The perversity of the Welsh weather clearly knows no bounds. Typically, I woke up to blue and sunny skies this morning.
Last night, when my Italian flatmate and I went to see William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a Cardiff Castle open air theatre performance by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the rain held off for the first half of the play, but then came pelting down for the remainder. After two days of nearly constant downpour, the ground was rain-soaked and the audience was already damp and cold. How I wished I knew a spell to stop the deluge or be able to brew an elixir that made me impervious to the watery bombardment from above and would keep the rain drops out of my glass of wine.
The three weird sisters, brilliantly portrayed in all black body suits that also covered the faces of the actors, did their best to bewitch Macbeth and the rest of the audience, but nothing seemed to work.
Witches’ brews or elixirs like the one used in Macbeth or Asterix and Obelix’ village to make the Gauls stronger were made from a variety of herbal remedies, which were mixed with wine or alcohol. During the Middle Ages, alchemists liked to experiment with elixirs, hoping to turn ordinary metal into gold and silver, presumably without much success or history would have taken a very different turn and Witches R Us would now be ruling the corporate world.
Monks like the wonderful Ellis Peter’s Cadfael character would use healing elixirs with a certain amount of opium to put their patients into a restful sleep, while the monks in charge of the infirmary inmates would perform early operations or set broken limbs straight.
For those who believed in magic, certain elixirs would promise eternal youth and protection against all disease. Fairy tales often make use of elixirs for the purpose of quests. A prince or pauper (usually the youngest son of three) goes out to find a magical potion which will heal a fatal illness or wake someone from the dead or restore the victim of a spell. Witches, sorcerers, wizards and warlocks as well as druids would be in charge of the preparation of such a brew.
While during their lifetime ancient druids were said to practice magic with their potions, today many scientists believe that druids used alcohol infused with honey and certain herbs or tree bark, which disinfected wounds and prevented infection among wounded warriors and villagers alike. We are only beginning to explore ancient remedies that were used in the medieval period, so we are probably in store for some surprises. Various herbs have already been identified as having exactly the properties monks, friendly witches and druids of the time claimed they had. Vampires would naturally not wish to heal their victims or restore eternal youth.
They are more likely to give their intended victim a tankard full of Absinth (Artemisia absinthium, a member of the thujone group of herbs). Although essentially used as a herbal concoction with healing powers in ancient times to cure liver problems and help with things like menstrual pains for example, the Absinth recipe invented by Mr Pernod in 1791 was quite a different thing. He did away with the bitter taste produced by the thujone herbs, adding fennel and aniseed to the mix, thus creating a not unpleasant drink. The drink became all the rage among the bohemian community of the day. The highly addictive psychoactive properties of Absinth inspired and wrecked many a famous artist’s life (Van Gogh for example).
It has the power to seriously mess with people’s heads and for this reason Absinth was declared illegal during the years of 1916 and 1922. Herbs from the thujone group are biologically very similar to hemp, a low tetrahydrocannabinol strain or variant of Cannabis sativa. A less potent cousin of marijuana, hemp seems an ideal cooking ingredient for vampires to use for the purpose of subduing their victims. It takes up less energy to wrestle victims to the ground and also does away with the irritating screaming which might alert passing slayers like Buffy or vampire hunters of the Van Helsing ilk.
Hemp can therefore be found in every vampire’s larder. Opium won from poppy seeds was another way for monks in their cloisters’ infirmary to deal with very sick patients. As the source for many narcotics, poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum) did their Latin name proud, as they were sleep inducing, helping monks, druids and friendly witches to deal with particularly nasty wounds without the patient having to suffer any pain.
Such sedatives have been known to humans for millennia. Depictions of poppy seeds have been found in artefacts created by ancient Sumerians some 4000 years before Christ. The old Minoans and ancient Greeks knew the sedative properties of the stuff and even today this little “weed” graces the coat of arms of the Royal College of Anaesthetists by showing the flower and fruit of the opium poppy. Vampires love to keep up-to-date with latest developments in science and must therefor also have used poppy seeds in their cooking for several millennia.
Naturally, vampires cannot be harmed in the same way as humans can be by drugs. It always made me laugh when I saw Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer smoking a cigarette or drinking excessively. He knew that neither tobacco nor alcohol could do him any harm and used this fact to demonstrate his “superiority” over Buffy’s little Scooby gang. When Joss Whedon’s Willow Rosenberg goes “bad”, the writers used her addiction to magic as a metaphor for drug taking very effectively over a number of episodes.
Naturally, there’s nothing “superior” about drinking alcohol to excess, taking drugs or smoking, but for writers of vampire fiction these props have become valuable tools to describe vampire traits of character, showing them as being morally corrupt in comparison to the human protagonist. In my fictional Stinkforthshire there’s only been blood wine drinking so far, but with Willow and her school friends reaching the age of 12, perhaps it’s time in my next book to deal with the thorny issue of vampire sedatives in a responsible way.