The Monthly Wort
The Monthly Wort will provide readers with detailed descriptions of specifically chosen herbs (aka “wort”, meaning a useful herb), splitting it into 4 categories over the span of the month. Herbal History, Medicinal Uses, Magical Uses and Growing/Harvesting. In order to get the full scope of each plant, stay tuned every week as we delve into spiritual and practical experience of Herbalism.
Stinging Nettle Magic
Nettle, much like its role in medicine, has a fascinating correlation between its painful sting and beneficial properties. Folklore across the globe attribute it to powerful protection and fertility, something that less conversant people might find strange, considering that most of the modern world is wary of this plant because of its sting. Yet, its widespread use in folk healing and magic are so vast due to nettle’s amazing adaptability to environment and the fact that it can grow in almost any ecosystem.
Stinging Nettle: Personal Trainer, not Hired Guard
Much like in Celtic lore, nettle serves as a threshold guardian to ancient native tribes of California, such as the Kawaiisu. Any child of the tribe who wanted to learn witchcraft was to walk through nettles as a practice. We see this in many other cultures spanning the globe (Romanians, Celts, Romans, Native Americans) where stinging nettle is gently whipped against the bare skin of the back to increase blood flow and stamina in preparation for hard times. In this, it seems that nettle was used protectively via enhancing one’s tolerance to outside forces, rather than simply doing the work for the user. This, to me, is a much more direct line to its magical properties and more of a test of spirit. When I look at nettle, I see an organized, adaptable mentor who only accepts students with grit. It takes stubbornness and determination to survive in the poor soils that nettle grows in.
To that point, nettle is associated with the war god, Mars. It grows when winter snow melts, usually in the month of march, which would also suggest a correlation to Mars.
Perhaps it was this particular struggle that gave stinging nettle the reputation of being a doorway between life and death. If you delve into reading on nettle, you may come across some wives tales that describe it growing near burial grounds or out of dead bodies. In fact, as stinging nettle is a strong, historically utilized fibre, it was found in burial clothes from the Bronze Age, furthering the believe that it related closely with the last rite of passage for the ancients. My only issue with this characterization is the plants immense nutritional value, which is reportedly high in a wide array of vitamins, proteins and minerals (read more in Stinging Nettle, Part 2), all of which encourage folk, through consumption, to be stronger individuals. It promotes lactation as a galactagogue and was said to encourage fertility. Unlike other death related plants (Hawthorn, Blackthorn, any of the Baneful herbs), it is easily consumed and there is nothing I can find that hints it is taboo to bring into the home. In fact, the latter is encouraged!
More so than merely a death doorway, stinging nettle holds the reputation of being a protector. Some lore suggests that cattle were fed nettles so that witches and trolls could not hex them. This could be based on the nutritional value that nettle had, as it is still used in chicken and pig feed to this day.
Reported from the 10th century, nettle is one of the nine plants invoked in the papan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm to aid in healing from a poisoning from “elf shot”, which were unexplained pains in humans or livestock, purportedly done by elves. There is also rumor that nettle protects a person from lightning, which may derive from its association with Thor, the god of thunder. However, interestingly enough, it is also correlated to Loki, the trickster god, who had a magical fishing net made from nettle. This vibes more with other Celtic lore, which indicated that groupings of stinging nettle were faerie hideaways or there were faerie dwellings nearby. As we know from many stories, faeries are tricksters themselves and it is best to avoid them if one can. In a way, by avoiding nettle you are avoiding the faeries, which is, in turn, protecting you by extension.
The irish called it Neantog (pronounced “Neean toag”).
I see stinging nettle as a binary herb spiritually, although that is most likely based on the fact that this plant has both male and female plants growing in its clusters (monoculture). It reminds me of the groups of homeless or nomadic people who develop skills of survival through hardship, and I believe there is often a valuable lesson to be learned with this plant. Wittily, Nicholas Culpeper, famous herbalist from the 17th century, is conjectured to have said, “Nettles may be found by feeling or them in the darkest night.” Boy, will you feel them.
A great Tibetan ascetic survived his decades in solitary meditation by eating stinging nettles, and it was said that his hair and skin turned green from it. He lived to be 83 years old.
Stinging Nettles in Lore
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called The Wild Swans, which is truly a fantastic tale of siblinghood. A king marries a witch, who turns her eleven stepsons into swans and forces them from the kingdom. This leaves the only daughter of the king, Elisa, unchanged but banished as well. From lands far away, she is guided by the queen of the faeries to gather stinging nettles in the graveyards to knit into shirts that will one day help her brothers regain their human forms. The trick is, she must take a vow of silence and is not allowed to speak a single word or else it will kill her brothers.
During this time, a king spies her picking nettles and falls for her. Like most tales go, he asks her to marry him shortly after. Unfortunately, the archbishop of the king takes his new fiance’s nettle gathering in the graveyards as a sign of witchcraft and opts to have her burned at the stake for her crimes, of which she cannot speak out against. Her brothers hear of her plight and come to rescue her while she ferociously knits the shirts even as she is bound for death, and they descend just in time for her to throw the magical shirts over them. They transform back into humans and she is able to speak once more, reclaiming her innocence. Unfortunately, one of the shirts is not finished and her youngest brother has a swan’s wing instead of an arm.
In all of this, we see more themes of stinging nettle as a protectant and also correlated to faeries. That, and it’s a lovely tale.
That’s it, then. While I would love to spend more time delving into nettle lore, I’m a bit behind schedule with the Monthly Worts, so there’s some catching up to do. Stay tuned for the next update, where we talk about how to grow and harvest this awesome plant. Until then, ta!