Rue (Ruta; Rutaceae) has been part of European folklore since ancient times. Its virtues were written about and considered sacred by some of the greatest Roman and Greek authors, including Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Pliny, and Plutarch. This plant was used for healing purposes, as well as for protection against evil eye, witchcraft, and other sources of evil.
It was mentioned in Odyssey as a talisman to fend off the sorceress Circe. During the Middle Ages, it was used by Paracelsus, Agrippa of Nettestheim, and the Picara Justina. Historically the plant has been widely associated with its magical effects; however, its use as a medicinal agent is still practiced as its been shown to have ant-inflammatory and analgesic properties.
The use of this symbolic and medicinal plant is still common in many European traditions, particularly in Spain. The widespread use of rue by shepherds in Spain is still practiced. Veterinary uses of rue by Spaniard shepherds is a mix of medicinal treatment and superstition. Rue is a well-known agent of dilation of the uterus, hence its wide use to facilitate childbirth. So shepherds in Spain frequently use rue to promote labor in sheep, as well as to clean mothers after labor.
One particular use of rue by the shepherds which is rather interesting is its use as part of a strategy of deception for rearing lambs. When a ewe has two lambs and rejects one of them, rue is rubbed over both. Because the ewe is unable to recognize the smell of the rejected lamb, she then nurses both.
Rue is also used as a repellent of animals that are harmful for the sheep. One of the most popular uses of rue is to delouse the sheep by applying a rue infusion to remove scabs and lice from the sheep after shearing. Shepherds also use rue to repel fleas, mosquitoes, wasps, rats, and mice, as well as spiders and scorpions. They spray the rue infusion in the sheep pens; however, its also applied to the skin to treat wounds.
Rue is seen as a powerful repellent against evil eye or mal de ojo. In Castellón, they say that “he or she who has rue is helped by God.”
In Catalonia, it is said:
Rue and Valerian
Sweet basil and sage
Rue is used as a magical element on Saint John’s night. The people of Teruel collect it, dry it, and place it in a scapular, putting it with a cross, in a small pouch around the neck. It’s believed by doing so it will serve the purpose of scaring away those who want to do evil.
Paracelsus mentioned in the 15th century that rue was used as a protector against misfortune by means of a scapular to ward off spells of evildoers.
Evil eye was not only reserved for humans. It’s said to also affects pens and flocks. Shepherds in Spain also considered rue to be an effective strategy to ward off these dangers that could affect the main source of their income.
Shepherds hang a branch of rue on the inside of the pen behind the main entrance without it being visible from the outside.
In Lleida, the old shepherds hung a tuft of rue on the door to prevent witches from entering to shear goats. Shepherds north of Girona placed this plant around the corners of the area their sheep often passed to protect them from the actions of witches and evildoers.
Many shepherds would also plant rue bushes next to a pen entrance for protection. Sometimes they would even mix rue in with the hay.
Rue’s frequent use to prevent magic and evil eye shows us how shepherds of Spain use all the the strategies at their disposal, including both natural and magical remedies. The use of rue is accompanied by ritual elements that adorn and enrich its powers in the minds of its users.