The History of Mugwort

(A version of this article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine, and I am sharing it this week in lieu of an actual post because we have had a death in the family. It was not my partner who was in the ED last week. It’s just been a terrible month.)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is one of our most ancient healing herbs and one of our most misrepresented. Its use surely predates written history. The Anglo Saxon Lay of the Nine Herbs recorded in the Lacnunga calls mugwort the “oldest of herbs” while summing up its litany of ancient uses:

Be mindful, Mugwort,  what you revealed,
What you established at the Great Proclamation
Una you are called, oldest of herbs,
you are strong against three and against thirty,
you are strong against poison and against [flying venoms]
you are strong against the foe who goes through the land.[1]

Most historians seem to think the name una means one or “the first.”  Liath lus is the Old Irish name for mugwort. Liath means grey but it was most often used in a way that meant “grey haired or aged” so we could also translate to “aged herb” which makes a little more sense to me because the leaves aren’t that grey compared to say wormwood.

(Speaking of names, if you read that mugwort is also called Southernwood, that’s an error. Southernwood refers to another Artemisia mentioned often in medieval herbals called Artemisia abrotanum.)

Mugwort as a Magical Ward 

I once heard mugwort referred to as the “white sage” of the Celts implying that it was burnt as an incense. I am not sure I buy into that but I don’t know about all the Celts, I know about the Gaels. Maybe that person was speaking of a different tribe? The Gaels burnt juniper as a ward and truthfully when searching the Irish Folklore Commission database, I only came up with three references to mugwort.

It was the Anglo-Saxons who were really into mugwort as a ward. Some of their notions mostly likely came from Antiquity. Dioscorides suggested wearing the herb on your feet to “drive away venomous beasts and devils.”[2] and at least a couple of the Anglo-Saxon herbals were just Old English translations of Latin works.

Wherever the idea came from, it was certainly popular. The Catholic Latin – English dictionary published in 1483 states “where thou dos it in houses na elves na na evyll thyinges may come therein.”[3]  Mugwort was also a ward in Eastern European traditions. Ostling’s summary of Polish magical herbs cites several instances where he found references to belickza as a ward. “If mugwort is hung above gates, doors, entryways, and windows, then witchcraft will do nothing to that home, nor harm any person, who carries the herb on his person.” [4]

In some places the herb was associated with St. John the Baptist saying that when he was beheaded his head fell on a bed of mugwort conferring magical powers on the herb.[5] They called mugwort, Bollan feaill-Eoin on the Isle of Man and they would tuck sprigs of the herb in wreaths on their head to ward off evil.[6]

This seemed to translate into using the herb in spells meant to rid a person of being possessed of an evil spirit. Early modern occultist, Richard Baxter mentioned it as an ingredient in the decoctionused known as Ex fuga Damonum along with other artemisias and vervain, which was given to people during exorcisms. The following ritual performed to dispel distemper of the mind was documented in the early 18th century.

The Solstice Wort

While many of us only associate Hypericum perforatum with Midsummer there are many herbs associated with that festival including mugwort. Sonnewendgurtel  which means solstice wort is one older common name given to mugwort in Germany where it is also called St. Johannesgurtel and beifuss. They gave it this name because wearing a girdle made of mugwort at the solstice protects you from illness until the next year. Today it is sold in German supermarkets as an ingredient for making the gravy for Schweinebraten, which is a traditional solstice meal.

It also figures prominently in midsummer festivities held in other countries. In some regions of China, they would make dolls from their native mugwort to hang above their doors to ward off bad air and evil spirits.[8]

Mugwort for Travelers

In the first part of the Anglo-Saxon Leech Book, travelers are told to pick the plant while making the sign of the cross and hold mugwort in their hand or put it in a shoe while saying. “I will take thee, Artemisia, lest I be weary on the way.”[9]

It was added as an invigorating ingredient to ale although I am not sure how widely that was practiced as I have seen many sources that call that beverage “purl” which is ale infused with wormwood. As I am a brewer, I might come back to that at some point.

Dioscorides and Pliny both wrote of travelers using mugwort to invigorate themselves on long journeys and it was something still being done in the early 20th century. Irish lore also advised that the traveler put the plant in his shoes while Welsh lore suggested that the sprig of mugwort could be carried in your coat.[10] 

There may be some practical purpose behind this practice. In the third part of the Leechbook “If the foot be sore, pound and lay on elder leaves, and waybroad (plantain), and mugwort; and bind hot upon the foot.”[11]

Mugwort and Dreams

Mugwort is one of the herbs I use most frequently in my day-to-day practices and while theoretically it could promote lucid dreaming as much as any other dopamine enhancing agent, I never quite understood the strong association between mugwort and dreams because I have not observed that in my clients who work with it. I spent a good chunk of my time for a couple of years researching this issue.

Do you know that game of telephone? Here’s an example of how that game plays out in old herb books. In The Folk-Lore of Plants, Reverend Thomas Thiselton-Dyer wrote that young women would dig up the old roots of mugwort, to place them under a pillow and dream of future lovers citing Thomas Hill’s book on Elizabethan magic. That use was repeated ad nauseam in Victorian literature citing Dyer.

The esteemed reverend, however, is one of the authors who taught me the importance of looking for primary sources, so I knew better than to take him at face value. This is what Hill actually said,

Divers Authors affirm concerning the verity and vertue of this Cole, viz. That it is onely to be found upon Midsummer-Eve (being the Eve of Saint John the Baptist) just at noon, under every root of Plantine and of Mugwort: The effects whereof are wonderful; for whosoever weareth or beareth the sameabout with them, shall be freed from the Plague, Fever, Ague, and sundry other diseases. And one Author especially writeth, and constantly averreth, that he never knew any that used to carry of this marvellous Cole about them, who ever were (to his knowledge) sick of the Plague, or (indeed) complained of any other Maladie.”[12]

I included it in its entirety even though it’s a bit long, so you could see there’s no fluffy foolishness. I must admit I was relieved. I value Hill’s work a lot. I own his gardening book and use it frequently. So, I was glad to see he didn’t originate the story. His entry speaks to the older Anglo Saxon wearing a bit of the plant as an amulet to ward off disease. 

I am not sure if Thiselton-Dyer made the original “mistake” or just picked it up from another book. This sort of thing was all the rage in Victorian England. They often reframed many common practices of women as being based in some sort of love-sick sentimentality. I am sure it helped him sell many books.

Clearly people took what he wrote at face value, and thus an urban legend was born along with the herb being associated with the moon when both Agrippa and Culpeper referred to the herb as being governed by Venus.[13]

Why does it matter? Because I don’t quite care for the association between women and the moon. It became popular during the Victorian era to associate women with all things lunar as an understated poke at women and their tendency towards lunacy or hysteria. [14] So let’s not do that.

Questions of magical meanings aside,  mugwort was firmly entrenched in the medieval mind as a “physick” herb. It was one of the plants Hill, who also authored one of the first English gardening books, recommended planting in physick row beds.[15] So let’s move on to more practical historical uses.

Mugwort against Poison and Flying Venoms

Mugwort was included in many antidote formulas including Theriac and both Parkinson and Culpeper wrote about it for opium overdoses. In 1710, William Salmon wrote about an “acid” preparation as a remedy for an opium overdose.[16] This might have been the original use for mugwort acetums and why they are considered to be “cleansing.”

“Flying Venoms” was a term used by the Anglo-Saxons to indicate the malevolent entities which they believed to cause contagious diseases. As you have seen they believed that even carrying a bit of the herb protected you from these little beasties. Later you might read of mugwort being used for illnesses attributed to being “shot of elves” or even fairy darts in Gaelic lore.

A lot of conditions attributed to these little tricksters were of an inflammatory nature and mugwort was used for many, many inflammatory conditions. The Anglo Saxons added it to baths with other herbs for a condition called micel lic that translates literally to “large body” and probably refers to large-scale inflammation associated with leprosy and other diseases.[17] The  mickel fern, Aspidium filix is also a specific for this condition. In the Trotula they recommended mugwort as part of a fomentation applied to “swelling of the testicles.”[18] Parkinson and Culpeper both gave 3 drams of dried powdered leaves in wine for sciatica. (5.1 grams).[19]

In Scottish lore, the merfolk seemed to believe that mugwort was useful for addressing consumption which is an old-fashioned word given to various wasting diseases including pulmonary tuberculosis. The mermaid of Clyde offered the following advice during a deadly outbreak in Glasgow.

“If they wad drink nettles in March
And eat muggins in May
Sae many braw maidens
Wadna gang to the clay”[20]

Another mermaid living on the Galloway coast of Scotland was said to suggest mugwort as a cure to a young man wanting to prevent the death of his love. “Wad ye let the bonnie May die I’ yere hand, An the mugwort flowering in the land?”[21] Interestingly it also pops up in Ostling’s survey of Polish herbal remedies combined with Nigella sativa in baths for children with consumption.[22]

The warming qualities of mugwort proved useful for musculoskeletal complaints. Dioscorides recommended cooking down the larger branches and then rubbing this on patients whose “blood has thickened around his joints.”[23] I will speak about this in the monograph as well, but I use it excessively for clients who experience joint pain due to connective tissue issues and rheumatism (rheumatoid arthritis).

One of the more obscure Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, MS Harl. 6258 fol. 42, suggested seething the juice of mugwort in oil and smearing it on the body when sinews shrink.[24] Parkinson and Culpeper recommended decocting it with chamomile, and agrimony to relieve tendon pain and cramps.

Mugwort and Skin Conditions

When digging around in history books, the word tumour should not always be equated with cancer. There was no reliable method of determining the malignancy of a growth before the 20th century. And not all tumours went by that name. The reason there were so many cures for warts is that historically people used that word for many skin growths which we call skin tags or melanomas as well as warts brought on by human papillomavirus.

Threlkeld wrote in Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum that he was aware of a case in which tumours presenting in a women’s knees were “driven away by a Fumigation of this Plant”[25] This is reminiscent of Chinese practitioners using moxibustion as a therapy. Japanese also did this but had a slightly different purpose – shaping the dried leaves into a cone and allowing it to burn down to the skin, cauterizing a wound.

But not everyone used it that way. It was also used in topical preparations The Trotula mentions a formula for drawing out “lesions of the breast” with an oil made of mayweed, wormwood and mugwort and makes the general claim that warm, ground mugwort dissolves tumours.[27] Culpeper recommended making an ointment of animal fat pounded up with the root to take away wens which is sort of an old-fashioned word for waxing (in the rising sense) cysts.

Mugwort as a Women’s Herb

As you can already see, mugwort featured prominently in women’s medicine. The Greek physician Dioscorides wrote of adding it to women’s’ baths for “driving out the menstrual flow.” Pliny wrote that the original name was parthenis and it was renamed for the wife of King Mausolus acknowledging “there are some who think that the surname is derived from Artemis Ilithyia, because the plant is specific for the troubles of women.”[28] Culpeper asserted that Mugwort was ruled by Venus and “therefore maintaineth the parts of the Body she rules.”

I would prefer though, to write of how women used the herb as they were the experts on their conditions. In the medieval women’s medicine compendium, The Trotula, we find dozens of references to mugwort. It contains many different formulas for “provoking the menses” that contain mugwort, mentioning that mugwort ground with wine or cooked with wine was a useful addition to these kinds of formulas.[29] Jane Sharp was still writing about this use in her midwifery text published in 1725.[30]

Note: Despite what some men who like to write sensationalism will tell you, the term “provoking the menses” does NOT instantly refer to an herb being used as an abortificient. Emmenagogue preparations were used to regulate the cycle for women whose monthly menstruation was scant, or thick and passing slowly and painfully. Regulating the menstrual cycle was thought to help with conception. Therefore, you will also see it as an ingredient in a Trifera magna, which was a formula the Salernitan women used for fertility.

Other preparations involved grinding mugwort with other herbs in oil and applying that oil to women who were having ineffective contractions during labor. The widespread use of mugwort in remedies to ease childbirth are some of the oldest and most frequently repeated due to being shared by physicians, midwives, and grandmothers all over the globe. Gabrielle Hatfield shares the following receipt used by the women of the Gunton family in the 17th century. “Take 3 handfulls of Mugwort, 12 cloves whole boyle them in a pint of white wine for half an hour then streing it and let the party drink it blood warm at a draught.”[31]

This is not to say that mugwort causes contractions, that should not be happening. There’s no clinical data that supports that statement. If you have worked as a midwife or a doula, I don’t have to tell you that many times people in labor fight their contractions. Preparations like this tended to relax tense muscles to allow the contractions to build naturally as well as activating the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s similar to the way physicians suggest nubain to women who were tensing up during contractions.


[1] Jolly, Karen Louise, trans. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. pp 125.
[2] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. – Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Vol. Book Three Roots. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60. pp 513.
[3] Herrtage, Sidney John Hervon, ed. Catholicon Anglicum: An English-Latin Wordbook, Dated 1483: From the MS No. 168 in the Library of Lord Monson, Collated with the Additional MS. 15,562 British Museum. London, England: N. Trubner & Co., 1881.
[4] Ostling, Michael. “Witches’ Herbs on Trial.” Folklore 125, no. 2 (2014): 179–201.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Armstrong, Edward A. “Mugwort Lore.” Folklore 55, no. 1 (1944): 22–27.
[7] Dempster, Miss. “The Folk-Lore of Sutherland-Shire.” The Folk-Lore Journal 6, no. 3 (1888): 149–89.
[8] Armstrong, Edward A. “Mugwort Lore.” Folklore 55, no. 1 (1944): 22–27.
[9] Cockayne, Thomas Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest. Vol. 2. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864. Pp 157.
[10] Roolf, Becka. “Healing Objects in Welsh Folk Medicine.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 16/17 (1996): 106–15.
[11] Cockayne, Thomas Oswald. Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest. Vol. 2.3 vols. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864. pp 341.
[12] Hill, Thomas. Naturall and Artificiall Conclusions. … London, England: Iane Bell, dwelling at the East end of Christs-Church, 1650.
ttp://name.umdl.umich.edu/A43811.0001.001.
[13] Agrippa von Nettesheim, Heinrich Cornelius. Three Books of Occult Philosophy Written by Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim … ; Translated out of the Latin into the English Tongue by J.F. Translated by J.F. 1651 Translation., 1530. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/A26565.0001.001.
[14] Little, Julianna. “‘Frailty, Thy Name Is Woman’: Depictions of Female Madness.” M.A., Virginia Commonwealth University, 2015.
[15] Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. Translated by Mabey, Richard. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1577.
[16] Salmon, William, William. Botanologia. The English Herbal or History of Plants. London: Dawks, Rhodes and Taylor, 1710.
[17] Hall, Alaric. Magic and Medicine: Early Medieval Plant-Name Studies. Edited by Carole Biggam. XLIV. Leeds, England: University of Leeds, 2013. pp 55.
[18] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. 2001 Translation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1100. pp 157.
[19] Culpeper, Nicholas. The English Physitian : OR AN Astrologo-Physical Discourse of the Vulgar Herbs of This Nation. London. England: Printed by Peter Cole, at the sign of the Printing-Press in Cornhil, near the Royal Exchange., 1652.
[20] Swainson, Charles. A Handbook of Weather Folk-Lore: Being a Collection of Proverbial Sayings in Various Languages Relating to the Weather, with Explanatory and Illustrative Notes. W. Blackwood and sons, 1873.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ostling, Michael. “Witches’ Herbs on Trial.” Folklore 125, no. 2 (2014): 179–201.
[23] Dioscorides. De Materia Medica. – Five Books in One Volume: A New English Translation. Translated by Osbaldeston, T. Vol. Book Three Roots. Johannesburg: IBIDIS Press, 60. Pp 513.
[24] Cockayne, Thomas Oswald, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England. Being a Collection of Documents, for the Most Part Never before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in This Country before the Norman Conquest. Vol. 1. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1864. pp 381.
[25] Threlkeld, Caleb. Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum Alphabetice Dispositarum. …By Thomas Molyneux. Dublin, Ireland: S. Powell, 1726.
[26]. Fujiwara, Sanekata. Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Asiatic Society of Japan., 1900.
24. Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. 2001 Translation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1100. pp 149.
[28] Pliny, Natural History, 25. 34. 73
[29] Green, Monica, trans. Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. 2001 Translation. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1100. pp 77.
[30] Sharp, Jane. The Compleat Midwife’s Companion: Or The Art of Midwifry Improv’d. Fourth. London, England: Printed for John Marsall , at the Bible in Grace church stereet, 1725. pp 130.
[31] Hatfield, Gabrielle. Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1999. pp 134.

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

If you want to read more about me, it's on the website www.domestic-medicine.com

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