Mugwort

(Artemisia vulgaris) A common plant of waste places and roadsides in this country. Common it may be, but this is one of the most important plants in the folklore of Britain; its ritual importance emphasised by its particular association with Midsummer. It is actually known as John's Feast-day Wort in the Isle of Man (bollan feaill Eoin (Moore) ), and in Europe, too, it is known as St John's Herb, and also as St John's Girdle - this is the medieval cingulum Sancti Johannis (St Johannesgurtel), and Sonnewendgurtel (Storms). It was believed that John the Baptist actually wore a girdle of it in the wilderness. It does keep flies away if worn, and grows in the right area (Genders), but this girdle was actually worn on St John's Eve to serve as a protection against ghosts or magic. Then the girdle would be thrown into the Midsummer Fire, and the ill-fortune of the wearer is burnt along with it (Bonser). Mugwort would be ritually gathered on Midsummer Eve to serve as a preventive against evil in general and witchcraft in particular, and to be hung over doors to purify the house of evil spirits (Jones), and to protect it from lightning (Le Strange). Cows were protected from fairy interference by having mugwort put in their byres at St John's (Spence. 1948), and chaplets were made of it in the Isle of Man, to be worn by both man and beast for the same purpose (Moore). Sprigs would be worn in button-holes, too. Soldiers attending the Tynwald on Old Midsumer Day (4 July) used to wear them; the custom was revived in 1925, and sprays are distributed among the people coming up the hill (Paton), and they have become a conspicuous feature of what is a National Day on the island (Mabey.1998), its ritual importance emphasised by its particular association with Midsummer. "Muggwith twigs" were used in the south of Ireland as late as 1897, after they had been singed in a St John's fire, to guarantee protection against disease (Davidson. 1955). It is not surprising that mugwort served as a symbol of happiness, and of tranquillity (Leyel. 1937).

People in Germany made hats of the plant, and, as with the girdles, threw them into the fires. "... Whoso looketh into the fire thro' the same, hath never a sore eye all that yeare: he that would depart home unto his house, casteth this his plant into the fire, saying, so depart all mine ill-fortune and be burnt up with this herb" (Grimm). In Britain, too, it was said that if the flames of the Midsummer fires were viewed through a branch of mugwort, it would ensure good vision for the year.

Still connected with Midsummer, there was a widespread delusion about the roots of mugwort - see Lupton: "It is certainly and constantly affirmed that on Midsummer Eve there is found, under the root of Mugwort, a coal which saves or keeps them safe from plague, carbuncle, lightning, the quartan-ague, and from burning, that bear the same about them ...". From the Practice of Paul Barbette, 1676, a more rational view is taken - "for the falling sicknesse some ascribe much to coals pulled out (on St John Baptist's Eve) from under the roots of mugwort; but those authors are deceived, for they are not coals, but old acid roots, consisting of much volatile salts, and are almost always to be found under mugwort : so that it is only a certain superstition that those old dead roots ought to be pulled upon the eve of St John Baptist, about twelve at night".

This plant was noted for its magical ability to open locks, like a "springwort". Another of its attributes was to enable the traveller who carried it never to feel weary, a belief that was made much of in earlier times. See Gerard: "Pliny saith, That the traveller or wayfaring man that hath the herbe about him feeleth no wearisomeness at all; and that he who hath it about him can be hurt by no poysonesome medicines, nor by any wilde beast, neither yet by the Sun itselfe". Coles wrote that if a footman take mugwort and put it in his shoes in the morning he may go forty miles, and not be weary" (quoted in J Mason). The same had already been written in the Anglo-Saxon version of Apuleius, and Neckem, De naturis Rerum, of late 12th century date, mentions the superstition, which is still current in Somerset - "Put mugwort in your shoes and you can run all day" (Tongue).

Mugwort was in demand, too, to "put to flight devil sickness, and in the house in which he has it within, it forbiddeth evil leechcrafts, and also it turneth away the (evil eyes of evil men) (Cockayne).That use of mugwort is found as far away as China. At the time of the dragon festival, people hang it up to ward off evil influences (F P Smith). In Wiltshire, people used to say that the leaves always turned to the north, and north was supposed to be the devil's quarter (Wiltshire). Crystal gazers found, so they say, that they got better results by drinking some mugwort tea during the operation (Kunz), and the tea is quite seriously believed to be an aid in the development of clairvoyance - in Japan, for instance, if a house were robbed in the night, and the burglar's footmarks were visible next morning, the householder would burn mugwort in them, so hurting the robber's feet and making his capture easy (Radford). Perhaps it is rather a question of protection; mugwort will hold evil at bay, or make it easier to overcome. Hence the Ainu make mugwort images which they put upside down into holes in order to bring misfortune upon their enemies (E A Armstrong). This concept makes it easier to understand the Chinese belief that mugwort is one of the weeds that had to be entirely destroyed before people could settle in a new place (E A Armstrong), for there would always be the suspicion that the mugwort was there to look after someone else's interests.

Miwok Indians of California protected themselves against the attention of ghosts by wearing a necklace of mugwort. Corpse handlers rubbed themselves with it, otherwise they would be haunted by the ghost of the deceased (Barrett & Gifford). It was recommended in the Grete Herball (1526) to produce merriment, though it becomes clear as we read on that this is not exactly what is meant - it should be laid under the door of the house, for if this is done "man or woman can not annoy in that house" (homme ne femme ne pourra nuire en cette maison) (Arber).

After all these wonders, it almost sounds too prosaic to mention that mugwort will keep the flies away. You can either wear a sprig (Genders. 1971), or keep an infusion to sponge over the face and arms (Cullum). The very name of the plant confirms it. Mugwort, O E muogwyrt, from a German base meaning a fly or gnat. Midge is the same word. It is a vermifuge too; the dried flower heads used to be sold by herbalists as "wormseed" (Earle). One of the French names, mort des vers, sums it up. And not only flies and worms - it will keep snakes at bay, too, if we are to believe Thomas Hill's quote - "... Serpents in the Garden ground or elsewhere will not lodge or abide, if the owner sow or plant in borders about, or in apt corners of the Garden, either the Woirm-wood, Mugwort, or Southern-wood ..." (T Hill).

One would expect a benevolent herb like mugwort to be well-favoured for medicinal purposes; in fact only betony seems to have a longer list of ailments for which it is prescribed. Only a few of the important uses can be discussed here. Chinese medicine uses it extensively, and recognizes several forms in commercial use, including a cautery use that is additional to that which forms part of normal acupuncture treatment. One of the best-known pieces of folklore in this country involving mugwort is the Clyde legend that as the funeral procession of a young woman who had died of consumption was passing along the high road, a mermaid surfaced, and said:

If they wad drink nettles in March, And eat Muggons in May, Sae mony braw maidens Wadna gang to the clay (Chambers).

Similarly, from Galloway, there is a story of a young girl close to death with consumption, and a mermaid who sang to her lover:

Wad ye let the bonnie May die i' your hand, An' the mugwort flowering i' the land?

The lad cropped and pressed the flower tops, and gave the juice to the girl, who recovered (Cromek). A Welsh rhyme takes up the theme:

Drink nettle-tea in March, mugwort tea in May, And cowslip wine in June, to send decline away.

But why a mermaid in Scotland? Benwell & Waugh came up with an interesting answer - Artemis (The generic name of mugwort is Artemisia) was also a fish goddess, sometimes depicted with a fish tail. So it was the goddess herself, and by extension the plant itself, that was advertising its own benevolence.

Mugwort tea is still often taken for rheumatism (Deane & Shaw), and the Physicians of Myddfai were recommending something similar, though considerably more complicated, for intermittent fevers. They also prescribed the leaves boiled in wine to "destroy worms", for mugwort is a known vermifuge. The use of the plant for palsy crops up several times in the old herbals, and even epilepsy, which herbalists still use for the disease in the form of root tincture (Schauen-berg & Paris); there is an Irish record of a similar use (Moloney).

The Physicians of Myddfai made the extraordinary claim, "if a woman be unable to give birth to her child, let the mugwort be bound to her left thigh. Let it be instantly removed when she has been delivered, lest there should be haemorrhage. Clearly this is a garbled version of an older, probably genuine, usage of the plant. There is a 17th century recommendation of its use, steeped in wine, as an aid to conception (K Knight). Lastly, there are a group of leechdoms to relieve sore feet. Cockayne's translation of the AngloSaxon version of Apuleius has "take the wort, and pound it with lard, lay it to the feet". He also has, for the same complaint, "eat root of mugwort. Mixed with oil, and also bind on elder, waybread and mugwort leaves pounded". To round it off, the Physicians of Myddfai had "For weariness in walking. Drink an eggshell of the juice of mugwort, and it will remove your weariness". Just carrying mugwort would do, for there is a Scottish belief that travellers who carried it would not tire (Beith).

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