Juniper - Botanicals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


(Juniperus communis)

Juniper is not poisonous. Every year, juniper trees are safely brought into the home at Christmas. Its berries are found among the spice aisles of food markets, not to mention as the primary flavoring in gin. Juniper is a component of many over-thecounter medical preparations, bath oils, herbal, and cosmetic products. However, it is not safe for use by pregnant women or by those actively attempting to conceive.

Juniper is an evergreen widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, with a long history of use in magic, midwifery, herbal medicine, and the brewing of intoxicants. Like those other small trees, elder and rowan, juniper is simultaneously identified with witchcraft and an alleged guard against it.

Long ago, in Western Asia, juniper was associated with Lady Asherah and her daughters Anat and Astarte. Like those renowned, powerful goddesses, juniper is associated with birth, death, and prophetic ability.

Juniper earned its fame as an herbal menstrual regulator. For women who lacked periods or whose cycles were irregular, preparations of juniper could jump-start them onto the road to regularity and fertility. However, timing and need are everything: juniper was also famous as a contraceptive and herbal abortifacient. Depending upon one’s perspective, juniper was understood as a woman’s stalwart botanical ally, providing whatever she needed, or as an evil tree under the dominion of Satan.

Juniper is included in many love spells and aphrodisiac formulations. When administered to men, frequently in the form of a potion, it allegedly increases sexual prowess and irresistibility. When administered to women, especially if in the form of a bath or douche, as in the Hoodoo formulation known as Hot Mama for instance, it may be understood as being intended to have contraceptive effects. (There is as yet no conclusive scientific information verifying or disputing this historic folkloric use of juniper, although, pregnant women are strongly cautioned against its use.)

Juniper’s magical uses aren’t limited to love and reproduction: it was also burned to stimulate clairvoyance and for protection from disease. (The volatile oils released by the burning wood provide an antiseptic effect.) Even after World War I, French hospitals burned juniper branches alongside lavender to minimize rates of infection and the spread of disease. Juniper wood was traditionally included in Samhain bonfires to stimulate clairvoyance among those who inhaled its fumes.

Juniper was also believed by some to ward off witchcraft. If one understands “witchcraft” to be synonymous with malevolent magic, then the belief makes sense; however it remains ironic, because by the late Middle Ages and beyond in Central Europe, juniper had become almost exclusively associated with witches and midwives.

Juniper became famous for its use as an herbal contraceptive and abortifacient at a time when such things were against the law and believed by many to set one literally onto the road to Hell. This was particularly true of the subspecies Juniperus sabina, popularly known as savin or sabin, which grows in Alpine regions and Central Europe and is a particularly potent menstrual regulator. The phrase “giving birth under the savin” was a common euphemism used during the Middle Ages for induced miscarriage.

An eighteenth-century traveler visiting Swabia (now in modern Germany) writes that savin bushes served as a code, providing clear messages that couldn’t be spoken aloud. Savin bushes in a garden signaled that the garden belonged to either a midwife or a barber, who at the time also frequently offered abortion services. Desperate people stole entire bushes or raided them for materials. Local authorities, on the other hand, periodically destroyed savin bushes as preventive measures. Eventually in many Central European areas, the only savin bushes to be found were discreetly hidden among other plants on private property. Bushes on public property had all been destroyed. If the botanicals don’t exist, women can’t use them.

Do not be in a hurry to plant savin bushes or at least not for personal use. They are beautiful, fragrant, powerful plants. However, although juniper bushes survive, the skilled practitioners who knew their secrets did not. Like the other plants in this section, administration required an experienced practitioner with a skillful hand. The wrong dosage, by a very slight margin, could cause disaster. The Brothers Grimm story The Juniper Tree recounts the tale of a woman who, unable to conceive, makes a paganinfluenced sacrifice under her juniper tree. She conceives, but late in pregnancy (too late; she dies) she develops a desperate craving for juniper berries. The story is mysterious and indecipherable unless one understands the implications of that tree and those berries, inferences the Grimms’ sources would have immediately understood.

Juniper’s role as a component in intoxicating beverages remains today. It was once used to flavor whiskey. Genevrette is a French beer-like drink brewed from equal parts barley and juniper berries. The Dutch alcoholic beverage known as jenever eventually evolved into the English potion, gin.

See also CALENDAR: Samhain.