Herbs in Mythology
by: Aulus Ambrosius Celetrus

Aconite (Acontium napellus, order Ranunculaceae):
Greek legend has it that when Hercules fought Cerberus on the hill of Aconitus, foam and saliva fell from the dog's mouth onto the plant, giving it its poison. Hecate used it to poison her father, and Medea is said to have killed Theseus with it. Called the love poison, it was said that women fed aconite daily from infancy could kill with sexual contact.

Amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus, Amaranthaceae):
Sacred to Ephesian Artemis, its name derives from a Greek word for unwithering, and it was used to decorate images of the gods and tombs, as a symbol of immortality.

Bay (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae):
When the nymph Daphne was relentlessly pursued by the love-smitten Apollo, her father, Peneus, changed her into a laurel tree. Apollo fell on his knees before it and declared the tree eternally sacred, wearing from that moment onward a wreath of its leaves, in remembrance of and dedication to his unrequited love.

Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna, Solanaceae):
Atropos, one of the three Fates, used its berries to cut the thread of life.

Elecampane (Inula helenium, Compositae):
One legend says helenium originated with Helen of Troy, who carried off a handful when Paris spirited her away. Another holds that the plant sprang into existence from the goddess Helena’s tears. Finally, it was simply said to have been named after the island where the best plants grew. It was used widely to cure indigestion, and Pliny praised it for inducing mirth.

Eyebright (Euphrasia officinalis, Scrophulariaceae):
Because it was known for curing eye ailments, it was named after Euphrosyne (gladness), one of the three Graces, known for her mirth and joy.

Garlic (Alium sativum, Liliacea):
Besides instilling strength, speed and courage (it was the herb of Mars), garlic was thought to posses magical powers against evil. Odysseus used it to keep Circe from turning him into a pig, and Egyptians swore upon it when taking a solemn oath.

Hyacinth, Wild (Hyacinthus nonscriptus, Rosaceae):
Hyacinthus was a Spartan youth beloved by both Apollo and Zephyrus. The boy preferred the company of Apollo, and one day while playing quoits with him, Zephyrus caused a wind to blow one of Apollo’s throws to strike and kill Hyacinthus. Stricken with grief, the god raised from his blood a purple flower on which the letters 'ai, ai,' were traced, so that this cry of woe would always have existence on the earth.

Marjoram (Origanum marjorana, Labiatae):
Sweet marjoram was said to be dear to Aphrodite, and young Greek couples were crowned with it at their weddings to sanctify marital bliss.

Mint (Mentha spp., Labiatae):
When Hades fell in love with the nymph Minthe, a jealous Persephone turned her into a lowly (ground cover) plant. While Hades could not undo the spell, he did amend the situation somewhat; he made it such that the more Minthe was trod upon, the sweeter her smell would be. Greek mythology tells of two peripatetic strangers who are spurned by the villagers of Asia Minor. They are offered neither food nor drink until an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, prepare them a meal, rubbing mint across the table to clean and freshen it. The strangers were actually Zeus and Hermes in disguise, and they rewarded the couple by changing their home into a temple. And so mint became the symbol of hospitality.

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae):
According to Greek legend, Aphrodite forced the goddess Myrrha, daughter of the Syrian king Thesis, to commit incest with him. The gods then turned her into a tree to prevent Thesis from murdering her. The drops of gum resin that form when the tree is cut are said to be the tears of Myrrha.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum, Umbelliferae):
Parsley supposedly sprang up from the blood spilled from Greek hero Archemorus when serpents ate him. The Greeks fashioned it into wreaths for graves, but also included it in those fashioned for the winning athletes of the Isthmian games, because Hercules had chosen it for his garlands. Since it was held sacred to oblivion and death, it was never used at the table.

Roses (Rosa spp., Rosaceae):
The rose of antiquity was of a deep crimson color, and the Greeks held that it came from the blood of Aphrodite when her foot got stuck by a thorn while trying to help Adonis.

Savory (Satureia spp., Labiatae):
Its Latin name is attributed to Pliny and is a derivative of the word for “satyr.”

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare, Compositae):
From the Greek Athanaton (immortal), it was the critical ingredient in the potion that conferred immortality to Ganymede, the Greek youth who subsequently became the cupbearer to Zeus.

Vervain (Verbena officinalis, Verbenaceae):
Said to have grown from the tears Isis wept for the dead Osiris; it was sacred to the Romans as an altar plant.

Violets (Viola odorata, Violaceae):
Violet is the diminutive form of Viola, the Latin form of the Greek name Ione. When Zeus turned Io into a white heifer to protect her from Hera’s jealous wrath, he created pastures of these flowers for her to eat. Violets are also said to have sprung from where Orpheus slept. Alternately, violets were said to have come from the blood of the fertility god Attis, Cybele’s lover, who emasculated himself under a pine tree and bled to death. During Cybele’s annual festival, a pine tree was cut and brought to her shrine, adorned with violets.

Wahoo or Spindle Tree (Euonymus atropurpureus, Celastraceae):
Named after Euonyme, mother of the Furies.

Sources:
  • A Modern Herbal, by M.Grieve @ www.botanical.com
  • Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs, 1987.
  • Roman Realm @ inanna.virtualave.net

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