Lacking the knowledge that science provides, how could early man doubt that plants were magical and mysterious? Every autumn in temperate climates he watched forests die, the trees shed their leaves, grasses and flowers withered, and brown and gray colored his world. Yet come spring, all were reborn. Buds burst into leaf and fresh green shoots sprouted from the earth. Surely any beings that resurrect themselves each year must be filled with magic.
Our earliest ancestors didn't need to be botanists to observe and appreciate the remarkable energy and diversity of the plant world. I would think, though, that they would have been filled with wonder. Why did the sunflower's blossom turn to follow the sun across the sky? And why did the morning glory's trumpets open only at daybreak? They had no apparent cause for the plant's behavior, so they used their imagination. Their minds created nymphs and dryads. They animated trees and flowers with guardian spirits both benign and evil. In some areas, sun worshippers thought the sunflower was the earthly embodiment of the sun, and in others morning glories became the jewels of heaven because their beauty lured the sun goddess back into the sky at dawn.
During the years that I taught the habits and beliefs of ancient cultures, I came across many commonly known plants that the ancients associated with magic and mystery. My students and I found some interesting beliefs held by our ancestors, and I thought it would be fun to share a few of them with you.
For example, garlic is a plant that has long enjoyed a reputation for white magic, the power to turn back the evil forces of black magic. Over the centuries not only has this homely herb added vitamins and minerals to meals, it also claimed the power to defend people against vampires and the plague. Even today in some cultures, grandmothers will sometimes present a clove of garlic to their infant grandchildren as protection against the evil eye.
Other interesting beliefs were the result of stories told and retold by returning travelers, explorers who ventured into unknown lands. The legend of the lamb tree is such a story. The legend seems to have begun with a description of a cotton plant in southern Europe. It was thought that these plants bear for their fruit fleeces that surpassed those of sheep in beauty and excellence, and the natives clothed themselves with fabric provided by the plant. An untruth, of course, but still a belief.
Ancient Egypt was an ideal breeding ground for plant magic. They of all the ancients were excessively attentive to the worship of the gods. One plant that was revered by the Egyptians was the onion. Though it was a favorite dish in ancient Egypt, it served as much more than a vegetable. In the onion's fragrant bulb, the Egyptians found a symbol of the universe. Just as each layer of the onion was wrapped in another, so was the nether world enveloped by the earth and in turn, by the heaven. As some people today might swear on the Bible, the Egyptians took their oath on an onion. They also presented onions to their gods as sacrificial offerings.
In Greek literature and art, plants served as their respective mythological god's symbols. The plants were also seen as living links to the gods. An oak grove in northwestern Greece became the oracle of Zeus. There, by listening to the rustling of oak leaves, priests interpreted Zeus' divine will. Twelve great gods ruled the heavens, earth, sea, and the underworld, according to the ancient Greeks. They lived on the summit of Mount Olympus in northern Greece. Each of these gods had a special personality, and each had a favorite plant. Zeus, the head chief of the gods, had of course adopted the oak. His son Ares, god of war, preferred the ash, because its wood provided spears. Athena, goddess of wisdom, chose the olive tree, because it furnished not only timber but also fruit and oil.
The ancient Romans took all this information a step further, and became more down to earth in order to give direction to the common man. Take amber, for example, the fossil resin prized by the ancients as a gem. Worn at the neck, a piece of amber would ward off tonsilitis and goiter. It was also believed to protect people from attacks from any dangerous spirit. When spiked loosestrife was woven into a garland and hung around oxen's necks, it was thought to make the beasts pull together as a team. Thunder caused truffles to grow, erupting from the ground. Cucumbers crept toward water, but away from oil, thus showing the way to a water source. Turnips provoked lust, and were used only with care.
Another magical plant was the mistletoe. A strange little parasite, the mistleoe has singular habits that elicited the druids' worship. It defied nature by living its entire life aloft in the branches of trees, never descending to the earth. Equally strange, mistletoe appeared to spring from nowhere. To the casual ancient observer, the plant's reproduction and spread seemed magic. The druids declared it, and the oak tree on which it grew, sacred. For ceremonies, the druids climbed to the tops of oaks to gather the mistletoe, and it was never allowed to touch the earth. It would be interesting to know how many druid priests lost their lives in their climb to reach mistletoe. No doubt it was believed to be the extreme sacrifice. In the past, a bunch of mistletoe was hung in homes as insurance against all sorts of ills: witchcraft, disease, bad luck and fire. Today it hangs as a holiday decoration in many American homes, where it effects another kind of magic, the encouragement of holiday kisses.
Eventually, many plants, especially flowers, were exorcised of their pagan connections by a new association with Christian saints and martyrs. To many pre-Christian folks, the beauty of the rose had suggested divinity. The Greeks associated the rose with Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and the Egyptians had offered the rose to the souls of their dead pharoahs. Rather than ban this lovely blossom, the church fathers reconsecrated it to the Virgin Mary. Thus, as the Christian missionaries spread across Europe, they converted flowers as well as people. As happened with so many other plants, the Christian role of St. John's wort was connected to pagan origins. Because it bloomed at the time of the summer solstice it was at one time a totem of sun worshipers throughout the ancient world. The Romans burned it in bonfires in celebration of Midsummer day. Under Christianity, since the plant's association with the summer solstice linked it to the day celebrated as the birth of John the Baptist (June 24), Christian priests rededicated the plant to that martyr. After its conversion, St John's wort continued to be hung in doorways to repel evil demons and witches, a custom rooted in pagan beliefs. The Christian priests were not troubled by that because they also collected the herb to use in casting out devils.
This brings us to America, a rich melting pot of a variety of mysterious beliefs and magic potions. And it brings us to our own gardens, our own plants, which provide us with food, often with medicines, and always with beauty. A remarkable thing about plant magic and mystery is how it runs through many periods of human experience. As long as ignorance prevailed, and search engines were not available, the idea of magical plants remained powerful. Infiltrating every activity from romance to agriculture, herbal magic was instrumental to health, happiness, and success. New generations laughed at the ignorance and gullibility of the old, but each in turn wove its own new fantastic tales of herbal taboos, tales, lore and magic.
Sometimes mystery is more fun than reality, don't you think?
Resources for this article primarily came from my own lesson plans for Humanities classes. Another source for verification was the book: "Magic and Medicine of Plants" published by the Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1986. Thank you, Gitagal.
Photos for the article: the thumbnail is one of my paintings, now adorning the walls of Bluekat76, the morning glory is also my own photo, as is the rose. A special thanks to Farmerdill and to fraxinus for the use of their photos in Plant Files.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 20, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questionsor comments.)