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Debunking The Non-Ferrous Metal Myth

Author: Sarah Anne Lawless
Posted: September 5th. 2010
Times Viewed: 4,799

We’ve all heard of urban legends, old wives' tales, and 'fakelore', but we’re too intelligent and have too much access to credible reference materials today to fall for them — don’t we? Unfortunately not. Old wives' tales and fake proverbs abound today in the modern Pagan community thanks to the old culprit of word-of-mouth, as well as forums, and few individuals bothering to check facts or origins. Unexplained rules and fakelore are passed from Pagan to Pagan such as the following well-known proverb, and we’ve all heard it: “You can’t use any tool with iron in it to harvest plants. The blade has to be stone, bone, gold, silver or bronze – anything but iron and steel.” We’ve all heard people spouting this proverb, but where did it come from and what is the reasoning behind it?

This modern myth originates from two separate, possibly second or third hand, accounts from Pliny the Elder (a Roman author and army commander) of Gallic Druids harvesting plants. The first account is about club moss, which, according to folklore, must be harvested with your hands only, with no tools, along with other ritual prescriptions shown in the quote below. As it is moss, this is no great feat to accomplish. The custom could still be found continued in a similar manner by rural folk in Cornwall and other localities until the late 19th century. However, this ritual prescription applies only to club moss and not all plants in general.

“On the third day of the [new] moon, when the thin crescent is seen for the first time, show it the knife with which the moss for the charm is to be cut, and repeat: ‘ As Christ healed the issue of blood, so I bid thee begone. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’ (Do thou cut what thou cuttest for good!) . At sun-down, having carefully washed the hands, the club-moss is to be cut kneeling. It is to be carefully wrapped in a white cloth, and subsequently boiled in water taken from the spring nearest its place of growth.” (Courtney, p.151)

The second source of the non-ferrous metal myth is Pliny’s famous account of Gallic Druids ritually harvesting mistletoe. Mistletoe was held to be one of the most sacred plants by the Druids and especially rare and potent when found growing on an Oak tree. During the sixth day of the new moon, and at other magical times, the white-robed Druids would sacrifice two bulls and then climb the tree and cut the mistletoe with a “golden” sickle and then wrap the cuttings in a white cloth not letting them touch the ground.

“Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they [the Druids] bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak.” (Pliny, p.436)

Now, this sickle used wasn’t actually made of gold, as gold is a poor metal for weaponry and tools as it is too soft to hold a sharp edge. The sickle was “golden” in colour because it was made of bronze, which is a combination of copper and tin. A bronze sickle wasn’t used because bronze was somehow more sacred than iron or that iron “tainted” plants or magic, but because the Celts and other tribes of Northern Europe and the British Isles were late coming into metalworking compared to other cultures who had advance to the iron age ahead of them. At the time of Pliny’s account the Gallic Druids used bronze because it was their common metal for tools and weapons at the time. The only magic iron protects against and nullifies is that of the fairies who were believed to be the spirits of the dead, but they aren’t plants.

Iron (and steel) implements such as garden shears, scythes, and knives are not taboo for harvesting plants. They do not take away the power of a plant, its magic, or lessen its healing properties. Gold is too soft to hold a sharp edge. Silver is too expensive, damages too easily, and is also too soft to hold a sharp edge. Bronze is a very difficult metal to find today and too expensive to use for a task so dirty and practical. Unless one happens to be a gifted flintknapper, a modern Witch or Pagan will use what is most practical and available just as our ancestors would have. For this Witch, it’s a good pair of garden shears for harvesting plants for medicine and a practical very sharp steel ritual blade with a deer antler handle for harvesting plants for magic. Blades are practical and made for cutting and the metal they are made with should reflect that. There is no need whatsoever to spend $300 on a silver bolline just to be in keeping with this old wives' tale.

The only general method of magical plant harvesting where one should not use metal is when harvesting a plant whole for magic to retain its powers as a living spirit. To do this, one must dig it up whole without breaking any leaves or roots and either use it right away or dry it whole. This is the method for creating an alraun (a root carved in human form) and other such charms. One can still use a metal knife or shovel to do the digging, however, just not touch the plant with it in order to keep it alive and intact. The most practical tool to use for this purpose is just a simple digging stick, which predates the Stone Age. Hardwoods are best to make a digging stick out of, as your stick may have to deal with hard earth, clay, and rocks. Oak, Yew, Hawthorn, Blackthorn, and Holly are all appropriate to make a digging stick with.

Happy harvesting now that you don’t need to worry about using your old garden shears.

1.Bostock, John and Riley, H.T. The Natural History of Pliny. Volume 3. Henry G. Bohn, London: 1856.
2.Courtney, M.A. Cornish Feasts and Folk-lore. Beare and Son, Penzance: 1890.
3.MacLoed NicMhacha, Sharynne. Queen of the Night: Rediscovering the Celtic Moon Goddess. Weiser Books, Boston: 2005.

Copyright: Copyright 2010, Sarah Lawless. All rights reserved. Article may only be distributed or reposted with the permission of the author with full credit given.


Sarah Anne Lawless

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia


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