How to Keep the Evil Spirits Away

by Sarah on July 22, 2010

There are lots of ways to keep the evil spirits away. In Israel you can buy a decorative evil eye pendant or a five fingered hamsa for protection. Another way is to keep a rue plant nearby, an ancient medicinal and culinary herb that some believe possesses magical powers. For five shekels a seedling, it can do no harm to try.

It is not a localized belief either, but one that can be found in one form or another from the United States, across Europe and into Yemen. However, unlike pendants and amulets, there is some truth to rue’s ability to keep people safe. Perhaps it does not repel evil spirits, but it does a fine job at keeping away nasty biting insects such as fleas and malaria infested mosquitoes.  Even today, more people die from these animals than any other.

If a family garden was filled with heavy scented rue, perhaps they had a better chance of surviving deadly outbreaks of the disease. Over time, it acquired mystical qualities and became the guardian of the home.  This belief is still retained in its Arabic name, Pejan from the words spirit within, indicating its usefulness in repelling everything from spirits, ghosts and the occasional witch. At least that’s my hypothesis to how rue obtained its reputation.

Although rue grows wild in many parts of the world there are few people who still use it in their cooking. Take one whiff of its pungent smell and it’s instantly clear why. Too much rue adds an unpleasant bitterness to dishes and there are some who have adverse reactions to it (besides the scrunched nose).

This is why I was surprised when I saw our neighbor, a Yemenite widow, with a bunch of freshly picked rue in her hands.  Happy to converse to pass the long afternoon, she told me that she doesn’t use it to ward off the spirits, but has it for breakfast.

“I chop a few leaves, mix it with yogurt and eat it with salad and lachooch {a yemenite flat bread}.”

Indeed one of the few groups who continue to use rue are the Yemenite and Ethiopians, whose cuisine’s share the love of strong flavors. The Druze of living in the Carmel Mountains also add this herb to cured black olives.  In the past Europeans were known to use it in stews and salads but it has now become outdated. Today it is sold mainly as ornamentals and seldom found at the markets. Those who use it grow their own.

As my neighbor knew, rue is best eaten with an acidic substance, such as yogurt or vinegar, which offsets its bitterness. Even prepared this way, only small amounts should be consumed as it is known to contain powerful therapeutics, including alkaloids and furanocoumarins. It should be noted that rue should not be used topically as its oil reacts with UV rays and causes blistering. These substances can be harmful in large doses.

References:

Field trials on the repellent activity of four plant products against mainly Mansonia population in western Ethiopia

Guide to Medicinal Plants in Israel, Nissim Krispil (Hebrew)

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