Sunday, 22 January 2017

Cantre'r Gwaelod

Cantre'r Gwaelod meaning Sunken cantref (province) is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. 

There are several versions of the legend. The earliest version appears in the Black Book of Carmarthen which dates to the 13th century. In it the land is referred to as Maes Gwyddno (English: the Plain of Gwyddno). In this version, the land was lost to floods when a well-maiden named Mererid neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow.

It is interesting that a very similar story is also found in "Historical and descriptive notices of the city of Cork and its vicinity" first published in 1839 by John Windele. On Pages 42-43 we can read this:

A short distance to the south west, from the City, is Lough na famog, (probably the Lough Ere of the Hajiology,) now called the Lough of Cork, a considerable sheet of water supplied by streams from the adjoining hills; the high road runs along its eastern shore, and the other sides are skirted by grounds, unhappily without tree or shrub, to add a feature of beauty or interest to the picture. It is the scene of one of CROKER'S charming Fairy Legends, detailing the bursting forth of the lake, through the negligence of the princess Fioruisge (Irish: Fior-uisge - spring water), daughter of King Corc. In taking water from the charmed fountain, she forgot to close the mouth of the well, and the court, the gardens, the King, and his people, were buried beneath the flowing waters. 

The incident is common to almost every lake in Ireland. 

Six centuries ago, Cambrensis had a similar legend concerning Lough Neagh, which Hollinshed has repeated in a less diffusive style. "There was," he says, "in old time, where the pool now standeth, vicious and beastlie inhabitants. At which time was there an old saw in everie man his mouth, that as soon as a well there springing, (which for the superstitious reverence they bare it, was continuallie covered and signed,) were left open and unsigned, so soone would so much water gush out of that well, as would forthwith overwhelme the whole territorie. It happened at length, that an old trot came thither to fetch water, and hearing her childe whine, she ran with might and maine to dandle her babe, forgetting the observance of the superstitious order tofore used: But as she was returning backe, to have covered the spring, the land was so farre overflown, as that it past hir helpe; and shortly after, she, hir suckling, and all those that were within the whole territorie, were drowned; and this seemeth to carie more likelihood with it, because the fishers in a cleare sunnie daie, see the steeples and other piles plainlie and distinctlie in the water." 

In 1770, Welsh antiquarian scholar William Owen Pughe reported seeing sunken human habitations about four miles (6.4 km) off the Ceredigion coast, between the rivers Ystwyth and Teifi.

In the 1846 edition of The Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis described a feature of stone walls and causeways beneath the shallow waters of Cardigan Bay. Lewis took the view that considering that the Ptolemy maps marked the coastline of Cardigan Bay in the same location as it appears in modern times, the flood described in the legend must have occurred before the second century AD.

Modern historians however rejected the legend as a fantasy. 

But few years ago, ferocious winter storms stripped thousands of tons of sand from beaches in Cardigan Bay. What was revealed was a huge prehistoric forest, hundreds of oaks that died more than 4,500 years ago when they stopped growing and were then submerged under the surface of the Cardigan Bay. This ancient forest, named "the forest of Borth", once stretched for miles on boggy land between Borth and Ynyslas. Then something happened, the climate changed, the sea lever rose and the whole area disappeared under a thick layer of peat and sand and the ancient forest disappeared from view.

What is interesting is that archaeologists also found a timber walkway made from short lengths of coppiced branches, held in place with upright posts. It has been dated to between 3,100 and 4,000 years old, built as the local people found ways to cope with living in an increasingly waterlogged environment. Human and animal footprints were also found preserved in the hardened top layer of peat, along with scatterings of burnt stones from ancient hearths.

So people who lived in the forest of Borth, and who witnessed it's submergence under the waves of the Cardigan Bay, continued to live in the area. They must have passed the account of this event from generation to generation until eventually it came to us as a legend about the submerging of the Maes Gwyddno (the Plain of Gwyddno). 

What is interesting is that the destruction of the forest of Borth happened at the same time when the Irish bog oaks found in the area of the above mentioned Lough Neagh, stopped growing because they were suddenly submerged in water for 10 years.... The I wrote about this in my post "Partholon and the great flood". In that article I talked about a very strange correlation between the Irish myths and legends talking about the great floods of the mid 3rd millennium BC, and the actual dendochronological data from the same period...I concluded that the Irish myths about the great flood of Partholon are probably real histories, memories of the real catastrophic weather even which hit Ireland during the period 2354 BC and 2345 BC. 

And we now see that Wales was also hit by the same event. Dendochronoligical data obtained from the tree stumps found in the Cardigan Bay seems to match the dendochronological data from Lough Neagh. 

Did Welsh people, just like the Irish, manage to preserve the memory of the "great flood" and pass it on to us across 4500 years? Or did some past great winter storms reveal the remains of "the forest of Borth" to the amazed and bewildered medieval witnesses only to cover them again, triggering human imagination and eventually giving us the legend about the submerging of Cantre'r Gwaelod?

I just thought of something. The Laigin people from Ireland at one stage controlled Llyn peninsula. I wonder if this is how we find almost identical "let the tap running" explanation for the legend in both Ireland and Wales? 

In "The Lleyn peninsula : It's history, literature & antiquities" we read that "...practically every lake in Wales has some story or other connected with it. The story about the lake Glasfryn is very interesting. The story says that in the olden times there was a well where the lake is now, and this well, kept by a maiden named "Grassi," was called "Grace's Well." Over the well was a door, presumablv a trapdoor, which Grassi used to open when people wanted water, and shut immediately afterwards. One day Grassi forgot to shut the door, and the water overflowed and formed a lake. For her carelessness Grassi was turned into a swan, and her ghost is still said to haunt Glasfryn House and Cal-Ladi. This little lake is now the home and breeding-place of countless swans..."

This is almost identical to the legend about the Lough from Cork. So it is quite possible that the Laigin are the link here...

Also who is this "princess" or "maiden" who is blamed for the "great flood"? Cold this be the Old Mother Earth, the Mother Goddess, who controlled the waters, like "Baba", the hag from Slavic mythology did? Wells were considered holy to her, an the well water was called  "živa voda", living water. If the Earth is the Mother Goddess, then the well water is her menstrual blood, the living water indeed... This is a very interesting theme to explore....

Friday, 20 January 2017

The Etruscan sun

This is Etruscan sun shaped dish from Cerveteri, Calabresi tomb, dated to mid 7th century BC (Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican Museums, Rome). You can see the high resolution image of this object here.

It belongs to the "bucchero" (bukkero) type of ceramics which was produced in central Italy by the pre-Roman Etruscan population, who called themselves Raseni. Regarded as the "national" pottery of ancient Etruria, bucchero ware is distinguished by its black fabric as well as glossy, black surface achieved through the unique "reduction" method in which it was fired.

This is also one of the most important misunderstood objects that I have come across so far. 

Officially the animals represented on it are bulls and rams????

Actually the two animals at the bottom are two lions, you can clearly see that because they have manes. The animal at the top is a bull. The composition represents summer.  

Summer is the sunny, hot part of the year, which is what the blazing sun shape indicates.

The Summer starts on the 6th of May, Beltane, Jarilo day, which falls in the middle of Taurus zodiac sign. This is what the bull symbolizes. Autumn begins on the 2nd of August, Crom Dubh day, Lughnasadh, Perun day. This day falls in the middle of the Leo zodiac sign and this is what two facing lions symbolize. You can read more about this in my post "Two Crosses" and in my post "Ognjena Marija".

There are also two dogs etched on the sun disc. One dog is standing between the lions, to mark the "dog days", the hottest period of the summer which also falls in the middle of Leo zodiac sign. The other dog is licking bull's neck. The reason why dog is licking the bull's neck is because summer, represented by the bull, is "killed" by autumn, represented by the lion(s). This killing of summer happens during dog days. The dog is licking the bull's neck because the blood is gushing out of it. The bull's neck is symbolically slit when harvest begins just like the "necks" of wheat (wheat stalks) are slit by harvesters during harvest... I talked about the link between harvest and slaughtering in my post "Klas".

Now a question: where else have you seen a dog licking a bull's neck? Can you remember?

So to conclude. The meaning of this object is: The bull is killed by the lion, summer gets replaced by autumn. Harvest begins. Rejoice...

One more interesting thing:

The lions are eating people, which are etched disappearing into lions' mouths. Did Etruscans sacrifice people on the first day of Harvest?

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Golem and Gavra

Prague golem

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an animated anthropomorphic being that is magically created entirely from inanimate matter (specifically clay or mud). The oldest stories of golems date to early Judaism. In the Talmud, which was compiled between 200 AD and 500 AD. In Sanhedrin 38b we read that Adam was initially created as a golem (גולם) when his dust was "kneaded into a shapeless husk". Like Adam, all golems are created from mud, but no anthropogenic golem is fully human. What distinguishes a golem from a human is golem's inability to speak. 

Sanhedrin 65b describes Rava creating a man. He sent the man to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to him, but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, "You were created by the sages; return to your dust"

Now word used for man in the above story is "gavra". So man, golem that can talk, is in Hebrew called "gavra". Which is very interesting considering that in Slavic languages word "govor" means "speech". And "govori ja" means "I speak". So in Slavic languages gavra means exactly what it supposed to mean: someone that can talk, not golem, man...

How is this possible?

Does the word "gavra" has the meaning in Hebrew that is related to talking? And if not, how is it possible that this Slavic expression ended up in ancient Hebrew?

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Zlatorog - Goldhorn

In my post "Goat" I showed that the beginning of the Capricorn zodiac sigh falls right in the middle of the mating season of the Alpine ibex wild goats. Alpine ibex mating season starts in December, and ends in January typically lasting around six weeks. Winter Solstice, 21st of December falls right in the middle of this period and the day after the Winter solstice is the beginning of the Capricorn (goat) period, which last from December 22 – January 20...

This information is the key that allows us to finally unlock the true meaning of one of the most interesting legends preserved in Europe. The legend of Zlatorog, the Goldhorn. 

This is Triglav. With an elevation of 2,864 metres, height is the highest mountain in Slovenia and the highest peak of the Julian Alps.

Just below Triglav mountain lies The valley of Triglav Lakes.

The Valley of Triglav Lakes is a karstic, high mountain valley in the heart of Julian Alps with many small lakes dotted among the rocks. The lowest lake is Black Lake (Črno jezero) at an elevation of 1,294 metres above sea level. The highest is Podstenje Lake (Jezero v Podstenju), which is located at an elevation of 1,993 m.

The valley and the surrounding peaks are incredibly rugged and rough and incredibly beautiful. Here are some pictures of the valley that might give you better idea of what kind of place this is. 

The valley is located under the mount Triglav. In Serbian mythology we have two main deities: Triglav (Three headed god), Dabog (giving god), Djed (Grandfather), the sky father. and his wife Troglava (Three head goddess), Dajbaba (giving goddess), Baba (Grandmother), the earth mother. It is their constant interplay that produces all life on earth. 

This valley is the location of the story of Zlatorog (Goldhorn), magic Ibex goat with golden horns. 

Here is the full text of the legend of Zlatorog:

"The Valley of Triglav lakes and Komna plateau were once a green heaven. It was inhabited by White women, good fairies who kept the mountain pastures green. They also visited the lower valleys and helped humans whenever they found them in need. They also helped women at childbirth. A child who was delivered into the world by them, was protected by the White Ladies for the rest of his life. They never asked for thanks or payment. But they didn't allow anyone to enter their Lake Valey. If anyone accidentally or because of arrogance got close to their homes, they would hurl down rocks and stones and avalanches, or cause terrible storms of snow and hail and would force people to return to the valley. The Lake valley was also home to a heard of white goats whose leader was Zlatorog (Goldhorn). He was indestructible. If it got hurt, from his blood a miraculous flower, called Triglav rose would spring. 

Triglav rose, Latin name "Potentilla nitida", is a species of cinquefoil in the Rosaceae family that is endemic to the Alps where it grows on elevation of 3,200 metres

If Goldhorn ate a single leaf or petal from this flower, he would instantly recover.  His golden horns were the key to unlocking a big treasure, which was hidden on Bogatin (Rich) mountain. The treasure was guarded by a multi-headed snake, dragon. 

The only mortal, who was allowed to climb on the highest summits of the Lake Valley, was the son of a beautiful widow – the Trenta Hunter. He was delivered by the White women, so he was under their special protection. 

The Trenta Hunter had a girlfriend, a daughter of an inn keeper who owned a tavern on the confluence of Koritnica and Soča river. One day innkeeper’s daughter caught an eye of a rich Venetian merchant. He gave her lots of expensive jewelry and promised her life in great luxury if she married him. When Trenta Hunter came next time to the tavern to see his girlfriend, the girl’s mother demanded from him to produce a treasure that will match the wealth of the Venetian merchant, or he will never be allowed to see her daughter again. Alternatively he could bring back a bunch of Triglav roses in mid-winter to prove his fidelity – an impossible task.

The young hunter, desperate and hurt left the tavern. On his way out, he was joined by the Green Hunter, who was known in the valley to bring into troubles many decent young guys. It was the Green hunter, who proposed to the Trenta Hunter to kill Goldhorn, take his golden horns and with their help take all the treasures of Bogatin (Rich) mountain. Once he brings Bogatin treasure to his girlfriend's mother, she was surely going to let him have his sweetheart back. 

They started climbing the mountain the very same night, and in the morning as the sun rose they spotted the Goldhorn. Trenta Hunter took aim and pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Goldhorn. The blood gushing from Zlatorog’s wound melted the snow and up sprang a magical Triglav rose. The dying Goldhorn nibbled on a few petals and was instantly healed. It jumped up and leaped away. Wherever he touched the ground, snow melted and Triglav roses sprang up from under his hooves, luring the Trienta hunter onto higher and higher ground. But as they climbed, the sun caught Zlatorog’s shiny horns. The hunter was blinded, lost his footing and plunged into a gorge.

The once kind and trusting Goldhorn was enraged that he was treated in such a manner. In his fury he gored his way through the Triglav Lakes Valley, leaving it much as it looks today. He left the area with the White Ladies, never to return.

The innkeeper’s daughter waited in vain for her lover to return home. As spring approached, the snow began to melt, swelling the Soca River. One day it brought her a sad gift: the body of Trienta hunter, his lifeless hand still clutching a Triglav rose.

That's it. 

Now how are we to understand this story? 

Well this story has several levels. 

Firstly it is a story about how greed can destroy people. And this is the level most people stop at. 

Secondly it is a great environmental warning. The destruction of the Lake Valley and its transformation from the lush green paradise to barren karst plateau was caused by Goldhorn, who disappeared afterwords. The Alpine ibex historically ranged through France, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Bavaria, Austria and Slovenia. Starting in the early 16th century and with firearms becoming common, the overall population declined due to over-exploitation and poaching. The ibex became extinct in Switzerland and Germany by the 18th century, and was extinct in Austria and northeastern Italy by the 19th century. This is why in most versions of the Legend, Goldhorn is legendary white chamois buck. Only in some Slovenian versions, which I believe are the older ones, he is an Ibex buck. Basically by he time the story was recorded, Alpine ibex was extinct and local people replaced the now gone ibex with still present chamois. The fact that the story says that Goldhorn disappeared after the destruction of its habitat, proves that originally Goldhorn was Alpine ibex.

It is also interesting that when alpine ibex left, the "white ladies" also left never to return. Who were these mysterious "white ladies" who kept the mountain pastures green and who also helped women at childbirth?

In my series of articles about Baba, the Mother Goddess, I explained that in Serbian the word "baba" means mother, grandmother and midwife, basically anyone who gave birth or helped giving birth. It also means stone, rock, mountain and mother Earth, the Great Mother who gave birth to us all. The word baba also has many meanings in Slovenian: an old woman, hag, demon spirit or witch, dry, barren river bed or ravine, rock or a crag.

Many stony mountain peaks in the Balkans have the name whose root is the word "baba" and there are quite a few of these in Slovenia. This is one of them, Velika Baba in Jezersko region

Also many isolated stone crags in the Balkans also have names whose root is the word baba. This one from Slovenia is called "Poljanska baba" and is located on the eastern slope of Mt. Mežakla.

Shepherd's in Slovenia still believe today that these "baba" stones are linked to weather, water, humidity, mud, soil and fertility and pasture abundance. Until recently, during their spring ascend to Great Mountain above Kamnik, shepherds would leave a few coins or a loaf of bread at a place called "Babji trebuh" meaning "Baba's belly". The offering was left for "baba" so that she doesn't "walk around the mountain bringing cold and hail". It is interesting that in the Balkan folklore a dark cloud that brings the storm with hail or sleet is also called "baba" and that the direction from which the storm clouds usually arrive over the hill or a mountain is called "babja" meaning baba's domain. 

Now "baba", grandmother, hag, an old lady has a white hair so an old lady is also a "white lady". As I already explained in my post "Baba's day", baba is also a word for midwife, the one who delivers babies. And she is also the one who controls earth, water, darkness and cold, the domains of the Mother Goddess. So I believe that the white ladies are memories of the old Earth Goddess, Baba, the Great Mother Goddess. My research shows that the reverence of the Great Mother was only very recently suppressed in the Balkans. I believe that the departure of the "white ladies" and the turning of the lush green pastures into desolate rocky desert, describes the belief of the local people that the abandonment of the old beliefs and the respect for the Great Mother Earth is what has brought the destruction of the environment...

But there is another, and to me the most interesting layer to this story. The astrological one. And this is the layer which only becomes accessible when we know the link between the ibex goat and the Capricorn sign. The Zlatorog story describes the succession of three winter astrological signs, Sagittarius, Capricorn and Aquarius. 

Sagittarius 23 November – 21 December
Capricorn 22 December – 20 January
Aquarius 21 January – 19 February

The story shows the inevitability of the passing of winter and the arrival of spring.

Here is the story again with the translation of the used symbols:

The only mortal, who is allowed to climb on the highest summits of the Lake Valley, is the Trenta Hunter. 

This hunter is Sagittarius. Sagittarius is the time of the year when all farm work is finished and all animals have already finished growing their winter fur. It is the time of the first snow and the beginning of the winter fur hunting season. This is why this is where we find Sagittarius, the hunter.

He is the son of a beautiful widow. He was delivered by the White women, so he is under their special protection. 

Sagittarius is the son of Virgo. Virgo is the lady who stands on the lion (Leo), the sign that comes after Leo. Virgo is the sign when Baba, the Mother Earth, starts taking over from the Father Sky. This is the time when weather starts getting cooler and wetter. By the time Sagittarius is born, Mother Earth is a widow. The agricultural year is over, the killing of the bull is finished and Scorpio has already cut his balls off (I will explain what this means exactly in on of my future posts). And the winter, the season in which Mother goddess is the sole ruler, has began on the 8th of November. 

The young hunter is joined by the Green Hunter, who is known in the valley to bring into troubles many decent young guys. It was the Green hunter, who proposes to the Trenta Hunter to kill Goldhorn. His golden horns were the key to unlocking a big treasure, which was hidden on Bogatin (Rich) mountain. 

Green Hunter is Jarilo, the young sun. Jar in Slavic languages means both hot, young and green. Jarilo is the the representation of young male passion. Considered a bad thing in Christianity. He is the mysterious "Green Man" who brings new vegetative cycle. In Celtic and Serbian calendar, the year is divided into two parts: summer which starts with Celtic Beltane (1st of May) or Serbian Jarilo day, St Georges day (5th of May) and Celtic Samhain (31st of October) or Serbian Mitrov dan (8th of November). I wrote about this in detail in my post "Two crosses". In Serbian mythology Mitar and Jarilo are represented as mounted hunters. Jarilo encourages Mitar to go after the goat of Winter solstice, which is mid point between them and so speed up the passing of winter.  Only if Mitar, The Hunter, Sagittarius catches the Goat, Capricorn, will the new solar year start.  

The treasure was guarded by a multi-headed snake. 

The treasure is plentiful of food during summer and autumn. The beginning of summer is marked by Jarilo day, which in Christianity became St Georges day. Jarilo, the fire head of Triglav, is the Snake king, the multi-headed snake, the Dragon, the fire and heat of the sun. Christian missionaries showed a great sense of humor when they turned Jarilo, the dragon into St George - the dragon killer...But this was time and time again used recipe of destroying old religious beliefs: turn them into their opposites...

The hunters start climbing the mountain in the evening. 

This is the evening of the winter solstice. 

In the morning as the sun rose the Hunter spots the Goldhorn. He takes aim and pulls the trigger. The bullet hits Goldhorn. 

The moment when the hunter hits the goat, when Sagittarius meets the Capricorn, is the Winter solstice day. The day when the new sun, the new solar year is born, when the days start getting longer again. The Capricorn is the true Goldhorn, who brings the new sun between his horns. This sun is the key to the great treasure, the new vegetative year which will start soon when Capricorn dies...

But the hunter gets blinded by the sunlight reflecting from Zlatorog's golden horns, slips on a cliff and falls to his death. 

The hunter dies on Winter Solstice day, the last day of Sagittarius. The day when the new sun is born and the sun's blazing fire is rekindled. This is the end of Sagittarius and beginning of Capricorn. 

The blood gushing from dying Zlatorog’s wound melts the snow. 

The dying Capricorn's blood which melts the snow is the first snow melt which occurs in Aquarius, after Capricorn ends. The water which Aquarius pours is this first snow melt which swells the rivers and breaks the ice. It is during Aquarius that we find Celtic Imbolc (1st of February) and St Sava (27th of January, but originally probably 4th of February), the beginning of Spring. 

From the place where snow has melted springs a magical Triglav rose. The dying Goldhorn nibbles on a few petals and is instantly healed. 

The death and resurrection of a goat is a common scene reenacted during Coleda ceremonies in Slavic countries. These ceremonies are, I believe, the origin of Christmas carols. I will talk about this more in one of my future posts. 

The once kind and trusting Goldhorn, enraged that he was treated in such a manner, leaves with the White Ladies, never to return.

Well until next winter and the next big Goldhorn hunt...

This legend once and for all confirms that zodiac signs were markers used to describe important natural events in Europe. This means that zodiac signs had to be invented in Europe, not in Babilonia. The fact that the true meaning of this story had stayed hidden for so long is solely because no one saw the link between the ibex goat and the Capricorn before.

Thursday, 12 January 2017


Its this time of the year again. The time when first snowdrops appear out of the snow. In Serbia they are called "visibaba" meaning "hanging granny". They appear at the end of January, beginning of Febrary, which is the coldest part of the year. This is the part of the year ruled by the old white-headed hag, old earth, winter earth, Morana. And they actually look like a bent old hag with long white hair. The appearance of snowdrops at the time when Morana is most powerful signals that her power is beginning to wane. The old white-headed hag, winter earth, is soon going to die and will be replaced by the beautiful young maiden, spring earth, Vesna. 

I have just discovered a very interesting thing. Snowdrops bulbs are poisonous!! They contain galantamine, which is lethal in large quantities but in a small amount is used as a medicine against early Alzheimer's and vascular dementia...

Let me know when you spot the first snowdrop. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017


In Cornish and Welsh the word "wrach" means old woman, hag, witch. Fraic as in the placename Leitir Fraic is said to be an old obsolete Irish word for a woman. In Serbian, the word "vrač" pronounced "vrach" means doctor, physician, shamanistic priest, witch doctor, magician, warlock. The verb "vračati" means to cast spells, to divinate, to perform any magical action. The word is found in all Slavic languages. 

In Serbian villages the role of "vrač" was usually performed by a woman who was then called "vračara", feminine form of "vrač". Vračara was the healer, midwife, amulet maker, spell caster, fortune teller, and basically keeper of "magical" and other ancient religious traditions and taboos. Some of the rituals preserved as part of this folk magic are remnants of ancient Vedic, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Old Slavic, Turkish... religious rituals which accumulated in Serbian culture...

Vračara was usually an old woman who received her "magical" knowledge from her mother who got it from her mother who got it from her mother...Vračara was quintessential witch...But witch which was part of the community. The good witch. The real ones never charged for their services. They did their what they did because it was their calling. 

Vračara was most likely to look something like this. Basically your typical Serbian baba (grandmother, old woman, hag, "wrach"):

The tradition of vračara was suppressed during Christianity, when vračara was seen as part of the old pagan belief system. It was also suppressed during Communism when vračara was at best seen as part of the backward peasant culture and at worst as fraudster who was danger to society. It is today also suppressed as stupid dangerous superstition of which we Serbs should be ashamed... 

Despite centuries of suppression, village vračara managed to survive until recently. However today the tradition is dying out because the Serbian villages are dying out and crumbling to dust. And soon the Celtic "wrach", Serbian "vrač", the old village "witch" will disappear into the legend for ever...

Monday, 9 January 2017

Not all salts were made equal

Which salt should you use for salting meat? This seems like a strange question, but as you will see, when it comes to curing meat and fish, not all salts were made equal. 

In my post "Fulacht fiadh - salt extraction facility" I mentioned an article "Extracting Salt from Distichlis spicata (seashore saltgrass): Continued Investigations into Methods of. Salt Extraction and Salt Utilization in Prehistoric California". In it you can read that:

Many California tribes extracted salt from plants.

Various plants such as Distichlis spicata (seashore saltgrass), Petasites frigidus (sweet coltsfoot), Umbelliferae (Celery) were burned to create salty ashes which were then used as salt.
In some regions salt grass was burned on a grating of hardwood sticks which was laid over a pit full of hot coals. The salty sap oozed out of the plants and dropped on the coals, forming lumps which were extracted from ashes after the pit was cooled.
 Another way of extracting salt from salt grass was by drying it on flat rocks and pounding it in mortar holes. The crushed bits were then winnowed using a circular tray which separated the salt from the grass. The resulting salt was then dampened and pressed into balls. The balls were broken as needed for use.
In some cases, the salty plants were were eaten raw.

Sometimes non saline grass was soaked in brackish water and then burned.

But this article contains another passage that is very very interesting indeed:

"Native groups in California extracted salt from salt springs, saline soil, rock salt, and saline and nonsaline plants. Salt was so valued by Native Californians that it was the number one trade item. All native American tribes from California either supplied or received salt from other groups, and 11 of the groups both supplied and received salt from different sources. For example, the Western Mono supplied rock salt and the TuleKaweah Yokuts supplied salt from salt grass to the Eastern Mono... "

This is very strange. Why would people exchange rock salt for grass salt and the the other way round? Salt is salt right? Wrong. Native Americans extracted "salt" from various green leaf plants. One of them belongs to the Umbelliferae family, commonly known as the celery, family. Plants belonging to celery family are super rich in sodium nitrates. And sodium nitrates in the meat get converted in sodium nitrites which kill one of the nastiest bacteria that can spoil the meat "C. botulinum" which causes botulismpotentially fatal illness.

The dehydrating and oxygen-depriving effect of salt (sodium chloride) in the wet or dry cure is effective against most of bacteria including Salmonella and E. coli. But salt can't kill C. botulinum. As a matter of fact, C. botulinum (or botulism) thrives in the absence of oxygen, so as the moisture (and dissolved oxygen) are drawn out of the meat by the salt, the dehydrated meat becomes an attractive environment to anaerobic bacteria like botulism.

Nitrates are converted in the food to nitrites. The nitrites are what controls the growth of botulism, by inhibiting certain metabolic processes of the bacteria.

All fruits and vegetables contain nitrates, and some contain significant amounts:

celery (all parts including the juice and the seeds)
beets (especially the beetroot)
leafy greens like spinach, chard and beet leaves

Ash produced from these plants will contain high level of nitrates. If plants were first soaked in salty water and then burned, the resulting salty ashes will contain both sodium chloride (salt) and sodium nitrate. This type of "salt grass" salt would have much better preservative effects if used as part of the smoking process than pure sea or rock salt, which is almost pure sodium chloride. 

However even just using the above nitrate rich plants in a wet brine will protect from botulism on top of providing flavor to the meat. This is the equivalent of using Prague Powder #1 curing salt, the most commonly used curing salt which contains 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% table salt. 

Indeed, the addition of celery to the cure is what allows some ‘healthy’ commercially-cured meets to declare they are nitrate/nitrite-free, since what they add is celery. It’s not their problem that the celery provides nitrates.

Interesting don't you think? Is this why Native Americans extracted salt from "salt grasses" even though they were also able to extract it from brine and sea water and rock salt? And why they traded rock and sea salt for salt extracted from plants? Did they, although probably not knowing why, realize that salt extracted from plants was much better meat and fish preservative than rock, brine or sea salt?

I believe so. 

But what about the ancient Irish? Is it possible that they also, unwittingly, used nitrate rich salt extracted from "salt grass" to cure their meat and fish? I believe so. 

Celery (Apium graveolens), which we have seen is super rich in nitrates, has been cultivated as a vegetable since antiquity. But originally it was a wild plant which originally grew in salty marshlands. The original Wild Celery (Apium graveolens) is a plant of mainly coastal ground growing in salt-marshes or brackish ditches, by sea walls or streams – but it is rarely found inland.

It is quite possible that the ancient Irish, like the native Americans extracted salt from this plant. They definitely knew that the plant tasted salty. They could have burned the plant, and then added the ashes to the brine made in fulacht fiadh either during the salt extraction or during the meat and fish brining process. They could have also boiled chopped fresh leaves and stalks in a pot, using either charcoal piled next to the pot or fire heated stones dropped into it. Boiling extracts nitrates from the plant into the water. Cooled down nitrate rich celery soup could then be added to the brine. Brine enriched in such way would be would have proven to be much better meat and fish preservative to ordinary brine, made with sea salt.