Rosemary – Myth & Folklore
The Greeks and Romans believed rosemary was a magical and sacred plant. In Greece it became the emblem of love, friendship and remembrances at weddings, christening and funerals. Old frescoes show Greek students hard at study wearing garlands of rosemary around their heads or with sprigs tucked into their head-bands to aid them in their endeavours. These ideas have remained connected to rosemary down through history.
In “Hamlet” Ophelia remarks, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”. Rosemary is associated with remembrance, happy memories, fidelity, constancy, deep friendship and love. Rosemary is pinned on jackets on Remembrance Day and ANZAC Day as a sign of remembrance of those that made the ultimate sacrifice. Rosemary’s connection with ANZAC day is even more poignant as it grows at Gallipoli cove where the ANZAC’s landed. Rosemary was used on occasions when solemn vows of honour and fidelity were being sworn.
Rosemary was used in many ways in connection with weddings. It was used as incense and its flowers were woven into bridal arrangements for “fond remembrance”. Its symbolic connection to fidelity and friendship were also a reason for its common inclusion in the bride’s bouquet. Rosemary was often dipped in scented water then entwined in brides’ wreaths. Anne of Cleves wore such a wreath. Bridesmaids wore sprigs of rosemary on the left arm to symbolise faithfulness. Rosemary was placed in the bride’s bed for good luck. Boxes and chests of rosemary wood were much favoured as wedding gifts in Elizabethan times and bunches of rosemary tied with ribbon were given to wedding guests. The bride and groom often exchanged gilded branches for long lasting happiness and as protection against the evil eye.
It was believed that a sprig given to ones beloved would ensure fidelity. In the middle ages it was believed that if a young person tapped another with a rosemary twig containing an open blossom, the couple would supposedly fall in love. More specifically another source says that the sprig must be tapped on the finger of the beloved. When Valentine’s Day came into fashion a sprig of rosemary was often painted on a heart and sent to the object of one’s affections. It was said that a man who is not sensitive to the scent of rosemary will never be able to truly love a woman.
Rosemary was often included with other flowers at a funeral. Sprigs of rosemary were carried by mourners and cast on the coffin as it was lowered into the grave or sometimes the mourners placed the sprigs on the coffin at an early point in the funeral proceedings. In many parts of Wales this was still the custom when Grieves wrote “A Modern Herbal” in the 1930’s. Rosemary’s place as a funeral flower is thought to have been at its height in the 17th and 18th century. Rosemary was once used in place of costly incense at funerals. Rosemary’s funeral customs may extend from the myth that if placed in the hands of the deceased it would sprout and create a fragrant bush covering the rotting corpse. The more likely connection of rosemary with funerals however is its association with remembrance.
It was believed that if rosemary flourished outside the house it was a sign the woman was boss. This was an unfortunate myth as men were known to rip out rosemary plants because their healthy growth signified that the woman ruled the roost. Men were also known to sneak out at night and cut off the plants roots so that the plant would wither and die.
Rosemary is known as “The Herb of Mary”. Legend has it that during Mary’s flight from Egypt she threw her robe over a rosemary bush whilst resting beside it with her baby. The flowers, which were white, took on the blue colouring of Mary’s robe. Another biblical legend states that rosemary bushes will never exceed the height of Christ and that after 33 years (his life on earth) the bushes cease to grow upwards and only grow outwards.
Rosemary was believed to have exorcising qualities and was therefore used to cleanse people and places of evil spirits. Rosemary was planted around houses to ward off witches. It was used to protect against bad dreams by placing a sprig under the pillow. To use rosemary to protect the home several branches are gathered and tied together with green yarn (or whatever colour symbolizes protection for the maker). This wreath is then hung in the home. To make protective sachets a silver coin, some basil, bay, fennel, tarragon, dill and rosemary are bound together with white thread and hidden in the home somewhere. The following tea blend is also supposed to protect the drinker – 1⁄4 teaspoon each angelica, basil, fennel, rosemary, and/or any other herbs considered “spicy”.
Rosemary brings openness to that part of us which is child-like and innocent, so potentially very happy. Use rosemary when you feel you have lost contact with the child within – when the seriousness of life depresses you and you feel tired and uninspired. Opening a connection with rosemary brings the gift of contentment. The feeling will be temporary but will leave a lasting impression.
In Bancke’s Herbal (1525) it was written – “Take the flowers thereof and make powder thereof and binde it to thy right arme in a linnen cloath and it shale make thee light and merrie”. Applying rosemary to the body puts a person in a merry frame of mind whilst smelling rosemary was reputed to keep one young. Madame de Sévigné (French aristocrat 1626 – 1696) carried a sprig of rosemary to allay melancholy.
Rosemary is reputed to flower at midnight on Twelfth Night. Gilded branches were given as gifts at New Year and rosemary was once used in Christmas decorations.
On April 23rd, Shakespeare’s birthday, the people of Stratford-upon-Avon carry sprigs of rosemary in a procession through the streets.
Sicilians believe that young fairies, taking the form of snakes, lie amongst rosemary’s branches. Some stories tell how rosemary was used to try to awaken the Sleeping Beauty. Whilst in Belgium children were told that babies came from rosemary plants and people in various countries believed that keeping a sprig of rosemary in a baby’s room ensured safe and happy growth. In France it was believed that combing the hair daily with a comb made of rosemary wood prevent giddiness. Another strange piece of folklore connected with rosemary is that it could be used to incapacitate a robber. The recommendation was to wash the thief’s feet with a lotion made from the root and he would be deprived of the strength to steal.