St. John’s Wort – The Original Worrywort
I was going through a very stressful time a couple of years ago. During that period, I had a dream that I was out hiking in the Florida wilderness looking for “worrywort.” My dreaming self really loves puns. A “worry wart” is a person who is constantly worrying about something. But “wort” is an old English word for “herb,” and is still attached to the common names of many herbs like feverwort, mugwort, and pepperwort. Many of these worts are named for their medicinal properties, such as feverwort, which reduces fever. So I suppose I was dreaming of looking for “worrywort” to counteract anxiety, while subtly reminding myself I was worrying too much.
As it turned out, such a plant actually does exist, only the name is St. John’s wort. Florida has over forty distinct species of this herb, and I see several of them nearly every time I am out hiking around in the Florida wilds. Hypericum perforata, which is the exact species used in medications for depression and anxiety, doesn’t grow in Florida, but is common in Europe.
This herb got the name St. John’s wort, since in Europe H. perforata begins to flower and is harvested around June 24, which is the feast day celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist. It is also the time of the summer solstice, which has been celebrated since ancient times. The summer solstice is the time of year when the days are the longest and the sun is the strongest. Traditionally, Europeans harvested bright yellow herbs, because yellow flowers represented the sun, which has many magical properties, and is associated with well-being and healing. Yellow wildflowers that resembled the sun were believed to have these medicinal qualities at a higher potency at the time of the summer solstice.
St. John the Baptist – Saint of the Summer
Pre-Christian European midsummer festivals are still celebrated today, and as in olden times involve bonfires and washing in sacred rivers or with water from sacred wells. St. John the Baptist, whose feast day falls on the summer solstice, also has an association with blessing people with water (baptism), so his story has merged with pre-Christian legends.
It’s easy to see how John the Baptist, who consecrated people using water, should become a summer solstice god. In winter, the land is dry and dormant, but summer is the time of the rains, and swollen rivers overflowing their banks fertilize the land. Washing in this water is believed to bless and remove evil.
By tradition, St. John was born six months before his cousin Jesus Christ. Since Jesus is believed to have been born around the winter solstice (Dec 21), John the Baptist is thought to have been born around the summer solstice (Jun 21). This strongly suggests the survival of a solar myth, which explains the biblical verse “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (John 3:30) which John the Baptist uttered when he met Jesus.
The sun is at its highest point in the sky, and the days are longest, at the summer solstice, the time of John the Baptist. After that, the days decrease in length, and the sun weakens, until its lowest point at the winter solstice, when the days are shortest. From that point the days increase again (John “decreases” and Jesus “increases”). Jesus and John, then, are twin solar gods, one for each half of the year, a myth that has dozens of parallels all over the Mediterranean and Near East.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
It’s very ironic that I learned about all of this as a result of having a dream; the summer solstice is believed to be a very magical time, and dreams had on midsummer night are believed to carry portents or have divinatory meaning. I must admit that a walk through a summer field of yellow flowers does diminish my gloomy mood, and I feel more “sunny.”