Cooking with Vampires and Witches (Beginners Part 4)

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.

Opium Poppy Flower in Tokyo Metropolitan Medic...

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).

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in "V...

Willow transitions into Dark Willow in “Villains”, with Tara’s blood splattered on her neck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Medieval Cooking for Vampires (Beginners Part 3)

While I’m not in favour of advocating fast food for humans, this culinary concept is not always a negative one.

Reading up upon medieval spells and remedies I was surprised to learn a medieval person’s diet was actually quite different from what I thought it would be. Far from all the yummy ham, capons, chickens and roasted piglets we see King Arthur, his knights and Queen Guinevere consume in the BBC’s Merlin series, most medieval people didn’t eat meat very often and getting a protein rich diet would have been quite rare for an average girl like Willow the Vampire.

Cooking lessons for humans would have been very different from today. For a start, carrots were either white or purple but not orange (not introduced until 17th century), no doubt pretty confusing for colour-blind witches and warlocks at the time. How do you tell such ingredients apart from radishes or mandrake?

Parsnips, onions, turnips (of Blackadder’s Baldric fame), apples, wild garlic, watercress, cabbage, beetroot, leeks, beans, eel and various cheap dried meats would augment a meagre diet that consisted mostly of “gruel” type broth made from barley, acorns, rye or buck wheat.

Even in the 10th century, a full four centuries after Arthur had first complained to Merlin about the outrageous practice of serving salad to his meat-loving king, bread as a daily household ingredient was relatively rare – grinding wheat was time-consuming labour for women and in any event, most households were grindingly poor.

Health issues in general were addressed with a haphazard approach. If it didn’t kill you and you survived the cure, the “healer” would be set up for life and make a good living. If you died, the healer was probably going to die too – at the stake, accused of sorcery! The remedy might not actually do you any good, but survival often depended on faith rather than the physician’s skill. With regard to food production, a medieval Vampire Council was particularly concerned about the high death rate among human infants and their mothers.

Caesarean births were surprisingly common – although the mother rarely survived. The method was mainly applied to save the child so it could receive baptism before death occurred. The understanding of conception was still a rather muddled affair and some bewildering, often occult remedies existed to help childless couples. Childbirth in general was a risky and confusing issue in medieval times:

Charm One: “To make a woman pregnant give to drink in wine a hares rumnet (NB: they probably meant rennet) by weight of four pennies to the woman from a female hare, the man from a male hare and then let them do their concubitus and after that let them forbear; then quickly she will be pregnant and for meat she shall for some time use mushrooms and, instead of a bath, smearing (NB: anointing with oils), wonderfully she will be pregnant.”

It seems hares were generally associated with fertility – personally, I suspect the consumption of wine might have done the trick…although the stink resulting from not washing might be rather counterproductive (pardon the pun). Hare’s tonic aiming to produce a male child consisted of a dried hare’s belly being shredded and then eaten by both partners, washed down with a drink.

Charm Two (for women whose foetus is found to be dead): “The woman who may have a dead bairn (child) in her inwards, if she drinketh wolf’s milk mingled with wine and honey in like quantities, soon it healeth.” An alternative method was to use the heart of a hare which, dried and pounded to a pulp, was mixed with frankincense dust and presumably also washed down with wine. In either case, the woman was more likely to die than be cured.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charm Three (for women who lost children early in infancy): “Let the woman who cannot bring her child to maturity go to the barrow of a deceased man, and step thrice over the barrow, and then thrice say these words:

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome late birth

May this be my boot

Of the heavy swart birth

May this be my boot

Of the loathsome lame birth.”

All manner of bizarre remedies existed for ear problems, bladder troubles, chapped lips in winter or year round baldness among men. I particularly like the recipe for getting rid off dandruff by mixing watercress with goose fat and smearing it on one’s head…I also like the advice, how to get rid of insects in one’s ears:

Collect the juice of green earth gall, or juice of horehound, or juice of wormwood, whatsoever of these you choose. Pour the juice into the ear, this will draw the worm out. If there’s dinning (NB: buzzing) in the ears, take oil, apply on to ewes wool, and when going to bed close up the ear with the wool. Remove it on waking.

Don’t you just love the last instruction? You can just imagine dozens of medieval peasants shouting at each other, because they’d stuffed their ears with ewe’s wool and forgot to remove their worm remedy).

Bladder troubles and kidney stones were cured by Dwarf dwosle or Pennyroula, which was pounded and mixed with two draughts of wine. The sufferer would drink this stuff and any stones the sufferer might have would be “forced out” and the healing process would begin in a matter of days.

Male baldness, an affliction the medieval Brit seems to have been particularly cursed with (no change to today’s specimen), was apparently treated with the juice of nasturtium and watercress. Bizarrely, this concoction was not smeared on the balding head, but on the man’s nose…which finally explains why men over forty have such an abundance of nasal hair.

These latter three remedies were excerpts from  Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, collected and edited by Revd Oswald Cockayne in London 1864 (fragments republished in Harriet O’Brien’s book “Queen Emma and the Vikings”, Bloomsbury 2005, where above charms also appear. NB: Revd “Cockayne” was cearly an early advocate of drugs, who had a sense of humour).

Reading about the diet and remedies prevailing in medieval households, I began to wonder, how vampires substituted their meagre pickings. Blood would not have been as nourishing as in later centuries, when vampires like Buffy’s Angel, Drusilla or Spike thrived in Sunnydale.

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight V...

Trade paperback cover of Buffy: Season Eight Volume One, written by Joss Whedon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifteen years on from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer bloodsuckers have reason to complain about their diet once more, given the high fat, sugar, salt and protein content in human blood. Human fast food outlets and lonely microwave meals in front of the TV are to blame, but humans themselves are not responsible for the introduction of a fast food concept. Vampires might loathe to admit this, but obesity among the fanged community today goes back to a time, when an early medieval Vampire Council introduced a new concept to change their fellow fanged ones’ culinary experience.

Early medieval bloodsuckers were endlessly complaining about the scarcity of decent food. Firstly, because there weren’t enough humans around in a largely rural landscape, which meant the gap between meals could be rather long and secondly, because medieval human blood wasn’t very nutritious and it took several kills to get a satisfactory meal.

Later in the 10th century, when England had been fully Christianized, a network of nunneries and cloisters was erected across the country, a development greatly supported by the Vampire Council. Feasting became much easier and, as far as vampires were concerned, the concept of fast food chains was born.

Just knock at a cloister door, pretend you’re a pilgrim and hey presto, you get an instant meal in the shape of some delicious young novice or a Mother Superior showing off the whiteness of her wimple and the crispness of her neck.

International fast fang outlets such as “Murder King”, “MacDrainers” and “Starsucks” were created to cater for the travelling vampire in a hurry. This revolutionary concept made it possible for fanged communities to cover vast distances without worrying where to get their next meal (“Mine’s a double nun with French friar to go. Hold the garlic and relic bones. Extra mustard, if you please”).

The introduction of fast fang outlets helped to preserve vampires to this day. It explains, how 19th century vampires reached Sunnydale in California and later established a colony in Los Angeles, close to Angel’s old hotel.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com, photographs of Llandaff cemetry & Cathedral by Maria Thermann, Buffy book cover photo credit Wikipedia)

No Yin and Yang among Monsters?

Yesterday, a lovely knight in shining armour threw himself at my feet without warning.

“I yield”, I cried breathing heavily, because his mum looked ready to brain me with her oversized handbag, if I harmed her adorable four-year-old. As if!

Visiting the Joust! Event at Cardiff Castle yesterday it struck me how alive and well stereotyping really is. While virtually every boy, no matter how old, was dressed up as a knight in chainmail and armour, holding some mace, sword or staff, girls were mainly dressed up in their usual clothes or as pretty princesses. Very few girls came dressed as knights or soldiers and this became especially apparent, when the children were asked to enter the jousting arena to do a round of honour as “soldiers of the king”. The grown up knights selected princesses, whose hands they held and who were allowed to lead the procession. The boys followed, waving severed heads (relax, they were made from plastic), axes, swords, maces and lances around.

This got me thinking how in the world of literature and movies creatures of the night are mostly male. On the rare occasion, when the girls do get to have some fun, they are shown as being utterly monstrous, as if to compensate for their lack of representation. I’m thinking of Norman Bate’s mum and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, of Godzilla and of Sigourney Weaver’s arch enemy, the alien mother creature from Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie…the spider from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Morgause and Morgana Pendragon from the BBC’s Merlin series and the witch from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the Kevin Costner/Alan Rickman movie.

Just as in real life, where men are the main perpetrators of the most horrendous crimes, literature and movies typically turn women into victims and men into heroes or villains. At the Joust! event yesterday we got to see a lovely circle of women dancing, sewing, helping a knight to mend his armour and put it on as well as cooking food that would sustain the knights fighting in the tournament…supporting roles, nurturing, mothering, weak…and we all went cheerfully along with it and a great day was had by all.

The only difference being perhaps that the roles of page and stable boy were played by young women in the jousting arena, but apart from that we had suddenly entered a male dominated world of almost primeval proportions, where otherwise perfectly respectable looking mums and grandmothers suddenly started shouting “fight, fight, fight”, when two knights were unsure of how best to settle their differences in the arena and were dads and grandfathers fondly remembered their mis-spent youth in pub brawls and street fights.

I made my vampire heroine a girl because

a) the real Willow is a girl and

b) positive female role models and female empowerment are as much needed now as they were when Joss Whedon unleashed Buffy the Vampire Slayer onto our screens and Diana Rigg the Avenger was folding up her leather cat-suits to go into retirement.

Yin and yang are not supposed to be opposing forces, but are meant to complement each other. Females may be regarded as dark, unseen and hidden, while males are light, masculine and seen (concrete as opposed to abstract), yet in the world of fiction and cinema this principle seems to have been turned upside down. Or has it?

As mothers we are all powerful, until our little knights have grown up enough to face the world and find their place in it. We tell them what to wear, what to eat, when to tidy their room and when to go to bed. We are the light that guides them, protects them from the dark forces that threaten their young lives.

What resentment must there be in men…to be subjected to such oppression for so long? In some cultures this resentment comes out every day in the shape of pseudo-religious nonsense invented to suppress women’s rights, to enslave them and to generally make their lives a misery. In other cultures this resentment is less obvious, but it is there nonetheless. Revenge has never been served up any sweeter.

In medieval times men could vent their dark resentment by accusing women of witchcraft and sorcery or simply tell everybody she was an unfaithful wife to have her punished severely or even killed. Today most women are still excluded from the boardroom power and in Germany they are still regarded as little more than a housekeeper and a sex object. Oddly enough, Germany was recently voted as one of the few places in the world – along with Canada – were women had a much better life.

When movies and literature show women from “hell”, these females are made to be especially nasty, completely over the top type villains who’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. Is this done so that the reader or viewer finds it easier to suspend belief and forget about real women, the nurturing arms, the supportive heart, the helpmate in need?

The world of monsters seldom has female killers in it, although there are a few exceptions, of course. Female serial killers are very rare, but when they strike, they are perceived as so heinous and cruel, words fail us and we are utterly repulsed, forgetting for a moment that the world is in such a sorry state because male monsters have made it so…

(photographs copyright Maria Thermann, source of animation: heathersanimation.com)