Mugwort: a European plant of divination

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against infection,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land.

Nine Herb Charm, Lacnunga manuscript, 10th century. 

Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris; German name: Beifuß; Dutch: Bijvoet; French: Armoise) is a native plant from Europe. Mugwort has American and Asian variations too. (Not to be confused with St. John’s Wort, Hypericum perforatum). The Latin name Artemis is named after the Greek moon goddes Artemisia, goddes of birth and marriage. In medical terms it was used for female issues, therefore it is sometimes called ‘womb wort‘ ore ‘love herb‘. It helped against menstrual pain and in high doses it was used to excite abortion.  Mugwort however, was also considered as a sacred herb by Germanic tribes in Europe. Originally the German ‘Beifuß’ is derived from the Old High German ‘bozzan’, which means ‘to repel’, mostly against evil and bad luck. In folk etymology this name is changed into ‘bijvoet‘ and ‘biboz‘, because this herb was put in shoes to protect oneself against pain during traveling.

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Mugwort is the first plant ever described in an preserved European manuscript by the Greek Plinius the Elder. In his Naturalis Historia (77 AD) he talks about travelers who took mugwort during their travels. The Greek physician Dioscurides used mugwort for medical purposes against worms. Greek and Roman people used it as a flavouring for food and drinks. In other parts of Europe people used it to flavor drinks at least since the Iron Age. It is believed to be the oldest herb in the world… Therefore it is mentioned in old legends, for example the story of Queen Aremisia from Persia about which is said that she built a monument mausoleum with a lot of mugwort for her husband in the city of Halicarnassus around the year 377 BC. Interesting fact is that the temples of Diana, the Roman version of Artemis, were used for healing.

Mugwort is a real Midsummer herb as it is praised in the Nine Herb Charm mentioned above. The christianized version is St. John’s Plant because it blooms during the feast of St. John the Baptist on the 24th of June. This date is very close to the early Germanic midsummer celebration on the 21th of June. Nine herbs were used during the Midsummer celebration because nine is a holy number according to Germanic people. Various folk rituals are focused around mugwort during Midsummer. People could improve one’s eyesight while looking at the bonfire through a bunch of mugwort. Puppets stuffed with mugwort were thrown in the bonfire to wash away sins. Or, in my opinion, these dolls were not only used for sins, but to clear away bad luck or bad energy, maybe demons. Because during the Middle Ages, bunches of mugwort were used to clear areas of ill powers in order to keep away evil spirits and demons.

Already in pre-christian Germanic times this plant was used for it’s healing purposes. It was specially used for female illnesses and childbirth. In the fourth century, the Gaul Marcellus of Bordeaux describes the custom of people girding themselves with some  mugwort at sunrise, preferebly gathered with the left hand, and using this as a remedy for pain in the loins. It is therefore not suprising that a lot of folk medicine concerning mugwort are passed on troughout the European Middle Ages. Hildegard von Bingen in her Physica (1150-1160) derived juices from mugwort, against ailing intestines and against a cold stomach. If you eat it, preferably in a puree, it could attract rotten matter in your food and remove it out of your body. In a mixture with honey and egg white, according to Hildegard, it is very helphull against open wounds. According to the Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe van Marcel de Cleene these above described juices of mugwort were a wide spread magic recipe in Europe. The juice of mugwort imparted great strength to the person who rubbed it into his limbs. This superstition could be based on a description by Pliny the Elder, stating that mugfort would protect the walker from tired feet.

As we already have mentioned, mugwort was one of the Midsummer herbs, that could enhance visions ans prophecies,  especially during the Midsummer night dreams. The common mugwort, became the important ‘St John’s Wort’ in Christian Folklore. (Don’t confuse it with the original St. John’s Wort). People also stuffed their pillows or drank tea to generate foresight. It was one of the most important plants for divination and health, in pre-christian pagan times and during the Middle Ages all the way up to the modern era. In 1927 in Germany, for example, mugwort was still used to treat illnesses caused by spells as it was a good protection against the devil and demons. Mugwort also had the property to free bewitched eggs or milk.

“There is a remarkable Russian legend about the Common Mugwort. On the 3rd of May, the day of the veneration of the Holy Cross, a young girl goes to the forest to pick mushrooms. Suddenly she spies a jumble of snakes, decides to return home, but on her way falls into a very deep hole. At the end of this dark burrow, she notices a shining stone. She also sees a queen with golden horns leading hungry snakes to the stone; they lick the stone and immediately their hunger is satisfied. The girl follows their example and so manages to stay alive. At the start of the following spring, the snakes form a ladder for the girl to climb up, and so she excapes from the hole. On her departure sahe recieves a special gift from the queen: she is able to understand the language of herbs, and understand ther curative powers. However, she has to promise never to utter the name mugwort or c’ornobil (he who was black), for then she will immediatlely lose all her knowledge. And indeed, the girl is now able to understand the language of the plants and know all their powers. However, walking along, she is soon overtaken by a man who asks her which plant grows by the wayside of small country lanes, She answers c’ornobil and immediatly loses her special knowledge of herbs. From this day on the mugwort was known as Zabutko of herb of oblivion.”

From: Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe van Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune (2003).

Remark: c’ornobill really means ‘dark stalkes’. See: Wiktionary of Chernobyl

Interesting facts: 

  • In modern times the Dutch name Bijvoet was used as a nickname for herbal doctors, which shows the important significance of this herb in herbal lore. People whose family name is still Bijvoet may have had doctors as ancestors.
  • Mugwort is called in many languages the ‘love herb’. In Dutch: ‘liefdeskruid’. A Greek papyrus scroll also mentions the Artemisia as a magic remedy for winning love and friendship. In Posen/Poznan (Poland) widows anxious to remarry wore a sprig of the mugwort as a love plant. In Neder-Overheembeek in 1909, lovesick girls would place the mugwort between their naked breasts in order to attract a lover. (It works!)
  • Mugwort was held in high regard by the Germanic, Celtic and Slav peoples; they used the herb to ease childbirth and cure all sorts of female disorders and induces abortion in high amounts and birth in low amounts.
  • Before 1949 in Limburg (Belgium) a cross was made of the herb and then worn as an amulet. Large wreaths were also made of it and worn as a St John’s girdle
  • Mugwort was a highly valued plant; this is evident from the old names of this plant, such as Mater herbalum (the mother of herbs).
  • The coal found under mugfort during St. John’s Day has healing properties. It was effective against epilepsy and fever and protected the cattle for two days, in the early 20th century. (A pre-christian custom was to led cattle through the coal and ashes of the Midsummer bonfire).
  • During Tynwald, the nation day of the Isle of Man, soldiers wear sprigs of mugwort according to an old custom.
  • Mugwort also has the power to preserve the beer into which it is cast or suspended, because it does not turn sour

Sources: 

  • Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe van Marcel de Cleene and Marie Claire Lejeune (2003).
  • Transcriptions and information from Marius Odinson.
  • Physica, Hildegard von Bingen (1150-1160).
  • Naturalis Historia, Plinius the Elder (77 AD).
  • Nine Herb Charm, Lacnunga Manuscript (10th century).
  • Mugwort Lore, Edward E. Armstrong, in: Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 1 (1944).
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2 Comments

Filed under Fairy Tales, Folklore, Germanic Paganism, Grandmother's Wisdom, Health, Health and Hash, Heathenism, Herbs, Historical Festivities, Legends and Folktales, Middle Ages, Myths, Popular Religion

2 responses to “Mugwort: a European plant of divination

  1. If people have suggestions, tips or corrections, please contact me or write a comment! I appreciate that. 🙂

  2. Hi! Do know what the PIE name for this plant would be? Or in any of the Baltic languages? Thanks!

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