ARCHANGEL

2010

ARCHANGEL (Angelica archangelica)

It blooms around the Archangel Michael’s Day, 8 May in the earlier tradition (Emboden), hence the comon name, though it is more likely that the name was given because Tradescant found it near the Russian town of that name. According to Grimm, the name is given because its efficacy against such epidemic diseases as cholera and the plague was revealed by an angel in a dream. Then there was the name Holy Ghost — “some call this an herb of the Holy Ghost; others more moderate call it Angelica, because of its angelic virtues, and that name it retains still, and all nations follow it”. The root was the special part (radix Sancti Spiriti), chewed during the Great Plague in an attempt to avoid the infection. With this background it is hardly surprising that it was used as a protection from other things, evil spirits, witchcraft, for instance, and against the cattle disease called elf-shot. Cornish folklore still regards it as a strong witch repellent. The belief is at least as old as Gerard, who said “it is reported that the root is availeable against witchcraft and inchantments, if a man carry the same about him…”. The Lapps believed it prolonged life, and they chew and smoke it in the same way as tobacco. Sometimes one comes across mention of a Holy Ghost pie, apparently used in the Black Mass. It is suggested, by Rhodes, that this was an angelica-flavoured cake, and therefore a host.

The name ensures wonders in medical treatment, but there are genuine usages, too. A Cornish cold cure requires that elder flowers and angelica leaves be steeped in boiling water for ten minutes, strained and sweetened to taste, while a good gargle for a sore throat can be made with an infusion of the leaves and stems. An ointment made from the roots can soothe rheumatic pains and skin disorders, a use that was already known in medieval times, as the following prescription from the Welsh text known as the Physicians of Myddfai shows: “for scabies. Take the roots of archangel, boil well, and boil a portion of garlic in another water. Take a good draught of the decoction, and wash your whole body therewith every morning. Boil the residue of the archangel and garlic in unsalted butter, make into an ointment and anoint your whole body therewith for nine mornings”.

There is a piece of pure fantasy, from “A booke of Phisicke and Chirurgery”, written in 1610, but obviously of much earlier date, and offering a receipt “for one that hath loste his mind — take and shave off the hayre of the mouilde [apparently the dent in the upper part of the head] of his heade, then take archangel and stampe it, and binde it to his heade where it is shaven, and let him take a sleep therewithall, and when he awaketh he shall be right weake and sober enoughe”.