History of Yarrow
Perhaps one of the oldest herbs on the planet, yarrow is a plant that has long been associated with spirits, protection, and healing. Used by Neanderthals and modern herbalists alike, yarrow has connected people to the spirit realm for centuries. It has a reputation for helping heal soldiers’ wounds and breaking fevers, among other medicinal powers. Yarrow is one of the definitive witch’s herbs, used for love, divination, aura cleansing, and so much more. Let’s explore the history and magick of yarrow.
An Ancient Herb
Way back in my first blog post (and first episode of Herbal Witchery) I referenced the Shanidar Cave burial site. This Neanderthal burial site is located in Iraq and is though to be more than 50,000 years old. In the bigger scheme of things, the discoveries at this site are massive and important, but what is fascinating for this post is that pollen from a few plants was found there, yarrow being one of them. Now sure, many plants have been around since this time, but only a few, including yarrow, were found here. And what’s more interesting, is that many researches believe that this site tells us that Neanderthals buried their dead with funeral rites involving flowers or herbs of importance and that these herbs were believed to have special significance or spiritual powers. This is the first appearance we have of yarrow in the span of human history, making it one of the most ancient spiritually significant herbs in existence.
In addition to this, yarrow was found on the teeth of a Neanderthal skull in El Sidrón cave in Spain. The researchers determined there was no reason for them to have eaten yarrow other than to self-medicate. Yarrow is fairly bitter, but it is known to help with toothaches (among many other medicinal uses as we’ll see below), so the scientists determined that they were using yarrow for this purpose.
From just these two examples, we can decipher that yarrow is an ancient herb, one whose uses and associations have remained mostly unchanged over time. As we will see, yarrow has remained in use, both spiritually and medicinally, in these same ways since this ancient era.
Yarrow’s Many, Many Names
Yarrow is an herb of many names and the history behind those names is fascinating. The official Latin name is Achillea millefolium, which means Achilles’ Thousand-Leaved herb. This scientific name was given in the 18th century, and was chosen because of yarrow’s association with the Greek hero Achilles. The myth says that Achilles used yarrow to treat soldier’s wounds on the battlefield. It is said that he learned to use this plant from the centaur Chiron. Another myth says that yarrow was formed from the rust of Achilles’ spear. (Fun myth, but this post does an amazing job of explaining why this association is not as solid as may have been thought). The millefolium portion of the name means “thousand-leaved”, referring to the herb’s green leaves, which are feathery and very numerous.
The English name yarrow comes from Old English “gearwe” (Dutch gerwe/yerw and Old High German garawa). This word also relates to the Yarrow River – whose name’s etymology is…hard to pinpoint. From Wikipedia:
The name Yarrow is obscure, and there are multiple explanations as to the origin of the name. It may have the same origin as the River Yarrow in Selkirkshire in Scotland, and therefore be derived from the Brittonic element garw, meaning “rough, harsh, rugged, uncultivated”… it may also be related to the River Arrow in Warwickshire and derived either from Brittonic *ar, an ancient river-name element implying either horizontal motion, “flowing”, or else “rising” or “springing up”… A relationship with the River Arrow in the Welsh marches is also possible, deriving therefore from a form of Brittonic arɣant, meaning “silver, white, bright”.Wikipedia entry on the River Yarrow
It may seem like alot of information, but I think that it shows us just how old yarrow is. There is a mystery to the word ‘yarrow’. Any one of those associations can also be tied to the yarrow herb. Yarrow was featured in seven recipes in the Lacnunga (see pg 353 of this resource), so whether the name for a river or an herb, yarrow featured prominently in Anglo Saxon culture.
Yarrow also goes by many common names, such as: yarroway, staunchweed, knight’s milfoil, soldier’s woundwort, bloodwort, herbe militaris, bad man’s plaything, devil’s nettle, devil’s plaything, old man’s pepper, field hop, carpenter’s weed, death flower, eerie hundred leave grass, old man’s mustard, seven-year’s love, snake’s grass, and Nose Bleed, and in the American Southwest it is referred to as plumajillo, or “little feather nettle”. Many of these names refer to the plant’s ability to stop (or start) bleeding, its pungent, peppery smell, or its association with witchcraft.
Medicinal Uses for Yarrow
Yarrow’s reputation as a medicinal herb is vast. Yarrow is native to basically the entire globe, and is used in Ayurvedic, Chinese Traditional, and Native American medicine, as well as European herbal medicine. Some specifics are listed below:
- to repel insects
- as an astringent
- as an anti-inflammatory agent
- to cure hemorrhoids
- to induce sweating (a diaphoretic)
- to treat gastrointestinal disorders
- Navajo considered it a “life medicine” – used it or toothaches and earaches
- Miwok used it as a head cold remedy and analgesic
- Plains Indians used it for pain relief
- Cherokee drink tea as fever reducer and restful sleep inducer
- Zuni use it before fire-walking, and to apply on burns
- Ojibwe inhale the smoke to treat headaches, or smoke it to break fevers
- to treat hemorrhaging
- as a diuretic
- heal skin wounds/burns and stop bleeding
- as a mild sedative for anxiety
Something to keep in mind is that yarrow, like any herb, can be harmful, especially if used incorrectly. Pregnant or nursing women shouldn’t use yarrow internally, it is related to ragweed and can cause allergic reactions, and it is TOXIC to dogs, cats, and horses.
There is also no shortage to yarrow folklore. Yarrow was connected to both Venus and the Horned God, meaning it was often associated with love. It was thought to guarantee love for seven years when hung above the matrimonial bed. It was also used to divine a future love. This is seen in some British and Irish practices where a young maiden would use yarrow to get a glimpse of her true love, by repeating one of the versions of the rhyme below:
Yarrow, sweet yarrow, the first that I have found,
in the name of Jesus Christ, I pluck it from the ground;
As Joseph loved sweet Mary, and took her for his dear,
so in a dream this night, I hope, my true love will appear.
Green ‘arrow, green ‘arrow, you bears a white blow,
If my love love me, my nose will bleed now;
If my love don’t love me, it ‘on’t bleed a drop,
If my love do love me, ’twill bleed every drop.
Good morrow, good yarrow, good morrow to thee,
I hope by the yarrow my lover to see;
And that he may be married to me.
The colour of his hair and the clothes he does wear,
And if he be for me may his face be turned to me,
And if he be not, dark and surely may he be,
And his back be turned toward me.
Thou pretty herb of Venus’ tree,
Thy true name is yarrow;
Now who my bosom friend may be,
Pray tell thou me to-morrow.
It was also associated with friendship love- helping to attract friends, refresh stale relationships, and also to set boundaries between friends (an element to healthy relationships).
Yarrow is also associated with clairvoyance and psychic ability in British folklore. It was believed if you held the leaf of yarrow to your eye you would receive psychic visions. In Scotland, rubbing your eyelids with yarrow flowers can bring prophetic dreams. Yarrow tea is thought to bring psychic insight.
In Chinese folklore, yarrow stalks have been used open the superconscious mind in casting and interpreting the I Ching. It is considered lucky, to promote intelligence, and it is rumored to grow on Confucius’ grave. Apparently there is a traditional saying that says “wherever yarrow grows, one need not fear wild feasts or poisonous plants”, this ties into the next point, which is that yarrow is thought of as a protection herb.
Yarrow was thought to be a protective herb against fairies and other supernatural forces. It was worn as such amulets and charm bags. It was also sometimes used in exorcisms to call and banish the devil.
A few random facts about yarrow: it is often used in butterfly gardens, it is food for many different bugs, and birds often use it in their nests, which has been shown to prevent parasitic infestations. It has also been used in gruit, a type of beer that used bitter herbs before the 14th century in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium.
There are also some beautiful poems written about yarrow. I’ve included another one by Archibald Lampman, a Canadian poet below. You may also want to check out the Yarrow River poems by William Wordsworth, (lots of sorrow and lost love etc. There are actually a few poems here, Yarrow Unvisited, Yarrow Visited, and Yarrow Revisited).
In Magickal Workings
The magickal properties of yarrow are ancient and line up with many of the folklore beliefs and healing properties we’ve seen thus far. Here are a few types of magick yarrow is used in:
- Healing old wounds
- Clarity of purpose, especially in creative endeavors
- Protection and shielding
- During divination or psychic exploration
- To cleanse the aura
- Love spells, especially for lasting love or friendship
- To purify spaces and intentions
To put some of these magickal properties into action you can do many spells or workings. Keep yarrow on your altar when doing shadow work or drink yarrow tea; this will remind you that healing takes time and to be patient while you do the work. Drink yarrow tea (I make a beautiful Psychic Tea with yarrow as a main ingredient) before bed to bring prophetic dreams or just before divination to connect to the spiritual realm. Put yarrow in a container under your pillow to dream of future loves or hang it in a decorative manner over your bed to increase the longevity of your relationship. Put yarrow in a sachet or charm bag for any of the above purposes. Use yarrow stalks if you practice I Ching divination also. There are many different ways to use yarrow in your magickal practice, just be creative and connect your intention to the energies of the herb!
For this week’s recipe, I’ve decided to give you two like I did with Calendula. Yarrow is much more widely known for its healing properties than its inclusion in food, most likely because it is fairly bitter. As mentioned above, it was used extensively as an alternative to hops in ‘gruit’, so you’re getting a beer/ale recipe here! I have not made this, and it seems a little complicated, however I know some of you will be up to the challenge and I’d love to hear about it. The second recipe is really simple and it is for a yarrow salve that you can use for a multitude of small problems. Enjoy!