Pluck The Yarrow Fair: Celtic Herbs

Pluck The Yarrow Fair: Celtic Herbs

Na Déithe libh mo chairde,

A wee herb harvest, by Erika Rivertree.

Folklore related to the efficacious use of herbs for healing, hexing, and all other elements of life can be found throughout the Celtic world. Any people who live in such a connected, intimate relationship with their landscape will undoubtedly have strong traditions of herbal wisdom. We can see this clearly evidenced in the mythological, folkloric, and archaeological record.
In Gaelic lore, it is often the bean feasa, the wise woman, who is most respected for knowledge of herbs. Such knowledge is customarily attributed as a gift from the Good Folk, i.e. “fairies”. There are many beliefs about the right, and wrong, ways to harvest herbs, such as the proper time of day or night, the most auspicious season or phase of the moon, with which hand to pluck an herb, and the correct charm to sing when harvesting. Even in the Christian era, the healing power of herbs was clearly experienced as being a gift from Nature.
In the Carmina Gadelica, compiled by Alexander Carmicheal, there are many examples of magical herb-charms. Here is one for the Yarrow:
Buainidh mi an earr reidh (I will pluck the yarrow fair),
Gum bu cheinide mo chruth (That more benign shall be my face),
Gum bu bhlathaide mo bheuil (That more warm shall be my lips),
Gum bu gheinide mo ghuth (That more chaste shall be my speech).
Biodh mo ghuth mar ghath na grein (Be my speech the beams of the sun),
Biodh mo bheuil mar ein nan subh (Be my lips the sap of the strawberry).
Gum bu h-eilean mi air muir (May I be an isle in the sea),
Gum bu tulach mi air tir (May I be a hill on the shore),
Gum bu reuil mi ri ra dorcha (May I be a star in the waning of the moon),
Gum bu lorg mi dhuine cli (May I be a staff to the weak),
Leonaidh mi a h-uile duine (Wound can I every man),
Cha leoin duine mi (Wound can no man me).
And here is a charm for St. Columba’s Plant, aka St. John’s Wort, which was considered most potent when found accidentally growing wild:
Achlasain Chaluim-chille (Plantlet of Columba),
Gun sireadh, gun iarraidh (Without seeking, without searching),
Achlasain Chaluim-chille (Plantlet of Columba),
Fo m’ righe gu siorruidh (Under my arm forever)!
Air shealbh dhaona (For luck of men),
Air shealbh mhaona (For luck of means),
Air shealbh mhianna (For luck of wish),
Air shealbh chaora (For luck of sheep),
Air shealbh mhaosa (For luck of goats),
Air shealbh iana (For luck of birds),
Air shealbh raona (For luck of fields),
Air shealbh mhaora (For luck of shellfish),
Air shealbh iasga (For luck of fish), 
Air shealbh bhliochd is bhuar (For luck of produce and kine),
Air shealbh shliochd is shluagh (For luck of progeny and people),
Air shealbh bhlar is bhuadh (For luck of battle and people),
Air tir, air lir, air cuan (On land, on sea, on ocean),
Trid an Tri ta shuas (Through the Three on high),
Trid an Tri ta nuns (Through the Three a-nigh),
Trid an Tri ta buan (Through the Three eternal),
Achlasain Chaluim-chille (Plantlet of Columba),
Ta mis a nis da d’ bhuain (I cull thee now),
Ta mis a nis da d’ bhuain (I cull thee now).
In Irish mythology, the goddess Airmid is associated with herbalism. Along with her father, Diancecht, and her brothers Miach and Cian, she is part of a family of healer gods of the Tuatha De Danann. The following is a charm they recited during healing rituals. I sing this when applying an herbal poultice or soothing a bruise:
Bone to bone
Vein to vein
Balm to Balm
Sap to Sap
Skin to skin
Tissue to tissue
Blood to blood
Flesh to flesh
Sinew to sinew
Marrow to marrow
Pith to pith
Fat to fat
Membrane to membrane
Fibre to fibre
Moisture to moisture
Airmid by Jim FitzPatrick

The story of how herbs became the purview of Airmid goes as follows:

After her father, Diancecht, slew her brother Miach in a fit of jealousy because he crafted a living arm for the god-king Nuada, Airmed wept over her brother's grave. Watered by her tears, all the healing herbs of the world (365 in number - according to the number of Miach's joints and veins) sprung from the earth over Miach's body, and Airmed collected and organized them all, spreading them on her cloak. Once again, in a fit of jealousy, an enraged Diancecht scattered the herbs. For this reason, no living human knows all the secrets of herbalism. Only Airmed remembers. 

When I work with herbs, I first ground and center, then invoke the spirit of Aimid to inspire and bless my work. Here is a simple charm that came to me for this purpose:

Airmid bless these herbs for healing

Herbs for beauty

Herbs for peace

And herbs for love

By the power of earth below us

Seas around us

Skies above

There are of course thousands of healing plants and herbs that our Celtic ancestors utilized to help keep themselves healthy and live a good life. I tend to focus on herbs that are well documented, and for which there is a solid body of scientific study. I share with you here the recipe for my “9-Herbs Blessing Oil”. Hazelnut is my customary carrier oil, but if you are allergic to hazelnuts, any oil of choice should suffice. I love jojoba oil - it’s balancing for the skin and does not go rancid quickly. This is the “folk method”:

Take a clean mason jar, fill 1/2 way with hazelnut oil, and add a handful each of meadowsweet, mistletoe, vervain, St. John’s wort, juniper, yarrow, hawthorn berries, rowan berries, eyebright. Top off with more hazelnut oil to fully immerse the herbs. Secure the lid, give it a gentle shake 9 times, and put the jar in a cool, dark place to infuse for at least one full lunar cycle. Strain and use the oil to anoint/bless as needed (external use only). I typically rub a wee dab onto my forehead at the third eye.

And here’s a bonus: “Moorland Tea”! This was the favorite of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Heather flowers, bilberry leaves, blackberry leaves, strawberry leaves, lemon thyme, spearmint, rose petals. Mix in equal portions. Prepare as a tisane by adding 8oz boiling water to 1 heaping tablespoon of herbs, cover and steep for 5 minutes, then strain and enjoy as-is or with a dollop of honey (heather honey is most traditional but any of your local raw honey will be likewise dutifully delicious). I keep this on hand for when I want a hot cuppa in the evening, but without caffeine. I call it “Highland Welcome”


~ Reverend Erika Rivertree

A harvest of roses & herbs by Erika Rivertree

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