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.  

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.