The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
The nettles are a family of plants widely distributed over Earth and were once considered very beneficial and widely used. Cloth was spun from nettles. The plant supplied the thread used by Germans and Scandinavians prior to the introduction of flax.
The tops of the leaves may be cooked and are very nutritious. (Stinging nettles really do sting and must be picked with gloves; however once dried or cooked, the sting is gone.) Many beneficial medicinal uses exist. By the Middle Ages, however, in the same places where it had once been prevalent and much used, stinging nettles were so associated with witchcraft that possession was grounds for accusations of being a witch. How did this once beneficial plant develop such an evil reputation?
Although nettles are used to dissolve gallbladder stones, heal wounds, and to relieve the stiffness of arthritis, its primary medicinal associations are largely female-oriented. Stinging nettles are a woman’s friend. Traditional medicinal uses included soothing and hastening labor, so the nettle became perceived as a demonic plant because Eve had been doomed to suffer in childbirth. Attempts to relieve labor pains were considered pagan, sinful, and defiant.
Stinging nettles have other uses: they are classified as a galactogogue, meaning that they stimulate and increase a woman’s milk supply. That’s a fairly innocuous use. However, honey mixed with the juice of Roman nettles (Urtica pilulifera) and applied to a strip of linen inserted vaginally prior to intercourse was an early attempt at contraception in ancient Egypt, as well as the bordellos of ancient Rome. The honey worked as a barrier. Nettle juice may have some spermicidal properties.
Nettles represented wilderness, wild women, and the general quality of being wild. Because they sting and because the juice of nettles provides the antidote for that sting, nettles were identified as the botanical equivalent of snakes, whose venom both heals and harms. Snakes were understood as the animal companion of Satan. Nettles were perceived as diabolical plants. Consuming them allegedly stimulated lust, which perhaps doesn’t seem so bad today, but was, once upon a time, among those sins for which witches, especially alluring, enchanting ones, were blamed. Nettles came to represent witches; they share the witches’ essence and back then that wasn’t meant as a compliment.
The botanical name for what is known in English as blind nettles—Lamium album—derives from Lamia, often understood as a synonym for “witch.” Lamia, in mythology, was a tragic queen reduced to stealing, killing, and maybe consuming other women’s babies.
Stinging nettles are traditionally used in witchcraft to remove curses and break spells. They are protective, guardian plants. Their stinging, prickly nature epitomizes their watchdog nature. What type of dog is most frequently chosen to serve as a guard? A cute, little, fluffy one or a dog that at least looks like it could inflict some damage? The trade in Rottweillers, Dobermans, and pit bull terriers says it all. Stinging nettles are their botanical equivalent. With stinging nettles on your side, who would trespass against you? Or so many thought.
The power of stinging nettles was cruelly turned against convicted witches. Witches were frequently dressed in nettle shirts when they were lead to the funeral pyres. This was for many reasons:
to break their magic and nullify any potential last spells or curses that the witch might cast, because the judges were afraid of their victims
to visually identify them as witches, lest bystanders forget why they were being burned
to signify the Satanic pact by the use of this diabolical plant
to discourage others from wanting any contact with the stinging nettle—only witches would continue to use them
merely to torture them even more with this botanical equivalent of a hair shirt.
It didn’t help that stinging nettles, like mugwort, grows most prolifically among stone ruins and in the cemetery. However, the fairy tale The Wild Swans suggests some awareness of injustice toward the nettles, magical practice, and practitioners of witchcraft. (See FAIRY-TALE WITCHES: Hans Christian Andersen.)