The following is an excerpt from an online research project on The Witch. Within the story, an odd plant is mentioned. Could it be the legendary cimaruta, unbeknownst to the author? All images are copyright of their respective owners and are used here under Fair Use for research and informational purposes and represent the subject of this article in critical commentary.
“Alongside the road, golden fruit shone to catch his attentions
and he desired to have them.” – The Witch
What are the golden fruit? Apples? Peaches? We can see a sketch of a flowering plant, and if this is a fairy tale it could be any imaginary fruit the author intended. Or not?
A cimaruta is a type of charm. It comes from the Naples region of Italy. The region is also home to a powerful sect of witches called Strega. In his work The Evil Eye, 1895, Frederick Thomas Elworthy writes of a rare amulet in the collection of Mr. Neville Rolfe, in Naples in 1888. The following is an excerpt from the book:
“Among those who have written upon Neapolitan superstitions, one only is known to the writer who has even alluded to the most curious of all the many charms worn there against the evil eye. The cima di ruta, or, in Neapolitan, the cimaruta or sprig of rue, tells its own tale. We have in this highly composite, powerful amulet, no less than thirteen separate and distinct symbols, any one of which by itself may be taken as prophylactic against the dreaded evil eye. These are: 1, Rue.; 2, Diana Triformis; 3, Silver; 4, Hand; 5, horned Crescent; 6, Serpent; 7, Key; 8, Heart; 9, Cock; 10, Eagle; 11, Sword or Dart; 12, Fish; 13, Lotus.” read the article
How odd! An amulet to ward off the evil eye and perhaps, curses. With 13 symbols? The goddess Diana is considered a one form of a deity worshiped by early medieval witches. And what was this sprig of evergreen named rue? Let’s find out exactly what this sprig of rue looked like.
Over to www.botanical.com, and there is the description. The sprig of rue–Herb of Grace–is an evergreen shrub, native to Southern Europe with golden flowers. Here was a parallel to the story! An excerpt from Mrs. M. Grieve:
“The name Ruta is from the Greek reuo; to set free, because this herb is so efficacious in various diseases. It was much used by the Ancients; Hippocrates specially commended it, and it constituted a chief ingredient of the famous antidote to poison used by Mithridates. The Greeks regarded it as an anti-magical herb, because it served to remedy the nervous indigestion they suffered when eating before strangers, which they attributed to witchcraft. In the Middle Ages and later, it was considered – in many parts of Europe – a powerful defense against witches, and was used in many spells. It was also thought to bestow second sight.”
Readers of The Witch have noticed the odd looking shrub set it the sketch of the Thief parable and another in the last chapter. In subsequent printings, the author returned to the drawings and added the plant. Was grace an issue for the witch of the story?
The sketch is similar to the Rolfe sketch above. With a stretch of the imagination, one can devise the letters: w, i, t, c, and h! They are reversed on the two sketches. There is an ancient history to this wonderful plant rutaceae, as well as a sample of references in literature posted below. Perhaps you would like to grow a sprig in your own garden – near a willow tree, of course.
Ruta in Literature
Shakespeare refers again to Rue in Richard III: ‘Here in this place I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace; Rue, even for ruth, shall shortly here be seen, In the remembrance of a weeping queen.’
The following is a quotation from Drayton: ‘Then sprinkles she the juice of rue, With nine drops of the midnight dew From lunarie distilling.’ The latter was the Moonwort (Lunaria), often called ‘honesty’ – a common garden flower, with cross-shaped purple blossoms, and round, clear silvery-looking seed-vessels. Chaucer also calls it Lunarie. It is one of the ingredients in the ‘Vinegar of the Four Thieves.’
A E Housman verse with another meaning for rue, or is it?: With rue my heart is laden For golden friends I had, For many a rose-lipt maiden And many a lightfoot lad. By brooks too broad for leaping The lightfoot boys are laid; The rose-lipt girls are sleeping In fields where roses fade.