"Natural Healing with Herbs for a Healthier You"

Appropriately dubbed by many as a magical plant, St. John’s Wort (hypericum perforatum) carries a rich history, full of cultural nuances and mystical legends.  Dr. Jonathan Zuess, in his book , “The Natural Prozac Program,” eloquently captures the emotion and quintessence of St. John’s Wort in his opening statement:  “In the crumbling pages of ancient texts on healing, hidden amongst the dusty basement shelves of a neglected Old World library, there are stories of a flower whose tears are magical.” (1)  Many of these stories, passed through the generations, paint a colorful picture of a multifaceted plant used in a variety of applications, some were even used for supernatural or spiritual purposes because of their “magical” results. (2) 

The botanical name for St. John’s Wort, hypericum perforatum, has several noted origins, all having similar meanings or references.  Hypericum comes from the Greek word “hyperikon” which is broken down into hyper, meaning “over,” and eikon, meaning “image or apparition,” a reference to the belief that the herb was so obnoxious to evil spirits that even a whiff of it would cause them to disseminate. (3)  Another translation, “almost over ghosts,” confirms the mystical beliefs expressed during the Medieval period. (4)  The true origins of “eikon” are not fully known due to the cross-pollination of the medicinal and mystical uses of St. John’s Wort.

The name perforatum is translated as “punctured,” and refers to the many tiny dots found on the leaves and flowers of St. John’s Wort, which at first glance seem to be small perforations or holes.  These small, black, translucent dots are not actually holes but tiny glands which, when pressed, release the essential plant oils and resins. (5)

Legend tells us that in the first century, early Christians were credited for naming St. John’s Wort after their beloved John the Baptist as the brightly colored flowers will usually expose themselves on or before June 24th  which is celebrated as his birthday.  The striking arrangement of its five yellow petals resembles a halo, and when picked exudes a crimson red liquid which was believed by some to symbolize the spilled blood of their beloved John.  Many historical authorities have questioned whether the infamous Rose of Sharon as mentioned in the Bible is really St. John’s Wort although botanists have confirmed they are two distinct plants but abide in the same family. (6)  Wort is simply an Old English word for a plant or an herb. 

Of additional spiritual significance, St. John’s day is also when daylight is the longest in Europe and is known as the Summer Solstice, an important planting time that is historically rich with pagan, native and early religious rituals.  This became a perfect environment for the mystical shroud surrounding St. John’s Wort to be unveiled, exposing its supposed spiritual powers which could chase away demons and any other troublesome spirits.  A poem from a manuscript dating back to 1400 declared:

St. John’s wort doth charm all witches away
If gathered at midnight on the saint’s holy day.
Any devils and witches have no power to harm
Those that gather the plant for a charm:

Rub the lintels and post with that red juicy flower
No thunder nor tempest will then have the power
To hurt or hinder your houses: and bind
Round your neck a charm of similar kind. (7)

Historical information dating back to 400 B.C. tells the story of hypericum and its medicinal and spiritual evolution.  The ancient Greeks and Romans noted that St. John’s Wort was used for such things as snake or reptile bites, menstrual cramping, gastrointestinal distress, ulcers, depression or melancholy, superficial wounds, or sciatica. (8)  Other noted uses of the herb extended into the spiritual or mystical realm as they believed the odor alone would surely drive off evil spirits, offering protection against the devil’s temptations. (9)

Welsh families frequently used St. John’s Wort to judge the relative life span of family members.  A sprig of the herb was given to each family member and then hung from the rafters during the night.  In the morning, depending on how shriveled each person’s sprig was, the length of each individual’s life was then determined. (10) It was believed that use of St. John’s Wort could make a witch powerless and strip her of her will.  Sir Walter Scott in his poem, “The Nativity Chant,” wrote the following:

Trefoil, vervain, John’s Wort, dill,
Hinders witches of their will.

During the Burning Times, a handful of St. John’s Wort was often stuffed into an accused witch’s mouth to force her to confess.  (11)

In an attempt to confer protection to an individual household, St. John’s Wort was frequently woven into wreaths in order to keep the devil away.  Today, many cultures continue to
use St. John’s Wort as an exorcist for demons or ghosts. (12)  It was even supposed that St. John himself would appear in a dream, bringing a blessing, if a small sprig of the plant was placed under the pillow before retiring. (13)

Columba, a Celtic saint devoted to John the Baptist, was said to carry a sprig of St. John’s Wort with him on his long and dangerous travels in honor of the martyred saint but in all practicality, he may have carried it with him for spiritual protection during his many missionary journeys to the Celtic tribes. (14)  The German translation for St. John’s Wort is Johanniskraut, or “John’s plant” and in China, where it has been listed for thousands of years in that country’s highly esteemed herbal pharmacopoeia, it is known as Qian Ceng Lou. (15)  In the American West, St. John’s Wort has not been given such a place of honor.  Most consider it a troublesome weed also known as Klamath weed or Goat weed. (16)

Many of the Greeks and Romans used St. John’s Wort as more of a spiritual herb, by placing sprigs of the plant on the statues of their gods in order to ward off evil spirits. (17)  The first written record of St. John’s Wort during the first century AD is reportedly found in Pliny the Elder’s famous book on natural healing, referring to hypericum in a physical application, noting that “The seed is of a bracing quality, checks diarrhea, promotes urine.  It is taken with wine for bladder troubles.” (18)  

First century Greek physicians, Galen and Dioscorides, recommended its use as a diuretic, a wound healing herb and as a treatment for menstrual disorders.  As a Roman army surgeon, Dioscorides noted in his medical writings that when the herb was placed in special liquids, it “…expels many cholerick excrement, but it must be given continuously, until they be cured, and being smeared on it is good for ambusta (burns).” (19)

Paracelcus, suggested that St. John’s Wort flowers should be picked at sunrise in order to capture the active constituents. (20)  The bright, ray-like petals release their precious red liquid most efficiently when soaked in olive oil and left out in the sun for several days.  This produces a beautiful, thick, red liquid which can then be applied externally on wounds, sprains, bruises and varicose veins.  This oil was commonly referred to as the “blood of Christ”. (21) 

The Saltenitan drug list, a thirteenth century document, refers to St. John’s Wort as “herba demonis fuga,” or the herb that chases away the devil. (22)  Several hundred years later, medical books still referred to St. John’s Wort as “fuga demonum” or devil’s scourge, confirming the widespread belief that St. John’s Wort could rid a person of the demons haunting them. (23)  During this time, the “wise women” and midwives kept both the mystical and practical legends of St. John’s Wort alive by passing their knowledge down through the generations as they rendered medical care for their families. (24)  Agelo Sala noted that St. John’s Wort was highly regarded in treating anxiety, illnesses of the imagination, melancholia and disturbances of understanding. (25) 

The ancient belief that St. John’s Wort conferred protection against evil spirits may have risen in part due to its use by traditional healers as a treatment for “melancholia” or what was known at that time as “troubled spirits.” (26)  It was assumed that when the overall disposition or mood of a person was downcast, sad or unsettled, this was the work of evil forces or demons.  St. John’s Wort was not initially used to treat what we now know as depression or anxiety but, fortunately, this hidden benefit was eventually realized while doctors and herbalists were treating wounds, burns and other injuries. 

When an injury was sustained, the individual often felt some measure of anxiety or emotional upset.  Upon administering an infusion (tea made from steaming the leaves and flowers) of St. John’s Wort orally or applying the infused oil directly to the wound, a calming or sedating effect was noticed.  St. John’s Wort then began gaining a reputation for bringing clarity, saneness or a sense of calm instead of demonic torment as was previously believed. (27)  The natural conclusion was that St. John’s Wort carried a measure of spiritual power which was able to protect individuals from the torment of these evil spirits. 

Writings during the 19th century continued to incorporate hypericum for the treatment of melancholia or as we know it today, depression.  (28) Some of these reported medicinal actions of St. John’s Wort have now been scientifically verified by double-blind studies, only to prove what the ancients knew all along. 
by Ronda Nelson
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