Some culinary writers refer to basil as the “king of herbs”.
The name basil may derive from the basilisk, a legendary monster, because the plant was said to be
a cure for its poison. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal tells us: “The seeds have been reckoned
efficacious against the poison of serpents…”The plant has frequently been considered poisonous
itself, while African legend claims it protects against scorpions. European lore sometimes claims that
basil is a symbol of Satan, though in other places, like India, the plant is highly revered. Similarly, it
is a symbol of love in present-day Italy, but represented hatred in ancient Greece.
Basil is highly revered in Hinduism and also has religious significance in the Greek Orthodox Church,
where it is used to prepare holy water. It is said to have been found around Christ’s tomb after his
resurrection. In Europe, they place basil in the hands of the dead to ensure a safe journey. In India,
they place it in the mouth of the dying to ensure they reach God. The Egyptians and Grecians believe
it will actually open the gates of heaven for a person passing on.
Boccaccio’s Decameron relates the memorably morbid tale of Lisabetta, whose lover is slain by her
brothers. Her murdered lover appears to her in a dream and shows her his burial place. She secretly
disinters the head, and sets it in a pot of basil, which she waters daily with her tears. The brothers
discover the pot and take it from her. Lisabetta dies of grief not long afterward.