This is an extra post for a friend. Friends saw me complaining on social media that since we had Covid, we have just had a run of bad of getting ill every time one of our beloved germ carriers (otherwise affectionately known as the grandchildren) sneezes in our direction.

In the meantime, I get to sharpen my skills. We started out last week with norovirus and moved on to a head cold with out-of-control nonallergic rhinitis and sneezing. It’s been grand, let me tell you. I was talking about my mastic syrup and someone asked if I would share the receipt.

I thought this was a suitable time to talk a little bit about my use of one of my favorite plant resins. Resins were truly the “superfoods” of ancient medicine and are one of the distinguishing features of early Materia Medica.

I use them often although I try to substitute local resins such as pine, spruce, or the resin of cottonwood buds when that substitution makes sense. But oftentimes I have found that they don’t work interchangeably, and I will sparingly use resins that are sourced from far away, including boswellia, myrrh, benzoin, and amber.

I feel like there is a difference between using newly “discovered” superfoods that pop into the market and our ancient medicinals in terms of sustainability issues. The communities which have grown up around areas where these resins are harvested have been involved in this commerce since Antiquity. Their way of life is intrinsically tied to this commerce. So, while surges in popularity may cause harm to Indigenous cultures in other places, the production and sale of these resins are the Indigenous practice in these places.

My favorite of all is mastic because I love its story. There are four villages called mastichochoria on the Greek isle of Khíos whose day-to-day life completely centers around the production of Mastíha (gum mastic). It is a resin obtained from the Pistacia lentiscus var. Chia tree that is endemic to the island, although it has been naturalized in parts of Turkey.

The United Nations has added the knowledge of cultivating mastic to the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. I am not entirely sure of the process except that it has something to do with cleaning the harvested resin in vinegar and letting that evaporate away.

The traditional method of delivery was chewing, and mastic was frequently an ingredient in the category of medicinal preparations known as masticatories. A masticatory is a medicine that was to be chewed in the mouth and was thought to hasten the evacuation of serous (watery, thin) humor. The simplest of these involved chewing mastic, amber, or pellitory of Spain and then spitting it out. Here is a more sophisticated masticatory.

Take of Mustard-seed, Roots of Pellitory of Spain, Master-wort, Capers, Mastick, Amber, of each one drachm; let them be all beaten into a gross Powder, and tye up some of it in a Linen-rag and chew it in the mouth every day before Dinner and Supper. 

Johnson, Robert. Praxis Medicinæ Reformata. (1700)

Mastíha (gum mastic) has been written about as a medicinal since the Greeks first started writing about medicine, and it continues to be researched by bioprospecting researchers today. The European Medicines Agency has confirmed its traditional use in addressing mild dyspeptic disorders and healing minor wounds and skin inflammation. 

Clinical trials have featured mastic as a remedy for such diverse GI complaints such as irritable bowel disease and the control of Helicobactor pylori.  Mastic (all resins really) are those that interfere with inflammation by inhibiting various steps of the inflammatory cascade including prostaglandin secretion, Nitric oxide synthase and cycloosygenase (COX-2).[i]

The clinical trial on H. pylori[ii] was interesting because mastic gum worked reasonably well on its own to but did not work when used as an adjunct to the proton-pump inhibitor pantoprazole which leads researchers to theorize that mastic needs an acidic stomach environment to work.  This makes sense in terms of digesting the powder. There have also been clinical trials which compared the effectiveness of crude mastic to processed products as hypolipidemics and not surprisingly the crude mastic was more effective which probably the opposite of the results they wanted to produce.[iii] This study has led some to believe that the special way of cleaning and processing the resin in Khios lends to its efficacy.

Mastic was once widely available due to its uses in dentistry and building and while it passed out of use by physicians using the United States Pharmacopeia, you see it pop up in the empiric practice of the folk through the early 20th century.

As I said I choose to work with it sparingly, so I really love making the syrup which I found in the Kitab al tabikh fi-l-Maghrib wa-l-Andalus fi `asr al-Muwahhidin, limu’allif majhul. It uses a reasonable amount of mastic, and I can put up a few 12 oz bottles of the syrup. (I bottle my syrups with our beer bottling equipment.)

According to the unknown author this syrup is superior for its benefits to the stomach and digestion. We are assured that it “cuts vomiting and binds the bowels, and fortifies the liver, ‘iv so I use it for gastrointestinal illness. My kids call it mom’s homemade pepto-bismol. LOL


[i] Zhou, L.; Satoh, K.; Takahashi, K.; Watanabe, S.; Nakamura, W.; Maki, J.; Hatano, H.; Takekawa, F.; Shimada, C.; Sakagami, H. Re-evaluation of anti-inflammatory activity of mastic using activated macrophages. Vivo 2009, 23, 583–590.
[ii]  Dabos KJ, Sfika E, Vlatta LJ, Giannikopoulos G. The effect of mastic gum on Helicobacter pylori: A randomized pilot study. Phytomedicine. 2010;17(3-4):296-299. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2009.09.010
[iii] Kartalis A, Didagelos M, Georgiadis I, et al. Effects of Chios mastic gum on cholesterol and glucose levels of healthy volunteers: A prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, pilot study (CHIOS-MASTIHA). European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. 2015;23(7):722-729. doi:10.1177/2047487315603186
iv. Anon. Kitab al Tabikh Fi-l-Maghrib Wa-l-Andalus Fi `asr al-Muwahhidin, Limu’allif Majhul. Edited by Martinelli, Candida. Translated by Perry, Charles. 2012 Repring. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 1200.

(A version of this article was originally published in Natural Herbal Living Magazine)

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.

“They burned Rowantree and Salt, they took three Locks of Francis’s hari, three pieces of his shirt, three roots of wormwood, three of mugwort, three pieces of Rowantree, and boiled altogether anointed his Legs with the water and essayed to put three sips in his mouth.” 7

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]

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 often used with women experiencing amenorrhea. Cortisol spikes due to stress are one thing that can delay menses. To understand that you can read more about it in my physiology post. Mugwort has the capacity to shift people from that state. 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 although people who don’t understand the practice might say that, but it 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.

Hopefully this post clears up some of the misunderstandings about mugwort that circulate on the due to modern misinformation spread by herbal practitioners who don’t understand the reasons behind traditional practices. It’s a shame that it’s use has been neopaganized into something that it never was.


References:

[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.

I wasn’t planning to post again this week, as my partner ended up in the ED, but I received a question I could answer quickly because I already drafted some of this up. I used the term leighseanna in the post the other day and the person who emailed me had heard that as an Irish word for a witch’s spell and asked me to clarify.

The short answer is no, it is not. It has never meant that. It is a word still used in Irish today. It is the plural of leigheas. It means remedies. People trying to make it something more than that are pushing the “herbal remedies equals witchy” trope. When it comes to discussing language though, I am never content with just giving a short answer.

Pisreóg, piseog or pishogue might be what you are looking for, but that’s not entirely accurate either. In the Dineen dictionary the variations of this term were defined as having to do with witchcraft. The word witchcraft was widely overused; usually as an effort to criminalize Indigenous practices. Dineen did not bother to take the time to distinguish between a witch and a service magician. He might have retrieved that from an older British dictionary written by William Shaw in 1780,1 as a lot of the entries seem to line up.

pisreóg, pisreogach, pistreog. See piseog, piseogach.

piseog, -oige, -oga, f., witchcraft, sorcery; a charm, a spell; lucht piseog, wizards, diviners;

piseoga, pl., superstitious acts, witchcraft.


piseogach, -aighe, a., like a witch or wizard; belonging to witchcraft.


piseogacht, -a, f., act of bewitching, of setting charms or spells,
little bit; dim. of píosa).

Dineen Dictionary’s entries

I choose my language very carefully so that it lines up with historical practice in a way that is not influenced by colonizers. The word “witch” is an English word, derived from the old English words “wicca” and “wicce” which are probably tied to the Old English word “wǽcan” meaning to weaken, oppress, or trouble “wác.” A witch is a worker of maleficence, and this practice is not synonymous with other cultures’ workers of maleficence or with ritual healing specialists (service magicians) people consult for help. Even in England there were other words for those practitioners such as cunning person or wise woman.

I am not entirely sure where I would classify the neopagan use of the term witch.  They aren’t witches in the historical sense nor are they service magicians. I don’t usually concern myself with it. The word is tied to an English concept which was used as a means of genocide and oppression of various Indigenous cultures, and I don’t want much to do with it.

You will find in the oral narrative of most cultures both workers of maleficence and magic workers whose job it is to negate the effects of that magic. Irish culture is a bit different in that there was more focus on the aes sídhe (the Fae or fairies lit. “people of the mounds”) as the protagonist and truly little mention of witches.

I was in an interesting conversation once with a friend whom I transcribe with. They had read that as belief in fairies waned, old women and witches replaced them in seanscéal. That seems plausible based on how similar the stories are.  I even found one story of a witch stealing a human child and replacing it with baby witch. The butter “witches” that I mentioned Mooney talking about in my last post would fit in this hypothesis as well, since the Fae were well known for stealing the butter.

That is all conjecture though. What I know is that I grew up around people who were very much into their folk beliefs and throwing around curses and blessings and no one ever once mentioned the idea that they were witches. Even the most devoutly Catholic of old-timers could tell you about the pisreóga of their region or call down mallacht (curses) or beannacht (blessings), and that common use is what sets these practices apart from witchcraft. So, what do those words mean?

Pisreóga is also spelled piseoga or you might see the Hiberno-English spelling pishogue. It varies by region. In Co. Mayo where they speak a variant of the Connaught dialect, we read about Pisreóga of the Parish. In Co. Waterford, where they speak a variant of the Munster dialect, we read about Old Customs And Piseoga. Because the Munster dialect is often taught as “standard” learners Irish, that spelling seems to be winning out these days, especially in academic circles.

Today pisreóga are most often defined as a superstitious belief, but I really hate the negative connotation the word superstition carries with it. Every culture has its own unique folk beliefs. It is what accounts for our divergent customs and traditions. It is unacceptable that scholars continue to identify Indigenous beliefs as witchcraft. It is a type of cultural erasure due in part to colonization perpetuated by academia.

I grew up believing piseog or pishogue was the specific term for an action while pisreóga spoke more of the general beliefs, and Dineeen’s entries seem to back that up, but I think even if it was that way once, it’s all mixed up now. One possible explanation of the meaning is that these words are related to the word piseach which means improvement or increase and that these terms drew their name “from the idea of increase and good fortune” that using them brought about. 2

Pisreóga could be belief in a portent such as a lucky black cat or the bad luck that meeting a pig on the way to the market might bring you. A piseog might involve putting coals under the churn to keep the fairies away from the butter or marking settings of hatching eggs with a cross.  

There are also piseog that involve bringing misfortune to a neighbor to bring yourself good fortune. It was usually in the form of charms that stole butter or crops from a neighbor. The belief in stealing butter was very strong in all parts of Ireland. It was attributed to the fairies, old women who turned themselves into hares, or neighbors.

There are specific service magicians thought to be especially knowledgeable of healing pisreóga in the form of cures, charms, or prayers. I have seen them called many things in the past, including cailleach luibh [herb hag], fairy doctors, lucht piseog, fear piseog, and bean feasa. There’s an interesting entry in the Schools collection written by a teacher in Co. Limerick who used the term piseog doctor.3

“They say that the most suitable place that the piseog doctor (the man who practises piseoga) could find to work his charms and practises is a double ditch that is a boundary, between two parishes. I am not sure now is it between two parishes or two townlands or two baronies. They (the piseog doctors) had some particular power there. (Dick Butler) – (Any connection between the site of the piseog doctors special potency and the erection of oghamh stones on the tuath boundary i Sean-Éirinn? D.O.C)1

It is crucial to point out that these people still exist in Ireland and the diaspora, and don’t associate their practice with witches or witchcraft. The Irish Times just published an interesting article about this back in December.2 I was surprised the people agreed to be interviewed.

The Irish and the diaspora are also known for their really elaborate mallacht (curses). They are the flipside of all the Irish beannacht (blessings) we read about. Some people like to assert that this is some leftover remnant of Ireland’s pagan past, but the truth of the matter is that no one knows that for sure and there’s plenty of folk magic in the Bible, so I don’t want to make claims I can’t substantiate.

Some mallacht are all in playful fun while others wished harm on the receiver, but not to worry because you could send back a curse and it was often said that you should be careful of bringing a curse on someone because “curses like hens come home to roost.”

It wasn’t just people cursing people.  If February has nice weather, it’s said to curse the other months. People cursed the winds back to hell during a storm. My great grandma taught that the blackbird curses you if you steal from their nest.  (She had a thing for blackbirds, she named my grandpa Merle even though most people thought it was a girl’s name.)

Scholars will tell you the difference between pisreóga and mallacht were that curses were only meant to bring harm to evildoers. That is a highly debatable statement that most of the old-timers I knew would have just laughed at that.  I’ve seen plenty of curses called out in the heat of the moment on people who were not deserving of them, but I worked for some time as a bartender at a bar where the local priest came to drink and watch sports.

Curses were often brought down on landlords, bankers, and judges. Since I am a proper peasant, I really don’t have a problem with that. However, when your priest throws out a curse just because you marry someone who isn’t Catholic, I am going to call foul on that. My great-grandfather was born with a club foot presumably because of a curse that someone placed on our family.

So, there you have a rundown of the way I use certain terms. I don’t believe you should be flip-flopping names for service magicians who are benevolent, with the term witch. It is not respectful to people who battle maleficence to equate them with that which they work against. It is also not respectful to appropriate the name of another culture’s deities, magic workers, or rituals.


1. Maclagan, Robert Craig. Evil Eye in the Western Highlands. D. Nutt, 1902.
2. Specia, Megan. ‘The New York Times Came to Ireland to Look for Secret Charms and Seventh Sons. This Is What It Found’. The Irish Times. Accessed 23 December 2021.https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/the-new-york-times-came-to-ireland-to-look-for-secret-charms-and-seventh-sons-this-is-what-it-found-1.4761862.
3. Shaw, William. A Galic and English Dictionary: Containing All the Words in the Scotch and Irish Dialects of the Celtic, … Vol. 1–2. W. and A. Strahan, 1780.
4. The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0507, Page 141 Image and data © National Folklore Collection, UCD