By Audrey Stallsmith
Indeed, sir, she was the sweet marjoram of the Salad, or rather the herb of grace.
At Easter, let's consider the herb that was probably the Biblical hyssop. The plant we currently know by that name isn’t native to the Holy Land. So Biblical scholars have had to guess at the identity of the original, and have come up with everything from sorghum to the caper bush!
The speculation that seems most likely to me, however, is that “hyssop” was some type of oregano, possibly origanum syriacum or origanum maru. Since these plants can grow up to three or four feet tall and tend to have woody stems, the rod that raised a sponge of vinegar to Christ’s mouth could well have come from one of them.
Oregano is also, as James Duke points out in The Green Pharmacy, “simply loaded with antiseptic compounds.” And it seems likely that the plant employed--often in combination with lamb’s blood, scarlet wool, and water--for symbolic cleansing ceremonies in the Old Testament would have been a genuine purifier.
“Purge me with hyssop,” a famous line from the Psalms runs, “and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalms 51:7) A darker Psalm presages the scene with the hyssop rod long before it actually happened. “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Psalms 69:21) The gall may actually have been opium meant to dull the pain of the condemned men.
There are at least a couple dozen oregano species, most of them known to the ancients as marjoram. Origanum marjorana is the true sweet or knotted marjoram—an annual. “The whole plant and everie part thereof is of a most pleasant taste and aromaticall smell,” John Gerard writes in his Herball, “and perisheth at the first approch of winter. These plant do grow in Spain, Italy, Candy, and other Islands thereabout, wild, and in the fields; from whence wee have the seeds for the gardens of our cold countries.”
Origanum onites is the pot or perennial form of marjoram. True or common oregano, origanum vulgare, was generally known as wild or bastard marjoram, and is quite hardy. Gerard notes of it that “The root endured in my garden and the leaves also greene all this Winter long, 1597.” The Greek type of oregano, origanum heracleoticum (AKA origanum vulgare hirtum) is considered to have the best flavor.
Oregano derives from the Greek oros (“mountain”) and ganos (“joy”), and was supposedly created by Aphrodite as a symbol of happiness. So bridal couples were crowned with the herb to ensure a cheery future. And oregano growing on a grave supposedly indicated the deceased’s satisfaction with his/her afterlife.
Although marjoram and oregano are still most extensively used in cooking—especially Italian cooking!--they also make good digestive aids and expectorants, to ease congestion from colds, flu, etc. “Sweet Marjerome,” Gerard promises “is a remedy against cold diseases of the braine and head, being taken any way to your best liking; put up into the nosthrils it provokes sneesing, and draweth forth much baggage flegme.” Of all the mints oregano is also, according to James Duke, one of the richest in antioxidants.
In ancient times people strewed the floors with marjoram and oregano, as well as packing them into sweet bags and grinding them into powders. Their invigorating odor, we can assume, helped cover up a multitude of less pleasant smells!
Although oregano oil has recently become popular as a cure-all, Dr. Andrew Weil advises caution. “During the anthrax scare in 2001," he notes, "oil of oregano was (incorrectly) touted as an effective treatment for that disease. The claims were based on a study from Georgetown University, which found the oil and its component, caravacrol, worked as well as standard antibiotics to inhibit the growth of staphylococcus bacteria in test tubes and in mice.
"The Georgetown study had nothing to say about anthrax or whether or not oil of oregano could or should be used to treat it, and the researcher, Harry Preuss, M.D., a professor of physiology and biophysics, denounced as ‘grossly misleading’ claims that his study provided evidence for oil of oregano as an effective treatment for anthrax. This is an example of how research findings can be inflated and overstated in order to mislead the public and make a buck.”
So, although oregano is apparently a very effective antibiotic (i.e. cleanser!), we know that it’s best to use antibiotics as infrequently as possible. Otherwise, one tends to become immune to them.
Whether or not oregano actually was the Biblical hyssop, the presence of the Old Testament purifier at the crucifixion had great symbolic significance. Christ, after all, was intended to be the ultimate—and final—sacrificial lamb, whose blood would purge the sins of mankind. And that’s a kind of cleansing that even the best herbs can’t accomplish!
Plant plate and background is from A Curious Herbal, by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.