The dark days of winter are just beginning as October ends and November starts.
An annual event that has been marked in various ways since the beginning of recorded time. The Gaels call this Samhain … pronounced ‘sow-in’ … and the word means ‘the end of summer.’ Originally, the date was slightly variable and depended on the phases of the moon, the light half of the year … dividing the year into summer and winter … coming to an end with a phase of the moon close to November 1 and the dark days of winter beginning the next day. This was regarded by the people who lived many millennia in the past as a time when the veil between the natural world and the supernatural world is especially thin; and this belief, which involved reinforcing boundaries which evil spirits could not cross … using plants, incantations and fires … has come down through the aeons to our celebration of Hallowe’en and bonfire night, albeit these celebrations now take place on different dates.
One custom that has not survived the passage of time right up to the present, although it was still observed during the Middle Ages … which is relatively recently in mankind’s time-scale … was to hang stems of mugwort in doorways into the house and from the rafters of animal sheds in the belief that this plant repelled all manner of evil spirits and unwanted visitors, including witches, moths and even the Devil himself. According to my trusty copy of “Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe,” a Collins Pocket Guide, mugwort is a “medium tall downy perennial, slightly aromatic.” (The italicisation is to help distinguish mugwort from sneezewort, which is not aromatic.) The leaves are dark green above and silvery beneath, the flowerheads are rayless, egg-shaped, yellowish- or purplish-brown, in branched spikes and are top be seen during June and July; and it is found in waste ground and along roadsides throughout the British Isles and northern Europe. Its botanical name is Artemisia vulgaris … the common (vulgaris) plant named after the Greek goddess Artemis … and there is little bout the actual plant to suggest that it possesses extraordinary powers. The origin of its common English name … mugwort … is disputed, but is probably a corruption of the older name moughte-wort, meaning ‘the plant which deters moths and midges’; and that latter characteristic might account for it being associated with travellers, for whom it is said to prevent delays and other annoyances associated with travelling, as well as protecting the traveller from accidents, thieves and other dangers. It is also true that the plant’s love of growing by the roadside meant that the traveller of yesteryear, whether on foot, on donkey or on horseback, would find the plant nearby wherever he cast his eyes.
Another favourite book in my library, the “Complete Herbal”, by Nicholas Culpepper, reveals that ‘a very slight infusion (of the tops of the plants) is excellent for all disorders of the stomach, prevents sickness after meals and creates an appetite, but if made too strong, it disgusts the taste. The tops with the flowers on them, dried and powdered, are good against agues, and have the same virtues with wormseed in killing worms. … Its oil, taken on sugar and drunk after, kills worms, resists poison, and is good for the liver and jaundice. … and it prevents and destroys the moths.’ And another herbalist, John Gerard, says: ‘Mugwort cureth the shakings of the joynts inclining to the Palsie.’
None of this explains the plant’s power to repel evil spirits. But, since an early reference quoted in, “Agnus castus; a Middle English Herbal”, an academic paper published by the University of Upsala in 1950, reads, “Gif this herbe be in a mannys hous ther schal dwelle non wycked gost ne non wicked spyritus,” it might just be worth a try even today.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society