Herbal lore is just about as old as man and few herbs are surrounded by more myths, legends and medicinal concoctions than Rosemary. And while, today, little of that knowledge survives – other than Rosemary goes rather well with lamb – at least Shakespeare is there to remind us of the power and position it once held. In Hamlet, Ophelia has been driven mad by Hamlet’s rejection (princes aren’t always suitable boyfriend material) and in her final appearance she distributes flowers and herbs, including Rosemary, explaining their symbolic meaning:
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember!”
Rosemary is also mentioned in Romeo and Juliet under equally tragic circumstances: Juliet has just committed suicide and Friar Lawrence, attending the body, instructs that the contemporary English custom of placing Rosemary in coffins and around graves be observed:
“Dry up your tears, and stick your Rosemary on this fair corse [corpse].”
But Rosemary is not just the herb of melancholy as we are about to discover….
Rosemary and Magic
More miracle than magic, it was believed that the Virgin Mary had laid her blue cloak over a white flowering variety and when the cloak was picked up, the flowers had turned blue – Rose of Mary had its name – though Rosmarinus actually comes from the Latin ros, meaning ‘dew’ and marinus, ‘of the sea’.
Yet Rosemary’s association with myth and magic had started long before –it was sacred to the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek goddess Aphrodite rose from the sea, draped in it.
It was long believed that Rosemary could tell the future, particularly when it came to choosing the right partner from among all your suitors. Take and name one small plant for each of them and plant them all in the same pot. Whichever grows the strongest, is the one you should marry!
Alternatively, a girl could place a dish of flour under a Rosemary bush on midsummer’s eve and the following morning would see the initials of her husband written in it.
Rosemary also banished nightmares: according to a letter sent by Jeanne of Valois (1294 – 1342) to her daughter Queen Phillippa (wife of our Edward III), laying a sprig of Rosemary under the head of a sleeping man “doth away evell sprirites and suffereth not the dreeme fowl dremes ne to be afearde.”
It was believed equally effective at banishing witches when grown in the garden. Somehow, this association with riders of broomsticks led to the belief that a house where Rosemary flourished was ruled by the woman – and by the 16th century, the men were ripping it up to prove the contrary!
In the 14th Century, Rosemary was in the front line of crime fighting: a plant was dug up and its root ‘seethed in wine vinegar’. A thief’s feet would then be washed with the liquid to sap his strength and so render him incapable of further felonies.
Even as late as 1892, Richard Folkard, in Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics, wrote how in Sicily, Rosemary was thought the home of “the young fairies, under the guise of snakes, lie concealed under its branches.”
Meanwhile, the French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness.
And In Spain, Rosemary was still being used by travelers in the 19th century as protection against witchcraft and ne’er-do-wells. A sprig was worn in one’s hat.
However, Rosemary’s most prevalent and persistent use was as a memory aid – from Students in ancient Greece who twined Rosemary in their hair to this more recent ballad:
Rosemary is for remembrance
Between us day and night,
Wishing that I may always have
You present in my sight.”