The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Saint John’s Wort
Saint John’s wort is a plant with powerful solar affiliations. If mugwort is the plant of the moon, then Saint John’s wort belongs to the sun. According to the ancient Greeks, while mugwort was Artemis’ sacred plant, Saint John’s wort epitomized the power of her brother, the solar spirit Apollo. Saint John’s wort is understood metaphysically as mugwort’s brother.
Saint John’s wort derived its English folk name from the feast day of John the Baptist, which coincides with Midsummer’s Eve and the Summer Solstice. It is when the sun is at its maximum height and it is when Hypericum perforatum is at its peak, too. (So is mugwort—a folk name for that plant is Saint John’s Girdle.)
Saint John’s wort is a sunny plant; it brings light and cheer and clarity where previously there was darkness and despair. It is probably the plant in this section most familiar to the average reader because Saint John’s wort’s magical uses have been found by modern science to be true: Saint John’s wort is a modern remedy against depression. Although the concept of standardized medication is new, Saint John’s wort’s reputation for providing light in the darkness is ancient.
In medieval France, it was traditionally used as a remedy against interference from the fairies, especially when that interference is experienced as depression and malaise.
In Greek tradition, sprigs of Saint John’s wort were hung over portraits of the dead so that whatever ills the deceased had suffered, whether physical, emotional or psychic, would be relieved. Their afflictions, pain, and suffering would be terminated so as not to infect the living with these emanations.
Mugwort and Saint John’s wort may be understood as complementary powers or as oppositional forces, depending upon your perspective. If mugwort epitomized witchcraft, then witch-hunters’ believed that Saint John’s wort would oppose and eradicate it. If mugwort is maximum yin—an emphatically female plant—then Saint John’s wort is maximum yang, the epitome of masculinity. If mugwort is the evil sister, then Saint John’s wort is the heroic brother.
The use of Saint John’s wort by witch-hunters may be understood as cultural or magical appropriation. That Saint John’s wort was also popular amongst witches is indicated by its German folk-name, Walpurgis Herb. However, in French Saint John’s wort is called “chasse-diable” or “devil-chaser.”
Witch-hunters fed Saint John’s wort tea to accused witches in the belief that it negated the devil’s compact. Negating the compact didn’t mean that now everything was all right and the ex-witch could go home free. She was doomed anyway; “negating the compact” merely ensured that it would be safe to execute her. She would lack the power to execute vengeance on her judges and executioners.