Wormwood and Garlic: Dangers and Protection

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Wormwood and Garlic: Dangers and Protection

Despite all the romance, revelry and fun of witchcraft, the reality is that many people are deathly afraid of witches. They consider witchcraft terrifying and witches dangerous.

What exactly is it that they fear? That answer varies; as usual, much depends upon how one defines witches and witchcraft. Some are genuinely afraid of all aspects of occultism or Paganism. For these people, fear of witchcraft may border on hysteria. The witches don’t actually have to do anything to incite fear: their very existence is perceived as dangerous. Others are fearful of specific aspects of the magical arts—what are perceived as potentially hazardous practices. And then, of course, there can be a fine line between respect and fear: if witches do have access to greater knowledge and/or power, then they should indeed be respected and perhaps handled with care.

The flip side of the power to heal and bless is the power to harm and curse. This has always been a crucial dilemma for many when considering witchcraft. Much depends upon whether someone perceives witches as inherently good, neutral, or evil. If they are good or neutral, then even if they can cause harm, most likely they will not, in the same manner that although physicians and attorneys certainly have the knowledge to create damage and mischief, most rarely do so. However, if you believe, as many do, that witches are inherently evil and malicious and exist solely for the pleasure of creating havoc and harm, then there is no way to consider them without tremendous fear and anxiety. Because these fears and anxieties have existed for ever, various protective measures have developed over the ages as well.

Dangers of Witchcraft


Stick and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” If that old adage was really true, no one would ever have to worry about curses.

A curse is the opposite of a blessing. It is impossible to truly understand curses without an appreciation of the power of blessings. The words “blessing” and “curse” are now often used very loosely, casually, and thoughtlessly—blessings are mechanically offered whenever someone sneezes; “cursing” may be considered synonymous with using profanities. “I cursed him out,” now most often just means that someone directed harsh language at another person.

These words however originally referred to something exceptionally powerful and specific: magical energy transfers from one person toward someone or something else with the intention of affecting the destiny of the target, either positively (blessing) or adversely (curse).

According to traditional belief, some people, for one reason or another (heredity, skill, knowledge, innate ability or otherwise), possess so much power that, if they so choose, they can consciously transmit good fortune or specific miraculous occurrences (healing, fertility, prosperity, safety, and so on) to other people. Although any blessing is valuable, some blessings—those from powerful people who are in touch with sacred forces—are believed to be especially potent.

A curse is the antithesis of a blessing. Conventional occult wisdom suggests that anyone possessing enough power to create good fortune also possesses the power to block, repeal or remove it as well. Blessings bring health, happiness, and success and enable your dreams to come true; curses bring the opposite.

Intrinsic to this original concept of blessing and cursing is the notion that spoken words possess the power to create reality. Blessings and curses may be accompanied and reinforced by hexes, spells or various other magical practices. A true curse is not some vague utterance, nor is it casual use of profanity. Neither is it merely angry emotions randomly directed toward someone.

A curse is a lucidly articulated wish for harm directed toward another. When you casually tell someone to “drop dead” you have just cursed him, although you may not have really intended to do so. Now if there was no intent and you are not a person of exceptional power, that curse may not be strong enough to take effect. However, if you are an exceptionally powerful person…

Curses were once taken very seriously. There was an art to cursing. People prided themselves on their creative and unusual curses and boasted of their efficacy. People competed to create more inventive curses. It was a crime associated with witchcraft during the Burning Times.

Not all curses are equal. Traditional wisdom suggests that just as some people’s blessings are more valuable than others, some people’s curses are especially dangerous:

Image Witches, shamans, and other magical practitioners are believed to deliver powerful curses, as do smiths and metalworkers, who often double as sorcerers and shamans in traditional cultures.

Image Menstruating women are often traditionally believed capable of delivering really lethal curses, one reason why they were often isolated from society.

Image Curses cast by dying people are believed to be exceptionally powerful and almost impossible to repeal. This counts for any words said during the dying process, however “last words” constitute the most potent curse (or blessing) of all.

Witches executed during the Burning Times were frequently prevented from uttering public “last words” for fear that this offered them an opportunity to irrevocably curse their persecutors. A witch’s curse, delivered when she was alive and well, was considered a fearsome thing; a witch’s curse cast as she was dying was once feared as the most potent curse of all. Many local legends recall curses cast by murdered witches and impossible to lift.

The Evil Eye

The Evil Eye may be transmitted with a glance; however it really has little to do with eyes. A substantial percentage of traditional witchcraft and magical practice involves attempts to boost creative, generative, fertility power. Certain magical powers are believed capable of generating this positive creative energy; the Evil Eye can be understood as producing a force that is the antithesis of this generative magic power. Rather than growth and well-being, the Evil Eye stimulates desolation, stagnation, and sterility.

Who casts this Evil Eye or how is it cast? This pertinent question has never been conclusively resolved. Different cultures, traditions, and individuals offer different explanations:

Image The Evil Eye may be a random universal force that is mechanically attracted to certain targets in the manner of a heat-seeking missile.

Image The Evil Eye may emerge from individual people. No consensus exists as to whether it is cast deliberately. Some believe that the Evil Eye stems from resentment and jealousy and that anyone has the capacity to cast it when frustrated or angry. Other schools of thought believe that the Evil Eye is cast deliberately, and that some people are more likely to cast it than others.

Witches (surprise, surprise) are traditionally at the top of the list of dangerous people. (Other suspects include childless women, metalworkers, priests, and certain ethnic groups—inevitably minorities within a culture. Sometimes unusual physical traits are also associated with casting the Evil Eye: blue eyes in places where dark eyes predominate, dark people in largely fair-skinned societies, red-haired people almost everywhere.) Some fear witches specifically because they believe that witches maliciously enjoy casting the Evil Eye.

This association with the Evil Eye is simultaneously a terrible insult and an acknowledgement of perceived power. The person believed capable of casting the Evil Eye is not considered weak and helpless but instead as a person of extraordinary individual power. (This, however, has never stopped persecution of those believed to possess the Evil Eye.)

Although anyone may fall victim to the Evil Eye, some are believed more vulnerable than others: babies and children; brides, pregnant women, young mothers; horses and cattle; and anything new, shiny, and valuable, especially if it’s rare.

Men are not believed especially vulnerable to the Evil Eye, except for their reproductive capacities including basic sexual function.

Luckily there are many effective techniques for preventing, blocking, and removing the effects of the Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye creates a withering effect. The counter-attack often involves the concept of moisture, sometimes symbolically, sometimes literally. Spitting is a common quick-fix remedy to perceived casting of the Evil Eye.

In addition to saliva, the magically protective powers of the human body are often summoned to provide protection from the Eye. Magical replicas of moisture-producing parts of the anatomy are often used to repel and remove the effects of the Eye, such as eyes and genitals.

The gesture known as the “fig hand” repels the Evil Eye. The fig hand depicts a human fist, with the thumb thrust between the first two fingers. The gesture mimics the sexual act and is considered powerfully life-affirming, thus overriding the Evil Eye. (“Fig” literally names the fleshy, lushly seeded fruit but is also ancient Italian slang for “vulva.”) The fig hand amulet is believed to have originated in Italy; it remains popular throughout the Mediterranean as well as in Brazil.

Other protective measures include bells, particularly those cast from metal. Mirrors reflect the Eye back on itself, creating a boomerang effect. The color red repels the Eye and creates an aura of protection: this may be understood as drawing upon women’s primal menstrual power.


Technically, “hex” derives from the German word for “witch” (hexe), however it is commonly used in the English language to indicate a malevolent spell. The linguistic implication is that hexes are the common province of the hexe.

Thus in English, a hex is a malicious, harmful spell. A curse relies on the power of the individual who casts it; a hex follows the format of a spell. Although anyone can cast a hexing spell, many believe that hexes cast by a witch are more powerful than those cast by a layperson:

Image Witches possess secret knowledge and thus know of more lethal spells.

Image Witches are professional spell-casters and thus have greater access to “professional secrets.”

Image Witches possess greater experience with hexes and, as that old saying goes, “practice makes perfect.”

Image Witches are allied with potent spiritual entities who may be invoked to assist and reinforce their spells.

Image Those who define witches as possessing supernatural power believe that, by their very nature, witches can cast more powerful spells than the average human.

None of these reasons are necessarily true, although all are commonly believed. Intent is the key with hexes: identical material and techniques may be used to cast or break a hex. Identical spells may be used to cast a malicious hex or to create loving magic: tossing graveyard dirt at someone may be intended to stimulate disaster or to create an aura of protection. Actions and materials may be identical; the sole difference is the focus and intent of the spell-caster. That focus and intent is sufficient to produce the desired outcome.

Menstrual Power

What’s that old gender stereotype? Women are the frail, gentle species; men are the stronger sex? Well, there may be an even more ancient, primordial stereotype that turns the tables on that cliché: physical power isn’t the strongest force on Earth. Women were once considered to be the more magically potent gender, as demonstrated by their spiritual alliance with powerful natural phenomena like the moon, tides, and Earth herself. The following were considered to demonstrate proof of women’s magic power:

Image Women’s ability to bring forth life from their own bodies

Image Women’s ability to miraculously provide food from their own bodies

Image Menstruation, the monthly flow of blood that indicates the potential for fertility and the promise of life rather than death

Women were initially revered, respected, and worshipped because of this power. It is no accident that the earliest sacred images took the form of females.

No material on Earth, nothing, is traditionally considered more magically powerful than menstrual blood; no practitioner is as powerful as a menstruating woman—with the exception of a menopausal woman. This isn’t a contradiction; women weren’t perceived as losing power as they aged but gaining it.

The respect, reverence, and fear of menstrual power are fairly universal and are commonly perceived by anthropologists to be extraordinarily primordial beliefs.

Image Traditional metaphysical wisdom suggests that menstrual blood creates a solid wall of magical protection: it can break and prevent curses, hexes, and the Evil Eye. It can counteract virtually every other power, ward or spell. (See DICTIONARY: Ward.)

Image Consumption of as little as a single drop of a woman’s menstrual blood is believed to stimulate undying love and devotion for her. Should you consume a woman’s menstrual blood, knowingly or unknowingly, it is believed that she will for ever command your heart.

Image Once upon a time, very long ago, many historians, scholars, and anthropologists suggest that menstrual blood provided the very first blood sacrifices: no one was killed, no one got hurt. However, only women—and women of a certain age—were capable of making these offerings. It thus offered a certain segment of the population monopoly on spiritual power.

However, anything so potent is also potentially dangerous. There is a theory that the real reason behind the tradition of isolating menstruating women is not because they were temporarily “unclean” but because they were temporarily too powerful and dangerous to be left unsupervised. (In many traditional cultures, as in offices where women work very closely together, menstrual cycles tend to become synchronized, therefore all the women in one community might menstruate simultaneously, creating a formidable magical army.)

What else can menstrual blood magically do? Because menstrual blood is such an intensely yin (female) power, it may counteract or deactivate yang (male) energy. It can deactivate men’s amulets; it may be able to deactivate men and their magic as well. Admonitions to avoid sexual contact with menstruating women may have been initially intended to preserve male power.

Image In traditional Romany culture, a curse delivered by a menstruating woman, particularly if she flaps her skirts in your direction, is believed to be virtually irremovable.

Image In ancient Hawaii, a menstrual rag carried as a flag created an aura of protection around a party traveling through dangerous territory; it was the equivalent of a white flag of safety.

Menstruation came to embody the most shameful, sinful aspects of the female gender. However ancient legends and awareness of its power never entirely disappeared from the general population. Witches still reveled in the moonlight and gathered lunar plants like mugwort, among whose primary uses is aligning one’s personal cycle with the moon.

If the witch is understood as embodying this primordial potent female power, then this is a crucial reason why she became so feared and why she is perceived as potentially dangerous and capable of being destructive. Her curses and hexes are especially potent because of her ability and willingness to access this power.

Over the millennia, substitutes have evolved that echo and closely approximate that power: anyone regardless of age or gender can learn to use them, although in general they are affiliated with women’s magic and power. While not as innately powerful as the real thing, they come pretty close, and in the hands of an expert practitioner they may be extremely effective. Furthermore, even those with access to true menstrual blood may not find it convenient or socially acceptable to use and so the following substitutes are very popular magic spell ingredients: henna; iron, iron oxide powder, and ground hematite; vermillion powder, red ochre or red brick dust; red botanical material like bloodroot, dragon’s blood resin or red sandalwood powder; dried ground scarlet flower petals like carnations, roses or poppies; and red witch candles.

See also BOTANICALS: Mugwort, Opium Poppy; MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Metalworkers; PLACES: Bathhouse; WOMEN’S MYSTERIES.

Protective Measures

All these dangers and hazards; what can a person do? Because witchcraft is so ancient, various solutions, remedies and obstacles to its perceived dangers have evolved over the millennia.

When considering protective measures against witchcraft, it’s crucial to consider how the term “witchcraft” is being defined. Some consider witchcraft to be dangerous in general. However many discussions of the “dangers of witchcraft” are actually about the dangers of malevolent spell-casting. It isn’t all witchcraft that’s perceived as dangerous; witchcraft itself isn’t the problem. Instead protective measures are needed to ward off only malevolent magic. Many solutions have been devised by witches and utilize the tools of the witchcraft trade.

Botanical Solutions

Certain botanicals are believed to protect against malevolent magic. Many are used in protective spells and are incorporated into rituals to remove hexes and curses. If planted on one’s property they keep the area safe from magical harm. Among the most popular are:

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis, A. vera)

Angelica (Angelica spp.)

Bamboo (Bambusa spp.)

Benzoin (Styrax benzoin)

Betony (Betonica officinalis)

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga serpentaria)

Blackthorn (Sloe) (Prunus spinosa)

Cinquefoil (Five-finger grass) (Potentilla reptans)

Devil’s Pod (Ling Nut) (Trapa bicornis)

Eupatorium (Eupatorium odorata)

Frankincense (Boswellia carterii)

Galangal (Laos root) (Alpinia galanga)

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Mucura (Petiveria alliacea)

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntina)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Syrian Rue (Harmal) (Peganum harmala)

Ti Plant (Cordyline terminalis)

Wisteria (Wisteria spp.)

Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The Cross and Christian Power

Among the earliest promises of Christianity was that believers would be safe from all malevolent magic. The early Christian writer Athanasius wrote in c.356, “Where the sign of the cross appears magic loses its power and witchcraft is ineffective.” (So then, who needs witch trials?)

Many believe that Christian prayers and symbols will protect against witchcraft. Whether they will only serve true believers or whether their inherent power is so great that they automatically repel witchcraft and other malevolent powers like vampires remains subject to vociferous debate.

First and foremost among these Christian symbols is The Cross, and crosses are a common motif in protective magic around the world. (Missionaries who’ve discovered crosses used in similar fashion in non-Christian areas have historically understood this phenomenon to be a spiritual testament.) However, crosses (two crossed lines) are a very simple geometric shape, and their use as a sacred symbol pre-dates Christianity by millennia. Because Christianity has been such a powerful modern influence, many automatically assume that any cross must indicate Christianity. This is not the case:

Image Crosses were sacred to Aphrodite long before the birth of Christ.

Image Crosses were important symbols in the indigenous traditions of Africa and the Americas, long before contact with Christians.

Image Crosses may indicate that magical energy is able to travel in all directions, thus the shape is beneficial for protective spells. No area is left unprotected and vulnerable.

Image In Congolese tradition, crosses represent the eternal human cycle of birth and rebirth.

Stores that sell “spiritual supplies” or “religious goods” may sell small wax candles in the shape of a cross. These candles represent “crossed conditions”—the heavy cross some seem cursed to bear. Burning the cross effectively removes the crossed condition and these candles are thus used in magical spells to remove hexes, tricks, and curses.

A novena is a nine-day prayer ritual, and may be held for any desired goal. This one allegedly protects against witchcraft, the devil, dogs, and disease: accompany a nine-day regimen of blessed bread and holy water with daily recitations of three Pater Nosters and three Ave Maria’s in honor of the Trinity and St Herbert.

The concept of the novena pre-dates Christianity and so the ritual is easily adapted for those possessing other spiritual orientations.

1. Burn a new candle each evening for nine consecutive evenings.

2. Murmur over the candles, recite blessings and sacred verses, direct appeals to sympathetic higher powers.

3. Each morning throw the wax remnants from the candle as far away from your house as possible.

Protection against witchcraft isn’t limited to Christian spiritual traditions. Certain deities and spiritual entities are believed capable of providing protection and remedying all magically derived harm. Among the most powerful are the archangels Michael and Gabriel, Kapo, Elegba, the Seven African Powers, Medusa, Durga, Kali, and Kwan Yin.

Certain sacred texts are believed to possess the power to remove and repel magical harm. Constant repetition and meditation on these texts turns the key to safety. Among the most popular of these texts are the biblical Book of Job and the Book of Psalms, most especially the 91st Psalm. Please see BOOKS: Books of Magical Protection for more information on this topic as well as the Germanic tradition of Himmelsbrief—magical texts that provide personal safety.

Power of the Witch

Among the many ironies associated with witchcraft is that many, if not most of the materials allegedly used to combat witchcraft are actually primary tools of the trade.

This may be understood as fighting fire with fire; magical practices used to protect against harmful witchcraft include charms, spells, and amulets. Among the most powerful protective devices are salt, iron, and menstrual blood, important components of many magic spells and part of the witch’s own arsenal. Body imagery is also considered especially effective against harmful magic as it is against the Evil Eye: replicas of hands, eyes, and genitals magically preserve and protect.

Where this begins to get strange is when certain practices or symbols are reputed to banish or deactivate witches themselves. For instance, elder and rowan wood, known as witch trees, allegedly guard against witchcraft and keep its practitioners far away. The dilemma is that these very materials are favored by the witches themselves. Thus while some believe that mullein, for instance, keeps witches far away, no one seems to have bothered to inform the witches. Instead they keep using these same materials in their own spells.

Part of the confusion derives from language. When people describe the dangers of witchcraft, they often don’t mean all magical practice, merely the harmful ones. What they’re trying to say is that these materials ward off all malevolent magic. However in societies where all magical practice has officially been condemned and where practitioners fear for their lives, such precise language may be impossible. And after all, how can one categorize rowan twigs wrapped in scarlet ribbons as anything but a spell? It will only be authorized and safe to use if one describes it as intended to combat witchcraft. Describing something as being anti-witchcraft often permitted specific magical practices to continue in safety. What was really being prevented was harm, not witchcraft per se.

Real witchcraft practices are often cloaked in what are described as measures protecting against witchcraft itself. For instance, the following allegedly protect against witchcraft:

Image Horseshoes nailed over doors

Image Brooms placed across doors

Image Silver in the form of bullets or charms

Silver coins, if truly made from silver, allegedly alert you to the presence of malevolent witchcraft. Silver coins were worn on chains around the neck or placed inside one’s shoe: should one encounter malevolent forces, allegedly the coin will suddenly, dramatically blacken or tarnish.

Silver, horseshoes, and (especially) brooms are all magical symbols and tools of witches themselves: each one evokes primal female magical power. How could they then be used to banish witches and prevent them from accessing their power? They don’t; however they will prevent malevolent magic, as they have allegedly done for ages, whether in the hands of witches or others. Anti-witchcraft language permitted these tools of witchcraft to continue to be accessible to witches during times when witchcraft was dangerous to practice.

See BOTANICALS: Alder, Elder, Mullein, Rowan; TOOLS: Brooms.