April 23rd is the day we commemorate both the birth and the death of the greatest English playwright, William Shakespeare.
If you visit his place of birth, Stratford-upon-Avon, you’ll find sprigs of rosemary dotted around many of the historic places he’s associated with – an acknowledgment of the fact he invoked rosemary at a pivotal point in one of his most famous plays, Hamlet.
I’ve written about the historic connection between rosemary, remembrance and love before and how the herb can bring powerful symbolism to both a funeral and a wedding.
But, as we learn more about how smell can be a remarkable trigger of memory, and on the day when we’re remembering and honouring Shakespeare, it bears revisiting.
The reason that smell plays such an important role in memory is because scent is the only sense that feeds directly into the part of our brain that processes emotion. To smell rosemary at a life event is to fix in our minds forever the feelings of that day.
In the 21st century, we know that through extensive research and experimentation; for Shakespeare, it must have been a cross between old wives’ tales and gut instinct.
In Hamlet, Ophelia tells us ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance’. Shakespeare had studied the classics. That means he probably knew, like us, that ancient Greek scholars wore garlands of rosemary during academic exams, hoping perhaps that a quick turn around the herb garden would replace hours studying.
But rosemary isn’t just associated with aspiring students, it has a deep-seated connection with the passing of loved ones that goes back millennia. Since pre-historic times, our ancestors have used rosemary in burial rites. We know that, as far back as 1000BC, the ancient Egyptians were using rosemary, along with other essential oils, to embalm the bodies of their dead.
There’s evidence that Romans carried rosemary with them during funeral processions and then left the sprigs with the body. In the early sixteenth century, English statesman and politician, Sir Thomas More, wrote of rosemary: “Whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our burial grounds.” Partly, we think, it’s because, as an evergreen plant, rosemary is associated with eternal life.
Rosemary is also associated with eternal love – and everyone wants to be assured of that at their wedding.
Again from the sixteenth century, the celebrated Doctor of Divinity, Roger Hacket, said in his ‘fruitful sermon on marriage’: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpeth the brain, strengtheneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of the rosemary is, it affects the heart.”
With the growing popularity of ‘natural’ weddings, the dark green leaf and pretty blue flower of rosemary is the perfect choice for an unusual and sweet smelling bouquet or as an attractive cake decoration. Charlie, from The Natural Wedding Company, has some wonderful ideas in one of her blogs about how to use the herb.
Whether because of its evocative smell or its symbolism, rosemary has played a long and honourable part in celebrating life and love.
To include it in your life event is to follow the customs of our ancestors stretching back thousands of years.