History’s Love of Lavender: From Mummies to Bathhouses and Beyond!
Lavender is one of the most well-known plants throughout the world. It is popular in gardening, baking, cleaning, and medicine. The soft purple flowers have been around for a few thousand years and have been used significantly throughout history for different purposes. This famous plant boasts antimicrobial properties and has been used for calming anxiety, relieving pain, and healing wounds, in addition to many other purposes.
Though lavender is primarily a Mediterranean herb, it is hardy enough to grow in many areas throughout the world including the US, UK, and Australia. Lavender use has spread around the world. In each instance, it was used heavily and was shown to be effective against various pathogens and conditions. Its origins and uses throughout history give us a fascinating insight to the popular world of lavender.
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From Spikenard to Lavender
The earliest known records of lavender come from over 2,500 years ago. Evidence of lavender use can be found in ancient Egyptian mummification and early Roman public bathhouses. It is believed that lavender originated in the Greek Hyeres Islands and was brought to France, Spain, Italy, and England by the Arabians around 600 BC.
The use of lavender stems back so far that there are even references to lavender use in the Bible, specifically in the gospel of Luke, the gospel of John, and Song of Solomon. In the scriptures, the plant is referred to as “spikenard,” which was its original name. A common passage using lavender in the book of John refers to Mary anointing the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume:
“Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” John 12:3
Medieval Peniarth manuscript illustration of Mary anointing Christ’s feet. (CC0)
The herb was so heavily used in holy rituals at that time that it was costly to find. The term “spikenard” originated from the plant being called “nardus” or “Nard” in passing since it was frequently made into Holy Essence in the Syrian city of Naarda. Its name was changed to lavender sometime later by the Romans, stemming from the Latin verb “lavare,” which means “to wash.”
Lavender was frequently used in bathing because of its pleasant, potent scent. While it may have also been used due to its antimicrobial properties, it is unclear whether ancient communities would have known about these properties beyond speculation. Washerwomen throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe were called “lavenders” because they would spread their freshly-washed laundry over lavender bushes to give them a pleasant smell. Lavender was so frequently used in bathing that it was especially popular amongst royalty, who had more access to lavender bushes. King Louis XIV was especially known for using lavender in his baths to scent the water.
King Louis XIV was known for using lavender in his baths to scent the water. (Public Domain)
Rather than being explicitly used for antimicrobial properties, it was said in the 16th century that lavender was frequently hung above doorframes to prevent evil spirits from entering buildings. It was also said that having lavender in your home or bathing in it would prevent “evil fits” from occurring.
On St. John’s Day, a religious holiday, the Spanish and Portuguese would throw lavender onto the floor of their church or in a bonfire to ward off evil spirits. Later, in the 19th century, travelers would sell lavender on the streets throughout Europe to protect against bad luck and bring good fortune.
Medical Uses of Lavender
Though the concept of “antimicrobial” was not fully understood in ancient history, many people did note correlations between lavender use and treatment for common illnesses. In the 9th century, graverobbers who bathed with Four Thieves Vinegar (which contained lavender) in the evenings after their dirty work reportedly did not get sick with the plague. In the 16th century, glovemakers who used lavender to ride their ware of bad odors reportedly never became sick with cholera.
In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen, a German saint and nun, claimed that “lavender water,” a mixture of vodka or gin mixed with lavender, would cure migraines. Dioscorides, a Greek physician, wrote in his medical journals that he used lavender as an oral medicine to treat indigestion, sore throat, and headache. He also said it could be taken to prevent infection of external wounds.
Hildegard of Bingen receiving a vision. (Public Domain) She claimed that “lavender water,” a mixture of vodka or gin mixed with lavender, would cure migraines.
These theories were later further confirmed by John Parkinson, an English herbalist from the 16th century. Parkinson claimed that lavender was “especially good for all griefes and paines of the head and brain” and was given regularly for headaches. Those who were able to have access to lavender regularly would put it in their pillowcases to prevent headache and encourage a good night’s sleep – something that is still done today! King Charles VI of France, like many royals with access to lavender, would require his pillowcase have fresh lavender in it so he could sleep well.
Traditional Asian medicine was the first to claim lavender’s aids for stress and anxiety. The herb was traditionally used for “cooling” purposes on burns and other wounds, but they also used it to “cool the heart,” which would relax the mind and release tension from the body.
Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist in the 1930s, discovered the healing powers of lavender when he burned himself in his lab. He used lavender oil on the burn and discovered that his wound not only did not get infected, but healed much more quickly than with other ointments. Gattefosse’s discovery inspired him to coin the term “aromatherapy,” referring to treatment with aromatic plants such as lavender. Because of his work, lavender was used throughout WWII to heal the wounds of soldiers. Another French scientist, Marguerite Maury, used lavender oil on skin to perform massages, and performed the first recorded aromatherapy massage.
The United States was one of the last countries to have access to lavender. Lavender was brought to the US and Canada by English Quakers, who created herb farms to sell simple products created with lavender. Over time, this group became the Shakers, and they became known as the first group in America to sell lavender products commercially. Products they created include oils, balms, soaps, teas, and oral supplements.
An Herb to Set the Mood
Throughout history, lavender was mostly used in religious rituals or medicinal treatments. However, lavender has one other primary use in history – in love. Lavender is frequently related to love throughout ancient history in terms of its use as a romantic gift or as an aphrodisiac.
In the deuterocanonical biblical book Judith, Judith used her beauty and charm to save an oppressed Israel. Within the book, it describes Judith anointing herself with lavender perfumes to seduce Holoferemes, the enemy commander of the book. By seducing him successfully with lavender perfumes, she was able to murder him and save Israel.
The Queen of Sheba, also mentioned in the Bible in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles, presented “spikenard” to King Solomon amongst many other lavish gifts including frankincense and myrrh. Most famously, Cleopatra used lavender to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. In the time of the Tudors, women would drink a brewed lavender beverage on St. Luke’s Day, a Christian tradition, to discover their true love’s identity. Alpine maidens would leave lavender in their pillows in hopes it would attract a lover.
A perfume-seller holds a small lavender bag up to her face. Colored lithograph by Charles Philipon, 1828. (CC BY 4.0)
Lavender has been used to represent romance and good luck in love to newlyweds as well. Lavender was traditionally left under the bed of newlyweds to inspire passion between the new couple. A song from the late 1600s in England titled “Diddle Diddle, Or the Kind Country Lovers” has lyrics stating,
“Lavender's green, diddle, diddle,
You must love me, diddle, diddle,
cause I love you,
I heard one say, diddle, diddle,
since I came hither,
That you and I, diddle, diddle,
must lie together.”
This song was later rewritten in the 1800s as part of the book “Songs for the Nursery,” which changed the lyrics to,
“Lavender blue and Rosemary green,
When I am king you shall be queen;
Call up my maids at four o'clock,
Some to the wheel and some to the rock;
Some to make hay and some to shear corn,
And you and I will keep the bed warm.”
Clearly, lavender and romance were closely intertwined. It should be noted, however, that the love and lavender connection was not always sexual throughout history. Lavender was used to show platonic affection as well, as can be seen by the traces of lavender remaining on the inside of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
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Lavender: Everyone’s Favorite Herb
Lavender is still used globally for medicinal and recreational purposes. Particularly, aromatherapy has become common in recent years for those looking to reduce stress and pain. Aromatic pillow sprays, oil warmers, and balms are produced with lavender regularly. It is also used to help relax muscles and is used in cleaning agents for its antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Lavender can be grown at home for personal use. The plants typically need bright direct sunlight and well-draining soil to grow to their full potential. They do not need much water, which made growing lavender year-round for English royalty quite difficult for medieval gardeners. Luckily, they also do not need any fertilizing unless sick and only need pruning once per year. If successful, you’ll have a beautiful lavender bush in no time!
Lavender bushes in a garden. (CC0)
You can use your lavender for lots of home purposes including air fresheners, perfumes, lotions, and oils. You can also dry the herbs and use them in cooking and baking. Dried lavender is great for homemade heating pads, as it can be sprinkled into the pouch with rice, closed, and popped into the microwave. Oral supplements in oil or food (if done safely) have been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, menstrual cramps, and pain in some people.
Finally, if you aren’t interested in lavender for its medicinal properties or smell, you can always gift it to your favorite people to show them how much you love them. After all, it worked for Cleopatra.
Top image: The continuous use of lavender throughout history reveals its popularity. Source: asife / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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