HISTORIES & FOLKLORE
We most likely know juniper best through its use in gin, made from the small, fleshy dark blue berries as well as various other aromatics. The etymology of gin comes from the French and the Dutch words, genévrier and jenever. The origin of the spirit’s use is speculated to have been medicinal long before the Dutch monks wrote a recipe in the 1200s in Der Naturen Bloem, which calls for juniper berries to be boiled in rainwater or wine to treat stomach ailments. A quick note about manuscript documentation: many scholars feel that the appearance of something historical in a manuscript speaks to or implies a precedent or practice long before the initial documentation, because for example, a recipe requires a refinement, which means a lot of work happened before that happened. So this practice is much older, obviously, than the 1200s, is what I’m suggesting. Another 13th Century manuscript written by Thomas van Cantimpré, Liber de Natura Rerum, also introduces juniper as a way to treat stomach pain. What we now know is the bitter nature of juniper stimulates bile and other gastric juices thus easing digestion, settling the stomach and calming gas, bloating, and cramping. Several Northern European uses of juniper included making a decoction out of berries and the tips of leaves for respiratory ailments, and there’s some documentation of people prescribing dandelion in the spring and juniper berry in the autumn for these. The Egyptians were known to have used juniper in recipes such as internal medicine for purification, infestations of tapeworm, and embalming the dead; and like many other cultures, for incense, offerings, or otherwise “sweetening” the air in homes and sacred spaces, temples, and royal halls. Because of its aromatic qualities, burning makes sense but additionally, for people across Europe and the Mediterranean, juniper branches were often placed on floors to walk over and release the scent into the air. As an ingredient high in antimicrobial properties, it’s not surprising to see it used for the dressing of a body for wounds or skin ailments; or in fumigation of spaces for purification. Naturally these recipes and other similar ones appear in Greek medicine; and they also offered juniper to the gods, viewing it as a stimulus to physical stamina. The Welsh have a folk believe that says if you cut down a juniper tree, misfortune will soon follow. The Brothers Grimm recorded a German folktale titled The Juniper Tree in which we read a story about a death, a guardian spirit ie, protection, rebirth, and transformation (albeit morbidly). In Scotland, juniper is burned at Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year—a purification and a blessing ritual. In Southeast Asia, local people of Lahaul Valley in the Northwestern Himalayas India have a longstanding folk tradition of offering juniper boughs and leaves to the deities; and collect juniper leaves, boughs, and wood for religious use in general, as well as for building and for medicine.
Across North American Indigenous medicines, juniper is relied upon for a multitude of health needs. Methods of use include decoctions or infusions of roots, leaves, branches and bark; decoctions of berries; steam from boiling branches; chewing berries/cones; adding cones/berries to an infusion; and more. Juniper is a sacred ceremonial plant used in ceremony across North America, which hosts at least two different varieties of between California juniper and Virginia juniper.
As you can see, juniper is one of the most anciently rooted medicines throughout the world; and its uses and applications are universally extensive, and exhaustive!
Heads up: many species are extremely resinous and unpalatable, if not outrightly poisonous. If the juniper you come across is used as an ornamental, it might not be useable as medicine or for culinary use, such as: savin juniper (J. Sabina), ashe juniper (J. ashei) and redberry juniper (J. pinchotti); and there are many other species yet to be examined for toxicity. Common edible species across the US and Europe are Juniperus communis, Juniperus virginiana, and Juniperus californica.
Across northern and central Europe, including Scandinavia, France, Germany, and Hungary; people use the berries directly on meats such as venison, lamb, goat, veal, quail, pheasant, rabbit; and any other type of game. The berries add a spicy, pungent flavor to many foods, such as both baked and pickled cabbage, sauerkraut, gravlax (Scandanavian cured, not smoked, salmon), and cheese. The berries can be made into a sauce of their own, very popular with goose, duck, and other fowl; or to flavor jams, jellies, and aspics. In Eastern Europe, juniper brandy is popular and made from fermented juniper berries into a distilled wine. The Finnish beverage, Sahti, is made from malted and unmalted barley, rye, and oats but flavored with juniper berries instead of hops (though some varieties may use both). The mash, sahti wort, is very loosely filtered (the drink itself is considered and classified as "unfiltered") through juniper twigs and branches, the kuurna, a long, curved wooden trough, historically carved out of a tree. This beer is regarded as one of Finland's traditional and ancient rustic beer styles, carried out since before the 12th century. The ash of California juniper berries is a good source of calcium according to some Navajo uses. The berries of North American juniper species are sweeter, drier, and are therefore easily ground into a grainy meal, and multiple Indigenous cooks across the continent have historically used these to make cake-like baked foods but they are also used in many of the same way as European varieties.
Juniper is almost universally considered a sacred tree across cultures throughout the world from Chinese, Tibetan, European, Middle Eastern, and North American Indigenous cultures. It is thought to ward against malefic magic, illness, and general negative forces. It’s widely used as incense or smoke medicine; blessed water, or saining, as a powerful protective and/or cleansing and detoxifying tool, and as a talisman of subtle energies.
A large number of Indigenous uses of juniper vary between tribes but are regarded ceremonial medicine, burning the leaves for incense or creating a steam from boiled twigs and berries; a tea or infusion of leaves, twigs, and/or berries might be poured over hot stones in a sweat ceremony. Depending on the tradition, the lodge itself may also be built in part from the juniper. In many unrelated folkloric practices throughout the world, juniper is hung outside or inside a home or burned in ritual for protection, worn as an amulet or medicine bundle around the neck to ward against evil spirits, or a sprig is carried as a protective charm before setting out on a particularly dangerous venture or journey. It isn’t unusual for plants described in folklore as having properties that drive off bad spirits or ward from the evil eye also have some degree of anti-microbial properties, and this is also true for juniper. In Scottish, Irish, and some British traditions, juniper is burned in the purifying bonfires of Beltaine and other festivals, and most famously in January during the great Hogmanay festivals in Scotland during the rites of the new year. Scottish and Irish purification traditions include saining by both smoke and water, often infused with and blessed by juniper leaves. Traditional witchcraft, cunning craft, and other witch practices call for burning juniper in ritual protection and blessings of the home, and rituals for prosperity, health, harmony, and protection against any harm, disease, the evil eye, or ill-doings. Many traditions that engage divination, journeying, and seership burn juniper to aid in their divinatory work. If you have a hard time finding mugwort, juniper can substitute in this healing, visionary, and/or ceremonial work!
So we can really see the properties of juniper lend themselves to magical workings in protection, talismanic magic, prevention/curing of illness, detoxification, fumigation and purification throughout the world. You can use juniper in any protective, prayer, or offering works in amulets, sachets, baths, washes, oils, incense, lustral or holy waters, saining, or smoke!
In regards to sacred smoke, a Scottish New Year tradition is saining with juniper. I’m using past tense verbiage here but this is still a living tradition for a good number of people, and as many people learn more about Scottish folk traditions, we're seeing a good many people bring back its return. Traditionally for the saining rite at the new year (though this was done at other times and places as well throughout the year), water was collected from sacred stream and juniper was gathered the night before. While it was traditional to remove the entire plant from the earth and bring it to the home, today we gather juniper from a bush or a tree with whom we have a relationship, and take a symbolic rather than an abundant amount (though if possible, substantial enough to ensure fumigation of your entire home--fortunately a small amount of juniper produces a significant amount of smoke). The water was made into menstruum (silvered water, with a chant tháirgeadh (tar ug), airgead (arigat), uisce which translates to production, money, water) and juniper left by the hearth to dry. In many cases, this work was done under specific conditions (such as nighttime, and pulled by hand with no use of iron) or circumstances (water collected from a “dead and living” stream, gathered in silence) and accompanied by specially dedicated prayers, oftentimes syncretic with Christianity.
The next day, the entire household would gather to prepare for the ceremony, sealing the house up at all openings--doors, windows, and anywhere there was a crevice or a crack--so the smoke would be contained within. Everyone would gather for the ceremony, take a sip of the menstruum (no longer recommended but you can ceremonially lift the water to your lips), then the rest was sprinkled throughout the house with a particular focus on the four corners and the beds. The juniper on the hearth was then burned at the hearth (some reports indicate it is carried burning, through the house), filling the sealed house with smoke to the point of dense fumigation. Once this was complete, the seals were removed, and all doors and windows opened to release the smoke and air the house out. The household drinks to their collective health (whiskey) and eats the first breakfast of the new year!
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