Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Caravan of Stoats and Confusion of Weasels by Karen Maitland

Living in a country Devon village brings some unexpected delights. Last week, I stepped out of my
English Stoat. Photographer: Kevin Law, Los Angeles, USA.
front door to find an adult stoat and four plump, sleek little kits scampering through my porch on their way to the hedge. They were so close to me that the babies were actually leaping over my feet. Having reached the hedge, one of youngsters came bounding back and sat up on its hind legs, staring at me from its bright eyes with as much curiosity as I was watching it. Then it joined its siblings who decided to play hide and seek around the plant pots. I was enchanted by the encounter, but in the past, stoats and weasels were considered vermin and ruthlessly hunted down not just for their valuable pelts, but to protect livestock.

In medieval times, Dartmoor in Devon was covered with man-made warrens. A warren was originally area set aside for breeding game such as pheasant, partridge and hares. But the word came to be used for a place where artificial rabbit burrows were created by piling stones and earth over trenches to form pillow mounds in which rabbits could be bred for meat and fur. The rabbits were kept in these warrens by walls and by diverting streams to form moats, but that did not deter stoats and weasels.
Medieval women use a net and ferret to take
rabbits from a man-made warren.

So on Dartmoor you will often see dry stone walls built in an X pattern, which often puzzles visitors as they don’t seem to enclose anything. These were stoat and weasel traps. In the center of the X was a hollow chamber formed by a stone slab set into the ground with long stones forming the sides and top. It had gap in the front, with flat piece of slate hanging above, suspended vertically from poles. In open moorland, the stoat or weasel would instinctively head for the wall and dive into the inviting hole. Once inside it would trip a cord or wire on the stone floor causing the slate to slide down between two stones, sealing the chamber and trapping the creature.

Rabbit warrening continued for centuries on Dartmoor and only started to decline after 1891, when terrible blizzard killed thousands of rabbits and in 1954 myxomatosis wiped out the rest. But you can still see the pillow mounds covered by a coarse grass and the remains of the stone-wall vermin traps all over the moor.
Pillow Mound - remains of ancient warren on Dartmoor
Photographer: Graham Horn

From medieval times, stoats and weasels were considered animals of ill-omen. Their bad press continued into modern times, not helped by Kenneth Graham in his wonderful story "The Wind in the Willows" where the delinquent stoats and weasels became squatters in Toad Hall and threw wild parties, thoroughly disturbing the neighborhood.

In Medieval and Tudor times, evil spirits and witches were said to transform themselves into weasels. In Dorset it was said you could never catch hold of a weasel, assuming you were foolish enough to try, because it would change into one of the faery folk and vanish. If a weasel crossed your path left to right, it was bad omen and even worse if it crossed right to left for then it foretold death. But in Wales, a weasel crossing right to left, was a warning that person had enemies in his own home.

If a weasel runs ahead in front of someone setting out on a journey, but then turns back, it is a warning the traveller should turn back. But in Wales if it runs ahead of the traveler, that is taken as a good omen, meaning he will conquer his enemies, so Welsh armies must have looked eagerly for that sign. But seeing a ghost weasel, especially a white one, was never a good sign anywhere.

Having stoat cross your path at the start of a journey was, like the weasel, a bad omen, but if you greeted the stoat as a friend, you could turn the bad luck to good. The Irish believed that stoats held funerals for their dead and they were thought collect and care for the souls of human infants who died before baptism.

In the Middle Ages, weasels and stoats were a symbol of cunning, as they were believed to hide their offspring in a different place each night. Before hunting a snake, they would eat the plant Rue, which was called “Herb of Grace”, if you collected it before 12 noon, because Herb of Grace was thought to be the antidote to the poison of any venomous creature. Stoats and weasels were said to be such skilful physicians, that if their own offspring were killed they could bring them to life again, if they could touch their bodies. But stoat saliva was thought to be lethal to humans.

The weasel was the only creature that could kill the mythical medieval beast the basilisk, whose stench alone could kill man. Medieval pilgrims en route to the Holy Land were advised to buy or hire a cage containing a weasel or cockerel (whose cry would drive away the basilisk) before venturing into the desert, which have a been a good way to fleece extra money from the pilgrims.
A weasel attacking the deadly basilisk.
The weasel appears to be wearing a garland of rue.

Stoats and weasels were thought to conceive through the mouth and give birth through the ear or vis versa depending on the source. This belief may have originated from the ancient Greeks, in a story recorded by Ovid. When Alcmena, mother of Hercules was having trouble giving birth to him, the goddess Juno sent Lucina, goddess of child-birth to impede the birth still further. Lucina, disguised as an old woman, sat in the front of the door holding her own knees closed with locked fingers. A maid, Galanthis, suspected what was happening and lied to the goddess saying the child had just been born. The goddess relaxed her grip, and as she did so, Hercules was born. In a fury, Lucina turned the maid into either a weasel or a stoat with the curse that she would give birth through her ear, because had deceived the goddess with false words through her ear. And, of course, we use the expression “weasel words” to mean deception.

In fact some medieval Christian theologians, such as St Augustine and St Thomas Becket maintained that the Virgin Mary had conceived through her ear, because that is where the words of the angel’s mouth had entered Mary. Therefore it was through her ear that the “word was made flesh”.

My favourite weasel story is about the shrine of St Cuthbert. In the 11th Century the saint appeared in
The discovery of the incorrupt
body of St Cuthbert.
a vision complaining that a weasel was disturbing his rest in Durham. The abbey was searched and eventually, they discovered a weasel had slipped through a tiny hole into the very tomb St Cuthbert, where she’d given birth to young inside the coffin. The shrine-keeper furious at this desecration, tried to kill the little family, but St Cuthbert’s spirit stopped him and the keeper discovered that the saint’s gentleness had rubbed off on the weasel, for she made no attempt to bite him, but nestled into his hand allowing all around to stroke her and marvel at the beauty of the little creature and her young.

I don’t know what my medieval forbears would have made of a pack of four baby stoats playing on my threshold, but for me it was a moment of pure joy and that has to be a good omen.


Joan Lennon said...

A wonderful start to your morning and now mine - thank you! I love the logic of so many of these stories - and how lovely that the Irish thought stoats cared for the souls of human infants who died before baptism.

Caroline Lawrence said...

I love this!