What do you know about basil? It’s a popular herb well loved for pesto, pasta sauce, Thai curries and a multitude of other delectable recipes. Nutritionally, basil is a good source of vitamin A and contributes flavanoids and antioxidants to the diet. There are over 30 distinct and intensely aromatic varieties, even if chocolate basil isn’t one of them. You can usually find it on any Top Ten Herbs list. It’s one of the first herbs I think of when I start planning my potential garden. But what about its history? What did people use it for long before any of us tasted it?
Apparently they mostly fought about what it was for and whether it was good or not.
The first recorded mention of basil, in records dated to pre-206 B.C.E, states that it “exists only to drive men insane.” For the Greeks, and later the Romans, basil was associated with hatred. To grow, it had to be sown with swearing and ranting. However, basil later became a symbol of love in Italy, to the point that Giovanni Boccaccio used it to symbolize the tragic love between Lisabetta and Lorenzo in The Decameron. Sicilian folklore associates it with both love and death, and in Moldavian folklore a young man who accepts basil from a young woman will fall in love with her.
Basil has been used as a symbol of both love and hate.
Photo by John Schilling/ Courtesy Flickr
Europe in general is rather conflicted on the subject of basil. Culpeper called it “the Herb which all Authors are together by the Ears about, and rail at one another like Lawyers.” Parkinson’s 17th century herbal says it can “procure a cheerful and merry heart” while Culpeper’s links it to poison through the observation of its effects in drawing venom out of wounds and the proclamation that “like draws to like.” He even goes so far as to say that basil can generate scorpions, possibly even inside someone’s skull. This scorpion connection is often linked to the Greek story of the basilisk, which in turn is linked to basil in the name basilicum. In some folklore, basil is said to have been used to ward off both the look and bite of this king of serpents.
Perhaps reflecting the plant’s conflicted history, the Victorian language of flowers has two meaning for basil: common basil signifies hatred and sweet basil conveys the sender’s best wishes.
Basil has religious significance, too. In India, holy basil (called Tulsi) is a sacred plant associated with Vishnu and Tulasi, another tangled love story with several variations. The Hindu tradition associates holy basil with purification, protection, love and eternal life, and it is used in burial rituals. Basil is also associated with the voodoo love goddess Erzuli and is recorded as being used in love spells for divination and ensuring faithfulness. Other European magical uses include carrying a sprig of basil in your pocket to bring wealth, sprinkling it on the floor to ward off evil and setting it near doors and cash registers to attract customers. In the Christian tradition, basil is said to have grown at the site of Christ’s crucifixion and is part of the St. Basil feast day celebrations in Greece on January 1st.
Tulsi is a sacred symbol of protection, love and purification in the Hindu tradition.
Photo by Visai/ Courtesy Flickr
Today, we mostly use basil in food, and we seem to have determined that we like it no matter what significance it holds. Cooked or raw, there are a multitude of ways to eat this herb and a wide variety of flavors to explore. Herb encyclopedias note that it can also be used medicinally to ease headaches, sore throats, coughs and nausea and to decrease nervous tension. As a member of the mint family, it’s useful in assuaging digestive complaints. It’s also reputed to bring out your hair’s natural luster. Topically, basil seeds have antibacterial properties.