Magical Herbs: Superstitions of Lavender and Rosemary

As a cat, my favourite herb is catnip. But if I had to pick a second and third favourite, it would be lavender and rosemary. These herbs, common in the Mediterranean region, are known primarily for their culinary or medicinal uses – but they are also the source of many magical superstitions.

A botanical illustration of French Lavender.
French Lavender plate illustration, from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell (1739)
A botanical illustration of Rosemary.
Rosemary plate illustration, from A Curious Herbal by Elizabeth Blackwell (1739)

The popularity of lavender may have begun in Ancient Greece or Rome. As such, it has been suggested that the etymology of the word comes from the Latin lividus, denoting something of a blueish colour – but also, lavare which means to wash. The latter is more widely accepted, as it is believed that the Romans used the herb via infusions for scented baths or in the process of washing clothes. Granted, many of us have probably been introduced to lavender as a familiar aroma in our grandparents’ garments, since it can be dried, sealed in pouches and placed in wardrobes to prevent the proliferation of moths. More recently, its soothing scent has been paramount to the sleeping industry, with lavender essential oils used as ingredients for sleeping balms and other stress-relieving cosmetics.

Regarding uses of the superstitious kind, placing lavender in drawers with clothes is said to attract love. Likewise, placing it under a pillow overnight may help you manifest your dreams. For this purpose, you will have to make a wish before going to sleep, and by morning, if you remember dreaming about that wish, then it means it will come true. Considering that the medicinal properties of lavender are meant to be calming and relaxing, expecting lovers to be attracted to its scent and having it on pillows isn’t that much of a surprise.

But other interesting beliefs have been noted, such as to counter the effects of the evil eye in young children, wearing it on your lapel as a deterrent against witches and evil spirits, or my own personal favourite: carrying it in your pockets to see ghosts, as observed in this flowerbed at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.

Flowerbed with lavender outside the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. A slate sign next to the flowers says: "carry lavender to see ghosts". There is a slug resting on the sign.
Flowerbed with lavender outside the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall. Photo credit: Superstition Sam.

Together with lavender (as well as sage and thyme), rosemary is another herb that has been used since at least 5000 BCE. Christian parables have claimed that rosemary received its current name from the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt, after shading Mary and Jesus from the heat. God then named the herb after Mary, turning its delicate flowers into the same shade as her blue cloak.

Rosemary is widely favoured for its culinary uses, especially in Mediterranean cuisine. Eating with a spoon made of its wood is said to make even the blandest of foods taste delicious! Though it is also known as “the herb of remembrance” and used in burial wreaths. In northern England, it was once considered rude to attend a funeral without carrying it, hence boxes would be placed near the door for mourners to pick up sprigs as they entered the house. William Shakespeare noted rosemary’s association with honouring the dead in Ophelia, as she offers it to Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” A Catalan tale called The Sprig of Rosemary also tells us of a princess using rosemary to cure her lover’s memory loss.

Rosemary’s links with the mind translate as beliefs that burning it may help you receive knowledge or an answer to an important question, or that by carrying it, you may attain success in all your tasks. But as we saw in my previous article last month, it can be also protective – especially against witches, who may feel the urgency to stay and count all the leaves in a rosemary bush planted by your front door before attempting to enter your house. Then, there is also the superstition that dropping crushed rosemary leaves into a beer keg will prevent all who drink from it from getting drunk! Is that supposed to be protective or to keep the mind sharp? You decide!

A close-up photo of many sprigs of rosemary pilled up.
Photo of rosemary sprigs – by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

What other superstitions have you heard about lavender and rosemary? Please let us know by tagging us on Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #SuperstitionSat!

Thank you for reading!
– Superstition Sam 🐾

Further reading:
Dictionary of Plant Lore, by D.C. Watts (Elsevier, 2007)
Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham (Llewellyn, 2012)
Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, by Thomas Bartram (Robinson, 2015)
The Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpeper (1850 Edition)