The Folklore and Magical side of BASIL …                      

While most of us associate basil with Italian food, it is actually native to India and Southeast Asia. The earliest known reference stretches back 5,000 years to Indian Vedic texts. And true to its long history, it comes in many varieties; sweet basil used in Italian recipes, “holy” basil in ayurvedic medicine, or even Thai and Lemon basil.



Some historians believe that basil originated in Africa – where locals claimed it protected against scorpions. 4,000 years ago it was used by the Egyptians for embalming. It was also referenced as a herbal medicine in the Ebers Papyrus of 1500 BC.

Other historians believe that basil originated in India. This close cousin of mint is indigenous to the lower hills of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh but cultivated throughout all of India. Named Tulsi (holy basil), this fragrant herb is cherished for its healing properties. For Hindu, tulsi is an essential part of the worship of Vishnu.


In India, it was used to ward off evil and was considered sacred and a symbol of long life, love, fidelity, eternal life, purification, and protection. They would place it in the mouth of the dying to ensure they reach God.  They also bathed the head of the body in Tulasi water before being buried and put a leaf on the chest over the heart.

It was consecrated to the Hindu god, Vishnu,whose wife Tulasi (akaTulsi) was said to have taken the form of basil when she came to earth.  According to lore, Tulasi, whose name was Vrinda, threw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre because she was so upset that he died.  Vishnu deitified her and declared that she should be worshiped by wives and would prevent them from becoming widows. Her burnt hair was turned into the Holy Basil. That’s why Hindus avoid harming basil plants, and offer up prayers for touching a part of Tulasi.

So important was this plant – in some Indian courts, people swore oaths by a basil bush, and households keep their own basil plant, pray to it.   It is believed the presence of Tulsi can keep evil spirits away while attracting divine blessings – it is often planted by the front door of a house.

Vrinda.  Thank you The Motherhouse of The Goddess !


There are some indications that basil may have moved farther east than India with ancient records from 807 A.D. suggesting it was used in the Hunan region of China at that time. Basil eventually migrated westward as whole plants as it could be grown easily indoors and away from exposure to cold climates and frost.

Ancient Greece


The Basilisk and the Weasel by Wenceslaus Holler. Thank you Cassidy Cash !

Some say “Basil” is derived from the Greek word basilikon for “royal.”  Others say the name Basil was derived from Greek mythology – named after the terrifying basilisk, a half-lizard, half-dragon creature with a fatal piercing stare. The basil was a magical cure against the look, breath or even the bite of the basilisk.

Folklore says Alexander the Great brought basil to Greece around 350 B.C., but it did not enjoy the positive reputation accorded to it in India.  Ancient Greeks associated basil with misfortune, believing that basil would flourish only in areas where there was poverty, hatred, and abuse. They also believed it could only successfully be sown if the seeds were cast while ranting and swearing.

Basil represented hatred but also that it would open the gates of heaven.  It was used in funeral rituals and sometimes painted on tombstones.  In Greece today, it is used in certain religious rituals as a symbol of fertility.

Ancient Egyptians

As a passport to help the deceased to enter Paradise, basil was used as a botanical preparation in embalming bodies. It was found with the mummies of ancient Egypt. Perhaps because of its embalming usage, basil was also a symbol of mourning. It was widely used together with other essences, for religious ceremonies.

Thank you Catrina’s Garden for this Egyption drawing !


Romans believed the most potent basil could only be grown if one planted the seed while ranting and swearing – cursing their enemies as they sowed. The more you mistreated the herb, the better it grew.

Although a symbol of hatred, it eventually became a token of love in Italy. Romans considered it the symbol of lovers, and it was also used as an aromatic herb in cooking.

Thank you History and Archeology Online !

4th Century

 In the early 4th century, St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, was credited with discovering relics of the original cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified.  According to legend, she was led to the site by following a trail of basil which sprang from the places where Jesus’ blood was shed and fell to the ground.

St Helena.  Thank you Catholic Tradition !

Middle Ages

Europeans thought that basil caused the spontaneous generation of scorpions and that even smelling basil would cause getting scorpions in one’s brain!!!! AGHHH !!!!  And should one sting you, folklore said basil was a cure. Herbalists at the same time also thought that basil leaves left unattended would turn into a scorpion.

Legend says to acquire a scorpion, one should place a few basil leaves under a flowerpot and after a while, the pot would be lifted to expose a scorpion.

It was also placed in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey. It was also associated with purity and was often given as a romantic token from young men to the ladies they were courting It was believed to hold magical properties and was used as a defense against “basilisk”, a monster resembling a poisonous serpent.

Thank you Daily Motion for the picture of the scary scorpion !


In 1500 basil was introduced to Northern Europe. In England it was held in contempt because it would not grow when planted next to rue (Rutaceae). Herbalists thought that rue could protect against poisons, therefore anything that would not flourish next to it was held in suspicion.


Basil is known as the king of herbs. The provenance of this is murky, but the Greek word for king, basileus, lends itself to this connection. In addition to its common French name, it is also known as l’herbe royale. But if you want to slander someone in France – the phrase to use is semer le basilic (“sow basil”) –  means to rant.  Lore claims it belongs to Satan and you must curse the ground as you plant it in order for it to grow properly.


Hebrew traditions used to use basil to provide strength during religious fasting. Those participating in a religious fast would wear garlands of fresh basil around their necks, the fragrance of which was thought to satiate hunger and make fasting easier.


In Portugal, dwarf bush basil is traditionally presented in a pot, together with a poem and a paper carnation, to a sweetheart, on the religious holidays of Saint John and Saint Anthony.

Orthodox Church

Basil has religious significance in the Greek Orthodox Church, where it is used to sprinkle holy water. The Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, and Romanian Orthodox Church use basil to prepare holy water and pots of basil are often placed below church altars.

Some Greek Orthodox Christians even avoid eating it due to its association with the legend of the Elevation of the Holy Cross.  Tradition has it that basil was found growing around Christ’s tomb after the Resurrection

Blessing of the water with Basil in Greek Orthodox Church.  Thank you Facebook !


 Young maidens would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to profess their availability. In some regions of Italy,basil is known as “kiss-me-Nicholas.”



Italian folklore equated sweet basil with love, and a woman who wanted to advertise her availability to perspective suitors placed a pot of basil on her windowsill.


The royal herb in Romania is associated with the Dragobete celebration of love and happiness. If a boy accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, it means they are engaged to be married and if a girl places a sprig under her pillow she will dream of her future lover. In some places this act is representative of an official engagement.


Basil was used in English folk magic, like so many other things, to ward off harmful spells as well as to keep away pests. Apparently, witches drank basil juice before flying on their brooms !

Thank you Today I Found Out

During Tudor times, small pots of basil were given to guests as a parting gift. Perhaps it would be useful in traveling spells. Also, several sources say that if a gift of basil is given to a member of the opposite sex, he or she will fall deeply in love with the giver and be forever faithful.


Basil got to North America with the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1621 – then spread through the colonies.

Modern folklore

In Crete, basil is placed on window ledges to repel Satan.


Basil is sacred to the goddess of love, Erzulie.

Different depictions of the goddess Erzulie.  Thank you Facebook !

Love and Marriage

When it comes to love, Basil also served many purposes. A husband could find out if his wife was unfaithful by having her hold a sprig of basil. If the leaves shriveled, the woman was believed to have been unfaithful.

Another common belief maintained that if you smelled basil, you would attract a new lover. And another popular myth that suggested if a young maiden wanted a husband, she merely had to plant some basil and in a years times a new suitor would show up.


In Santeria, Basil (Albahaca in Spanish – origins of Arabic) can be used for purification and luck baths. It is also widely used as a fumigating herb, known to remove spirits from a home. Mixed with passion flower, it can be made into a powerful cleansing bath. It is also commonly used in a number of sacred objects and talismans.


Receiving a Santeria blessing.  Thank you Ashe’ pa mi Cuba !


 With so many magical attributes, many followers use Basil in spells even today.

            Purification Spray: Simmer cut lemon and fresh basil in water. When cooled and added to a spray bottle, it can be used to clean sacred objects, candles, altars, spaces, the work environment, etc.

Purification Bath: Mix basil, eucalyptus and rosemary into some Epsom or kosher salt. Add 3 tablespoons of this mixture into your bath. To banish bad habits or negative energy, perform a spiritual bath by lighting two black candles at each side of the tub. Mix the salt mixture into a warm bucket of water and pour over your body, from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.

Thank you Wicca Now !


Exorcism Incense: (to remove evil spirits from the home): Mix basil, rue, hyssop and myrrh and grind to a powder. Burn over a charcoal making sure you fumigated every corner of your home.

Banishing Incense or Banishing Bath: (to remove negative people or bad habits): Mix basil, pine, Lemon peel and Devils Shoestring. Either grind to a powder and burn over charcoal for incense. Or Simmer in water for a bath wash.

Harmony, Love and Forgiveness Incense: Mix basil, marjoram, lavender and balm of Gilead and             grind them down to a powder. Burn over a charcoal in the center of the home. This same recipe can be        used for reconciliation, particularly if you add a bit of violet.

To Draw in Money: Carry a basil leaf in your wallet.






Plant Specialists can install lots of Basil in your garden !!!

 – plenty to cook with and enough left over to make a spell !



This Blog Post written by Peter Morris BSc. MSc. MBA