Basil: From Basilisk to the Kitchen

“A thief he was, I swear,
A sorry Christian he,
That took my basil of Salerno fair, etc.

Giovanni Boccaccio


Basil is a member of the Lamiaceae family, which also includes rosemary, sage, and lavender. It’s a herb that is used for cooking, medicine, perfume, and ornamentation in the garden. Over sixty varieties of basil are cultivated, including sweet basil, Thai basil, and lemon basil. While no one is quite sure where basil first originated, most believe that it either emerged from Africa or the Hunan region of China and was first cultivated in India. From there, it soon spread across the globe.


Basil in Egypt and Greece

The ancient Egyptians and Greeks had similar thoughts on basil’s properties. They associated the herb with death and would use its leaves in their funeral rituals. Specifically, they believed that basil would open the gates of the afterlife for the person who was passing on. In Egypt, basil was used as an embalming and preserving herb in mummification. Though the Greeks also associated the plant with mourning, as well as poverty, they gave it the name basileus which means “king” or “kingly.” The name likely comes from the rich smell the leaves give off when crushed.


Basil in India

In India, where the plant was first cultivated, basil has religious significance and is still frequently planted around holy sites today. Holy basil, or Tulsi basil, is connected to Tulsi, the Hindu goddess married to Vishue, and basil is regarded as her earthly manifestation. Hindus plant the herb in temples and around their homes, where it can easily be used for religious and medicinal purposes.

In the Hindu religion, holy basil is very carefully cared for. It is the seen as the holiest of all plants because it is believed to be the threshold point between heaven and earth. When someone dies, basil is placed in their mouth to ensure they reach the afterlife. Basil plants are carefully watered, tended to, and harvested only when needed, so that no part of the plant goes to waste. Pulling up the plant or cutting off its branches is forbidden, and there are strict rules for the leaves’ use in worship. Prayers for forgiveness often accompany its handling.




Basil in European

Basil made the jump to Europe from India on trading ships. There, the herb gained strong ties to Christianity and received the name “Saint John’s Wort” after the earthly father of Jesus Christ. Some early legends say that a trail of basil sprung up from the dripping blood of Christ during his crucifixion and eventually lead St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, to the lost site of the Christ’s cross.

Even with these new religious associations, basil still had a negative reputation. The name given to it by the Greeks, basileus, shared a root with the word “basilisk,” which was tiny, highly deadly snake from Medieval mythology that could freeze living things just by looking at them and melt surrounding vegetation with its venom. This association with poison later linked the herb with scorpions. Common lore held that if you were to leave a basil leaf beneath a pot for a few days, you would come back to find a scorpion in it’s a place. A notable french physician of the time named Hilarious wrote that just smelling the aroma of basil could cause scorpions to breed in the brain.

Eventually, and perhaps because of the lack of observed death by cerebral scorpion, basil’s fortune changed, and it was no longer regarded as a poison. In fact, its leaves became the antidote to poison. It was said to cure the bites of scorpions and snakes instead of cause them. It could even bring luck when carried in a pocket, customers when hung in a shop window, or detect chastity when placed in the hand of a woman.


Culinary Uses

Today, basil is  prized by most of the world for its properties in the kitchen. The scent of the herb is sweet like anise, and some chefs have described its leaves as initially tasting subtly of pepper before mellowing into a slight sweetness on the tongue. Most cooks use fresh basil in their recipes. The herb breaks down quickly when heated, so it’s flavor is strongest when added just before a dish is finished. Basil can be used dried, but it flavor is drastically reduced. To many western palates, Basil is most often recognized in Italian cooking where Genovese Basil is featured in pesto, pasta, and pizza. Lovers of Asian cuisine will often find Thai Basil is a frequently used ingredient. Its slightly more lemony taste is found in many dishes including stir fries, noodles, and curries.




Story: Isabella and the Pot of Basil

The story for this post, perhaps fittingly, comes from Italy, and is contained in the collection of novels by the 14th century Italian author, Giovanni Boccaccio, in his book, The Decameron.

Once there was a very wealthy merchant with three sons and one daughter. When the father died, he left all of his great wealth to his sons along with instructions that they should look after their sister and see her fittingly wed. Though the girl, Lisabetta, was pretty enough, her father had never found the time to arrange for her marriage.

Lisabetta herself had not forgotten that she had yet to be wed. She had spent the years preceding her father’s death with her eyes fixed firmly on a young man named Lorenzo who worked in her brothers’ shop. Lorenzo was widely regarded as a good man and hard worker. When he noticed how Lisabetta looked at him, Lorenzo was quick to return her affection.

Soon, they were in love. Though they could not meet openly because of the difference in their social standings, they found ways to steal into each other’s rooms late at night.

This continued until one night when Lisabetta was not quite as careful as she should have been. In her happiness, the girl had grown complacent, and her elder brother saw her entering Lorenzo’s room. The brother was scandalized by what he seen, but kept silent. If his sister’s dalliances were to become common knowledge, his whole family would be disgraced and his business would suffer.

The next morning, he told his younger brothers what had transpired, and they quickly concocted a plan to protest their interests. When they went into the shop that day, they laughed and joked with Lorenzo the way they always had and invited him to come out with them later for an evening of drinking and gambling. Lorenzo was happy to accept.

They took Lorenzo to a quiet, lonely spot where they quickly ambushed and killed him, and buried his body where no one would ever find it. The brothers returned home, and told everyone that they had sent Lorenzo away on an errand for the business.

Time passed, and when Lorenzo did not return, Lisabetta began to question her brothers everyday in hopes that they had heard from him. They never had an answer for her, and each night, she called out to him and cried herself to sleep. Finally, after falling asleep from weeping, Lorenzo appeared to Lisabetta in a dream. He was pale and his clothes were ripped and rotting.

With sad eyes, he spoke to her, “ My love, I have heard your weeping and though I cannot return to you in body, I have come in spirit to tell you my fate. Your brothers killed me, and buried me in a quiet place outside of the city.”

The next morning, Lisabetta woke and immediately ordered her maid to tell her brothers that she was going to take a long walk in the city. Thinking that she was finally ready to stop crying, they were happy to let her go. After a morning of searching, she found a place where the dirt seemed to be slightly softer than its surroundings. When she dug into the earth, she found the body of Lorenzo. She wanted to take him away for a decent burial, but since she could not, she cut off his head and took it home instead.

When she was alone in her room, she unwrapped the head, kissed it and used her tears to bathe away the dirt that still covered it. Knowing she must hide it, she place the head in a large flower pot, covered it in dirt, and planted a basil plant over the top. Each day, she watered the plant with her tears, and the herb became lush and fragrant.

Finally, her brothers grew tired of her tears and ceaseless tending to the pot of basil. They took the pot from her, and watched in surprise as their sister cried so much that she grew terribly sick before their eyes and had to be confined to her bed.

Curious, they pulled the plant from the pot, removed the earth, and found themselves staring at the head of their sister’s lover. Though decayed, they could still see enough of the head to recognize their former employee. As quickly as they could, they buried the head and took themselves and all their belongings to another city. Though they did their best to care for their ill sister, without her pot of basil, she lost the will to live and died far from the final resting place of the body of her love.


In the Victorian Language of FlowersVictorian Language of Flowers, the herb should be carefully used, because its message can be easily misinterpreted. A plain sprig of basil means “hatred”, while sweet basil means “good wishes.”

In Crete, basil is a representation of the devil and can be used to ward away his influence, while in Iran, Malaysian, or Egypt, it can be found planted on graves as a token of love.

If you’d like to try growing basil yourself, one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, has several varieties including Italian Basil, Tulsi Basil, and Lemon Basil.


History of Basil

The History of Basil

What is Tulsi? (Holy Basil)


History of Basil


Basil: Herbal Lore and Legends

The Etymology of Basil

St. Helena and the True Cross

Lisabetta and the Pot of Basil

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