Love, Hate, and Severed Heads – the Secret Life of Basil
Many herbs have stories, and basil has more than most. The name derives from the Greek basileus, which means kingly or royal. Associated with love potions, angry monsters, and tales of romantic tragedy (and decapitation), basil’s legend goes far beyond pesto.
Basil is associated with the masculine, Mars, fire, and Scorpio. It is a culinary herb and also a strewing herb, valued for its scent. As an inhalant, it stimulates the intellect. As an incense, it invokes the presence of astral and mythological creatures and gives strength to pursue positive expansion, releasing fear associated with spiritual growth. Traditional health uses vary. It is used in folk medicine to treat fevers, and there is some investigation being done on treatment for herpes-related conditions like shingles.
Basil is used cosmetically for brightening the complexion. Sweet basil oil (Ocimum basilicum) is used in perfumes and also in a scalp massage to stimulate healthy hair growth.
According to the Ancient World—or at least the Greco-Roman segment thereof—basil was associated with anger and insanity. Perhaps this comes from its association with scorpions, salamanders, and also the basilisk, a dragon-esque creature that could kill with a glare. Given all the cranky crawlies, it’s a good thing basil was reputed to draw the poison from venomous bites.
It’s hard to say when the humble herb moved from angry lizards to love potions, but by the Middle Ages a sprig of basil became a love token and a means of attracting wealth. It was also said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion—further evidence of its ability to repel evil—and in some regions was planted on graves. In India, holy basil (Tulsi) is used for purification and protection.
Basil’s twin spirits of love and hate twine together in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a 14th Century collection of Italian tales. Many know the story from John Keats’s 1818 poem retelling the story. In a nutshell (or herb pot), lovely young Isabella is destined for an advantageous marriage but falls in love with a handsome servant named Lorenzo. Furious, her brothers murder the young man. Guided by the ghost of her dead lover, Isabella digs up his body, chops off his head, and buries it in a pot of basil. There, she can water it with her tears and waste away in fine tragic fashion.
For such a grim tale, it inspired a wealth of lovely pre-Raphaelite art, like this painting by William Holman Hunt.
Common garden basil is native to India and flowers in high summer. I’ve never found basil easy to grow indoors. It loves heat, but not too much; rich soil, but not too much richness; and exactly the right amount of water. A bright windowsill is good, but be careful not to introduce other plants nearby. I had a thriving pot of globe basil until I left a planter of cat grass beside it just long enough to deposit a swarm of pesto-loving aphids. The best home-grown basil I ever saw lived in a compost box beneath a tent of plastic that kept the cold dew off the leaves. There, the plants grew to a Jurassic size I’ve never been able to replicate.
Check this blog for my pesto recipe.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: herbal medicines should be prepared and taken under the supervision of a trained professional (and that does not include me or this blog).
I consulted quite a few sources for this blog, but here are the main ones:
Easley, Thomas, and Steven Horne. The Modern Herbal Dispensatory. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016.
Beyerl, Paul. The Master Book of Herbalism. Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing Inc., 1984.
Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal. London: Tiger Books International, 1992.
Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, 2nd edition. Woodbury, Minnesota Llewellyn Publications, 2020.
Rose, Jeanne The Aromatherapy Book: Applications & Inhalations Berkeley, California, 1992