Downland Snail
witchcraft altar
Image by Giles Watson’s poetry and prose
"And from the rafters upon strings depend
Beanstalks beset with pods from end to end,
Whose numbers without counting may be seen
Wrote on the almanack behind the screen.
Around the corner up on worsted strung
Pooties in wreaths above the cupboard hung.
Memory at trifling incidents awakes
And there he keeps them for his children’s sakes,
Who when as boys searched every sedgy lane,
Traced every wood and shattered clothes again,
Roaming about on rapture’s easy wing
To hunt those very pooty shells in spring."

– John Clare, ‘The Cottager’’s-natural-history.html


Perhaps the folkloric belief that garlic repels vampires has a basis in natural observation. Many human beings are attracted to the smell and taste of garlic, and of other aromatic plants such as ramsons, Jack-by-the-hedge and the three-cornered leek, but it is a reasonable assumption that predators find it repellent. Disturb a grass-snake, and it will writhe on the ground, emitting a smell of garlic, the odour of its fear. Turn a stone in a field, and the same smell may assail you without your realising its source. The tiny garlic snail, Oxychilus allarius has exuded it, and no doubt hopes you will find it distasteful.

It is one of the ironies of nature that gourmets now consider garlic to be the ideal accompaniment to a dish of snails. The vampire, it seems, has become immune. Perhaps it was the Romans who first gained the taste for this combination, for they were not kind to molluscs, and the trail of their conquests was marked with oyster shells. Their favourite land snail was Helix pomatia, which was imported to Britain by them, and still persists in the regions of Roman settlements. Roman settlers kept them in specially-built cochlearia, and fed them on vine leaves, and bran sodden with wine. Varro claimed to have encountered snails reared under these conditions whose shells would hold ten quarts, so perhaps Pliny was not recording his abstemiousness when he wrote that he liked to dine on barley cake, a lettuce, two eggs, sweet wine, three snails, and snow. Some of these portly snails, suspecting they were being fattened for the Bacchanalia, must have made their bids for freedom, their silver trails spanning the tessaries of the mosaic on the villa’s floor, on their way towards the door. You may still find their descendents today, subsisting on meaner fare, such as nettles.

The invention of the cochlearium was no doubt a milestone in the development of the folklore of snails. Here, the amorousness of snails could be viewed in close proximity, and perhaps this was what led to their widespread association with sex-magic. Snails are hermaphrodites, and when they mate, they become slaves to their own ovotestes, sliming one another with love, their turgid penises wrapped in wet vaginas in mutual courtesies. Before they even come so close, they shoot little love darts of calcium carbonate, piercing each other’s skin, and thereby presumably arousing passion. They are the original sadomasochists; they wrestle in giving and taking pleasure, and season it with pain. It was no doubt the close observation of this love-play which led to the practice of making love charms out of snail shells. Both gypsies and Cornish witches are fond of making such charms by stringing the shells together to form a necklace. In gypsy cultures, a girl, wanting a man she cannot have, cherishes a single shell between her breasts until it is worn and warm, then slips it into the hand of her beloved: a declaration of indelicate desire.

By the middle ages, the iconography of the dart-shooting snail had grown anthropomorphic. Snails now did battle with farmers and knights, the latter armed with spears and swords, in the margins of mediaeval manuscripts and on misericords. Such images might have been satires on chivalry, but more likely, they were sexual symbols, the softness of the snail and the sharpness of the spear being visual metaphors, reminding the viewer of the fine line that exists between pleasure and pain. There can certainly be no more apt symbol of sensuousness than a slug or a snail. Its skin can feel the presence of faint light as we can feel radiance from an open fire. It is highly sensitive to drying, and will shrink from excess of heat or cold. It has tentacles for feeling and smelling, each capable of retraction, like a finger withdrawing from a rubber glove. Its eyes, little periods on the ends of terminating stalks, inflated by excess blood, convey blurry images to the nervous system, but the sense of touch is paramount. Snails and slugs feel in full technicolour. Their skin is moist and ripe for arousal, like a lip after licking.

The horns of snails have given rise to a further branch of folklore amongst gypsies and the peoples of rural England, in which they are equated with cows. They are herded by fairies, and thus become “faerie kine”. Gypsies believe that the snail is the only invertebrate to win the favour of the earth fairies, and call it Gry puvusengree, the earthy horse. Perhaps the interrupted slime trails left by snails as their single foot undulates beneath them have led to the conclusion that they are at times ridden by the little people at a breakneck speed.

The witch who observes the minutiae of nature will be familiar with the telltale signs of the snail as victim. Thrushes make cairns of their shells, stoving them in at the apex, thrashing them mercilessly against stones. The striated, fractured shells remain for months afterwards, piled testimonies to habitual breakfasts. Fastidious bank voles are more circumspect, nibbling holes in the sides, sucking out the writhing jelly, tasting the quivering flesh with wrinkled noses, wiping their wimples afterwards. A witch who is attuned to the ways of a wood or heath may find that these piles of broken shells may assume the significance of little altars: places where creatures of habit have made immemorial meals, where countless snails have been slain. Perhaps it was the evident good health of most thrushes which led Culpepper to conclude that consumption could be cured by snail broth, to which he added purslain, violets, scabious lungwort, liquorice eclampane, annis seeds, ambrosia, white wine, the blood of a fresh-slaughtered hog, and other efficacious ingredients.

Unjustly, the folklore of slugs is comparatively impoverished. Perhaps this is merely because few people have really observed the tree slug, Lehmannia marginata, which is said to climb trees in order to suspend itself in slug slime, swinging beneath a branch like a chandelier made of mucus. The spotted slug, Geomalacus maculosus, perhaps chooses habitats which are too far flung for widespread recognition: it eats one or perhaps two species of lichen, and embodies the cliché “you are what you eat”, for the fruiting bodies of the lichens themselves seem to bloom beneath its skin. We have yet to develop the requisite awe for the snail-slug (Testacella spp.) which, apart from sporting a tiny external shell on its rump, is a voracious carnivore fond of the living flesh of other species of slug. And we are more likely to berate the black slug Arion ater for devouring a recently-delivered copy of the Yellow Pages before we remembered to bring it in from the front doorstep, than we are to marvel at the sight of “half a dozen of the creatures wagging together” in irritation, as Lionel E. Adams did in 1896.

Witches, as the champions of maligned creatures, would do well to look to the slugs and snails. Perhaps it is all that mucus which so effectively repels modern antiseptic sensitivities; it ought not to disgust us. For molluscs, it is the stuff of life. A common water-snail, Physa fontinalis, even uses mucus as a sort of snotty tramline. Suction holds it there, perpendicular in the water: a spread thread of mucus, a wet stem of a wineglass drawn out like a wire. Watch them in a fish tank, if not in a pond: rival snails meet like Robin Hood and Little John, brandishing their horns, on the silver bridge which connects a submerged stone with the meniscus. Snails make potent sex-magic because their bodily fluids are always so clearly in evidence. Some of the most magical substances are theirs in abundance: sperm and spit and slime.

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