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I love that historically Basil has been used to symbolize hatred, yet it is also used as a symbol for love. I wonder if this is where the term love hate relationship comes from? Did you know there are more than 30 distinct and intensely aromatic varieties of basil?
The first recorded mention of basil, in records dated to pre-206 B.C.E, states that it “exists only to drive men insane.” For the Greeks, and later the Romans, basil was associated with hatred.
To grow the most potent plants they believed the seeds needed to be sown with swearing and ranting. However, basil later became a symbol of love in Italy, to the point that Giovanni Boccaccio used it to symbolize the tragic love between Lisabetta and Lorenzo in The Decameron. Sicilian folklore associates it with both love and death, and in Moldavian folklore a young man who accepts basil from a young woman will fall in love with her.
Europe in general is rather conflicted on the subject of basil. Parkinson’s 17th century herbal says it can “procure a cheerful and merry heart” while Culpeper’s links it to poison through the observation of its effects in drawing venom out of wounds and the proclamation that “like draws to like.” He even goes so far as to say that basil can generate scorpions, possibly even inside someone’s skull. This scorpion connection is often linked to the Greek story of the basilisk, which in turn is linked to basil in the name basilicum. In some folklore, basil is said to have been used to ward off both the look and bite of this king of serpents.
Perhaps reflecting the plant’s conflicted history, the Victorian language of flowers has two meaning for basil: common basil signifies hatred and sweet basil conveys the sender’s best wishes.
To the ancient Romans, it was a symbol of hatred, yet basil eventually became a token of love in Italy. Young maidens would wear a sprig of basil in their hair to profess their availibility. In some regions of Italy, basil is known as “kiss-me-Nicholas.” One can only wonder if the conflicting symbolism of basil in Rome is the origin of a love-hate relationship?