Vervain

(Verbena officinalis) This is a holy herb, or to be more accurate, the Holy Herb. The Romans gave the name verbena, or more frequently, the plural form, verbenae, to the foliage or branches of shrubs and herbs which, for their religious association, had acquired a sacred character. These included laurel, olive and myrtle, but Pliny makes us think that the herb now known as verbena was regarded as the most sacred of all of them (Browning). He said it was gathered at sunrise after a sacrifice to the earth as an expiation. When it was rubbed on the body, all wishes would be gratified. It dispelled fevers and other maladies. And it was an antidote against serpents (MacCulloch. 1911). The Greeks also looked on it as particularly sacred (Friend. 1883), as it was in Persian belief (Clair), while it was called "the tears of Isis" by the priest physicians of Egypt (Maddox).

In Rome, it was carried as a symbol of inviolability by the state envoys when dealing with an enemy, but that did not stop both the Greeks and Romans dedicating it to the god of war (C J S Thompson. 1897), and it was sacred to Thor in Scandinavia too. Leland. 1898 says it was a plant of Venus. In other words, it was used as an aphrodisiac, or some kind of love philtre (Folkard). As such it was planted at the door step in the southern states of America to attract lovers (M Baker. 1977). Pillows stuffed with verbena were recommended for their strong aphrodisiac scent (Boland. 1977); perhaps just a sprig in a pillow would do. Piedmontese belief had it that if young men gathered it on Midsummer Eve, any girls they shook hands with would fall in love with them (Canziani. 1913). In the Fen country, courting couples used to exchange vervain leaves to keep carefully in their Bibles. If the leaves kept green, then the love of both was true, but if they turned brown, it was a sign that one of them was false (Porter. 1969. The old rhyme was:

A verbena leaf sent to a lover

Carries a message; you need no other.

Vervain was one of the ingredients, in Celtic mythology, of Ceridwen's cauldron. It was usually gathered, we are told, at the rise of the Dog-star, "without being looked upon either by the sun or the moon" (Spence. 1945), and with the usual expiatory sacrifices of fruit and honey made to the earth (Wilde. 1890). According to old Irish belief, vervain was one of the seven herbs that nothing natural nor supernatural could injure; the others were yarrow, St John's Wort, eyebright, speedwell, mallow and self-heal (Wilde. 1902). Naturally, with such a background, vervain was taken to be a great protector, either of the home (plant it on the roof and it will guard the house against lightning (Sebillot) ), or of the person. Even in ancient times, it served in the purification of houses (Browning), and it was a Welsh custom to cut it, in the dark, to bring into a church, there to be used as a sprinkler of holy water (Clair). At one time in the Isle of Man, neither the mother nor a newborn baby were let out of the house before christening day, and then both had a piece of vervain sewn into their underclothes for protection (Gill. 1963). In Sussex the practice was to dry the leaves and put them in a black silk bag, to be worn round the neck of sickly children (Latham), probably rather to avert witchcraft than to effect a cure, and it was sewn into children's clothing to keep fairies away. Adults could be protected from fairies and their spells by brewing a tea made from it, and drinking that (Spence. 1949). Welsh tradition, too, recognised its value as an amulet. There they dried and powdered the roots, to be worn in a sachet round the neck (Trevelyan).

This belief in the extraordinary powers of vervain goes back a long way. The Romans, for instance, hung it in their houses to ward off evil spirits (C J S Thompson. 1897). Gerard tells us that "the Devil did reveal it as a sacred and divine medicine", and there are various versions of the couplet that Aubrey quotes:

Vervain and dill

Hinders witches from their will (Aubrey. 1696). The expanded version runs:

Trefoil, vervain, John's wort, dill,

Hinders witches of their will (Gutch. 1901.

This coupling of vervain and St John's Wort occurs in a charm that Aubrey quoted, against "an evil tongue" -"take unguent ... and vervain and hypericon, and put a red-hot iron into it. You must anoint the backbone, or wear it on your breast". Another recipe to see spirits, or, put another way, to bestow second sight, was to anoint the eyes for three days with the combined juices of dill, vervain and St John's Wort (Hewett). There is also the well-known and oft quoted rhyme:

Fennel, rose, vervain, celandine and rue

Do water make which will the sight renew.

Like many another healing plant, there was a special time for gathering it, the "Sun being in the Sign of the Ram", according to Albertus Magnus, when, "put with grain or corm of Peony of one year old", it would have the power of healing "them that be sick of the falling sickness". Another example for vervain is:

Between mydde Marche and mydde Aprille

And yet awysyd muste ye be

That the sonne be in arrete (I B Jones).

It was well known that a witch hare could not be shot, unless a bent silver coin or something like that were used as a bullet. One piece of advice from Bedd Gelert tells the man with the gun to put a small piece of rowan and one of vervain under the stock (D E Jenkins). Vervain's protective powers can be seen on a lower level, too. Manxmen, for example, would never start a journey, or any other enterprise, without a sprig of vervain (Killip), and there is another illuminating record: "... a couple of years ago a young singer at a Manx musical-guild competition held a leaf of it in her hand while singing, and won first prize (Gill. 1932).

Besides being used as a protector from supernatural practices, vervain, in true homeopathic style, was used by the witches themselves for their own ends, if only as a protection for the practitioner. The Great Grimoire makes this quite clear in describing a protective device to be used in the working of black magic - "... two vervain crowns and left sides of the triangle within the circle ...". It was used, too, in a tiara (with cypress) to be worn on such an occasion (Haining). According to D B Wyndham Lewis, in his Gilles de Rais, vervain was bound with garlands round the special sword used by sorcerers for drawing on the ground the magic circle within which they must stand for their own safety. The Physicians of Myddfai took up this theme. "If one goes to battle let him seek the vervain, and keep it in his clothes, and he will escape from his enemies". It was used in the preparation of the Hand of Glory: "wrap the hand in a piece of a winding sheet, drawing it tight so as to squeeze out the little blood that might remain. Then place it in an earthenware vessel with saltpetre, salt and pepper, all well dried and carefully powdered. Let it remain a fortnight in the pickle and then expose it in the sun in the dog days, till completely parched, or dry it in an oven heated with vervain and fern" (Radford & Radford). One of the charges against the witches was that they went invisible by night, and vervain was thought to confer that invisibility. A belief from Pliny's time tells that by smearing his body all over with the juice of this plant, the operator could have whatever he wished, be able to reconcile his greatest enemies, cure diseases, and perform any other magical feat (C J S Thompson. 1897). After all this it comes as no surprise that it was believed to have the power of opening locks. Indeed, it was the very symbol of enchantment (Ingram).

It was used in sex magic, too, and appeared in most witch philtres. "Place vervain in thy mouth, and kiss any maid saying these words, "Pax tibi sum sen-sum conterit in amore me" and she shall love thee (Haining). Katharine Briggs (Briggs. 1962) quoted from a 1662 ms: "ffavour to have. Gather vervain on midsummer even ffastinge and out of deadlye sime with 3 paternosters 1 Aves and 2 Credo and beare it about thee". Again, "Rubbe vervain in the ball of thy hand and rubbe thy mouth with it and immediately kysse her and it is done"

There are still a few minor superstitions connected with the plant. One is that it should be bought or stolen. If it is offered as a gift, it can be accepted after refusing it twice (Notes and Queries. vol 67; 1941). Another involves the use of oil of vervain; Fenland belief said that if the oil was put in mid-stream and allowed to float down river, it would attract large numbers of eels, and by so doing mark the spot where a drowned body lay. Fenmen were fond of using this oil as bait, often by steeping the worms in it; wildfowl hunters often baited their snares and traps with the crushed leaves (Porter. 1969).

Medicinal uses are many and varied, though most of them should rather be described as magico-medicinal. Take Gerard, for example: "It is reported to be of sin gular force against the Tertian and Quartane fevers; but you must observe mother Bombie's rules, to take just so many knots or sprigs, and no more, lest it fall out so that it do you no good, if you catche no harm by it". Then there are the various recipes for dealing with scrofula, or the King's Evil, as it was termed. "To cure the King's Evil, bake a toad, and when dried sufficiently to roll into a powder, beat it up in a stone mortar, and mix with powdered vervain. Sew in a black silk bag and wear round the neck" (Moloney). This idea of putting vervain (with or without the toad) in a bag and wearing it was in favour for a long time. It even appeared in a 19th century supplement to the London Pharmacopeia as a scrofula cure - "necklaces of vervain roots , tied with a yard of white satin ribbon" (Leyel. 1926). It also appeared in a 17th century manuscript from Jersey, where the magic was continued by burning the rest of the root and hanging the leaf up the chimney. As the leaf dried, so would the disease dry up (Le-Bas). Brand's editor published similar practices he had been told about - "Squire Morley of Essex used to say a prayer which he hoped would do no harm when he hung a bit of Vervain-root from a scrophulous person's neck. My Aunt Freeman had a very high opinion of a baked Toad in a silk bag, hung round the neck". Similar practices were advised for many other complaints, ranging from snakebite to headaches, and including wounds, stone, dropsy, "bleared eyes", childbirth problems, suppressed lactation, and so on. There is one early prescription: "to prevent dreams, take the vervain, and hang it about a man's neck, or give him the juice on going to bed, and it will prevent his dreaming" (Physicians of Myddfai). Before dismissing it as fantasy, one should bear in mind that vervain tea is a sedative.

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