Plants & Prayers: Ancient Healing Rituals

The magic ingredients couldn’t be simpler: Nine grains of wheat, a pinch of salt, and some water. Or, according to another recipe: olive oil, salt, water.

These humble ingredients won’t do much for you on their own though. They have no magic in themselves unless animated by the right words: ritual prayers, uttered by the right woman.

Seven years after my arrival on the Italian island of Sardinia, I hesitate to call it magic or even superstition; believers understand it simply as faith—the single most important factor that determines whether you shall heal or not. And, as a curious student of human nature, my quest isn’t about judgement, but understanding.

In this land, so-called superstitions are but a breath away, and beliefs as old as the soil itself cling to people’s way of interpreting the world. To them, they are no more supernatural than the scent rising from the island’s sun-baked fields of rock roses; invisible yet as real as the resinous twigs that perfume the breeze.

Here, ’tis believed looks can kill if caught unprepared without a sachet of yarrow and Saint John’s wort around your neck, or if left undiagnosed and untreated by the village’s ‘wise woman’, who knows how to perform ‘medicine’ against the evil eye: sa mexina de s’ogu.

What I’ve always found fascinating is how very run-of-the-mill these rituals are for many islanders. It’s part of ordinary life, just like buying tomatoes, going out for coffee with a friend (always espresso after breakfast; cappuccino is strictly a morning drink), or visiting the dentist.

Magic will seldom crop up in normal conversation, yet if bought up, the most unexpected people will chime in with a personal story about it.

Perhaps the middle aged woman walking next to you on a hike will candidly confide that she’ll always visit the local ‘woman’ before going to the doctor whenever her daughter’s sick. Or maybe you’ll mention it to a family friend, and she’ll relate that her grandmother used to perform eye medicine, and once offered to pass it down to her (she didn’t ‘feel like it’ though, non se la sentiva, and so she never learnt).

Or we will stumble across a restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where the waiter turns out to be knowledgeable about ‘magic plants’ used to prepare amulets against the evil eye (most effective if gathered on Saint John’s Eve).

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), one of the ‘magic’ plants used in protective amulets.

Plants such as yarrow, rue, pennyroyal, mullein, rosemary, vervain or St John’s wort were/are  among the plants dried and sewn into redzèdas: little sachets that keep the wearer safe from evil glances.

Such amulets aren’t exclusively prepared by women; friars, for example, may also make them for a newborn child, although the sachets filled with scented herbs and blessed with prayers needn’t be worn: ’tis enough that they remain unopened.

Even though children are considered especially vulnerable to the eye, any living being (adults, but also animals and plants) is a potential victim. 

Many people – mostly city-dwellers – won’t commit to believing it exists; but they won’t discount it either. They might keep an amulet at home, y’know, just in case.

Others, however, embrace the healing rituals as part of an old “tried and true” tradition enacted in countless different versions, depending on who you inherited it from. There’s a common thread that weaves them all together, though: they are performed by women.

I’ve been on a quest to meet one of these women for the last few weeks. Inexplicably drawn to experiencing it first-hand, I’m looking for someone who’ll show me the ritual and the plant elements that form a part of it.

Although I guess I could find her indirectly on the Internet (looking for interviews uploaded on youtube, or checking out articles that mention specific villages), I dislike such an impersonal approach. I’d rather do it ‘the traditional way’ – through people: I must find someone who knows somebody who knows her. In my case, it’s going to be a friend whose cousin might know her.

Still, I’ll admit I’m not quite sure what I could ask her that I don’t know by now. After all, I’ve already been told about the most common plant ingredients in eye medicine rituals (when present – plants aren’t necessary in all versions of the medicine).

I suspect asking about why she performs the rite exactly thus will be futile. Rituals believed to work are not often questioned; they are performed, repeated and transmitted ‘as is’. If you inherit sa mexina, understanding why it works is not the point; it’s enough that you learn how it works, and then faithfully respect the ritual.

I might discover nothing new or useful.

And yet, I feel strangely compelled to seek it out and see it with my own eyes. Who knows, I might even discover I’ve been living under the influence of the evil eye, and once it’s been lifted find myself growing rich and successful as a writer.

These things cannot be rushed, though. My friend must inquire; her cousin must reply… it takes a while. So in the meantime I ask questions, comb through the books available and amass as much information as possible on plants, prayers, beliefs.

From what I’ve glimpsed, people who turn to these faith-based healers believe that whilst some illnesses have a biological origin, others are caused by people’s influence on us. That our permeable bodies are as susceptible to the bacteria that spread on a sneeze, as they are to the envy that may pervade a covetous glance.

Few will deny that sometimes a look —intangible, immaterial— can feel as solid and sharp as a needle (or a dagger, as the idiom would have it).

Like hands, eyes are traditionally imagined as active tools in our relationship with the world, able to reach out and effect change around us: sometimes for the better, but often for the worse. In a small and tight-knit world like the island, inequalities within the community (whether about money or even luck) may fuel envy and jealousy, which can poison life as surely and effectively as hemlock… and the eye is the first to betray what’s in the soul.

Such beliefs aren’t unique to this island; at some point in time, similar ideas were widespread across the Mediterranean, Africa, the Middle East and India, to mention but a few. Elsewhere, other plants (along with other objects) have fulfilled the role of protectors, such as indigo, henna, or wormwood. And when all protections fail and you’re struck by the eye, other rituals are enacted, with recipes that may feature plants such as rice, wild rue, or even frankincense.

But I live in a land of wheat and oil, and that’s likely all I’ll see in use… if I get to see it, that is.

Hypericum perforatum, whose very name alludes to the custom of hanging it over religious icons as a ‘magic’ protection during St John’s Day.

Then, the message I’d been waiting for: my friend has heard back from her cousin. I invite her over for lunch, and as I fill her plate with chickpeas stewed in curiosity, she breaks the news to me: her cousin regretted to tell her that the woman who used to do eye medicine in her village has recently passed away.

It figures.

I drown my disappointment with a second serving of tomato salad. Alas, I suppose I’ll have to live without the riches and fame for a little longer; in the meantime, I hang my dried bunch of Saint John’s wort next to the door.

Y’know, just in case.

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.

A note on italicized words (sa mexina de s’ogu, redzèdas): the spelling and terminology used is just one dialectal version of many found across the island.