“For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning,
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all,
But you are the music, while the music lasts.”
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (1941)
Family: Lamiaceae (the mint family)
Genus: Thymus (thyme)
Species: vulgaris (common)
In ancient Greek, thymus meant courage, and was held to be a source of bravery and valiant energy through both ancient and medieval times. To the Greeks it was a symbol of elegance and “to smell of thyme” was a phrase used for those whose style was appealing and admirable. As a tea it was recommended for warming the aged, and was used to treat throat and bronchial inflammation and to help against whooping cough. It was thought to be a cure for snakebite and bruises, and was used to whiten the skin (and in embalming).
The ancient Romans used it to cure feelings of melancholy. It was also widely believe in ancient Rome that eating thyme either before or during a meal would protect you from poison, making it a favorite of the Emperors and thus the ruling classes.
The association of thyme with courage and bravery persisted into the Middle Ages. Thyme was a traditional gift offered to men going into battle. Most soldiers would just push the fragrant sprigs into their pockets or attach it to their armor as a badge of honor.
When the Black Death hit in the late 1340s, millions of people turned to thyme for relief and protection. Many of the day’s medicinals—from posies worn about the neck to poultices applied directly to plague-blistered skin—included the herb as a major ingredient. Though there was little science to these remedies, one of the chemical compounds in thyme is in fact a powerful antimicrobial and antiseptic. Known as thymol, it’s still widely used in mouthwash, hand sanitizer and acne medication because it works.
During the Fifteen Century, ladies embroidered the pattern of a bee flying above a sprig of thyme onto scarves, which they bestowed upon their knights as favors, along with sprigs of thyme to inspire courage and strength.
The Victorians only added on the reputed mystical properties of thyme, considering wild thyme found in the woods to be an unmistakable sign that fairies had recently danced on that spot. Generations of little girls camped out near remote little plots of creeping thyme, hoping to catch a glimpse of a tribe of woodland fairies. But the Victorians also had more practical uses for thyme–before the mechanics of infection were even understood, 19th-century nurses were bathing bandages in a dilution of thyme in water.
All during its history with humanity, of course, thyme remained a favorite cooking herb (along with other members of the mint family). Monasteries made frequent use of thyme in their breads, soups and roasts for both medicinal and culinary purposes. In the days before refrigeration and food safety laws, including thyme in a recipe gave a person at least some solid protection against spoiled meat and food-borne diseases.
Today we know that thymol is one of a naturally-occurring class of compounds known as biocides, substances that can destroy harmful organisms and which act as natural preservatives, which only supports the established knowledge of the ancients. It also may help against high blood pressure, colon cancer, breast cancer and skin inflammations.