Friday 14 November 2014

Mugwort:  Mistress of the liminal

                It has recently been drawn to my attention that people living in the UK feel the need to buy the very plentiful mugwort, when it is very common and easy to gather. May I suggest that those who want to use this plant, for whatever reason, get out there, seek it, get to know it, and gather it for themselves.
                If you do decide to become a seeker and not a consumer, you may find yourself asking: ‘Where can I find it, what does it look like, and what can I use it for’? If you are thinking along those lines, or just simply curious read on.
                First of all, I will spend a little time identifying the plant, researching its uses over the years and outlining the folklore, myths and legends that have traveled with it. Then of course, I will answer the question, what could I  use it for?’ 
                I will start with my own description of the plant. Not in a botanical encyclopaedia  sense; but rather, I originally thought, I would give a Culpeper sounding look at the plant and tell you what I see, feel and smell; but then I found that the words describing mugwort in Culpeper’s book were not his own. So let me say, these are my own words, telling you what I see, and no one else’s, unless I state they otherwise. Following this description, I will set out to share the knowledge that the many books on herbs that I have on my shelves disclose in their pages. I will try to lay out all of this lovely information into a useable format. Following this, I will address one of the questions that I am sure is in the forefront of your mind: ‘what can I use it for; does this plant help with altered states, dream work or any other travelling work one may possibly choose to undergo?’
                So, where can it be found? It is interesting to note that Richard Mabey (Flora Britannica, (1998) Chatto & Windus), names it ‘mugger’: I doubt very much that it is ‘mugger,’ in our understanding of the word; though it does creep up on one quiet unexpectedly. Nonetheless, he does state that in the ‘Bickerstaffe/Melling area of Lancashire’ it is named ‘Council Weed’, as it ‘always appears after the Council have been out.’ Not sure what they were ‘out’ doing, but it does grow alongside roads (though not in central London) So where can one find it in a big city? Start by seeking it out along waterways, streams and canals or open areas of un-kept park land; even the Royal parks that abound in central London may provide fruitful hunting grounds. In fact a few paces from Trafalgar Square, next to the lake in St James’s Park, there in full view of the path, just as expected, was some mugwort. The many footpaths, wastelands, areas surrounding schools, universities and hospitals are all prime hunting grounds.  I am sure many large cities follow this same pattern of spaces. Those lucky enough to live in rural areas will have no problem finding mugwort and, I am sure, are already aware of its presence.
                The botanist Dr John Hill (1716-1775) quoted by Mrs Grieves (A modern Herbal, [1931, 88] Penguin book, London.) suggests, “Providence has placed it [mugwort] everywhere about our doors; so that reason and authority, as well as the notice of our sense, point it out for use: but chemistry has banished natural medicines.”  Nothing changes does it?
                So, what does it look like? 
                This is what I see: It normally grows to about four feet tall, but can reach greater heights. I found a specimen near my home, in a nice open place, its feet just touching the water’s edge of my local river Quaggy, its head climbed free of any overhead canopy, which  had reached a height much taller than me, perhaps even reaching six feet by mid-September.  The plant is widest at its base, tapering up to a point, rather in a likeness to the shape of its leaves. The leaves appear as cut arrow shapes, as if someone has folded them, taken a pair of scissors and cut these shapes out. Each little section appears as a model of the greater.
                The big giveaway to identify the plant is the under-side of the leaf, which is lovely soft downy silvery-green in contrast with the top of the leaf. The top is green, not a hard holly leaf green but a pale broad bean green, which as the leaf ages gets considerably darker; on the newer leaves this is a much fresher green. On one plant, in August and September, you can find leaves of green in various hues. The leaf feels very soft to the touch; in fact I would go as far as to say it feels soft and comforting, rather like a babies’ blanket.  The stem is round yet in most cases feels ridged.  The flowers open from small grey-green buds to reveal tiny yellow flowers; I would need a magnifying glass to take a good look at these.
                Mugwort was once known as Mater Herbarium, (Mother of Herbs) and when one spends time examining the plant it appears understandably so. Its leaves have a cosy feel about them, reminiscent of what a child might feel wrapped in a blanket on mother’s lap on a cold night.
                Gerard’s wonderful description in his Herbal, (1636 edition, Senate, London England) states; ‘Mugwort hath broad leaves, very much cut or cloven like the leaves of common Wormwood, but larger, of dark green colour above, and hoarie underneath: the stalks are long and straight, and full of branches, whereon do grow small round buttons, which are the floures, smelling like Marjerome when they wax ripe: the root is great, and of wooddie substance.’ Gerard describes its location rather more lyrically than I: ‘The common Mugwort groweth wilde in sundry places about the borders of fields, about high waies, brooke sides, and such like places.’ I can’t help but feel how wonderful it is that this plant still chooses these places to thrive in all these years after Gerard’s day. (1546-1612)
                Culpeper (1616-1654), rather disappointingly, repeats Gerard’s description of the plant more or less word for word. But then goes onto say something worth examining. ‘This is a herb of Venus, therefore maintains the parts of the body she rules, remedies and diseases of the parts that are under her signs, Taurus and Libra.’ To me, however, his reasoning here is not entirely clear. According to Agrippa, plants that are under the dominium of Venus are those that taste ‘sweet’ and ‘delectable’; included in these are thyme, vervain, violet, valerian and maiden hair (which I presume are the fern and not the hair of a maiden), Coriander and sweet fruits. I would not refer to mugwort as ‘sweet’ or ‘delectable’, but then nor would I suggest that of thyme
                Cunningham, in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs (2005 Llewellyn publications), unsurprisingly agrees that Mugwort is a herb of the planet Venus. Manfred M Junius, in The Practical Handbook of Alchemy (1985, Healing Arts Press, Rochester Vermont), also agrees that mugwort is under the dominium of Venus, and gives a little more information as to why. It’s author, Manfred M. Junius states that, ‘This planet rules the arts, harmony, proportion, affection and the ability to integrate things into a whole, and to mediate between opposites (sign of Libra)’
   He goes on to say something I felt more pertinent, causing me to sit and pay closer attention: ‘The tendency of Venus is toward cosy relaxation.’ So although the plant itself appears lunar, in my opinion, it is the way it makes one feel that is closer to Venus. He adds that ‘Venus rules over the metamorphosis of the cells, the reproduction and enrichment of the substances, the formation of tissue, the selection and transformation of substances in the cells, the preservation of the body, the complexion…’ He then lists many bodily functions that Venus is said to influence, including ‘the formation of nerves, and nervous energy,’ as well as ‘fertilization’ and the ‘inner sexual organs.’
                Culpeper suggests that ‘Mugwort is with good success put among other herbs that are boiled for women to apply the hot decoction to draw down their courses, to help the delivery of birth, and expel the after-birth,’  also for the ‘obstructions and inflammations of the mother.’  It is widely suggested that mugwort stimulates uterine contractions, and therefore could be used to aid childbirth. Michael Howard in Traditional Folk Remedies, ([1987] Century Paperbacks) indicates that ‘Medical testing of this herb has indicated that it does stimulate uterine muscles, which would make it an effective treatment for inhibited menstruation. It has also been to have a limited sedative effect.’ Although interesting, Mr Howard does not site his sources in this edition.
                Culpeper states, ‘It breaks the stone, and opens the urinary passage where they are stopped. The juice thereof made up with Myrrh, and put under as a pessary, works the same effects, and so does the root also. Being made up with hog’s grease into an ointment, it takes away wens and hard knots and kernals that grow about the neck and throat, and eases the pains about the neck more effectually, if some field daises be put with it. The herb itself being fresh, or the juice thereof taken, is a special remedy for the overmuch taking of opium. Three drams of powder of the dried leaves, taken in wine, is a speedy and the best certain help for the sciatica. A decoction thereof made with Chamomile and Agrimony, and the place bathed therewith while it is warm, takes away the pains of the sinews and the craps.’
                 A brief explanation of how these results may be possible can be found in the Edible & Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe, (Launert, E [1981] Hamlyn, London;), which indicates that mugwort contains ‘essential oils’, with ‘thujone and cineole, bitter principle, tannin, resin, inulin’ that ‘stimulates the stomach muscles’, adding that it can also be used with fatty meats as a condiment and in sauces and salads; I hadn’t thought to add that mugwort is safe to eat, it appears that the amount of thujone in the plant is very small.  To support the thought that mugwort is safe to consume; Mrs Grieves adds that, ‘Mugwort is said to have derived its name from having been used to flavour drinks.’ It was, along with ground ivy, used to flavour beer. ‘Gathered when in flower, and dried, the fresh herb was considered unsuitable.’ She also indicates that in Cornwall mugwort was used as a tea, which, we might think, would explain the mug in its name. She goes on, however, to link mugwort with insect repellent, suggesting that in fact, although a tea and a flavouring for beer; its name ‘comes not from a drinking mug, but from ‘moughte’, a moth or maggot.’ Apparently, ‘it has been regarded since the days of Dioscorides, to have a common use along with wormwood, as an insect repellent.’ (ibid)
    Michael Howard also links mugwort to insects, suggesting, ‘Its common name dates from Anglo-Saxon times, and is from the Old English, muggia wort: midge plant; used to repel insects.’ As mugwort does grow abundantly by the waterside, and as a plant suggested to have the ability to repel midges, this does make the idea of drinking a brew before wandering the river banks rather appealing.  Strangely enough there appears to be a profusion of plants that grow along riversides and pond edges that are said to be good insect repellents, clever that; though the thought of drinking insect repellent lacks appeal in my mind, I can see how it would be of some benefit, especially if the brew can permeate the skin. After all, a draft of mugwort is not too bad on the taste buds, and is not, as we have seen harmful; so if it can lessen the attack of those nasty little midges,  to me, it’s worth trying out.
                Mrs M. Grieves, provides an assortment of other names for mugwort such as Felon Herb, St John’s plant and Cingulum Sancti Johannis; the latter appears to have sprouted from a tale which sugests that John the Baptist wore a girdle of the plant as a protection during his sojourn in the wilderness. Consequently, if worn in like manner, it was said to protect the wearer from disease, sunstroke, fatigue, wild animals and evil spirits. It is also proposed that a crown of the plant was worn by celebrants on St John’s Eve to protect them from possession.   
   Thiselton-Dyer, in the The Folk Lore of Plants,( [1889, 2003] E book, Project Gutenberg) quotes William Coles,  The Art of Simpling (1656), which states, “If a footman take mugwort and put it in his shoes in the morning, he may go  forty miles before noon and not be weary” (....I think that may because he has taken to flight.........forty miles?????)
   This idea seems to have grown from the words of Pliny. Pliny indicates that “The wayfaring man that hath the herb tied about him feeleth no weariness at all, and he can never be hurt by any poisonous medicine, by any wild beast, neither yet by the sun itself.”
                Gerard also quotes Pliny’s famous words, and continues: ‘and also that it is drunke against 0pium, or the juice of the blacke Poppy.  Many other fantastical devices invented by the Poets, are to be seene in the Works of the Ancient Writers, tending to witchcraft and sorcerie, and the great dishonour of God: wherefore I do of purpose omit them, as things unworthy of my recording, to your reviewing’; shame that!
   Thiselton-Dyer also indicates that ‘black hellebore, peony, and mugwort’ were used to disperse evil spirits; adding that mugwort and plantain are associated with midsummer, which takes us back to John the Baptist.
    Thiselton-Dyer states that Thomas Hill, who, in his Natural and Artificial Conclusions, suggests that mugwort has a use in the pursuit for young maidens:  ‘If a coal was dug from under these plants at midsummer, and put ‘beneath the head’ that night, ‘they would not fail to dream of their future husband.’ The author goes onto suggest that the coal is nothing but an old dead root which would have been there all year round, so holds no magic; maybe he’s missing the point there. 
   And staying with Thiselton-Dyer for a moment, who  points his readers attention to the Anglo Saxon ‘Nine herb charm’, which I am surprised more authors do not mention. Regarding mugwort he quotes:

“Thou hast might for three,
and against thirty, 
For venom availest
For plying vile things “

Another translation states:

‘Remember Mugwort, what you made known.
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
You have power against three and thirty,
You have power against poison and infection,
You have power against the loathsome foe roaming through the land.’ (

“[Mugwort] Eldest of worts
Thou hast might for three
And against thirty
For venom availest
For flying vile things
Mighty against loathed ones
That through the land rove

     Now to get into the mind-set of these ancestors, one of my favourite books, available both digitally and as a hard copy is The Old English Herbals by Eleanor Sinclair Rohde (1922). From whence the above quote is taken, which sheds a little light on these words by indicating that: ‘’a cold or any infectious disease would have struck the Anglo Saxon as ludicrous, mankind being rather the victims of flying venom.”In the alliterative lay  the Lacnunga,’ part of which is given above, ‘the wind is described as blowing these venoms which produced venoms in the bodies on which they alighted, their evil effects being subsequently blown away by the magicians song and the efficacy of salt, and water and herbs. The above verse is generally supposed to be in its original form, a heathen lay of great antiquity preserved down to Christian times, when allusions to the new religion were inserted. It is written in the Wessex dialect, and is believed to be of the tenth century, but it is undoubtedly a reminiscence of some far older lay. The lay or charm is in praise of nine sacred herbs (one a tree)…’
                In one of the Leech books examined therein we find that in a ‘Saxon hamlet’ in one of the small cottages ‘a patient suffering from elf-shot is to be smoked with the fumes of herbs. A huge quern stone, which has been in the fire in the hearth all day, is dragged out, the prepared herbs-wallwort and mugwort-are scattered upon it and underneath, and then cold water is poured and the patient is reeked with the steam “…as hot as he can endure…”’. The idea of ‘elf-shot’ as the root of disease is very interesting, and one to keep in mind.
   Sinclair Rohde also points to an entry on mugwort in the Herborium of Apeleius: “And if a root of this wort be hung over the door of any house then may no man damage the house.” Now it does become easier to see how we can arrive at the conclusion that mugwort can protect. As we have seen, it contains ingredients that act as an insect repellent. Insects can carry disease, or ‘elf-shot’, so logic would suggest that it may protect from other ‘flying venoms’ too. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that we find it had a place in amulets, alongside other plants such as betony, vervain, peony, yarrow, and waybread (plantain). This may also point to why ‘it was held in repute during the middle ages for its efficacy against unseen powers of evil.’  or, as we can now call them, ‘the hidden foe.’

                In more recent times, Doreen Valiente, Where Witchcraft Lives ({2010, 1962] (Whyte Tracks print and design, Copenhagen), gives Mugwort as the plant used by ‘Some old time scryers’. They, it appears, ‘believed that it helped their powers’ and would ‘drink a tea made of mugwort [Artemisia vulgaris] before attempting to practice the ‘art’; Mugwort has, from earliest times, had a reputation as a “witches herb”.  She goes onto say, ‘It’s Latin name tells us why, it was sacred to Artemis, the Moon- Goddess. Having tasted it, I can testify that mugwort tea is quite harmless, and not unpleasant. The herb should, of course, be gathered at the full moon to be of the greatest efficacy.’ 
                So it appears, if one cleanses oneself and ones tools and partakes of a plant sacred to the moon goddess, the potency of the work would be expected to intensify.  It is not because the plant itself contains any chemical that can enhance this experience, or if it does the dose is so small so as not to be noticeable. She clarifies this point by stating; ‘There is a definite connection in old belief between crystal-gazing and the moon. If the crystal is exposed to moonlight, it makes it more sensitive. The art is best practised when the moon is waxing. The scryers potion is made from the herb of the Moon Goddess.’ This herb as we have seen can be mugwort. Therefore, it appears that she is suggesting these combined actions could make ones senses more in tune.
                Valiente; like the previous mentioned author,  also points to mugwort, which like vervain and St John’s wort, was considered one of the magical herbs of protection to be gathered on Midsummer Eve, and hung up in the house to preserve it from black witchcraft and evil spirits. Maybe there is more than one suggestion taking place here in the minds of people of old: the plants could carry the protection of St John, and also as  plant  that is known to give protection against ‘elf darts’ and the ‘unseen foe’  that carries  disease would deem it a plant of great importance. 
         According to Witchcraft Medicine, ([1998] C. Müller-Ebling, C, Râtch Wolf-Dieter Storl. Inner Traditions, Rochester,Vermont.) ‘Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) was one of the most important ritual plants of the Germanic peoples.  Fresh bundles of the herb were stroked over a sick person and then burned to dispel the spirit that brought disease. Mugwort is one of the most ancient incense herbs in Europe. It is also considered to be a herb sacred to St John.’
     And unsurprisingly, as the mother herb, Mater Herbarium, we find that ‘This grey, bitter herb is considered one of the most important women’s herbs. Sitz baths, and teas of mugwort, depending on the strength of the dosage, help bring on missed menses, hasten birth or afterbirth, or expel a dead fetus. It has also played an important role in the blessing of shamans before entering the ‘flight of the soul’(ibid). It is interesting that it had a part in the blessing rather than the experience itself.
   It seems that ‘In southern Tyrol, the plant is still called broom herb, and it is associated with the witch’s broom. It is also called bunch herb because it is used to bind the herb bundles in folk customs.’
  A further link with the goddess Artemis is suggested: “When people carry the plant artemisia, they don’t feel the difficulty of the path. Kept in the house it chases away demons, protects from bad medicine, and averts the evil eye. Grinding the herb in lard, and rubbing on the feet relieves aches. The grounded and pulverised artemisia is administered with water and mead as a drink; it takes away the intestinal pain and helps in various conditions of weakness.” (Medicina antique 11, fol, 30r)(ibid). The similarity between the blessing of St John and of Artemis appears apparent here in the protection of travellers, ‘not feeling the difficulty of the path’ and as a protection.
                Looking at the recommendation in the previously quoted Medicina, of making a salve containing mugwort for application rather than sticking it in ones shoes or sandals, does sound like something worth trying; I did attempt to put mugwort in my sandals but found I left a trail of leaf behind me, as it kept falling out, so a salve may be many times wiser.  
                Gerard suggests that the name Artemisia comes not from the Goddess, but from ‘Artemisia Queene of Halicarnassus, and wife of noble Mausolus King of Caria, who adopted it for her owne herb.’   Interesting thought, and not a point I find elaborated on elsewhere. Then again, I am more interested in the plant’s use than the precise origins of its name. Howard points out that: ‘Opinions differ amongst the experts as to why this plant became associated with this pagan moon goddess [Artemis]. Most herbalists suggest it is because mugwort has proved successful in dealing with problems arising from the menstrual cycle, which is linked with the lunar phases;
         So back to the possible uses of mugwort Gianluca Toro and Benjamin Thomas state in Drugs of the Dreaming ([2007], Park Street Press, Rochester, Vermont) that ‘Mugwort in a pillow’  helps in the remembering of dreams. In one report the participant pressed the leaves to the face and had a night filled with obscure and unclear dreams. I must say, I don’t need to go to the bother of pressing a leaf on my face, my dreams are generally obscure anyway: it’s clarity I seek. The extract does suggest something interesting concerning Russian tarragon, or Artemisia dracunculiodes, ‘In a pillow this gives frightening dreams.’ I may just see if this works, in the name of scientific investigation of course.
                As for the possible medicinal use of mugwort, Back to Eden, Jethro Kloss, ([1939] (Woodbridge Press publishing company  California.[1981] edition) was the first herb book I ever owned; I wish I still had the hardback I originally possessed, just for sentimental reasons, not because I think it is an exceptionally good book, it now reads as very dated.  Kloss states, however, that mugwort is, ‘Splendid for female complaints when combined with marigold flower, cramp bark and black haw.’ He goes on to explain how to put together the ingredients and the dosage, detailing how mugwort increases the flow of urine, is good for fevers and gout, regulates young girls and others suffering from ‘suppressed menstruations,’ and is ‘useful to overcome’ inflammatory swellings, gravel and stones of the kidneys and bladder. Also it seems it can help with relieving  ‘rheumatism, gout and extreme pain in the bowels’.
                I am no longer a young girl and happily past the age when female complaints cause any problems. But there may be suggestions there that I would do well to get acquainted with.  In fact I need to bear in mind Donald Law’s proposal in The Concise Herbal Encyclopedia ([1973] John Bartholomew and Son Ltd, Edinburgh,); again one of the books from my younger days. He quotes Dicken’s Captain Cuttle, who said “When found make a note of”.  So I have,...... I just hope I remember where I noted it.
   So to summarise........well I think I will leave that to you........what have you learnt.......and can you now seek out and use mugwort for yourself, if you should want to of course.


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