I had grand plans for a Halloween/Samhain post but time has not been a friend this month, so I'm re-posing a work that I contributed elsewhere. I did want to stop by and wish you all a very happy Halloween and a magical evening. I know that many will be having to skip the celebrations this year as they recover from the storms out East. Here in the north-west, we are having constant rains and winds and snow a bit higher up from us. I'm thinking the door-bell will be very quiet tonight.
My wish for you is a safe, dry evening, with the warm glow of jack-o-lanterns, and the scent of roasting pumpkin seeds and hot, spiced drinks. Be well!
This post of mine was originally published at Samhain's Sirens on October 3, 2012.
Herbs invoke a myriad of images, from a delicious plot of culinary delights to the perfect medicine to calm an upset tummy. These lovely green allies are just as happy to perch at the edge of your plate as a garnish as they are being tossed in a charm bag to bring you luck. Today, we turn to herbs for all manner of reasons, but not so long ago the lore surrounding these natural helpers was anything but innocuous. Let’s take a look at the more mysterious side of our herbal friends.
First we consider basil. Commonly believed to invoke venomous beasts, basil was quite the fearful herb once upon a time. A favorite herb of witches, basil was used in flying ointments which were then rubbed on the witch and their preferred mode of transportation.
“A mystical Herb employed by Witches. I dare write no more of it!” ~ Nicholas Culpeper
In keeping with the forbidden nature of the herb, basil was also employed as an aphrodisiac. “Even old men felt its charm.” ~ Ovid.
And speaking of dark desires, our friendly neighbourhood mint has a naughty side too. Culpeper says it is an herb of Venus and “…it is an incentive to venery and bodily lust.” Legend has it that Minthe was a nymph that Hades had taken a liking to, and when his wife Persephone found the two entwined, she turned the nymph into a herb, that would forever be constantly creeping along the ground searching for her underworld lover. Hades, in his favor of her, made her wonderfully scented and gave her aphrodisiacal qualities so that she would be desired evermore.
Mints are also apparently helpful against the biting of serpents and mad dogs. I’m not sure how mint would stand up to a zombie bite though - so take no chances!
One herb that may keep zombies (and everyone else) away is garlic. Garlic is more famously known for its vampire deterrent qualities, but was also used in old Europe as a charm against the evil eye of enemies. A dear friend of mine swears by putting a fresh head of garlic on the inside of her windows each new moon for protection.
And garlic doesn’t seem to mind a bit of abuse. An old wives tale says that crushing or bruising a garlic clove before planting will improve the flavor of the growing plant.
One herb that was not thought beneficial to be gifted or moved about the garden is parsley. “Transplant parsley, transplant sorrow,” so the saying goes. And if you dared transplant it? Southern folklore says you’d have bad luck until either you or the parsley died.
Parsley takes a significant amount of time to germinate (2-4 weeks.) An old folk tale explains this length of time by saying that parsley must travel to Hades and back 9 times before it will begin to grow.
Parsley was believed to be a foreteller of death and was also carved on tombstones to please Persephone, with whom it was associated.
Most importantly, parsley is a member of the Umbelliferae family. These plants are distinguished by their umbrell-shaped blooms and hollow stems. Family members of parsley include the aromatics dill, fennel and cilantro and also the incredibly deadly hemlocks (not the tree) which, if ingested, can cause respiratory paralysis and death.
Lastly, let’s talk about nightshades. The nightshades we know and love would be our tomatoes, peppers and potatoes, but the family Solanaceae also includes mandrake, henbane, bittersweet and deadly nightshade (belladonna,) all of which are poisonous in different doses. Even a safe-bet like potatoes can leave us with an upset stomach, and worse if we eat the green parts of the plant.
Belladonna is perhaps the most recognized of the baneful nightshades and folklore has it that it is a plant tended by the Devil, who can only be distracted from its care on May Eve or Walpurgis night.
This Halloween, whether you are leaving parsley out to please Persephone as she heads home to her husband in the Underworld, or wearing garlic to protect you from those that bite, remember that our herbal helpers were as feared in days of old as they are valued today. Be thankful that those who have gone before have done the hard work (and the deadly work) of identifying and recording the merits and evils of these intriguing plants.