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Valerian – Historical, Mythical, and Magical Uses

The aroma of valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Caprifoliaceae) leaves, which are pink to purple-white and appear in clusters, has been described as “dirty, sweaty socks”.1 While other names of the plant such as “all heal” and “cut finger” pay reference to the Latin origins of valerian—valere, to be strong and healthy—Dioscorides (40 CE-90 CE) and Galen (129 CE-200 CE) may have been referencing the smell when they called it phu. Valerian lore demonstrates the effects it exhibits on both animals and people. Hertha, the Nordic goddess, was said to put valerian on her riding crop causing the stag she rode to increase its speed. As the stag’s bridle was said to be made of hops (Humulus lupulus, Cannabaceae), the combination may have helped facilitate the journey between realms, the liminal space of the shaman and witch or between waking and sleeping. There is a belief that the pied piper of Hamelin placed valerian in his pockets or rubbed himself with it to draw the rats from the town as they love the smell.

The Greeks used valerian to ward off evil, hanging valerian bunches in windows. The Celts hung it in their homes to ward off lightning. One belief regarding its power was that if you tossed it into a fight, those involved would cease instantly. The herb was included in both love and sleep potions. Other magical uses include purification, such as consecrating ritual tools, promoting peace, breaking hexes, and providing stability and happiness.2 Valerian is used for grounding during emotional turbulence and for aiding in creativity. It is also employed to help in communication during conflict and connect humans to beings in the Other Realm. When seeking the truth behind secrets, valerian is thought to help one access hidden knowledge.

The historical medicinal usage of valerian by herbalists include Pliny (23 CE-79 CE) who recommended the herb for pain relief, Dioscorides who used it as a diuretic; Galen who prescribed it as a decongestant; Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who recommended it for its tranquilizing effects and as a sleep aid; John Gerard (1545-1611) who promoted it as a treatment for chest congestion, convulsions, and bruises; and Culpepper (1616-1654) who thought it was useful against the plague, as well as for coughs and wounds.1 The Eclectics (19th century) touted it as a calmative and treatment for epilepsy. During both World Wars, valerian was used as a nervine to treat shell shock and was included in tablets to help calm citizens living under the threat of nightly bombings.

Salves containing valerian have been applied in the treatment of rashes, sore muscles, and bruising. Using a valerian salve on the feet can aid in grounding, relaxation, and sleep during stressful times.

Lori Glenn
HerbClip™ Managing Editor

References

1Johnson J. Getting to know the valerian plant. The Herbal Academy website. https://theherbalacademy.com/getting-to-know-the-valerian-plant/. June 15, 2015. Accessed November 6, 2021.

2Kynes S. Mixing Essential Oils for Magic – Aromatic Alchemy for Personal Blends. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications; 2013.