Why Does the Song Scarborough Fair Say "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme?"

Posted on 27 Oct 2015 16:12

Many people have sung along with Simon and Garfunkel on their recording of Scarborough Fair/Canticle. It's popularity reached its zenith in 1968, especially since it was featured in the movie, The Graduate, but we still hear it even on the radio today. How often have you wondered about the significance of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme repeated over and over in the song? And, just what do these herbs have to do with a fair?

Many may not realize it, but the Scarborough Fair is a traditional folk song. While it is common practice to take an old folk melody and put new lyrics over it, in this case, Simon and Garfunkel used the original lyrics and juxtaposed them with an anti-Vietnam message, a combination that worked very well, given the lyrics of the folk song.

You have to listen very closely to the song, or read the lyrics, to get a gist of its meaning, but it is about a man who makes ever-more impossible demands of his lover in order for her to prove her love, and she in turn makes similar demands of him.

The song says "once was a true love of mine" implying that, indeed, she fails to meet these demands. Although I will not speak to their full intention in weaving a Vietnam message into the song, Vietnam could also be seen as an impossible promise.

But what of the herbs, and the "fair?" Some have speculated that the song is about the town of Scarborough itself, and the word fair doesn't refer to a town fair, or gathering, but rather is used in an adjectival sense as in "Fair Scarborough." However, a fair, in the Middle Ages, was also a market.

Indeed, the town of Scarborough, in its remote Yorkshire location, was the site of a large market fair, from the thirteenth century. This fair, which happened once a year, saw merchants coming together from all over the country and bringing with them a large variety of useful or even luxury goods. There would have been fabrics, animal skins, foods and cooking equipment. It makes sense that herbs and spices would have also been on display, including parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

But, why these particular herbs? Such a market would have certainly had many other herbs and seasonings, yet the song mentions just these particular ones, and gives them a place of importance.

Perhaps the original lyrics weren't meant to memorialize a love of these herbs, but some magical significance?

According to the website Songfacts, "Parsley was comfort, sage was strength, rosemary was love, and thyme was courage," and thus these herbs "were important to the lyrics." Perhaps these symbolic representations also made the herbs part of a love spell? The problem is that different sources assign each of these herbs different meanings. For instance, instead of the above:

  • parsley: festive (this would match the atmosphere of the fair, at least)
  • sage: wisdom
  • rosemary:remembrance
  • thyme: courage

It seems hard to justify why these particular herbs should be any more important to the song than any number of other herbs with other meanings, such as violet, for faithfulness, or myrtle for true love. As a matter of fact, there are many herbs associated with love and relationships. It is more likely that if these herbs had special associations, these associations may have changed based on place and time. Regardless, all the herbs had magical properties, themselves varied.

Parsley Magic

Parsley has been associated with an array of magical effects. It was long associated with evil and the Underworld, in fact, which doesn't bode well for the song. However, it has also been used to ward off evil. It has been claimed that the origin of using parsley for a garnish on food was to keep the food from spoiling, since spoilage was thought to be caused by evil spirits.

It has also been thought to stimulate sexual desire or "lust" as well as attracting money. This fits in well with the song.

Sage Magic

Sage has been associated with quite an array of magical powers. It ensures a long life and, if you eat enough of it every day, perhaps even immortality. It brings wisdom, and protects you from the evil eye. Perhaps more fitting for the song is the belief that if you write a wish on a sage leaf, and then sleep with the leaf under your pillow for three days, the wish will come true. Apparently, though, for your wish to come true you must dream of it. If your wish does not come true, you may come to some kind of harm. To prevent this harm you must bury the sage in the ground.

Rosemary Magic

Among its array of magical powers, rosemary has significance in relationships. It is a primary ingredient in love and lust potions, incenses, etc. It clears away past negativity in relationships, and negativity and worry in general. It helps prolong relationships.

Thyme Magic

Thyme can put you in touch with fairies, spirits, ancestors, and all sorts of otherworldly beings. It brings luck, peace of mind, and all around good vibrations. But, perhaps its most important use is as a love herb. It helps you find your true love. It is said that if you feed it to the person whom you are attracted to, you will know for sure if they are your one true love. This use, of all the herbs mentioned in the song, fits perfectly with what the song is about, finding true love.

All of these herbs could have various old magical uses having to do with relationships, sex, etc. Whether the uses mentioned here, or some other unknown uses are at the heart of their place of honor in the song is difficult to know, but it is almost certain that their magical and not culinary properties were the reason for their use in the song's lyrics. The message seems to be that true love cannot be attained without overcoming great strife or adversity. There are, however, many variants to the lyrics, as would befit any medieval folk song.

These herbs are not the only familiar culinary herbs that have potent magical powers.

So, it is possible these herbs were part of a medieval love spell. But it is also possible that they are meaningless. One thing to realize is that, contrary to what you will usually read about the song, it wasn't written originally with Scarborough fair in mind. Older versions of the song had existed, and these mentioned other fairs. It had been a popular song for travelling musicians who would perform at these fairs. The song is old enough that we can never really be sure of the exact reason for the herbs. The meaning of the rest of the lyrics, however, are fairly clear. Two bitter lovers setting impossible tasks for each other in order to prove their true love. Mentions of a "fair" is incidental and many versions of this ballad leave it out.

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