BASIL, Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum)

A plant that is quite important in Greek folklore, used in divination practices and also to dismiss the evil Karkantzari at the proper season. “A belief there is that basil comes into flower when the heavens burst apart at dawn on Epiphany”. Basilikos means royal (the plant is herbe royale in French), and it is looked on by the Greek peasant as a prince among plants. It is a holy plant on the Greek island of Chios, connected with the True Cross, for when St Helena was seeking the Cross, she came to a place where there was a lot of basil growing, and the plant’s scent guided her to the right place to find the relic. At the feast of the Invention of the Cross (14 September), women bring basil plants to the church, and the priests distribute twigs to the congregation. It is burnt on mainland Greece to discover the worker of witchcraft. While it is burning, a number of names are repeated in succession. A loud pop or crackle denotes that the name of the offender has been reached. In the Balkans, basil in vinegar is recommended to “drive the snake and any other creature out of a man”.

In the Middle East, it was the herb of grief, and was put on graves. Jews carried sprigs of it to give them strength and endurance. Similarly, in Crete, it is a symbol of mourning. Perhaps better known is the plant’s symbolising hatred. The Romans used to sow the seeds with curses through the belief that the more it was abused the better it would prosper. When they wanted a good crop they trod it down with their feet, and prayed the gods it might not grow. The Greeks too supposed basil to thrive best when sown with cursing — this explains the French saying “semer le basilic”, as signifying slander. It also probably explains why in Italian folklore, basil always stands for hatred, although it had the opposite meaning in eastern countries. In India, where it is known as tulasi (see HOLY BASIL, rather), it is sacred to Vishnu and Krishna. It is kept in every Hindu home as a disinfectant, and to protect the family from evil.

It is said that basil will wither in the hands of the impure. A prospective husband could test a girl’s chastity by making her hold a sprig of basil in her hands. If it quickly withered it was taken as a sure sign that she was not a virgin. If a young man accepted a sprig of basil from a girl, he was instantly in love with her, or so it was believed. Another belief was that it was the smell of basil that would attract a lover, hence one of its names in Italian, bacia Nicola (kiss me Nicholas). That was why Italian girls would pick basil and put it in their bosoms; married women put it in their hair. In Smyrna, if a girl wanted to get married within the coming year, she would plant a pot of basil in May the year before. She would tend it carefully until Epiphany, when she would break off a small sprig and give it to the priest during his round, and was given in return the sprig with which he had blessed the waters. This sprig was then put in the frame of one of the family icons, and the girl waited patiently for the husband, who could not fail to come. In Sicily and parts of southern Italy, a pot of basil on the balcony signals that the family has a daughter of marriageable age for whom they seek a suitor.

In Tudor times, little pots of basil were often given as compliments by farmers’ wives to their landladies and to visitors. In Mediterranean countries a pot of basil is kept on windowsills to keep flies out of the room, and a sprig in the wardrobe will keep moths and insects away. A strange early belief that Browne counts as one of the Vulgar Errors, was that “there is a property in Basil to propagate scorpions, and that by the smell thereof they are bred in the brains of men”. He says that one Hollerius “… found this insect in the brain of a man that delighted much in the smell”, also “whosever hath eaten basil, although he be stung with a scorpion, shall feel no paine thereby”. Gerard had already mentioned the superstition: “there be that shun Basill and will not eat thereof, because that if it be chewed and laid in the sun, it engendreth wormes. They of Africke do also affirm, that they who are stung of the scorpions and have eaten of it, shall feele no paine at all”. Those “wormes” engendered in the sun are, of course, serpents.

Basil is an embalming herb, already used as such in ancient Egypt. This tradition is also met in Keats’ poem called Isabella, or the pot of basil, originally told by Boccaccio. Isabella laid the head of her murdered lover in a pot of basil, which kept it “fairly unspoilt”. It is used in cooking, of course, but only a tiny pinch is needed in soups (particularly turtle soup). It was said by Parkinson “to procure a cheerful and merrie heart”, and Gerard also says that “the seeds drunken is a remedy for melancholy people”, but on the other hand, notes that “Dioscorides saith that if Basill be much eaten, it dulleth the sight, it mollifieth the belly, breedeth winde, provoketh urine, drieth up milke, and is of hard digestion”. Evelyn also warned that it was “sometimes offensive to the eyes; and therefore the tender tops to be very sparingly us’d in our Sallet”. It is said to have been the characteristic taste in the famous Fetter Lane sausages, a 17th century invention. The sausage-maker made a fortune by spicing his sausage with basil.

It was used as a strewing herb, and it counters headaches and colds, either by an infusion, taken hot at night, or by taking it as snuff. Dried basil leaves in that form have been used for nervous headaches and head-colds for centuries. In Britain, basil, mixed with blacking, has been used to get rid of warts.