Oak-corns and Apple-thorns

April 1st, 2012

Weapons, Wounds, & Wisdoms

I recently read in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore by Charles Kightly (Thames & Hudson, 1987) that in times past, if an opponent in battle escaped, one might put a powerful curse on the wound by applying poisonous herbs and urine to the blade that did the wounding. Once the spell worked its wonders, the weapon would be cleansed and put back into service.  It was also possible to offer relief using the connection, although some methods (like the one mentioned by Pliny in his Natural History that follows) seem more like curses than cures: “if you have wounded a man and are sorry for it, you have only to spit on the hand that gave the wound, and the pain of the sufferer will be instantly alleviated.”

This didn’t add up for me, except for maybe on the cursing side of the issue.  You put the curse on the weapon because you don’t have access to the victim.  If you did, well, you could just give him another whack!

But the cure?  I wondered, “Couldn’t you could just offer an apology, poultice, blessing, soak, or salve?”  But as I thought about it, I realized that apologies for battleax injuries could get rather, shall we say, complicated.  Don’t know about you, but I for one am not accepting any cures — herbal, magical, or otherwise — from guys who recently tried to kill me.  In fact, he or she might not get past, “Hey, remember me?” before I started swinging.  So maybe putting the cure on the weapon makes good common sense after all…

But then I saw that there was another less obvious layer of logic at work.  We often assume that our ancestors were experts in herb lore, that if resurrected any one of them could sit down and dictate Llewellyn Worldwide’s next book.  Yes, there were experts back then.  But the fact is, we modern witches have access to a thousand times as much information as they did.  A clumsy cure applied directly to a wound have made things much worse.  I think they knew their shortcomings, knew that the body generally heals itself pretty well if left alone, and they made a perfectly sensible and logical decision: apply the cure the the weapon not the wound.

When you’re a kid you always think you know better than your elders.  Then you grow up and you find yourself wishing you had heeded their advice.  If I’ve learned anything it’s that real wisdom often looks false first and true later.

You just have to think things through to the end.

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