U is for Unguents and Celtic Herbalism


Jarrow Hall from Herb Garden, Bede’s World, near to Jarrow, South Tyneside, Great Britain. Copyright Andrew Curtis. Obtained from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0.

Long before Shakespeare’s witches muttered “double, double, toil and trouble” Celtic priestesses and wise women had bubbling cauldrons filled with herbs and other healing potions that could rival most modern medicine. Deeply connected to the earth, they knew which plants could staunch bleeding, cure illness, alleviate pain, or lessen suffering when wounds or illness could not be cured. Today, we call this “alternative medicine;” during Celtic times, it was the only medicine.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or an herbalist, or even particularly skilled with herbs (outside of cooking) so don’t take anything you read here as medical advice. Don’t try this at home without the advice of a medical professional.

Herbal medicine came in many forms. Tinctures were highly concentrated doses of an herb, usually added to tea or some other drink. Poultices were crushed herbs mixed with mud or a sticky herb like slippery elm to make them stick together. They were applied to the skin. Fomentations were strong herbal teas in which a cloth was dipped (or filled with herbs) and applied to a body part (kind of like medicated gauze is now). Syrups were often made from boiling herbs, water and honey, much like our liquid medicines today (and they probably tasted about as good). Unguents were oils/lotions/salves made from lanolin (natural oils in a sheep’s wool) or beeswax and herbs. The herbs were used fresh when possible, but also dried for use in winter.

The Celts believed that the time of year and phase of the moon affected the potency and/or properties of herbs. Midsummer was traditionally when they were believed to be at their most potent, and herbs were never harvested after Samhain, as they (along with any other crops) were believed at that time to belong to the nature spirits. Some herbs were best harvested under the full moon, while others should be taken under the new moon. The most famous of these is the description from Pliny the Elder (which may or may not be accurate) of white-robed Druids harvesting mistletoe with a golden scythe on the sixth day of the new moon.

Many of the herbs common to our kitchens and gardens today (or at least mine!) would have been introduced to the Celts by the Romans. These include dill, parsley, rosemary, oregano, spearmint, rue, thyme, marjoram, garlic, fennel, basil and sage. Herbs native to Britain included wild chives, round mint, mistletoe, loveage, mallow, wild lettuce, foxglove and water dropwort.  Examples of Celtic usage of herbs include:

  • Hawthorne berries to protect the heart
  • Elder flowers to calm a fever
  • Willow and/or ivy bark to relieve pain
  • Rue to induce vomiting or as an antidote to snake bites
  • Fennel to prevent gas or to wash out the eyes
  • Borage to soothe inflammation and burns
  • Pine oil to relieve coughs
  • Henbane for nerves
  • St. John’s wort for burns and mood ailments
  • Seaweed with rose hips for coughs
  • Horehound to cure coughs, colds and diarrhea

The Celts also used poisonous plants in healing (in small doses, of course). Mistletoe was considered a “cure all” and was thought to make sterile animals fertile and act as an antidote to poison. Hemlock was used as a sedative, antispasmodic and as an antidote to the bite of a mad dog. Eryngo (sea holly) was a diuretic, stimulant and expectorant. Water dropwort was used to treat bronchitis, tuberculosis and asthma. Orpine was used externally to cool inflamed wounds and heal burns. Nightshade, henbane and thorn apple were all used as painkillers and sleeping medicines. Columbine was used for dropsy. Ferns, tansy and mugwort were used to rid a person of intestinal parasites (apparently a very unpleasant cure). Lily of the valley and foxglove were both used to regulate the heart (foxglove still is). In The Healing Power of Celtic Plants, Angela Paine cites a recipe for an anaesthetic potion from the Physicians of Myddfai that includes hemlock, mandrake, wild lettuce, ground ivy, poppy, eryngo and orpine.

A Druid’s Herbal by Ellen Evert Hopan
The Healing Power of Celtic Plants by Angela Paine
Food in Roman Britain by Joan Alcock
Daily Life of the Pagan Celts by Joan Alcock
Celtic Daily Life by Victor Walkey

What have you heard about Celtic herbalism or healing plants? Is there anything obvious I’m forgetting? Are there any sources you would recommend?