documents during the 11th- to 12th century which implied that women physicians functioned mostly as midwives. They were undoubtedly added due to the increasingly patriarchal conservatism of the church as there is ample documentation of female healers practicing in the early modern era.  This is how the phrase “gloss things over” got its start.

One recension of the Irish mythological cycle, Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland)[6] was included as part of the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) written in 1150 CE by another monastic community.  It includes a narrative called the Tain bo Cuailgne which mentions of a group of liaig said to accompany certain armies, wearing bags known as lés which carried the ointments that they would apply to injured soldiers at the end of the battle.

When researcher Audrey Meaney catalogued early burial sites in the UK, it was mostly women whose graves contained artifacts, the placement of which left the impression that they had originally been contained in some sort of bag.[7] This seems to back up folk narratives which assert that females were once responsible for healing in their communities. More to the point though it was many women who had these bags at various sites.

This was one of the first times that I saw (truthfully… it was an advisor who pointed it out to me) that what I thought was only a problem amongst creative nonfiction writers, was a very real problem in anthropological research.   In their quest for compelling discoveries, they read much into what in what was probably just an everyday practice.  It seems likely that moms just carried a first aid kit than a village had 27 shamans.

Setting that question aside until some remarkable new archaeological find sheds light on the issue, folklore specialists, such as Richard Jenkins, do agree that indigenous healing beliefs informed various “ritual specialists…from the early modern period to the twentieth century.”[8]  The study of these healers is mostly informed by written folklore and ethnographic compilation of oral narratives. Discovering more about these healers provides a glimpse of what their healing culture might look like.

Childbirth: Woodcut from Der Swangern Frawen und he bammen roszgarten, by Eucharius Rösslin, 1513.

Women gave birth with the help of midwives called cnáimhseach or bean ghlúine[9] (kneeling woman) who was responsible for knowing many methods of protecting the health of the newborn child. It was the bean ghlúine who would lay the iron bar across a cradle or bathe a newborn in saltwater to prevent abduction by the aes sídhe.

These women were also known for having tricks to be able to help relieve the pain of childbirth.  Some claimed to be able to do this by means of transferring the pain of childbirth to a man. A Munster midwife told Lady Gregory, “Did I know the pain could be put on a man?  Sure, I seen my own mother that was a midwife do it.”

Gregory goes on to tell a story of a man, whose wife was in labor, falling amongst his friends gathered outside the home, as if experiencing the pain of childbirth.  What stands out to me about this story is that the men had gathered together outside to support their friend as he waited for his child to be born.  That experience seemed to be the norm, leading one to believe that the birth of a child was a community affair.

The bean feasa (woman of knowing) was an intriguing character, and likely the ritual specialist in Irish society.  While most accounts mention females in this role, there is a male term, fear feasa, which may speak to the fact that the role was likely less gendered than feminist folklorists maintain. There was the “lucht pisreóg” and while many people translate that to enchanter, the literal translation is simply “community charmer”.   In Scotland, she was called the hen-wife or the cailleach-chearc.[10]

The idea that the bean feasa inhabited liminal spaces was probably first put forth in academic circles by folklorist Nancy Schmitz, who published a paper that ended with a brief comparison of the bean feasa and Native American shamans.[11] Folklorist Gearoid Ó Crualaoich depicts the bean feasa as “an oracular authority for her community regarding the meaning and significance of experiences they fail to understand.”[12]

Working within the framework of beliefs held by many ancient society that illness was caused by malevolent spirits and the like, it was she who was responsible for mediating between the human world and the Otherworld.  Sometimes she did this by use of charms and spells, sometimes by means of divination or prophecy.  While on occasion she would work with herbs or strange potions, she often was called upon when the cause of an illness or misfortune was mysterious in nature.

It is important to note that these healers were not considered witches in the sense of a human who had some sort of pact with the devil, though some of them had power struggles with local priests.   In fact, there is no Gaelic word for that sort of witch.  As Nancy Schmitz explains Irish people all had “access to supernatural power in the form of spells and charms and entrance to the fairy world (for good or evil), was available to anyone who wished to make use of it. No contract with a particular figure of evil was necessary.”[13] This seems to be supported by the fact that Irish Christian literature was still denigrating  fios sigheog (knowledge of fairies)” well into the late seventeenth century. [14]

Biddy Early is possibly the most widely lauded bean feasa in Ireland.  Immortalized by Irish folklorist Lady Augusta Gregory in her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Biddy Early is notorious for consulting her infamous “black bottle” for her otherworldly knowledge.  It may say something about “scholars” that I have never once read it suggested that the bottle might contain an entheogen. 

In the years after the Gaelic language faded from common use, these healers were called fairy doctors –described here by Irish folklorist Lady Francesca Wilde:

“The fairy doctors are generally females. Old women, especially, are considered to have peculiar mystic and supernatural power. They cure chiefly by charms and incantations, transmitted by tradition through many generations.”[15]

There also seem to have been healers who dealt with the everyday illnesses and injuries in a village by means of herbs, charms and other remedies.  In Ireland, she was called the bean leighis (probably some sort of corruption of ban-liaig).  The more I study this the more I think that this term was used to describe older women who helped in the community after their children had grown and gone.

The bean leighis were responsible for passing along the use of cures to the younger members of the community, but it did not seem that their knowledge was exclusive and it could also be that the term was used to describe an action rather than a role.  As James Mangen told Lady Gregory, “my mother learned cures from an Ulster woman, for the Ulster women are the best for cures.”  It seems that many of the women of the peasantry had some passing knowledge of these practices leading Lady Gregory to state “An old woman without learning, it is she who will be doing charms.” [16]

The plants  were commonly used is supported by the folk narrative.  Lady Gregory mentions conversations with healers such as Bridget Ruane who assured her that “Dub-cosac (lichen) was “food for the heart, very good for a sore heart” and that “slanlus (plantain) and garblus (dandelion) were both used for curing wounds and bringing people back from the dead.[17]

Most women seemed to have a grasp on enough basic knowledge to care for their families and only turned to outside help when they were in over their head. Irish medical historian James Mooney concurs saying that “every housekeeper is well acquainted with all the virtues of the common herbs” and that she only turns for help when “she has exhausted her resources or is convinced that the illness is of supernatural origin.”[18]

In Irish society, the torramh (wake) was a community event which often lasted days and included plays, sharing of pipes, dancing, singing, and the ancient practice known as caoineadh, or keening. It is during the torramh that we meet another wise woman the bean chaointe (keening woman) who:

“Inhabited a liminal state between the living and the world of the dead for the duration of the mourning period, entering a kind of “divine madness” which allowed the keener to express the collective outpouring of grief through her voice and body, leading the community in a public expression of sorrow and lament.”[19]

These funeral rituals support the idea that the Gaels understood the importance of social affiliation in helping people rebound from trauma.[20]  This is a particularly powerful message for me as it is my firm belief that we do a dismal job of mourning these days, which leaves those who have suffered a loss in a state of lingering trauma.

This very brief description of the Gaelic healing culture speaks to their understanding that the wellness of the whole community is crucial to survival.  At every turn, you read community members stepping up to take part in the process.
That may be the one bit of commonality that I have found in all resilient communities- a strong sense of social cohesion which their healers were partially responsible for nurturing.  There is so much to be learned from those who have gone before us in the ways of self-care and community wellness.

[1] Proefrock, Kenneth. 2010. "Otzi and the Judgments of Dian Cecht." Aontacht. December. http://www.druidicdawn.com/aontacht/volume3.html.

[2] Wulff, Winifred. Rosa Anglica Sev Rosa Medicinæ Johannis Anglici: An Early Modern Irish Translation of a Section of the Mediaeval Medical Text-Book of John of Gaddesden. London, England: Simpkin Marshall LTD., 1923.

[3] Binchy, Daniel A. “Bretha Crólige.” Ériu 12 (1938): 1–77

[4] Binchy, D. A. “Bretha Déin Chécht.” Ériu 20 (1966): 1–66.

[5] Kelly, F. (2001). “Medicine and Early Irish Law.” Irish Journal of Medical Science, 73-77.

[6] Macalister, D., ed. Lebor Gabála Érenn : The Book of the Taking of Ireland. Translated by Stewart, R.A. 5 vols. Dublin, Ireland: Dublin: Published for the Irish texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1938.

[7] Pollington, Leechcraft, p 48.

[8] Jenkins, R. (2007). “The Transformations of Biddy Early: From Local Reports of Magical Healing to Globalised New Age Fantasies.” Folklore, 162-182.

[9] Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, ... Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.  Regional distribution.

[10] Beith, M. (2004). Healing Threads: Traditional Healing of the Highlands and the Islands. Edinburgh: Berlinn Limited.

[11] Schmitz, N. (1977). “An Irish Wise Woman.” Journal of the Folklore Institute, 169-179.

[12] Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach. Dublin: Cork University Press.

[13] Nancy Schmitz, “Irish Wise Woman,” 173.

[14] Timothy C. Correll, "Believers, Sceptics and Charlatans: Evidential Rhetoric, the Fairies and Fairy

Healers in Irish Oral Narrative and Belief," Folklore 116, 2. 

[15] Wilde, L. F. (1887). Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland Volume II. Boston: Tinker and Co. Retrieved from Sacred Texts: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/ali/ali152.htm

[16]  Gregory, L. (1920). Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland. London: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

[17] Gregory, L. Visions and Beliefs

[18] Mooney, James. The Medical Mythology of Ireland. Philadelphia, PA: MacCalla & Company, 1887. p. 138.

[19] McCoy, N. P. (2009). “Madwoman, Banshee, Shaman: Gender, Changing Performance Contexts and the Irish Wake Ritual.” In B. B. E. Mackinlay, Musical Islands: Exploring Connections Between Music, Place and Research (pp. 207-220). Newcastle UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.

[20] Donnelly, S. (1999). “Folklore associated with dying in the west of Ireland.” Palliative Medicine, 57-62.

The Practical Side of Tradition

Some years ago I wrote a brief post on  Imbolg or  Lá Fhéile Bríde to explain my observance of  the  holiday.  That was in the days before I went back to school and figured out that the lesson I was missing from the folklore wasn’t the spirituality. What I wasn’t seeing was how traditional common sense could help me organize my life.

In the same way that folk tales usually offered up some small bit of operant information, despite their moralizing, folk customs (festivals and holidays) usually served some community building function. These customs and rituals also served the equally important role of keeping the agricultural and household tasks on schedule.

The great part about living now, is that we can look through the folklore for the useful stuff and go on with our bad selves without being bogged down by any of the dogma. I generally think people are looking too hard for it, anyway. Peasants didn’t have much time for philosophy and neither do I.  I will leave the deep philosophical dissection to people with more time on their hands.  I have work to do.

Besides, despite what some creative nonfiction writers out there would have you think, we really don’t know much about the esoteric meaning behind the ancient observance of this holiday.

It seems likely that the celebration of these agricultural holidays pre-date Celtic settlement of the country and are remnants of an indigenous cultural practice.[1]  So the Gaels likely assimilated some practices from an earlier culture and the Christians assimilated some from the Gaels.  It is the way of things.

Imbolg was a quarter day.  A day that marked the half way point between the beginning of gam or gaimred and the beginning of sam or samrad. Folk tradition in Ireland holds that February 1st is the first day of “spring” but they did not divide their year into four seasons.  There was the cold half of the year (gaimred) associated with the feminine and the warm half of the year (samrad) associated with the masculine.

There was even a quite practical reason for that.  On Beltaine, the beginning of samrad, the women left the settlement to go tend the herds in the summer pastures, but the men stayed put to work the fields.  That’s also why Beltaine was when temporary marriages ended.

While it is true that we can glean some knowledge of ancient practices, many of the following customs were practiced by Christians who celebrated the day as Lá Fhéile Bríde.  There is no doubt of that.  Truly, my issues with organized religion aside, I have no grievances with St. Bríde.  Any gal who can instantly turn water into ale and then heal the headache of a hangover is solid in my book

Oíche Fhéile Bríde agus Lá Lúnasa was an important feast day for the Gaels.   Bríde herself promised that the weather would improve from this day forward saying:

Gach re lágo maith
Ó’m Iá-sa amach
Agus leath mo lacjeinigh

‘Every second day fine
from my day onwards
and half of my own day’.[2]

The farmers would also watch to see if the hedgehog came out of hibernation on this day. This meant farmers could start preparing their fields to be sown. Villagers could expect that soon the rough seas of winter would begin to abate and a great tide would wash in loads of seaweed to be gathered, cut and spread on their cropland.

In other areas, this wasn’t a certainty and the coming of spring was divined by the portents of the day. A rhyme from the North of Scotland from the 1800’s went:

If Candlemas day be clear and fair,
 half o’ winter is t’ gang and mair;
If Candlemas day be dark and foul,
The half o’ the winter is deen at Yule.”

In other parts of Scotland they watched to see if the hibernating adders left their dens. It was considered bad luck to harm an adder on this day and as they were kind of cold still at this point they weren’t moving very quickly.  They didn’t pose much of a threat. There were several little rhymes written to remind people of this.

La Feill na Bride,
Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
Cha bhean mise do nighean
’S cha dean i mo lochd.’ [Imhir,

The Feast Day of the Bride,
The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
Nor shall she harm me.

For both the farmer and the homemaker, it was a time for taking stock of what you had on hand to be sure you had enough to last you until the land provided you with fresh food to harvest.  It was a time for cleaning the home and getting it ready for Bride’s visit as well as making báirín breac and butter as the sheep who were giving birth began producing milk again.

Just as a side note,  I know this this sounds all lovely as if they were living in tune with nature and all of that. In truthy, it was just  good old-fashioned animal husbandry in pastoral communities.  One of the tasks assigned to women in charge of the flocks at Lughnasadh was to wean lambs from their ewes with the express intent of creating a fresh milk supply in February.

(If you are confused as to which holiday this báirín breac. was associated with, the answer is quite likely all of them as serving some sort of company loaf seems to closely mirror the Scottish custom of serving a bannock Marion McNeill called Highland Quarter Cake on the festivals. [3])

In some areas, the sprig of mistletoe, or holly, that had been hung at Yuletide to protect the house from fire and lightening, came down and St. Bridget’s crosses were made to hang in their stead.

(Despite what you have heard, these crosses took many forms and did not all resemble swastikas.  The easiest to make is the three-arm version popular in Co. Donegal, pictured above.)

Sometimes a household would use the materials leftover from making the crosses to make a small bed for the saint in the home.  Sometimes the family would use the leftover straw or rushes to light rush lights in honor of the saint.  Customs varied greatly by region.

There are many Irish healing superstitions associated with the holiday which do likely reach back to the days when Brighid presided over medicine and healers, but we don’t know for certain. While we can’t be quite sure of the origin of these customs, they do have the practical effect of insuring the healing supplies are ready for the year.

The Ribín Bríde was a piece of silk ribbon or a strip of linen that was left outdoors on St. Bridget’s Eve- usually on the windowsill or in a door way.  The saint was said to have blessed the ribbon as she passed by in her travels and it was used as a headache cure subsequently.  The Brat Bríde (Bridget’s Mantle) was a linen garment left out and used similarly throughout the year-especially by women to cure barrenness and to ensure safe childbirth.

The Crios Bríde (St. Bridget’s Belt) was a large ring of straw rope that people would walk through on St. Bridget’s Day to invoke the Saint’s protection from illness.  This custom seemed to be most common in Co. Galway.

Dividing the year by the cross quarters was not unique to Gaelic cultures.  Into late 18th century, the year English divided their years into quarters named for these holidays… Candlemas quarter…midsummer quarter…michaelmas quarter and Christmas quarter.[4]

Candlemas or as the Welsh call it Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau  (Mary’s Festival of the Candles) is also an ancient holiday.  Traditionally celebrated on February 2nd is mentioned often as a benchmark date in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.  The first entry is in 1014 CE.[5]

It was also celebrated in Norway, Sweden and North of Germany. In Germany, it was said that “If the sun shines on Candlemas day, the flax will prosper.” there is some story about Jesus and Mary associated with the feast, the practical aspect of this holiday is that this was the day people would bring their candles to the church to be blessed by the priest.  Which you know, meant they had to be made in time.

It’s also worth noting that Candlemas did not usurp Lá Fhéile Bríde. In Ireland and Scotland, they celebrated both festivals and there is some convoluted story as to Bríde’s association with Mary to account for the proximity of the festivals.

Up until the reign of the Stuarts, Candlemas, rather than Twelfth Night, was the day that all the holiday greenery was to be removed from the home.  In some areas, the holly and ivy were burned in Candlemas Eve fires.  Sound familiar?

This poem, written by Robert Herrick in 1601, documents the long-held superstition that all such greenery should be removed from the home on the eve of Candlemas unless you want to be plagued by goblins.

Ceremony Upon Candlemas Eve
DOWN with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and misletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:
That so the superstitious find
No one least branch there left behind:
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected, there (maids, trust to me)
So many goblins you shall see.[6]

Though we can never really know after years of adhering to the custom, I have concluded it seems at least possible that this practice was based on some common sense. The greenery is a fire hazard by this point of the year.  I am cleaning up old dry needles from all sorts of strange places today.  They work really well in tinder boxes.

So, while everyone else is waxing poetic about deeper esoteric underpinnings of the festivals, my actions are informed by traditional folk practicality.

These couple of days are about taking stock of my situation including making an inventory of the gardening closet, freezer, pantry and apothecary.

I will then  spend the next month restocking things that I won’t have time for making once gardening starts like candles, soap and fire starters.

I am literally clearing out the old to make way for the new with tasks like making sure the jars are cleaned out and ready for the next go around.

I am anticipating the return of good weather and beginning to get my seeds around to start transplants.  That’s probably why I have stuff in the ground in early March and am eating fresh lettuce before most people have their garden planted.

Those are just a few of  the ways traditions have helped me move through the year.  Soon I will be offering a much more comprehensive look at how traditions help me move through the year.

[1]  Kevin Danaher, “Irish Folk Tradition and the Celtic Calendar.” In The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert O’Driscoll, (New York: George Braziller Inc., 1983), 223.
[2] O’Sullivan, John C. “St Brigid’s Crosses.” Folk Life 11, no. 1 (January 1973): 60–81..
[3] McNeill, Florence Marian. The Scots Kitchen: Its Traditions and Lore, with Old-Time Recipes. 1974 Reprint. Glasgow, Scotland: Blackie & Son, 1929.
[4] Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any Thing of the Kind Yet Published … London, England: W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton, 1774.
[5] Ingram, James, trans. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle. London, England: J.M. Dent, 1823.
[6] Herrick, Robert. Works of Robert Herrick. vol II. Alfred Pollard, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1891. 129.