RUE, RUDA, RUTA
Rue — Ruta graveolens — is a European perennial herb with multi-lobed, matte-finish grey-green leaves, inconspicuous yellow flowers (seen at the bottom center in the picture), and a distinctively sharp and aromatic fragrance that verges on being “stinky.” After the flowers are fertilized, the Rue plant makes clusters of bumpy green four-lobed fruits, containing numerous brown seeds. The Spanish name for Rue is Ruda and the Italian name is Ruta, and although it was not native to the New World, it has been widely accepted as a magical herb by the indigenous people of Central and South America and among African-Americans as well. It is used in love spells, as described above, but more often in protection spells.
For centuries Rue has been considered one of the foremost protective herbs, especially against the evil eye, a belief that originated in the Middle East and which holds that magical harm can come to people through the glance of an envious onlooker. In Italy, faith in the protective qualities of Rue is so great that a special charm, the Cimaruta or “Sprig of Rue” is worn as a pendant to ward off the evil eye. It is always made of sterling silver (the most common metal for apotropaic charms, due to the metal’s symbolic association with the moon, which is thought to protect women and children, the most frequent victims of the evil eye) and it is most often found in the vicinity of Naples, where generations of artisans have developed a variety of Cimaruta designs.
THE CIMARUTA OR “SPRIG OF RUE”
The Cimaruta charm shown here was made sometime in the second half of the 20th century. It is stamped “800” on the back, but has no other maker’s mark. I bought it in an antique store in Sebastopol, California, and the dealers there had no idea what it was, merely considering it a piece of jewelry. Like most Cimaruta charms, it is fairly large — almost 4 inches across — and it depicts a variety of lucky and protective items attached to the sprig of Rue. Some of these are difficult to see, being turned in various ways and rather crudely cast, but going clockwise from right to left and inside to outside, they seem to be:
- a Rue leafa birda rosea Rue fruita keya hand holding a wand or sworda
- a crescent moon with a face in ita snake (its body replaces one of the branches)an owl (?)a plumed Medieval helmeta cluster of Rue fruitsa Gobo (Italian lucky hunchback)
THE QUESTION OF ASPAND or “SYRIAN RUE”
It is my considered belief that the reason Rue is said to ward off the Evil Eye is that its lobed compound leaves superficially resemble a Middle Eastern and Central Asian plant called Aspand . The fact that Europeans call Aspand “Syrian Rue” signifies that they see a relationship between the two plants — but there is no genetic basis for the linkage, as they are in different taxonomic families. Aspand is a psychoactive sacred plant from the desert areas of the Middle East and Central Asia, where Evil Eye belief originated; it is my theory that Rue is a European plant without psychoactive properties that looks enough like Aspand that Italians and other Mediterranean people adopted it as a magical substitute, despite the fact that the plants are not related.