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Herbs and Magick
The use of herbs in magick is as old as the Craft itself. Until relatively recently magick, medicine and knowledge as a whole, were included the term “Natural Philosophy”. This term was only replaced by “science” in the 19th Century and was an umbrella term for the study of nature and natural phenomena from the time of Aristotle until then. Much of the body of knowledge that we term ‘Magick’ in the West today was formed during this time and included commonplace use of Astrology and plant lore for healing and other areas of endeavour.
Astrology was first used by the early civilisations of the Middle East including the Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians as a way of organising the year for planting and harvesting. As humanity became more sophisticated so did the attribution of astrological properties to various plants and their properties. For example bay, as in the bay tree whose leaves are used in cooking, magick, and magickal cooking, is connected to the sun, the Element of Fire, and sun deities such as Apollo. The areas in which different plants grew was also considered as a factor and something that they absorbed as they grew and that was released on use or consumption. As Bay grows in hot dry soil this enhances the properties of the plant as well and increases its innate powers.
Along with astrology one of the other major influences on the use of herbs in magick and health was a system called The Doctrine of Signatures. This was propounded in the writings of the classical Roman physician Galen, and the Greek botanist Dioscorides, then formalised by the theologian Jakob Bohme (1575-1624). He claimed that the shape, colour and other ways a plant looked showed how it could be used medicinally. For example eyebright, which looks like a blue eye, was and is used to help in eye problems. Having used it myself to good effect to counteract the effect of hay fever, I can say that it is a useful adjunct to antihistamines for me when the pollen season is in full swing. Although I use it as an eyewash rather than ingest it as it can have other effects used that way.
Because medicine was thought to be a branch of magick both astrology and the doctrine of signatures were used in concocting cures and potions, and spellwork, to help with both medical and magickal issues. Cloves, for example, were used in medicine for a number of ailments, because of the qualities of heat and dryness associated with them. As they were ruled by Jupiter, planet of expansion, they were used in combination with other herbs in cures to enhance their effects. They were also VERY expensive when first used which meant that in combination with their association of Jupiter meant that they were used in wealth spells.
With the modern era science advanced enough to produce effective drugs for medical used the role of plants in mainstream medicine has declined. Although even in the 1930s most of the available medicines used by doctors were plant based. However, their use in magick carried on and is still used today. The properties of herbs as outlined in their astrological, Elemental, and other aspects are considered to be the energies they harbour, and how to use them for the best effect. Spells release these by combining magickal energy and intent with intent and focus to produce the effects wanted by the person casting them.
As with most forms of magick it takes time and focus to learn how to do this consistently, but herbal magick works on many levels. These include the Mental, psychological, and Astral. Many people can master the basics on their own these days with the use of books and the internet, but working with other people who are more experienced can help you make rapid gains in this area.
There are a variety or ways that herbs are used in magick. Perhaps the one many Pagans are most familiar with is the use of smudge sticks, where a number of herbs are tied together in a cylindrical bundle, then one end is set alight, the flame is then stifled and the bundle smoulders. This is supposed to result in releasing purifying smoke into the surroundings which attaches to the “negativity” in the area and disperses it. In essence it’s an “Evocation to Dispersal” rather than the traditional “Evocation to Visibility”. When done with focused intent and the correct herbs it can be highly effective at clearing an area before magick or ritual.
Because of the part that herbs play in many Pagan traditions a vast body of lore has grown up around them. But many Pagans in the West now live lifestyles that are separate from the natural world as they live in cities and time in nature is limited. It is important for all aspects of the Pagan path that its practitioners attune themselves to the energies of nature and herb growing and use are an excellent way of helping to do this. Even someone living in one room can usually find a place for a pot of herbs that will both enhance their living space and their spiritual practice. In the next few articles we will go deeper into this fascinating aspect of nature and learn how to grow and use these remarkable plants.
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