Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Innocence of Lamb's Lettuce & Parsley

It used be a well-known fact that herbs have "other" properties than just the ability to enhance and garnish food.

Much of this information is narrated in folk songs and folk tales and has made its way down to us in extraordinarily encoded form. Decoding this is, of course, the raison d'être of an academic.

Perhaps you have heard of a classic tale called Rapunzel?

The Brothers Grimm are responsible for its transmission to us. There are two version of their tales — one in 1814 and a revised and annotated version in 1857. As the brothers grew older, they systematically bowdlerized the tales they had collected themselves, stripping them of their sexual content and violence. The earlier versions are unambiguously more interesting.

Let's recap the tale of Rapunzel — a pregnant woman craves "rapunzel" and goes into the neighboring garden to get it. When caught, she agrees to give over the child to the witch. The witch imprisons the female child in a tower. One day, a prince hears her singing and climbs into the tower using her hair. The witch finds out, and she pushes the prince off the tower blinding him. Love prevails and the prince's vision is restored.

Rapunzel is a weed also known as lamb's lettuce. This is a total substitution on the part of the Brothers Grimm and the association with lamb and "innocence" should be noted. Even they weren't above keeping some of the resonance in the story even though it gives it a totally different feel.

The original story is called Persinette and "persil" is French for parsley. Persinette could loosely be translated as "Little Miss Parsley".

The pregnant woman was craving parsley. Most adult readers here would know that pregnant women don't really crave green herbs. Salt, sugar, sour stuff, sure but herbs?

The tale is coded.

She wanted the parsley to concoct a brew because parsley is an abortifacient. The child is not wanted. The "witch" is a woman with a garden who knows the properties of herbs and grows them. Her taking the child away could easily be seen as an act of generosity not of cruelty.

Additionally, the Grimm Brothers change another key component of the tale. In the classic tale, the witch finds out the existence of the prince because she is heavier than the prince. However, the original tale has Persinette ask the witch why her dress doesn't fit any more and feels tighter and tighter.

She's pregnant and Persinette and the Prince have been doing plenty of the ol' in-an'-out rumpy-pumpy.

Now the tale comes full circle. Like mother, like daughter.

Note that the girl is innocent before she is born and still innocent in the sense that she has no clue about sex. This only makes sense in a deeply Christian world of "original sin" as would be typical of an European folk tale.

Also note that the witch's motivations make more sense in the original version. You could easily write a version from her point of view making her the heroine not the villainess.

The tale has so much more resonance when seen in the correct light.

To bring a more modern feeling to the same idea, have you heard of the Simon & Garfunkel's classic "Scarborough Fair"? The song is an old English folk song and the lyrics are coded.

The opening lyrics go as:
Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.
Remember me to one who lives there.
She once was a true love of mine.
What on earth are parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme doing there?

"Going to Scarborough Fair" refers to the act of "making the beast with two backs". Bumping uglies, hooking up, doing the dirty in modern parlance.

A concoction made of parsley, rosemary, sage and thyme was a well-known abortifacient. The parsley, in particular as pointed above, is an important component.

The song was written in 1966 when abortion was illegal in the US. It's not clear whether Simon & Garfunkel knew but it seems extraordinarily hard to believe that two talented intelligent men didn't know what they were singing even if their audience was clueless.

A cursory search on the web suggests these ideas are still well-known and prevalent in countries that ban abortion. Parsley is far more easily available that RU-486. Less effective perhaps but definitely easier to find.

The deeper one penetrates into the art of cooking, the more one is confronted with the more elemental and universal aspects of humanity.

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