Amongst the legends of the ancient world few subjects occupy a more

prominent place than lightning, associated as it is with those myths of

the origin of fire which are of such wide distribution.[1] In examining

these survivals of primitive culture we are confronted with some of the

most elaborate problems of primeval philosophy, many of which are not

only highly complicated, but have given rise to various conjectures.

Thus, although it is easy to understand the reasons which led our

ancestors, in their childlike ignorance, to speak of the lightning as a

worm, serpent, trident, arrow, or forked wand, yet the contrary is the

case when we inquire why it was occasionally symbolised as a flower or

leaf, or when, as Mr. Fiske[2] remarks, "we seek to ascertain why

certain trees, such as the ash, hazel, white thorn, and mistletoe, were

supposed to be in a certain sense embodiments of it."

Indeed, however satisfactory our explanations may apparently seem, in

many cases they can only be regarded as ingenious theories based on the

most probable theories which the science of comparative folk-lore may

have suggested. In analysing, too, the evidence for determining the

possible association of ideas which induced our primitive forefathers to

form those mythical conceptions that we find embodied in the folk-tales

of most races, it is necessary to unravel from the relics of the past

the one common notion that underlies them. Respecting the origin of

fire, for instance, the leading idea--as handed down to us in myths of

this kind--would make us believe that it was originally stolen. Stories

which point to this conclusion are not limited to any one country, but

are shared by races widely remote from one another. This circumstance is

important, as helping to explain the relation of particular plants to

lightning, and accounts for the superstitious reverence so frequently

paid to them by most Aryan tribes. Hence, the way by which the Veda

argues the existence of the palasa--a mystic tree with the Hindus--is

founded on the following tradition:--The demons had stolen the heavenly

soma, or drink of the gods, and cellared it in some mythical rock or

cloud. When the thirsty deities were pining for their much-prized

liquor, the falcon undertook to restore it to them, although he

succeeded at the cost of a claw and a plume, of which he was deprived by

the graze of an arrow shot by one of the demons. Both fell to the earth

and took root; the claw becoming a species of thorn, which Dr. Kuhn

identifies as the "_Mimosa catechu_," and the feather a "palasa tree,"

which has a red sap and scarlet blossoms. With such a divine origin--for

the falcon was nothing less than a lightning god[3]--the trees naturally

were incorporations,[4] "not only of the heavenly fire, but also of the

soma, with which the claw and feather were impregnated."

It is not surprising, therefore, that extraordinary virtues were

ascribed to these lightning plants, qualities which, in no small degree,

distinguish their representatives at the present day. Thus we are told

how in India the mimosa is known as the imperial tree on account of its

remarkable properties, being credited as an efficacious charm against

all sorts of malignant influences, such as the evil eye. Not unlike in

colour to the blossom of the Indian palasa are the red berries of the

rowan or mountain-ash (_Pyrus aucuparia_), a tree which has acquired

European renown from the Aryan tradition of its being an embodiment of

the lightning from which it was sprung. It has acquired, therefore, a

mystic character, evidences of which are numerously represented

throughout Europe, where its leaves are reverenced as being the most

potent talisman against the darker powers. At the present day we still

find the Highland milkmaid carrying with her a rowan-cross against

unforeseen danger, just as in many a German village twigs are put over

stables to keep out witches. Illustrations of this kind support its

widespread reputation for supernatural virtues, besides showing how

closely allied is much of the folk-lore of our own with that of

continental countries. At the same time, we feel inclined to agree with

Mr. Farrer that the red berries of the mountain-ash probably singled it

out from among trees for worship long before our ancestors had arrived

at any idea of abstract divinities. The beauty of its berries, added to

their brilliant red colour, would naturally excite feelings of

admiration and awe, and hence it would in process of time become

invested with a sacred significance. It must be remembered, too, that

all over the world there is a regard for things red, this colour having

been once held sacred to Thor, and Grimm suggests that it was on this

account the robin acquired its sacred character. Similarly, the Highland

women tie a piece of red worsted thread round their cows' tails previous

to turning them out to grass for the first time in spring, for, in

accordance with an old adage:

"Rowan-ash, and red thread,

Keep the devils from their speed."

In the same way the mothers in Esthonia put some red thread in their

babies' cradles as a preservative against danger, and in China something

red is tied round children's wrists as a safeguard against evil spirits.

By the aid of comparative folk-lore it is interesting, as in this case,

to trace the same notion in different countries, although it is by no

means possible to account for such undesigned resemblance. The common

ash (_Fraxinus excelsior_), too, is a lightning plant, and, according to

an old couplet:

"Avoid an ash,

It counts the flash."

Another tree held sacred to Thor was the hazel (_Corylus avellana_),

which, like the mountain-ash, was considered an actual embodiment of the

lightning. Indeed, "so deep was the faith of the people in the relation

of this tree to the thunder god," says Mr. Conway,[5] "that the Catholics

adopted and sanctioned it by a legend one may hear in Bavaria, that on

their flight into Egypt the Holy Family took refuge under it from a


Its supposed immunity from all damage by lightning has long caused

special reverence to be attached to it, and given rise to sundry

superstitious usages. Thus, in Germany, a twig is cut by the

farm-labourer, in spring, and on the first thunderstorm a cross is made

with it over every heap of grain, whereby, it is supposed, the corn will

remain good for many years. Occasionally, too, one may see hazel twigs

placed in the window frames during a heavy shower, and the Tyroleans

regard it as an excellent lightning conductor. As a promoter of

fruitfulness it has long been held in high repute--a character which it

probably derived from its mythic associations--and hence the important

part it plays in love divinations. According to a Bohemian belief, the

presence of a large number of hazel-nuts betokens the birth of many

illegitimate children; and in the Black Forest it is customary for the

leader of a marriage procession to carry a hazel wand. For the same

reason, in many parts of Germany, a few nuts are mingled with the seed

corn to insure its being prolific. But leaving the hazel with its host

of superstitions, we may notice the white-thorn, which according to

Aryan tradition was also originally sprung from the lightning. Hence it

has acquired a wide reverence, and been invested with supernatural

properties. Like, too, the hazel, it was associated with marriage rites.

Thus the Grecian bride was and is still decked with its blossoms,

whereas its wood formed the torch which lighted the Roman bridal couple

to their nuptial chamber on the wedding day. It is evident, therefore,

that the white-thorn was considered a sacred tree long before Christian

tradition identified it as forming the Crown of Thorns; a medieval

belief which further enhanced the sanctity attached to it. It is not

surprising, therefore, that the Irish consider it unlucky to cut down

this holy tree, especially as it is said to be under the protection of

the fairies, who resent any injury done to it. A legend current in

county Donegal, for instance, tells us how a fairy had tried to steal

one Joe M'Donough's baby, but the poor mother argued that she had never

affronted the fairy tribe to her knowledge. The only cause she could

assign was that Joe, "had helped Mr. Todd's gardener to cut down the old

hawthorn tree on the lawn; and there's them that says that's a very bad

thing to do;" adding how she "fleeched him not to touch it, but the

master he offered him six shillings if he'd help in the job, for the

other men refused." The same belief prevails in Brittany, where it is

also "held unsafe to gather even a leaf from certain old and solitary

thorns, which grow in sheltered hollows of the moorland, and are the

fairies' trysting-places."[6]

Then there is the mistletoe, which, like the hazel and the white-thorn,

was also supposed to be the embodiment of lightning; and in consequence

of its mythical character held an exalted place in the botanical world.

As a lightning-plant, we seem to have the key to its symbolical nature,

in the circumstance that its branch is forked. On the same principle, it

is worthy of note, as Mr. Fiske remarks[7] that, "the Hindu commentators

of the Veda certainly lay great stress on the fact that the palasa is

trident-leaved." We have already pointed out, too, how the red colour of

a flower, as in the case of the berries of the mountain-ash, was

apparently sufficient to determine the association of ideas. The Swiss

name for mistletoe, _donnerbesen_, "thunder besom," illustrates its

divine origin, on account of which it was supposed to protect the

homestead from fire, and hence in Sweden it has long been suspended in

farm-houses, like the mountain-ash in Scotland. But its virtues are by

no means limited, for like all lightning-plants its potency is displayed

in a variety of ways, its healing properties having from a remote period

been in the highest repute. For purposes also of sorcery it has been

reckoned of considerable importance, and as a preventive of nightmare

and other night scares it is still in favour on the Continent. One

reason which no doubt has obtained for it a marked degree of honour is

its parasitical manner of growth, which was in primitive times ascribed

to the intervention of the gods. According to one of its traditionary

origins, its seed was said to be deposited on certain trees by birds,

the messengers of the gods, if not the gods themselves in disguise, by

which this plant established itself in the branch of a tree. The mode of

procedure, say the old botanists, was through the "mistletoe thrush."

This bird, it was asserted, by feeding on the berries, surrounded its

beak with the viscid mucus they contain, to rid itself of which it

rubbed its beak, in the course of flying, against the branches of trees,

and thereby inserted the seed which gave birth to the new plant. When

the mistletoe was found growing on the oak, its presence was attributed

specially to the gods, and as such was treated with the deepest

reverence. It was not, too, by accident that the oak was selected, as

this tree was honoured by Aryan tradition with being of lightning

origin. Hence when the mistletoe was found on its branches, the

occurrence was considered as deeply significant, and all the more so as

its existence in such a locality was held to be very rare[8]. Speaking

of the oak, it may be noted, that as sacred to Thor, it was under his

immediate protection, and hence it was considered an act of sacrilege to

mutilate it in ever so small a degree. Indeed, "it was a law of the

Ostrogoths that anybody might hew down what trees he pleased in the

common wood, except oaks and hazels; those trees had peace,_ i.e._, they

were not to be felled[9]." That profanity of this kind was not treated

with immunity was formerly fully believed, an illustration of which is

given us by Aubrey,[10] who says that, "to cut oakwood is unfortunate.

There was at Norwood one oak that had mistletoe, a timber tree, which

was felled about 1657. Some persons cut this mistletoe for some

apothecaries in London, and sold them a quantity for ten shillings each

time, and left only one branch remaining for more to sprout out. One

fell lame shortly after; soon after each of the others lost an eye, and

he that felled the tree, though warned of these misfortunes of the other

men, would, notwithstanding, adventure to do it, and shortly afterwards

broke his leg; as if the Hamadryads had resolved to take an ample

revenge for the injury done to their venerable and sacred oak." We can

understand, then, how the custom originated of planting the oak on the

boundaries of lands, a survival of which still remains in the so-called

gospel oaks of many of our English parishes. With Thor's tree thus

standing our forefathers felt a sense of security which materially added

to the peace and comfort of their daily life.

But its sacred attributes were not limited to this country, many a

legend on the Continent testifying to the safety afforded by its

sheltering branches. Indeed, so great are its virtues that, according to

a Westphalian tradition, the Wandering Jew can only rest where he shall

happen to find two oaks growing in the form of a cross. A further proof

of its exalted character may be gathered from the fact that around its

roots Scandinavian mythology has gathered fairyland, and hence in

Germany the holes in its trunk are the pathways for elves. But the

connection between lightning and plants extends over a wide area, and

Germany is rich in legends relative to this species of folk-lore. Thus

there is the magic springwort, around which have clustered so many

curious lightning myths and talismanic properties. By reason of its

celestial origin this much-coveted plant, when buried in the ground at

the summit of a mountain, has the reputation of drawing down the

lightning and dividing the storm. It is difficult, however, to procure,

especially as there is no certainty as to the exact species of plants to

which it belongs, although Grimm identifies it with the _Euphorbia

lathyris_. At any rate, it is chiefly procurable by the woodpecker--a

lightning-bearer; and to secure this much-prized treasure, its nest must

be stopped up, access to which it will quickly gain by touching it with

the springwort. But if one have in readiness a pan of water, a fire, or

a red cloth, the bird will let the plant fall, which otherwise it would

be a difficult work to obtain, "the notion, no doubt, being that the

bird must return the mystic plant to the element from which it springs,

that being either the water of the clouds or the lightning fire enclosed


Professor Gubernatis, referring to the symbolical nature of this

tradition, remarks that, "this herb may be the moon itself, which opens

the hiding-place of the night, or the thunderbolt, which opens the

hiding-places of the cloud." According to the Swiss version of the story

it is the hoopoe that brings the spring-wort, a bird also endowed with

mystic virtues,[12] while in Iceland, Normandy, and ancient Greece it is

an eagle, a swallow, or an ostrich. Analogous to the talismanic

properties of the springwort are those of the famous luck or key-flower

of German folk-lore, by the discovery of which the fortunate possessor

effects an entrance into otherwise inaccessible fairy haunts, where

unlimited treasures are offered for his acceptance. There then, again,

the luck-flower is no doubt intended to denote the lightning, which

reveals strange treasures, giving water to the parched and thirsty land,

and, as Mr. Fiske remarks, "making plain what is doing under cover of

darkness."[13] The lightning-flash, too, which now and then, as a lesson

of warning, instantly strikes dead those who either rashly or

presumptuously essay to enter its awe-inspiring portals, is exemplified

in another version of the same legend. A shepherd, while leading his

flock over the Ilsentein, pauses to rest, but immediately the mountain

opens by reason of the springwort or luck-flower in the staff on which

he leans. Within the cavern a white lady appears, who invites him to

accept as much of her wealth as he choses. Thereupon he fills his

pockets, and hastening to quit her mysterious domains, he heeds not her

enigmatical warning, "Forget not the best," the result being that as he

passes through the door he is severed in twain amidst the crashing of

thunder. Stories of this kind, however, are the exception, legendary

lore generally regarding the lightning as a benefactor rather than a

destroyer. "The lightning-flash," to quote Mr. Baring-Gould's words,

"reaches the barren, dead, and thirsty land; forth gush the waters of

heaven, and the parched vegetation bursts once more into the vigour of

life restored after suspended animation."

That this is the case we have ample proof in the myths relating to

plants, in many of which the life-giving properties of the lightning are

clearly depicted. Hence, also, the extraordinary healing properties

which are ascribed to the various lightning plants. Ash rods, for

instance, are still used in many parts of England for the cure of

diseased sheep, cows, and horses, and in Cornwall, as a remedy for

hernia, children are passed through holes in ash trees. The mistletoe

has the reputation of being an antidote for poisons and a specific

against epilepsy. Culpepper speaks of it as a sure panacea for apoplexy,

palsy, and falling sickness, a belief current in Sweden, where finger

rings are made of its wood. An old-fashioned charm for the bite of an

adder was to place a cross formed of hazel-wood on the wound, and the

burning of a thorn-bush has long been considered a sure preventive of

mildew in wheat. Without multiplying further illustrations, there can be

no doubt that the therapeutic virtues of these so-called lightning

plants may be traced to, in very many cases, their mythical origin. It

is not surprising too that plants of this stamp should have been

extensively used as charms against the influences of occult powers,

their symbolical nature investing them with a potency such as was

possessed by no ordinary plant.


1. See an article on "Myths of the Fire Stealer," _Saturday Review_,

June 2, 1883, p. 689; Tylor's "Primitive Culture."

2. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.

3. See Keary's "Outlines of Primitive Belief," 1882, p. 98.

4. "Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore," p. 159.

5. "Mystic Trees and Shrubs," _Fraser's Magazine_, Nov. 1870, p. 599.

6. "Sacred Trees and Flowers," _Quarterly Review_, July 1863, pp. 231, 232.

7. "Myths and Myth Makers," p. 55.

8. See "Flower Lore," pp. 38, 39.

9. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 179.

10. "Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey," ii. 34.

11. Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," p. 176; Grimm's "Teutonic

Mythology," 1884, chap, xxxii.; Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology,"

ii. 266-7. See Albertus Magnus, "De Mirab. Mundi," 1601, p. 225.

12. Gubernatis' "Zoological Mythology," ii. 230.

13. "Myths and Mythmakers," p. 58. See Baring-Gould's "Curious

Myths of the Middle Ages," 1877, pp. 386-416.

14. Folkard's "Plant-lore Legends and Lyrics," p. 460.

15. See Kelly's "Indo-European Folk-lore," pp. 47-8.

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