Halloween and the Dark Side of Herbs

Today’s Halloween is all pumpkins, candles, and costumes but in times past it was a dangerous time when dark forces were abroad, seeking unsuspecting victims.

In a few days this country will be celebrating Halloween. We’ll put carved pumpkins and paper images of ghosts and skeletons on the front porch to welcome the neighborhood children in costume. Adults will break with the norm and come to work with the most outlandish outfits. Your doctor’s receptionist may look like a zombie while the checkout clerk at your grocer is sporting a pirate’s hat and an itchy eye patch.

It’s all in good fun today but the roots of these ghosts, witches, and zombie images lie in the deep-seated belief that this was the time of year when the barrier between the living and the dead, the good and the evil, was dangerously thin. People would resort to a little magic in the form of charms made with herbs to protect their loved ones. Here’s a quick peek into the mystical side of several herbs you might be growing in your garden:

  • Rue – This somewhat unpleasant smelling herb was commonly associated with cleansing to make one holy and therefore untouchable by evil spirits. Rue added to a hot bath would provide personal protection all day.
  • Mugwort Artemisia – A close relative of landscaping artemisias, this was another protective herb. It was hung by the home doorways to prevent witches or evil spirits from entering. Travelers would carry it with them for protection in the wild places where spirits lurked. Tradition says St. John the Baptist wore it during his days in the wilderness of Palestine.
Prostrate rosemary growing on my side porch just may be able to help me keep my husband at home. Then again, I think my cooking has more powers on that score.
  • Ferns – Although not often thought of as an herb, ferns were considered very powerful as protecting plants. Crushed fern leaves placed in windowsills and door sills would keep burglars away. Dried ferns burned on hot coals would “send up an aura of protection.”
  • Sage – This must-have kitchen herb has strong associations with purification and long life. It was also a key ingredient in healing amulets. These associations with health and long life also made it useful in charms to increase a woman’s fertility.
  • Rosemary – This herb may be for remembrance but is also used to ensure a husband’s fidelity. Bathing in rosemary was considered a means of blessing and purification. The scent of burning rosemary was said to bring to mind events from past lives.

These, plus other herbs such as bay laurel, horehound, hyssop, and St. John’s wort would be gathered together to create a protective charm. A housewife would combine three, seven, or nine (numbers with magic powers) of the herb stalks and bind them together securely while saying “I bind thee to protect this house and all within it.”

Bay laurel leaves are a symbol of victory and glory. Perhaps that is why it was also considered to be a protective herb.

Of course, herbs were used for more than just protection. Unmarried lads and lasses tried many ways to magically discover who their true love would be. Herbs could be used to draw or repel love in another. Lavender, bachelor’s buttons, and valerian root bound together with a bay leaf would attract a man. Patchouli, cinnamon, and henbane would draw a woman’s attention. If that didn’t work, the supplicant was advised to go outside one evening in the nude and throw the ground herbs at the moon while reciting a prayer for love. The herbs might work but I would say the lack of clothing might also improve the odds of something happening.

These are just a few of the herbs that were used in folk magic. You could make charms that warded off sickness, keep lightning from striking your home, or make your neighbor’s cows stop producing milk. Today’s Halloween trick-or-treaters are much less likely to cause problems. I think I’ll stick with modern remedies – and good cooking skills to keep my husband happy at home.

Ann McCormick
Ann McCormick, Southwest Gardening contributor

If you enjoy herbs and organic gardening, you’ll want to meet Ann McCormick, the Herb ‘n Cowgirl. A life-long gardener, she has devoted her time for the last 20 years to writing and speaking about her favorite subject. The Herb ‘n Cowgirl also shares her love of herbs and her gardening techniques as a speaker and media guest. She lives in Fort Worth, TX with her husband of 37 years and an assortment of dogs. To find out more about the Herb ‘n Cowgirl visit her at www.herbncowgirl.com.

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