Perhaps the most well-known and enduring of all legends surrounding the herb rosemary is that which holds that, when the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s edict initiating the Massacre of the Innocents, Mary spread her robe over a rosemary bush while she rested beside it, turning hitherto white flowers blue. This in turn led to a belief that the name derived from “the rose of Mary” but it was in fact dubbed ros maris by Pliny the Elder [23-79 AD], which means “dew of the sea” owing to its propensity to grow freely on the rocky Mediterranean coast. A variation on this theme is that it was so named by Spanish sailors who could smell the herb from a long distance when approaching their journey’s end.
“As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.” – Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray you love, remember: Hamlet, Act IV, Scene V – William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Rosemary has been associated with remembrance for millennia. The ancient Egyptians placed sprigs in tombs. The association of rosemary with memory and clarity of thought led to Greek scholars wearing head garlands of rosemary to assist them in their studies. Even today rosemary is worn by Australians and New Zealanders on Anzac Day to honour the soldiers who fell at Gallipolli in the First World War.
During the Middle Ages rosemary was frequently associated with love and marriage and a sprig was traditionally tucked into the bridal bouquet or wreath, supposedly to help the couple remember their marriage vows and gold-dipped were presented to the guests as a memento of the occasion.
Before the bridal pair drank at the wedding feast, sprigs of rosemary were dipped into the wine as a charm to ensure their happiness and their continued love. Another popular custom was to plant a rosemary tree on the wedding day.
If a girl placed a sprig of rosemary and a silver sixpence under her pillow on All Hallows’ Eve she would dream of her future husband and if she set a plate of flour under a rosemary bush on Midsummer Eve, she would find his initials traced in the flour the next morning.
A bride would present her husband with a sprig of rosemary to ensure his faithfulness; their bed linen would be strewn with rosemary for the same purpose.
Rosemary was also employed to ward off evil spirits and witchcraft and at the height of the Black Plague the demand for the herb caused the price over rosemary to rise to over six times its normal price and this was probably due to both the belief that it had the properties of keeping evil at bay and also for its unmistakeable aroma, which was believed to guard against the spread of germs.
In modern times rosemary is still widely used as a culinary herb, as a hair rinse and to relieve headaches and shows no sign of losing its popularity.
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