Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Virgin Mary’s Golden Shoes

Plants are often given folk names that are tightly woven with folklore in which the plants feature. Consider this short religious tableau vivant from the Norwegian author Jonas Lie:

Whether I have dreamt this as a child, I will not say. But I have such a clear picture of where the Virgin Mary lives.

She lives in a small farmhouse on the edge of the forest, with a half-derelict wooden fence around. It was twilight - grey air with gently falling snowflakes, like it can be on the evening of Christmas Eve. The fire from the hearth shone through the kitchen doorway and all the way out onto the snow-covered ground. Some women and girls busily bore in logs and branches and twigs that they had plucked from the forest.

I caught just a glimpse of the Virgin Mary in there, as she came into the light of the door. She wore a worn blue skirt, rolled-up sleeves; and her face was hot from the fire.

She was poor, but had so many to help, they said — so busy with all of those she had to look after and provide for, that she scarcely ever had the time to change out of her everyday skirt.

And those who had no words, but merely cried, were the worst off.

“Yes, but ‘Mary goldshoes’… the crown,” I wondered. “She puts it on of a Sunday, surely?”

“Only when she has time. Only when she has time, little one,” said a woman who was spinning, bent double, over by the wood basket. “God lets her do so much good that she can’t manage any more. That's why she’s called blesséd.”

    Bird's-foot trefoil and ladybird,
    Virgin Mary goldshoes,
    Blesséd your hand,
    And blesséd your foot,
Blesséd the ground on which you stood,
Blesséd the arm that Jesus bore,
    Virgin Mary goldshoes.

Jonas Lie. “Virgin Mary” from Tales, 1908

Bird'sfoot trefoil

The bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), a member of the pea family, that produces yellow flowers, has the Norwegian folk name Maria gullsko (Mary goldshoes). The legend is as follows:

The Virgin Mary once sat up in heaven and looked down upon the earth. She heard a small child crying down there. She hurried down to find the small unfortunate child. And so quickly ran the Virgin Mary that she lost her shoes on the road. She ran on, barefoot, without a care that she cut herself on stones and stubs, and on sharp thorns. She ran until she found that small child, and she comforted it. But where her footprints remained in the soil, there grew up clusters of small yellow flowers. Each flower looked like a small golden shoe, and it is these flowers that we still call Mary goldshoes.


Luckily, English folk names for the bird’s-foot trefoil are diverse:

names like “lady’s shoes and stockings”, “crow-toes”, “lady’s slipper”, “bacon and eggs”, and “God-Almighty’s thumb and finger”. In all it has been attributed more than 70 different names, most of them related to either the shape or colour of its flowers.


Practically, this gives a poor translator like me a lot of alternatives to attempt to shoehorn into a translation. If none of them works to my satisfaction, I can always produce an explanatory note, like this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment