At the end of July every year we head to Anglesey (north Wales) for a week’s holiday with P’s family. This year I was on a mission: I wanted to spot some wild orchids. I knew there were there. P’s grandmother had found a couple some five years ago. I had a chat with a nature guide at South Stack on the second day of the vacation. The orchids were late blooming this year and I had a good chance of spotting some.
Well, for four days I walked with my eyes to the ground without seeing any orchid. By the last day of the vacation, I had all but given up. Towards the end of the day, we headed to one of my favourite places on the island: Penmon. This is the site of a healing sanctuary blessed in the sixth century CE by a certain Saint Seiriol. Big Boy T (aged 8), Little Boy G (aged 3), Cousin A (aged 16) and myself all dipped our feet in the sacred waters of the healing well. I wished one more time for an orchid sighting.
The Saint must have been in attendance. As we later walked to the beach at the tip of the promontory, I tripped. Unfortunately, this landed me on my bottom in a ditch. On a positive note, however, I found myself face-to-face with a dozen spotted Anglesey orchids. Cousin A, who clearly felt I was the most embarrassing adult on the planet at that moment, asked P what exactly was so special about orchids. I mumbled something about their magic power, but clearly that was understating my case.
Orchids get their name from the shape of their bulbs, which look like testicles. The Greek word ‘orchis’ means testicle. The ancients believed that ‘similars’ had an effect on ‘similars’. Thus, something that looks like testicles will have an effect on testicles – orchids are a powerful aphrodisiac. This is what Dioscorides (first century CE) has to say on the power of orchids:
And about this plant, it is said that men who the larger root will sire males, but that women who eat the smaller root will give birth to girls. And [it is said] that women in Thessaly drink its tender shoots with goat’s milk to arouse sexual desire, and the dry ones to check and weaken sexual desires. [Dioscorides, Materia Medica 3.126]
Thessaly was the land of witches in Antiquity, so the women Dioscorides politely calls ‘women of Thessaly’ may have been practising the dark arts. The vehicle they chose for the orchid root was goat’s milk, that is, the milk of an animal reputed for its high sexual drive.
Drinking an orchid potion certainly did not appeal. Besides, one is not allowed to gather these wild flowers. Still I was very pleased to spot them. And as we were about the leave the beach at Penmon, we spotted a seal. Seals too, these mammals that behave like fish, were considered highly magical in antiquity. Truly, that place has special powers!