Herbal Folklore: Myths & Legends About Herbs
September 9, 2021
Herbs have been prized for their nutritional, medicinal and aromatic qualities since the dawn of civilization. For thousands of years, humans have used herbs to prepare healing infusions, treat ailments of all kinds, and impart rich flavor into cooked foods.
Many herbs also feature heavily in traditional folklore and mythology from around the globe. During ancient times when humans lived in close connection with the land, many cultures developed legends and myths to explain the spiritual and medicinal properties of herbs.
Keep reading to discover some of the surprising myths and folklore about popular herbs.
Fragrant white elderflowers and tart purple elderberries both come from the elder tree, which is steeped in medieval folklore. In the Middle Ages, people in Ireland and the British Isles regarded the elder as a highly protective tree. Planting an elder tree near the home was thought to protect against lightning, bad luck and evil spirits.
In Scandinavian lore, the elder tree is said to be inhabited by the spirit of the Elder Mother. Cutting limbs from the tree without asking permission from the Elder Mother was believed to bring bad luck. Similarly, burning elder wood in the fireplace would cause misfortune.
The elder tree is also associated with fairies. According to legend, if you fall asleep beneath an elder on Midsummer’s Eve, you might see the fairies traveling to their Midsummer feast. But proceed with caution — some medieval myths tell of curious souls who were transported to the fairy realm, never to be seen again.
Nettle has long been associated with healing and protection, particularly in Ireland and Scotland. Nettle leaves are covered in fine hairs that cause a stinging sensation, which are considered to be symbolic of protection and defense.
During the ancient Gaelic festival Beltane, dining on nettle was believed to be good luck. It was said that if you ate three meals containing nettle during the month of May, you would not become sick for the rest of the year. In Romania, girls and young women washed their hair with nettle-infused water on the first day of May to make their hair grow long and healthy.
Nettle is also one of the herbs used in the Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, which was concocted to treat illnesses caused by evil magic.
The plant genus Mentha (also known as mint) is derived from the name of a Greek river nymph named Minthe. According to legend, Minthe was in love with Hades, god of the underworld, and boasted that she was more beautiful than his wife Persephone. In anger, the goddess Persephone transformed Minthe into the herb now known as mint.
Though Hades could not undo Persephone’s spell, he made it so that mint would produce a lovely aroma that would be revered and appreciated by all.
The Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder advised scholars to wear a crown of mint to improve their concentration. Mint was widely used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages to freshen the smell of the home and to attract good fortune and health.
The earliest recorded use of chamomile dates back more than 3,000 years to ancient Egypt, where the plant was regarded as sacred. The Egyptians burned dried chamomile flowers as incense to honor ancestors and the sun deity Ra.
Chamomile came into widespread use during the Middle Ages. Many medieval folk customs reference chamomile’s protective properties. Planting chamomile near doors and windows was said to ward against bad luck, while burning chamomile inside the home was believed to banish malevolent spirits and invite money into the household.
In Scandinavia, the Vikings rinsed their hair with chamomile infusions to give their braids a lustrous shine. An old folk saying from Slovakia references the sacred nature of chamomile: “An individual should always bow before the curative powers of the chamomile plant.”
Milk thistle is known for its ability to thrive in harsh conditions, as well as for the sharp spines that surround its bright purple flowers. According to an old Scottish legend, an army of Norse invaders was attempting to ambush a Scottish encampment late one night.
The Vikings removed their boots and crept quietly upon the sleeping Scotsmen, until one of the barefoot men stepped upon a thistle and cried out. His cry alerted the Scottish warriors, who defeated the invaders. The thistle remains the national emblem of Scotland to this day.
Another legend tells the story of the Virgin Mary, who hid beneath a grove of thistles while fleeing to Egypt. According to this tale, Mary nursed the baby Jesus in this hiding space and left drops of milk on the leaves — hence the characteric white veins of milk thistle leaves.
Delight in The Republic of Tea’s full collection of premium herbal teas featuring these and other herbs sourced from around the world.