Basil

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,

And she forgot the blue above the trees,

And she forgot the dells where waters run,

And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;

She had no knowledge when the day was done,

And the new morn she saw not: but in peace

Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,

And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

John Keats, “Isabella; Or, The Pot Of Basil: A Story From Boccaccio


History of Basil

Basil is an herb that has a long, somewhat confusing history. Over its more than 5000 year history as a cultivated herb, basil seems to have been both revered and reviled, symbolizing love and peace in some cultures, but hate and mental illness others. Used for its magickal properties of protection, love, and money, as well as its use in pestos, pastas, and pizzas, basil is a unique herb that has a long and storied history that spans the globe.

Soooo Much Basil

Like its cousin mint, basil is a plant that crossbreeds easily. There are many different types of basil that one can cultivate. These include the most widely known, sweet basil, but also anise basil, Cinnamon basil, Purple basil, and Thai basil. Holy basil is another well known species of basil. For our purposes here, basil is basil. Wherever possible I will specify if a myth or folklore belief is aligned with a specific kind of basil, but overall the energies that I’ll be discussing are much the same.

The Kingly Plant

Basil’s official name is Ocimum basilicum. The first half of the scientific name comes from a Greek myth about a man named Ocimus. He is said to have organized combats in honor of a visiting dignitary. When Ocimus was slain by a gladiator during one of these combats, basil where he fell. The word ocimum means “to be fragrant”.

The second half of the name, basilicum, comes from a story about Empress Helene in 326 AD. The legend states that St. Helene went in search of the cross that Jesus was crucified on. She apparently found it, and noticed that underneath it, basil grew in the shape of a cross. She named the plant ‘vasiliki’, meaning “kingly/of the king/royal”. This of morphed into basilicum (very similar to basilica – as in the big religious buildings – St. Peter’s Basilica).

In Latin the plant was called basilicum. Beside the legend above, basil may have been named as such because of its association with being used in making royal perfume. One word that was often confused with basilicum, especially in the middle ages, was basiliscus. For you Harry Potter fans, this word is Latin for basilisk, the legendary serpent who could kill with a single glance. This word meant “little king“, because the basilisk was said to have a marking on its head that resembled a crown. This confusion comes into play later on in some folklore beliefs, but other than the similar nod to ‘king’ or ‘royal’, the plant basil is not associated with the basilisk.

History of Basil

Basil has been around for a long time. It is thought to have originated in India or China over 5000 years ago. It migrated or was intentionally carried west and like most of the other herbs I’ve explored so far, was widely used by the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks.

It is thought that the Egyptians used basil in their embalming procedures, while the Greeks associated it with mourning. Basil was brought to the British Isles relatively late in the game. It wasn’t until the 16th century that it was introduced to the region, and shortly after was introduced to North America by way of the British colonists of who settled in present-day Massachusetts.

Basil in Literature

The quote which opened this post is from John Keats’ poem, Isabella, or the Pot of Basil (1820). His work is based on an even older work, The Decameron (completed 1353) by Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. The tale is morbid and bittersweet. It has the same tone as other works about dead lovers, such as Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare), A Rose for Miss Emily (William Faulkner), and Annabel Lee (Edgar Allen Poe). Let’s just say that in this tale, first comes love, then comes murder, then comes dismemberment…and finally basil! Being watered by tears…then more death. If you’re into this kind of story (which I totally am), you can read the full text by clicking on the title. The point here is that this story shows the many contradictory associates carried with basil. We have undying love and devotion, obsession, but also a lot of sorrow, madness, and death.

 Isabella and the Pot of Basil by William Holman Hunt (1868)

Folk Beliefs about Basil

Folklore surrounding basil is where things get complicated. There are many directly contradictory ideas and associations, making it hard to sort out where or why one belief originated.

First we have the Greeks. Because of basil’s association with the cross of Jesus, Orthodox Greek culture generally frowned upon eating the herb. They do however, view basil as a symbol of fertility and prosperity.

As previously mentioned, basil was erroneously tied to myths about the basilisk. This lead to basil being both carried to ward off basilisk attacks and as an antidote against its venom. This association carried forward in the belief that basil helped with stings or bites from insects/animals.

In Ancient Rome, it was thought that scorpions grew near pots of basil. Somehow this association led to several European herbalists to assert that smelling too much basil would “breed scorpions in the brain”. In Africa however, basil was though to protect against scorpions.

Also in Ancient Rome, basil was sometimes associated with bad luck, poverty, and hate. This is because it was believed that basil would only grow if the person planting the seeds cursed the ground. This practice actually resulted in a French saying “semer le basilic” (to sow the basil), which colloquially means to ‘rant and rave’.

The following are additional folk beliefs and traditions surrounding basil:

  • In Jewish folklore, basil is though to bring strength to those who are fasting.
  • To ward off curses/hexes and keep bugs away
  • To protect the poor
  • To identify chastity (if it withered in a woman’s hands, she was not chaste)
  • Holy Basil (also know as the Tulsi plant) in India is sacred to Hindus and is associated with protection, the goddess Lakshmi, and forgiveness
  • Considered a love token
  • Thought to change into wild thyme when exposed to too much sun
  • Considered poisonous (possibly due to the basilisk association or the observation that it wouldn’t grow next to rue)
  • Used to prepare holy water and placed near altars in some orthodox churches
  • Rumored to have been used in flying ointment for ‘witches’ and therefore astral projection
  • Basil seeds were believed to be aphrodisiacs, and fed to livestock to increase reproduction

Culinary Uses of Basil

I won’t spend too much time here, as basil is widely used and recognizable in cuisine. It is most well known for its addition in sauces, especially tomato based, in pestos, and in salad dressings. Caprese salad is a lovely summer dish that often features raw bail leaves atop fresh mozzarella, tomato slices, and balsamic vinegar.

In Magickal Workings

The magickal properties of basil are many and varied. Here are a few:

  • For love (and eternal love) and fidelity
  • To induce mental clarity and drive away ‘madness’
  • In money workings
  • For astral projection or luck in physical travel
  • To perform aspersion (sprinkle holy water) over a space
  • For protection
  • For peace and harmony

To implement these energies you can do several things in your practice. Follow the old tradition and give miniature pots of basil to important guests to encourage safe travel, or use the herb in a tea for your own attempts at astral travel. Carry a basil leaf (or place one near your ‘cashbox’) to attract money. Use basil in any love spells. You can try it in a tea (here is my Love Blend). You may even wish to plant a basil seed and nurture it as a representation of love growing with a certain person or just in your life in general. Sprinkle basil water around your sacred space or doorways to cleanse and protect. You can always cook a meal with basil and infuse it with your specific intentions. So many uses, so much magickal basil!

Back to Herbal Encyclopedia

Basil Recipe

What else could this week’s recipe be for other than….basil pesto! Yes, I love Caprese Salad and you should try it, but pesto is the quinissential basil dish. Made with a few other ingredients, this pesto is full of basily goodness and will help you connect to the slightly spicy, aromatic, sort-of-sweet energies of the magnificent herb basil.

The Very Best Basil Pesto

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