Sacred Plant of Eternal Love and Healing: The Mythology and Magic of Basil
In Mediterranean cuisine it is the symbol of summer and its origins are lost in the mists of time. Fragrant and delicate with its green leaves it manages to tantalize the most demanding palates, it is basil. Basil (Ocimum basilicus) is an annual herbaceous plant belonging to the Lamiaceae family, and is easily recognized by the shape of its lanceolate leaves that vary from pale green to intense green to violet or purple of some varieties.
The basil plant, ocimum basilicus. (CC0)
Ancient Superstitions Regarding Basil
The name derives from the Greek "basilikos", which means "herb worthy of a king", as mentioned by the Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus, in the 3rd century BC. Basil seems to have originated in India and was brought to the West by the merchants of spices; the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans were already aware of its flavors and healing properties.
The Greeks and Romans believed that, to grow a healthy seedling, it was necessary to sow it, accompanying the operation with insults and curses, but to speak of the basil more seriously was the Roman writer Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, who explains how the basil is a plant to sow in abundance "after the Ides of May until the summer solstice". Among the Romans it was considered a magical and sacred plant to Venus, like many other fragrant herbs, to be harvested following precise rituals.
Some authors argued that it should not be severed with iron tools because the metal would undo all its qualities. It really is true, in fact, if we try to cut the basil leaves with a knife, due to oxidation, they immediately become black, so the ingredient should only be chopped by hand.
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A painting by William Waterhouse, Enchanted garden (Public Domain)
A Herb for Lovers
The famous Roman naturalist Pliny was convinced that the seeds of the basil, and not the leaves, were powerful aphrodisiacs; in some areas, even today, farmers make donkeys and horses eat it during the reproductive period to increase their sexual strength.
Later, thanks to these aphrodisiac characteristics, it became the true symbol of lovers. Even the Gauls thought basil was a sacred plant, so much so that its leaves were harvested only by those who had followed a complex ritual of purification. The Gauls cultivated basil in July/August until it was in bloom. The harvesters of this sacred plant had to undergo strict purification rituals: washing the hand with which one had to collect the plants in the water of three different springs, dress in clean clothes, keep oneself at a distance from impure people (for example, women during menstruation) and do not use metal tools to cut the stems. The sanctity of basil was also held in high esteem by the Egyptians, who used it for the preparation of balms used in the embalming of the dead.
Purple ruffles basil (ocimum basilicus) Huntington Gardens (Los Angeles). (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Tears of love
In the Middle Ages, in order to collect basil, one had to first purify the right hand, washing it in three different springs, then using an oak branch and wearing white linen clothes. In Boccaccio's Decameron we find one of the strangest love stories that has as its protagonist the basil plant. Boccaccio in V Novella, IV day, tells the story of Elisabetta da Messina who buried the head of her beloved Lorenzo, barbarously murdered by her jealous brothers, in a large vase of basil, which she watered every day with tears.
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A scene of the Decameron of Boccaccio. (Public Domain)
In the Middle Ages, moreover, basil was also used for exorcisms and therefore to drive out devils from the possessed, and it was believed that it performed miracles in case of pestilence and physical weakness of man. In the Renaissance the culinary and therapeutic properties of the basil were definitively recognized when Cosimo de‘ Medici also included it among the fragrances of the "Giardino dei Semplici" (1545). But all over the world the basil is known above all for its use in the preparation of the most cooked sauce on earth... pesto!
Beautiful Pasta Closeup with Spinach, Cheese, Olives, Basil and Nuts. (valeria_aksakova / Freepik)
The history of pesto
Historically basil arrived in Liguria in the second half of the eleventh and early twelfth century and especially in Genoa following the enterprises of the Genoese commander Guglielmo Embriaco, known as Head of Chainmail. The leader kept on one of his galleys his real secret entrusted to Captain Bartolomeo Decotto. The captain experimented with the therapeutic characteristics of the basil when he was in Palestine during the crusades and returning to Genoa he brought some bags of seeds with him. A true legend was born. At first it was said that the basil leaves were only used as a medicine, but then when working with the pestle to obtain ointments, it happened that someone thought it well to add olive oil to use as a cream for skin irritations. It is said that accidentally the sauce fell on bread and ... pesto was born!
Legends and superstitions have always accompanied the history of spices, but curiously some survived right until the 1800s. It is said that some English people living in India roamed regularly with a wooden necklace of basil to neutralize the electrical impulses, keeping away the lightning, as claimed by the Hindu religion. In the same period, but only in the eclipses, basil was also eaten and placed in water reserves to prevent contamination.
Devotion to the tulsi plant, sweet basil; A lady ascetic, 1800s, Rajasthan. (freepik.com)
It is a matter of opinion whether basil is actually a ‘magic’ plant or not, but we can point out that Napoleon used it for its property of stimulating intellectual concentration. Napoleon was in fact convinced that its scent would help him prepare the plans for maneuvering the armies and history is no legend…
Top image: Stalk of basil. (Kevin Faccenda / flickr)