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Passing Through & Under: A Ritual Healing in England

Both the following accounts were gathered by the folklorist E. Sidney Hartland for Folklore in 1896, appearing in 1887.

“A remarkable instance of the extraordinary superstition which still prevails in the rural districts of Somerset has lately come to light at Athelney. It appears that a child was recently born in that neighbourhood with a physical ailment, and the neighbours persuaded the parents to resort to a very novel method of charming away the complaint. A sapling ash was split down the centre, and wedges were inserted so as to afford an opening sufficient for the child’s body to pass through without touching either side of the tree. This having been done, the child was undressed, and, with its face held heavenward, it was drawn through the sapling in strict accordance with the superstition. Afterwards the child was dressed, and simultaneously the tree was bound up. The belief of those who took part in this strange ceremony is that if the tree grows the child will grow out of its bodily ills. The affair took place at the rising of the sun on a recent Sunday morning in the presence of the child’s parents, several of the neighbours, and the parish police-constable”.

Again from Somerset:

“In this parish, some months ago, the wife of a highly respectable farmer presented him with twins, one of which was born with hernia. As soon as convenient, upon a Sunday morning before sunrise, the farmer and his wife, with several neighbours and servants, proceeded to a wood on his farm. They then with wedges split a young growing ash-tree, opening the split wide enough to permit the afflicted child to pass through. This was done three times with due solemnity, and the tree was restored to its previous condition, barring the split, which was carefully bound up with a hayband. The belief is that if the sides of the tree unite and grow together, the child will be cured. In this case, curiosity has removed the hayband, thereby, it is said, preventing the tree from uniting; but what is the present condition of the child I have been unable to learn, because the parents have recently left the neighbourhood. I can, however, testify that the ash-tree is now standing unhealed, and with a rent in its stem seven or eight feet long. The belief in this cure for congenital hernia is an old and well-known one; but that it should be still practised soberly and solemnly, not by poor ignorant labourers, but by well-to-do, fairly educated people, will perhaps surprise not a few”.

Until the 20th century, the inadequacies of orthodox medical services left a large proportion of the population dependent upon traditional folk medicine – essentially a mixture of common sense remedies based on the accumulated experience of nursing and midwifery, combined with inherited lore about the healing properties of plants.

Traditional folk medicine also included forms of ritual healing, in which prayers, charms or spells plus certain actions accompanied the practical remedy or even formed the sole means of treatment. Although it was often the local wise man or woman that the sufferer would have recourse, magical healing of this kind might also be attempted by the patient or a relation. The medieval church itself recommended the use of prayers when healing the sick or gathering medicinal herbs and this led to a weakening in the fundamental distinction between prayer and charm, encouraging the idea that there was virtue in the mere repetition of holy words. As medieval theologians encouraged the use of prayers as an accompaniment to herb gathering, the notion survived that these plants were useless unless picked in a ritual manner. The word charm essentially means the chanting or recitation of a verse supposed to possess magical power or occult influence. It has however a secondary significance denoting material objects credited with magical properties worn on, or in close association with, the object it is designed to protect. Magic or lucky numbers were also used in ritual healing practices, normally nine, seven or three, in the belief that in order for the remedy to work it had to be performed in accordance with one of these numbers with their supposed magical and propitious virtues.

As time passed however the rituals often surrounding the healing process had largely degenerated into obscure and meaningless formulae. Yet it was the very obscurity of the formula that increased its magical powers, while the real significance of the charms had been forgotten. Their continuance was traditionally sanctioned by use, fostered firstly, by a people only too willing to accept any form of relief, and secondly, perhaps by a distrust of the advancing tide of rationalism and medical or veterinary science. There remained a great deal of substance in traditional ways of thought, particularly in rural areas, but also surviving in urban centres.

One or two assumptions though underlie these charms; the idea that disease was a foreign presence in the body that needed exorcising and the belief that religious language possessed a magical power which could be used for practical purposes. The ritual gathering of an herb or the use of a plant or tree was twofold: firstly timing, and secondly the conference of legitimacy by calling on the deity to sanction its use. Animal cures involving plants were in most respects similar.

As we have seen earlier, “passing through” or “passing under” were amongst the most tenacious of early ritual folk remedies to have survived. This was the practice of causing the sick to pass through, by walking, crawling or lifting, a variety of natural or man-made apertures in trees, plants, rocks or the earth itself, usually for the cure of whooping-cough, boils, rheumatism, epilepsy and infantile hernia, normally at dawn or midnight. There was also a belief that to pass through clefts in rocks or trees had the notion of being born again.

Looking at the use of trees and plants in this ritual process, for infantile hernia, rickets, broken bones and weak limbs, the practice involved passing the child through a cleft in a tree. Ash saplings were the principal species employed for the cure, although oaks were sometimes used as well. Why an ash? Well, the common ash is the third most widespread tree species in Britain, making up 5.5% of UK woodland with an estimated further twelve million ashes in non-woodland areas. Although the ash may not have the same iconic status as the oak, it is nevertheless a tree whose roots are firmly embedded in the history and folklore of the UK. Ashes were once believed to be a magnet for lightning strikes — probably because they sometimes develop splits as they grow older, taking on the appearance of having been struck. “Avoid an ash, It counts the flash”, runs one old rhyme. The ash’s status as Lightning Tree was generally considered to make it a powerful and magical tree. Snakes were thought to have an antipathy with ashes, the flowers of the tree being hung outside homes to keep snakes at bay. If though the repellent effects were unsuccessful a poultice of ash leaves was thought to be an effective treatment for adder bites. A spoonful of ash sap was once commonly given to newborn babies in parts of Scotland and England as a protection against ill health and witchcraft.

The rarity of natural clefts made such trees particularly valued for curative practices. For example, as recorded in Folk-Lore in 1898 (Folk-Lore 9), there was an ash tree near Richmond, Surrey, known as the “Sheen Tree” (named for its close proximity to Sheen Lodge in Richmond Park) which was used until the mid-19th century for the cure of infantile ailments. Natural clefts however are not common so the clefts were often man-made. The practice being to sever a sapling and wedge it open, while the child was passed through the gap, either west to east or east to west, and again either three or nine times. Afterwards the tree was bound together, and if the two sides coalesced the patient was considered to be cured.

In 1789 country clergyman Gilbert White noted in The Natural History & Antiquities of Selborne, that at a farmyard at Selborne, Hampshire a row of pollard ashes stood, which by the seams and long scars down their trunks showed they had formerly been cleft in two.

“These trees, when young and flexible, were severed and held open by wedges while ruptured children stripped naked were pushed through the apertures, under a persuasion that by such a process the poor babes would be cured of their infirmity. As soon as the operation was over the tree in the suffering part was plastered with loam and carefully swathed up. If the part coalesced and soldered together, as usually fell out where the feat was performed with any adroitness at all, the party was cured; but where the cleft continued to gape, the operation, it was supposed, would prove ineffectual.”

Similar practices for ruptures and rickets was recorded in Suffolk, Somerset and Cornwall. The child was normally passed through three times in the same direction, namely east to west, but in the latter two counties the cure, to be of value had to be performed before sunrise. In West Sussex however, Folk-Lore Record of 1878 recorded that the child was attended by nine persons, each of whom passed it through the cleft form west to east.

In other areas of England a so-called “maiden ash” was split and used. This was a tree that had self-seeded and had not been transplanted or lopped. Such trees were recorded in use for this purpose until the mid-nineteenth century in Devon and Dorset. In Herefordshire a maiden ash was split and the ruptured child passed through nine times from its father’s hands into those of another man. The father saying: “The Lord giveth” and the other replying: “The Lord receiveth.” The tree was then bound up in the usual way.

Bramble © Sue McDowall

Bramble © Sue McDowall

Another folk remedy survival was the practice of causing patients to pass under a variety of natural arches for the curing of disease. Brambles were particularly employed. Brambles send out long arching shoots, which root when they reach the ground and thus produce new plants. And until around the 1950s, passing under one of these arches was believed to cure a wide variety of ailments. The purpose of the ritual was probably to transfer the malady to the earth while the thorns were supposed to either ‘scrape’ the disease away or prevent it from following.

For whooping cough, boils and rheumatism the practice was to crawl or walk under a bramble or rose briar, very often in the direction of the sun (from east to west) and usually repeating the action according to one of the magical numbers, so three times under the bramble, or once on nine consecutive mornings. The remedy was considered particularly efficacious if the bramble or briar was rooted at both ends in land belonging to two different people, as the ailment was then believed to be transferred to another property.

In Sussex, children with skin eruptions, possibly infantile eczema were treated by passing them nine times on nine successive mornings through a bramble rooted at both ends. In Somerset hernias could be cured by passing the patient under a bramble arch. In Devon the practice for curing boils was to crawl through a bramble three times with the sun i.e. from east to west, and again it was particularly efficacious if the bramble was rooted at either end in land belonging to two different people. Meanwhile in Dorset it was recorded that “to creep under a bramble three mornings, following against the sun, just as it rises, is said to afford a complete cure for boils”. There was a similar remedy for rheumatism in Cornwall, plus a variant cure of crawling nine times round a bramble bush as “a certain cure for blackheads”. The passing under ritual was also used for epilepsy. In Dorset the cure for epileptic children was to pull them through a bramble bush, in the belief that the evil spirit or devil (once considered to be a cause of the disease) could not follow as it was filtered out by the thorns and left behind.

One of the most widespread and often fatal children’s diseases before the discovery of antibiotics was whooping cough. The passing under ritual was again employed as a cure. In the 17th century, the antiquarian John Aubrey recorded in Remaines of Gentilisme & Judaisme a cure for “chin-cough” as whooping cough was also known, by creeping under a bramble rooted at both ends.

Boundaries between properties, like crossroads, were also considered efficacious in folk medicine. Near to the Button Oak in the forest of Bewdly, a rose briar was recorded growing in the form of an arch, one end in Shropshire, the other in Staffordshire. Notes & Queries of 1869 recorded this briar was visited by parents to make their children pass under it to cure them off the whooping cough. The method was to pass the child under and over the briar rooted at both ends nine times on three mornings before sunrise, repeating the following:

“Under the briar, and over the briar,
I wish to leave the chin cough here.”

In a whooping cough cure from Herefordshire, the Lord’s Prayer was recited, while the patient passed under a briar nine times. Bread and butter then had to be eaten some of which had to be given to a bird. The disease was then considered as having been transferred to the bird.

In a Devon practice of the custom, a verbal adjuration was given as the child was passed under a bramble:

“In bramble, out cough,
Here I leave the whooping cough.”

In Suffolk a number of whooping cough cures are recorded. Besides passing the patient under a bramble, they might also be dragged under a gooseberry bush, or passed through a slit in the trunk of a young ash tree, similar to the cure for infantile hernia.

A variation of this cure for consumption or TB was to pass the patient through a circular wreath of woodbine, let down over the body from head to foot. The woodbine had to be cut during the increase of a March moon and for further efficacy the ritual had to be performed three times.

In conclusion these passing through rituals highlight a combination of popular beliefs namely that disease was a foreign presence in the body that needed to be exorcised, inherited lore about the healing properties of certain plants, and that religious language and or certain numbers possessed a magical power which could be used for practical purposes.

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Sue McDowall is a former committee member of The Folklore Society. She has written several articles and papers on various aspects of plant lore and has recently published her first book, Plants before the Revolution: Food, Remedies, Festivals & Beliefs in Pre-Industrial England, now available from her website.