Being a Witch is never easy

Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson, insp...

Examination of a Witch by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem witch trials (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my second novel, Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts, I’m using several real historical events as the starting point for my plot. One is the recent discovery of a “witch’s cottage” near Pendle in Lancashire, where in 1612 the infamous Pendle Witch Trials took place. Two men and eight women were hanged as witches after extensive trials.

 

The other main historical event I’m using as background for my latest vampire lore is the even more infamous series of witch trials that took place in the city of Würzburg in Germany between 1626 and 1631.

 

The Würzburg witch trials are regarded as one of the largest peace-time mass trials, which were followed by mass executions on an unprecedented scale.

 

Responsible for the persecution of innocent men, women and lots of children was Bishop Philip Adolf, on whose orders an estimated six to nine hundred people were burnt alive at the stake or hanged.

 

heks_in_maan witch flying against moonMy premise is that with such unjust killings there must be a lot of angry spirits about seeking revenge. As my previous posts have shown, ghosts have all manner of motives for clinging to the place where they lived or died. Revenge is always a good subject for a mystery or, in this case, a vampire story suitable for children aged 8 to 12 that discusses the subject of “evil” – what is evil, how do we stand up to it and who gets away with doing bad stuff?

 

This year marks the anniversary of two famous witch trials in the United Kingdom, by the way. Not just the Pendle trials but also the last conviction for sorcery, which took place in Hertfordshire in March 1712, is being commemorated this year. Fortunately, this trial had a kind of happy ending, when Queen Anne pardoned the accused sorceress Jane Wensham and thus saved her from the hangman’s noose.

 

"The witch no. 1" lithograph

“The witch no. 1” lithograph (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pretty much anyone could be accused of sorcery – if you were overhead talking to your cat or pet pig you could be accused of being in league with the devil – and the methods used for getting confessions out of alleged warlocks and witches were utterly horrendous…thanks to the oh so Christian torturers in charge of interrogations.

 

Over on http://www.mariathermann.wordpress.com I’m discussing my home town Lübeck’s walled fortifications, in particular the famous Holsten Gate, which was once part of the city’s fortifications. Until 2002, the Holsten Gate housed a gruesome torture chamber and “dungeon” exhibition in the museum, which I remember only too well from various school trips and visits with my grandparents.

 

If I recall correctly, it boasted a rack and thumb screws, branding irons and various other torture paraphernalia among its exhibits. It seems utterly impossible anyone should be so devoid of compassion and feeling that they should use such instruments on anyone, let alone small children, but this is what happened quite frequently under the Christian motto of “love thy neighbour”.

 

Persecution of witches

Persecution of witches (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Willow the Vampire, champion for defenceless children and animals which get a rough deal at the hands of those who should care for them and protect them from harm, is having rather a busy time of it, what with saving the world from Ragnarög, saving best friend Darren AND dealing with an army of vengeful ghosts.

 

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an ...

Burning at the stake. An illustration from an mid 19th century book. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vampires, as a rule, like to mind their own business, so getting involved with human and supernatural beings that have their own agenda, is always going to contradict a bloodsucker’s inner beliefs. Vengeance, on the other hand, is a subject vampires can relate to whole-heartedly. Will our Willow be tempted to go over to the dark side?

 

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

One thing’s for sure, Willow the Vampire will remain a champion for children and this writer won’t ever make light of their plight at the hands of adults. Unlike perhaps the writer who brought us Harry Potter. Am I the only one who finds the announcement that J K Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy will become a BBC drama incredibly ill-timed and utterly distasteful?

 

As if the BBC wasn’t in enough trouble over the Savill enquiry into paedophilia and rape allegations, namely sex crimes against children and young adults that allegedly happened under the very noses of former BBC bosses over a period of some 40 years! Now our licence fee is being used for this, a book that has not received much critical acclaim and is only being shifted thanks to the J K Rowling name?

 

One day I may write a Willow the Vampire novel that will deal with the ultimate evil creature of the night, the Jimmy Savills and Gary Glitters of this world. Naturally, I shan’t use the subject of children or young adults being threatened by rape as a subject for satire and parody, which most of J K Rowling’s readers found distinctly unfunny, when I last looked on Amazon’s reviews.

Willow in black dressNo, I ‘m far more likely to use the subject of BBC bosses in terror and utter distress, as vampire Willow and her friends barbeque them over a moderate flame, while basting them with home-made marinade provided by grateful licence fee payers.

 

Ghostly Goings-on

I was bravely ploughing on with chapter 4 of my new Willow the Vampire adventure, when I discovered my story was taking a rather unexpected turn. This required me to rethink the entire plot, because to my great annoyance the underlying theme had changed – thanks to my wilful, mischievous protagonist having developed a mind of her own.

All truly great children’s stories – those that endure the test of time anyway – have an underlying theme that resonates with the reader, no matter what age they might be. Sometimes this theme might be self-discovery or being brave in the face of adversity or coping with something really difficult like the death of a parent. While on the surface there might be a really cracking story with all the usual twists and turns, the author’s intention will be that the book should be something more than just an adventure story. In other words, there will be layer after layer of themes that the writer has woven in, so readers of different age groups can make all manner of discoveries for themselves.

Deciding on an overall theme can sometimes be hard to do and will largely depend on the age range one is writing for. From a certain age onwards children begin to understand comparatively complex, abstract issues like love and hate, fear, revenge and betrayal. This is well demonstrated by the success of TV family shows like Dr Who and PIXAR movies, where the jokes and emotional moments are multi-layered so they appeal to an audience of different ages.

New children’s writers and those who perpetually underestimate children (yes, teachers and literature critics, I’m referring to YOU) often don’t get this and doggedly believe just a good “story” is needed to make young readers want to read a book. However, children writers today compete with TV, video and online games, books, comics, movies and the Internet in general for the short attention span a child has to commit to anything. Children are far more sophisticated than literature critics, teachers and many new children’s authors give them credit for, so their books need to reflect this, if they are to stand the test of time and become that fabled thing, a piece of “literature”.

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter ...

English: J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Making abstract themes accessible to young, but accomplished readers who choose a novel for the age range 8 to 12 is naturally quite a challenge. Not every child reader will pick up on all the author’s intended subjects straight away. This may only happen at a later stage, when the story is re-read over time. Telling a multi-layered story then is what a dedicated author of children’s literature should be after to prolong the shelf-life of their work.

In my last blog entry I mentioned how we can use animals’ characteristics to express human traits of character as well as using certain types of animals as a metaphor for time passing during an important event in our storyline. It is also possible to use creatures of the night (or day) to mirror relationships that human protagonists have with each other.

In the animal version it often becomes much clearer what relationships signify – dogs and cats are deemed natural enemies, just like cats and mice or cats and birds. In the paranormal world this would then equate to vampires and werewolves for example or white witches against black magic witches, whereas in the human world the sensitive child becomes the natural victim of the bully in a schoolyard context, while teachers are typically everybody’s least favourite person.

Tolkien uses mirrored relationships – as well as mirrored locations – to great advantage in the Lord of the Rings. When we write about human protagonists, we are all too often distracted by what they are supposed to look like, their mannerisms and how they are supposed to carry our plot rushing from A to B.

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra's Oxford...

Philip Pullman signing a copy of Lyra’s Oxford for a reader, Margaret Maitland, at the Oxford Literary Festival. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It seems so much easier to express a number of complex emotional issues with the assistance of animals – presumably this is why Philip Pullman included the idea of daemons into His Dark Materials and J K Rowling used the Patronus spell in Harry Potter’s books to show us each individual’s true self (Harry’s takes the form of a stag, his mother’s took the form of a doe).

Can you think of other novels, where authors have used animals to mirror a human’s inner self?

In my new Willow novel I decided to use the “mirror” technique to show how different relationships can work – some relationships are between adults, some between children, some between vampires and humans and some are inter-vampire relationships…and all of them are upset by a bunch of ghosts!

The ghost element of my story will be the most difficult to deal with. They are no longer “concrete” beings, but spirits with their own agenda who might be anything they choose to be, even physically. The nature of ghosts in literature, folklore and film is often that they have unresolved issues and as long as they resolve them, they can finally go to rest. What if they don’t want to though, what if their intention is to ensnare humans to allow ghostly entities back into this world?

What if ghosts wish to become flesh once more and have another stab at LIFE, that precious commodity we treat in such a cavalier fashion until somebody tells us, it’s time to take our last breath?

Does this ghost theme remind you of anyone or anything?

 

Making Friends in high – and low – Places

Friends are sometimes as close and dear to us – if not dearer – than our own family. In cities, where people lead busy lives and are often separated from their families by great distances, many people form their own “families” with their circle of friends.

For a young vampire like Willow, who lives in the rural remoteness of Stinkforthshire-upon-Avon, it is quite hard making new friends. Other vampire children shun her; humans are mostly scared of her.

We often find new friends in the unlikeliest of places, though. Already Willow Band has befriended middle-aged Rita Ramona, who was originally an item on the Band’s breakfast menu.

Willow the Vampire has also made a friend of Eddie Strongarm, an essentially gentle, animal-loving soul, who was driven to murdering his wife with an axe, something he’d only ever read about in the gutter press papers and never dreamed of performing such an act of violence himself, no matter how much his horrible wife deserved it.

And let’s not forget Willow’s best friend Darren, who’d like to be a knight in shining armour at her side, but who always ends up being the damsel in distress, the one who needs rescuing.

Finally, her latest acquisition in the circle of friends department: Willow’s one time arch nemesis Felicity Henderson, the headmaster’s daughter, a snitch, a school swat and universal pain-in-the-neck.

Having mastered the art of blending into the day-time world of humans, Willow is sadly still lacking in social skills with regard to nocturnal creatures.

Goblins, fairies, sprites, sylphs, Puck and Pan, nymphs and banshees, white witches, dark witches, warlocks, ghosts, wizards, gnomes and finally pixies are all out and about at night, when Willow’s own parents are leaving home to hunt among the human population, yet she hardly ever comes in close contact with such fine examples of nocturnal life forms.

A new school year will bring new opportunities to make friends and enemies. A new villain on the scene makes it essential for Willow to cast her net wider with regard to the friends and allies she makes.

Belonging to the more pleasant creatures of the night, pixies are perhaps an odd choice for a vampire girl looking for friendship and approval, given their mischievous nature. However, in Willow’s second adventure, Willow the Vampire and the Würzburg Ghosts, pixies will play an important part.

Mischievous and childlike, fond of horse riding, dancing and wrestling, pixies are magical creatures that live under stones or in caves or in the vicinity of ancient monuments; they punish those who are unkind and reward humans who show them and others consideration.

Cover of "The Spiderwick Chronicles (Wide...

Cover via Amazon

In modern fantasy fiction there are many examples of these small blue (and sometimes green-skinned) trouble-makers. In J K Rowling’s Chamber of Secrets (Harry Potter series) some Cornish pixies end up in Harry’s classroom. Writers like Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl series) have used pixies very successfully and in a most charming, humorous way.

They live underground in a world entirely created by them, where just like humans they have crimes to solve, have to find their calling and make life and death decisions. There are also pixies in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and in Holly Black’s and Tony Diterlizzi’s Spiderwick Chronicles.

So what exactly is our fascination with pixies? They are said to be childlike or even smaller with either blue or green skin, a great fondness for music and dancing, which they love to do en mass in a great outdoor celebration. What’s wrong with that?

With the arrival of Christianity most things that were good about the Old Religion, as the BBC’s Merlin and Co. would call paganism, were banished and given a bad name.

Free spirits like pixies, which are able to cast powerful spells and weave all kinds of magic, would be on the extermination list of any bible-bashing missionary trying to convert people in Cornwall and Devon, where the ancient race of pixies allegedly hails from.

Artemis Fowl (series)

Artemis Fowl (series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s face it, when you’re trying to get bums-on-seats in your newly erected church, you don’t want the population to gather round in the woods where a bunch of pixies is twirling around to show off their twinkle-toes.

Church-goers mean money in the prince-bishop’s coffers – pixie-watchers are a wash-out when it comes to joining an old-fashioned witch-hunt, so Father Abbot can get his hands on witches’ lands and chattels.

There are many wonderful traits of character attributed to pixies; among my favourites are their love of dancing in the moonlight and their love for horses, weaving the animal’s mane into tight little ringlets while galloping over fields. It’s an idyllic picture of a creature in tune with nature and full of life, enjoying every moment to the full, just as it should be, when we’re grateful for the gift of life.

Earth, air, water and fire are awe-inspiring elements that deserve having their own magical, mystical creatures attributed to them. While sprites are airy light-weights among the creatures of the night, pixies can stand tall with the likes of gnomes and goblins, fairies, poltergeister (German plural of poltergeist) and ghosts.

I can see why the pixies’ love of music might be condemning them in the eyes of the Church. Music is the one art form that embraces all the other elements. We hear a powerful tune and it goes under our skin.

Our mind’s eye conjures up pictures to go with the melody. Music can make us laugh or cry, be sentimental or enraged, make us feel all sexy and romantic or aggressive and in the mood to smash up our hotel room a la Keith Moon. Music transports us and makes us forget everything around us, including being servile to our spiritual leader, our liege and overlord.

Dancing to the rhythm of music, with our eyes closed or gazing into the eyes of a loved one with our arms entwined is such a fundamental expression of being human – of being alive – that it must naturally be outlawed by ruling classes trying to convince us the afterlife is the only rightful place we should be striving for… because the worldly life will only provide us with sin and misery (don’t forget, we are poor, little and obscure, unlike prince-bishop and duke ruling over us with an iron fist). Believing in pixies would upset this oppressive world view, naturally.

From a writer’s point of view, using music in one’s writing is an instant way of connecting with our readers. Mention a well-known tune and anyone who knows it will immediately be rooting for your heroine or hero, who’s just whistled this 1960’s classic. Allow your protagonists to go misty-eyed in a restaurant, when they hear THEIR song, the one that played when they fell in love 20 years ago; get your villain dancing to the overture of the Valkyrie and you will have created an unforgettable moment.

If you had to play a tune for a bunch of dance-crazy pixies, what would you play and why?

(source of book pictures: Wikipedia; sourced of animation: heathersanimation.com, webweaver.nu/clipart and netanimations.net)

Who’s the real Villain of the Animal World?

With “Jaws” making a comeback at my local cinema and all manner of critters doing their utmost to make life unpleasant for the “Men in Black 3”, it is not surprising my mind’s been focussing on the villains of the animal kingdom.

Willow the Vampire lives in rural Stinkforthshire in England, where she does her best to protect her friends, family and local wildlife from those who’d like to harm them. When she’s not too busy, she likes to save the world.

Willow loves animals, be they daytime or nocturnal creatures, but even a vampire might draw the line at choosing a cane toad for a friend. The villain of this blog post is not at all like the pet toad owned by Neville Longbottom in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but is more like Ron Weasley’s rat in nature.

English: A young Bufo marinus (Cane Toad). Dar...

Bufo marinos, as the cane toad is officially called, was once introduced into the sugarcane fields of Puerto Rico to exercise a little insect pest control.

Sugarcane growers in Queensland, Australia heard about this and promptly wanted their own cane toad population to deal with their local insects. They imported 100 adult cane toads with the view to breed their own pest control army.

Eventually, when they had bred 62,000 teenage cane toads, they released them to give hell to the grayback cane beetle that infested the sugarcane plantations (1935). Unfortunately, the pesky cane toad has no natural enemies other than humans in Queensland, so toad populations exploded and instead of dealing with grayback cane beetle infestations, the local human population was battling it out with very nasty toads which had plague-like proportions in their numbers.

Cane toads being rather adaptable, they soon found that they could munch their way through anything that was smaller than themselves, even going into competition with the local dog population, pinching the dog food out of their bowls at night. So far nobody knows how to effectively deal with the cane toad invasion.

Can toads have excellent defences. When they feel threatened, they inflate their plump bodies and start to sweat a latex-like, milky white fluid from their paratoid glands. They are able to project this secretion up to 3 feet into the air, hurling their poison at the perceived aggressor. The poison is only fatal when ingested and is so strong, it has been used as a hallucinogenic drug.

Cane toad

The poison has already had a devastating effect on the snake population in Australia. While some people think this is a good thing (yes you, visitingmissoury, I know your thoughts on all things snaky!), a dying snake population means all sorts of other pests will multiply more quickly, in turn provide even more food for the cane toad and PUFF, there you have it, Australia is now being ruled by cane toads instead of plain politicians (although the difference is not always apparent at first glance).

Animals who might look upon the cane toad as a tasty snack soon regret their decision. At 2 pounds in weight the cane toad packs a poisonous punch when swallowed and birds, dingos, monitor lizards and similar predators have been known to die from the toxic liquid. Equally, fish die from eating cane toad tadpoles, which are already able to secrete this toxic stuff upon their person. In South America, several Peruvian Indians are said to have died after eating a cane toad egg soup.

Female cane toads lay about 13,000 eggs at a time. Tadpoles transform quickly and don’t need much to survive, really just water and algae will do nicely, thanks very much. They might need a number of years to mature into adulthood, but cane toads can live up to 20 years – that’s an awful lot of tadpoles…

Their mating calls are so loud that they interfere with the vocal love life of the indigenous frog population. As they grow up to 9 inches (23 cm) in size, cane toads can weigh up to 2 pounds and have even been known to swallow a pygmy possum or two for their supper.

The cane toad is perhaps a villain in its own right for wiping out such a large number of animals, but to be fair , I cannot wholly blame this particular creature of the night for what is mostly a human error. Cane toads didn’t ask to be transported to South America and Australia, but probably found upon getting there, that life was sweet among the sugarcane fields and gardens without predators to worry about and hapless humans shrieking “What have we done, Sheila, there’s toads everywhere…even the outback’s overrun!”

What’s your favourite villain of the animal world?

(photographs by Wikipedia, source of animation: heathersanimation.com)

Cooking with Vampires (Beginners Part 2)

Ancient magical spells often involve various ingredients that make our stomachs turn just thinking about them. Mashed toad, wing of fly, whisker of bat…

non-photographic facsimile of the Merseburg In...

Most of these magical incantations are, of course, from the pen of modern day writers like J K Rowling (Harry Potter series), the BBC’s Merlin team of writers or Shakespeare’s witches in M…beth (as in mmmmm….bloodbath, just in case any superstitious actors are reading this blog (as if!)).

Merlin’s TV spells are always in either Anglo Saxon or ancient gobbledegook, so we don’t actually know what is being used in his mentor Gaius’ concoctions.

So what about “real” magical incantations? Among the very few that have survived the ravages of time and fires of the inquisition there are two dating back to the Middle Ages, which are known as the Merseburg Charms or Merseburger Zaubersprüche.

They are in Old High German and are kept in Merseburg, a town on the river Saale, located some 14 km south of Halle in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. The town was first mentioned in 850 and has many splendid ancient monuments as well as the University of Merseburg, which is a technical university of applied sciences.

These two incantations are the only known examples of ancient Germanic pagan beliefs that have been preserved in Old High German. They may not actually belong to the heritage of Merseburg, but they were discovered in a theological manuscript from the town of Fulda, which had been written in the 9th or 10th century and this ancient document had been stored in the library of the cathedral chapter of the lovely town of Merseburg.

The Bishopric of Merseburg was once an episcopal see located on the eastern borderline of the Duchy of Saxony in medieval times. Merseburg was situated almost exactly in its heart and here the pious inhabitants of the town built their Merseburg Cathedral between 1009 and 1018 to the glory of a no longer pagan, but Christian god.

Deutsch: Sicht aus dem Schlossgarten auf das S...

Deutsch: Sicht aus dem Schlossgarten auf das Schloss in Merseburg (Sachsen-Anhalt). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Merseburg incantations would have probably continued to languish forgotten in some library or on the desk of some dusty old scholar, but the Brothers Grimm discovered them during their travels and they published them in 1842 to the general amazement of the public.

Each of these charms is divided into two parts and they are generally believed to be the foreword to a much large piece of work that tells the story of a major (mythological) event. The first incantation is known as the Lösesegen in German (blessing of delivery (from evil)).

The verses chart the release of a group of warriors imprisoned after battle. Magical beings called the Idisen free the warriors from their shackles – and this brings me straight to Willow the Vampire and Valkyries, who rode out on the battle fields and took fallen heroes to Valhalla, where they lived out all eternity in splendour and honour.

The second incantation is about Wodan (Wotan) and Baldur, two Norse gods, who ride through the woods, when Baldur’s horse goes lame thanks to a dislocated foot. “Bone to bone, blood to blood, limb to limb, as if they were glued” goes the incantation, which Sinthgut, Sunna’s sister and Frija (Freya or Frigga) employ to heal the horse’s leg.

Similar charms or incantations to heal horses have been discovered in Norwegian folklore. This particular charm is perhaps more in line with the type of magical spell or incantation we are used to from William Shakespeare and modern writers.

Roughly at the same time as the document of Fulda was written, the Nine Herbs Charm was recorded in a manuscript in England. The incantation is meant to heal someone from the effects of poison and infection.

As the numbers nine and three are present throughout the verses, they are obviously a reference to Germanic paganism, where these two numbers are of great significance.

The application of nine herbs and the way in which the incantation is written suggest that the verses were initially written by an English pagan person, but  a later Christian influence is also present. Woden (Wotan) is also mentioned in the incantation, making it clearly a Germanic folklore item.

The herbs mugwort, cockspur grass, lamb’s cress, plantain, matricaria, nettle, crab-apple, thyme and fennel are mixed with apple juice and soap of all things to make an ointment, which is then placed in the mouth, over the ears and the wound of the ill person. While this no doubt fragrant stuff is applied, the healer sings the incantation three times.

Willow the Vampire loves animals and would never wish them harm. Using ground frog, wing of butterfly or fur of black cat would appal her. However, there’s one villain of the animal world, which Willow might not be too upset about grinding up to a pulp: the cane toad. This pesky amphibian will be the subject of my next blog.

Until then, I’ll be enjoying a cup of bloodwine with Bartholomeaow and Willow the Vampire.

(source of animation: heathersanimations.com, photo credits Wikipedia, original artwork copyright Maria Thermann)

Cooking with Vampires (Beginners Part 1)

To the people who have already read Willow the Vampire and the Sacred Grove it will come as no surprise that Stinkforthshire’s vampire community is not adverse to some gourmet wining and dining (bloodsucker-style, naturally).

We are not talking about your typical Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or Delia Smith recipes here – I’m fairly certain cured vicar with lettuce or spiced bloodwine are not among the latest editions of their culinary offerings.

Food plays such a large part of a human’s life, why should this be different for vampires? It’s always bugged me that vampires in film and literature are mostly being displayed as fairly simplistic creatures (except for Elizabeth Kostova’s “The Historian”, where the vampire is a very sophisticated creature of the night = one of my favourite books of all time).

This blog’s creatures of the night have so far shown us that survival depends very much on being an omnivore. Red Pandas and other creatures too fussy about their diet suffer greatly at the hands of humans, as loss of habitat as much as poaching endangers their lives. With loss of habitat comes a smaller food source, less food means starvation and extinction.

Vampires might not be in danger of running out of their favourite food source, but with humans “polluting” their bodies with fake sun tan spray, tanning generally, alcohol and drugs, not to mention prescription drugs and fatty foods, bloodsuckers might also soon despair of finding food that doesn’t harm them…even though they are supposed to be immortal, it doesn’t mean they can’t suffer from permanent hangovers, headaches, stomach upsets and general feeling of being unwell. So are there any cures against human blood and flesh turned bad?

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), scanned fro...

Among the mythical plants used in Odinism and Wicca as well as in ancient magic spells are some plants of the nightshades family (Solanaceae), in particular the famous mandrake plant. The mandrake root or plant genus Mandragora contains deliria hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids as well as bifurcations, which is partly responsible for the odd shape of the mandrake root.

Belladonna is another famous plant that contains tropane alkaloids and ranks therefore as one of the most toxic plants in the world. The plant is also known as the Deadly Nightshade and its effects on the unsuspecting human – an presumably equally unsuspecting vampire – are frightening spells of delirium and hallucinations. The Belladonna plant was used as a plot device in one of the early Merlin episodes (BBC, season 2, ep. 7 “The Witchfinder”), where a fake witch finder uses it to induce mass hallucinations in several women, who are given Belladonna in form of eye drops, which are supposed to make a person’s eyes more beautiful. In medieval times, however, Belladonna was used in medicine, namely as an anaesthetic during surgery.

Whatever Alice Band the vampire – also known as Willow’s Mum – puts into her bloodwine recipe, it is fair to say her husband is not just partial to it because it tastes of cinnamon!

All parts of the mandrake plant are poisonous to humans, from its tobacco shaped leaves to its whitish-green or purple flowers and its human shaped root. Legend has it that anyone who digs up a mandrake root will be killed by its violent screams. Harvesting a mandrake plant is in itself a risky and mysterious business. At J K Rowling’s Hogwarts Harry and his school mates have to wear gloves and ear muffs to protect themselves from the mandrake root’s screams and bites. In magic spells mandrake is used to bewitch those who are given it. From its mild narcotic to aphrodisiacal elements, the mandrake plant has played a part in “medicine” and “magic” throughout the ages.

Both Machiavelli and Shakespeare used references to the toxic plant in their writings, but interestingly the former uses it to bewitch a woman to go to bed with his protagonist, while the latter uses it as a sleeping draft. In other writings (Salmon Rushdie and Guillermo del Toro for example) the mandrake plant becomes a magical cure for illness.

Atropa belladonna - wolfskers

Oddly enough, the mysterious mandrake belongs to the family of far less mysterious potatoes, just like eggplants and tomatoes. Although many nightshade plants are used by humans either as food or in medicine or to spice meals, many are so rich in alkaloids that they can actually kill humans when taken in in just small quantities.

While mandrake is undoubtedly not lethal to vampires, as a spice added to bloodwine or to the process of curing human flesh in the smoke house they are favoured, at least in the Stinkforthshire household of the Band family. Bloodwine’s taste depends very much on the human blood used in the first instance – bankers have a distinctly metallic aftertaste, while the trucker and travelling community has a large fat content with a peculiar chips and burger flavouring. In my latest Willow short story a banker gets the grilling of his life – and I’m not talking about answering questions at an enquiry by the Financial Services Authority! No doubt Alice and her daughter Willow have a mandrake marinade to sprinkle over our greedy friend, while he’s roasting over a small, but very hot flame…

Many of the plants and hedgerow offerings we see today were used in medieval times as sources of human food and also for healing. Nettles, dandelions, St. Johns Wort, hawthorn berries and elderberry, honey and tree bark all had their role to play. Medieval monks ran the only “hospitals”, where the wealthy could get some form of healing and where many knights were helped with their battle wounds. Various herbs were used in combination with vinegar for burns treatments, insect bites and skin ointments. BTW, raw onion is an excellent remedy against bee and wasp stings, I’ve tried it myself lots of times.

Angelica was a medicinal plant brought from Scandinavia to the rest of Europe. Its healing powers were used to help mainly with respiratory diseases, while arnica was used to help knights with wounds and bruises, of which they must have had many, just from jousting, never mind going into battle during the crusades.

Which brings me to my plans for this Sunday, when I shall be watching “real” knights battling it out at “Joust”, held at Cardiff Castle, yay!

You can look forward to lots of pictures in future posts, provided my stupid camera won’t let me down again, sigh.

(animation source: heathersanimations.com)

Nocturnal Treasures

This blog has reported about squirrels, aardvarks, hedgehogs, moths, fairies, snakes, ghosts, oak and willow trees, dragons and knights, aardwolves, raccoons, hyenas, cats and bats, goblins and all manner of other creatures of the night.

While the supernatural ones can undoubtedly take care of them selves, Willow the Vampire has made it her business to defend the natural world and its denizens against mankind’s thoughtlessness, cruelty and plain stupidity. In Willow’s quest for allies to help her rescue Earth from dark forces of the underworld, my eleven-year-old heroine has already shown herself to be a staunch defender of the rights of animals.

Who could forget her making a smorgasbord of the research staff at Stinkforthshire’s very own Cosmetic Lab, where animal testing took on a new meaning, once Willow had sunk her fangs into the security guard?

Every day somewhere in the world some nocturnal treasure trove is plundered and its contents spoilt forever. From the rainforests in South America to the ancient woodlands of Britain, commerce and greed will always find an excuse to plunder nature’s treasure chest.

Once a species is lost, there is little we can do to get it back, be it a wildflower, a rare newt, a strange looking toad or a Red Panda. In J K Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books Hermione rightly spoke out for the rights of elves, the much put upon servants of wizards and Hogwart’s School of Wizardry. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy the Shire’s natural world is defended by the Hobbits, who’d give their lives to protect what truly matters in this world. In T H White’s The Once and Future King the young King Arthur is taught by Merlin what it takes to be another being, a different creature, seeing the world through somebody else’s eyes.

What seems to make sense in literature and what we agree is right and proper is just that much harder to follow in real life. Seeing an appeal on my Facebook account from Compassion in World Farming I feel ashamed that I frequently forget the cows in the fields, the chicken in the coop, the geese in their pen, the lambs being led to the slaughter.

Willow the Vampire might ask herself often, how she’d survive, if bloodsucking was no longer an option and humans became extinct – or were at least off the menu on moral grounds.

Why are we humans still eating meat, when our insatiable appetite for flesh forces poor farmers to clear more and more land so cattle can graze, fart and pollute the very air we breathe, only to be shipped in horrific life transports to the other end of the world, where animals are slaughtered under the most barbaric conditions?

Various experiments have shown that we can exist far more healthily on a meat free diet. Do we fear our blood will became even tastier for vampires, if we “taint” it with carrots, broccoli and all the other 5 healthy elements we’re supposed to have every day?

Admittedly, we would once again be a lot shorter, once the over-supply of protein stops. Monk-y-monk-boys from the 14th century were an awful lot smaller than the average Welsh woman is today – crusading knights would probably fit into a hoodie made for a ten-year-old today. The average Hollywood hunk would suddenly retail at just 5 ft, while the starved bimbos treading the Paris cat walk would look like every other vertically challenged dumpling the rest of us females see in the mirror every day.

Our obsession with meat-munching has reached such levels that celebrities drape themselves in raw flesh to gain attention and whole nations have become so fat they can no longer leave the house. Will we all start eating each other after Armageddon or Ragnarök has happened, like the French black comedy Delicatessen suggests (1991, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro directed)?

What will happen to vampires, if humans start eating humans and we return to our cannibalistic ways? Will a future encyclopaedia of animals mark them out as being extinct, along with the oak trees, the Red Pandas, the moths, the foxes, the aardvarks, the hedgehogs, the raccoons and even the snakes?

Adam and Eve have so much to answer for – not because they sought knowledge, but because they used it to exterminate the world.

(original artwork copyright Maria Thermann, animation: heathersanimation.com)