Myrtle, Basil, Rosemary, and Three-Lobed Sage as Ritual Plants in the Monotheistic Religions: an Historical–Ethnobotanical Comparison

Abstract

This study surveys the history, origin, and ethnobotanical evidence of why Myrtus communis L., Ocimum basilicum L., Rosmarinus officinalis L., and Salvia fruticosa Mill. are used as ritual plants in the main monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, but also Druze, Mandaeism, and Zoroastrianism). All these aromatic plants are odoriferous, medicinal, and apotropaic. By reviewing about 180 selected references, mainly from the Mediterranean basin, we compiled five tables with 313 citations on these ritual uses in different territories and according to diverse religions. The use of these species in rites of passage is found in all the main monotheistic religions and, in critical stages of the human life cycle, is related to warding off the evil eye/bad spirits/Satan, demons, or witches. These ritual customs have deep roots in ancient pagan cultures. The use of these plants in official religious ceremonies shows that different religious ritual uses of myrtle in Judaism (as a compulsory part of the Sukkoth festival), basil in the Greek Orthodox Church (mainly as a component of the Exaltation of the Cross), and rosemary mainly in the Catholic Church (especially as a decoration in the church). The uses of the three-lobed sage for a ritual by Muslims in the Holy Land are local and are not part of established religious ceremonies. While these plants have many similar ritual aspects in different regions/religions, it seems that they can be used interchangeably, probably as a result of syncretism and cultural migration of customs.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Danchu Arnon, Sakra Jen, and Javier Tardío for the transfer of their photographs and Robin Permut for the language edition.

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Dafni, A., Petanidou, T., Vallianatou, I. et al. Myrtle, Basil, Rosemary, and Three-Lobed Sage as Ritual Plants in the Monotheistic Religions: an Historical–Ethnobotanical Comparison. Econ Bot 74, 330–355 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12231-019-09477-w

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Key Words

  • Ritual plants, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, ethnobotany, rites of passage