In her influential Dictionary of Fairies (1976), Katharine Briggs gave a list of charms that protected against fairies. This included several plants and herbs like four-leaved clover, St. John's wort, rowan and ash. These are all extremely well-known superstitions, showing up in books of fairy lore and plant lore alike.
But she also included two plants that are harder to find information on:
"Red verbena was almost equally potent, partly perhaps because of its pure and brilliant colour. Daisies, particularly the little field daisies, were protective plants, and a child wearing daisy chains was supposed to be safe from fairy kidnapping."
Briggs is the only authority to list these herbs in this way. Any later sources generally quote her. Botanist Roy Vickery wrote in 2010, citing Briggs, that accounts of the daisy chain superstition were "rather unconvincingly suggested."
So, can this information be backed up by any other collections of folklore?
Verbena, or vervain, is well-known as a ward against the supernatural, but the fact that Briggs describes it as red brings up questions. Verbena comes in multiple varieties and colors - lilac, blue, pink, white or red. Briggs placed great significance on the red color, making it the plant's most important quality: "Red was always a vital and conquering colour." She also mentions red thread and red berries as protective talismans (although red is also a favored fairy color). But the vervain native to England, the natural candidate for any fairy superstitions, would be Verbena officinalis. And this plant has small, pale, lilac or gray flowers. Briggs wrote elsewhere of verbena-related superstitions, which makes it especially odd that she fixates on the color red here.
Vervain was used in medicine as a healing herb, and also known in lore as the Holy Herb. The name, from Latin, literally means "sacred bough." The ancient Greeks and Egyptians associated it with deities such as Hera and Isis. In Irish lore, vervain was one of the "seven herbs of great value and power" (Wilde p. 182).
As pointed out by Hilderic Friend, vervain and other plants were sometimes supposed to be used by witches, but those same plants were also believed to fight off witches or the devil:
Terfoil, Vervain, John's Wort, Dill,
Hinder witches of their will.
This dichotomy is common, and Friend suggests that this was part of a belief that "the plants and materials employed by magicians...and other similar dealers in the black arts, are equally efficacious if employed against their charms and spells." (529-530) But Friend describes the plant as "slender spikes of grey flowers."
There is a tradition of vervain being connected to blood. John White, writing in 1608, bemoaned the fact that many of his parishioners would "weare vervein against blasts" - i.e., elf-blasts - and mentioned a belief that vervain was used to staunch Jesus Christ's bleeding wounds after the crucifixion. In Brittany, it was known as louzaouenn-ar-groaz, or herb-of-the-cross. John Gerard, in the Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), referred to the vervain as "Mercurie's Moist Bloude." (Or could “Mercury” be the metal, comparing the pale-colored Verbena officinalis to quicksilver?)
The color dilemma shows up in Notes and Queries series 7. Correspondents listed legends of red plants colored by Christ's blood at the crucifixion, and one person mentioned verbena. Another person countered that "The vervain (Verbena officinalis) is a purple flower" and could not have anything to do with the legend. Yet another commenter, however, shot back that historically, colors were categorized differently, and red or purple could be interchangeable. Regardless of classical color distinctions, it's clear that folklore experts were not envisioning a "pure and brilliant" red flower.
Red verbena does exist, of course, but it doesn't grow wild in the UK. Varieties like the scarlet Verbena chamaedrifolia or Verbena peruviana were imported from South America in the early 1800s, too late to have any deep folkloric history (Transactions).
A couple of people suggested to me that Briggs might have meant red valerian - a similar-looking plant with scarlet blossoms. Valerian in general (Valeriana officinalis, a white or pink flower) had similar holy or protective properties to vervain. Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) is a different thing, but is known as "good neighbors," "good neighborhood," or "quiet neighbors" in some areas of England, strikingly like the fairies' name of Good Neighbors. (Plant-Lore)
There's also red campion, which is associated with Robin Goodfellow and also called the Devil's Flower or blaa ny ferrishyn (Manx for fairies' flower). Red campion seems to frequently be pink, though.
On the other hand, these folk names don't sound like something that would belong to a fairy deterrent.
Briggs goes into more detail on daisies, giving them their own entry:
"It is sometimes said that the habit of dressing children in daisy-chains and coronals comes from a desire to protect them against being carried off by the fairies. Daisies are a sun symbol and therefore protective magic."
Daisies are not often listed as having any connection to fairies. More common is the "he loves me, he loves me not" type of fortune-telling rhyme. The daisy is associated with innocence and childhood. One alternate name in England and Scotland is "bairnwort" - bairn meaning baby, because it's "the children's flower." This association can be seen in the poem "The Daisy," by Henry Septimus Sutton (1825–1901) where it is called "the little children's friend."
In a review of daisy-related folklore in 1956, Katharine T. Kell did not mention fairies or protective qualities at all. She recounted a Celtic origin story - a woman named Malvina, grieving the death of her stillborn son, was comforted by hearing that dead infants were reincarnated as flowers, and that her son had become a daisy. Kell seems unsure about this story's origins; she seems to have had trouble tracking it down, only finding references to it being part of the Ossian cycle. The Poems of Ossian, published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, are already of doubtful authenticity, with many calling them a hoax. I cannot find anything indicating that the daisy story actually appears in the Ossian cycle. The poems were wildly popular when they first came out, and received numerous translations and adaptations across Europe and North America. The daisy story appeared in 1825 in Charlotte de la Tour's Le Langage des Fleurs, and made it back into English by 1834 (The Language of Flowers). Other authors quoted this story as if directly from MacPherson's Ossian. The daisy-as-reincarnated-infant legend is very possibly French fanfiction of a fake Celtic epic.
Kell also included some Christian legends connecting the daisy (or alternately, the white chrysanthemum) to the Child Jesus.
Coming back to Briggs, there is one other authority on protective daisies: the storyteller Ruth Tongue. For those who aren't familiar with Tongue, she's been viewed with skepticism by later scholars.
In Somerset Folklore (1965), Tongue states briefly that "ordinary daisy chains are sometimes felt to be a protection for children" (p. 33). The flowers feature in several of Tongue's Forgotten Folk Tales of the English Counties (1970). They are associated with holiness, innocence, and childlike simplicity. In "Crooker," a Derbyshire tale, a traveler carries posies of St. John's Wort, primroses and daisies to protect himself from evil forces. "The Daisy Dog," attributed to Cornwall, has a simple-minded but kind man who plants "a criss-cross of God's daisies" on a grave to protect it. (The story gets its name from the ghost dog that defends the grave afterwards.)
Most relevant is "Silly Kit and Down-a-down," a Huntingdonshire tale. In a Tam Lin-esque device, the Elfin King plots to use the main character, Kit, as payment for the fairies' "seven years' due" to Hell. Kit is an intellectually disabled and innocent young woman. Jesus himself comes to protect her, and watches over her as she playfully makes a daisy chain. In Hell, "the Devil and all the fiends" flee at the sight of Kit accompanied by Jesus. She returns home with her daisy chain, which is referred to as "Flowers of Paradise."
I do not know of any analogues to this story, although it is reminiscent of those daisies-as-Christ-symbol traditions. Tongue stated that it was told to her aunt "before 1914."
Briggs and Tongue collaborated closely on both Somerset Folklore and Dictionary of Fairies, and Briggs contributed the foreword for Forgotten Folk Tales. Based on this, Tongue seems like the most likely candidate for the contributor of daisies as protective charms.
Although most of the herbs on Briggs' list are easily located in books of superstition and folklore, red verbena and daisies are of doubtful origin. These are not the only unverified "facts" in the book. Briggs remains one of the giants of the folklore field, but the Dictionary of Fairies is one of her later books and skews more towards entertainment than scholarly research. For instance, the Dictionary’s entry for “oakmen” relies on a misreading of source material. These were already of dubious origin, but Briggs used the oakmen’s name with a different creature’s description, resulting in a completely new combo. The red verbena may be a similar case.
Here, she seems to have conflated several different things:
As for daisies: these flowers were popularly associated with children, the sun, and in Christian legend, Jesus. Their defensive properties, though, may be one of Ruth Tongue's unique themes. Oddly enough, it seems this isn't the only possible fauxlore tradition to feature daisies - there's also the French-"Celtic" story of the reincarnated infant.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears is one of the most famous fairytales today. It's also one of the most mysterious. Alan C. Elms wrote that Goldilocks "does not resemble any of the standard tale-types, and includes no indexed folktale motifs." For years, Goldilocks was believed to be a literary creation by a single author... until an older version surfaced in a library collection.
1831: Eleanor Mure wrote down "The Story of the Three Bears", (available here from the Toronto Public Library) in rhyme, with watercolor illustrations, as a birthday gift for her young nephew. She called it "the celebrated nursery tale," indicating that it was already famous, and she was just rendering it in verse.
The story is different from the version familiar today. There is no Goldilocks. Rather, the story begins with three bears (all apparently male, referred to as the first, second and little bears) who move into a house in town. A snooping old woman, with no name, breaks into their house while they're out. Rather than porridge, she drinks their milk, but she breaks chairs and sleeps in beds just like the modern Goldilocks. Hearing the bears coming home, she hides in a closet. The bears return and discover the damage one by one. They find her, have difficulty burning or drowning her, and finally throw her on top of St. Paul's Church steeple.
Mure's homemade manuscript remained unknown for years, until 1951, when it was finally rediscovered in the Toronto Public Library.
Before that, the oldest known version had been Robert Southey's.
1837: Robert Southey anonymously published The Doctor, a collection of his essays. Among those was "The Story of the Three Bears." This is, in some ways, more like modern Goldilocks. The bears' meal is porridge. Again the antagonist is a nosy old lady. In a stroke of genius, Southey had the Great, Huge Bear, the Middle Bear, and the Little, Small, Wee Bear speak in appropriately sized type. The story ends with the old woman jumping out the window, never to be seen again. Southey described the story as one he had heard as a child from his uncle. Also, in letters from 1813, Southey mentioned telling the story to his relative's young children.
1849: Joseph Cundall made a significant change when he retold the tale in Treasury of Pleasure Books for Young Children. Namely, instead of an elderly crone, he made the antagonist a little girl named Silver-Hair.
The "Story of the Three Bears" is a very old Nursery Tale, but it was never so well told as by the great poet Southey, whose version I have (with permission) given you, only I have made the intruder a little girl instead of an old woman. This I did because I found that the tale is better known with Silver-Hair, and because there are so many other stories of old women.
However, Cundall might not have been the first person to do this; he implies that the tale is already "better known" as Silver-Hair. Both the name and the child character caught on very quickly, another possible indicator that he didn't make it up.
The bachelor bears got a makeover, too. In 1852, illustrations were showing them as a nuclear family. And in 1859's The Three Bears. A Moral Tale, in Verse, the bears are identified as "a father, a mother, and child."
1865: An interesting aside here. In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens titles a chapter "The Feast of the Three Hobgoblins." The characters eat bread and milk, and Dickens includes this line:
It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’
As pointed out by Katharine Briggs, this could indicate another version of the story floating around. I think it should be noted that a synonym for hobgoblin is "bug-bear."
Back to the evolving story of The Three Bears! The heroine’s name varied from Silver Hair, to Silver-locks, to Golden Hair, to Golden Locks - or, occasionally, she was nameless. "Golden Hair" appeared around 1868, in Aunt Friendly's Nursery Book. The variant "Goldilocks" soon gained popularity. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this was a nickname for blonds as early as 1550. Old Nursery Stories and Rhymes (1904) is sometimes credited with the first use of the name Goldilocks for this story. However, Goldilocks was used for the Three Bears' antagonist as early as 1875 (Little Folks' Letters: Young Hearts and Old Heads, pg. 25, where the name is not capitalized).
At this point, most people believed that the tale was created by Southey. In 1890, the folklorist Joseph Jacobs stated that the story was "the only example I know of where a tale that can be definitely traced to a specific author has become a folk-tale."
However, Jacobs changed his opinion not long afterwards, when he received a story titled "Scrapefoot." This was collected by John Batten from a Mrs. H., who had heard it from her mother forty years previously. It appeared in Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales in 1894. This is close to the tale of Goldilocks that we know today, except that the main character who visits the castle of the three bears is neither a girl nor an old woman; it's a male fox named Scrapefoot. (There are quite a few parallels with Mure's version - the stolen food being milk, and the dilemma of how to kill the intruder.)
Jacobs believed that Scrapefoot must be the older, more authentic version of the tale. He publicized the theory that Southey had heard a hypothetical third version with a female fox, or vixen, and had misinterpreted the word "vixen" to mean an unpleasant woman.
However, Jacobs was building his theory based on the information he had at the time. He did not know of Mure's "Three Bears," which would not be discovered until 1951. We have two early, literary versions about an old lady, both of which state they heard the story from tradition - and one oral version, recorded later, about a male fox.
Cundall's version, with Silver-Hair, is the oldest known to feature a child intruder. But Cundall possibly implies that other people were already telling versions with a young girl. And actually, there's more evidence for this - starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
Goldilocks as a Motif
In the Grimms' story of Snow White, first published in 1812, there is a long scene where the heroine - a young child in this version, seven years old - first finds the seven dwarfs' house. Inside the empty cottage she discovers a table set with seven places, and seven beds. Snow White eats a few bites from each plate and drinks a drop of wine from each cup. Then
"She tried each of the seven little beds, one after the other, but none felt right until she came to the seventh one, and she lay down in it and fell asleep."
When the dwarfs return, this happens:
The first one said, "Who has been sitting in my chair?"
The second one, "Who has been eating from my plate?"
The third one, "Who has been eating my bread?"
The fourth one, "Who has been eating my vegetables?"
The fifth one, "Who has been sticking with my fork?"
The sixth one, "Who has been cutting with my knife?"
The seventh one, "Who has been drinking from my mug?"
Then the first one said, "Who stepped on my bed?"
The second one, "And someone has been lying in my bed."
Eventually, they find Snow White lying there. Unlike the story of the Three Bears, however, the dwarves are so stricken with her beauty that they are happy to let her stay.
Another fun fact: in the Grimms' original draft from 1810, Snow White is golden-haired. Her mother wishes for a child with black eyes, and in a later scene there's a reference to Snow White's "yellow hairs" being combed.
The Grimms also published another story with a similar scene, "The Three Ravens." A girl sets out to rescue her three brothers, who were transformed into ravens. She travels through the harsh wilderness to the castle where they now live. There are three plates and three cups. The girl samples from each and drops her ring into the final cup. Just then, the ravens arrive; the girl might be hiding at this point, because the ravens don't seem to notice her. They each ask, "Who ate from my little plate? Who ate from my little cup?" But when the third raven looks into his cup, he finds the sister's ring, and the curse is broken.
The Grimms edited the story significantly and changed it to "The Seven Ravens." However, I find it significant that the earlier published version had three talking animals.
The stolen-meal scene also takes place briefly in "The Bewitched Brothers," a similar tale from Romania with two eagle-brothers. In other tales, the girl does not eat, but cleans the house and sets the table, then hides herself before her brothers come in. In a Norwegian variant called The Twelve Wild Ducks, the details are a little different, but the sister hides under the bed when her brothers arrive, and is discovered because she left her spoon on the table. In that version, at least one brother blames her for the curse, which explains why she might need to hide.
In Journal of American Folklore, Mary I. Shamburger and Vera R. Lachmann argued that Southey pulled inspiration from Snow White and also from Norwegian lore. They say,
"According to the Norwegian tale, the king's daughter comes to a cave inhabited by three bears (really Russian princes who cast off their bearskins at night). The king's daughter finds the interior of the cave very comfortable. Food and drink, especially porridge, are waiting on the table; she sees beds nearby, and after a good meal, she chooses the bed she prefers and lies not on, but underneath it!"
They're describing "Riddaren i Bjødnahame" (The Knights in Bear-shapes). I would need someone more well-versed in Norwegian dialect to weigh in, but the details seem a bit different from the previous description. The bear-knights' home is not what I'd picture as a cave; it's a Barhytte, which is apparently a hut made of pine branches. I couldn't verify whether porridge is mentioned (if you know Norwegian landsmål, I would love to hear from you). The princess doesn't just move in and get comfy - she cooks the food and tidies up. The beds are a triple bunkbed (yes). And she doesn't take a nap - she is scared that the inhabitants may turn out to be dangerous, so she hides beneath the lowest bed. In fact, the Russian princes are charmed by her, and she ends up marrying one of them.
Shamburger and Lachmann cited one other Norwegian tale in a footnote: "Jomfru Gyltrom." This is a parallel story, which does not feature the meal scene but does have three bear-princes. Incidentally, Jomfru Gyltrom's most notable characteristic is that she has a golden dove on her head. I don't think this is really connected to Goldilocks' name, but it's still an interesting parallel.
The Three Bears today features a nuclear family with Mama, Papa and Baby Bear. However, in some of the earliest versions, all the bears are male. This is closer to the Snow White-eque tales, where the home is an all-male space. Sometimes it’s a cottage, sometimes a castle (as in Scrapefoot). The intruder is the only female. The male inhabitants may be animals, humans in animal form, or otherworldly creatures (such as dwarves, or… hmmm… Dickens’ hobgoblins?).
The biggest difference is in the intruder's behavior. "Snow White" heroines are domestic goddesses who cook and clean wherever they go, but girls in "Three Bears" stories are forces of destruction.
I talk about tale types, but honestly, a lot of tales don’t stick to identified types. They’re more a collection of motifs. The Norwegian stories mentioned are Snow White tales, but not exactly. Both contain the essential elements of Snow White, but also other stories – “The Knights in Bear-shapes” turns into an East o’ the Sun, West o’ the Moon-type tale after the heroine wakes up, and “Jomfru Gyltrom” has an extended ending where the heroine’s stepsister impersonates her. “The Three Ravens” ends with the heroine locating her brothers, but other stories of that tale type typically continue after that point, with the heroine sewing shirts to break the curse. In a different case: one obscure English folktale, Dathera Dad, is parallel to a single scene from Tom Thumb.
The essential elements of Goldilocks are contained as a single scene in the stories of "Snow White" and "The Three Ravens," published in Germany in 1812, 19 years before Mure wrote down her version. In the 1810 version especially, Snow White was a seven-year-old blonde girl. Both Mure and Southey make reference to the story of the Three Bears being well-known. I wonder which came first. Was there a short story of a woman entering the animals' house and eating their food, which got absorbed into longer stories of a woman seeking shelter? Or did the Goldilocks scene break off from longer stories and take on a life of its own?
I believe that Goldilocks is an older story than it's been given credit for; it seems as if people are constantly finding that certain details - like the name Goldilocks - are older than previously realized. And I think the similarities to Snow White are too notable to be ignored. It's just that Southey's literary version gained notoriety and became the most influential version very quickly, while stories such as Dickens' "Three Hobgoblins" may not have been recorded.
And who knows - if Mure's version showed up more than a century after it was written, we might unearth other old versions. Mure's "Three Bears" up-ended all previous theories about Goldilocks. Joseph Jacobs thought Southey had misheard a story about a fox. Shamburger and Lachmann suggested that Southey had pulled his ideas from Norwegian folklore. But the discovery of this earlier version proved that Southey wasn't just making things up when he talked about hearing the story from his uncle; other people were already telling the story to their children.
Sometimes, if a tale doesn't contain any indexed motifs, it's time to update the index.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.