Magical Combination: Herbs, Spices, Celtic Folklore, and Recipes
This past Wednesday, November 1st, was the ancient fire festival of Samhain. It marks the beginning of winter and the start of the new year (on the Celtic calendar). According to Celtic folklore, it is a time of powerful magic. So, I thought it’d be fun to mark the occasion with a celebration of the magic Celtic folklore attributes to certain herbs and spices. My list is far from exhaustive. I’ve chosen just a few herbs (and a handful of spices), most of which are probably in your spice cabinet. Plus, I’ve included some recipes to help you enjoy these magical ingredients. Wishing you enchanted eating, here’s the list.
It’s autumn and, here in the U.S., that means it’s the season for warm spices: cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger. Celtic folklore refers to them as the red spices. They get the blood going. They’re good for the heart, but not just in a physiological way. The red spices, according to the lore, incite passion and attract love and romance. That’s what all these spices have in common, but each one has its own special magic. So, let’s explore.
Allspice: Allspice is said to be a protective and healing herb. They also attract luck (hopefully the good kind). In addition, the lore claims this spice attracts money and can help you find treasure. Finally, it is energizing and can boost your determination. So, if you find yourself running low on energy during the holiday season, it’s time to add this spice to your life!
Cinnamon: Considered a powerful herb, cinnamon is said to aid in making one powerful and successful. Even better, it provides personal protection. Cinnamon strengthens you and heightens your passion. Of course, as one of the red herbs, it attracts love and romance. The lore also says this spice brings prosperity. It’s also associated with psychic power—which may explain some of its other attributes.
Clove: Speaking of powerful herbs, this spice is little but mighty. In addition to its known health benefits (see my post Pumpkin Spice Sprinkled with Celtic Folklore for details), the spice, according to Celtic folklore, is said to give mental clarity and bring friendship to you. And since it’s so powerful, the lore recommends wearing clove for protection.
Ginger: A renowned remedy for nausea and other digestive issues, ginger is another red spice associated with passion. Celtic folklore claims this herb increases sensuality. Like cinnamon, ginger is said to increase success and prosperity. It also attracts new adventures, boosts confidence, increases feistiness, and makes you feel ready for anything. Rest assured you’ll be well-armed for whatever comes your way because the herb, according to the lore, provides protection and healing. Time for some gingerbread!
Nutmeg: Celtic folklore considers nutmeg a lucky charm. Carry a berry in your pocket for luck. Like others on this list, nutmeg is said to provide protection and to attract money and prosperity. But unique to this spice, the lore claims nutmeg is particularly effective in breaking hexes.
Any American reading the combination of spices above will likely think of one food in particular: pumpkin pie! But these spices are wonderful in so many foods, both sweet and savory. And they can be used singly or in any combination. Here are a couple ideas to consider:
Pork Chops with Apples (uses allspice, thyme, and sage):
Spiced Carrots Cooked in white wine and spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.
Gingerbread Cake (ginger, cinnamon, and cloves)
Click here for a whole lot more recipes (at the bottom of my pumpkin spice post)
Chamomile: The plant has several uses in folk medicine and magic. Drinking a mixture of chamomile and peppermint in a tea is said to be to relieve headaches. Adding rose to chamomile tea is listed as a cure for sadness. Celtic folklore also claims that drinking a cup of chamomile tea will give one the strength to persevere.
Elderberry: The druids classified the elder tree as sacred. It is believed to be an entrance to the faerie world. Associated with protection, the elder tree was thought to have banishing powers. There may be something to this. Scientific studies have shown that Sambucol, an extract made from the tree’s berries, is effective in fighting off both cold and flu viruses. Additionally, clinical studies have shown that taking elderberry syrup can reduce the symptoms of colds and influenza and decrease the duration of those illnesses to 2-4 days. Hmm.
Lavender: In folklore, lavender is mainly associated with romance. Young single women traditionally placed lavender flowers under their pillows in order to dream of their true love. The lore claims that lavender is a favorite flower of the faeries and is thought to attract them. Although Americans tend to associate this herb with bath products, Europeans have used it in food for centuries and, when used in small amounts, it can be quite lovely in both sweet and savory dishes. Check out lavender shortbread cookies from the website “Grateful Prayer Thankful Heart,” then head over to the Martha Stewart article “20 Brilliant Ways to Use Lavender in Your Recipes.”
Mint: The first thing to say is that “mint” is a generic term. There are three main mints: peppermint, spearmint, and wintergreen. Each has a distinctive taste, and each has its own magical properties.
Peppermint: Folklore lists peppermint as a sleep aid. Perhaps this is because its aroma tends to make one feel good. Peppermint also, according to folklore, increases one’s psychic powers.
Spearmint: This mint aids in healing and in obtaining love. Like peppermint, spearmint can provide a good night’s rest. The reason? It is said to protect you while you sleep.
Wintergreen: This mint also is recommended as a sleep aid, again for a specific reason, one that will help while you’re awake too. Wintergreen, according to the lore, relieves anxiety and banishes fear.
While mint may call to mind ice cream, chewing gum, and cough drops, it is a great addition to food as well—and not just to top a dessert. Try adding chopped mint leaves to carrots or peas or toss it in a salad for a taste sensation that’s a wonderful pick-me-up.
Speaking of mint, botanically, the mint family’s pretty big and has some members that may surprise you. I’m talking about rosemary, sage, and thyme. Yes, they are in the family! Ironically, although mint above is so strongly associated with calmness and sleep, Celtic folklore connects rosemary and thyme to mental acuity. In medieval times, mint was associated with remembering, and today, scientific studies have shown that sage increases alertness and improves memory. Rosemary has been shown to improve the memory and cognitive awareness of young adults. According to folklore, these herbs also have some pretty cool magical qualities.
Rosemary: In addition to improving mental powers and inducing sleep, rosemary, according to folklore, can heal, protect, and purify. The herb is considered excellent for attracting love and was used in wedding bouquets. Because of its association with remembering, rosemary also was used in burial wreaths.
Sage: This is a healing herb. In fact, the fairy doctors of Irish folk medicine and their Welsh and Scottish counterparts, the cunning folk, considered sage a cure-all. Sage also was used to reverse spells and curses, and during purification rituals.
Thyme: This herb hasn’t gotten much attention from the contemporary medical community, but Celtic folklore attributed a number of qualities to it. The lore says it’s a good sleep aid (naturally, it’s a mint!) because it wards off nightmares. But there’s more to this herb. It is said to attract loyalty, affection, and even romantic love. The folklore claims thyme is good for banishing evil spirits and negative forces. This explains why it was used for purification rituals. Perhaps its best quality: it is said to help to ease unbearable grief and provide strength and courage.
These three herbs are used most often as poultry seasonings and most Americans associate them with Thanksgiving. These herbs flavor both the turkey and the stuffing. But they’re great on pork too! Also, rosemary and thyme can liven up bread and scone recipes, and consider sprinkling some on root vegetables before roasting them.
Stinging Nettle: Stinging nettle grows abundantly across Ireland and the British Isles. The Celts found a variety of uses for it in traditional medicine. Clinical studies have shown that it does indeed have several health benefits. Celtic folklore considers it a protective herb and one that is helpful if you’ve gotten on the wrong side of a witch. According to folklore, stinging nettle protects against danger and evil, especially witchcraft. Additionally, it was used to remove curses and boomerang them back to the one who sent the curse.
A traditional Irish preparation of stinging nettle is a hearty and delicious soup. Click here for a recipe.
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Slán go fóill
All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.