On another forum I belong to someone posted a link to a light hearted quiz that was supposed to tell you what kind of herb you were. A few people after taking the quiz complained that Moly was the herb they were most like and they'd never heard of it?! At that time neither had I!
I love a challenge so I decided to try and track down the sacred and elusive Moly. The plant I'm trying to identify is referred to in Greek mythology as a magic herb with a black root and white blossoms in texts such as Homer's Odyssey, where it was said that Hermes gave this sacred herb to Odysseus to act as a prophylactic to protect him from Circe's poisons.
Although I don't have any definitive answer I'm intrigued, and although the mysterious Moly is still a mystery, I thought I'd share what I'd found in the hopes that someone out there may be able to shed more light on the plants identity? From the description given above it looks like it could have been a member of the garlic family, I will keep digging until I have some concrete evidence, but below is what I've discovered thus far.
Texts I'm sifting through, lay claims to Moly being mugwort, wild rue, wild cyclamen, wild garlic and mandrake amongst others. John Gerard’s Herbal (1633) lists seven plants under the heading Moly, of which the third, Moly homericum, is he suggests, the Moly of Theophrastus, Pliny and Homer – he describes it as a variety of wild garlic. Research shows that Moly homericum is now called Black Garlic (Allium nigrum), it's a native of the Mediterrainean and also has a dark bulb (not sure if its black?).
However there is actually a herb that was referred to as Moly that was identified and used in Europe and if you were a reader of herbals around 16th-18th century you would maybe have been more familiar with Moly. The problem we have now, is plant names have changed and some of the herbal remedies have fallen from grace so no longer get a mention in modern herbals and their names, uses and folklore have disappeared into oblivion.
Moly latifolium, is a member of the garlic side of the allium family, which in Parkinson's 'Theatrum Botanicum' (c.1640) is called Yellow Moly! Today its no longer seen as a herb and falls into the spring bulb realm of plants where it gets called Allium moly 'Golden Garlic' or 'Lily Leek' and is grown for its flowers alone, its become removed from herbals and now resides in spring bulb catalogues!
Back in history it was used as a salad vegetable having a mild garlic flavour and the juice was also used as a moth repellant, so far, I haven't found a medicinal use for it, but as it contains sulphur compounds it was probably uses in much the same way as the wild garlic we know today as ramsons (Allium ursinum). See the entry for Ramsons on the Plants For A Future website http://www.pfaf.org/database/plants.php?Allium+ursinum
My final piece of information in the great moly challenge comes from a poem by the English poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) who celebrated Moly and other herbs and plants in a series of poems.
To find a Name for me the Gods took care,
A Mystick Name, that might my Worth declare,
They call'd me Moly: dull Grammarians sense
Is puzzled with the term -- -
But Homer held Divine Intelligence.
In Greek and Latin both my Name is Great,
The term is just, but Moly sounds more neat:
My Pow'rs prevented Circes dire Design,
Ulysses but for me had been a Swine;
In vain had Mercury inspir'd his Brain
With Craft, and tipt his wheedling tongue in vain,
Had I not enter'd timely to his Aid,
Thus Moly spoke, and would much more have said
But by mischance (as if some angry Pow'r
Had ow'd her long a shame) a Belch most sowr
Broke from her throat, perfuming all the Court,
And made her Rivals unexpected Sport.
Her pompous Name no longer can take place,
Her Odour proves her of the Garlick Race;
Forthwith with one consent the gibing throng
Set up their Notes, and sung the well-known Song
He that to cut his Father's throat
Did heretofore presume,
T'have Garlick cram'd into his Gut
Receiv'd the dreadful Doom.
Flora to silence the tumultuous jest,
(Though secretly she smil'd amongst the rest)
That she her self would speak a sign exprest,
Then with sweet Grace into these Accents broke,
Th'unhallow'd place perfuming while she spoke.
If anybody has anything further to add or has any definitive information on the elusive Moly I'd be really happy to discover anything that may help positively identify exactly what Moly was?
This has nothing to do with herbs, but it just made me wonder, given the timing of Moly being well-known, whether there is a link somehow with the Molly Morris dancers. Given that Molly dancing is a very primitive and somewhat more violent form of morris, maybe it took its name from a herb which everyone knew then?
Just a thought
December 17 2007, 5:54 PM
Interesting thought Sarah, but I think that the Molly part came about because one of the male dancers dressed as a woman but I may be wrong? Your response has made me wonder just how many country traditions include herbs as part of the celebration, May day and hawthorn are one that I know for sure. Maybe we should start another thread up to persue some herbal folk tales?
is the forum of the Herb Society (UK), the place to discuss
all aspects of herbs including their uses, cultivation, history, legislation
and much more. Run by and for the Herb Society (UK) and open to anyone to read, but posts will only appear once approved by a moderator.
Please note that the Forum Host and Moderators reserve the right to delete
any entry which is considered to be inappropriate for this forum, its members and the
Herb Society as a whole. IP's of spammers will be blocked.
The Herb Society is not qualified to provide medicinal advice. Useful contacts for such advice can be found on our contacts page. Officers and Council Members of the Herb Society (UK) accept no liability for any harm, damage, or illness arising from the use of plants mentioned or described on this forum.