Discover more from Folklore, Food and Fairytales
From Healing Goddesses to A Sort of Flummery
via The Moon, Sorceresses, Old Wives, A Clever Girl and A Sore Ear
Hello Gentle Reader
How is everyone on this bitterly cold but deliciously crisp & clear morning? If none of those things apply where you are, then you may have to imagine a really cold day with wisps of condensing breath on the air, everything outside frost dusted and sparkling with a bright, cold sun and bright blue northern skies. It’s still very cold and the cat and I will need to treat ourselves to some extra heating later but the bright winter light has made the day something more than bearable.
On my way to work I left in the dark and was then completely surprised by how big and bright the moon was in the predawn sky for some reason. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know it had been a full moon but the clarity of the sky which allowed for that sparkling frost dusting, made the moon shine in all her glory. It felt like I was in the story of the Buried Moon and she was determined to show the dark, creeping, crawling creatures what she could do to help any stranded traveller with her brightness. If you want to read that story and are new here, you can find the story and some fascinating information about it in one of my earlier letters: From the Hidden-Moon-to-Alkmaarfe
First though, I wanted to talk about Old Wives’ Tales but not just in general, this is the title of the book that I am reading. It is a book from 1981 written by Mary Chamberlain and is clothbound in a glorious colour green with simple titles in gilt which ought to be enough to make you read it by itself. If you add in that I found it quite by chance snuggled tightly on the shelf next to the reference book I was actually there for, had no previous idea of its existence and the subtitle is ‘Their history, remedies and spells’ then you can see why I was intrigued.
I firmly believe that books, like cats, often find you rather than the other way round and this is definitely one of those (although I often acquire lots that just look lonely on the shelf). It has fabulous chapter titles including ‘From Goddess to Sorceress’, ‘From Sorceress to Witch’ and ‘From Expert to Charlatan’ and tells the story of women as unofficial healers and how the healer’s role has changed through history. This includes how apothecaries came into being from their roots as grocers who specialised in exotic spices. It also considers old wives and old wives' tales and how they are placed in a social and historical context. Mary Chamberlain writes how she also hopes to restore ‘the memory of the old wife and her place in the community and to collect some old wives’ tales before they are lost.
It offers up spells and remedies and explains how spells weren’t inherently magic, they were just a way of acting against illnesses brought by believed outside agents and were considered the root to treating the whole illness, whilst remedies (often herbal) were used at the same time to relieve specific symptoms. These spells were passed along orally along with the remedy. The way in which words were changed to merge with Christian belief and became prayers is absolutely fascinating and some of the herbal cures are still in use today in a more refined format particularly in the areas of childbirth.
Anyway, I was fascinated by the new knowledge and perspective and I’m both awed by the women who came before us and how they used the few resources available to them to help their families and communities but also incredibly angry about how woman have had to fight to learn in order to become medically qualified when being a doctor became high status and the long history of women healers was conveniently forgotten.
I may not be old and no longer a wife but I suspect that after my current project I may have to see if I can add to the restoration of the good name and reputation of old wives and their place in the community in as many ways as I can think of. I hope some of you will even join me.
After that, I couldn’t help but treat you to one of my favourite stories with a stong, clever female hero. There are lots of variants but this one is adapted from an Italian tale. It is known as the Clever Girl:
Once upon a time there was a huntsman who had a wife and two children, a son and a daughter; and they all lived together happily on a lonely farm surrounded by a wood and so they knew nothing about the world. The father alone sometimes went to the city and brought back the news and provisions they could not provide for themselves.
The daughter’s name was Sofia and our story is not the start of her adventures. When the huntsman was out in the woods and his wife was at work in the fields, they left their little daughter in her cradle at home. An old, old woman crept softly, softly in, and kissed the child on her eyes and her forehead. "I bring you two gifts," she said, "Beauty and Wit." When her parents returned they hardly knew the little one again, so beautiful had she become. When she grew to be a young woman, none in all the countryside was so lovely or so clever.
However Sofia is not the only one we need to consider:
The king’s son once went hunting and lost himself in the lonely wood, and while he was seeking his way night started to wrap around him. He was weary, hungry and cold which he wasn’t used to as Princes are used to a certain standard of living. However, as he wandered, despairing and becoming more and more lost, all at once he saw a light shining at a distance. He was thoroughly relieved that he wouldn’t have to put his wilderness training to the test. He followed the light through the trees and reached the huntsman’s house.
The huntsman recognised him at once and said: “Highness, we have already dined on our best. But if we can find anything for you, I hope you will be satisfied with it. What can we do?”
Meanwhile he had a capon cooked for him. The prince did not wish to eat it alone as it was very much family sized, but called all the huntsman’s family, and gave the head of the capon to the father, the back to the mother, the legs to the son, and the wings to the daughter, and ate the rest himself.
In this small house there was only one sleeping room with several beds where the whole family slept. The old people went and slept in the stable, giving up their bed to the prince. When the girl saw that the prince was asleep, she said to her brother:
“I will wager that you do not know why the prince divided the capon among us in the manner he did.”
“Do you know? Tell me why.”
“He gave the head to papa because he is the head of the family, the back to mamma because she has on her shoulders all the affairs of the house, the legs to you because you must be quick in performing the errands which are given you, and the wings to me to fly away and catch a husband.”
The prince pretended to be asleep; but he was awake and heard these words. He perceived that the girl had much judgement although she was probably giving him too much credit as he had just handed over the bits that weren’t his favourites. The prince was also fairly capricious and as she was also pretty, he fell in love with her. The next morning he left the huntsman’s house; and as soon as he reached the court, he sent him, by a servant, a purse of money. To the daughter of the house he sent a cake in the form of a full moon, thirty patties, and a cooked capon, with three questions: “Whether it was the thirtieth of the month in the wood, whether the moon was full, and whether the capon crowed in the night.” He wanted to check that her understanding was as impressive as he thought it was.
The servant, although a trusty one, was overcome by his hunger on the journey back to the farmhouse in the wood and ate fifteen of the patties, and a good slice of the cake, and the capon. Sofia, who had understood it all, sent back word to the prince that the moon was not full but on the wane; that it was only the fifteenth of the month and that the capon had gone to the mill; and that she asked him to spare the pheasant for the sake of the partridge.
The prince, too, understood the metaphor, and having summoned the servant, he cried: “Rogue! You have eaten the capon, fifteen patties, and a good slice of the cake. Thank that girl who has interceded for you; if she had not, I would have had you demoted to pig keeper” The servant who actually loved pigs, would have been quite happy with the demotion but you don’t talk back to princes, especially the capricious ones.
The prince was thrilled that his love was so clever that he went off to the King to tell him that he had found his bride. He explained all that had happened and the King was impressed but not enough that he would allow his son to marry a peasant. He also knew how changeable his son was and thought he would easily forget her when he found new entertainment. Conveniently a huge travelling fencing tournament arrived in town the next day and the prince was indeed distracted and would have probably forgotten all about Sofia forever if her father had not conveniently found a solid gold mortar buried in the wood.
The miraculous discovery happened about 12 months after the prince first got lost in the wood and much had changed. His father had sadly passed away from an injury received from a piece of flying metal at the travelling tournament and Sofia’s mother had also moved on to the next world. Although the prince missed his father he was very much enjoying being king as he got to indulge himself in all his whims and fancies. He rewarded anyone richly who brought him any unusual objects or entertainments.
The huntsman had heard about this and thought the king would really enjoy the gold mortar and that he might get enough money to provide a better dowry for Sofia as well as a retirement into a life of ease for himself rather than working to the grave. He headed home to change his coat for one that was less piggy (he had been trying to find truffles in the wood) and then start the long ride to the palace. At home he found his daughter Sofia waiting for him, and he showed her the mortar, announcing he would present it to the king.
Sofia said, "Beyond all doubt, it's as lovely as lovely can be. But if you take it to the king he'll find fault with it, since something is missing, and you'll end up paying for it."
"And just what is missing? What could even a king find wrong with it?"
"You just wait; the king will say: 'The mortar is big and beautiful, but where, ignorant peasant, is the pestle?'"
The farmer shrugged his shoulders. "The idea of a king talking like that! Do you think he's as common as us?"
He tucked the mortar under his arm and rode straight to the king's palace. The guards weren't going to let him in, arriving as he did on a confused plough horse, but he told them he was bringing a wonderful gift, so they took him to His Majesty.
“Honoured King“ began the farmer, "in my wood I found this solid gold mortar, and I said to myself that the only place fit to display it was your palace. Therefore I am giving it to you, if you will have it."
The king took the mortar and turned it round and round, running his eye over every inch of it. Then he shook his head and spoke:
"The mortar is big and beautiful, but missing is its pestle."
Sofia's words exactly, except that the king didn't call him an ignorant peasant, since kings are usually well-mannered persons. The farmer slapped his brow and couldn't help but exclaim, "Word for word! She guessed it!"
"Who guessed what?" asked the king.
"I beg your pardon," said the farmer. "My daughter told me the king would say just those words, and I refused to believe her."
"This daughter of yours," said the king, "must be a very clever girl.
Now, the King was not a bad man at heart, but rather greedy, and very capricious, like a spoilt child. "Hark ye," he went on, "I'll give that clever daughter of yours something to do. See! Take her this flax and tell her to spin from it enough linen to make shirts for my whole army." And he handed the poor dazed man a bundle containing a few measly strands of flax, and distaffs and spindles made of fish-bones. "If she refuses, or if she is not able to do it, I'll have you both put in prison. Ha! ha! Good-bye!”
The farmer was stunned. But you don't argue with a king, so he took the bundle, bowed to the king, and set out for home, leaving the mortar without receiving a word of thanks, much less anything else. There was a fine task to take home to his poor daughter!
But Sofia only laughed.
"Leave me the flax," she said; "and take the distaffs and spindles back; and tell the King that I am spinning busily; and that I shall make the shirts for his whole army when he has made me a loom out of these fishbones."
You can imagine that the huntsman was not thrilled about taking such a message to the King. But he took it, nevertheless. Perhaps the King would be in a more reasonable humour this morning. When he repeated what Sofia had said, the King stared in amazement. "Well, it's a bold daughter you've got, my man! She is no common girl.”
The King waved away the huntsman, who departed at speed before the king could change his mind. He rode home as quickly as his poor bewildered plough horse could manage. When he reached home he told Sofia that the whole thing had been a near miss and he refused to speak any more of the matter. Tranquillity and routine soon returned to the happy cottage with Sofia looking after her father and brother.
This is however not the end of our tale gentle reader, just a brief pause whilst the King decides on his next move. Kings expect to be waited on and this one is no different…….
The King sat in his throne room pondering and decided, perhaps with the nudge from a passing fairy (remember the one that popped up at the beginning) that he was going to pursue Sofia. He vaguely remembered her beautiful face and her cleverness and boldness endeared her to him. Unusually for a king he liked people to stand up to him. Not too much obviously, as some kings have found found out to their discomfort, or you may find yourself outside the walls of the kingdom with a small pension and a cart for your few belongings (and thats the better ending). He decide to pursue her, which he found most novel as most prospective brides came to him.
So next day the king made the journey out to the lonely farm and the happy cottage and knocked at the door in what he felt was a very regal manner, but no one opened. He knocked louder, but the same thing. Sofia did not open the door. Finally, tired of waiting as he never imagined that there might not be any one at home, he broke open the door and entered:
“Rude girl! Who taught you not to open to one of my rank? Where are your father and mother?”
“Who knew it was you? My father is where he should be and my mother has left for the next world. You must leave, for I have something else to do rather than listen to the man who threatened my father”
She then continued on with her spinning. You can guess what happened next. The king rode off in the biggest huff that had ever been seen in that part of the world and then sent back guards to escort the poor huntsman to the palace. He was very angry and complained to the father of his daughter’s rude manners. The huntsman tried to explain that there wasn’t much he could do with Sofia but the king suddenly came up with a plan.
‘Return home’ he said to the huntsman. ‘Then send her to the palace, so that I’ll have the pleasure of chatting with her but mind that she comes to me neither naked ror clothed, on a stomach neither full nor empty, neither in the daytime nor at night, neither walking on her feet, nor riding on horse, ass, or mule. She is to obey me in every single detail, or both your head and hers-will roll.”
“What next?” said the poor distracted father. “For all her cleverness this task is beyond her.”
He gave Sofia the King’s message; and she only laughed. “Oh, that’s easy enough!” she said. Then she went to her room, took off her clothes, let down her long thick hair, which fell to her feet, and drew it close round her by a great net so she was neither naked or clothed. Next she ate a lupin so she would be neither empty or full. Then she went out to the field, caught her father’s old ram, put one foot over its back, and hopped along the road to the town on the other so she would be neither on foot or on horseback. Thus she reached the Palace just as the sky grew lighter (it was neither day nor night). Taking her for a madwoman in that outlandish get-up, the guards barred the way; but on learning that she was just carrying out the sovereign’s order, they escorted her to the royal chambers.
“Majesty, I am here in compliance with your order.”
The king split his sides laughing, and said, “Clever Sofia! You’re just the girl I was looking for. One could never be dull with such a wife! Sofia, will you marry me?”
When the farmer heard about it, he said, “If the king wants you for his wife, you have no choice but to marry him. But watch your step, for if the king quickly decides what he wants, .he can decide just as quickly what he no longer wants. Be sure to leave your workdothes hanging up here on a hook. In case you ever have to come home, you’ll find them all ready to put back on.”
But Sofia was so happy and excited that she paid little attention to her father’s words, and a few days later the wedding was celebrated. There were festivities throughout the kingdom, with a big fair in the capital. The inns were filled to overflow, and many farmers had to sleep in the town squares, which were crowded all the way up to the king’s palace. So the King married Sofia, the huntsman’s clever daughter, and they lived happily and merrily together.
You might have noticed that I didn’t say happily ever after and thats for good reason as there is more to the tale of Clever Sofia and the King. Do you want to hear it? Then let us return to the kingdom of the happy couple.
One Sunday two peasants were passing a church; one of them had a hand-cart and the other was leading a horse ready to foal. The bell rang for mass and they both entered the church, one leaving his cart outside and the other tying the horse to the cart.
One farmer, who had brought to town a pregnant horse to sell, found no barn to put the animal in, so an innkeeper told him he could put it under a shed at the inn and tether it to another farmer’s cart. Lo and behold, in the night, the horse foaled. In the morning the proud owner of the horse was preparing to lead his two animals away when out rushed the owner of the cart, shouting, “That’s all right about the horse, she’s yours. But hands off the foal, it’s mine.”
“What do you mean, it’s yours? Didn’t my horse have it last night?”
“Why wouldn’t it be mine?” answered the other farmer. “The horse was tied to the cart, the cart’s mine, so the foal belongs to the owner of the cart.”
A heated quarrel arose, and in no time they were fighting, striking out in blind fury at one another. At the noise, a large crowd gathered around them; then the constables ran up, separated the two men, and marched them straight into the king’scourt of justice.
It was once the custom in the royal city, mind you, for the king’s wife also to express her opinion. But now with Sofia as queen, it happened -that every time the king delivered a judgment, she opposed it. This was normally because she could see things from a normal persons point of view, as well as just being generally wiser. However our proud and capricious king wasn’t going to stand for that and banned Sofia from the Court of Justice The farmers therefore appeared before the king alone.
After hearing both sides, the king rendered this decision : ‘the foal belongs to the owner of the cart’, because, he said, it was more likely that the owner of the horse would tie her to the cart in order to lay a false claim to the cart than that the owner of the cart would tie it to the horse. The owner of the horse had right on his side, and all the people were in his favour, but the King had pronounced sentence andwhat could he do? The king’s judgment was final.
Seeing the farmer so upset, the innkeeper advised him to go to the queen, who might find a way out. The farmer went to the palace and asked a servant, “Could you tell me, my good man, if I might have a word with the queen?”, “That is impossible,” replied the servant, “since the king has forbidden her to hear people’s cases.”
The farmer then went up to the garden wall. Spying the queen, he jumped over the wall and burst into tears as he told how unjust her husband had been to him. The queen advised him with an wise course of action.
The farmer listened and acted on her advice. With a net thrown about him, he went up and down the town, and round and round the outside of the Palace, crying, “Ho! ho! the fisherman! Who wants to catch fish with me?” Up and down the town he went with this cry, and round and round the Palace, stopping always before the King’s own windows. At last the King could stand it no longer, and he bawled out, “Be off with you! Would you have us catching fish in the streets? You’re a fine fisher, you country bumpkin! And it’s a fine catch you’ll get in my gutters.”
The farmer, who had been advised by the queen, answered: “Majesty, if a cart can give birth to a foal, then theres a fine chance I can get a good catch of fish in these streets.”
And the King, who liked a good answer, laughed heartily, and ordered his servants to give back the foal to its true owner. Nevertheless, he was very angry; and when the man had gone, he called for his wife and said, “I know who put the fellow up to that trick. It was you. You have no care for my interests. You like the peasantry best. Be off with you! Out of my palace, go back to being the farm girl you truly are!”
Queen Sofia answered “Very well, your Majesty, I’ll go back again to my home. They will be glad to see me, but it is hardly fair I should go away empty-handed. When you married me you said, ‘Whatever is most precious in this palace belongs to you!'”
“Oh, take whatever you like! Only, be off with you!”
“As you wish, Majesty. Only, I would ask one last favour: let me leave tomorrow. Tonight it would be too embarrassing for you and for me, and your subjects would gossip.”
“Very well,” said the king. “We’ll dine together for the last time, and you will go away tomorrow.”
Sofia asked the cooks to prepare roasts and hams and rich heavy foods that the King particularly enjoyed but that would also make a person drowsy and thirsty. She also ordered the best wines brought up from the cellar. At dinner the king ate arid ate and ate, while Sofia emptied bottle after bottle into his glass. Soon his vision clouded up; he started stuttering and at last fell fast asleep in his armchair, snoring softly like a pig.
Sofia ordered a great coach to draw up before the palace door, and had the King carried into it, still in his armchair. Then she got in herself, and they drove away to her father’s cottage.
“Open up, Dad, it’s me,” she cried. At the sound of his daughter’s voice, the old huntsman ran to the window.
“Back at this hour of the night? I told you so! I was wise to hold on to your workclothes. They’re still here hanging on the hook in your room.”
“Come on, let me in,” said Sofia, “and don’t talk so much!”
The farmer opened the door and saw the servants bearing the armchair with the king in it. Sofia had him carried into the sleeping room, undressed, and put into her bed. Then she dismissed the servants and lay down beside the king. The Huntsman saw that he’d been demoted to the stable again and headed there, hoping this wasn’t going to last long.
Around midnight the king awakened. The mattress seemed harder than usual, and the sheets rougher. He turned over and felt his wife there beside him. He said, “Sofia, didn’t I tell you to go home?”
“Yes, Majesty,” she replied, “but it’s not day yet. Go back to sleep.”
The king went back to sleep. When at last he woke he found Sofia sitting by him. But where were they? It seemed a very small place, and the light was dim; and his couch uncommonly hard. He could hear the donkey braying, the bleating of the sheep, and saw the sunshine streaming through the window. He shook himself, for he no longer recognised the royal bedchamber. He turned to his wife. “Sofia, where on earth are we?” “What has happened?”
“Only what you ordered,” replied Sofia. “Didn’t you tell me, Majesty, to return home and that I might take with me the most precious thing in the palace? So I did, I took you, and I’m keeping you.”
Then the King laughed, and laughed again, till the cottage rafters rang. And he laughed all the way back in the coach. Of course, Queen Sofia sat by him, laughing too. They went back to the royalpalace, where they still live, and from that day on, the king has never appeared in the court of justice without his wife. Their reign was a long and a merry one but couldn’t always be called peaceful ……
As an add on to my tale I also really need to share with you the amazing Hungarian variant (as supplied by the amazingly talented Hungarian storyteller and author Dr. Zalka Csenge Virág) where she solves "not dressed and not naked" by showing up in just a bra. (When asked why she is not wearing knickers, she says "God gave that to me, I'm not ashamed. But I grew these myself.")
If I still have the honour of your attention after that long tale then I will bring our historic remedy and recipe to your attention, again from A Collection of above Three Hundred Receipts in Cookery Phyfick and Surgery; For the Use of all Good Wives, Tender Mothers and Careful Nurfes by Several Hands from 1714
If you have a sore ear I wouldn't put steam by it without proper medical advice but it does at least sound cheery and the ingredients are achievable, if a waste of wine.
I’m disappointed by the Flummery actually, but I thought you would all feel the same and we could cheer each other up in our shared sadness. I think it sounds like it all ought to be fluffy and light and not almost solid porridge. I thought it might be a bit like angel delight if it was nice and didn’t have the slightly chemical aftertaste but sadly not
With that, Gentle Reader, I must bring this letter to a close. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comments or via any of my social media profiles/my website . If you have enjoyed this and would like to read further such nonsense and have not yet subscribed, please don’t hesitate to subscribe for free at the button below. You’d be very welcome and it would be a joy to write to you.