Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) has enjoyed a long and well-documented place among human civilization as an antiseptic, a protective and love-inducing herb, and as a perfume. Ancient Egyptians used lavender in their funerary rights, including it in their mummifying process, as well as for perfuming their clothing and themselves. Cleopatra was reputed to have used lavender as one of her secret weapons for seduction. Julius Caesar and Mark Antony certainly succumbed to her charms, and lavender may well have had a hand in that. King Tutankhamen tomb had been filled with lavender. Some of the centuries-old lavender flowers still held a slight scent when the tomb was opened.
The Arabs, Greeks, and Romans all made ample use of lavender’s antiseptic and magical properties as well as its sweet scent. The Arabs were the first to farm lavender. They made use of lavender’s ability to ease the nervous system, reduce stress, encourage a good night’s sleep, and kill germs. Lavender was among the herbs prized by Arabian physicians for its ability to clean deep wounds and encourage healing. It was also a favorite perfume fragrance. Ancient Arabia created the first distilleries to make essential oil of lavender among others for the perfume industry, establishing the technologies we still use today. The Greeks and Romans made ample use of lavender’s stress-reducing properties to cure complaints related to excess mental stimulation, including migraine headaches and insomnia. They also capitalized on lavender’s scent, trading the oils and flowers along the spice trail and carrying lavender across Europe all the way into England.
In Europe, lavender’s protective, love-inducing, and relaxing properties helped commoners to kings. Charles VI of France, for instance, demanded that his pillow always contain lavender so he could get a good night’s sleep, and Queen Elizabeth I of England required fresh lavender in the vases at her table every day of the year. Lavender wasn’t limited to the wealthy, though. It was used among wealthy and poor alike to scent bed linens and clothing. It was hung above the door to protect against evil spirits and added to the bath to drive evil spirits and demons from cranky children and to rejuvenate adults.
Even the church made use of lavender as a strewing herb during holy festivals, particularly around Midsummer’s Eve. English monks grew lavender in their gardens for use as a healing herb. Physicians used it to heal and cleanse wounds and aid in easing a variety of complaints. Midwives occasionally used lavender to aid in childbirth. During the plague, lavender found its way into the now famous Four Thieves Vinegar recipe as a protective and cleansing agent. In fact, lavender was used in England as an antiseptic wash during surgery and for deep wounds right up to World War I. Colonists carried lavender into North America where it was grown commercially by one sect of Quakers for use much as it had been in the Old world…although in the colonies lavender was also added to herbal tea blends as a tea substitute when tariffs on Asian tea were too high.
Westerners weren’t the only ones who made use of lavender. In Asian medicine, lavender has long been recognized for its cooling effect and its affinity for helping the Shen, or mind, by cooling the Heart. This helped many to find relaxation and respite from troubles that kept the mind in motion while causing tension in the body. Lavender was also used by Asian physicians to cool an overheated liver as is often found in women entering into menopause.
Lavender’s protective history extends beyond the purely physical into the magical as well, where it was renowned as an herb for love. Lavender’s reputation as an herb of love may well have been seated in its ability to strengthen the power within, the same property that allows lavender to work to drive out infection and heal deep wounds. Maidens who wanted to remain chaste carried a sprig of lavender to repel unwanted advances. On the other side of the tracks ladies of ill repute often used lavender scented perfumes to attract clientele. Cleopatra, one of the most powerful women of the ancient world, used lavender to aid in her seductions, many of which strengthened her political power. Even women of North Africa were said to have used lavender to protect themselves against abusive husbands.
In magic, lavender was most often used for protection. It was said to drive off the evil eye and chase away demons and evil spirits. Fashioned into a cross, it was hung over doorways and at the entrances to homes to protect the inhabitants against evil spirits. At Midsummer’s Eve, it was a component in the blend used to summon faeries, brownies, and elves. It has also been used in various spells, amulets, and charms to attract love.
Artist: Maxine Miller