As Twelfth Night dawned this week, I’m sure most of you will have taken down your tree and packed away your decorations for another year. It has been a festive season like no other, but I hope you managed to enjoy whatever you decided to do and however you decided to mark the start of 2021.
If you are someone who enjoys using natural greenery to create your decorations, then you will no doubt be familiar with holly, ivy and mistletoe, but once upon a time it was the herb rosemary that was at the top of the tree in terms of festive décor.
It was believed to possess many qualities, some mythical, and others more practical. In medieval times, it was spread across the floor over a base of rushes that absorbed the muck and smells brought in on the feet of the great unwashed. As they trod on the rosemary, it would release a pleasant scent that would disguise the other less welcome odours rising from below.
As a forerunner to toothpaste, the woody parts of the shrub would be burnt and ground into a powder and used to cleans one’s teeth. It was also used as a cure for baldness, to ease digestive complaints and of course in cooking as a flavouring.
In terms of its mythical qualities, if you slept with it under your pillow, that would mean your slumber would not be disturbed by nightmares, and a shrub planted outside your home would protect you from unwanted intruders. In Ancient Greece, it was associated with memory and brain power, so hopeful students would wear wreaths of rosemary on their heads during examinations. The Romans would plant it outside tombs in the belief that it would preserve the bodies of their dearly departed.
Rosemary has strong connections with the Christian faith, with some stories claiming that its name came from the Blessed Virgin herself, and that Bethlehem was the first place the herb was ever cultivated. According to the tales, the infant Jesus’ newly washed baby garments were spread out across a rosemary bush to dry. Soon after his birth, the holy family had to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, who was searching for this imposter ‘king’ to slaughter. As Mary’s blue cloak brushed past shrubs of rosemary, their white flowers transformed into a beautiful bluey-grey. The family also wore sprigs of the the herb on their clothing as they fled in the belief that it would protect them from harm. These associations led to the plant being known as the Rose of Mary, and hence its current name. It is also believed to live for no more than 33 years, the lifespan of Jesus, and to not grow taller than his height while he walked upon the earth.
But there are other beliefs about rosemary that have nothing to do with Christianity at all. Other sources say the name is derived from the Latin ‘ros’ meaning ‘dew’ and ‘marinus’ meaning ‘sea’. It was native to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean, needing very little water to survive, and could exist on merely the ‘dew of the sea’, that is, the moisture carried on the breezes that wafted in off the water. It is often associated with love, possibly because the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, was said to have risen from the waves draped in garlands of the herb. Hopeful beaus would give sprigs of it to their hearts’ desires, and brides would wear rosemary coronets on their wedding day. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 4, Scene 5), Ophelia says: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” With its associations with love and death, it may be a reference to her forthcoming demise.
Rosemary as a girl’s name became popular in the late 19th century to correspond with the advent of the Art Nouveau movement. Inspired by the colours, shapes and forms found in the natural world, names such as Rose, Lily, Olive, Myrtle, Ivy and Flora suddenly filled local birth registers.
Some of those names, such as Rose, Lily and Flora, have remained pretty common, although I don’t know any girls born in recent times with the name Olive, Myrtle, Ivy or even Rosemary. Come to think of it I can’t say I know many youngsters these days with the name Sarah either.
I suddenly feel rather old.
Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th January and the Gazette & Herald on 6th January 2021