Tuesday, 1 January 2013

What Did Ancient Herbalists Use Mugwort For and How Did They Prepare It?

Happy New Year! With the new year comes a new herbal ally. Here's task 1 with ancient and some not so ancient past uses and modern day uses are to come in the future.

My chosen ally for 2013 is Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris. I felt last year that I’d chosen the wrong ally, mugwort seemed to be all around saying “look at me” so I’m taking notice. Before I started my apprenticeship I didn’t know what mugwort looked like and I was so surprised to find that it was growing along the drive to my house, the road I live on and all along the road side up to our local high street. As I’ve prepared for this task I’ve also found out it was an ancient and sacred herb and has many more uses than I’d ever realised.

Mugwort showing the silvery undersides of the leaves

Names for Mugwort
Mugwort, Artisima Vulgaris, On Foot, Felon herb, St. John’s herb, Moxa, Cingulum Sancti Johannis, Motherwort, Cronewort, Artimisia, Witch herb, Old Man, Old Uncle Harry, Muggons, Sailors’ Tobacco, Mugger, Smotherwort, Maiden wort, Muggins

History of Mugwort
The history of the name mugwort gives clues to its old uses but there is not agreement on where it is derived from.
Mug = maybe a drink flavouring (as in mug/cup) or from the French Moughte, meaning moth or maggot as it wards off moths or Muggi from the Norse for a swampy habitat. Mucgwyrt (old English) is suggested to mean Midge Wort which attracts midges (Stephen Pollington).
Wort= plant
Artemisia= from the Greek goddess Artemis, goddess of the moon. The moon association may come from the use of mugwort with women for helping regulate menstruation and in childbirth or from the silvery undersides of the leaves.
Vulgaris= common

In Holland and Germany one of its names is St. John’s Herb as it was gathered on St. John’s Eve to protect against disease and misfortune.
It was known as Sailor’s Tobacco as used by sailors at sea when they had run out of tobacco.
The name Felon Plant comes from its use to draw out pus from a felon or purulent infection at the end of a finger or toe.
Matthew Wood says tenth century Aemilius Macer said Motherwort was the original name and mother refers to the uterus or womb.
Susun Weed calls it cronewort, finding it useful for ladies after child-bearing age.

Mugwort Through History

Mugwort is said in the Nine Herbs Charm to be the “oldest of plants”.
In an old English herbarium it is described how Diana discovered mugwort’s and 2 other plants powers and gave them to Chiron the centaur who made the first remedy from these plants and named them Artemis after Diana.
Since antiquity the roots have been used for epilepsy, stimulating digestion, nausea and halitosis. It is known to deter moths and used to protect clothes from them.

From the early Iron Age (500BCE) remains of beer making activity exist at Eberdingen-Hochdorf in Germany including charred barley and henbane seeds. Archeobotanist Dr Stika believes the early Celtic beer recipe contained Mugwort seeds and Mugwort was added to beer in Medieval times. Hops were not used until 800CE.

I’ve seen suggestions that mugwort was used in smoke sacrifices for Isis in Egyptian times.

The Greek Dioscorides stated that the Goddess Artemis was the inspiration for the genus name. He used a decoction in the bath for bringing on women’s periods. Galen had classed mugwort as a warming herb, having a heating effect to the second degree.

Roman soldiers are said to have put mugwort in their sandals to stop their feet getting tired and there are numerous other references through the ages to mugwort being a herb for travellers to prevent fatigue. The Roman Pliny the Elder said of it “the wayfaring man that hath the herb tied about him feeleth no weariness at all and he can never be hurt by any poisonous medicine, by any wild beast, neither yet by the sun itself”.

Chinese hung sprigs in doorways to ward off disease and used it as a rheumatism medicine. The pale down from the underside of leaves is used in moxibustion and in other areas as tinder for starting fires.

Native Americans are said to have used it for smudge, a spiritually cleansing herb. It is said to have been used to keep away spirits, sometimes worn on a necklace.

A mugwort smudge stick  made by me

In the tenth century we get the Anglo-Saxon 9 Herb Charm from the Lacnunga manuscript, a charm using herbs and magic to treat poison and infection. The charm frequently uses the magical numbers 3 and 9 and contains reference to the God Woden.

Remember, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you arranged at the Great proclamation.
You were called Una, the oldest of herbs,
you have power against three and against thirty,
you have power against poison and against contagion,
you have power against the loathsome foe roving through the land

To use the remedy you had to recite the charm 3 times over each of the 9 herbs, 3 times over the mouth of the recipient, 3 times over the patient’s ears and 3 times over the injury or wound. The herbs were ground, mixed with soap and apple juice. then a paste was made of water and ash that was boiled with fennel and added to the mixture and then applied.
Cameron (1993) suggests the chanting gave psychological support to the patient.

Other Anglo-Saxon Medical manuscripts regarding mugwort suggest:
·         Pound mugwort root, blend it with honey when cold and use against evil and great foot swellings
·         Pick before sunrise with a magical invocation and it should be hallowed with the sign of the cross as it’s picked
·         Midges are attracted to its fragrance
·         It protects the house from harmful spirits
·         It was used as a stimulant to prevent weariness in travellers
·         Mugwort in “new beer” was good for stomach pain

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) cooked mugwort puree for ailing intestines and made a paste of honey and mugwort for abscesses.

Hildegard of Bingen from Catholicworldreport.com

In the thirteenth century a Welsh herbal remedy collection, The Physicians of Myddfai, instructed that when a woman had difficulty giving birth one should bind mugwort to her left thigh but be sure to remove it straight after to prevent haemorrhage.

In Medieval witchcraft mugwort is thought to have been seen as lucky and used to be able to recall dreams. Helium.com say mugwort juice was put onto scrying instruments to aid clairvoyance in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Seventeenth century herbalist John Gerard gave mugwort uses as a cure for epilepsy and palsy and as an insect and moth repellent.

Culpepper said that mugwort is a herb of Venus and maintains the parts of the body she rules and is a remedy to diseases of parts under her signs: Taurus and Libra. I have found a couple of websites with some information on medical astrology; Aquamoonlight and Homeoint

Dygges 1555 illustration from Homeoint.org

Culpepper used hot decoctions to bring on menstruation, help delivery and expel the afterbirth. He also uses mugwort for kidney stones, in an ointment for neck pain, powdered in wine for sciatica and as a fresh juice or herb for opium overdoses.

Eighteenth century Spanish herbalist Diego de Torres placed a mugwort plaster below the navel to induce labour.

In European cookery mugwort was used to season fatty meat such as goose and oily fish such as eel to make it more digestible. It is known to help digestion and bile production.

Mrs Grieve says that mugwort tea used to be drunk as a tea substitute in Cornwall when tea was too expensive. She also says that leaves should be collected in August and roots dug up in Autumn. The roots can be air dried for 10 days, and then need gentle artificial heat until they are dry to the core and brittle.

Motherearthliving.com interestingly relate the shape of the leaves being “claw like” to their keeping evil spirits away.

In Japan mugwort is made into Gomogi Mochi, traditionally given to stop post-partum bleeding and promote lactation. It now seems to be made as a sweet and there's an art to making it!

Recently William LeSassier (1948-2003) considered mugwort to be suited to “weak sensitive women who have been through abuse, poverty, obstetric injury, difficult pregnancies, and abortions with scar tissue in the womb” (Matthew Wood).

The mermaid of the Clyde is said to have exclaimed, when she beheld the funeral of a young maiden who had died from consumption and decline:--
"If they wad drink nettles in March, And eat muggins [Mugwort] in May, Sae mony braw young maidens Wad na' be gang to clay."
This was taken from a free ebook by Fernie (1897) that's full of old uses and folklore but was modern in its day, I love free books!
I love the name Muggins, I think Muggins and I are going to have a good year, I hope you do too.

Cameron, Malcolm Laurence (1993). Anglo-Saxon Medicine. Cambridge University Press.
Fernie, W.T. (1897) Herb Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure. Philadelphia. Boericke and Tafel
Franklin, Anna and Lavender, Susan (1996) Herb Craft: A Guide to the Shamanic and Ritual Use of Herbs. Berkshire. Capall Bann
Pollington, Stephen (2000) Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing. Norfolk. Anglo-Saxon Books
Wood, Matthew (2008). The Earthwise Herbal. Berkeley. North Atlantic Books


  1. Brilliant article, Jackie, thank you so much for sharing!

  2. How interesting the Physicians of Myddfai recommend removing it to prevent haemorrhage while the Japanese are recommending it to prevent the same thing basically. Cool video! Thanks for sharing the great websites and all this information, Jackie. Absolutely wonderful xx

  3. Fantastic article. In Tibb medicine its used with myrrh and thyme to fumigate homes. I really enjoyed reading your article.