New book release

Scent of a Witch

Melusine Draco

‘Magic and scent were conceptually linked in antiquity. Ancient authors sometimes treated magic as a type of smell; at other times odors were treated as a medium through which magic worked. Some authors compare the effect of smells to magic; others described scent and magic as different things but impossible to distinguish. Magicians used incenses and perfumes liberally to set the scene for their rituals and please the gods, as demonstrated by the corpus of spell books that survive from Greco-Roman Egypt; meanwhile, ancient deities signaled their presence by their divine fragrance.’ So writes Britta Ager in her academic paper for Penn State University, Magic Perfumes and Deadly Herbs: The Scent of Witches’ Magic in Classical Literature.

The Classical authors that Professor Ager cites in her paper were, of course, more contemporary with the regular users of those fragranced preparations. While most modern scents are produced from synthetic materials, the original fragrances were a combination of plant or animal products and rich oils. Today, archaeologists continue to find evidence of perfume’s use throughout the Ancient World, often in the form of contents in intricate perfume vessels. In witches’ spell books, known as grimoires, herbs, flowers, roots and resins were called upon to facilitate the workings of the magical practitioners who recorded the use of olfaction as a very powerful tool in spell-casting. Essences and aromatic smoke have also been linked with spirits and gods in ancient cultures, and the earliest of spell books …

Perfume-making has long been big business and from the earliest times provided a ‘cottage industry’ for those who knew and understood the properties of plants. Those early Greek witches whose magic was associated with scent were supernatural exaggerations of rhizotomoi, or ‘root-cutters’ – professional herb gatherers who supplied doctors, magicians, and others with ingredients.

Rhizotomoi, who could be male or female, observed ritual precautions when picking certain plants, either to protect themselves from the herbs’ dangerous powers, or to preserve the herbs’ efficacy. Such plant-cutting rituals are well-attested throughout antiquity, including precautions such as pulling up the plant with the left hand, drawing a magic circle around it with a sword, chanting, sacrificing, pouring libations, or cutting it at a particular time of day. There was a tendency worldwide to attribute medicinal and magical powers to plants with strong odours, and, conversely, scented plants are more likely to accrue folk-lore about their potency than inodorate species. Homer’s mythical plant moly, for instance, was frequently identified in antiquity with stinking rue or garlic.

The Greeks believed that the scent of certain herbs, magic or otherwise, was potent enough to be dangerous; thus Theophrastus, a fourth-century BC botanist, wrote that people gathering hellebore should eat garlic and drink wine as a protection; and that when harvesting other plants the root-cutter should stand upwind to avoid eye damage and swelling. One early portrait of the mythological Greek witch, Medea, shows the ease with which female root-cutters, with their strange rituals and dangerous herbs, came to be mythologized as witches. Evidence for Medea in the classic Greek Archaic period is highly fragmentary, although what survives already shows a well-developed narrative in which she is the wife of the hero Jason and a powerful witch with magical powers grounded in a knowledge of herbs and drugs

Further along the historical time scale, however, the ‘root-cutters’ were still going strong. In his Herbal Simples (1897), William Fernie made rare mention of the ‘green men’ [and women] who were first licensed in the Elizabethan Wild Herb Act to gather herbs and roots from wild, uncultivated land – but it was a contemporary occupation that had already been going strong since the late 14th-century. A new kind of medical herbalist had evolved – the apothecary – who purchased plants collected from the countryside by these wandering herb collectors. In Green Pharmacy, Barbara Griggs records that during the 17th-century herbs could also be bought direct from the herb women in Newgate Market or Covent Garden. According to Fernie:

Coming down to the first part of the present [19th] century, we find purveyors of medicinal and savory herbs then wandered over the whole of England in quest of useful Simples as were in constant demand at most houses for the medicine-chest, the store-closet, or the toilet-table. These rustic practitioners of the healing art were known as ‘green men’, who carried with them their portable apparatus for distilling essences, and for preparing their herbal extracts. In token of their giving formally officiated in this capacity, there may yet be seen in London and elsewhere about the country, taverns bearing the curious sign of The Green Man & [his] Still

The Green Man & Still was a tavern originally situated at 335 Oxford Street, London and was also a coaching inn (a 1792 map shows it at the entrance to a stagecoach yard), the starting point/terminus of several stage coach routes out of London. Although the original tavern closed and re-located, it retained the Green Man & Still name as late as the early 1920s. Another Green Man & Still is recorded at 161 Whitecross Street, Clerkenwell in 1789 run by one Peter Richardson, victualler, from Sun Fire Office records held at the London Metropolitan Archives. It closed in 2006 and remained empty until it became a coffee shop in 2011. The ‘Green Man’ became a popular name for English pubs in the 17th-century (when the Distiller’s Company Green Man & Still heraldic arms were still in common use), although most inn signs tended to feature the familiar foliated face of church architecture; while the ‘green men’ or rhizotomoi, of Elizabethan times, probably merged into the cunning-folk tradition and faded into oblivion.

Gone were the days when a tavern sign pointed to the existence on the premises of a still where cordials were distilled from green herbs. In this case, the house was not kept by a tavern-keeper, but by a herbalist. The premises may, however, have belonged to an innkeeper or a ‘green man’ who lived further afield on the same estate. In Shakespeare’s time there was a London street, named Bucklersbury (near today’s Mansion House), so noted for the number of apothecaries who sold Simples and sweet-smelling herbs that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff describes the dandified fops of his day as ‘Lisping hawthorn buds that smell like Bucklersbury in simple time.’

The cunning folk provided a combination of written charms, magic rituals, prayers and herbal preparations, because one of the most ancient of magical sciences is ‘magical perfumery’. It has long been recognized that certain scents produce certain responses in our physical, mental, and emotional bodies. Both men and women of old perfumed their bodies and kept unguents in alabaster flasks and caskets so that the perfume seeped through the alabaster. The bottle was called a flacon – a small, often decorative container with an opening seal or stopper, designed especially to hold valuable liquids which may deteriorate upon contact with the air.

A modern-day rhizotomai – or root magician, John Canard, in his Defences Against the Witches’ Craft, describes himself as fitting into the role of the cunning man – and, of course, cunning men were often employed to fight against the malefic attentions of witches. He lists a whole range of plants said to protect from negative magic that can be home-grown for protection and several of the classic anti-witch herbs are mentioned in the old rhyme – but not for their perfume:

Trefoil, vervain, John’s wort, dill, / That hindereth witches of their will.

  • Trefoil has a sweet, vanilla scent and although it is a pretty yellow flower, its old country meaning is one of revenge or a warning. It was worn as a protection against evil and witchcraft.
  • Vervain was one of the three most sacred herbs of the Druids (the other two are meadowsweet and watermint) and used to ward off evil. It has very little smell and a bitter taste. It has been used as a powerful protective plant from malefic magic, hence the name of Devil’s Bane.
  • St John’s wort oil has an herbaceous, sweet, floral aroma although the leaves give off a ‘foxy’ odour. Used as a powerful herb against malefic magic.
  • The distinct smell of Dill influences the conscious mind and will clear the head after smelling it for a few seconds. It was believed to be a very powerful anti-witch herb

This is where we have to try to define what brings back the past for us as individuals. I would have to say that for me, personally, it is the scent of hawthorn on the summer breeze and before the flowers start to fade. This also evokes the late spring-early summer weekends of childhood and camping trips to The Quarries where the landscape was a mass of white flowering trees mingling with the smell of wood-smoke from an open camp fire … Seventy-five years later and these particular scents can cause me to take a gigantic leap back in time in an act of involuntary memory.

For dwellers in green places, every season has its own perfume: Spring has the sappy smell of working bulbs, piercing sword leaves, and swelling buds. Smell a daffodil and you know the entire fragrance of spring. During high summer the golden liquid of a thousand scent bottles changes unnoticed into a pot-pourri of fallen petals. The smell of autumn, perhaps the most nostalgic of all scents, of rotting leaves, wood-smoke and mushrooms, hangs motionless between the trees until one day we realize that it has gone, who knows where – and the chill of splintered mirrors in frozen ditches gives out the faintest perfume of the year. [Green Magic]

Translate these scents of the seasons into colours, and we have for spring the pale green of new leaves. Summer’s scent is a deep rose-pink; autumn is an orange-red, fading to brown and then to grey, as the season dies. Winter’s cold faint perfume is a silvered ice-blue in the witch’s world where we often ‘see’ intangible things in terms of colour.

The Scent of a Witch by Melusine Draco is published by ignotus press uk : ISBN: 9781803022338 : Paperback : Pages  104 : Price £6.85 : Published  28 October 2021 : Order direct from

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