Thursday 26 July 2012

Objects in Focus: Sea-beans


Astrocaryum ©Carsten Flieger
The sea occasionally tossed up materials that were incorporated in the Hebridean way of life. Sea-beans that travelled across the Atlantic from the West Indies were washed up on the western shores of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, Norway, Iceland and very occasionally France, Spain, The Netherlands and Denmark.

Caesalpinia bonduc ©Carsten Flieger
So what exactly are these beans? These tropical disseminules can be seeds, complete or incomplete fruit, or seedlings that have the capacity to drift for at least one month in seawater. They represent many things to many people: For the romantic, the disseminules are messengers from exotic lands; for the men of the sea, they represent victory over an ancient foe; for the superstitious they represent a gift from the gods; and for the botanist, they are the end product of a plant dispersal mechanism. 
Merremia discoidesperma ©Carsten Flieger

While the larger beans, entada gigas or Mary hearts, are recorded as having a practical use as snuff boxes, the smaller beans were most popular as birthing amulets. While the sea-beans in Scotland were heavily associated with the Virgin Mary and openly consecrated by Catholic priests, in Norway and Denmark there seems to be no Christian connection but a link to Freyja, the fertility goddess. The fact that both Norway and Scotland used them as childbirth amulets could be related to the impact of the Vikings.
Entada gigas ©Carsten Flieger
Entada gigas –
Cnò Mhoire (Scotland)
Lausnarsteinn (Iceland)
Løsningsstein (Norway)
Vitunyra (Faeroe Islands)
Vættenyre (Denmark)
Zeehart (Netherlands)
We can see from the various languages the associations – delivery stone, Mary heart or sea heart.
These photos are from the Carmichael Collection at the West Highland Museum, a number of which are on display if you fancy popping in. The museum was quite lucky as the leading world expert paid them a visit and identified all the beans in their collection!

Mucuna sloanei ©Carsten Flieger
The birthing amulet in Gaelic was referred to as the airne Moire Mary’s kidney and it was generally the smaller beans Caesalpinia. The Caesalpinia was highly prized as it was rarely found, perhaps owing to its colour. Midwives would carry the amulet with them and offer them to women in labour. Carmichael notes that 'every nurse has one which she places in the hand of the woman to increase her faith and distract her attention. It was consecrated on the altar and much venerated'. The merremia was also extremely popular as an amulets as it has a naturally occurring cross and was believed to be sacred.
Caesalpinia ©Carsten Flieger
In the Carmichael Collection we have an airne Moire mounted in silver that was presented to Carmichael by Neill Macgilleonain, the nearest living representative of the old MacNeills of Barra in 1869. This was a particular mark of favour towards Carmichael as amulets were rarely acknowledged let alone parted with. A second amulet, similarly mounted in silver, is in the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh and can also be connected to the Macneil family as their motto ‘Vincere aut mori’ is inscribed on the silver.
Next time you're on the beaches of the Western Isles keep an eye out! After some windy weather would be ideal to go looking and they can generally be found along the high tide line, in amongst the seaweed. If you find one, send us a photo!

CG, ii, 225.
Gunn, C.R. and Dennis, J.V. World Guid to Tropical Drift Seeds and Fruits (Kreiger Publishing Company, 2006)
Nelson, C.E. Sea beans and nickar nuts: a handbook of exotic seeds and fruits stranded on beaches in north-western Europe (Botanical Society of the British Isles, 2000)

1 comment:

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4

Stone whorls WHM 1992 13 2.4
Stone whorls collected by Alexander Carmichael, held by West Highland Museum (ref. WHM 1992 13 2.4). [©]