“Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme.” This refrain is heard over and over again in the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s rendition of Scarborough Fair/Canticle. Despite the popularity of the song—it reached number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1968 and was included on the soundtrack of the The Graduate (one of the highest grossing films of all time) and has played as theme music on a number of television shows including the critically acclaimed show The Wonder Years—most people have no idea why these herbs are mentioned. There are actually a number of different theories; in order to contextualize any theory, however, one must first understand what the song is about.

The song Scarborough Fair was not penned by the famous duo of Simon & Garfunkel. It is actually an ancient folk song from Great Britain that dates back as far as the late 1600’s. The song tells the story of two young lovers. The man tells the woman that he will take her back if she performs a number of seemingly impossible tasks. These tasks include making a shirt with no seams, washing it in a dry well and finding an acre of land between two bodies of water. If she completes the tasks, “Then she’ll be a true love of mine,” as the song goes.

The Love Potion Theory
One theory is that the four herbs listed in the song—parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme—were all ingredients used by witches during Medieval times to create a love potion. Each ingredient in the potion has a different medicinal and symbolic purpose:

  • Parsley: This ingredient is often used as a digestive aid to remove the bitterness out of certain edibles. It has been theorized that in this song it soothes the bitterness from a once sweet relationship.
  • Sage: This herb is a universal symbol of power. Some believe that it would take extraordinary power to perform the tasks in the song.
  • Rosemary: This ingredient is used in traditional wedding customs and symbolizes love, fidelity and remembrance.
  • Thyme: This herb symbolizes courage; courage to stand up for true love.

The Death Theory
Another plausible theory is that one of the young lovers is actually deceased—possibly a dead soldier. This theory developed because the four herbs repeated in the lyrics were traditionally associated with death. They would be mixed used for embalming the body and to purify and mitigate the smell of decomposition. When combined, the herbs also have a spiritual symbolism to give lovers strength to endure being separated from each other.

The lyrics in the third verse seem to support this theory.
Tell her to find me an acre of land (On the side of a hill, a sprinkling of leaves).
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (Washes the grave with silvery tears).
Between salt water and the sea strands (A soldier cleans and polishes a gun).
Then she’ll be a true love of mine.

The Riddle Theory
Others have theorized that the true meaning of the refrain is actually a riddle that only the writer’s true love would know the meaning too. In fact, many believe that the whole song is written in riddles and sexual references designed to win her back. If you figure out the hidden meaning, then the tasks really aren’t impossible; they are actually quite simple. This theory is supported by lyrics from one of the earlier versions of the folk song rather than the modern version recorded by Simon & Garfunkel.

Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn,
Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;
And sow it all over with one pepper corn,
And he shall be a true love of mine.

Other Theories
Over the years, the lyrics to Scarborough Fair have changed and evolved, spawning countless other theories. Some have to do with the contraceptive and abortive uses of these herbs, speculating that the woman’s pregnancy was actually the impossible task. Others think the herbs are making reference to death from the black plague rather than from war. These theories have been much debated, but It seems that most people come back to one of the three theories mentioned above. No one knows for sure what the writer truly meant when he penned the song.

Feeling inspired? Grow some herbs of your own to help you come up with your own theories! Visit The Growers Exchange to learn more and purchase everything you need for your own herb garden, including the infamous combination of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme!

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  • John Gorn

    I’d have to dispute the “death theory” from this discussion. It references the wording in parentheses (e.g., “polishes a gun”). This is a mistaken interpretation. This song as done by Simon and Garfunkel is a blending of two different songs: Scarborough Fair and Canticle. Scarborough Fair is an old traditional English song as described above, but Canticle is a modification of a previous Paul Simon anti-war song “The Side of a Hill” which has the following lyrics:

    On the side of a hill in a land called ‘Somewhere’

    A little boy lies asleep in the earth

    While down in the valley a cruel war rages

    And people forget what a child’s life is worth

    On the side of a hill, a little cloud weeps

    And waters the grave with its silent tears

    While a soldier cleans and polishes a gun

    That ended a life at the age of seven years

    And the war rages on in the land called ‘Somewhere’

    And generals order their men to kill

    And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten

    While the little cloud weeps on the side of a hill

    Several lines (lines 7, 10, and 11 in particular) of the lyrics from this song are extracted and overlayed on top of Scarborough Fair. You can’t use the words of this 20th century component to explain the meaning of the 16th century component. You could ask why Simon blended these two songs together, but I suspect Simon’s answer would simply be that he liked the sound which is typical for why he makes musical choices. Truly, it’s the blend that made this song stand out and become a hit as it lent complexity and mystery to a renaissance sounding tune.

    I also think the proposed “Riddle Theory” is a real stretch. The offered excerpt is not a sexual reference but just another impossible task being put on the lost lover:

    Tell him to plough it with a ram’s horn,

    Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme;

    And sow it all over with one pepper corn,

    And he shall be a true love of mine.

    You can’t plow a field with a ram’s horn, and you can’t sow an entire field with one seed (one pepper corn), any more than you can reap crops with a sickle made of leather and gather the reaped crops in a bunch of heather, or any more than you can obtain an acre of farmland between a beach and an ocean (between saltwater and sea strand).

    There is no riddle here: the meaning is plain. Former lover A is telling a messenger to remind former lover B about her and to let him know that she will take him back when hell freezes over.