HERBS IN MYTHOLOGY
Mythology is the handmaid of literature, and literature promotes happiness. Myths were told or sung to people at least 5,000 years ago. They were told to explain dreams or reasoning for certain happenings or to understand their gods.
Homer was a poet around 900 B.C. and was the main recorder of most myths, although there were poets who sang hymns and told stories of the mythological characters some 2,000 years before Homer. Many modern authors have glamorized myths and made them interesting to read.
The genealogy of the mythical characters is interesting, but we will only touch on a few to get us started. First was Chaos; from Chaos came Mother Earth, Gaea, and the starry heavens, Uranus. They had nymphs, titans, Cyclops and a most wily and terrible son, Cronus (or Saturn) who overthrew his father Uranus. He took Rhea for his wife and they had many children that Cronus devoured because it had been prophesied one would overthrow him. When Rhea delivered Zeus she hid him in a cave and gave Cronus stones to devour in lieu of the infant Zeus. Zeus was raised by nymphs and when he became of age he overthrew Cronus and made him regurgitate the other children. Cronus had destroyed his father and threw the body parts into the sea, from which Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite) was formed. She is associated with the herbs rose and myrtle.
Zeus was considered the main god of mythology and he married Juno, but he had other wives and lovers. Some of their children were: Apollo, god of the sun , music and medicine; his twin Diana, goddess of the hunt; Hercules, man of strength; Neptune or Poseidon, god of the ocean; and Minerva goddess of crafting and wisdom (she and the Three Graces wove all the clothes and sails for the gods).
One day Prometheus, who was a cousin of Zeus and friend to mankind, met Zeus in a field of poppies. There they killed an ox and Prometheus tricked Zeus and gave him a bag of bones rather than meat. Zeus became enraged and took fire from man to punish Prometheus. Prometheus stole fire back in a hollow fennel stem and gave it to man. Zeus was so angry and punished him again and also gave him the terrible thing…woman. Pandora supposedly was the first woman bringing with her a box. So curious, she opened the box and released all the ills of the world, leaving only hope at the bottom of the box, which she kept.
There were many gods and goddess born to rein over the earth, sky and Hades. Pluto was chosen to rein over the underworld and he took for his wife Persephone who was the daughter of Ceres, goddess of corn. Ceres was so distraught over the loss of her daughter that she let the crops die and Pluto then made a bargain with her to release Persephone for half the year during the growing season. Cereal is named in honor of Ceres.
There were many lesser gods, nymphs, satyrs, muses, furies, fates, and sirens that did the bidding of the gods.
The Greeks brought their gods to the Romans, but the Romans had other gods: Pomona, goddess of the fruit; Flora, goddess of flowers; Lucina, goddess of childbirth; and many more.
Most of this study pertains to Greek myths.
There are at least 52 herbs that are influenced by the gods and goddesses of mythology. Even though Greek mythology has been in existence for at least 5,000 years, there are no followers of this ancient religion, even though it has influenced our lives in our language, literature, culture, customs, politics, astronomy, and our calendar.
Herbs in Mythology
Aconite - Aconitum napellus - Monkshood, Wolf’s Bane - Name derived from Aconae, supposed place of origin. It is said that it is an invention of Hecate, goddess of sorcery and witchcraft. Medea another sorceress and wife of King Aegeus was jealous of Theseus, the kings son, and tried to destroy him with a drought of aconite, but the king discovered the plot and saved Theseus. The old men who were infirmed were given droughts of Aconite. All parts of this herb are poisonous, but the root is most often used. It was used in the witches brew and gave a sensation of flying. It is used medicinally as a diuretic and diaphoretic.
Artemisia - Artemisia absinthium - Named after Artemis or Diana, goddess of the hunt. Wormwood was the Artemisia of Greek Mythology. It was used medicinally as a direct poison of parasites. If overdosed, it affected the eyes and could cause convulsions. An ancient proverb is as bitter as wormwood.
Bluebell - Hyacinthus nonscriptus - Flower of grief and mourning. Hyacinthus was a charming youth that both Apollo and Zephrus loved. Hyacinthus was partial to Apollo which angered Zephrus. One day they were all playing quoits and a stray quoit of Zephrus killed Hyacinthus. Apollo was stricken with grieve and raised from Hyacinths blood a beautiful purple flower that might evermore exist upon the earth.
Basil - Ocimum basilicum -There are many stories of the origin of basil, but we will surmise that the name coming from the mythical character the basilisk is correct. The basilisk was a large lizard, much like the bearded dragons of today and was thought even a look would kill. Scorpions were also associated with basil and it was thought that eating too much basil would breed scorpions in the brain. Basil is used mainly as a culinary herb.
Bay Laurel - Laurus nobilis - One of the favorite myths pertaining to herbs. Apollo was teasing Cupid about his tiny arrows, and Cupid shot one of love into his heart. Daphne, a nymph was standing close watching the two gods and Cupid shot an arrow to repel into her heart. Apollo saw her and fell madly in love and thought he must have her for his own, she became frightened and started to run from him. He was too fast and started to capture her, she cried to her father the river god Peneus to please save her from Apollo, so her father, who loved her very much turned her into a Laurus nobilis tree. Apollo grabbed the tree and flung his arms around it crying, "My love, my love, I shall love you forever and evermore you shall be green. I will wear your leaves as a crown to remember you." To this day bay wreaths are used as a sign of victory and honor to poets and conquers. Bay is used in all meat dishes and soups. A leaf in your cornmeal or flour will keep the weevils away.
Borage - Borago officinalis - According to Dioscordes this was the famous nepentha of Homer, which was drunk after battle steeped in wine to bring about complete forgetfulness. There is an old saying"Borage is for Courage". Borage has been used as a pot herb or in cooling drinks. The flowers can be candied or frozen in ice cubes.
Calamint - Calamintha nepeta - Was derived from the Greek word Kalos, because of the belief in its power to drive away serpents and the dreaded basilisk, the fable king of the serpents. Gerard said "It takes away the infirmities of the heart and taketh away sorrowfulness." It has mint like flavor and can be used in cooking.
Centaury - Erythraea centaurium - Gentian or Feverwort-A red flowering herb which is named after the Greek centaur, Chiron (Kirun). Centaurs were half-man and half-horse. Chiron was a great teacher of the gods and was skilled in medicinal herbs. Hercules shot him by mistake with a poison arrow and he cured himself with centaury plant. Jupiter decided he was too powerful and sent him to heaven where he is the constellation Sagittarius. Centaury is used as an antiseptic, astringent and a dye to use on wounds and is a vermifuge.
Dog's Mercury - Mercurialis perennis (Euphoriaceae) - Disagreeable odor, extremely acrid and poisonous to animals. Its name is derived from Mercury, god of skill and dexterity. He revealed it medicinal virtues. It is used externally to remove warts, and is used in skin diseases. It produces a blue dye.
Elecampane - Inula helenium - Wild yellow flower, much like a sunflower -The Ancient writers mention Inula as affording a root used both as a medicine and a condiment. The origin of the name helenium probably came from Helen of Troy. She had a large arm full of these flowers when Paris stole her from her husband Menelaus that started the Trojan War that lasted ten years. When Paris was killed Helen returned to Menelaus and through difficulty they returned to Sparta where they lived happily ever after. Elecampane is used medicinally and the roots can be candied and eaten as a sweet.
Eyebright - Euphrasia officinalis - Euphrasia is of Greek origin meaning gladness. Named for one of the Three Graces, Euphrosyne who was distinguished for her joy and mirth. Eyebright is used as an astringent and a lotion for the eyes.
Fennel - Foeniculum vulgare - This herb was held in reverance by early man because Prometheus brought fire to man in the hollow stem. It was and still is used as a vegetable and also used to aid digestion.
Fig - Ficus carica -The fig was dedicated to Bacchus and was the main diet of the early Greeks and Romans. The wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus rested under a fig tree and therefore was held sacred by the Romans. Romulus and Remus founded the city of Rome, Remus died and Romulus collected all the thieves and outlaws to populate his city. The inhabitants of Cyrene crowned themselves with fig wreaths when sacrificing to Saturn holding him to be the discoverer of the fruit.
Flax - Linum usitatissimun - Flax was used for weaving, Minerva and the Three Graces wove the clothes of the gods and their sails. The Ancients used flax seed for bread. Linseed oil is used in paint as a drying agent. Linseed cakes are used medicinally as a laxative. Arachne was a talented weaver and challenged Minerva to a contest. It angered Minerva and she changed her into a spider to weave through eternity.
Garlic - Allium sativum - Garlic was placed by the Ancients at the crossroads as a supper for the goddess Hecate. Homer tells us that the virtues of garlic is what saved Ulysses from being turned into a pig like his soldiers were on the island of Aeaea by Circe, an enchantress. Garlic is now used as a flavoring for meats, and has medicinal properties that contain antiseptic and antibiotic properties. It is used as a stimulant, diuretic, expectorant and is used in healing ointments.
Spearmint- Mentha viridis
Mentha is derived from the mythological origin ascribed to it. Mentha was a nymph, because of her love for Pluto was turned into the plant mint by Persephone, Pluto’s wife. The Ancients scoured their tables with this herb when preparing for the gods. It is also a bee herb. The gods had fields of mint for bees to use to make honey. Mint is used for teas, and to flavor sweets and vegetables. Medicinally it is a stimulant, carmative and antispasmodic.
Mistletoe - Loranthacea – It was considered the "Golden Bough" which opened the world of the dead to Aneas. To the primitive mind, deaths opposite are sex and fertility and mistletoe stood for this also. It was thought to be a life giver and panacea to cure all ills. Asclepus, the son of Apollo learned the art of healing and was considered the father of medicine. He cured many Greeks with mistletoe. Legend has it that he was shown mistletoe by a serpent in a tomb.
Mulberry - Morus nigra - Berries were eaten at ancient feasts. The love myth pertaining to mulberries is a Romeo and Juliet love story. Pyramus and Thisbe were in love, but were forbade by their parents to marry. They planned a midnight meeting under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrived first and was frightened by a lion, she ran loosing her veil. The lion picked it up in his bloody mouth and dropped it. Pyramus found the veil and was sure his love had been killed by the lion, then he took his sword saying "My love you will not die alone." He stabbed himself . When Thisbe returned and found her love dead she took up his sword and killed herself. The mingled blood from both traveled up the tree and the berries which had been white, were turned deep red as they have remained to this day. The mulberry tree was dedicated to Minerva by the Ancients. Mulberries can be eaten raw, or made into jams or wine.
Myrtle – Myrtus communis – The emblem of fertility and purity and therefore used in wedding bouquests. Minerva had a favorite virgin, Myrsine, and Minerva saved her by turning her into a myrtle bush. Venus also hid behind a myrtle when the satyrs were chasing her, Myrtle and roses were dedicated to Venus. Bacchus or Dioneyus went to Persephone, goddess of the underworld and offered myrtle to release his mother from death.
Narcissus - Amaryllidaceae - A beautiful youth named Narcissus saw his image in a pool of water and fell in love with it. He tried in vain to embrace the image, but it always alluded him, he was so grief stricken that he would not eat and said "Dear beauty why do you shun me? I love you so." He became weak and pale and withered and in his place when he died was a beautiful blue flower which preserves the memory of Narcissus to this day. This plant is poisonous if taken internally. The word, narcissism, meaning to love oneself comes from this myth.
Nightshade - Atropa belladonna -The devil himself, it has been said attends this plant. It is deadly poison, but is a valuable medicine. Its botanical name derives from one of the Three Fates, Atropos, who cut the thread of life, which pertains to its poison. Opthomologists use Atropine to dilate the eyes, and it is used as an antispasmodic.Bittersweet is also a nightshade.(Solanum dulmara)
Parsley - Petroselinum crispum - It is said to have sprung from the blood of the Greek hero Archemorus, the forerunner of death. This herb was dedicated to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and was used in funeral rites. It was considered the herb of the dead. The Ancients fed their chariot horses parsley. Parsley is widely used as a culinary herb, but it is also used medicinally. It is also a diuretic.
Poppy - Papaver somniferum - Opium poppy - Somnus, god of sleep was always crowned with poppies or lying surrounded with them. Ceres, the goddess of corn, wore a crown of grain interwoven with poppies. Poppies were sacred to Ceres. They are still called cornflowers in many European countries. The seeds can be used in cakes. The juice removed from the head is used medicinally for pain.
Quince - Cydonia vulgaris - This fruit has been eaten throughout history. To the Greeks and Romans quince was sacred. Venus is often depicted with a quince in her right hand. Hercules who was sent on twelve labors and the eleventh was to return with golden apples, these supposedly were quince. Hercules went to the divine garden of Hesperides and found the tree guarded by a dragon. He also knew that Atlas, the Titon, who held up the world lived close by, so he went to him and offered to hold up the world if Atlas would go to the tree and bring him some golden apples. Atlas was happy to oblige and soon arrived with the apples, but refused to take the world back on his shoulders. Hercules acted as if he didn’t care, but said if only Atlas would hold it while he adjusted his lions skin on his own shoulders, so Atlas agreed, but when Atlas took it back Hercules bid him farewell and left with the apples. The golden apples were regarded as a symbol of love and happiness. Quince can be eaten raw.
Rose - Rosaceae - The word rose comes from the Greek word rodon (red) and the rose of the Ancients was a deep crimson and supposedly sprung from the blood of Adonis. Adonis was a beautiful young man that Venus fell in love with and went hunting with him. She cautioned him all the while to be careful of large prey. One day she left him in her chariot drawn by swans and started for Mt. Olympus, but on the way she heard Adonis moaning, she returned to him and found him dying from being gored by a wild boar. She was grief stricken and as he lay dying she said "My Adonis, my grief shall endure, but your blood shall be changed into a beautiful flower." It is the flower of love. The gods Cupid and Bacchus are also associated with the rose-the sign of pleasure and companion of mirth and wine. Roses were spread on the floors at great celebrations and were scattered at the feet of Flora, goddess of flowers.
Rosemary - Rosmarinus officinalis - Rosemary is the plant that grows by the sea (mare from which marinus is derived) the syllable rose is that the plant is often seen glittering with dew (ros) on the shores of the sea. The Ancients were well aquainted with this herb that had a reputation for strengthening the memory. The Muses were the nine daughters of Jupiter and Mnemosyne(Memory). They presided over song and prompted the memory. They sometimes are pictured with rosemary in their hands. Minerva, the goddess of knowledge is also associated with this herb. It was used at both weddings and funerals as it is today. Rosemary is used for culinary, crafting and medicine.
Rue - Ruta graveolens - The name comes from reuo (to set free) because it was used to treat many diseases. The Ancients used it as the chief ingredient of the famous antidote to poison used by King Mithridates who said to become immuned to poison by taking it in gradual doses. It was the DDT of the Ancients.
Savory - Winter savory - Satureja montana, Summer savory - S. hortensis - This herb belonged to the satyrs, these were hairy little creatures with short horns, feet of a goat, mischievous and oversexed. They attended to Bacchus and lived in the woods with Pan, god of the shepherds. Both savorys can be used in meat and bean dishes. Winter savory is a perennial and summer savory is an annual. Mercury claims dominion over this herb.
Thyme - Thymus vulgaris - Thymus comes from the Greek word meaning courage. This herb was known to the Ancients because it was an herb the bees loved and honey was loved by the gods. It was used as an aromatic herb and also rubbed on the tables to clean them for food. Thyme was used internally and externally as an antiseptic. "To smell of thyme" was an expression of praise. It was also used to preserve meat.
Vine Grape - Vitis vinefera - Grapes were considered fruit of the gods and Bacchus was the god of wine. He represents not only the intoxicating power of wine but its social and beneficent influences also, so that he is viewed as the promoter of civilization and a lawgiver and lover of peace. Grape leaves were used medicinally for dysentery.
Walnut - Juglans nigea - In the Golden Age" when men lived on acorns the gods lived on walnuts thus the name Jovis glans or Jupiter’s nuts. The kernels contain oil, albumin ,mineral matter, cellulose and water. Walnuts are used for flavoring cakes, cookies and candy.
Yarrow - Achillea millefolium - Achilles, the great warrior in the ten year Trojan War staunched the bleeding wounds of his soldiers with yarrow. He also tried to stop the bleeding wound in his heel, but alas, he died from his wound. Yarrow was called the military herb by the Ancients. We get the words "Achilles tendon " from this incident in mythology. Yarrow is used as "hops" in beer, as snuff, and as an antiseptic.
These are only a few of the herbs pertaining to mythology, please add to this list with your own research of this delightful study.
Lois Jean Howard
The Herb Society of America, South Texas Unit
Cozart, Jean, Herbs in Greek Mythology, The Herbarist, 1979
Friend, Hilderic, Flower Lore
Grieve, M.. A Modern Herbal I-II,
Grimal, Pieire. The Dictionary of Classical Mythology
Grant, Michael. Bulfinch’s Mythology, Myths of the Greeks and Romans
Herzberg, Max. Myths and Their Meanings