Herbs and spices have been used for medicinal purposes and to flavour food since before the written word. Historically, they were expensive and scarce commodities that were not generally used by the average person. Herbs and spices were discovered by explorers, traded and stolen. Wars were fought over them. Now that they are generally inexpensive and in wide use, what do we really know about the herbs in the pantry? Yes, basil and tomatoes taste great together, but basil was once also thought to be capable of warding off dragons. Each herb or spice has not only a history, but is associated with myths, folklore and legends.
Native varieties of basil are found throughout Asia, Africa, and Central and South America. It was possibly first cultivated in India, where it has been considered a sacred herb associated with love and faithfulness. Basil plants are sometimes grown in the homes of Hindus to bring the family happiness. A basil leaf buried with a person was considered his passport to heaven.
The word "basil" is derived from the Greek word for "king," a reference to its royal fragrance. Alexander the Great may have brought basil to Greece, where it was once thought scorpions would breed under pots of the growing herb. Ancient Romans called the herb "basiliscus", a reference to the basilisk, a very fierce and dangerous dragon that could kill a person by looking at him. Eating basil was thought to be a protection from this dragon, as well as a cure for poison. The Romans also connected basil to love and fertility. The French call it "herbe royale." Medieval Europeans thought it to be a sorcerer's herb. Basil has an association with the Holy Cross. A Christian legend has it that the True Cross was found under growing basil. According to Father Mark on the blog Vultus Christi (see Resources below), "Basil plants were reputed to have sprang up at the foot of the Cross where fell the Precious Blood of Christ and the tears of the Mother of Sorrows. A sprig of basil was said to have been found growing from the wood of the True Cross." But to show that basil doesn't play favourites, it is also associated with Erzulie, a voodoo love goddess worshipped in Haiti.
Italians think of basil as a symbol of love. In Romania, if a man accepts a sprig of basil from a woman, they are engaged.
There are two kinds of cinnamon. Cinnamomum zeylanicum is called true cinnamon and is native to Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon. The other is from the cassia tree, which grows in Vietnam, China, Indonesia and Central America. This is the cinnamon used in North America. It is more bitter than Ceylon cinnamon. Cinnamon was used in ancient Chinese medicine for the treatment of fever, diarrhoea and menstrual problems. It was also used as incense in Chinese temples. When the Egyptians discovered it, cinnamon was included in their embalming process. Its oil was used in ancient Hebrew anointing rituals. In biblical times, cinnamon was used as a perfume, a spice and to treat indigestion.
In the Middle Ages, Arabs brought cinnamon and other spices from Asia to Egypt on caravan trade routes. They concocted stories to hide the source of the cinnamon to justify its scarcity and cost. The mythical cinnamologus bird originated from this practice. The Arabs claimed that the bird made its nests of cinnamon sticks in Arabia, but they didn't know from where the bird brought them. Obtaining the cinnamon required dislodging the birds from their perilous, cliffhanging nests by various heroic means. At the start of the Middle Ages, Pliny the Elder wrote that 350 grams of cinnamon were worth 5,000 grams of silver. Only the wealthy and powerful had access to the spice. In 65 A.D., Roman Emperor Nero is said to have burnt a year's supply of cinnamon at his wife's funeral, possibly in remorse for having caused her death. Cinnamon was once used to help preserve meat, and to mask the odour of its ageing.
Cinnamon, along with grape vines and ivy, is a sacred plant of Dionysus, the Greek god of ecstasy. The Phoenix, the bird that rises from its ashes in mythology, uses cinnamon, myrrh and spikenard to build the magic fire in which it is reborn.
Medicinally, cinnamon has been used at one time or another as a remedy for coughs and sore throats; for the common cold and flu; for uterine problems; and for what 12th century German abbess/herbalist Hildegard of Bingen called "inner decay of slime." The Egyptian queen Cleopatra was famous for her use of seductive oils and scents, and no doubt employed cinnamon oil in her arsenal. It has had its uses in love potions as well.
Dill originated in Central Asia and is usually now imported from Egypt, other Mediterranean countries or Eastern Europe. The variety grown in India is less pungent, so beware if following an Indian recipe; less dill is needed. Its name came from the Old Norse word "dilla," meaning "to soothe" or "to lull." Ancient Egyptian physicians used dill as a digestive aid, as did traditional Chinese medical practitioners, especially for children. Dill water made from steeping the seeds was used to ease colic in babies, as it has anti-gas properties, as well as being a mild sedative.
In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, dill was thought to be a sign of wealth, as well as being known for its healing properties. Burnt dill seeds were applied to the wounds of soldiers to foster healing, as it is an antiseptic, inhibiting bacterial growth. Dill fronds may have been placed over the eyes at night to help one sleep. Talmudic records show that dill was valuable enough to be tithed. In medieval times, dill was both used in witchcraft, notably by burning it to clear clouds and thunderstorms. and as protection from witchcraft. A charm made from dill leaves or bunches of dill hung by the door was the remedy. Drinking dill water was also considered effective in removing a witch's spell. Other past uses include adding it to wine to create passion, or bathing in it to become irresistible to one's paramour. Dill was brought by the colonists to the New World. They used dill water as a folkloric remedy for colic, cough, indigestion, gas, stomachache and insomnia, as well as jaundice, haemorrhoids, scurvy and hiccups. Children were given dill seeds to chew to calm them during long sermons, leading to the moniker "meetin' seeds."
Marjoram and oregano share the genus "originum," but they are not the same. Although marjoram is a specific type of oregano, it is milder. It develops its best aroma in warm climates. A type of marjoram grown in Jordan, Lebanon and Israel is known as "zahtar." Greek legend has it that marjoram, also known as joy-of-the-mountain, developed its aroma when touched by Venus, the goddess of love. If marjoram grew on a grave site, it was thought the spirit of the deceased was peaceful and happy. To learn the identity of your future spouse, you could sleep in the presence of the herb, and you would dream of your as-yet-unknown love. Wreaths of marjoram were used to crown newly married couples in ancient Greece and Rome to bring them love, honour and happiness. It was similarly used in the Middle Ages, carried at weddings or displayed in bouquets. As it was also thought to have antiseptic qualities, it was used in the rooms of the sick, and sometimes scattered over the floor at funerals. It has been used for bathing and in the purification of temples in biblical times. Marjoram was another witchcraft antidote as well. It was said that "...no person who had sold herself to the devil could abide it," according to Charles Skinner in the 1915 book "Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants." Marjoram's medical uses have included drinking honeyed marjoram tea to preserve and strengthen the voice; as a remedy for snake poison; as a mood stabiliser; as a digestive aid; as a toothache cure, by chewing the leaves; and as an inhalant in steam for sinus and laryngitis problems. It has been seen as helpful to ensure a long life.
Rosemary is native to the Mediterranean, its Latin name meaning "sea dew." The name may have more to do with the colour of its flowers than with any affinity to the sea. The most famous legend about this plant has it that rosemary's flowers were once white. They turned blue after the Virgin Mary laid her blue cloak over a rosemary shrub while fleeing from Herod. It was also once thought that the long-lived shrub never grew over six feet tall, no matter how old, because it refused to grow to be taller than Christ. One old belief is that rosemary would only grow in the garden of a righteous person; another that if rosemary grew with vigour in a yard, the woman of the household may be stronger than the man. The association with the Virgin Mary may also be connected with rosemary's traditional use to decorate homes and churches at Christmas. Rosemary is the herb of fidelity and remembrance. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you, love, remember," as Ophelia said in "Hamlet." With this in mind, rosemary has long been used in wedding ceremonies as an encouragement toward fidelity and to remind the new couple to remember their wedding vows, roots and families. Dried rosemary could also be used in the bedding to promote fidelity. (As an added bonus, a sprig of rosemary under a pillow was also thought to ward off not only bad dreams, but demons.) Sprigs have been tossed into caskets as a promise to remember the deceased. Further illustrating the belief in its powers of memory enhancement, Greek students wove rosemary into their hair to help them when taking exams. It was also prescribed for relief from mental disorders in ancient Greece. Rosemary also was considered a disinfectant, especially when burnt. Church flocks were purified by burning rosemary, and ancient Greeks burnt it to dispel evil spirits and sickness. The French burnt rosemary and juniper in hospitals during the Middle Ages to clean the air. Historically, rosemary has been used at various times to treat nervous disorders, melancholy and depression, headaches, dizziness, epilepsy or other trembling disorders, arthritis, gout, baldness and even to reduce varicose veins.
Other Herb and Spice Myths and Legends
Obviously, there is much, much more to the folklore, myths and legends of herbs and spices than can be addressed here. Resources for those who would like to learn more include the early 1900s book by Charles Skinner mentioned earlier, titled "Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits and Plants." This book is available for download via Google Book Search, a project to make books in the public domain available online. See References below for the link. Another book written specifically about the myths of herbs is "The Meaning of Herbs: Myth, Language and Love," by Ann Field and Gretchen Scoble. For a more historical look, "Spice: the History of a Temptation" by Jack Turner has good online reviews. Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages, an online reference noted below in References, is an amazingly thorough compendium of facts about spices, including details about the origins of their names. Some historical and anecdotal material is also included in this website, as well as links to more information.