Rosemary is a perennial plant native to the Mediterranean region, used since antiquity in cooking and herbal medicine. Like most of the contents of our kitchen cabinets, rosemary has gained a rich load of associations through the years, medicinal and magical connections which blend fact and fiction in equal measure. In looking back over the history of rosemary, we can see a snapshot of other times and places, when magic was thought to rule the land. However, many of the beliefs associated with the benefits of rosemary have now been shown to have some basis in fact.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) likes to grow near water, and grew all over the Mediterranean region in antiquity. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans knew the plant and used it, both as a food additive and an herbal medicine. As with other herbs and spices, rosemary’s usefulness with food lay in its ability to mask the flavor of spoiled foods, especially meats. However, this unpleasant necessity led to a wide variety of culinary uses, since the aromatic leaves have a bitter, astringent taste that complements many dishes. If we only wanted culinary information, our search would undoubtedly end at some cooking site with lots of great recipes; however, this time we’re going to look at the other side of rosemary: its role in myth and magic.
The innocent herbs and spices that we use today were once part of a wider and more diverse tradition, sometimes including the supernatural and the medicinal. Much of the tradition surrounding rosemary comes from the belief, widely held since ancient times, that the plant improves the memory. From this single property come a wide range of associations, for an herb that improves memory brings us closer to the past. It makes us remember our obligations, loves and loyalties, and the reasons why we should honor them. By keeping the memory of love fresh, rosemary became associated with faithfulness, and by helping us to remember our departed loved ones, it was also linked to the remembrance and honoring of the dead.
Because of this connection with memory, and especially the memory of loves and loyalties, rosemary became associated with wedding ceremonies. Accounts of medieval weddings tell us that the bride would wear a headpiece of rosemary, and the groom and the guests would also wear sprigs. Rosemary became so strongly connected with the idea of lasting, faithful love that it was widely used as a love charm or as an ingredient in love potions.
Writings from the Middle Ages tell of various wedding customs involving rosemary. Newlyweds would plant a cutting of rosemary on their wedding day, and as the plant fared, so would their marriage. If the plant flourished, the couple could expect a long and happy marriage; but if it died, they could expect the opposite. There also are accounts which say that richly decorated branches of rosemary were presented to all the guests at a wedding party.
In another custom, several plants of rosemary would be placed in pots, and each would be assigned the name of a potential lover. The plant that grew the largest would indicate the one who would make the best mate. There are tales of cloth dolls being stuffed with rosemary to attract a lover and keep them faithful.
Lovers aren’t the only ones who need good memories. There are accounts of students in Greek universities wearing wreaths of rosemary in their hair so they would remember their lessons better.
The connotation of keeping the past alive gave rise to one strange story about rosemary. It is said that Queen Isabella of Hungary used a potion made from rosemary to maintain her youthful good looks. She supposedly remained beautiful well into her seventies, though these accounts may be exaggerated.
The association of rosemary with remembrance of the dead led to its use in funerals; mourners would throw rosemary sprigs into the grave to show that they would always remember the departed. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, referring to this ancient belief.
Rosemary has also had an association with the world of dreams, and guarding against evil magic. This connection, too, has added to the traditions and beliefs surrounding the plant. In the Middle Ages, a sprig of rosemary might be placed under the pillow to ward off bad dreams. If you planted rosemary outside your door, the astringent smell was thought to guard against witches.
This belief that rosemary could give protection from harmful influences led to another use in medieval times. Judges, afraid that the lower-class prisoners who came before them might bring disease, would burn rosemary in the courtroom to protect themselves. This belief persisted into modern times, and led the French to burn rosemary in their hospitals during World War II to retard infection. Whether it worked or not, we will never know.
Among modern herbalists, rosemary is known as a cure for migraines and other headaches, as well as depression. The German Commission E has approved rosemary for use against gastrointestinal spasms, and the oil of rosemary can be used on the skin as a treatment for minor injuries and irritation. It has been shown that when rosemary oil is applied externally, it causes the blood vessels in the skin to dilate and allow more blood to flow, relieving pain and inducing a feeling of warmth.
Even the legendary benefits of rosemary on the memory are not completely imaginary. Modern studies have shown that when people are exposed to the scent of rosemary, they really do show a measurable increase in memory.
Those are some of the facts and fantasies linked with rosemary, an herb with an illustrious and colorful history. This plant has played many roles through the years, not only as a food additive, but also a medicine and sometimes even a precaution against the supernatural.
Our pantries are filled with pieces of history, and rosemary is one of them.
“Rosemary History” at about.com: homecooking.about.com/od/foodhistory/a/rosemaryhistory.htm
Rosemary entry at Dean Coleman Natural Health Resource Center: deancoleman.com/herbs.htm
Rosemary entry at Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosemary#Mythology
“The Herb Rosemary: Super Antioxidant, Powerhouse Memory Booster & More” at BodyEcology.com: bodyecology.com/07/11/03/rosemary_super_antioxidant_memory_booster.php
Claesson, Marcia: “Rosemary: Uses and Health Benefits” at suite101.com: herbsspices.suite101.com/article.cfm/rosemary—uses–health-benefits
Rosemary entry at The World’s Healthiest Foods: whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=75
Fugate, Linda and Dean, Warren: “Rosemary, Turmeric, Ginger and Garlic: Spice Up Your Life” at Vitamin Research Products: vrp.com
This article was supplied by Aaron Wade from Constant Content.