Artemisia vulgaris tastes good in beer, but that’s not how it got its common name, Mugwort. More of that later. Drinks first. In 2011, a few potable-minded archaeologists excavated six specially dug ditches that the ancient Celts used to brew beer. Lacking hops, these ingenious Iron-Age beer enthusiasts used what was growing nearby to flavor their stouts, namely, Artemisia vulgaris. Talk about a microbrewery.
Later on after the ever-adventurous Vikings invaded the land of the Celts, aka Ireland, they started incorporating the herb into their brews. As it turns out, mugwort belongs to the same family as wormwood, absinthe’s hallucinogenic ingredient. Mugwort is likewise slightly psychotropic, though less so than its more experimental cousin. But that wouldn’t matter if you were one of the Vikings who used to swill so much mugwort laced bear as to induce kaleidoscopic visions. Given the plants seemingly magical powers, it’s no wonder they gave Odin credit for its presence on earth. It is worth noting however, that as much as men imbibed, brewing was the purview of women in Viking culture, so much so that a woman was free to sell her equipment as she pleased.
A little bit before these hopped-up marauders started terrorizing more or less the entire world, Saint John the Baptist wore a no doubt fashionable girdle of mugwort into the wilderness to protect him from fatigue. This may have been a later author’s appropriation of the common Roman practice of planting mugwort by the roadside to alleviate the aching feet of travelers. But while the world may never know, later disciples of the beheaded saint gathered up bushels of what they called Cingulum Sancti Johannis in order to ward off all kinds of ills from sunstroke to wild beasts to evil spirits generally.
Meantime in Ancient Egypt, both pharaohs and peasants burned the herb as an offering to Isis. Indeed, mugwort was rather popular with the lady goddesses and was likewise associated with Artemis, the divinity of fertility as well as the hunt. (Later she was renamed Diana by the Romans). To this day mugwort is used to treat menstrual pain and the easing of the transition to menopause.
Mugwort probably arrived to this neck of the woods from either Europe or Africa by sailors who rolled it up and smoked it in place of tobacco, which is where it derived another one of its monikers, sailor’s tobacco. Currently, you can find mugwort growing anywhere where it’s wet such as storm drains and gutters as well as in flood-prone neighborhoods like Red Hook and Gowanus. This little factoid relates back to the aforementioned etymology of mugwort derived from the old Norse term for marsh, muggi and the Germanic word for root, wuertz.