The Devil’s Herb was probably one of the most feared plants to grow in any cottage garden, today, parsley is one of the most common herbs used in cooking and nobody gives it a second thought. But why should such an innocuous plant have earned such an evil reputation? To find a possible answer will necessitate a journey through ancient beliefs that lead back to Greece and Rome where death and victory run hand in hand.
If we start with the more pleasant topic of victory we need look no further than the Dartmoor author, Charles Kingsley, who, in his masterpiece Westward Ho! penned the following;
“Græcia, prize thy parsley crown,
Boast they laurel, Cæsar’s town;
Moorland myrtle still shall be
Badge of Devon’s Chivalry”.
In ancient Greece the victors at the Isthmian Games would be given a wreath of parsley to wear on their heads which is what Kingsley is alluding to. But also in ancient Greece, parsley would be used to decorate the graves and tombs of the dead. Plutarch the first century Roman Historian recounted a story where an army of Greeks was about to do battle with a much smaller Celtic force. The Celtic leader collected a herd of asses together and loaded them with parsley, the parsley train was then sent toward the Greek Army who fled in horror, so deep was their dread of the plant’s associations with death. Possibly it is this tradition that has given the plant its superstitious association with evil. There is an old proverb which is used to describe a dying person which says, “he has need of only parsley”.
Running alongside the connection with death is the superstition that parsley is the Devil’s Herb because the seed has to go to the Devil and back nine times before it sprouted. This more than likely came about because of the naturally long germination period of the plant. It was also thought that if after planting the parsley never came up then the Devil was still living in the bed.
On the western side of the moor it was believed that only a woman should ever plant the seeds and she must do so only when the church bells are ringing. Conversely other areas will adhere to the belief that a woman should only plant parsley seed on Good Friday. Even once the bed had been seeded there were many folk who considered that to plant a parsley bed in the first place was to invite a death in the family before the year was out. Likewise, if parsley was ever transplanted this too would be asking for trouble as it was a precursor to a sickness or disaster in the family home. The following comment came from Devon in 1912:
“I never didn’t transplant parsley. That’s the worst thing you can go for to do. You sow some on a bed and lets it grow there, and that’s all right, but if you digs it up and goes for to transplant it someone in the family’s sure to die”.
Whilst on the subject there was a popular Devonshire belief that in any house, “where Missus is Maister parsley won’t grow”. Probably because she made the man do the all the work which included planting the parsley and as we now know it won’t grow if a man plants it – hence no parsley and she rules the waves. To add further to this if a garden displayed an exceptional crop of parsley then this too indicated that it is, “she who must be obeyed” that resides within. This particular little gem came from the Okehampton area whilst walking past the house of a renown harpy who had a lovely stand of parsley.
Having grown a crop of parsley it was always considered unlucky to give it away because to do so was to transfer any of your good luck along with it. Therefore to solve this problem anyone who you wanted to give parsley to must steal it from your garden, openly or covertly. In 1841, William Blackwood writes the following:
“In the hieroglyphic language of flowers, the gift of parsley implies a wish of the person’s death to whom it is presented; for parsley has ever been the herb with which the Greeks decorate their graves and tombs; and hence to want parsley was an expression applied to a person in his last extremity”.
Today, if a child is asked where they came from they are either told, “Mummy’s tummy”, or, “under the gooseberry bush”. Centuries ago they would have been told, “the parsley bed”, this was because a woman’s genitalia was said to be representative of a parsley bed and the actual parsley was her pubic hairs. This neatly brings us on to some of the medicinal uses of parsley. There was widespread belief that by sowing, picking or eating parsley a woman would increase her chances of conceiving a child. On a more desperate note the following words of advice come from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle:
“for if you bruise it and press out the juice, and then dip a linen cloth in it, and put it up, being so dipped in the mouth of the womb, it will presently cause the child to come away, though it be dead, and will bring away the after burden also. The juice of parsley being of great virtue especially the stone parsley, being drank by a woman with child, it cleareth not only the womb, but also the child in the womb, of all gross humors”.
In a similar light some of the old hedge witches would advise eating parsley three times a day for three weeks for any woman wishing to abort her baby. On a more positive note, a sure-fire cure for a headache was to place a sprig of parsley on the forehead. Many Greeks believed that by wearing a crown of parsley at a feast they would prevent a hangover the following morning. By chewing the seeds of the parsley plant one could obtain the same protection from a hangover and give a greater tolerance to the alcohol. Where people were troubled with urinary disorders a simple cure was to extract the juice from the parsley and drink in in ale or wine. This was particularly effective in easing the discomfort of renal colic and kidney stones. Stewed parsley was the old equivalent of today’s Rennies as this was said to be very good for indigestion. Having prepared such a concoction, if the water in which the parsley had been stewed was applied to the scalp then it would cure dandruff. If all this was not enough by chewing parsley one could get the natural deodorant effects from the plant, both bodily and for the breath, hence if you eat garlic then you chew parsley afterwards.
What a dilemma, do you plant parsley and risk inviting the Grim Reaper into your home or do you get the wife to plant it on Good Friday and reap the medicinal and culinary benefits of the plant? Picture your medicine cabinet, you could lose the Nurofen, Resolve, Rennies, Head and Shoulders, Listerine and Sure deodorant and simply replace them all with parsley – imagine the saving you could make. If ever you have the ‘visitors from hell‘ simply send them home with a huge bunch of freshly picked parsley plants and just maybe you will never see them again. Next time a little tacker wants to know where they came from don’t bother with all the embarrassing reproductive cycle just say the Parsley Bed because it looks like your mother. Finally, have you ever wondered why some much parsley is used as a food garnish, well just maybe it represents the old Greek crown that sat on top of their prize winning champions.