Herbs and Halloween go together like trick or treat – but maybe not for the reasons that you’d think. Most of the so-called “witchy” herbs in stories were used as protection charms to ward off evil spirits.
In medieval times, people genuinely feared witches, and blamed bad luck, illnesses, and pretty much anything going wrong on witchcraft. Old, poor women who lived alone were the usual targets. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with its famous scene of witches chanting “eye of newt” over their cauldron, was written for King James I, who was very superstitious and thought witches were out to get him.
Ironically, people used white magic – herbs – to protect themselves. They would gather leaves and stems to hang in their homes, or plant protective species close to their homes.
Here are a few of the herbs used:
Mugwort: People would collect the long stalks and leaves of mugwort and hang them in their doorways to protect them against evil spirits. It was also used to help promote dreams and especially prophetic dreams, often in combination with chamomile.
Mullein: The tall, thick stems of mullein were said to be used as torches by witches to guide them to their coven meetings.
Elder: The elder tree has long been associated with magic. Each tree is said to be home to its own tree spirit, which guards the branches and of whom you ought to ask permission before picking the delicious elderflowers or elderberries. Elder was a powerful protector and guardian. Trees were planted near homes and branches, leaves and flowers carried as protection.
Monkshood (Aconite): All plants of this absolutely beautiful plant are poisonous, but it has been used) in herbal medicine as a diuretic. Aconite was said to have been created by the goddess Hecate, and the poison which Medea used to kill Theseus. In was also used to polish off men on the island of Ceos, in the Agean Sea, when they became too old to be “useful to the State”. Charming.
Belladonna: Deadly nightshade was said to be an ingredient in witches’ flying ointments. It produces a psychotic effect and dream-like state, which may have led to this belief. In Italy, women used it to dilate their pupils, making their eyes larger and therefore more attractive.