Basil

French saying "semer le basilic", as signifying slander (Femie). It also probably explains why in Italian folklore, basil always stands for hatred, although it had the opposite meaning in eastern countries (H N Webster). In India, where it is known as tulasi (Hemphill) (see HOLY BASIL, rather), it is sacred to Vishnu and Krishna (Clair). It is kept in every Hindu home as a disinfectant, and to protect the family from evil (A W Hatfield).

It is said that basil will wither in the hands of the impure (Barraclough). A prospective husband could test a girl's chastity by making her hold a sprig of basil in her hands. If it quickly withered it was taken as a sure sign that she was not a virgin (Higgins). If a young man accepted a sprig of basil from a girl, he was instantly in love with her, or so it was believed (A W Hatfield). Another belief was that it was the smell of basil that would attract a lover, hence one of its names in Italian, bacia Nicola (kiss me Nicholas). That was why Italian girls would pick basil and put it in their bosoms; married women put it in their hair (Gubernatis). In Smyrna, if a girl wanted to get married within the coming year, she would plant a pot of basil in May the year before. She would tend it carefully until Epiphany, when she would break off a small sprig and give it to the priest during his round, and was given in return the sprig with which he had blessed the waters. This sprig was then put in the frame of one of the family icons, and the girl waited patiently for the husband, who could not fail to come (Megas). In Sicily and parts of southern Italy, a pot of basil on the balcony signals that the family has a daughter of marriageable age for whom they seek a suitor (Simoons).

In Tudor times, little pots of basil were often given as compliments by farmers' wives to their landladies and to visitors (Grieve. 1933). In Mediterranean countries a pot of basil is kept on windowsills to keep flies out of the room (G B Foster), and a sprig in the wardrobe will keep moths and insects away (Conway). A strange early belief that Browne counts as one of the Vulgar Errors, was that "there is a property in Basil to propagate scorpions, and that by the smell thereof they are bred in the brains of men". He says that one Hollerius "... found this insect in the brain of a man that delighted much in the smell", also "whosever hath eaten basil, although he be stung with a scorpion, shall feel no paine thereby". Gerard had already mentioned the superstition: "there be that shun Basill and will not eat thereof, because that if it be chewed and laid in the sun, it engendreth wormes. They of Africke do also affirm, that they who are stung of the scorpions and have eaten of it, shall feele no paine at all". Those "wormes" engendered in the sun are, of course, serpents (Hulme. 1893).

Basil is an embalming herb, already used as such in ancient Egypt. This tradition is also met in Keats'

poem called Isabella, or the pot of basil, originally told by Boccaccio. Isabella laid the head of her murdered lover in a pot of basil, which kept it "fairly unspoilt" (Swahn). It is used in cooking, of course, but only a tiny pinch is needed in soups (particularly turtle soup). It was said by Parkinson "to procure a cheerful and merrie heart", and Gerard also says that "the seeds drunken is a remedy for melancholy people", but on the other hand, notes that "Dioscorides saith that if Basill be much eaten, it dulleth the sight, it mollifieth the belly, breedeth winde, provoketh urine, drieth up milke, and is of hard digestion". Evelyn also warned that it was "sometimes offensive to the eyes; and therefore the tender tops to be very sparingly us'd in our Sallet" (Evelyn. 1699). It is said to have been the characteristic taste in the famous Fetter Lane sausages, a 17th century invention. The sausage-maker made a fortune by spicing his sausage with basil (A W Hatfield).

It was used as a strewing herb (Brownlow), and it counters headaches and colds, either by an infusion, taken hot at night (Quelch), or by taking it as snuff. Dried basil leaves in that form have been used for nervous headaches and head-colds for centuries (Hemphill). In Britain, basil, mixed with blacking, has been used to get rid of warts (Leyel. 1926).

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