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.

The Horn of Evenwood

March 23, 2008

The Horn of Evenwood by Robin Artisson
Pendraig Publishing, 2007

  The moment you’ve pinned him down, you find yourself staring at the bare ground, the empty sky, a dim forest, or just handfuls of dust. What you thought was a fleshy body is just bare white bone, and when you grasp for the bones, they turn out to be slivers of light on the ground.”
— Artisson

 Having dithered over the introduction to this review off and on for several days now, I’ve decided just to state that although at times I have found Artisson’s writing to be long-winded, I have never been disappointed by it. His most recent effort is a tidy grimoire and sourcebook for those interested in pursuing a more traditional witchcraft path. It engages the spirit of the writings of Nigel Jackson and Robert Cochrane and is a fascinating elaboration on the themes of their work. 

Artisson describes his book as a tool kit, rather than a recipe book. He gives techniques designed to help you forge relationships with the spirit world, and although his “exemplary sorcerous workings” can be used as written, they are meant to show one possible method of doing things. This is a teaching grimoire, and to make the most of it, you have to apply what has been written to your own practice, rather than just following along.  

The book begins with Artisson’s absolutely chilling invocations. Simply reading the poetry gave me shivers. These are given without explanation; Artisson states that as you read on in the book, you can figure out what to do with them and how to create your own. The reader’s engagement with the text is required; this is not a 101 book where everything is laid out in front of you. You have to think about it, and sometimes, to not think about it.    

Next is a section called the Ten Pillars, which consists of some basic points to ground your practice of witchcraft. These include brief instructions on preparing materials for talismans, old-school (seven planets) astrology, the power of spoken words, familiar spirits, and a few other concepts that should be taken into consideration. The section ends with a few practical notes about tools and what Artisson calls the “Power that Binds,” meaning the weaving that holds the worlds together. He asks the reader to really think about how our words and actions affect ourselves and everything else.  

I think this is one of the reasons why I keep returning to Artisson’s writing. There is a deeper level to it, an underlying philosophy that holds true throughout his works. All of his further ideas for rites or spells are built up from this foundation of relationships with the spirits, the quest for true knowledge, and the recognition of Old Fate Herself.  

Continuing on in the book, Artisson offers a method of casting a Witch-Ring and several sigils for invoking the Huntsman, the Witch-Queen, and the Master. I wasn’t as impressed with Artisson’s chapter on the Mandrake plant, mostly because I didn’t see anything new, although there is a lot of good information gathered there for someone unfamiliar with the plant. I especially liked that he gave a way of using the Mandrake that encourages people to grow it, rather than going to a New Age shop and buying root chips in a plastic bag. 

Some of the most interesting pieces of information in the book are Artisson’s thoughts on the Horned Master of witches. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it in the Luciferian current, the ideas are certainly leaning that way. Several meditations on the subject are included, and they (along with the section on arcane flight) are worth the price of the book by themselves. (Also, the appendices of various sorcerous currents, such as Lunar or Mercurial, are more useful than any correspondence table could ever be.)

In Part Six, Artisson takes a charm from the Long Lost Friend, deconstructs it, and puts it back together again in various usable forms. He throws enough ideas at the reader for them to re-write the charm a thousand different ways for hundreds of purposes and still not be done with it.  

To end the book, the author explores the pagan themes in the folktale, The Nixie of the Millpond, and also gives several rather dark rituals for springtime: “I feel real fear now. I am a blasphemous creature of winter evenings long dead, stalking about in fields of gold and white…” The writing is, as always, evocative of the Unseen landscapes. A fascinating book; it’s definitely recommended reading.  

North Star Road

February 19, 2008

North Star Road: Shamanism, Witchcraft & the Otherworld Journey by Kenneth Johnson
Llewellyn Publications, 1996 

“Everything is full of souls.”
— Belibaste, Cathar preacher

The problem with the contemporary backlash against Margaret Murray’s theory of one unified witch-cult is that the pendulum has swung too far into the camps of historians who believe that the witch hunts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were either A) A mass delusion, B) A culmination of increasing social tensions between neighbours, and/or C) An attempt on the part of the Church to obtain land and wealth from women by torturing them until they confessed to strange and bizarre things. 

Although I’m sure (well, as sure as you can be about history) that causes A, B, and C are all quite possible and may have had a large part to play in the witch trial era, I’m not so sure that we should be so hung up on the materialist theories that we ignore all the weird shit that people were doing during that time period. We end up thinking that because there was no organized witch cult as purported by Murray, and because most people who confessed to witchcraft were innocent Christians who’d been horribly tortured, nothing involving witchcraft, magic, or paganism occurred.  

North Star Road, although originally proposing to show that shamanism is at the heart of all religion, focuses on the pagan remnants and ecstatic cults that existed in Europe up until the seventeenth centuries. I’m not sure I believe everything the author has come up with, but it’s certainly interesting. It is also referenced with endnotes and a bibliography, but it is not an academic text. The standard rule for all books applies: Don’t just take the author’s word for it, do some research yourself. Also, North Star Road owes a lot to Carlo Ginzburg’s books, The Night Battles and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, so if you’ve already read them, you’ll see where some of Johnson’s theories originated. 

Throughout the book, Johnson compares the shamanic beliefs of many cultures. I’m not sure that I’d make as much of the similarities as he does, and sometimes I had trouble following the jumps from culture to culture and practice to practice. I just get it into my head that we’re discussing the Mayan cosmology and then suddenly it’s the Norse, and the Celts, and the Orphic Greeks! The book aims for breadth, not depth. 

Starting off with comparisons of shamanic worldviews and initiation rites, the book goes on to discuss what Johnson calls The Old Bone Goddess in all of her regional aspects. As a ‘hard polytheist,’ I don’t see all of these goddesses as just faces of a greater one, but rather just different beings having a similar function (that of shaman creation) within their own cultures. I guess I’m a lot more divisive than the author, but any way you look at them, Mother Hulda and Baba Yaga are fascinating.

Although Chapter Four is entitled Totem Animals, it’s actually a nice overview of helping spirits. Johnson also touches on shape shifting and werewolves, which leads into the next chapters: Traveling in the Spirit and Geography of the Otherworlds. He states that various cultures “maintain, and perhaps even create, their own mental geography of the world beyond” (137) and suggests that times of social upheaval and despair cause changes in the Otherworld. He continues this by inferring that the change in reports of Otherworld journeys from visiting a blissful Faeryland to visiting a demonic Sabbat is the result of the changing perceptions and beliefs about the world.

The pagan Horned God, or Master of the Witches, is discussed in his various guises, followed by a chapter on the Sabbat’s origins. Johnson lists the standard characteristics of the Devil at the Sabbat, and compares many underworld, Otherworld, and animal gods. He also offers his thoughts on the Sabbat (ie. Did it physically occur, or just in the Otherworld? Did folk festivals and feasts blur with out-of-body-experiences to create the Sabbat?).

I wasn’t as interested in the section on crisis cults, and the “shamanic exercises” at the back of the book are fairly new-agey. I’m still not convinced that material from such a diverse range of cultures was needed, as it sometimes caused confusion and implied a universality that didn’t exist. However, this is a fascinating book with a fair amount of good information. The copious illustrations are a nice touch. There are great ideas here, but they are occasionally pushed and stretched into the realm of nonsense. Keep your saltshaker in hand while reading. 

Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic by Emma Wilby
Sussex Academic Press, 2005

  “‘What are you crying for, my girl?’ it says; and after this and that she told it. ‘I’ll spin the skeins for you,’ it said, ‘and every day you shall have three guesses at my name, and if you don’t guess it by the end of the month, you’re mine forever.’”
— Briggs

 The familiar spirit is a concept that is irrevocably linked to our ideas about witches, one that modern witchcraft has tried to assimilate by encouraging its adherents to become crazy cat ladies. That’s all well and good, but are pets really familiars? Most people I’ve spoken with say yes, to which I reply (if I’m feeling brave, witty, or inebriated), do you send your canary off to curdle your neighbour’s milk? I mean, I would, if I had a canary. 

Forming intimate relationships with non-divine spirits (and sending them off to do your bidding) is one of those ideas that doesn’t sit easy in the predominately white, middle-class culture of modern day witches. For some people, it’s right up there with that whole green-skin pointy hat fiction. To others, particularly those interested in traditional witchcraft or ‘shamanic’ and folkloric-based traditions, the idea is a viable one. 

Emma Wilby uses historical cases to show that not only did cunning folk and witches have different sorts of familiar spirits, these spirits were also remarkably similar to the helping spirits of shamans in various aboriginal cultures. Her argument was that while cunning folk were not shamans in a classical sense of the word, they may have been using remnants of shamanistic folk traditions, particularly in their use of familiar spirits.  

As far as academic texts go, this one reads fairly easily. It does have a few dry bits, but the writing usually flows along quite smoothly. The first part reviews familiar lore amongst witches and cunning folk (divided as ‘bad’ and ‘good’ magic-users, respectively), showing the connections with the faery and devil familiars, and how these beliefs interacted in a Christian setting. The author seems to focus on just one case a lot of the time, perhaps because it was the best documented, but I think that a wider range of detailed sources would have helped her argument.  

It is interesting to note the overlaps between the faeries and the dead, where the familiar from the main case was a man who, upon death, went to join the faeries (not all of whom were deceased humans). The author covers the basic services that a cunning person would provide to their community, how such practitioners often met their familiar spirits, and the future relationships between human and spirit. She also discusses various bargains and pacts that were made with the spirit in exchange for favours or magical assistance.   

The second (and rather short) part of the book covers classical shamanism in aboriginal cultures, with information gathered by anthropologists in the eighteenth century. It could be considered a stretch to use Siberian and North and South American data for an argument about British witchcraft, but the similarities are there, particularly in the spirit relationships.

Part three focuses on the experiences of the witches and the cunning folk in their time period and location, looking for explanations that could have caused people to experience such visions, and raising questions as to what is the true nature of mysticism. The lines between a spiritual experience and madness, in their time as in ours, are difficult to draw.

I think the main difficulty with this book is its accessibility. It’s too scholarly for most pagans to bother reading and strays a bit too far from the accepted ‘history of witchcraft’ for most historians to tangle with. As it’s published by a university press, the price itself puts the book out of the range of most impulsive book buyers (except me, who would rather read than eat). This is unfortunate, as the book provides fascinating insight into the lives of cunning folk and witches, and gives a great deal of information (not to mention excerpts from primary sources) on a topic that today has become associated with bringing Fluffy to circle.  

How Do Witches Fly?

February 11, 2008

How Do Witches Fly? A Practical Approach to Nocturnal Flights by Alexander Kuklin
AceN Press, 1999

  “Oyntment for flying here I have,
Of children’s fat stol’n from the grave,
The juice of smallage and nightshade,

Of poplar-leaves and aconite made…”

— Shadwell
 

I really wanted to love this book, if only to get my money’s worth from it. It’s not very often you find a book on flying ointments written by a biochemist and containing such gloriously disturbing photographed artwork. The author discusses the alleged magical ointment that enabled witches to fly, the idea of metamorphosis in folklore and religion, and how plant toxins affect the body on a molecular level. He also investigates various possible plant and animal ingredients in the ointment, and the toxic effects of each. Tips on ointment preparation and herb harvesting are also given.  

The main issues I have with this book are not due to its dangerous contents. It’s definitely not for children, and warnings are given throughout. Ingesting or topical application of many of the substances described could very easily lead to a horrible, convulsing death. However, that’s a risk an informed adult has a right to take if they so choose. None o’ my business.  

My main complaint is the lack of editing. The text (and it’s not a very long one) is littered with spelling and punctuation mistakes. It’s irritating, and makes me question the validity of the information in the book. The possibility of a typo in a chemical equation or dosage calculation is the possibility of death. (I must note that of the chemistry-related info that I double-checked with other books, all turned up correct. I’d check it again though, just to be sure.) 

My second complaint is the sources. Although at first the author mentions historical documents in which possible ingredients were listed, he seems to be using Shakespeare and Middleton for his main ingredient lists. There were some overlaps, I’m sure, but given a choice between documentation and literature I would’ve picked the documentation first. In the Ointment Preparation section, he gives recipes from Erica Jong’s book Witches, one of which looks like a concoction of instant death. However, I suppose they are the same recipes which turn up everywhere else (hopefully never to be used) so including them here doesn’t hurt the book too much. 

This book is probably best enjoyed for its folkloric and historical information on the plants. It also has a moderately extensive bibliography for further research. Its biochemical information should be used as a springboard to find keywords in other books, (and all such information should be triple-checked anyway, no matter the original source, if it’s to be used in a practical sense). The photographs of Barbara Broughel’s artwork (inspired by New England witch trial documents) are awesome and add a delightful (if creepy) accent to the text.  

I think a lot of my initial disappointment with this book is that I expected so much from it. There is a lot of information collected in it that is unusual to find all in one space. I tend to forget how much we don’t know about plants and how they affect our minds and bodies. There is a lot of research left to be done on these topics, but this book is a good start towards gathering up what we do know.