Long revered for their healing properties, fragrance and flavor, herbs have also played a powerfully symbolic role in the culture and religion of countless civilizations throughout the ages. Ancient Greek and Roman gods were closely associated with individual herbs, medieval Christian lore abounds in herbal legends, and the Victorians devised a detailed dictionary of floral language.
The legend-laden laurel, otherwise known as the bay tree, has long symbolized glory and honor. Victorious Greek and Roman warriors were crowned with wreaths of laurel, and the leaves were woven into garlands to honor scholars and poets of old. Today the term baccalaureate, meaning laurel berry, commonly refers to the honor of a college degree. Physical appearance often played into the mythology of herbs, and the golden luster of the bay tree’s leaves led to its association with all things solar, from Greek sun god Apollo to the inner illumination associated with academia.
From the time of the ancient Greeks to the Middle Ages, various herbs came to be associated with courage and protection against evil spirits, two vitally important elements in superstitious civilizations in which battles were commonplace. Many of the ancient gods were associated with particular herbs or flowers, which were said to grow in a glorious carpet over Mount Olympus. The Greeks used dill as a stimulant for the gladiators, and soldiers chewed the seeds of fennel before going into battle, hoping to be inspired by its association with strength and victory. During the superstitious Middle Ages, fennel was hung over doorways and even stuffed in keyholes to ward off ghosts and demons. Thyme also represented bravery, and medieval knights rode into battle wearing scarves interwoven with its pungent leaves.
Christian mythology is elaborately laced with the symbolism of herbs. Though angelica’s use long predates Christianity, the early Christians associated it with the Archangel Michael, and it is said to bloom most profusely on his saint’s day. Named Rose of Mary in honor of the Madonna, rosemary has long been associated with love, loyalty and fidelity. According to legend, Mary threw her blue cloak over a rosemary bush to hide her family during the flight out of Egypt, and from that day forward rosemary flowers were turned from their traditional white to a beautiful blue. Rosemary’s distinct, unforgettable scent has perhaps led its association with remembrance, and it was often tossed into graves and given to the bereaved as a sign that the deceased would not be forgotten. Saint John’s wort, with its dotted leaves and tendency to ooze red oil, came to symbolize the puncture wounds and blood of Jesus’ crucifixion. Named for St. John the Baptist, the plant is said to bloom around June 24, the day the saint’s beheading is commemorated. Passionflower was christened in honor of the suffering of Jesus and his passion on the cross. Often used by early missionaries as a visual aid in teaching the story of Christ to native people, the three pistols symbolized the nails of the cross, the five stamens were his wounds, and the flower’s circle of white and purple flowers represented the crown of thorns.
With their love of charming memorabilia, the Victorians were enthralled with the symbolism of plants. Small, round bouquets of herbs and flowers called tussie-mussies were enchanting vehicles of communication. Each leaf and blossom in one of these nosegays carried its own significance, revealing a tiny, powerful message. Even the scent of a particular herb or flower carried its own meaning, detailed in elaborate dictionaries of floral language. Stuffed with evergreens, holly and herbs, Christmas kissing balls were sweetly scented symbols of love, and today the mistletoe alone remains as a traditional invitation to kiss.
In our multi-tasking, tech-savvy society, much of the symbolism associated with plants is viewed as trivial, old-fashioned silliness, yet the legends attached to herbs and flowers have played a significant role in cultures and religions around the world for centuries.