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The Hand Reveals

By Dylan Warren-Davis
St John's Wort

St John's Wort


by Dylan Warren Davis

Of the many plants used to celebrate the summer solstice, St John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) stands out: it was chosen by the Celts for their solstice ceremonies, though little - including their name for the plant - has come down to us in everyday use.

Vestiges of the Celtic use could be found until comparatively recently: "In Man it was the custom to wear a sprig of St John's wort to mark the day [ie., midsummer], but in the early 19th century, members of the island's parliament, the House of Keys, adopted mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, a local plant."[1]

As its name implies, St John's wort was used in celebrations relating to St John the Baptist, whose feast day falls on June 24. It is highly unlikely that this was his actual birthday, since there have been many substantial changes to the calendar through the centuries. December 25 was adopted as the birth date of Jesus by the Roman church in the 4th century - a day that had been formerly celebrated by the Romans as their winter solstice and the birth of Mithras, their solar deity.

The birth date of St John was thus calculated as being six months before the birth of Christ, and symbolically this is very interesting as it is not only when the sun reaches its zenith - and thus its time of greatest influence - but it is also the time of the Sun's ingress into Cancer, which as a water sign is linked with the rite of baptism and connected with motherhood and rebirth.[2] The Sun, symbolising the soul, can be taken in Cancer to represent the ritualistic cleansing of the soul prior to its rebirth in Leo, the next sign of the zodiac, which corresponds with the heart. Symbolically, then, the light of the soul takes residence in the heart reflecting the biblical reference to: "Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God". The commemoration of St John the Baptist on June 24 is very appropriate for the person who baptised Christ, described as "a light to them that sit in darkness".


Culpeper describes the nature of St John's wort as "under the celestial sign Leo, and the dominion of the Sun".[3] Its solar nature is shown by its golden yellow flowers, with their stamens radiating like rays from the Sun. So powerful was this image that in mediaeval times the plant acquired the name Sol Terrestris (literally, 'Terrestrial Sun'). The flowering time of the herb made it ideal to celebrate the solstice, while later on in the season - after the flowers are over - the leaves become mottled with reddish spots. According to tradition, St John was beheaded on August 29, in response to the request by Salome, the daughter of Herod, made at her father's birthday feast. Once the St John's wort flowers are over, the plant appears "beheaded" and the red spots can be visualised as drops of blood spilt on to the leaves. Thus the characteristics of the plant were seen to echo the fate of its patron saint.


A theme in common with other solar plants, is the herb's ability to counteract the forces of darkness. Not only are the forces of light, symbolised by the Sun, present in the plant, but also it is given the additional sanctity of St John, making it especially potent in this respect. In its lore, the plant is found as "a preservative against evil spirits, phantoms, spectres, storms, and thunder".[4] A simple traditional rhyme illustrates this idea:

St John's wort, scaring from the midnight heath,
the witch and goblin with its spicy breath.

- while several of its names allude to this property: Fuga Daemon 'Devil's flight', Devil Chaser, and its generic name, Hypericum, which comes from a Greek word meaning 'over an apparition'. The celebration of the Summer solstice used all this symbolism when the plant was gathered on the eve of St John's day. The herb could be worn about the person to ward off witchcraft and sorcery and was also hung about doors and windows to keep evil away from the house.

In England and Wales, St John's wort was suspended over doorways along with green birch, long fennel, orpine and white lilies, to guard against intruding malevolent entities. The medicinal use of St John's wort was particularly favoured by the Knight's Hospitallers, who were involved with guarding the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem and protecting pilgrims as they travelled to the Holy Land. They also cared for those wounded during the Crusades and this is where the herb's reputation as a wound plant was established. When it is recognised that St John the Baptist was the patron saint of the Hospitallers,[5] then this solar herb, with his signature, would have been especially favoured to heal the wounds. From its reputation as a cure-all, comes the obscure name of the plant 'tutsan' which is a corruption of the French La toute-saine - meaning 'all-heal'.


Contemporary scientific research confirms these ideas, as the volatile oil found in the plant has been shown to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral actions, alongside a range of other substances that collectively help the regeneration of damaged tissue and reduce inflammation.

Bacterial infection, a likely concomitant of sword and stab wounds, makes such injuries slow to heal, even preventing healing altogether, thus the volatile oil would significantly have contributed to the herb's mediaeval reputation as a vulnerary.

Volatile oils are readily soluble in vegetable oils, whereas they are practically insoluble in water - hence the following preparation recorded in Gerard,[6] which is still used by herbalists today, can be seen to specifically extract this very important antiseptic component of the plant:

"The leaves, flowers and seeds stamped, and put into a glass with oyle Olive, and set in hot Sunne, for certaine weekes together, and then strained from those herbs, and the like quantatie of new put in and sunned in like manner, doth make an oyle of the colour of blood, which is a most precious remedy for deepe wounds, and those that are through the body, for sinues that are pricket or any wound made with a venomed weapon."

The setting of the glass in the 'hot Sunne' would warm the 'oyle' enhancing the extraction of the volatile oils and in turn its pharmacological action. However, in the minds of the mediaeval physicians a subtle alchemy was at work. The Sun, seen as the source of all light and vitality, shining into the oil was visualised as potentiating the healing action of the solar plant. Whatever one's attitudes towards the way ancient physicians understood the herbal world, their symbolic methodology in this case has worked out an antiseptic salve centuries before microbiological science and the development of antibiotics.

Notes & References:

  1 ] W. Rutherford, The Druids - Magicians of the West.
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  2 ] A particularly fine example of this astrological connection between the zodiacal signs and baptism is found in the bas-reliefs and frescoes in the Baptistery at Parma.
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  3 ] Culpeper. Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged, 1653.
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  4 ] R. Folkard, Plant Lore, Legends and Lyrics, 1884.
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  5 ] D.H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
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  6 ] J. Gerard, The Herbal or General Historie of Plants, 1597
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Dylan Warren-Davis has been practising herbal medicine (naturopathy) for nineteen years, since qualifying as a prize-winning student with the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (UK) in 1982. Since completing his herbal training, Dylan has been involved in researching and rediscovering the lost European metaphysical teachings, upon which Western herbal knowledge is based. He has been engaged in the commercial production of herbal tinctures and has been a consultant on the manufacturing of herbal tinctures to the herbal industry in Britain.

 See also: Garlic, the embodiment of a Martian Herb

© Dylan Warren-Davis
This article was published in issue 12 (August 1996) of the Traditional Astrologer Magazine of which Dylan was an associate editor

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