" Watching the Fern" - The Witchery of Midsummer Eve - A True Love Augury - The Ribwort
Magic - A Forlorn Hope, a Primrose Omen
'""Truly in the springtime of life does one's fancy "lightly turn to thoughts of love," and in days of long ago many an innocent device has been resorted to by young men and maidens to obtain the desired glimpse of their future spouse.
Some of these quaint rustic beliefs are here recalled, and may afford some amusement by their recital.
Many of these rites could be performed at any time, but some were reserved for special occasions, and Midsummer Eve claims the fern-seed for its own.
On this night the tiny fern-seed, which grows on the back of the leaf, is supposed to be ripe, and good fortune will follow the lover who can catch some of the seed as it falls, by holding under it a bag or a white napkin - on no account must it be touched by the hands. This magic seed, which must be gathered alone and at midnight, will ensure success in love and bring wealth.
This superstition is widely prevalent, being found in France, Russia, and Germany, as well as in the West of England and in Ireland. In the Tyrol and Bohemia on St. John's Eve the fern-seeds are said to shine like fiery gold.
There is a pretty French legend to the effect that, "if a man should find himself exactly at midnight in a spot covered with ferns where neither speech nor sound of any kind can be heard, Puck will appear and hand him a purse of gold, and this is what people call watching the fern."
Sometimes the seed was called the "wish-seed," and if carried about in the pocket would ensure a happy courtship. Other magic plants to be gathered were the St. John's wort, or orpine plant, and the mugwort.
A True Love Augury
The sprig of orpine was set upright in a lump of clay laid upon a piece of slate, and according to the direction in which the stalk was found the following morning so would the maiden's love affairs progress. If the stalk inclined to the right the lover was loyal and true, if it bent to the left he was false.
There is a pretty German poem on "The St. John's Wort," showing that this custom also prevailed in the Fatherland."
"The young maid stole from the cottage door, And blushed as she sought the plant of power. ' Thou silver glow-worm, oh, lend me thy light, I must gather the mystic St. John's wort to-night - The wonderful herb whose leaf shall decide If the coming year shall make me a bride.'
But, alas! the plant inclined in the wrong direction and the lover proved false, and when St. John's Eve came again it beheld her burial instead of her bridal day.
Undoubtedly this superstition was very deeply rooted in mediaeval England, for not many years ago a ring belonging to the fifteenth century was unearthed in a ploughed field near Cawood, in Yorkshire, and it bore the device of two orpine plants whose stalks were bent towards each other and tied together with a true-love-knot. Above the device was inscribed the motto "Ma fiancee velt" (my sweetheart wills), and inside the ring the posy, "Joye l'amour feu."
Under the living mugwort are often found little black and hard dead roots of former plants, and if these were dug up and laid beneath the pillow the future husband paid his customary visit in a dream.
The plant world seems to have given very cordial aid to these would-be seers, for a pretty Scottish practice was to gather two blooming spikes of the ribwort plantain; one spike to represent the lad, the other the lass. All vestige of bloom must be rubbed off them, and the pair wrapped in a dock leaf and laid beneath a stone. If on the following morning the spikes have bloomed again, then, according to the popular belief, there will be "Aye love between them twae." Eventually this rite came over the border, and for many years was practised in Northamptonshire. Clare, in his "Shepherd's Calendar," thus writes of it:
" Or, trying simple charms and spells, Which rural superstition tells, They pull the little blossom threads From out the knotwood's button heads. Then, if they guess aright, the swain Their love's sweet fancies try to gain, ' Tis said that ere it lies an hour, 'twill blossom with a second flower."
A Primrose Omen
Even the pale "primrose by the river's brim" was pressed into love's service, and the youth and maid was instructed to pluck the flower from its stalk, and, after cutting off the tops of the stamens with a pair of sharp scissors, to "hide the blossom. He must think of his sweetheart throughout the following day, and dream of her by night, then on the third morning he might inspect the flower, and if the stamens had shot out again to their former height, success would crown his wishes; if not, disappointment was in store for him. Considering the frail and delicate nature of the primrose, this would seem to be a forlorn hope. To be continued.
Fishing For Jack
Copyright, S. Hildesheimer & Co.
Painted by Delapoer Downing
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