As autumn takes a real hold here in Western North Carolina, I seem to forget every year that while all appears to be dying, there are a few plants showing new growth before withering away for the winter. Our cool weather friends and spring edibles like chickweed and nettles give one last breath of tender greenery before going to bed. One of my favorites is Mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris.
Mugwort has been known by many names, and has been used since the Iron age by humans for food, medicine and magic. Some say it got its name from flavoring drinks, hence the Mug, and others say it in fact comes from its use in repelling moths, or moughte. Artemis did lend her name to the genus of this plant, and indeed all of mugwort's cousins are equally magical. Despite its common nature and plain appearance, Mugwort was once called the Mater Herbarum in early Europe, or the Mother of all Herbs, and seems to be with good reason.
From the early Iron Age (500BCE) remains of beer making activity have been found at Eberdingen-Hochdorf in Germany. They also include charred barley and henbane seeds(another favorite plant of mine). Archeobotanist Dr. Stika believes the early Celtic beer recipe contained Mugwort seeds. Mugwort was also added to beer in Medieval times. (Hops were not used until around 800CE in beer making.)
In the Middle Ages it was known as Cingulum Sancti Johannis because of it's use as a girdle for St. John the Baptist. Madame Grieve extols its folkloric uses,
"There were many superstitions connected with it: it was believed to preserve the wayfarer from fatigue, sunstroke, wild beasts and evil spirits generally: a crown made from its sprays was worn on St. John's Eve to gain security from evil possession, and in Holland and Germany one of its names is St. John's Plant, because of the belief, that if gathered on St. John's Eve it gave protection against diseases and misfortunes." - M. Grieve
It is a feature in the 10th century Nine Herbs Charm gathered from Anglo-Saxon England, and was used to treat infection and poisoning. The charm is very long and wonderful, I advise checking it out: The Nine Herbs Charm. The other herbs referenced in this charm were: Plantain, Chamomile, Nettle, Crabapple, Thyme, Betony, Lamb's Cress, and Fennel.
These herbs are interesting not just because we know them to be good for healing salves today, but it is amazing to see what our "primitive" ancestors knew this as well. It is truly a great example of a folk cure. One part magical recitation, one part truly healing herbs. The poem is also amazing because it is one of two known references to Woden (or Odin) in Old English poetry, so for that alone, I think it quite special.
Burning and hanging mugwort seem to be pretty universal methods of keeping pestilence and illness away. Throughout Europe bunches would be hung in the eaves of homes as well as offered to Mary on Assumption day. It would also be burned on this day in stables to keep away illness from the animals in southern Germany. In fact as one of the oldest incense plants in Europe, it was arguably one of the most important ritual plants to the Germanic people.
On Samhain, or Halloween, Germanic women would go out "flying" by fumigating or rubbing their bodies with mugwort. They would then kill a goose to honor Frau Holle and mix the goose fat and "flying herbs" together for a nocturnal, astral journey. This may be why it is still known as broom herb in southern Tirol as reference to the immaterial witches broom mugwort served as.
The dried herb was also used by the working classes in Cornwall as one of the substitutes for tea when prices were prohibitive and in America, Mugwort was occasionally employed as an aromatic culinary herb, such as in geese when stuffed during roasting.
Aside from being mixed up in old charms, mugwort has many uses today as a potent medicinal and magical plant. Today it is often first associated with its emmenogogic and digestive powers.It has been associated with birth since Roman times, and there are many references to it throughout the Middle Ages, such as in the welsh Herbal, The Physicians of the Myddfai. They advise tying a bunch of mugwort around the left tight of a a woman laboring with childbirth. It's potency at moving the womb is noted where the authors then note to remove it as soon as the child is born, lest the woman hemorrhage.
Mugwort has often been associated with the Moon and identified as a woman's herb. Hildegard von Bingen, Paralesus and Culpepper, as well as many other Renaissance era herbalist speak of it almost exclusively as a female remedy. Today it is still considered a uterine stimulant, emmenogogue, and spasmodic among many other uses. It was often used as a poultice on the stomach of a laboring mother. It was also drank as a tea and given as a foot bath to promote easy birth.
This silvery, soft plant does have a bit a bite to it just as it's toothy leaves suggest. It contains thujone, a menthol scented monoterpene. It is often blamed as the guilty constituent in wormwood, mugwort's cousin, that caused the madness associated with old absinth recipes. However, mugwort is generally considered the gentlest of the Artemesias and contains small amounts that make it safe to take in small doses, so long as it is not for too long. It is also strongly advised against use in pregnancy, as you can expect, because of its use as an emmenogogue.
It is also still used as a digestive, I have had a gentle infusion of mugwort after dinner and I have to say, it is a very pleasant. It is both a bitter and contains carminative oils which promote digestive health. It is used sometimes in small doses over a longer period to help regulate both digestion and menses.
Mugwort is associated with dreaming and the moon in modern magical practices. I cannot seem to discover where the link to the dreamworld comes in historically, but I shall endeavor to find out. Because of this association with the dream world and between states, it is used as a wash for divination tools, especially crystal balls and other gazing instruments. It is said that placing it sewn up in a pillow beneath the head at night will grant the sleeper remembrance of their dreams upon waking.
Used as a burning herb it is a local and abundant plant. It is both a traditional Old World incense herb and as mentioned before, a long time repellent of evil and disease. Although not native, it can be a wonderful alternative to white sage as a smudge, which is a plant of drier regions and is difficult to grow in this climate. There have also been questions raised about the cultural appropriation of Native smudge practices and white sage in the pagan and New Age communities by certain Native people. It is good to make sure as we celebrate that we do so with the knowledge and understanding of what it truly means.
All humans have a pagan past and ritual uses of plants and aromatics in our blood. It is a wonderful thing to connect with and learn about those histories, as many of us have had them erased from our ancestral memories. Don't be afraid to meet new plants, like mugwort, and realize that they may be old friends.
Mugwort is an incredible plant, and a unique one for that matter. Few plants have such a strange and wonderful history. Go out and meet Mugwort and introduce yourself, I promise it will be a dreamy experience.
The New Holistic Herbal. David Hoffman. 1983.
Witchcraft Medicine. Claudia Muller- Ebling, Christian Ratsch and Wolf-Dieter Storl.1998.
Hildegard's Healing Plants. Bruce W. Hozeski. 2001.
American Household Botany. Judith Sumner. 2004.
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