Purification, Peace And Love Magic

Purification of sacred places has formed a key use of the sprigs of this sacred herb. The Romans used them to cleanse the altars and temples dedicated to lupiter. In Egypt the herb was dedicated to Isis and played an important role in religious ceremonies. The Druids held a sprig of vervain during the act of soothsaying or speaking divine prophecies, having first made offerings to Mother Earth in grand ceremonies surrounding the gathering of the plant. In medieval Europe, vervain was considered one of the magical midsummer plants, but there were rules for its gathering. It had to be collected at midsummer, during the solstice of the Sun. People in Germany cast their posies of vervain and mugwort Artemisia vulgaris onto the St lohn’s day fire on 24 lune. Pliny writes of the Magi that they required vervain to be gathered at the rising of the constellation of Sirius the Dog Star, when neither Sun nor Moon was shining. A circle had first to be drawn around the plant with iron, and after gathering, some wax and honey was given back to the Earth in its place. Culpeper mocks similar instructions in the London Dispensatory for the gathering of squills, questioning how anyone might know which astronomical rising of the star the physicians of the College meant, for instance the heliacal rising of Sirius before dawn, or its acronycal rising after sunset (Culpeper 1669). De Cleene & Lejeune (2002) suggest that no exact astronomical event was specified, merely the gathering of the herb before dawn during the dog days, roughly 3 luly to 11 August, when Sirius would be bright in the eastern sky.

In ancient Rome, priests of the College of the Fetiales were garlanded with flowering sprigs of vervain in the course of their duties, which were to examine the causes of conflicts between Rome and other peoples and to establish whether Rome was within her rights. If so, and the opponents did not pay the damages claimed by the priests, then war would be declared on that people. If not, then a pig would be slaughtered and the priests would send their envoys, called ‘verbenarii’, with sprigs of vervain in their hands to negotiate peace. This practice is said to date back to the very founding of Rome itself and seems to have been followed also by the Magi of Persia and later among Germanic peoples. It is likely that vervain was not the sole plant used in these rituals, for ‘verbenae’ refers to a number of cooling herbs such as myrtle, olive and laurel (Lewis & Short 1890).

Vervain is also said to have been dedicated by the Romans to Venus since, as Virgil testifies, it was used in love magic and the preparation of love potions. This enchantment is reflected in vervain’s epithet of’you tempt me’ in the language of flowers (De Latour 1819). To counter the spell, this same ‘Enchanter’s Weed’ or ‘Herbe aux Sorcieres’ was used to drive away evil and undesirable people. It was said that ‘Vervain and Dill hinder witches from their will’. Vervain was hung on stable doors in Greece to protect and bring luck; guns were rubbed with the plant so that they would never miss, and armour also, so that it might remain impervious to arrows and other weapons. He who carries vervain about his person, says the Salernitan herbal, will be protected against all serpent bites (or dogs in Apuleius and the Old English Herbarium under peristerion), while Macer wants the bruised herb applied to the bite. It was used in a more magical way also by being hung round the neck rather than ingested, as Turner and Culpeper suggest, for garlands of this herb as a crown for the head are recommended in the Salernitan herbal to treat a headache. Gerard tells us that this method comes from Archigenes, but another method cited by Fuchs from Aetius becomes the approved treatment in the London Dispensatory: an oil of vervain is used to anoint the head. Culpeper adds a proviso that the headache must not be accompanied by inflammation or fever, presumably because, like Parkinson, he regarded the herb as hot and dry in quality. For Culpeper, vervain is ‘an herb of Venus, and an excellent herb for the womb, to strengthen it, and remedy all the cold griefs of it, as Plantain doth the hot’. The fact of vervain’s bitterness adds credence to the assessment of a heating power, but Galen himself only states the plant’s drying action and several authors go no further than this. However, the Salernitan herbal repeats the Roman classification of the plant as cold and dry, and Hildegard writes that it is more cold than hot, while Macer has hot and dry in the second degree, like Parkinson and Culpeper. Eighteenth century recommendations of the herb for diseases of cold and phlegm suggest the acceptance of vervain as heating and drying.