The English name yarrow comes from the Anglo-Saxon gearwe. As with other herbs of Saint John, it was used in love divination as well as a protection against witches, demons, and fairies. Although a famous healing plant from antiquity through the Renaissance, yarrow’s reputation as a magical herb, often cited in secondary works on plant lore, is more difficult to trace to a medieval source than its medicinal applications. Its place in Celtic tradition is manifest in a Scots Gaelic incantation translated by Kenneth Jackson, and published in A Celtic Miscellany (1951):
I will pick the smooth yarrow that my figure may be sweeter,
that my lips may be warmer,
that my voice may be gladder.
May my voice be like a sunbeam,
may my lips be like the juice of the strawberry.
May I be an island in the sea,
may I be a hill in the land,
may I be a star in the darktime,
may I be a staff to the weak one:
I shall wound every man,
no man shall hurt me.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), like St. John’s wort, was a famous vulnerary. The name of the genus is taken from the Greek hero Achilles. He is said to have learned the use of the herb from the centaur Chiron and to have employed it to heal the wound he himself inflicted on Telephus, king of Mysia. In the Anglo-Saxon version of the Herbarium of Apuleius Platonicus, this ascription had already been generalized, and common yarrow is specified as an herb that Achilles used to heal the wounds of his soldiers, especially those who were wounded with iron (Geoffrey Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora, 1955).
There are some twenty-four species of Achillea found in Greece, (Hellmut Baumann, The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art, and Literature, translated and augmented by Wm. T. Stearn and E. R. Stearn, 1993). Achillea millefolium is among them. Whether or not it can be identified with the healing herb mentioned in ancient Greek sources, yarrow was used as a wound herb in the Middle Ages on the authority of the ancients. (See also the Index of Medieval Medical Images.)