Thyme

(Thymus vulgaris) A bee plant, always grown near hives, and the leaves would be rubbed on their hives (Gordon. 1977). It is a symbol of hope (Reeves), and of activity (Haig), and also of courage (Leyel. 1937). Those who eat it are said to become more courageous, and in the Middle Ages, a sprig of thyme was given to knights by their ladies, to keep up their courage. Even a scarf embroidered with a bee alighting on the plant, was supposed to have the same effect (Leyel. 1937). It was also, according to a correspondent of Notes and Queries; 1873, the emblem of the radical movement in French politics, particularly of the Marianne section (Marianne was the statuette of the Republic, wearing the red Phrygian cap).

But it is an unlucky plant, connected with death; the souls of murdered men inhabit it (Gordon. 1977), and the smell is that of a murdered man's ghost. Or the scent is a sign that a murder has been committed at that spot at some time. There is a place in Coate, near Bishop's Cannings, in Wiltshire, known as the "Thyme Tree" (where there is neither thyme nor tree), where the passer-by gets just two whiffs (and no more) of the scent of thyme (Wiltshire). That same scent was said to be present on a footpath leading from Dranfield to Stubley, in Derbyshire. The tradition was that a man murdered his sweetheart there as she was carrying a branch of thyme (Addy. 1895). Staining Hill, in Lancashire, has its ghost, with the smell of thyme (Addy. 1895). A sprig of thyme is carried by the Order of Oddfellows (Manchester Unity) at the funeral of one of their brothers, and then cast into the grave, and it was a common custom at funerals at Massingham, in Lincolnshire, to drop thyme on the coffins of the dead (Gutch & Peacock). It is planted on graves in Wales, too (Gordon. 1970). As a corollary to all this, thyme has got itself a bad name, too unlucky to be taken indoors, for it will bring death or illness to some member of the family (Tongue. 1967). Gypsies believe this, too, but it can be used outdoors, for medicinal purposes, for example (Vesey-Fitzgerald). Again, in Somerset, it is dangerous to keep indoors, because it smells of death (Tongue. 1965). Another reason why it is dangerous to take indoors is that it is a fairy plant (Briggs. 1967), and it was said that the fairies were particularly fond of it. On the other hand, it was once said that the smell of thyme would cure epilepsy (Classen, Howes & Synnott).

There was an old belief that thyme could strengthen the brain and preserve the aged by somehow reversing the aging process. A report in FLS News 15; July 1992 p 8 says that work has been done at the Scottish Agricultural College on the effect of plant extracts on reversing the aging process, and that both thyme and sage produce volatile oils containing antioxidants that have been tested for such effects. Whether this is a matter of belief or not, one has always been advised to drink thyme tea when suffering from exhaustion (Tynan & Maitland), just as, in the Highlands, it has always been considered the most potent of tonics (Beith). It was used to cure depression, too (Dyer. 1889), and in the Highlands again, it was said to prevent bad dreams, either as tea taken last thing (Grigson. 1955), or even by putting a sprig under the pillow (Beith).

"Take thyme with you when you move house" is an American dictum (Whitney & Bullock), and another piece of wisdom, from the Pennsylvania Germans, is that unless you sit on thyme after planting it, it will not grow (Fogel). There is a divination charm that includes the use of thyme. On St Agnes' night, take a sprig of rosemary and one of thyme, and sprinkle them three times with water. In the evening, put one in each shoe, putting a shoe on each side of the bed. On going to bed, St Agnes has to be invoked:

St Agnes that's to lovers kind, Come ease the troubles of my mind, and the future will be revealed in a dream (Halliwell. 1869). The divination seems to be from northern England and Scotland, and a different version of the rhyme is:

Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,

Hither, hither now repair;

Bonny Agnes let me see

The lad who is to marry me (Drury. 1986).

Thyme's medicinal reputation rests largely on the highly aromatic essential oil, described as camphor of thyme by the Berlin apothecary Neumann in 1725, and called thymol by Lallemand in 1853 (Lloyd). It has been a popular ingredient of domestic liniment, and is often used in veterinary medicine. It is antiseptic (more than 12 times as powerful as carbolic acid, so one folklorist claimed (Wiltshire) ), and vermifuge (Fluck). Due to the thymol, it has been used for whooping cough (Camp), and is much used in gargles and mouthwashes (Sanecki). Gypsies used the plant for whooping cough too - the decoction would be prepared outside (see above), a little sugar added, and drunk cold (Vesey-Fitzgerald).

Gerard had a long list of ailments to be cured by thyme. They include ague, strangury, hiccough ("it stayeth the hicket"), stone in the bladder, as well as "lethargie, frensie and madnesse", and so on. A regular heal-all in his eyes, particularly as he went on to claim that "it helpeth against the bitings of any venomous beast, either taken in drinke, or outwardly applied". And Andrew Boorde wrote that "Tyme brekyth the stone; it doth desolve wyndes, and causeth a man to make water".

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