Scattering Violets

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The Defender at the Door: Wormwood Folklore and Household Uses

Several years ago, I bought a small wormwood plant at a local nursery. I loved its soft, silvery leaves, clean scent, and knew of its use in absinthe, so I had to have it. I potted it for a year or so, and it didn’t do very well (to be fair, I’m not great with potted plants). But I knew that we would be moving eventually, and I didn’t want to leave it behind when we did. Two and a half years ago, we made our move to the Blue Ridge mountains and I brought my sad little wormwood with me. Not long after I planted it in the ground -- a claiming act -- beside our front porch, it sprang back to life. It’s full and vital now, and its clean scent, feathery texture, silvery green color, and powerful magic have preserved its status as one of my favorites (my mints share that status).


Wormwood has a long history of use as a medicine, culinary herb, household helper, and powerful ally in folk magic. Historical medicinal uses include as a vermifuge (dewormer), diuretic, antiseptic, and abortifacient, among others. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare refers to the practice of weaning infants by rubbing the nipple with wormwood before nursing (note: babies do not like bitter flavors!) It was also said to counter the effects of “poisoning by hemlock, toadstools, and the biting of the Sea Dragon,” although these claims are dubious.


Culinary uses include steeping wormwood in teas (especially Moroccan mint tea) and wine (a Roman practice). Wormwood is also a key ingredient in herbal spirits like absinthe and vermouth (from wermut, the German word for wormwood). It was also traditionally used to stuff cooked goose. I like to add a sprig or two to homebrewed kvass to balance the sweetness.


Other household uses include storing wormwood in cabinets and closets to repel moths and fleas. Earlier this year, a family of rabbits had chosen to nest under my wormwood, and I’ve read that chickens will shelter from the sun in wormwood bushes -- both may have something to do with its flea-repelling value. It also explains why medieval knights would carry wormwood with them on their crusades to ward against the plague: no fleas means a much lower risk of contracting the disease! In gardening, wormwood is also an excellent repellant for weeds and insect larvae.


Of course, wormwood also has a long magical history. It’s most famous for its reputed psychoactive powers (due to the thujone, perhaps enhanced by alcohol), bringing on visions and vivid dreams (although I’ve never experienced this in drinking it as a tea or in kvass; these days, only thujone-free absinthe is legal in the U.S., so I can’t speak to that, either). If you’re interested in going down this path, please be aware that consuming too much thujone-rich wormwood is toxic -- exercise caution, do your research, and seek out the advice of a qualified herbalist. Wormwood is also included among other herbs for a spell to discover one’s future lover.


I find that wormwood’s most powerful magical use is in spells of purification and protection. We’ve glimpsed this already in its practical value as an insect, parasite, and weed repellent. Archaeologist and folk dancer Elizabeth Wayland Barber confirms this in her excellent book The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. Barber focuses her book mostly on Slavic folk dance and magic, where wormwood is used in wreaths and garlands to protect homes, carried on the person, and in dance rituals.


Wormwood is especially repellent to those whom Barber refers as willies: the rusalki, vilas, and similar feminine fertility spirits of eastern Europe. These beings are both water spirits and the souls of dead, unwed girls. They have a fertility function in folk religion -- bringing the rains that nourish farmland and keep the community healthy --but they can also be dangerous, causing illness, death, and crop-destroying drought. She records a tradition that, when a person is out and about, they should carry a sprig of wormwood with them for protection. Eventually,


“a rusalka will without fail run up and demand, ‘What have you in your hand: wormwood or parsley?’ If you say ‘wormwood,’ she will scream in anger and run on past. At this moment, you must try to throw the herb directly into the rusalka’s eyes. But if you say ‘parsley,’ she will say, ‘Oh my darling!’ and then tickle you until you collapse” (Barber 20).


Tickling might seem a silly threat, but this lighthearted play could eventually kill the victim or drive them mad, according to folklore.


In order to heal victims of the willies, a family member would call on specialized folk healer-dance troupes such as the calusari. The calusari, in order to protect themselves and drive out the willy infection, would carry wormwood and garlic in the sashes of their costumes. They would also place wormwood, one sprig for each member, in a pouch sewn into a flag born by the leader of the troupe. This pouch would also include dittany and iris. The combination of wormwood and garlic, however, seems especially powerful and universal across Slavic cultures. Popular fiction tells us of garlic’s power to repel vampires, and we also know of garlic’s antiseptic and immune-boosting value, making it a natural partner for wormwood.


Recently, I put together an herbal vinegar hair rinse to remove product buildup. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately (so many things), and a little homemade pampering now and then helps to lift my spirits. I steeped some dried wormwood leaves in a cup of hot water, then added a quarter cup of vinegar, ¾ cup cold water, and a few drops of lavender essential oil. It was a pale gold color, thanks to the thujone, and when I poured it over my hair, I felt a cool release of all the tension I’d been carrying with me. I felt lighter, fresher, and brighter inside than I had in weeks. I was purified (and my hair was shinier, more lightweight, and detangled).


Wormwood is a plant for bitter healing, for purging the parasitic thoughts and feelings that latch on and cling to us, for revealing and helping us accept clarifying truths. It soothes the senses and the gut. It’s a plant of protection, borne in pockets and above doors, keeping away what attempts to cause us suffering. It is a powerful member of a magical household. But despite its cool color and softness, it is not one to be taken lightly or overused. Wormwood commands respect, despite its ability to proliferate easily and tolerate drought.


Welcome wormwood, but don’t get too comfortable.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, and spirit worker and traveler. Her work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans and Hagstone Publishing's Stone, Root, and Bone ezine. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  


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