Sometimes I eat books in my sleep. It’s a side effect from frequent visits to the Great Inner Library. During a weekend nap in late April I was browsing the Three Hands Press website. In my dream I found a book that isn’t a part of their physical catalog. It was called Healing Techniques of Ancient Ireland. I put this book into my stomach. Non-physical books have a different gestation rate than the ones we read with our eyes, but the thing about them is the whole body & soul ends up absorbing this knowledge, which later trickles, or floods as the case may be, into waking life.
The next week at my day job in the library I felt an intuitive nudge to have a look at some of the works of Rosalie K. Fry, most famous for her book The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, later adapted for the screen by John Sayles into the charming and magical The Secret of Roan Inish. I’d always wanted to read it, but as it turned out the institution I work for didn’t have a copy. Yet it still pays to go digging in the stacks for Children’s books & novels which are no longer popular. The book I ended up borrowing from the stacks by Fry was Whistler In the Mist, first published in 1968. The language is simple. The story is set in Wales, in the valleys and hills around the Black Mountain. It takes us deep into the folklore surrounding faery contacts, their interaction with humans, and the founding of an ancestral line who become the guardians of a body of herbal lore, some eventually to become doctors.
Such a story has put me to ponder on the ways humans have often received knowledge and guidance from Otherworld beings, how certain arts and sciences seem to be bestowed on humanity, and into certain family lineages and traditions. It also makes me think about how many people in the world have strains of Otherworld blood in them? How many people have that streak of the fey coursing through their veins?
Of course in asking such a question, I would in no way be promoting any of the racist shenanigans perpetrated by some esoteric groups who are better left unnamed. Besides, the role of herbs in healing was greater for all of our ancestors, no matter an individuals specific genetic descent. It’s only been since the advent of industrial culture that medicines have moved further away from their original sources, from ns, forests, glens, and gardens to become chemical composites of strange unpronounceable names manufactured in factories.
Part of the back story in Whistler In the Mist is that the young heroines ancient ancestor on her mom’s side was actually the Lady in the Lake. This story is based on a traditional tale associated with the Llyn y Fan Fach, one of two lakes folded into the Black Mountain. The son of a widow from the nearby town of Blaen Sawdde agreed to marry a beautiful girl who arose from the lake. As is typical of Faery stories a stipulation is laid upon him, that if he hits the lady three times she will return to the lake. This eventually happens, as he strikes her in admonishment for things such as laughing at a funeral and crying at a wedding. The faery’s think and feel differently than us and the Lady of the Lake was not accustomed to our learned social behaviors. By the time the widows son had hit her three times she had already born him children. So it is with sadness she returns to the lake. From time to time her kids to go to the lake and she instructs them in herbal lore (among other things), and one son in particular, Rhiwallon. He, with his brothers, eventually went on to the court of Rhys Gryg where they became the famous Physicians of Myddfai beginning a tradition of handing down this knowledge from one generation to another. A number of their herbal recipes and medical formulas were preserved in The Red Book of Hergest.
I knew about none of this before reading The Whistler in the Mist. With regards to my dream about Healing Techniques of Ancient Ireland, I had begun searching around on the internets and in library search engines for material on this subject. In doing so I came across a fascinating article by Rosari Kingston, An Overview of the Irish Herbal Tradition: The Thread That Could Not Be Broken. One section of Rosari’s essay is devoted to Irish Medical Families. The passing on of skills in doctoring was hereditary in nature. Each of the four counties of Ireland had a number of doctoring families. She writes, “Ó hÍceadha (Hickey) and Ó Leighin (Lane) mean literally healer and leech respectively. [A “leech” was a traditional title given to some Irish doctors -from their practice of using leeches to bleed patients.] How many people with the above names today, realize that they are descendants of the great Irish hereditary medical families?” And it makes me wonder in particular if the Irish medical families have any surviving stories involving the impartation of knowledge from the Otherworld? Specifically stories of the intermarriage of Faery and Human, as in the Welsh example?
Whatever the case may be, there is one thing we can be certain of. Stories have the power to preserve in memory the vital knowledge of healing with plants. In connecting with the plant powers we may also deepen our relationship to the Land in general, and by connecting further to the Land I believe it is possible to make contact with some of the Faery beings who also make a home here -partially in this world, partially in the Other. In remedying ourselves with herbal treatments we can also remedy our relationship to the wide world of plants and begin to explore those spectrum’s of consciousness existing beyond the human.