With the old Celtic and modern Pagan festival of Beltane, celebrated on or around May 1, looming, for this month’s post I’m leaving Caribbean ethnobotany temporarily to examine the spirit lore which surrounds Vervain AKA Verbena Officinalis.
Vervain is a tall herb with tiny purple flowers which grow on the end of long stems.
Its associations with the sacred can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. There it was called “Tears of Isis” in remembrance of the tears the goddess shed over her dead husband Osiris. In Persia priests carried the herb in ceremonies of to worship the sun (Baker, p. 154).
In ancient Rome Vervain was considered to be one of the “Holy Herbs”, a category of plants which also included laurel, olive and myrtle (Watts: p. 401). It seems to have had a particular connection with the god Jupiter as altars dedicated to him were swept with sprigs of Vervain or sprinkled with Vervain water.
Moving to the Christian era legend has it that Vervain was used to staunch the bleeding wounds of the crucified Christ. Margaret Baker notes that because of this a belief arose that the sign of the Cross should be made whenever Vervain is picked (Baker, p. 154).
Its sacred background has meant that Vervain has often been used to protect against supernatural evil. For example, the Romans hung it in their houses as a guard against malevolent spirits. It has subsequently been used to ward off witches and the Evil Eye. Drinking Vervain tea was believed to provide protection from fairy spells (Watts, p. 402).
As well as repelling entities, Vervain could help you see them. Donald Watts writes of the belief that anointing the eyes with a mixture of Vervain, St John’s wort and dill enabled a person to see spirits or gain second sight (Ibid., p. 402).
Watts also cites an old Irish belief that Vervain was one of seven herbs “that nothing natural or supernatural could injure.” As well as Vervain these included St John’s wort, speedwell, eyebright, mallow, yarrow, and self-help (Ibid., p. 402). As yet I have not been able to discover why these herbs are injury-proof.
Vervain and witch lore
Although Vervain was reputed to protect folk from witches, it was also utilised by witches. As mentioned in my previous post on Belladonna, Vervain was one of the ingredients used in the British version of ‘witches’ flying ointment’, a cream smeared on the body which gave the sensation of flying. Again in ointment form, Vervain could also be used to render witches invisible (Watts, p. 403).
Next time… how Sweet Basil can indicate if a duppy has entered your home.
Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd, 2008).
D.C. Watts, Dictionary of Plant Lore (Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Academic Press 2007).
Image credits: Vervain by Konrad Lackerbeck – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eisenkraut_Passau_JPG
Witches from Wellcome images – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_History_of_Witches_and_Wizards,_1720_Wellcome_L0026615.jpg