Wormwood: The Goddess Herb

Our acceptance of traditional herb lore throughout history has waxed and waned. What hasn’t changed is the fact that plants, and the plethora of chemicals they manufacture, have long been our saviours. We need those little green alchemists. They are our truest pharmacy, our most potent ally. We use them to engage the mind and spirit, heal, disinfect, salve, scent, soothe, digest, worm, warm, cool, expel, poison and bewitch, and to aid in matters of birth. Yet of the cornucopia of plants traditionally used by folk worldwide for all manner of medicine, few flaunt such intriguing folklore as the group of plants we call Artemisia.

Artemisia vulgaris, commonly known as mugwort (tall plant in centre of image)

Artemisia accounts for around 300 of the 23,000 species in the Asteraceae family (asters or daisies) family, rivalled in its botanic diversity only by the orchids. The name is generally attributed to Artemis (Diana in Roman lore), the Hellenic Goddess of the hunt and wilderness, childbirth and virginity, protector of young girls and all female creatures, giver and healer of disease; or to either of the Persian Queens Artemisia I & II of Caria, one a warrior, one a botanist and medical researcher. The sentiment is much the same. These herbs are goddesses, queens, and medical wonders.

‘Of these worts that we name Artemisia, it is said that Diana did find them and delivered their powers and leechdom to Chiron the Centaur, who first from these Worts set forth a leechdom, and he named these worts from the name of Diana, Artemis, that is Artemisias.’

From ‘Herbarium Apuleii Platonici’

The veritable apothecary of folk names given them – wormseed, wormwood, sagewort, tarragon, felon herb, old man, old woman, lad’s love, sloven wood, santolina, mugwort, sweet Annie – hints strongly at the diversity and cultural importance of this charismatic cache.

Let’s get to specifics:

  • Artemisia dracunculus (French tarragon): Great with chicken or mushrooms!
  • Artemisia pontica (Roman wormwood): Slipped by Roman legionnaires into their sandals to ease the aches of the long march.
  • Artemisia vulgaris, (common wormwood, green ginger, or mugwort): A favoured alternative to hops for beer flavouring throughout Europe and Britain. It was used in German Wormwood Wine, and has also been smoked, drunk as tea, or slipped under a pillow to induce lucid dreaming, visions and prophesy.

Then there is the infamous Artemisia absinthium, or true wormwood. ‘Aha!’ you say, ‘I know her!’ Indeed, yes, she is the goddess herb whose attributes inspired many obscure medicines in ancient Egypt, and whose tranquil green infusion and psychotropic spell are at the centre of the great impressionist collage of Absinthe legend.

Wormwood is the star ingredient in Absinthe, invented in Switzerland in the late 1700s by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire, and perfected and popularised in France by Major Dubied and his son in law, Henri-Louis Pernod. In 1905 the notorious Absinthe murders caused the first major sales ban in Switzerland. Panic about ‘the green curse of France’ also led to bans in America in 1912 (preceding heroine and cocaine bans.) Maybe the Biblical reference to it sprouting up to mark the serpent’s departure from Eden fanned that particular fire? Then in 1914, two days after France declared war on Germany, the ban hit France, and one assumes that artists’ cafes from Paris to Marseille went quiet with grief.

Recently Absinthe has been unbanned, under restrictions in some countries. The restrictions relate to content of Thujone, the primary oily chemical in wormwood that gives the drink its unique hue and is the target of many a scientific study. However Absinthe wasn’t the first liquor to be imbibed with extract of Artemisia. The Romans also added it to wine for celebrating chariot wins, as a reminder that victory has a bitter side.

The lauded medicinal repertoire of wormwoods is vast. It was praised as a preventer and healer of plague by travelling Christian knights (hence the name crusader’s herb). To the Ancient Egyptians it was an antiseptic; to Bedouins a lucky-charm incense; in mediaeval England a flea repellent, and Shakespeare implied the use of its bitter leaves to wean infants.

“When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!”

Romeo and Juliet: Act 1, Scene 3

Wormwood is a diuretic, diaphoretic (sweat inducer), digestive tonic and, according to Juliette de Baïracli Levy’s Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, a cure for mange. Margaret Grieve’s A Modern Herbal even refers to the ancients ‘…countering the effects of poisoning by hemlock, toadstools, and the biting of the Sea Dragon.’

But of all wormwood’s documented healing powers, perhaps inducing childbirth or menstruation is the most historically significant and potentially dangerous. All modern medics advise against use during pregnancy. What was once the tonic is now the poison, a common them in herbal medicine.

The primary quality that lives on in naturopathic remedies is vermifuge (worming). It is commonly combined with black walnut shells and oregano (another Thujone producer). I assume we learned this trick from observing all manner of livestock eating it in small doses. Chickens will also make dirt baths underneath it, not just for the shade, but presumably to engage it’s insecticidal nature to repel fleas or lice. This quality makes it a Permaculture favourite, planted to happily dance by many a chicken run or pig enclosure.

Yet alarm bells oft ring when the spirit of the Green Faerie raises her illuminated head in the floodlit halls of modern medicine. Thujone has been extensively studied for it’s psychotropic and healing potential. It is known that high doses in people can cause anything from sweats and anxiety to outright seizures and convulsions.

It is proven that if you force-feed mice monstrous doses of Thujone (a turpenoid oil), strangely, they will die. Go figure! However, I don’t think the Romans drank it as a purified extract. Nor do our chickens for that matter. They just nibble it raw, and don’t seem to go around murdering one another after eating it.

Of course, any herb in its raw form is a very different thing to one chemical isolated from its leaves. But when combined with alcohol, this herb is still a bit of an enigma. Absinthe is thought to have sent Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec mad, induced Vincent Van Gogh to mutilate his ear, and triggered any number of murders and suicides. Perhaps it was the high alcohol dose, perhaps more. History certainly weaves intrigue and myth around many herbs. Debates on the benefits and dangers of Wormwood continue, and in all truth the jury is still out.

As for me, I don’t mind a little Mugwort under the pillow, and I always dream in colour. I’m keeping Wormwood for the chooks, and for the sheer pleasantness to the eye, downiness to caress, heady aroma, and ethereal silvery hue that scatters light into dark corners. I slip dried sprigs into the cupboards to ward off moths, and now (thanks for the tip Mrs M.Grieve) I keep a little in my pouch lest I poison myself with mushrooms or get bitten by a Sea Dragon. 

‘On St Luke’s Day, take marigold flowers, a sprig of marjoram, thyme, and a little wormwood; dry them before a fire, rub them to powder; then sift it through a fine piece of lawn, and simmer it over a slow fire, adding a small quantity of virgin honey, and vinegar. Anoint yourself with this when you go to bed, saying the following lines three times, and you will dream of your partner “that is to be.”

“St. Luke, St. Luke, be kind to me,

In dreams let me my true love see.” ‘

An Olde Proverbe

Note: The large image at the top of the story is a cropped version of Danish painter  Vilhelm Hammershøi’s ‘Artemis’ (1893-94)

Chickens taking advantage of the insecticidal properties of wormwood
Herbal de-worming tablets featuring wormwood.
Wormwood flowers
Drying wormwood