The Charm of Nine Herbs – 5 Burdock
A burdock plant photographed in June on the island of Seil.
Put to evil to flight, now burdock,* let the great be diminished
the lesser be increased * until both are healed.
This, I admit, is a weird one, a flight of fancy, perhaps, but not without some thought and information behind it. I had even speculated that these two lines may simply belong to the lines about nettle, and ‘attorlaþe‘ (literally plague-defier’) might simply be a nickname. However, further research indicates otherwise.
Attorlaþe is usually translated as either cockspur grass, or betony, but I haven’t found either option particularly convincing. Cockspur grass has very little use in medicine – the only recorded use is to shorten labour, as the grains often act as host for the fungus ergot. Otherwise it is regarded as poison to cattle and sheep, and an invasive pest. Betony has a long tradition of use as a wound herb, a nerve tonic, to relieve anxiety and calm the digestion, and this looked quite plausible until I found another text which referred to a remedy for coughs – a mixture of betony and ‘lesser attorlaþe’ – which tells me that there must also be a greater variety.
Then there is that rather magical incantatory ‘let the great be diminished, the lesser be increased’. I was baffled by this until I came across the term ‘alterative’ which is used for herbs which are used to restore and rebalance the system, particularly the digestion, liver and kidneys. I looked up native herbs which are used as alteratives, and dandelion and burdock topped the list – and there is both a greater and a lesser burdock used in traditional medicine. I’m not altogether satisfied with this identification; it is no more than a best guess. But it is a guess that does not make the assumption that the charm is no more than a superstitious curiosity, but is a genuine element of the history of herbal medicine.