BASIL [SWEET BASIL] (Ocimum basilicum): Origin: native to India. Some sources report that the word basil is linked with the Greek word for king (βασιλεύς= Basileus)while others say the plant is named after a fabled reptile, the basilisk, a beast that could kill a person by its breath or glance. In either case, basil is an unusual herb with mixed traditions, for example, it is considered symbolic of poverty and hatred throughout much of northern and central Europe, but highly revered and respected in southern Europe among Italians and Greeks. Throughout India today basil remains sacred to the Hindu gods Krishna and Vishnu. Modern Hindus place a leaf of basil on the breast of the dead prior to burial. In Jewish tradition basil leaves, worn individually or as a small garland, are said to add strength during fasting periods.
The Gerarde herbal suggests that basil dulls the sight, dries up mother’s milk, and is hard on the digestion; when basil leaf juice is mixed with finely ground parched barley, oil of roses, and vinegar, it is good medicine against inflammations and the stings of poisonous beasts; juice of basil leaves mixed with wine from Chios is good for headache; the juice clears eyes of their dimness. Gerarde recommended basil seed beverages as a cure for those in a melancholy state and for others with labored breathing; basil leaves or seeds inserted into the nose cause sneezing [thus purging the brain]; basil leaves reduce the pain of scorpion bites; the smell of basil is good for the heart and brain, while basil seeds cure heart infirmities, take away sorrow that accompanies melancholia, and makes consumers merrie and glad.
The Culpeper herbal reveals that basil use is controversial, whereas ancient writers such as Galen and Dioscorides argued that it should not be consumed in contrast to Pliny and certain Muslim physicians of the Middle Ages who argued for its effectiveness. Culpeper writes that preparations of basil when applied to bites and stings will draw out the poison; if basil allowed to grow in dark places it will encourage the breeding of venomous animals such as scorpions. He concludes that basil consumed during delivery is effective in expelling the neonate and after-birth.
Basil commonly is used in Christian cuisine throughout southern Europe. The link of basil with Christianity is seen in the presumed identification by Helena (mother of Constantine the Great), who reportedly found sprigs of basil growing next to the cross on which Christ was crucified. Basil commonly is associated with death and destruction. Throughout Iran and Malaysia basil is planted on graves while in Egypt Moslem women scatter leaves and flowers on the graves of family members. And in some traditions basil is the symbolic plant of Satan. Traditional Romanians in central Europe believe that if a man accepts a sprig of basil from a girl, she will become his wife. According to traditional Germanic-speaking peoples, a basil leaf serves as a test of purity: it is said that if a non-virgin touches a leaf of basil it will wither. Basil is widely linked with scorpions. One tradition holds that applying basil leaves to scorpion bites will draw out the poison. Curiously, there are other old English traditions that if a sprig of basil is left under a pot inside or outside the house, the leaf will turn into a scorpion! This tradition also has been reported during recent centuries in Milan and Genoa, Italy, where it sometimes has been said that basil plants are homes for scorpions. In some Medieval drawings the image of Poverty is depicted as an old woman dressed in rags seated or standing next to a basil plant. Yet other traditions suggest the contrary: in past centuries in England infusions of basil were prescribed and drunk to produce a cheerful/merry heart.
(Summarized from: Gerarde, 1597, pp. 546-548; Culpeper, 1653, pp.17-18; Skinner, 1911, pp. 59-61; Colin, 1962, p. 8; Northcote, 1971, pp. 11-13, 183; Powell, 1977, p. 42; Priestley and Priestley, 1979, p. 27; Grivetti, 2004, p. 93).