Bufonite

Sweet are the uses of adversity; Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head. William Shakespeare – “As You Like It” Toads have made their mark on culture by nestling in a curious space between medicine and magic. In the middle-ages the toad was thought to be as common a witches’ familiar as the cat. The French lawyer and demonologist Jean Bodin noted in his 1580 work De la démonomanie des sorciers (Of the Demon-mania of the Sorcerers) that while certainly incriminating, the presence of toads should not, in itself, be sufficient evidence …

reformations and malformations

‘Mooncalf’ is an old name for the malformed, abnormal offspring that livestock occasionally produce. Usually still-born or short-lived, mooncalves were thought to be a result of lunar influence and were sometimes considered to be magical creatures, or hybrids thereof.  Although the word is closely associated with cows, mooncalves from other animals are also recorded and it’s likely that the ‘calf’ element of this word comes from the Old Norse kálfi ‘swelling’, which is also the origin of the ‘calves’ of your leg. One particular mooncalf, born in Freiburg, Germany, on December 8th 1522, became an unlikely pawn in an escalating …

Map Reader’s Companion for Upland England

I’ve had a lot of terms sent in over the last year or so. Hundreds of people have been generous with their knowledge, sharing words from their local areas, from their memories of childhood and from their professional expertise. Each submission is a treasure and I’m very grateful for them all whether they arrive alone or in a cluster. Several people have offered whole troves of words but this week I was sent a truly magnificent haul from Bryan Miller, who 20 years ago started a similar project to mine but focusing on the English uplands. Bryan has collected hundreds …

Lost for words

There’s recently been revived interest in a story that I think I first heard about in Robert Macfarlane’s essay “A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook“. Back in 2007 the Oxford University Press announced a new edition of their Junior Dictionary (aimed at 7-9 year-olds) and it was noticed that a number of nature words that had been in previous editions were now absent, in their place were a selection of new words like “broadband”, “voicemail” and “blog”. In all, 47 words for plants, animals and natural landforms were cut in 2007. My reaction to this was a mixture of sadness and dejection. The …

Tolmens, dolmens and lumbago

Tolmens are stones that are both objectively holey and subjectively holy. When they were found by prehistoric peoples in what is now Devon and Cornwall, the neat circular holes in these river stones would have been impossible to explain, and this imbued the tolmens with mystery and the possibility of magic. Healing rituals involving these stones persisted into modern times, often having been co-opted by Christians from pre-existing pagan rites. Here’s an account from William Bottrell’s Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall published in 1873: IN a croft belonging to Lanyon farm, and about half a mile north of …