In Crete we never burned witches to get rid of pagan practices, but modernity gradually replaced the traditional herbal remedies of our ancestors with modern medicine and new scientific knowledge. This is not necessarily bad. However, many valuable recipes, practices and legends are in danger of being lost. And who wants to lose cultural heritage?
Older people living in Cretan villages still carry the ancient knowledge from which herbal remedies originate. When hospitals and modern pharmacies didn’t exist, Cretan people took what they needed from the land and were connoisseurs of the numerous healing qualities of endemic plants and herbs. In fact, herbs were always connected to physical and mental health, spirituality, mythology, traditions and... love!
Today, the most common use of herbs in Crete is in the cuisine, adding flavour and aroma to local dishes. Thyme, oregano, bay leaves and rosemary are commonly used in cooking. But take oregano, for example. Apart from cooking it can also be used to cure stomach problems, poisoning and toothache! Thyme was believed that it could restore physical vigour and cure melancholy. Plus, in ancient times it was used in rituals for purification and was burned as incense at funerals to assure the passage of the deceased into the ‘other side’. Dittany’s (Origanum dicatmus) therapeutic qualities are considered to be very strong, as it fastens the healing of wounds. Laurel on the other hand is known for its hair care qualities and pain comforting. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, actually used bay leaves to ease the pain after childbirth, and cure various gynaecological problems! Nowadays, most Cretans still boil mountain sage (faskomilo) or Cretan mountain tea (malotira) and drink them with honey to sooth coughing.
Many herbalists in Crete today have studied and revived old remedies in improved formulas. One common remedy is to collect the flowers or leaves of the herb you’re interested in, put them in a glass jar and cover them with olive oil. You leave the jar in the sunlight for 40 days until the oil takes all the therapeutic qualities from the herb. You can then use the oil on your hair or skin, depending on the kind of problem you want to treat, or mix it with bee wax and use it as an ointment (you need to ask a herbalist of course about the procedure).
For example you can do that with the yellow flowers of verbascum creticum, which are collected throughout the summer. The oil is then used for ear pain, skin problems and much more, as verbascum is known for its anti-infammatory, antibacterial and soothing qualities. The roots, leaves and flowers are also used for healing remedies. Verbascum Creticum is also known by its “informal” and funnier name: “Papari tou tragou” (meaning, the ‘wiener’ of the billy goat!). Of course, for the remedy above you need 40 days of sun and virgin olive oil. You are in Crete after all!
An easier beauty remedy that anybody can do is the following: put rosemary, thyme or sage in an ‘envelope’ made of gauze and then place it in your bathtub to refresh your skin.
The secrets of herb harvesting
You might think it is enough to buy a book listing all Cretan herbs with images and hit the mountains to collect them. The reality is, however, that herb harvesting is a more complicated matter than you think! First of all, keep in mind that not all herbs are for everybody and some should not be consumed during pregnancy. Plus, some herbs look similar to other plants that can be toxic. Therefore we suggest consulting a herbalist before you use or consume them.
If you feel confident enough to do your own harvesting here are some tips for you:
Herbs are ideally picked by hand (avoid using scissors or knifes unless necessary) and at midday. So if you are going for summer herbs do NOT forget to bring a hat and water, wear light clothes and long pants/shoes as many plants have spikes!
It is not recommended that you place or store your herbs in plastic bags as they are not allowed to ‘breathe’. It is better to carry with you bags made of fabric, or even a scarf or sarong (plus, they look prettier!)
Do not pick herbs that grow near the road because they absorb heavy metals and pollution that comes from cars and human civilization in general! We suggest you go to more secluded places, and according to some "modern witches" it is even better if you pick them from "high energy fields" (that is, mountain tops, near archaeological sites and ancient temples!)
Be careful though, if you must "trespass" fences (put there by shepherds to keep their animals confined) remember to close the door behind you, otherwise you might end up chasing sheep!
Last but not least, remember that a good herb harvester always respects nature… and in the case of herbs that means do not destroy or uproot them just to take a few branches.
Herbs and alternative living
Today more and more young people develop the desire to learn about Cretan herbs (maybe because they feel our conventional health system will not make it through the crisis!) and come closer to nature. Local herbalists revive traditional remedies based on the therapeutic attributes of herbs and mix them with other pure products of the Cretan land (olive oil, bee wax, honey, raki) to produce high quality products, such as medicine, soap and cosmetics, free of chemicals and animal testing!
This is in line with international trends towards alternative living and the desire of all people to discover their roots and revisit tradition. No matter the motive or source of desire, the experience of attending herbal seminars or simply walking on Cretan mountains exploring herbs on your own will be rewarding and we assure you that a little witch will awaken inside you!