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.

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.