S is for Sage

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

A sage is a person with great wisdom, and in traditional Celtic lore, the plant signifies wisdom. The latin name for sage, salvia, means “to heal.” According to old-time herbalists, people who drink the plant sage as a tea never grow old. “Why would a man die if sage grows in his garden?”

Hieroglyphic records indicate the ancient Egyptians used sage to promote fertility. Pliny the Elder noted its medicinal properties, and picking the plant required a ceremony with special clothing and tools. However, the Greeks and the Romans differed in their beliefs regarding the plant. Romans associated it with Jupiter and domesticity, while in the Greek belief system, the Satyrs and their love of debauchery claimed sage as their own.

The Aztecs used the leaves and seeds for food, medicine, and to produce a face paint used to denote societal rank. During the Middle Ages in Europe, cooks and doctors used sage. It has a slight peppery flavor. During the Carolingian Empire of the early middle ages, monasteries cultivated sages in their gardens. Poet Walafrid Strabo described it in “Hortulus.” Sage was one of four main ingredients in “Four Thieves Vinegar” which was taken to ward off plague. Perhaps because of its protective qualities, another name for sage at this time was “Mary’s Shawl.” Other names include Sage the Saviour, Salfia, Saluie, and Sawage. In Shakespeare’s time, sage signified “solemn, grave, and dignified.”

Native American shaman dry bundles of sage into smudge sticks and burn them to purify spaces and ward off evil spirits, a practice imitated today by new age practitioners. Sage is also crafted into brooms used to cleanse spaces of negativity. Mountain folk beliefs state if sage thrives in a garden, a woman rules her household and her husband well. In China, the first mentions of sage occur around 206 BC where sage imparted physical strength and wisdom to those who consumed it.

Sage acts as a drying agent, clearing mucous, relieving night sweats, and soothing sore throats. Because of its antiseptic properties, it is used to treat wounds, including snake bites. In Banckes’ “Herbal,” sage is “good for venom or poison,” and it soothed nerves, quieted palsied muscles, and improved digestion. To this day, besides it extensive use in the kitchen, sage flavors wine, cheese, chocolate, and baked goods, and its oil is added to perfumes and cosmetics. Sage is even used as a name for children in the US.