The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants

April 8, 2008

The Dictionary of Sacred and Magical Plants by Christian Rätsch

Translated from the German by John Baker

ABC-CLIO Inc, Prism Press, 1992 (1988 )

 

“In herbs may be found the full power of the world. He who knows their secret abilities is omnipotent.”

— Indian Proverb

 

They wouldn’t let me take this book out of the library, so I had to read it in bits and pieces between classes. Despite my limited time, habit compelled me to read all of the introductions and forewords, a practice which has, for once, served me well. While I expect translating anything from one language to another and keeping its meaning intact is quite difficult, translating a book about psychotropic herbs used in shamanic and magical practices around the world must be even harder.

 

The translator’s introduction to this book is well worth reading, as Mr. (Dr?) Baker discusses the difficulties of rendering into English a complete understanding of the German word Rausch. It is usually translated as ‘intoxication,’ which, in the sense of this book, isn’t quite right. Mainstream North American culture no longer has systems to utilize psychedelic plants safely, nor knows how to interpret knowledge gained from them. We view information gained through non-rational, visionary experiences to be less valid than that obtained through rational, scientific methods, and this bias is reflected in our language. Christian Rätsch introduces us to cultures that have not lost their respect for the visionary experience.

 

The author’s introduction, besides providing a (very) brief discussion of magic and what constitutes a magical plant, also includes categories that can be used to find a plant that is used for a specific purpose. Having Plants of Prophecy, Elixirs of Immortality, Death Charms, Grave Goods, and Aphrodisiacs all sorted out for you is nice if you’re in a hurry. Rätsch also gives his method of placing psychotropic plants in ritual contexts (vision quests, oracles, sacrifices, hunting magic, etc) and sorting which plants were involved in which stages of certain rituals (preparation, implementation, and integration).

 

Each dictionary entry gives the folklore and historical uses of the plant, listed either by genus or individual species if certain pieces of lore are applicable to a specific variety alone. The plant’s uses in folk medicine, spells, and religious ritual (mostly pagan) are also listed. Each entry ends with the pharmacological properties of the plant and a list of sources for further reading.

 

I found the Ayahuasca entry especially interesting. A table, entitled Native Classification of Ayahuasca, listed the many types of Ayahuasca that this tribe (whose name I’ve forgotten) knows how to make. The nifty part is that each type of Ayahuasca brew produces visions of different things; one type might induce visions of hunting, another of famine, another of the land of the dead, and another still of underwater travel.

 

The entry on witches’ ointments (which is one of the reasons I was so happy to find this book, the other being that I’m an ethnobotany geek), although it could have been longer, contained this nice tidbit from Leuner: “The witches’ ointments may be psychopharmacologically interesting because we apparently have here the only toxic technique of ecstasy in the world in which the specific components of the experience are achieved by the way the psychopharmacological agents are added together.” This differs from the various types of Ayahuasca, apparently, because of the physical sensations accompanying the trip. Either that or Leuner is out of date, I’m not sure. Further rambling is beyond the scope of this review.   

 

Rätsch gathers lore from all over the world, both contemporary and historical. He shows us the valuable interactions between plants and people that our society would do well to regain. Also, we should all take St. Anthony as our personal saint. You should read the book to find out why.

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