Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort)

[Welcome to the first in a new column, ev0king the Green. Here, Scriba will discuss the history, lore, medicinal, and magical properties of various herbs. They begin with the well-known, and much misunderstood, mugwort. Please note — as always — consult with a licensed medical professional before applying, consuming, or otherwise making use herbs.]

Una: The Magick of Mugwort

Keep in mind, Mugwort, what you made known,
What you laid down at the great denouncing.
Una your name is, oldest of herbs,
Of might against three, and against thirty.
Of might against venom and the onflying,
Of might against the vile foe who fares through the land.

~ Lacnunga charm

When approaching a plant to connect with it spiritually, first sit with it alive either in the wild or the garden if at all possible. This can be hard with more exotic plants or if you have mobility issues (whether transportation or disability). If you can, however, it tells you so much about this plant — where and when it grows can give you clues to its nature and its fellow allies. How it grows can give you clues as to how it acts and interacts with the world and will interact with you. The look of it when alive versus dried or processed is also another clue to its personality.

I first met mugwort in the wild in 2015 in Alaska. It was the local Asterales variant and she was beautiful. We met when I was out for a walk with my newborn son. Her silver and green leaves, bitterness, and magical energy kept me coming back again and again just to sit with her beneath the birches and spruce. I kept an eye on her and when the time came, I collected a few of her seeds for future planting in my garden.

Five years and five thousand miles later, I moved to the first home of my own in 2020, right in the midst of coronavirus. I daydreamed of a place to not only be with my little family but also where I can practice my spiritual path safely and with support. One of the things I knew I wanted to do, no, needed to do, was plant a magical herb garden. Of course, mugwort had to be part of that garden.

We signed papers and moved in and I started eyeballing the garden bed. There, among the ornamental grasses and cannas that the former owner planted was some weedy little silver leaves. I checked and was so happy I cried. There, in my garden, welcoming me to my new home and land, was mugwort. It felt destined.

The following year when it took over the garden bed, only allowing space for its allies, raspberry, thyme, catnip, and clary sage, I allowed it. I am enamored with this herb.

Before I go any further with my discussion of this herb, I must give a disclaimer and content warning.

All the information given in this article is meant for educational purposes only and not to diagnose or treat any medical situation. Mugwort and other artemisias are not considered safe for pregnant or nursing people. Mugwort may cause allergic reactions especially in individuals who are allergic to the Asteraceae/Compositae plant family such as ragweed and daisies. Before making any changes to your diet or health, consider consulting your health care professional.

The content of this article will include mentions of menstruation, pregnancy, miscarriage, and abortion. Please be gentle with yourself if you choose to continue reading. Thank you.

Her names are as abundant as the cultures that honor her. She is called Una, the first, in the 10th century old-English Lacnunga Charm, and this is the name I use in my grimoire and personal practice with her. Other names include common Artemisia, Artemis herb, Grandmother Mugwort, one of the many labeled St. John’s herb, as well as Moxa, Sailor’s tobacco, Muggons, Felon herb, and Old Man.

Mugwort is said to have been given its most common name from when it was used to flavor beer before the introduction of hops.

An ale recipe I am currently brewing uses mugwort, molasses, and baking yeast. It’s a super simple way to make a quart or gallon of ritual libation as long as you have the patience for the sacred process of fermentation.

This recipe is inspired by the one in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner. I had to pair mine down since I didn’t have the space or desire to make multiple gallons.

3 lbs brown sugar
24 oz molasses
4 gal water
And only 2 oz dried mugwort
Yeast
Boil the sugar, molasses, water and herb 30 minutes. 

Cool the mix to 70 degrees F. 
Strain into fermenter and add yeast.
Ferment until complete (approx. 1 week)
Add ½ tsp of sugar to primed bottles and siphon the brew into each. 

Ready to drink in 10 days to 2 weeks. 

I love reading about people, witches and otherwise, developing relationships to plants but especially to mugwort, by whatever name they call her. It is always magical. My favorite written interaction with the plant is from Judith Berger’s Herbal Rituals. This is a prized book among herbalists but sadly was difficult to get for the longest time. I found my copy in a used book store in Alaska. It was priced very low and I had no idea at the time that it was actually a rare book that went for hundreds of dollars on second hand sites. All I knew at the time was that it was beautiful and the words sang to me as a student of herbalism and a witch. Thankfully, Judith was able to get a reprint of the book not long ago and more people are able to fall in love with this work as much as I have.

In the first chapter, she calls this beautiful dream plant cronewort and later, in a fit of grief, asks what to do when someone pulled all the mugwort out of her garden plot. Cronewort assured her in soft whispers, “there is no killing me.” Sure enough, this wonderfully weedy plant returned. Berger goes on to say “rather than diminish the injustice of inhumane acts, I want to become like the crone, who represents the mature force within us that is willing to see things as they are, and determine what medicine needs to be applied. Regular ingestion of cronewort builds this fierceness within us and allows us to bear unpopularity in order to remain close to what we know to be true.”

What a beautiful message. It rang true for me today, in the summer of 2022 when human rights in America are being diminished and abused all around us. Mugwort, cronewort, could be the plant ally we need to apply medicine, whether physical or spiritual or otherwise, to the harm and sickness in our world.

Medicinally mugwort has a number of uses, making it beloved by herbalists like myself.

Mugwort has a strong, bitter aroma and taste due to terpenoid volatile oils and sesqueterpenes. Artemisias have some of the highest percentages of terpenoid oils in plants. 

Mugwort specifically contains linalool (like that in lavender which make the two a great pair) as well as thujone, camphor, and eucalyptol. Any layperson, not allergic to mugwort, can benefit from these constituents by using mugwort to repel insects such as mosquitos. Add it to your natural bug repellent recipes along with lavender and eucalyptus.

It also contains inulin, which can help maintain blood sugar levels in the body. 

It is antibacterial, antifungal, antiparasitic, and antihelmintic. What this means is that mugwort can fight off bacteria, fungus, parasites, and worms in the body and environs. 

Mugwort also contains artemesinin, though the lowest amount of the family of Artemisias, which has been shown to be antimalarial.

In traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture, mugwort is used in a process called moxabustion. A ball of mugwort is placed on the end of an acupressure needle and lit. The smoke and heat over the pressure point aids in healing problems like rheumatism.

Mugwort is bitter, warming, and drying making it a great ally when dealing with cold, damp, and stagnant conditions in the body. It gets things moving and dries things out – which is why it should be avoided when conditions are hot and dry such as a dry, inflamed cough or skin irritation.

Traditionally, mugwort (as most artemisias) is used as a digestive aid as it is a bitter. This triggers bile in the body and helps tone the digestive organs. The gut is our second brain and mugwort is one of those bitter herbs that works along the gut-brain axis. So, if you need to strengthen your gut so you can “trust your gut” (your body’s intuition), mugwort helps. Digestion works best when we are in a parasympathetic state. That is, when we aren’t stressed out (hard to do nowadays, I know). When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, our bodies begin to prioritize its functions with a focus on getting us to safety. It doesn’t understand that often today’s stress is not a matter of life and death but rather comfort and discomfort. The body just knows its stressed and will de-prioritize digestion in order to focus on getting us to safety.

Mugwort helps with the mental and emotional stress as well, which I will get to in just a moment. For now, just know it helps us calm down as well as kickstart our digestive juices, both helping our nervous and digestive systems and therefore also helping our intuition, thinking, and magic … but I digress. For digestion I highly recommend taking mugwort as an oxymel or in a bitters recipe for mocktails or cocktails. Drinking straight mugwort tea is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Its actions as both emmenagogue and nervine are why it is commonly reached for as a medicine for folks assigned female at birth.

Traditionally, herbalists in more than fifty countries have used mugwort to regulate menstruation, to stimulate scanty menses, or to slow excessive bleeding. It is also used for nervous disorders around menstruation such as tension, mood swings, etc. That drying, warming nature I mentioned before — it helps move stagnation in the uterus especially when paired with its friend raspberry. I like to make these two into a tea: a little bit of mugwort, some red raspberry leaves, and, if you want to make it super yummy, some roasted cacao shells make it taste like chocolate.

Mugwort, especially in conjunction with herbs like valerian, skullcap, and lavender, is also a nervine that eases physical, mental, and emotional stress and tension. 

Speaking of tension … Recently, well meaning herb enthusiasts have taken to social media recommending mugwort and allied herbs to have abortions. Unfortunately, this is not helpful and is dangerous. Their efforts would be better put towards raising money for abortion funds, raising awareness at the local and state level for pro-abortion politicians, and boosting the voices of the brave folks who have been fighting for abortion and health care rights all along.

Mugwort is a great ally if you have had an abortion or miscarriage. I recommend it as an herb infused oil used for a massage on the lower belly and hips and paired with a warming blanket or heating pad. This will help with the cramps and pain after and can also be used during difficult periods or after a birth.

To make the infused oil, add one ounce of the dried herb to a glass quart jar. Fill the rest of the jar completely with your base oil such as sweet almond or apricot kernel oil. Let steep, shaking daily, for at least 2 weeks. I like to let mine sit for a full moon cycle. You can also make this quickly by warming it on low on the stove or in a crock pot — being careful not to overheat or boil. Strain and keep in a dark, cool location.

When meditating on mugwort I tend to think of Hekate in her role as midwife to Demeter and as Baubo, who, with her bawdy jokes, made Demeter laugh when mourning the abduction of Persephone. I should add that Hekate as Baubo is not a universally accepted connection before I go on. It is my own gnosis when working with Hekate and Her relationship with reproduction. Mugwort’s connection with the silvery moon, its bitterness, and its connection with the uterus tie it well to this story of a mother’s grief and a crone’s joke about genitals – the magick of the womb.

Despite being an Artemisia plant, I don’t personally connect it or its sister variants with the goddess Artemis. The naming of this species isn’t connected to the Goddess of the Hunt, but rather to a skilled botanist, Queen Artemisia II of Caria. However, your mileage may vary and I highly recommend that you work with this herb personally and form your own associations.

Mugwort is certainly magical, and one of the more potent herbs I’ve handled.

Raven Kaldera in his books says “Grandmother Mugwort is witchy, spooky, and incredibly powerful.”

In magick, mugwort is associated with both the Moon and Venus. Its powers affect not only healing, but also astral projection, travel, consecration, dreams, psychic powers, protection, prophecy, and strength. When looking into the spells and rituals that use mugwort, it’s easy to see how far reaching she is.

St. John the Baptist was said to have worn a belt of mugwort in the wilderness. In his name, the herb has been used to drive out demons, exorcise evil spirits, and protect people from malignant forces and possession. For this reason it is called St. John’s herb, along with a few other plants.

Scott Cunningham in his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs lists several traditional spells that use mugwort and that I see repeated across various herbal texts. The most common one is a traveling spell that I have tried with some success. Place mugwort in the shoes to gain strength during long walks or runs. This probably has to do with the various chemical constituents that aid in relaxing muscle spasms (also good for menstrual cramps). Cunningham says for this purpose the mugwort should be harvested before dawn while saying “Tollam te artemisia, ne lassus sim in via.” This roughly translates to “I will take thee, artemisia, to not be faint along the way.” I like to add a lil something to it by drawing the rune Raidho or a bind rune of Raidho and Algiz on the leaves before placing them in my shoes.

Another protective charm is scattering mugwort in rooms (and swept up or vacuumed later) for this purpose as well as to clean the area (remember its medicinal properties and abilities to ward off insects). 

In northern tradition shamanism and related practices, mugwort is used for consecrating space for magickal use. Some may call this cleansing, but the method is not like cleaning with bleach but more akin to sanctifying an area like a Catholic priest might with prayer, holy water, and frankincense. It creates an energy in a space that is sacred and conducive to working spiritually in. 

For these purposes, mugwort is often burned in bundles similar to white sage. The Old English term for these bundles is recels (ray-kels) and the Celtic term for using these herbal incenses is saining. Mugwort is collected, tied in bundles (I like to keep mine relatively small, just a bit fatter than a cigar) and lit. The smoke fanned through the space or over the person or tools to be sanctified. 

Smoke cleansing is my most common use of mugwort. I like to combine it with rose or especially juniper and plantain as a rekels when doing journeying and spirit work. I often will open sacred space and spell space with mugwort, to set my intentions and sanctify myself, my tools, and the area..

I want to close out this article by talking about mugwort’s popular use as a dream ally.

If bug repellent is the easiest and most accessible way to use mugwort medicinally, then a dream aid is probably the easiest and most accessible way to use it magically.

You can tap into Mugwort’s ability to create vivid, prophetic, and lucid dreams multiple ways.

One is to put mugwort into a sachet or pillow to keep by your bed. I like to combine it with lavender, chamomile, and mullein for this purpose.

You can also use a mugwort balm, either alone or combined with the other herbal allies mentioned, in oil and beeswax or in a solid fat such as coconut oil or animal fat (tallow or lard). Apply a small amount to your brow, wrists, and pressure or chakra points before sleep.

Mugwort balm for dreaming is considered by some witches to be a safer witch’s flying ointment as it can aid journeying either in the dream land or astral realms, but doesn’t have the toxic effects of entheogens in the traditional flying ointment.

With that, I leave you with Mugwort’s charm, the original old english verse from the Lacnunga:

Gemyne ðu, mucgwyrt, hwæt þu ameldodest,
hwæt þu renadest æt Regenmelde.
Una þu hattest, yldost wyrta.
ðu miht wið þre and wið þritig,
þu miht wiþ attre and wið onflyge,
þu miht wiþ þam laþan ðe geond lond færð.

[December Fields-Bryant (they/them) is a polytheist witch, alchemist, and certified herbalist living in the woods in rural Tennessee with their partner, child, and stubborn dog. You can learn more about them and their work at avelvetpath.wordpress.com or on twitter @thevelvetpath.]

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