There are two lasting bequests we can give our children:
one is roots, the other is wings.
– Hodding Carter, Jr.
In each issue this column will explore commonplace medicinal/magical foods and tools in our 21st-century kitchen; the very same foods and tools found at Heathen hearths more than a millennium ago. By investigating European/Heathen history, Norse sagas, and various other folklore, this column will seek to rediscover some of the Heathen ancestral knowledge and power in our own kitchens. Armed with a better understanding of these foods and tools, the reader can perhaps deepen their spiritual connection as well as enhance the ritual workings of Heathenry as a personal and/or family folk religion.
In the first issue of Hex, the elements of fire and ice were explored, with the hope of bringing the magic of such elements back into the high status and acknowledgement they deserve. This second issue will attempt to uncover some of the roots buried in our Heathen Kitchens, for use in Medicine and Magic…at least the roots of underground vegetables. Roots were certainly well known kitchen ingredients before the age of fast foods and frozen dinners, but as Odin will tell you…“…no man knows from where…the roots run.”1
Many people have lost touch with root vegetables, just as they have lost touch with their family roots. This is an unfortunate change in the way we look at foods, because besides tasting good, roots usually have a relatively long shelf life that does not require electricity or complicated pressure cookers. They are also highly nutritious and can serve as both food and medicine for men and animals. Many roots were known in the Heathen kitchen. Some were native to Europe and some found their way to the Germanic peoples from other places. Often local and non-local roots were improved or changed into new varieties. In this Fall issue of Hex, we will explore a little of the history and magic of one of the world’s most well known roots, one that is native to Europe but also changed and improved—the carrot. Early Celtic literature referred to this root vegetable as the “Honey Underground!” In fact, carrot is a Celtic word, and means ‘red of color.’2
While many people may automatically associate roots with root vegetables, those who have invested any time in Heathen lore would also think of the many stories and sagas from history and lore that involve roots. First and foremost, the roots of the world-tree Yggdrasil come to mind. Within this tree’s roots there is much activity. The mysterious maidens known as “the Norns” live there and tend to the tree and the well of wyrd. It is where Mimir’s Well holds Mimir’s still living head, and where Heimdall’s Horn, and Odin’s eye are said to be located; and where the dangerous Nidhogg and other serpents live. Then of course, many Heathen folk tend to look closely at their family trees seeking their own roots. The word ‘root’ comes to the English language from the PIE wrd- which is cognate with the OE wyrt or ‘wort.’ The meaning was originally ‘underground part of a plant.’3 In the European kitchen, roots have been valuable sources of food and medicine for countless generations. Many of the roots now available in the produce section of the grocery store are the result of European ingenuity.
Root vegetables contain seemingly magical ingredients modern science is really just beginning to understand. But the nutritional and medicinal uses of these properties were discovered many generations before the mysteries contained within them began to come to light. Some of these ingredients are vitamins and minerals, but also antioxidants, phyto-estrogens, flavonoids, carotenes, bitter digestive stimulants, phyto-nutrients, soluble and insoluble fibers, and other seemingly magical substances yet to be named or discovered. These magical ingredients could be considered the magan of the food. Magan [OHG mag-an or OE meagan] is an old term meaning “luck, strength, power, or spiritual energy.”4 The magan of these ingredients is at work in foods when they affect our health. This can be seen in foods like carrots which are credited with the ‘power’ to help to promote and protect eye health; or Dandelion’s ‘strength’ as a diuretic when ingested; or the stomach-soothing ‘spiritual energy’ of ginger root to treat motion sickness.
The carrot, Latin designation Daucus carota, is a member of the Umbelliferae family of plants (also known as the Apiaceae family) and is among more than 3,000 species of this generally aromatic family of plants. Fossilized pollen from the umbel family has been dated at more that 50 million years old (the Eocene period).5 Archaeological evidence of carrot seeds in probable use by Indo-Europeans has been found in pre-historic Swiss lake dwellings.6 Other native European umbels include (but are not limited to) such useful plants as celery, parsley, dill, coriander, fennel, and parsnip. The Umbelliferae families generally produce aromatic, hollow-stemmed plants with large, whitish, umbrella shaped flowers. These flowers appear to be a single large flower, but a closer look reveals they are actually composed of many hollow-stemmed umbel-shaped flowers in a larger umbel-like formation. Wild carrot is a biennial, and thus does not flower until the second year of growth. Its flowers then contain about 500 individual umbels in each larger compound flower, with one reddish flower at its center—this reddish flower is one of the identification points of a wild carrot. The wild carrot, a common summer wildflower on the American and European continents, found along roadsides and in fields, is called ‘Queen Anne’s Lace,’ and shares the same species as its domestic cousin.
Wild carrot look-alikes also grow as wildflowers, but they are deadly. The poisonous Water Hemlock Circuta maculata, Poison Hemlock Conim maculatum, and the poisonous Fool’s Parsley Aethusa cynapium, are mentioned as ingredients in “Flying Ointments”7 during the middle ages. Perhaps harvested in the manner Shakespeare mentions during the making of the deadly “Witches’ Brew” from Macbeth—“Root of the Hemlock, digged i’th’ dark.”8 The Greek physician Socrates will forever be associated with poison Hemlock after he chose to ingest it to carry out his death sentence in 399 BCE. The resemblance between the umbel-shaped wild flowers is too close to allow them to be safely wild-crafted in a casual way, and all of them now grow wild across the same habitats. Do not wild-craft carrots! Besides, wild carrots are not like the improved version we use today, the roots being many branched and smaller—so, leave it to the experts to distinguish between these wild look-alikes. In fact, your local County Agent may be of assistance since most counties wish to eradicate these invasive highly poisonous plants. The poison in these plants can remain active for 3 years or more. Do not dispose of them in compost piles or burn them, but treat them as toxic waste! Instead purchase organic carrots. They’re relatively inexpensive once you think about the heavy pesticides used in conventional carrot production. Better yet, try your hand at growing them yourself!
Carrots have a complicated history in the old world. Their use was reported by the Greeks and Romans, but cultivation was not well known in Europe until the Middle Ages. The way carrot plants can resemble other dangerous plants, leads me to speculate that this could be one of the contributing factors to the relatively late cultivation of carrots as a food crop in some areas. Without images of the sometimes subtle differences between these wild plants, at all stages of growth, identifying and distinguishing them can be difficult today, and nearly impossible to all but experts. I have seen this physical similarity and had to resort to printed media for the complicated identification. Perhaps such knowledge may have been something known to only a few Leechcraft practitioners—limiting its use to the magical medicinal arena. See more about Leechcraft in the side bar.
Much of the European folklore before the 15th-century refers to the wild carrot and the wild parsnip Pastinaca sativa, more or less together. The carrot root in OE is enlisc moru or ‘English Root’ and its cousin the Parsnip was called wylisc moru or ‘Welsh Root.’ The OE word more (moru) still survives in some dialects, and refers to any root vegetable such as a parsnip or carrot. Feldmora and wild more were said to grow “in sandy places and on mounds.” Perhaps these were burial mounds, where the disturbed soil would be better suited to root growth.9 The folk name Queen Anne’s Lace, reportedly refers to the small, reddish umbel flower in the center of the compound flower, as representing a drop of blood from a needle prick of Queen Anne’s finger while lace making. The synonyms ‘Bird’s Nest’ and ‘Bee’s Nest’ seem to reference the way the lacy umbel flowers curl up like a small nest when they dry.
These wild mores contained various pigments ranging from purple to black, white, yellow, and green—colors that are usually evidence of active constituents that can promote health. It’s believed that the cultivation of the larger, purple variety of carrot that was known in Arab-occupied Spain around the 10th-century, and later reached the rest of Europe and Asia, was introduced by Afghanistan. From this purple cultivated carrot, an occasional mutation would produce a yellow carrot containing no anthocyanin (purple-colored) pigment. These mutations most likely generated the ancestor of the modern carrot and were perhaps selected because purple or black foods may not have been as appealing at the table as yellow.
CARROTS IN THE KITCHEN
The relatively modern orange carrot was not developed until the 1500s, as a tribute to the princely dynasty, The House of Orange, in Holland. The Dutch exploited the carotene, responsible for the orange color of the roots we know today. This orange color indicates they are one of the best sources of pro-vitamin A and beta-carotene available in our food. Uncooked orange carrots contain about 30 calories in a 1/4 pound, over 8,000 mcg of Carotenes, a very good serving (2.4 grams) of fiber, 6 mg of vitamin C, and 0.6 mg of vitamin E. Count the carrots in the bag next time and see how many are in a 1 lb/16 oz bag. For example, 8 carrots would equal a 2 oz. weight for each.
Findings reported in 1993, from an eight-year controlled study of 87,000 nurses, showed that eating just 5 large carrots a week lowered the risk of stroke by 68%.10 A 1979 Scottish medical trial had healthy volunteers eating 7 ounces (200 grams or 1/2 pound) of raw carrots a day for 3 weeks. They reduced their blood cholesterol levels by 11%—about the same as modern ‘Staten’ drugs can achieve.11 The cholesterol rose to previous levels when the carrots were removed from the diet.12 The nutrients in carrots have more bio-availability when cooked.13 So, while there is nothing wrong with eating them raw, you may wish to introduce more steamed or roasted carrots into your diet as well.
Much of the folklore surrounding the wild mores of Europe includes medical uses such as treatments for coughs and lung ailments, both internally and externally as poultices; as an ingredient in antiseptic wound salves (see formula in sidebar) and bite treatments, and as skin lightening masks (see formula in sidebar). Feldmoran, or ‘field more,’14 which in this case are parsnip seeds, were used by a king “both wise and skilled in healing,” in conjunction with many other seeds, ground and used in powder form, “as a good morning drink against all infirmities which stir up a man’s body, within and without.”15 They are very useful to a woman’s body “within and without” as well. Carrot seeds have been reportedly used by women in Rajastan, India as a contraceptive,16 but carrot roots were used to promote lust and pregnancy,17 and to regulate menstruation.18 Once pregnant, a drink based on wild more can be used to ease birth. And a raw carrot salad can be used as a fibrous medium to clean the intestinal tract!19 Later when the mother’s nipples are chapped from nursing, raw or cooked carrots can be used as a poultice for pain relief and to promote healing.20 Raw carrot, even in small amounts, has been shown to kill listeria and other food poisoning organisms.21 Anglo-Saxons used carrots as an ingredient in a medicinal drink “against the devil and insanity.”22 Speaking of devilish insanity, in Germany, “a spirit [liquor] is distilled from the Carrot, which yields more spirit than the potato. The refuse after making the spirit is good for feeding pigs.” 23 And last but not least, large amounts of raw grated carrots, mixed with lots of onion and garlic and eaten in bulk, scour the system and make an excellent vermifuge, helping to remove worms from the intestines.24
Recently carrots and the antioxidants they contain have begun to play a major role in the anti-aging and skin care industry. The essential oil of carrots is often included in formulations designed to lighten skin color. Do not use undiluted carrot essential oil directly on the skin! Use the Anti-aging poultice in the side bar to help lighten darkened skin pigment (melanin) and perhaps nourish stressed skin cells.
Recently some plant experts have speculated that the wild carrot currently called Queen Anne’s Lace could be a ‘new’ plant, the descendant of escaped cultivated carrots and not actually the ancestor of the modern carrot. Attempts to produce a root worth harvesting from Queen Anne’s Lace have not been very successful.25 So the carrot’s origins remain partially hidden, buried by time.
ROOTING IN THE EARTH
Growing carrots and other root vegetables is not hard at all. Be sure to deeply loosen the soil for roots to achieve the best shape and maximum growth. Wild carrots and parsnips were noted as growing “in sandy places and [assumed grave] mounds,”26 in old world Europe, perhaps because the soil had been loosened. Most folklore advises to plant root crops during the dark time of the moon to ensure large tasty roots, because roots grow in the dark earth. Carrots grown for food are best when planted and harvested during the fall, winter, and spring seasons; the summer months generally produce flower heads, and at this time the roots are tougher and less pallatable. Plant small seed beds (following the directions on the seed package), every few weeks for a contiuous harvest, or plant one large crop in the fall to keep through winter and another in the early spring to last until summer. Plant the tiny seeds directly into soil with a pH range of 6 to 6.5. Thin carrot seedlings by pulling while still very small, to achieve about 3 inches space between each plant, later thinning again by taking out every other root, to ensure enough room for the roots to grow without crowding. All the roots removed through thinning are still edible, consider them baby ‘gourmet’ carrots. Water, weed, and feed regularly to promote quick root growth and to also help ensure sweeter carrots and all other root vegetables as well. Carrots can be attacked by carrot root flies and flea beetles, though I have never found them to be much of a problem. Keep these at bay with a physical barrier like floating row covers of spun polyester, thereby avoiding pesticide use; since carrots do not need to be pollinated they can be covered before they even sprout. Harvest can start at any time after carrots are big enough to eat, but generally the main harvest is about 65 days after they germinate. With continuous plantings about every 2 to 3 weeks throughout the spring, fall, and winter when the ground isn’t frozen, it’s possible to have fresh carrots growing nearly all year.
Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a company specializing in saving old-fashioned seed varieties, carries 24 varieties of carrot seeds! The categories include early, main-crop, and storage/specialty types. They come in various colors from the traditional orange to purple, white, or even a rainbow mix, and shapes include the well-known long carrot, other shorter varieties, and even round radish-like varieties. The Texas A&M Vegetable Improvement Center has developed and introduced into commercial use a new purple-skinned, orange-fleshed carrot, the BetaSweet or Maroon Carrot, which contains even stronger concentrations of the substances that prevent cancer.
Mike and Nancy Bubel in their classic food preservation book Root Cellaring, note that “the reliable carrot is the backbone of any food storage plan,”27 and can be stored right in the garden row during the winter if mulched and protected from animals. Or they can be dug up, the dirt brushed off, and the green leafy tops snipped away just above where they join the carrot root. Store in boxes or baskets. Carrots can touch in the layer, but place straw, sand, newspaper, or another medium between each separate layer. Keep temperatures around 32–40 degrees with a 90–95% relative humidity.
Not surprisingly, there is much more to this story! I would advise anyone who wants to learn more about this root to check out the carrot museum online.28 The amount of information about carrots is mind boggling—there is even an article that talks about carrots being used for lasers in space!29
Be sure to include carrots and parsnips in your next feast. On second thought, these masters of Kitchen Medicine and Magic should be included in nearly every meal and snack! Eat them raw, or cook them—juice, grate, cube, slice, or chop them—boil, roast, or stir fry them—no matter how you eat them—eat them! Hail the carrot!
Read a recipe for Carrot Cake, or Cabbage Slaw. For more recipes and root lore, read the Fall Issue of HEX magazine. Teresa would love to hear from you, so send in your comments and questions to this HEX address:
1. Carolyne Larrington, The Poetic Edda: A New Translation (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999) 34.
4. James Hjuka Coulter, Germanic Heathenry A Practical Guide (1st Books, 2003) 228.
7. Claudia Muller-Ebeling, Christian Ratsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl, Witchcraft Medicine, Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices and Forbidden Plants English translation (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2003) 51.
8. Muller-Ebeling 142.
9. Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft, Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing (Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003) 147.
12. Miriam Polunin, Healing Foods: A Practical Guide to Key Foods for Good Health (Singapore: DK Publishing, 1997) 33.
13. Steven Pratt, M.D., Steven and Kathy Matthews, Super Foods: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (New York: Harper, 2005) 106.
14. Pollington 240.
15. Pollington 241.
17. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1999) 68.
18. Dian Dincin Buchman, Herbal Medicine: The Natural Way to Get and Stay Well (New York:Wings Books, 1979) 165.
19. Pollington 325.
20. Buchman 171.
21. Polunin 33.
24. Buchman 181.
25. Jack Sanders, The Secret of Wildflowers. (Guilford: The Lyons Press, 2003) 186.
26. Pollington 147
27. Mike and Nancy Bubel, Root Cellaring (Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1979) 61.
31. László A. Magyar, “Digitus Medicinalis — the Etymology of the Name,” Actes du Congr. Intern. d’Hist. de Med. XXXII (1990): 175-179.
32. Pollington 405.
33. Buchman 82.
34. Marie Rodway, A Wiccan Herbal: Healing Secrets of Natural Magic (London: Quantum, 1997) page 37.
Book Hoard and References
Forbidden Plants. Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2003 (English translation)
Vaughan; J. G. & C. A. Geissler, The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998)