Monday, 18 November 2013

Mugwort: Snippets of Interesting Things , Part 3

It’s been a while since I did any of my Druidry reading, and told you of any herbs.  So today I’ll tell you a little of Mugwort…and then tomorrow I’ll tell you of Meadowsweet.  How’s that sound?

Mugwort (Artemsia Vulgaris)

Jekka tells us this is a hardy herbaceous perennial growing freely both by the road and by small water courses.  It can grow up to 4 ft and spread 18” (apologies, despite being born in 1971, I do not appear to have gone metric at all…).  It has tiny reddish brown (and sometimes yellow) flowers that appear in summer.  Its leaves are dark green serrated and appear covered in down, as are all the leaves of plants in the Artemesia family (including Vulgaris’s close relative Absinthium, aka Wormwood, of the famous scary absinthe drink!; and the brilliantly named Dracunculus, which is French Tarragon, commonly cooked with today).[1]

Historical Usage

If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggins in May
Sae many braw maidens
Wadna gang to clay.

This is a poem quoted by folkorists of the mermaid of Clyde’s pronouncement on seeing the funeral of a young girl.  Gabrielle Hatfield, author of Memory, Wisdom and Domestic Plant Medicine [2], explains the poem, and then goes on to tell of a historical phenomenon I’ve read of often when researching herbal remedies for these posts and for my own interest:
The ‘muggins’ mentioned by the mermaid was a plant well known for its use in treating ‘women’s afflictions’.  Known also as Mugwort, this plant appears in proverbs in Scotland and Wales.  Carmichael quotes:

Wad ye let the bonny may die in your hand
And the mugwort flowering I’ the land?[3]

When I began studying plant medicines in use within living memory in Britain, mugwort did not appear at first.  Then a letter from a man brought up in Essex gave this information, recalled from the 1920s: ‘In our garden my father grew a clump of “Mugwort” and I think my mother used this for irregularities peculiar to women.’  He added that he particularly remembered the mugwort because of his father’s strict instructions not to pull it up!  Mugwort grows in the wild, but presumably in this case the family wished to be assured of a constant supply when it was needed.

Originally, practical instructions were part of the common knowledge of plant remedies, and would have been passed down orally from one generation of plant users to the next.  Once copied into the literature of the day, they became altered in various ways.  Scorn was poured on them in some quarters, and still is today[4].  In other instances, they were altered and exaggerated, and tied in with astrology and all kinds of other beliefs.  Culpeper, for example, embroidered this aspect of plant medicine.[5] […]  In any case his readers represented the literate minority, and the illiterate majority doubtless continued to use plant remedies in the same way their families had done for generations.  This is an example of how the written version of plant medicine diverged increasingly from empirical plant usage.

As Thompson[6], Ewart Evans[7] and many others have testified, oral testimony is often remarkably accurate.  However, once information is committed to print, any errors that creep in tend to become perpetuated, and an […] example of this has already been mentioned [earlier in her book] where the oral version of a remedy used for horses had survived accurately whereas the printed version in a veterinary book was totally wrong.  This is the kind of incorrect evidence which has often, quite unjustly, brought traditional remedies into disrepute.[8]

Whilst that was a monster long quote there, I felt it needed leaving in its entirety, as I’m not only telling you about individual herbs in these posts, but a little about the history of their usage, and their recorded usage.  It’s as well you’re aware that there have been, and continue to be, sometimes serious discrepancies between oral and written record concerning dosages, usages etc.  (In another post later, on Comfrey, I’ll let Ms Hatfield tell you all about the dangers of incomplete herbal information, too…and why you should always check multiple reliable sources before attempting any herbalism on yourself at home.)

Culpeper, impugned so thoroughly there by Ms Hatfield, has this to say on Mugwort, and we’ll start off where she complains:
This is a herb of Venus, and therefore maintains the parts of the body she rules, and remedies the diseases of the parts that are under her signs, Taurus and Libra.  Mugwort is used with good success, among other herbs, in a hot decoction, for women to sit over, to provoke the menses, help delivery, and expel the afterbirth; also, for the obstructions and inflammations of the womb.  It breaks the stone, and causes one to make water when it is stopped.[9]

He also describes it used as a pessary, and the roots made into an ointment with ‘hogs lard’ to take away ‘wens and kernals about the neck and throat’.  He tells of it also being used as a remedy for an overdose of opium (not sure quite how that would work), and ‘three drachms of the powder in dried leaves, taken in wine’ as a ‘sure and speedy cure of the sciatica’[10].  So he felt it something of a wonder drug; then again, in those days, most herbs were used for multiple functions.

It wasn’t only used medicinally.  In the extremely informative The Medieval Garden, the author describes a house called Bayleaf, in England, circa 1500, a yeoman’s residence, from various papers left behind.  Mugwort was in use as a vermicidal by the mistress of the house.  When the floors were regularly swept out (and the results composted), the new herbs strewn down would always include both mugwort leaves and its relative wormwood to discourage rats and mice, as well as mints and fennel for their fresh smells[11].

Herbalism Today

Mugwort is still in use within British Herbalism today.  It’s known as ‘the Mother of Herbs’ because it’s still used for multiple purposes.  “Best described as a tonic with particular application to the digestive and nervous systems, it reduces nervous indigestion, nausea, and irritability.  As a womb tonic it is useful to regulate periods and reduce period pain and PMS”[12] – so little change in that aspect of its traditional usage.  The parts used are the flowers and leaves, primarily.  Its usually taken as an infusion, dosed at ¼ - ½ tsp 3 times a day.  And strictly avoided in pregnancy, for the obvious reasons above: it interacts too strongly with the womb.

Nowadays, a common usage of mugwort is in Japanese Herbalism, where it is used to make Moxas, a cure for rheumatism[13]; and also used in acupuncture, a resinous fluff lump (!- Ok my descriptive powers are limited there) lit gently to smoulder and suspended on one of the needles, so as to heat the needle softly with the additional stimulation simply of heat, to that point where the needle is placed.  (I once had a funny moxa accident during acupuncture; it just fell off, as it was slightly too big for the needle…and yes, I got a burn from it.  In the perfect shape of a triangle on my stomach.  It didn’t hurt too badly, and for years, in a mischievous and silly way, I would show off the scar and tell people I got it when abducted by aliens.  Eventually, due to regular and copious lathering with lavender oil the scar faded clean away, so I have been forced to stop telling that enjoyably untrue anecdote. Tsk.)

Magickal Uses, traditional and current

As suggested by its Latin name, sacred to the Goddess Artemis (goddess of the moon and childbirth).  Its folk remedy characteristics as an ‘easer of the troubles of women’ are reflected here too: periods, menopause, childbirth – but more widely, as a general protector, aimed mostly at women but also available to men.

Used primarily in magickal terms as a cleansing herb, in the same way as Agrimony (see previous post).  Using both herbs in an incense thoroughly cleanses a room, creating an atmosphere conducive to meditation and/or divination.  It’s supposed to aid clairvoyance, and it’s suggested that an infusion be drunk before scrying “to widen perception”[14].  Alternatively, rubbing the infusion over a mirror or other glass surface[15] to be looked into (go get your crystal ball!) will do a similar job. Sleeping with an herb pillow of Mugwort is “an encouragement to Future Seeking Dreams”[16]. Protectively, it was hung over doorways to houses, as a folk charm against lightning, misfortune and thievery; but under the doorway to stop unwanted visitors[17].

Cassandra Eason, prolific modern writer on all things odd and mostly interesting to Blackberry Juniper, adds these as variations on traditional magickal uses for mugwort: it’s a help to shape-shifting (in the vision quest, astral sort of way) and is protective of all travellers, especially from predators, human or otherwise[18].

The leaves are supposed to be gathered on Midsummer’s Eve; the roots during autumn.  The flowers, though so familiar and gorgeous looking, are not often used magickally nowadays.

And there we leave it for today, people!  Remember, I’m not a doctor, so don’t go dosing yourself based on anything I’ve said!  Just enjoy the info, and if interested, do more reading! 

It’s a fascinating subject, herbalism in history and in practice, both medical and magickal – which I stress, are 2 completely different emphases, and Medical Herbalists will get most shirty if you bundle them in with neo-pagan practitioners like myself, so don’t go doing that!!

Till tomorrow, and the gentle Meadowsweet…

[1] Jekka McVicar, New Book of Herbs (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004), p.136.
[2] A Professor of the University of East Anglia for many years, and also an Honorary Research Fellow at Kew Gardens, to list her credentials!
[3] Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 6 vols, vol V, p.125 (Edinburgh:1970-71).
[4] From Hatfield’s footnotes: ‘Dr Speller claims there is little in these bizarre and entertaining “cures” that can have any basis in therapeutics’, letter in Margaret Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, 1974, p.169.   Another author goes so far as to state: “In general, native plant remedies are of little value”, D.J. Guthrie, Transactions of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 1961, vol 39, part 2.’
[5] Nicholas Culpeper, The English Physician (London: 1652).
[6] E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (Suffolk: Merlin Press, 1981).
[7] George Ewart Evans, Where Birds Wag All (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), p.18.
[8] Gabrielle Hatfield, Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999), pp.79-80.
[9] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus Publishing, 2009), p.253.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Sylvia Lansdberg, The Medieval Garden (London: The British Museum Press, 1998), p.116.
[12] Sue Hawkey, Herbalism for Health and Wellbeing (Bath: Southwater, 2000), p.32.
[13] Jekka McVicar, New Book of Herbs (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004), p.136.

[14] Miscellany of Superstition, by Harold Pryce-Thorn, pp.76, Mondham and Son, London: 1902.
[15] Gwers of the Ovate Grade, 6, p.7, published by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), Lewes: 2011.
[16] Miscellany of Superstition, by Harold Pryce-Thorn, pp.78-79, Mondham and Son, London: 1902.
[17] Gwers of the Ovate Grade, 6, p.6, published by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), Lewes: 2011.
[18] Cassandra Eason, The Modern Day Druidess: A Practical Guide to Nature Spirituality (London: Piatkus, 2003), p.134.

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