BLACK HELLEBORE

Milan, 21 February 2020

My wife and I are in the middle of a multi-day hike down the eastern shore of Lake Como, walking a 45-km long trail which links Colico, located more or less where the River Adda flows into the lake at its northern end, to Lecco which straddles the River Adda as it flows out of the southern end of the lake on its way to join the River Po. It’s called the Sentiero del Viandante, the Wayfarer’s Trail. For any of my readers who might be hikers, I throw in a couple photos to whet their appetite.

My photo

Since the trailheads feeding the trail can easily be reached by train from Milan, we’ve been doing it in stages, closely watching the weather forecasts and going only when the sun is predicted to be shining. We’ve done three stages so far, with one more to go.

On the latest stage, as we were crossing a clearing, we came across this flower.

My photo

Of course, it gladdens the heart to see flowers blooming in February. It tells us that the Earth – at least in the Northern hemisphere – is waking up from its winter slumber. But this flower was particularly beautiful: large white petals surrounding a yellow-green centre. It was also quirky: this large flower was perched on a tiny stem, with no leaves that I could discern; it seemed almost to spring straight out of the ground.

As usual, once we’d seen one we saw many. Some were just opening. In others, the petals looked fly-blown, ready to fall. In others again, the petals were pink-veined.

On the train back, we started chatting with another couple whom we’d met along the trail. Suddenly remembering the flower, I pulled out my phone and showed them the photo of the flower. Ah, they said, in Italian that’s called elleboro. Pulling up my trusty Google Translate, I discovered that its English name is hellebore.

Hellebore … this stirred up vague memories in me, of poison and death. As the train racketed along towards Milan Central Station, I passed the time reading up on hellebore and saw that the plant is indeed horribly poisonous. “All hellebores are toxic, and all parts of the hellebore plant are toxic”, I read in Wikipedia. “Poisonings will occur through ingestion or handling … Poisoning cases are most severe when the plants are eaten … causing tinnitus, vertigo, stupor, thirst, anaphylaxis, emesis (vomiting), catharsis, bradycardia (slowing of the heart rate), and finally, collapse and death from cardiac arrest.” Bloody charming … And it doesn’t finish there! “Dermatitis may also occur from handling the hellebore plants without protection. … The poison on the outside of the plant will cause irritation and burning sensations on the skin.” Jeez Louise …

Wikipedia also informed me that there are a good number of different hellebores. The particular hellebore we came across on the walk is the Helleborus niger, or black hellebore. I find this a strange name, given the snowy whiteness of the flower, seen here in a particularly appealing photo (also showing, incidentally, its natural range, the Alps, in the background).

Source

The blackness, it seems, refers to its roots, which are indeed somewhat black.

Source

It is the roots, suitably dried, that are ground to a powder and fed to unsuspecting victims: “hubble, bubble, toil and trouble…”, to misquote the three witches in Macbeth, whom we have here in an especially dramatic painting by a Victorian painter by the name of William Edward Frost.

Source

I had hoped that Shakespeare might have had them mention hellebore as one of the ingredients in their magic brew. But no. They mention eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat, tongue of dog, adder’s fork, blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg, howlet’s wing. Oh, and fillet of fenny snake. But no hellebore. Nor is the plant mentioned in any of his other plays where magic and magicians play a part.

I was quite disappointed that the Bard passed hellebore over in silence. Because it did play a role in the magic of his time and earlier (and still does, if I’m to believe some of the web sites I’ve visited). It could be used to cause madness, or put a good curse on someone. It was good for both raising demons as well as banishing or exorcising them. Carrying it on your person could stop demons possessing you. Planting it near the entrance to your house would deter demons from entering. It was often planted in graveyards to gain the allegiance of the dead. It seemed especially popular in healing swine and cattle from illness and protecting them from evil spells (cast, no doubt, by jealous neighbours): “a piece of the root being drawne through a hole made in the eare of a beast troubled with cough or having taken any poisonous thing cureth it, if it be taken out the next day at the same houre”, wrote a certain Parkinson in 1641. Two properties attributed to it which I particularly like is the ability to make you invisible (scatter powdered hellebore in the air around you as you walk along) and to make you fly to witches’ sabbaths and suchlike (make an ointment of it and spread it liberally on yourself. There actually seem to have been quite a number of recipes for these so-called flying ointments; one I particularly like was given by Francis Bacon: “the fat of children digged out of their graves, of juices of smallage, wolfe-bane, and cinque foil, mingled with the meal of fine wheat”).

I have a great fondness of medieval witches and sorcerers, my vision of them having been determined by the comic books of my youth regaling me with the stories of two medieval boys by the names of Johan and Pirlouit. I throw in here a picture from the story “La Guerre des Sept Fontaines” to give an idea of the treatment of witches and sorcerers in these books.

My photo

But enough with this childishness! Let me finish on a more positive note. A legend about black hellebore revolves around another name for it, Christmas rose. We are in Palestine. The Christ child has recently been born. A poor shepherdess, Madelon by name, has seen the three Wise Men passing through on their way to see the child. She has followed them and seen them presenting him with their valuable gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. She also wants to give the child a gift, but being very poor cannot afford to. So she stands at the door of the manger, weeping quietly. The angel hovering over the manger takes pity on her and decides to help with a little miracle. He gently brushes aside the snow at her feet and where her tears have fallen, spring up a beautiful cluster of waxen white winter roses. Then he softly whispers into the shepherdess’s ear, “these Christmas roses are far more valuable than any myrrh, frankincense or gold, for they are pure and made of love”. Madelon joyfully gathers the flowers and offers them to the Holy Infant, who, seeing that the gift was reared with tears of love, smiles at her.

Hmm, having just read about all the dermatitis you can get from just touching these plants, I can only assume that Madelon, poor though she was, was wearing gloves … This irreverent thought leads to another. I took this photo of a modern take on the three Wise Men, painted on the wall of a Milan house by a wannabee Milanese Banksy.

My photo

I really must stop being so childish …

JOHAN ET PIRLOUIT

Bangkok, 26 May 2015

A week or so ago, I was in Cambodia for some official business relating to a project we are about to start there to reduce dioxin emissions. But actually, that is irrelevant to this post. What is relevant is that I was staying in a hotel room half of whose lights were blue. Why, is a mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the hotel claimed to also be a spa; perhaps people in spas like the rather cold light that blue creates. Or perhaps it had something to do with the modern furniture that graced the room; it was Nordic-looking in its design, cool, remote, and the blue light made it all that much cooler. But I’m just hazarding guesses here; perhaps blue bulbs were simply the cheapest on the market at the time the hotel was purchasing its light bulbs.

Whatever the reason, this blue light turned me blue. I only realised it when, skyping my wife, I noticed with astonishment that in the small icon which held my image I was a lovely blue hue. Basically, I looked like this fellow:

schtroumpfThe very youngest amongst us will immediately tell us that he is a Smurf. They are wrong – well, not quite right. He is a Schtroumpf; Smurf is the Dutch translation, adopted later by the English-speaking world.

Aah, the Schtroumpfs …they are my youth! This fellow may look young, but actually I am just a few years older than him. I burst onto the scene in 1954, the Schtroumpfs burst onto the cartoon scene in 1957, invented by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo.

But here I have to clarify something. My real love was not the Schtroumpfs. It was Johan and Pirlouit, invented some years earlier by Peyo. Johan came first, hustling into the lives of little fellows like me in 1952, before I was even a gleam in my parent’s eyes, in the story Le Châtiment de Basenhau, The Punishment of Basenhau. This was the cover of the album (Johan is the young fellow dressed in ragged brown).

01-chatiment de basenhau

The details of the story are irrelevant. The important point is that Johan lived in the Middle Ages and that he was a dashing young fellow. After Le Châtiment de Basenhau came Le Maître de Roucybeuf, The Master of Roucybeuf, in 1953

02-maitre de roucybeuf

and then in 1954, when my mother was heavily pregnant with me, came Le Lutin du Bois aux Roches, The Imp of Rocks’ Wood, in which Peyo introduced us to Pirlouit, who was to become Johan’s bosom buddy.

03-lutin du bois aux roches

Pirlouit is the little blond-haired fellow holding the very large hammer. While Johan was the serious, Boy Scout type, straight as an arrow, Pirlouit was the joker, a hilarious guy who was always doing silly things. But when push came to shove, he was there by Johan’s side, as they fought off the assorted Medieval baddies they had to deal with. From now on, the two were to be inseparable.

Their stories of derring-do, wielding sword, shield, bow, and other assorted medieval weaponry, galloping through dark, forbidding forests – Johan on a horse, Pirlouit on a goat (he was a little person, remember), dealing with sorcerers and their potions, … these were so thrilling to that young me – I was, what? ten-eleven years old when I discovered these albums, when Peyo was already famous throughout the length and breadth of France. I whiled away many a wonderful summer afternoon at my cousins’ house, tearing my way through the collection:

La Pierre de Lune, The Moonstone

04-pierre de lune

Le Serment des Vikings, The Oath of the Vikings

05-serment des vikings

La Source des Dieux, The Spring of the Gods

06-source des dieux

La Fleche Noire, The Black Arrow

08-fleche noire

Le Sire de Montrésor, The Lord of Montresor

08-sire de montresor

to arrive at La Flûte à Six Schtroumpfs, The Flute with Six Schtroumpfs

09-flute a six schtroumpfs

This is where the Schtroumpfs first made their entry onto the world stage. And this is where I start to cry.

Understand me, the Schtroumpfs were nice enough, they added a fun element to the story. But in my view they were minor characters. It was Johan and Pirlouit who were firmly centre stage.

Alas! I was in a minority. The junior readers of Spirou magazine – the stories originally came out in serialized format – wrote letters to the magazine enthusing about the little Schtroumpfs. The editors of the magazine, and Peyo himself, saw the commercial possibilities. And so Peyo took the first steps down the slippery slope. He started with minor albums of Schtroumpf stories. He graduated to major albums. He got involved in animated films. First, in Belgium. Then in the US. Then the breakfast cereal companies came knocking on the door: they wanted Schtroumpf statuettes in the Cornflake packages.schtroumpf statuettes

And after that the advertising firms came knocking at the door, asking to use the Schtroumpfs in various advertising campaigns. As this photo shows, the demand from advertizers continues unabated.

schtroumpf advertisement-1

Peyo always said yes. And John and Pirlouit disappeared; he was too busy with the Schtroumpfs. Peyo managed one more great album, La Guerre des 7 Fontaines, the War of the 7 Fountains.

10-guerre des sept fontaines

To me, it was his best, a wonderful story of Fall and Redemption. After that, he managed only a few more albums, pale copies of what had come before. The Schtroumpfs had eaten up his life. He had his first heart attack when he was 41, his last when he was 64.

And I am left with the memories of my youth, those golden afternoons in the France of the early ’60s, with medieval jousts and battles echoing faintly across the fields.

______________________

Schtroumpf: http://www.tattoo-kids.com/581-1284-thickbox/tatouages-schtroumpfs-pack.jpg (in http://www.tattoo-kids.com/pochette-de-tattoos/581-tatouages-schtroumpfs-pack.html)
Chatiment de Basenhau: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100951g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Maitre de Roucybeuf: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100968g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Lutin du Bois aux Roches : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100975g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Pierre de Lune : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100982g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Serment des Vikings : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800100999g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Source des Dieux : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101002g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Fleche Noire : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101019g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Sire de Montresor : http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101026g1.jpg (in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Flute a Six Schtroumpfs: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101033g1.jpg ((in http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=0&fin=9)
Guerre des 7 Fontaines: http://www.bdzone.com/images/tout/9782800101040g1.jpg (oin http://www.bdzone.com/chop/couvranteswap.php?serie=JOHA&debut=9&fin=9#)
Schtroumpf statuettes: http://img0.ndsstatic.com/wallpapers/e40969b9033ccdd352337e6494a54def_large.jpeg (in http://www.ohmymag.com/les-schtroumpfs/wallpaper)
Schtroumpf advertisement: http://img.xooimage.com/files51/2/4/e/lg-optimus-01-22e2217.jpg (in http://schtroumpfmania.soforums.com/t1518-Smartphone-LG.htm)