Oregano, that well-known mainstay of Italian cooking, has a rich and colorful history that includes not only use as a culinary ingredient, but also medicinal applications and a connection to ancient magic. Oregano was once thought to be a gift from Aphrodite, goddess of love, and it is probable that oregano’s use in magic and medicine is at least as old as its use in the kitchen, possibly much older. As with many of our other herbs and spices, one cannot help but wonder if their use in healing and spirituality came first, to be followed at some later date by their adoption in cooking. We will never know about this, but it is safe to say that oregano has had a place in folklore and folk medicine for a very long time indeed.
In discussing oregano, it must be acknowledged that there is some confusion regarding the name. Oregano and marjoram are so similar in smell and flavor that they are often mistaken for the same plant, though botanists tell us that they are really quite different. In regard to commercial products, there is even more confusion. While Origanum vulgare, native to the Mediterranean region, is considered “true” oregano, there are several different plants sold under that name commercially. Besides O. vulgare, there are also Origanum majorana, Origanum heraclites, Origanum onites, and Origanum vivens. To make it even more confusing, two completely unrelated plants, Plectranthus amboinicus and Lippia graveolens, are often sold under the name “Mexican oregano.”
In this article, we will be discussing O. vulgare, which is the original plant that bore the name, and the one generally used for medicinal or magical purposes.
The fact that oregano was supposed to have come from Aphrodite, goddess of love, gave rise to many of the beliefs surrounding the plant. It was because of this connection that both the ancient Greeks and Romans crowned married couples with oregano leaves. Oregano was often an ingredient in love potions, or spells to bring excitement back into an already existing relationship. Even as late as the Middle Ages, there was a folk belief that if you anointed yourself with oregano before going to bed, you would dream of your future love.
But Aphrodite was the goddess of sexuality and beauty, not loyalty or faithfulness. In mythology, she was infamous for her love affairs, and had a general reputation for promiscuity. Because of this, oregano was sometimes associated with leaving an old love and finding a new one. If you really wanted a new lover, but your mind was still preoccupied with the old one, you could use oregano to help yourself forget the past and move on. When young men were leaving for war, their sweethearts would sometimes place oregano around their homes, in an effort to ease the pain of loss — and possibly find a new boyfriend while the old one was gone.
More than just sexuality, Aphrodite was identified with joy in general, and especially with living a happy life. From this connection came a wide variety of uses for oregano, in spells, potions, and charms to bring happiness and good luck. The goddess’s favorable influence was also considered protection against evil magic, which gave rise to the practice of growing oregano outside your house, or spreading the leaves inside your home, to ward off bad magic and promote good fortune.
This connection even extended to the protection of the dead. If you planted oregano over the grave of a loved one, you could be sure that their spirit was peaceful, and would not bother the living.
Do you want to see the future? An old superstition says that if you wear a wreath of oregano when you sleep, you will be granted psychic dreams.
The Old Testament mentions “Hyssop,” a purifying liquid made by boiling oregano in water, which was used to cleanse the feet and hands of men attending religious meetings. This may have some connection to the belief that oregano can guard against evil influences.
Medicinal uses for oregano often centered around its reputation as an antidote for poisons. The ancient Greeks used it for this purpose, particularly for narcotic poisoning, and we see it being used for the same thing in ancient Egypt. This use persisted for centuries. Gerard’s Herbal, a volume from 15th century England, says that oregano “cureth them that have been poisoned by drinking Opium, or the juice of the Black Poppy or Hemlock.” Since snakes are poisonous, it was thought that the purifying influence of oregano would keep them away from your house if you scattered it on the ground.
Through the centuries, oregano has also been prescribed for a variety of ailments, including toothache, skin irritations, dropsy, and convulsions. Oregano leaves mixed with honey have been used as a poultice for bruises, and 18th century doctors prescribed oregano as a remedy for coughs and asthma. The Chinese, who obtained oregano through trade with the Mediterranean, used it for a wide range of ailments.
Modern science has substantiated some of the old claims about oregano. The plant has been shown to have anti-fungal properties, which means that it really is good for skin irritations caused by fungal parasites. Oregano is rich in antioxidants, and has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral properties. As in ancient times, modern herbalists will sometimes prescribe oregano for stomach problems and intestinal ailments such as diarrhea and flatulence. It is also used for coughs and sore throat, another use that goes far back into antiquity.
Maybe it won’t bring you a new lover, or grant you dreams of the future, but oregano is good stuff. It promotes health in several different ways, just like our ancestors said. Besides all that, it tastes really good, and a pizza just wouldn’t be the same without it. So eat up, and enjoy getting healthy!
“Health Benefits of Oregano” at indepthinfo.com: indepthinfo.com/oregano/benefits.shtml
“The History of Oregano” at Angela’s Italian Organic Oregano: oreganofromitaly.com/oregano.htm
“Some History of Oregano and Marjoram” at the Herb Spiral: theherbspiral.com/OreganoHistory.htm
Branca, Charlotte: “Oregano: History of Oregano” at Dr. Christopher’s Herbal Legacy: herballegacy.com/Branca_History.html
“Oregano: History” at innvista.com: innvista.com/health/herbs/oregano.htm
Higgins, Amber: “The Healing History of Basil and Oregano: Oregano and Basil from Medicine Cabinet to Kitchen” at Suite101: naturalmedicine.suite101.com/article.cfm/the-healing-history-of-basil-and-oregano
“Oregano: Medicine from the Ancients”: se1.us/health/oregano/
Oregano entry at Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregano
This article was supplied by G.B. Partain from Constant Content.
Related article: Antioxidant Benefits of Oregano