Why you should study the history of magic and where to begin

One of the many issues that face newcomers to the occult, paganism and witchcraft is that of authenticity.  It is the eternal bugbear of modern witchcraft, which has a rather messy relationship with its own history (or lack thereof). Looking back on my own journey, I can see how important authenticity once was to me. I spent years tunnelling further down the rabbit hole, looking for ‘real witchcraft’ – the further down I went, the more I began to doubt that such a thing existed. Thankfully, I now have a more relaxed relationship with the witch archetype but in the process of searching I became fascinated with the history of magic itself.

The quest for validity is often ignited by a disillusionment with the poor history of some occult and pagan authors. If what you’ve been fed is largely fiction masquerading as historical fact then the desire to know the ‘truth’ is completely natural. There are entire systems, like reconstructionist polytheism, born out of the desire to be historically authentic. In occultism, there has been a hunger for ‘ancient’ knowledge since at least the early modern Renaissance. Magicians placed great value on the writings of the sage Hermes Trismegistus, a supposedly pre-biblical figure who, among other things, invented astrology and predicted the birth of Christ. However, in 1614 Casaubon dated the hermetic corpus to no earlier than the 3rd or 4th century AD, damaging the image of Trismegistus as idol of prisca theologia. The occult and pagan communities would suffer similar ‘revelations’ in the 20th century, leading to disillusionment with the historical claims of their authors.

In the 1970s and 80s, a couple of English magicians decided to look at the problem from a different angle. They came up with a system that values results over tradition – chaos magic. Most magical systems are eclectic and syncretic, but chaos magic is openly so. Its practitioners may use the Greek Magical Papyri one day and the Simonomicon the next. Both are considered valid – as long as they work. In this instance, authenticity is provided by results and experience, not historical precedence. After all, what is the point of calling the Gods with ancient hymns if they don’t answer? Why write your curse in Latin if English will suffice?

I agree with the chaos magicians that results matter, but I’m also a historian by training and I recognise that chaos magic, like all occult systems, is a product of its time and takes on many elements of the late 20th century world view (while apparently rejecting others.) Historically sourced magic may not be more authentic purely because of its antiquity, yet there is a great deal of benefit to be gained from a thorough study of the subject.

The most obvious reason for taking up the study of the history of magic is that it will make you more discerning. You are less likely to buy into a system, idea or author on the basis of a false history if you can spot such claims the minute you open a book. This background knowledge will also allow you to pick apart syncretic systems like the Golden Dawn, Wicca, Thelema or ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and discern their influences.

Crucially, an awareness of the history of magic will liberate you from the search for the ‘one true’ or valid path. There have been many effective systems of magic developed over the centuries and all have been eclectic and syncretic rather than pure streams of ancient magic. It highlights that modern magic, of any variety, is part of a non-linear tradition of adaptation and innovation, valuing the old but reworking it alongside new ideas and a changing world view.

The history of magic is also worth studying as a resource, a treasure trove of old charms, incantations, herb lore, spirit names and amulets. It’s juicy stuff and relevant to the needs and wants of modern practitioners. People in Hellenic Alexandria or 18th century France used magic for many of the same needs and desires we have today. Modern popular magic has retained some historical elements, but many methods have been forgotten and may be worthy of re-examination and incorporation into your practice. At the same time, the claims of historical magicians for the miraculous properties of certain stones or the abilities of certain spirits to influence the physical world might inspire healthy scepticism about the verity of all ancient magic.

However, the reason I am passionate about the history of magic, and the wider history of ideas, is that it allows us to try out different world views. If we want to understand how a Renaissance magus or a 19th century cunning woman practiced their magic, we need to come to terms with how they saw the world. Essentially, we are made to rearrange our mental furniture from the default set-up of our disenchanted culture to one in which magic is far more widely accepted as a part of reality. By studying the history of magic, you will encounter a diverse range of practices and a wide variety of ideas about how and why those practices work. The study of history requires as much imagination as it does fact checking, although this is an imaginative exercise inspired by evidence rather than in spite of it!

The difficulty, I openly acknowledge, is in knowing where to start. Unless you have studied history at a tertiary level, it can be daunting to the face the mass of scholarship available, even though the field we call the ‘History of Western Esotericism’ is comparatively small. At the end of this essay, I’ll list a few resources I’ve found invaluable, although none of them are definitive. However, there are some basic academic concepts that are good to familiarise yourself with before you begin. Perhaps the most important is the difference between primary and secondary sources:

  • Primary sources are documents or other objects created in the period of history being studied. A 15th century manuscript or a Roman lead curse tablet is a primary source.
  • Secondary sources are documents from a later period, attempting to interpret primary sources. A book by a modern scholar or a podcast on medieval magic is a secondary source. 

Any claim made by a historian in a secondary source should be backed up by evidence in a primary source. Sometimes, in entry level books or overviews of a subject, these claims will be backed up by other secondary sources – but these will be referenced. You should always be able to follow a statement back to the primary source(s), that is good history. Secondary sources are full of interpretations, theories and opinions about the primary sources. They’re helpful to our understanding, but don’t take them as verified fact.

The second concept to keep in mind is the difference between the history of magic and the history of witchcraft. If you attended an academic conference on witchcraft hoping to learn about historical magic, you might be a little disappointed. That’s because the study of the European witch trials is not primarily the study of people who were actually practicing magic, but of the strange cocktail of religious, social and political factors that led to the torture and death of ordinary women and men as ‘witches’. That’s not to say there is no overlap between the two, fairy beliefs and the medieval grimoire tradition certainly influenced the idea of witchcraft in the minds of persecutors. However, the focus of this field of study is very different and less concerned with the practice of magic than popular beliefs about witches. Likewise, the history of magic is not exclusively, or even predominately, a ‘pagan’ or polytheist history, it spans religions and cultures, transforming and adjusting to the dominant world view and religious structures of each place and time.

So, where does one start chronologically? The obvious answer would be the beginning. As far back in time as we have written or archaeological records. However, I would explicitly caution against doing this. The truth is that it’s much easier to start in a later period and work backwards as you build up a familiarity with concepts, authors and even the language needed to grasp primary sources. Our modern, western world view is perhaps more similar to that of the 19th century CE than the third, and thus more recent history may be more approachable. To that end, the reading list below has been arranged, roughly, from modern to ancient. Of course, if you have a particular interest in one period over another, by all means begin there.

You may notice that I’ve only included academic studies of magic, and not those produced by occult publishers. This century has seen a resurgence of evidence-based history in occult publishing, a trend we should applaud. However, there is also another sort of history – let’s call it ‘mythic history.’ All religions and many esoteric traditions have a mythic history alongside the history of their foundation and development as supported by the sources. Mythic history serves a vital purpose, inspiring practitioners through the power of story, filling in gaps with potent symbolism and linking the physical with the immaterial. I do not wish to dismiss mythic history, or those who write in this vein, but simply to differentiate the two.

A very short History of Magic reading list

This list is not meant to be exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point for the history of magic in Western Europe. If it is weighted towards the middle ages, this betrays my own research interests. I have chosen to include books I have actually read, rather than trying to cover periods I am less familiar with. I have opted for more general and approachable studies over edited collections and those that feature specific texts or individuals and, in doing so, have no doubt left out some classics of the field. Further reading may be found by perusing the bibliographies of these works or searching within the period of interest.

  • Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern pagan witchcraft.
  • Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British occultism and the culture of the modern
  • Owen Davies, Popular magic : cunning folk in English history and Grimoires : a history of magic books
  • Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe
  • Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age and Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition*
  • Anne Lawrence-Mathers and Carolina Escobar-Vargas, Magic and Medieval Society
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages
  • Catherine Rider, Magic and Religion in Medieval England
  • Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo Saxon Magic
  • Matthew Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

*Yates was a pioneer in this field and her books are engaging and well worth reading, however, some of her theories have since been discredited.

While some of these books are available as affordable paperbacks online, or from your favourite occult bookshop, others can be difficult or expensive to acquire. I suggest looking into your local university library and their access options. You may be able to take out a membership, or get a reading card to peruse their shelves without being an enrolled student.

Academic journals in this field include:

Additionally, there is an exceptionally good podcast, SHWEP (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) which aims to trace the evolution of esoteric ideas in the west. I cannot recommend it highly enough for those seeking an in-depth education in the history of magic.

I hope this will inspire practitioners not already immersed in the history of magic to begin to explore it. We’re living in an exciting time, where this field of study is expanding and becoming more accessible through exhibitions, popular and academic books, podcasts, video lectures and conferences. Whether you are searching for authenticity, ancient incantations and recipes or simply a better understanding of where modern systems of magic come from, you will find many rewards for your exploration of this fascinating subject. I must warn you however, that the history of magic is a thoroughly addictive pursuit.

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic – Book Review

I have missed my regular trips to London, which have always included a visit to Treadwell’s, one of the city’s premier occult book shops. Treadwell’s is conveniently close to King’s Cross station and my regular haunts at the BL, BM and Wellcome Collection. It is quite a special place, beautifully designed and atmospheric. From the table of new releases, to the shelves with their curated mix of old and new, magic and history, folklore and art, I’ve picked up many a treasured volume there. They also host book launches, lectures and classes, acting as a community hub for magical London.

I was delighted to order Treadwell’s first in-house publication The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic, by shop owner and founder, Christina Oakley Harrington. The book is essentially a magical herbal, with an alphabetic listing (by common name) of trees, wild and propagated herbs commonly found in Britain. There are no particularly exotic plants and I was delighted by the inclusion of some very common weeds that are often overlooked, such as herb robert and ragwort. This localised selection makes it ideal for British readers, however the book will still be of interest to those from North America and continental Europe due to the wide geographic range of many of these plants.

Each listing includes the scientific name, sometimes additional common names, planetary attributions (taken from Culpeper and/or Lilly), a summary of associated folklore and, finally, a few suggested uses, recipes or spells from historical sources. This last element is, I feel, the most valuable, as the suggestions serve to sensitively interpret and update the folkloric material for modern readers – without taking overly creative liberties with the source material. Most of the references are from European folklore, ranging from the medieval to the modern with the occasional bit of classical mythology. The book focuses on the use of herbs in folk magic rather than an extensive exploration of the folklore of each plant. Fairy folklore and plant associations are particularly prominent.

Dr Oakley Harrington was previously a lecturer in medieval history and this is reflected in both a familiarity with medieval and early modern sources and, blessedly, the referencing of each piece of folklore via extensive end notes. This is one of the most valuable attributes of the book, for many collections of folk magic put out by occult publishers include little in the way of referencing. That said, it is not an academic book but a practical guide and features a useful index of common problems in the introductory pages. Thus, the reader can look up ‘gambling luck’ or ‘courage’ and find the related herbs very quickly. There is also a brief appendix of ‘days and dates for magic’ – including planetary days and calendar customs, and eighteen spells and formulas that require multiple herbs.

There is little to criticise in this book as it fulfils very nicely what it sets out to do. It may have benefited from the eye of a botanist as there are a few minor errors of that nature – most likely picked up from the source material rather than introduced by the author. For example, the identification of Hyssopus officinalis with the biblical hyssop may date to the middle ages, however the plant was likely Syrian oregano (Origanum syriacum). Additionally, I would like to have seen more information on toxicity. There aren’t many poison plants listed, and henbane does include a warning, but for some reason plants like yew, bryony and daffodil do not. While we can hope that readers do their research before consuming plants, it is important to know which herbs are toxic even if you are only handling them.

Overall, The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic is an excellent introductory guide for those interested in working with plants and folk magic. I would recommend it also as a general or quick reference, superior to Cunningham’s, for those who want to look up the folk magic associations of a herb with the reassurance of knowing the listings are based on historical sources and can be followed up via the end notes. I would really love to see a hardcover edition at some point (maybe with illustrations?) as the lovely, sage green paperback is not likely to last long in this herbalist’s hands! I look forward to seeing what Treadwell’s in house publishing produces next and hope it won’t be too long before I am able to visit the shop in person again.

The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic can be purchased from their online shop.

The stars move still; Aligning with magical time

Many us are experiencing a new relationship with time just now, detached as we are from the corporate routines of school and office hours. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have mentioned this to me, the feeling that the days are longer and the weeks shorter than they remembered. While some of us are fortunate in a new abundance of free time (although limited to the home and nearby locales) others must pick up extra burdens or adapt to unfamiliar routines. Inherent in this shifting state is an unique opportunity to embrace magical and astrological time, to be aware of the heavens, old feast days and natural cycles that give time a deeper meaning. We can ground ourselves by synchronising our daily routines with those of the more-than-human world and reestablish a connection to our own practice that provides much needed structure.

I have been making a concerted effort to observe magical time more closely, now that I have the freedom to select the days and times of my workings. I have also recently gained an allotment and have been studying the rhythms of astrological and lunar planting, weeding and harvesting cycles. I feel there is a growing awareness and interest in systems of magical timing among the occult community, although it has yet to filter down to popular witchcraft books, which still focus almost exclusively on lunar phases and the ‘wheel of the year’. I hope to offer here a very brief introduction to some of the forms of magical timing that have been used historically in Europe, with the suggestion that they reward further study and practice.

Planetary Hours and Days

The names we use for the week days, in most European languages, reflect their assignment to the seven traditional planets (Sun – Sunday, Moon – Monday, Mars – Tuesday, Mercury – Wednesday, Jupiter – Thursday, Saturn – Saturday) making their calculation effortless. Each day is said to be ruled by the energy of its planet.

Planetary hours are not parallel to the equal 60 minute hours of modern timekeeping, but vary in length by season. They are determined by dividing the daytime and nighttime into 12 equal segments and beginning with the hour of the planetary day at sunrise. The simplest way to select a planetary hour is to work at dawn on the planetary day of choice, however, should you wish for a lie-in occasionally, they can be calculated manually or using an app such as Astro Clock.

It’s important to stress that these days and hours are not based on the movements of the associated planets and are, essentially, a cultural tradition (the seven day week – most likely an ancient Hebrew system, was not named after the seven planets until the reign of Augustus. The planetary hours were first described by astrologers of the Hellenic period). Therefore I would advise against relying on them entirely, especially for any talismanic work, as a more detailed election should be made. However, they serve well for simple tasks such as starting or straining herbal preparations, harvesting wild herbs or performing a geomantic reading. For those seeking a deeper understanding of the planets, offering devotions to each on the appropriate day is a worthy way to develop these relationships and synchronise with this daily and weekly pattern.

Lunar Phases, Signs and Mansions

The moon has always had a powerful influence, both on the works of magicians and of herbalists, particularly those involved in cultivation. There are many ways to determine her moods and influences, but the three most commonly recognised in magic are her phases, signs and mansions.

Lunar phases (forming the synodic month) are so pervasive in entry level occult and new ages books that I will not spend much time on them here. Furthermore, the dominant focus on lunar phases, in both magic and gardening, seems to be a modern phenomena. Historically, there were several other significant markers of the moon’s influence.

The moon travels through the signs of the zodiac (forming the sidereal month), just as the sun and other planets do, although in a fraction of the time – taking just 27.3 days to visit every sign. I’ve been pleased to see an increasing awareness, in the community, of the moon’s position relative to the zodiac over the past few years, particularly around the full moon. The sidereal month is of great significance to gardeners, and I highly recommend a good almanac like this one for those keen to work with this cycle.

Speaking of almanacs, the system of naming full moons (wolf moon, snow moon etc.) was popularised by American almanac publishers in the early 20th century, appropriated from Native American cultures. For this reason, I do not use them.

Perhaps the most arcane of the lunar cycles, the 28 mansions of the moon follows the moon’s orbit around the earth against the fixed stars – forming a separate lunar zodiac. This system entered European magic via medieval Arabic astrology, and the mansions still bear Arabic names. Texts of astrological magic, most notably the Picatrix, recommend making talismans specific to these mansions. They can also be used for elections, that is, choosing the right day to perform a task or begin a project. Christopher Warnock gives an excellent introduction here.

Sun Sign Seasons

Sun sign astrology is the science’s most widely recognised form, less well known is its importance outside natal charts. Western astrology is tropical, meaning that it is based on the seasons rather than the fixed stars. The sun’s movement through the signs (really, equal 30 degree sections of the Earth’s ecliptic) provides us with twelve solar seasons, with the astrological new year at the vernal equinox in Aries. I have found these seasons often map more directly onto the cycles of the natural world than those of our calendar months. By observing the weather, plant and animal life in these seasons, we may gain a greater understanding of the signs themselves. There is nothing that expresses Aries like the headlong rush of new growth and the return of birdsong. Likewise, the gloriousness of May, with its lush verdancy and abundant flowers, epitomises Venusian Taurus.

We can embrace these seasons by making a record of their natural signs in our specific bio-region – what flowers in Leo season? What birds hatch their chicks in Gemini? This also provides an opportunity to live seasonally – eating the wild and cultivated foods that thrive in each solar season, celebrating the arrival into each new sign with offerings or ritual.

Holy days and High Days

Right now, I feel we all need something to celebrate and an excuse to eat, drink and be merry – even if only within our household. Beside the popular Neo-Pagan ‘wheel of the year’ there are many religious calendars that hold an abundance of intriguing festivals. We are now in the middle of Floralia (27 April – May 3rd), the week long festival of the Roman Goddess Flora. In a few weeks (15 May) it will be the birthday of Mercury followed by the second, or minor, Rogation day (18th-20th May). I am a deplorable syncretist and any holiday or calendar that has been celebrated on this soil in the past is fair game to me (provided it is not from a closed culture). Your preferences may vary along with religious affiliations, however, my belief is that festival dates are often chosen to reflect natural and agricultural cycles and while the gods associated with them may change, the natural world pays little heed and in the end, every new flower blooming, every bird returning, every crop ripening is worthy of celebration.

I’ll also offer a little trick for celebrating the four dates that make up the Gaelic cross-quarter days, May Day (Beltuinn), Halloween (Samhuinn), Lammas (Lughnasadh) and Candlemas (La Fheile Bride) – if the weather is unsuitable for the activities you had planned, do not despair because you actually have three chances to celebrate these days. The first is the modern Gregorian calendar day, the most widely known and celebrated. The second involves the astrological cross quarter days (Sun at 15° Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius respectively – or by dividing the ecliptic into 45° arcs) – these are rooted in the seasons rather than a cultural calendar. Finally, we can use the Julian calendar which preceded the Gregorian and to which these festivals were originally assigned. For example, by these systems May Day falls on the 1st of May, the 5th-6th of May and finally May 14th, this year. Much in the same way you can celebrate the Winter Solstice on the shortest day and then enjoy Christmas with your family after, each of the cross-quarter days can be enjoyed as a small festive season of its own.

These are only a few of the many systems of magical and ritual timing available. Within astrology there are seemingly infinite methods for determining elections and tracking cycles. Furthermore, there are cultural systems from all over the world, equally worthy of study. However, I feel that embracing these systems should be a pleasure, rather than an added burden, deepening and enhancing our experience of passing time and the cycles of heaven and earth. Happy May Day, may you and your loved ones stay safe and well.

Circe, Madeline Miller – Book Review

For my recent trip to Greece I picked up a copy of Madeline Miller’s bestseller Circe. What better companion for a weekend on a Greek island and five days exploring the ruins and temples of Athens? I thought. After all, Homer’s Odyssey is long overdue a retelling from Circe’s point of view, after Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Miller’s novel has been promoted on prominent witchy podcasts and it has just been announced that HBO are making a TV series based upon it. I have long been interested in classical witch figures (including Medea and Circe) and their reception in the medieval and early modern periods and so was excited to read this modern and supposedly feminist adaptation.

Circe is written as a fictional autobiography, told in the first person from Circe’s childhood over several hundred years of her life. It is ambitious in seeking to address almost all of the myths surrounding her and attempting to create a coherent narrative and smooth over inconsistencies in the source materials. Miller’s research is, for the most part, excellent and lead me to look up several characters and events I was unaware were connected to her heroine. The events of the Odyssey occupy only a few chapters and are not terribly significant in the story’s development, although the portrayal of Odysseus is complex enough to interrogate the original source.

The world of the novel treats the myths and gods literally, neither seeking to rationalise away their (mis)behaviour or downplay their power and physicality. Circe spends the first part of the book in the halls of her grandfather, Oceanus. There we are introduced to the Titans and other members of her family. The concept of immortality is explored, but not with any great depth or originality and indeed its treatment in the conclusion is rather unsatisfying. Circe is categorised by the author as a nymph – the daughter of Helios and Perse, with limited powers until she discovers the witchcraft she shares with her brothers, Aeetes and Perses, and sister, Pasiphae. Although the mortal characters she encounters address and treat Circe as a goddess, she is portrayed as close to humanity as possible. I presume this was to make her a relatable protagonist but unfortunately it detracts from the interesting premise of interaction between the human and the divine.

A brief note on witchcraft and herbalism in Circe. Here again, Miller has done some research and I can sympathise with the challenge of studying Greek herbs as a non-native speaker. Dittany (see my post on Greek herbs) is mentioned, as of course, is moly – the famous magical herb of the Odyssey that has never been conclusively identified. The author makes Circe, her siblings and their offspring, unique among gods as being born with witchcraft. However, despite her inherent talent, Circe must spend years experimenting with herbs to uncover their properties and uses, making many mistakes in the process. It seems she owes her knowledge as much to a long lifespan as to her ability to learn from the herbs themselves. Circe’s brother, Aeetes, fares better and is portrayed as a powerful and ruthless sorcerer. Later in the book it is shown that mortals can learn witchcraft too.

Circe’s magic derives primarily from herbal potions, the most potent made from plants that grow where divine blood fell. These herbs are so powerful, we are told, they can overcome gods. Circe activates her potions with spoken incantations which, unfortunately, are not shared with the reader. In a surprising break from tradition, she never gains her wand. Another curious omission was any mention of Hekate, who is listed as an alternative mother for Circe in some sources. Overall, I felt the magic was done fairly well for an author without a background in the subject and I enjoyed the prominence of plant-magic. Of course, I’d have been happy to see some amulets, curse tablets and suffumigations as well as potent invocations a la Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

My real issue with the book, however, is its supposed feminist credentials and the portrayal of Circe herself. She is depicted in youth as relatively naive, gullible and a bit slow on the uptake. Bullied or ignored by most members of her family, she craves the attention of her father, but fails to win it except in punishment. All of this would be fine if Circe matured and rose above her circumstances, becoming a strong, intelligent and independent female character. Yet while I saw overtures towards this aim, they were ultimately unfulfilled. Miller’s Circe is a self-pitying figure who never seems to learn from her repeated mistake of pinning her happiness on the love of a man. While some of the classical sources portray Circe as a jealous lover (although not, curiously, the Odyssey, which contrasts her with Calypso) her possessiveness is not shown as a weakness, merely motivation for her deeds.

In the novel, all of Circe’s principal relationships are with men: father, brother, lovers, son. Even when the character-as-narrator tells us she is using them or does not care for their opinion of her, we are given reason to doubt this. Furthermore, all her relationships with women are incredibly toxic. When not fueled by jealousy and competition, Circe treats other female characters as vapid and frivolous, beneath her notice – indeed she tells the nymphs who attend on her to make themselves invisible. I see no reason the author could not have spent more time developing Circe’s relationships with Pasiphae, Medea, Penelope and the nymphs and less on her various male companions.

In this adaptation, Circe is the victim rather than the villain of the story, more human than divine, trapped by her own past mistakes and dependant on men for validation. She is domesticated and declawed, racked with guilt over the consequences of her actions. She prides herself on her home and hospitality, and longs for conjugal bliss – like the good Greek wife she is meant to be the antithesis of. I found this portrayal bore little relation to my own reading of Circe as a wise sybil who gave good counsel to Odysseus and a passionate woman who chose her lovers while remaining independent. In humbling Circe to this extent, Miller robs her of the very ruthlessness and agency that makes her so appealing as an archetype. A witch does not need to be a constant victim of men to see them as swine, after all.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Circe as a refresher course in Greek mythology, with a focus on the Titans and their offspring instead of the Olympians. The novel is well researched and the events based largely on classical sources. Hellenic polytheists may take issue with the presentation of the gods, but at least they are treated as real beings rather than metaphors. I loved the descriptions of Aeaea/Aiaia, with its pine woods and lions, and could happily imagine myself living there alone, surrounded by nymphs and wild beasts. Unfortunately, the witch herself was far too watered down for my liking and I would certainly hesitate to call this a feminist retelling. I hope that instead it will inspire readers to investigate the source material and develop their own understanding of and relationship with this queenly goddess and witch of many poisons.

The Herbs of Greece

Circe depicted on a 5th century BCE oinochoe in the Musée du Louvre, Paris

I’ve just returned from a week in Greece with a suitcase full of dried herbs and blue glass mati. This was my first visit to the country and I was excited to encounter some of the local herbs, several of which have legendary status in the region’s mythology. Greek herbalism has an ancient lineage, reflected in the earliest European medical texts. These are the herbs of Theophrastus, Hippocrates and Crateuas, gathered by the rhizotomoi on the sacred mountains and compounded in the pharmaka of Circe, Medea and Chiron. They are still known and loved by the people of Greece today.

I should like to return to Greece and spend some time in the countryside meeting these herbs in the wild, an opportunity I did not have on this trip. Fortunately, Athens is replete with wonderful herb and spice shops, many located on Evripidou, in easy walking distance of Monastiraki station. My favourite was Elixir (Ελιξιριον, Evripidou 41, Athina 105 54 – look for the witch on the sign). In Britain most herbs sold in stores are chopped almost to powder but those in Greece are sold whole. The staff pulled great branches from wooden drawers and broke off stems and leaves for me. The quality and freshness was impressive and many herbs were wild-harvested. Organic herbs are also available at speciality supermarkets.

For those new to Greek herbs, a little research before visiting these shops is worthwhile. Although you will find most of the proprietors speak English, the herbs are almost exclusively labelled in Greek and shopkeepers are generally unfamiliar with English common names (if they even apply.) Of course, herb folk may recognise many of the herbs from Northern Europe – lemon verbena and linden were particularly popular. However it seems a pity to purchase herbs that grow closer to home when new and exciting encounters are available.

To this end, I’ve put together a short guide to four Greek herbs you will find in almost any herb shop in Athens – and one resin that I became particularly enamoured with during my stay. These herbs are also available from online suppliers, although at a far steeper price than in Athens. I must add the disclaimer that I am only beginning to experiment with these herbs and so am relying largely on research rather than experience. It is always challenging to research ethnobotanical lore and plant magic when you do not speak or read the native language. For that reason I would welcome corrections and/or additions from Greek speakers.

Diktamo / Δίκταμο ‘Dittany of Crete’

Origanum dictamnus

The most legendary of Greek healing herbs, dittany is a member of the oregano genus with soft downy, ovate leaves and small pink flowers. Native to Crete, it is now protected in the wild and instead cultivated for the herbal market. It makes a pleasant, savoury tea with a flavour somewhere between marjoram and sage.

In Greek folklore, dittany has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, indeed the Cretan name for it is erontas (from Eros) and it is given to newlyweds. Another tradition states that one must be truly in love to gather it from the rocky mountains and valleys in which it grows, these passionate young harvesters being dubbed erondades.

However, dittany’s greatest reputation is as a healing herb. There is a legend that when struck by poison arrows, the goats on mount Ida (Crete) would eat dittany to cure themselves. This is repeated by Aristotle, Pliny, Dioscorides and Galen among others. The tale was inherited by the Romans and Venus heals Aeneas with dittany in Virgil:

Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.

Aeneid, Book XII.411–415, Loeb edition

Mount Ida is named for one of the nymphs who nursed the infant Zeus, hiding him in the Idaean cave.

The herb has a reputation in ancient and medieval sources as something of a panacea, but it is particularly recommended for gastric distress and difficult childbirth (best to avoid during early pregnancy.) It has also been recommended as a poultice for wounds.

Tsai Tou Vounou / Τσάι του βουνού‘Mountain Tea’ ‘Shepherd’s Tea’ ‘Ironwort’

Sideritis spp.

Known as ‘mountain tea’ or even just ‘tea’, this is the most popular herbal tea in the country. I found tins of it in AirBnB’s and it was more common on cafe menus than camellia sinensis. There are several different varieties in the genus. The one I purchased is ‘Olympus mountain tea’ (Sideritis scardica) which is widely available and apparently grown near the holy mountain. It has a mild flavour and is usually consumed in winter with lemon and/or honey. Mountain tea is prepared as a decoction (boiled in the water) rather than as a tisane (steeped tea).

Given how prevalent mountain tea is in Greece, it is surprisingly unknown outside the Mediterranean. The latin name of this genus comes from the Greek word σίδηρος (sithiros) which translates as ‘he who is made of or has iron.’ In ancient sources it was considered a remedy for wounds caused by iron weapons, which may have been indicated in sympathy by its spear-like growth. The plant has been analysed and found rich in iron, among other minerals.

In modern Greece, it is considered a cold and flu remedy and a tonic for general health. Recent research has demonstrated that sideritis may be beneficial to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The herb also appears to have a reputation as an aphrodisiac in Turkey and Bulgaria.

Kistos / Κίστος – ‘Rock Rose’

Cistus spp.

Of all the Greek herbs I tried during my travels, this was my favourite. As a tisane, the flavour is unusually tart, a little like the liquid from pickled vegetables, but very refreshing. The pink flowers open and blossom in the cup; it is an enchanting plant.

The rock rose produces a scented black resin called labdanum. Herodotus (5th cent BCE) writes that goatherds would send their animals to graze on the bushes and then comb the resin from their beards. In the 19th century labdanum was harvested by means of a rake with leather thongs attached called a lambadistrion, however the modern method seems to involve heating the wood. Labdanum has been used medicinally, cosmetically and as incense across the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa.

In Hesiod’s account, the Gorgon Medusa was seduced by Poseidon on the isle of Kisthene in a field of what may have rock rose flowers – given that the island is named for the plant.

…and Medusa who suffered a woeful fate: she was mortal, but the two were undying and grew not old.  With her lay the Dark-haired One (ed. Poseidon) in a soft meadow amid spring flowers.

Hesiod, Theogony 270-276, trans. Evelyn-White 1914

Rock rose is used medicinally to fight infection as an antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial herb. It is therefore employed for colds and flus and has even been shown to resist HIV and Ebola.

Fliskouni / Φλισκούνι – Pennyroyal ‘Mountain Mint’

Mentha pulegium

The most infamous member of the mint family – a plant that has caused the death of countless women and small children, or so the internet would have you believe. The dangerous reputation of this herb comes from a handful of reported cases of women taking lethal doses of the essential oil as an abortifacient. As any herbalist or aromatherapist will tell you, very few essential oils should be consumed internally and never in large doses (though my sympathy is with the women who felt the need to resort to it). Pennyroyal essential oil should not be used topically either, as it contains concentrated levels of pulegone – an organic component toxic to the liver.

However, dried pennyroyal is sold in grocery stores in Greece as an after-dinner tisane to aid digestion, so perhaps the Greek wikipedia entry is a little less paranoid. That said, Pennyroyal has been used traditionally as an abortifacient, and indeed famously so in the ancient world. It should therefore be avoided during pregnancy and not given to small children, who may be more sensitive to pulegone. The particularly cautious may wish to avoid using this herb altogether, although there are no reported cases of fatal adult poisoning from the tisane. Research has shown a vast difference in the amount of pulegone found in wild pennyroyal (ranging from 0.1 to 90.7% of the total oil), which may also explain why a few people have had bad reactions to the herbal infusion. Pulegone is also found in lesser quantities in cat mint and peppermint.

In ancient Greece, pennyroyal was sometimes added to a drink called kykeon. This beverage was commonly made from water, wine, honey and barley and flavoured with herbs. In Book X of the Odyssey, Circe prepares kykeon for Odysseus’ men, adding unnamed herbs to change them to swine. The addition of pennyroyal (glechon or blechon in Ancient Greek) is mentioned in the Homeric hymn to Demeter:

She [Demeter] asked instead for barley and water to drink mixed with tender leaves of glechon. Metaneira made the potion and gave it to the goddess as she had asked; and great Deo received the potion as the precedent for the Mystery.

Homeric Hymn to Demeter, line 207 ff; trans. Wasson et al. 1998

Scholars have debated whether the kykeon given to initiates of the Eleusinian mysteries had hallucinogenic properties, either from additional secret herbs or ergot present on the barley. However, it almost certainly contained pennyroyal.

Pennyroyal is also a powerful insecticide, recommended by Pliny and other ancient authors to deter fleas. Coincidentally, I had a chance to try this out, as Athens has a large population of stray cats. I discovered flea bites when I woke on my first morning there so I strewed the bed with dried pennyroyal and was not bitten again!

Mastica / Μαστίχα – ‘Mastic’

Pistacia lentiscus

On my first night in Athens I had a glass of Mastic liqueur and was delighted by the flavour – it was like drinking incense, a mix of frankincense and pine resin with a touch of myrrh. I soon discovered many mastic-flavoured delights in Greece, including infused springwater, lemonade and lokum. I purchased the raw resin and an oil to experiment with back home.

Mastic is a yellow-white, translucent resin harvested from lentisk trees on the island of Chios. The tree is said to ‘cry’, an effect produced by making multiple small incisions in the trunk, creating ‘tears of Chios.’ There is certainly a melancholy reputation to this ‘wounded tree’. The production of mastic gum has been crucial to the island’s economic importance for centuries. Mastic was particularly prized by the Ottomans who conquered Chios, the gum was provided to the Sultan and his harem for medicinal and cosmetic purposes.

In ancient sources mastic is described as a ‘chewing gum’ to clean teeth and freshen breath. It was also prescribed for lung conditions, digestive problems and snakebite. Mastic was used in Egyptian embalming mixtures and is one of the sixteen ingredients listed in Plutarch’s recipe for kyphi, likewise appearing in the recipe inscribed on the temple at Edfu. Mastic occurs in post-medieval grimoire texts as a suffumigation of Mercury, the Sun and Gemini. Chios mastic is added to the holy oil of the Greek Orthodox church. Both the scent and taste are cleansing and invigorating.

Magic and Women

On the 1st of June, I attended the Magickal Women conference in London, organised by Sue Terry and Erzebet Barthold. The mission of the conference was to highlight the contributions of women, past and present, to the spheres of mysticism, esotericism and the occult. Only people who identified as women were invited to speak, although those of all genders were welcome to attend and indeed the audience was encouragingly diverse. The speakers came from a range of backgrounds; independent researchers, practitioners of alchemy, ceremonial magic and neo-pagan traditions, artists, musicians and dancers.

Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki opened the event with an amusing and community-focused discussion on the survival of magical beliefs. Christina Oakley-Harrington of Treadwells gave a keynote speech on the role women have played in regards to owning, leasing or controlling the space in which ritual orders have practised over the past two centuries. I was impressed by her sensitivity to the challenges young people face now in acquiring spaces of their own in which to practise, an issue that is changing the shape of magic in this century.

I enjoyed many of the papers, particularly those on female surrealists and lesser known 19th century figures. Inevitably, I found others frustrating in their historical inaccuracy and adherence to narratives (eg. ‘the burning times’, Frazerian comparative religion, the ‘dark ages’) that have been thoroughly debunked for decades. However, the most inspiring and encouraging feature of the conference was hearing from women in fields that are publicly dominated by men, including ceremonial magic and alchemy.

High magic requires a great clarity of thought, you see, and women’s talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat.

Equal Rites, Terry Pratchett

What is the reason behind the gender divide in magic and occultism? The common perception is that, since at least the middle ages, men have practised learned, ceremonial, ‘high’ magic – geomancy, traditional astrology, grimoire magic, image magic etc. Meanwhile, women have instead focused on intuitive, folk or ‘low’ magic involving herbs, charms, amulets and ‘fortune telling.’ The simplistic explanation usually given for this is women’s lack of education and general illiteracy until the late modern period and the persecution of so-called ‘women’s magic.’

However, the sources we have on magical practice show a far more varied and complex picture of gendered magic. In the personal account of a medieval monk, that of John of Morigny, we find that, not only did he teach his sister Gurgeta to read, but that she learned via the Ars Notoria, the most popular magical text of the middle ages (an unusual case perhaps, but one that highlights that women could get access to these books). Cunning folk were as likely to be male as female. Even educated male physicians compiled books full of charms, palm reading and remedies involving dead birds and frogs. After the arrival of print, access to grimoires broadened not only to the working classes, but to women, who were increasingly literate. In the early modern period, women were occasionally persecuted for owning and reading the same texts as their male counterparts. Meanwhile, male priests were persecuted for practising love magic with hair and menstrual blood.

The Golden Dawn, the most influential British magical organisation of the 19th century, featured female magicians in key roles as leaders, temple owners, artists, teachers and creators of a ritual corpus. The Golden Dawn in particular, stressed the equality of the sexes in their order and in the study of the occult arts. In the 20th century, Dion Fortune wrote some of the most influential and intellectual texts of occult philosophy that had an equal, if not greater influence, than those of her male contemporary, Aleister Crowley.

If not from historical precedent, where does the gender divide in magic come from? Why is it still apparent in a world where women are doctors and astro-physicists? Where are the books on alchemy, solomonic, goetic and astral magic written by women? Why are our prominent occult women in this century, frequently Wiccan priestesses and witches, tarot readers and herbalists? There is an unaccountable divide that seems to mirror that found in universities, with men dominating the STEM subjects and women filling classrooms in the Humanities.

My suspicion is that this is partially the result of viewing the wider history of magic through the narrow lens of the witch trials. I also suspect the feminist witchcraft of the late 20th century played its part in this divide. With its focus on goddesses and priestesses, it took the narrative of the witch trials as a key point in the history of misogyny. In that sense, it is correct, far more women then men were persecuted for “witchcraft”. Yet these women weren’t witches, they were victims of a paranoia about an imagined cult. By reclaiming the witch archetype for feminism, we seem to have lost sight of both male witches and female magicians. While I applaud the intention behind this movement, I think that is perhaps time to accept that there is more than one archetype of the ‘magical woman.’

I value the tarot as highly as geomancy, but I want to see women doing both. I want to live in a world where women can be not only witches and priestesses, but also ceremonial magicians, traditional astrologers, lab alchemists and hermeticists. There are plenty of women in academia studying and publishing on the history of these arts, yet female practitioners are not represented nearly so well in the occult press, podcasts or conference circuit. I recognise that I too am at fault here – and will make an effort to better represent my gender in these fields. I encourage other women reading this to do the same, to take up one of these arts that interest them so that the next generation will have role models and mentors in the fields currently dominated by men. I look forward to the next Magickal Women event and hope to see an even broader scope of occult traditions represented.

Viriditas: the Green Mist

I love this time of year, when the land is stirring again and plants, insects and birds return in a rush of colour and music. Yes, autumn is enchanting with its mists and ambers, but it is a time for farewells. Spring is full of greetings. I go out each morning to meet plant-friends I haven’t seen since the year before. I drink water of cleavers, nibble hawthorn leaves, cook nettle soup and begin the process of medicine making, renewing an apothecary depleted by winter’s ills. More than anything, I love to stand in the sun and breath in the rich cocktail of phytochemicals released by the unfurling leaves and blossoms, enveloped in the rising green mist.

The Green Mist‘ is a tale collected by 19th century folklorist Marie Clothilde Balfour in the Lincolnshire Carrs. It describes the healing powers of the returning vegetation in the spring. The green mist is awaited by the rural folk and greeted with offerings of bread, salt and ‘strange words’. A young girl in poor health wishes to her mother that she might survive until the green mist rises, to ‘wake the spring with thee’ – believing the green mist will make her strong again. The idea that there is healing, not just in the consumption of medicinal plants with specific constituents, but in the verdant power of vegetal growth is widespread in pre-modern culture.

Viriditas, a Latin word with the classical definition of ‘greenness, verdure, viridity’ and ‘freshness, briskness, vigor’ was adopted by the 12th century abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, to express the divine in nature. The saint and sibyl of the Rhine used the term frequently, extending it from the realm of plants to the human body to describe our ability to heal, grow and thrive. To Hildegard, viriditas, the very breath of God, imbued all living things. In choosing a word belonging to the vegetal realm to express spirit, rather than more traditional metaphors of breath, fire, or light, she may have been inspired by her homeland. The lush surroundings of her first monastic house at Disibodenberg are located between two rivers and the ruins of the monastery are still full of verdant life, so green you can almost taste it on the air.

The ruins of Disibodenberg

In a temperate regions, the greening of the land brings with it a great rush of energy that can be experienced with all the senses. Hildegard would have been familiar with the burbling sound of rising sap, the fresh, raw scent of blossom and volatile compounds, the taste of green shoots and pot herbs, the delicate softness of young beech leaves and of course, the colour green. Green so intense, after the greys and browns of winter, that it leaves an after-image on the retinas. The still-transparent green of new leaves that filter the light beneath the canopy, turning the woods into an underwater world imbued with shades of a single colour. In these bio-regions, green seems to be the source of life itself.

Foragers and gardeners, whose eyes are trained not only to differences in species of plants, but the varying states of individuals, will have a whole internal palette of greens: the green that indicates the right time to gather young bramble leaves or nettle, the green that suggests lime or hawthorn leaves are still tasty and tender, the green that differentiates a flourishing plant from a dying one. This attention to colour helps herbalists to select those plants which have the greatest medical potency. Why do we pluck one leaf and not another? Because it expresses a greater viriditas.

On an esoteric level, those who work deeply with plants may experience a sense of euphoria or even ecstacy during the rising of the green. The licentious traditions surrounding May Day in Britain encourage humanity to imitate the fecundity of the green folk, to engage with and embody this surge of life-energy in the plant kingdom. We dress as flower queens and jack-in-the-green and dance around tree trunks (may poles) bedecked with greenery. Even the dew is held to have rejuvenating properties at this time of year.

In astrology Mars, and Aries which has its ingress at the Spring equinox, represent the potency and drive of human life, the red of blood and passion. Venus demonstrates the equivalent force in the vegetal. Her sacred month in the Roman calendar was April and she rules Taurus, into whom the sun enters as the temperate North blossoms. To the philosopher Lucretius, Venus was a personification of the creative force itself. At Pompeii she was worshipped as Venus Physica, Venus of nature (physis), from the root φυίω – to grow. Hildegard von Bingen’s treatise on natural philosophy was entitled Physica and as the middle ages progressed this term became fysike (physick) – the healing arts. Our very concept of medicine is bound up with Venusian generation.

In our own century, researchers in east Asia have begun to demonstrate that human health is improved by exposure to landscapes dominated by plant life, such as forests. One Korean study looked at the anti-inflammatory, anti-tumorigenic and neuroprotective properties of terpenes absorbed from forest air. Studies from Japan have demonstrated that shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) can increase the body’s immune response and help to prevent cancer. Although there has, as yet, been little interest among orthodox medicine in the West, as these studies provide explanations that satisfy a materialistic world view the concept of ‘ecotherapy’ may gain wider acceptance.

In healing we seek the power to regenerate ourselves. What more potent source of the regenerative power can we access than that of the plant world as it comes back from the death of winter? Our bodies are not walled off from the natural world, we are permeable, and as the green mist rises we inhale, absorb and imbibe viriditas.

The Urge to Gather

Spring is finally arriving in the Northern Hemisphere and with it, the first green shoots of our early edibles and medicinal herbs. After several months consuming dried and prepared herbs, I’m eager to go out foraging and drink Hedgerow tea again. As I do not have a garden of my own just now, I rely on the wild spaces around me to provide the plants I use, for both magic and medicine. I’m fortunate to have access to a range of bio-regions, from water meadows to coppiced woodlands and enjoy making trips up to the Yorkshire dales and the North York Moors to gather herbs that are abundant there but rare in my locale.

However, as I have herbs gathered last year that I still have not used I have been thinking about responsible foraging practises and the urge to gather. This is a compulsion shared by herbalists and foragers alike and one that can be difficult to resist. I recently listened to Howie Brounstein’s podcast on ‘Herb Lust’ over at Herb Rally and it stirred my own thoughts on the subject of violence towards plants. I believe that our desire to pick every new herb we encounter comes from a scarcity mindset bred by our capitalist culture. This lust, if uncontrolled, is ultimately harmful to both the bio-region and ourselves.

While many recognise that eating meat involves violence towards animals, few seem to extend this compassion to the green folk, despite growing evidence that plants have their own social networks and intelligence, and that they respond, individually and collectively, to animal or human grazing. Our ignorance of the violence we do to plants is a product of a system of thought in the west that privileges certain types of life over others, a hierarchy of being that can be traced back to Aristotle. This philosophy, deeply ingrained in our culture, says it is ok to harm plants because they are closer to non-living ‘objects’ than to sentient beings. It is built entirely on false premises and assumptions about a form of life that is ‘other’ and difficult to relate to compared with our animal companions whose moods and emotions we can more easily interpret.

The practise of herbal medicine, like gardening, foraging for food and agriculture, involves violence against plants. I feel it is better to accept and acknowledge this than pretend that what we are doing harms none. If we accept that the plants we work with are independent entities, not put here to feed or heal us, but to live their own lives, we can at least try to limit unnecessary violence and over-harvesting. As a practical animist, this is even more vital, because respecting plant-life is part of developing a healthy relationship with the land spirits of one’s locale. To esoteric herbalists, plants are not only medicines but allies and we must keep on good terms with them if we hope to receive their most potent gifts.

When we buy pre-packaged herbs we can only hope they, and the land they grow on has been treated with the care and respect we would accord it. Picking our own herbs means that we experience this violence directly, it is our hands that do the damage. To put a high value on the life of plants counters our own desire to consume, to take and to possess. A shelf full of herbs in nicely labelled jars is very satisfying, but plant remains are not props, they are dead things we have taken from the bodies of others, they are a different sort of sacrifice.

I use this emotive language in an attempt to elicit the same strong feelings people express towards animals and am aware that many who lack connection to the plant world will simply shrug their shoulders. To them, I offer the concept of sustainability and thrift. If we over-harvest we leave less for wildlife and other foragers, we can also exhaust a patch of a certain herb so that there is less to gather the following year. For ourselves, ending up with a surplus of herbs offers no benefits as most are best used within a year of drying. To have old herbs sitting around is a waste of space and empty jars. To this end, I offer some suggested guidelines which I try to follow myself.

Spring stock-take

At the end of winter I like to do a stock take of all the herbs I have in storage. It can be helpful to make a list and record the dates the herbs were gathered so that you know when they will be available again (if you’re not writing the month/year gathered on your labels I encourage you to do so.) Look over the list and see what you have been using the most, draw up a list of herbs you are nearly out of and make these your gathering priorities. If there are plants you have not used, consider why and whether you could potentially gather less or none of that herb this year. If the herb is used infrequently, a tincture may be better as it will last longer than dried material (2-4 years). It is more valuable to have a small apothecary of herbs you know intimately and use regularly than a vast collection of untouched and aged plant matter on dusty shelves.

Non-picking Days

We don’t need to gather herbs every time we venture out. Sometimes, we can simply enjoy their company instead. To have a day, now and then, to observe plants but take nothing and return home empty handed helps counteract the desire to take. If this feels fruitless, there are ways of ‘gathering’ information that leaves the plants themselves untouched: photography, keeping a field journal or sketching are all wonderful practices that build up our plant knowledge. This practice fosters a relationship with plants that is not always about picking and allows them to experience us as something other than a threat.

Mindful gathering

Some people follow the practice of asking every plant they take for permission before picking. I applaud the sentiment behind this but feel it is self-defeating. How often do you hear the plant say ‘no’? Does a nettle or a bramble ever really consent to you taking its leaves? The stings and scratches would suggest otherwise. Unfortunately I think this is one of those situations in which our lust for the plant is likely to overcome any real communication coming through. Instead I would recommend simply paying attention and being in the moment while you are picking, focus on the action and express gratitude in some way, whether this is by offerings, prayers, songs or simply heartfelt words.

Taking less

How much of a herb do you really need? Who will it serve? Your community, your family or just yourself? How much did you go through last year? I try to think of this while gathering. When faced with abundance, a field or tree full of flowers, it takes humility to say ‘that’s enough.’ Knowing when to stop picking takes restraint, but is a sign of respect towards the plants you’re taking from. Likewise, taking less from individual plants or from ‘patches’ will minimise the violence to some degree. Taking one or two leaves from different plants, rather than pulling a whole plant gives the individuals a chance to recover and flourish despite picking.

Pulling roots with respect

Most plants will recover from a certain level of grazing or picking. However, if you dig up a plant to harvest its root you are killing it. There is no way around this unless you’re able to keep some of the root and regrow it (which does not work with all plants.) Root magic and medicine is powerful and this is why we have legends around plants like the mandrake that scream and curse those who uproot them. I treat the pulling of roots with more ceremony and respect than the picking of aerial parts and always try to make some offering or gesture – this can be as practical as distributing the seeds of the plant more widely or as symbolic as offering a drop of your own blood in thanks.

Use what you have

Finally, and perhaps self-evidently, use the herbs you have gathered. Many of us hate to waste food, and wasting herbs should also play on our conscience. Make the sacrifice of life worthwhile by using the results to heal, to enchant and to create. If you absolutely have to get rid of old herbs, return them as compost and think about whether you will gather that herb again next year.

I write this as much to inspire myself as others, for I am not immune to herb lust and the urge to gather. My work in herbal medicine and magic comes into conflict with my heart-felt animism and it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the two. That is why I offer these as guidelines and not rules and recognise that your relationship with wild plants may differ greatly from my own. I do not think it is ‘wrong’ to gather herbs or roots, any more than I think it is ‘wrong’ to eat vegetables. However, I feel passionately that we need to acknowledge the rights plants have to live and flourish and that it makes us better herbalists and foragers if we know when to stay our hand.

Our Failing Shadows – Book Review

The surest sign, to my mind, that we are experiencing a renaissance of Western esotericism is in the verdant flourishing of occult art. From the music of Hawthonn to the visual art of Glyn Smyth, to name just two among many brilliant artists, the quality of esoteric artistic output is surging. This is as vital to the movement as the grimoire revival and serious research into our magical heritage. The two are not disconnected. Indeed, independent occult publishers have supported this flourishing by commissioning illustrators and, in the past few years, releasing volumes of poetry and fiction alongside non-fiction texts.

The newly founded Nemglan Press is dedicated to this very endeavour. Their focus is, refreshingly, on fictive prose and poetry as a means of engaging imaginatively with the occult. This is not to create a false distinction between works of occult fiction and non-fiction, but rather to highlight the power of storytelling and poetry in inspiring gnosis. Their first Black Chapbook, Our Failing Shadows by Alexander Menid, has just been released and may be freely read in its entirety here.

I was fortunate to receive an early printed copy of the chapbook, and can confirm that those who prefer ink on paper will have much to look forward to in Nemglan’s future print editions. A great deal of care and attention has gone into the design and presentation of this work, which is both minimalist and evocative. The text is accompanied by sigils, echoing the poems in layers of symbolism drawing on a variety of spiritual traditions. They are well worth studying alongside the poetry itself.

Our Failing Shadows is a twilight text, best read at dusk or dawn. Indeed, many of the poems call on themes of liminality, the unseen and the shadowy presence of the dead within the land. Few spirits are named, and those that are not draw power from their ambiguity. The poems vary in voice and style, some are invocatory, others bold statements of identity from the otherworld. The spirits are called and given a voice, and sometimes that voice whispers things uncomfortable to hear. The poet engages with concepts of sin, both religious and ecological. ‘Anticosmic’ and ‘A Curse (for Humankind)’ confront us with the fact that however much we other ourselves, we cannot escape our humanity.

My personal favourites in the collection were ‘A Folk-Song for Midsummer’ – which begs to be set to music, ‘The Spirit-Ways’ – which engages the sort of ancestral memory we sometimes experience when walking old roads, and ‘The Watcher’ – an antidote perhaps to the sins explored in other pages.

For those who do not reach for poetry automatically, rest assured that you will find this work both engaging and eerily familiar. It draws in form and style on ancient hymns, spells, psalms, charms and folk music. It is also a text that can be worked, including invocations to spirits and even a solitary rite, with full instructions. This is not a passive book about someone else’s spiritual experience, but one which the reader too may become involved in.

This is an exciting start for Nemglan Press and I eagerly anticipate the next in their Black chapbook series. The only challenge I perceive ahead for them is to match the quality of this first volume.

As above, so they grow: Herbs and the Stars 


Note: this essay is written from the perspective of traditional astrology, not modern astronomy, therefore ‘planets’ refers to the five planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) plus the luminaries (the Sun and the Moon), and ‘stars’ refers to all celestial bodies, including the planets and luminaries. 

Any herbalist who has picked up a copy of Culpeper will be familiar with the connection between herbs and astrology. Indeed, astrological herbalism is deeply imbedded in the history of magic and medicine. The roots of this science lie in antiquity, evident most explicitly in Thessalos of Tralles text on the Powers of Herbs (1st century CE), which he claimed as a revelation from the god Asclepius. Thessalos asks the god why the herbal recipes he has taken from an ancient book did not work for him, Asclepius replies:

King Nechepso, a man of most sound mind and all honourable forms of excellence, did not obtain from an utterance of the gods what you are seeking to learn. Since he had a good natural ability, he observed the sympathy of stones and plants with the stars, but he did not know the correct times and places one must pick the plants. For the produce of every season grows and withers under the influence of the stars. That divine spirit, which is most refined, pervades throughout all substance and most of all throughout those places where the influences of the stars are produced upon the cosmic foundation. ¹

This passage describes the theory of celestial influence. It is further developed in al-Kindi’s De radiis stellarum (9th cent. CE) – a hugely influential text of medieval science, which describes the cosmos as a divine harmony between the celestial and terrestrial worlds, with the stars regulating events on earth through celestial ‘rays’.
This concept contributed to astrological medicine, which attributes each organ and section of the body to one of the twelve signs and governs appropriate times for treatment as well as informing diagnosis. Agrippa explains in the first book Of Occult Philosophy (1531 CE), the relationship between the celestial bodies, the human body and herbs. According to Agrippa, the planets have dominion over plants, animals and stones, which are known as ‘lunary,’ ‘solary,’ ‘saturnine’ etc.

Agrippa explains how we might understand which planet a herb falls under:

Now it is very hard to know, what Star, or Signe every thing is under: yet it is known through the imitation of their rayes, or motion, or figure of the superiours. Also some of them are known by their colours and odours, also some by the effects of their operations, answering to some Stars.²
To clarify – we can determine the astrological influences on plants by their colours and scents and by the effects they have on our bodies. Furthermore, some respond directly to the planets, such as those flowers which turn to face the sun (the true meaning of ‘heliotrope’) or open by the light of the moon. In their shapes and motions plants may ‘imitate’ the physical appearance of the stars themselves, such as the moonwort fern, or in their properties reflect the powers astrologically associated with the celestial bodies.

Agrippa goes on to list many examples of herbs, stones and animals associated with each of the seven classical planets, the twelve signs and fixed stars. The observant student may notice that these categories are not mutually exclusive. Beryl, for example, is placed under the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and the Dog-star. Indeed, Agrippa writes: ‘Moreover this we must know, that every stone, or Plant, or Animall, or any other thing, is not governed by one Star alone, but many of them receive influence, not separated, but conjoyned, from many Stars.’

This is an important point often missed in modern esoteric herbals and I feel it is worth expanding upon. In traditional astrology the human species is not governed by one particular star. The organs and parts of the body are assigned to each of the signs and planets. Furthermore, individual humans have their own particular influences from the stars dependant on the time and place of their birth. To treat another living organism as if it has any less complexity than a human being is anthropocentric. To state for example, that nettle is a martial herb is not inaccurate, but surely an oversimplification.

If humans have in them the influences of all the celestial bodies, to varying degrees, then so must other species. Likewise, individuals of a species differ in virtue and character, while retaining similar abilities and features, as do humans from one another. You could, in fact, calculate the natal chart of a seedling, if you could determine the correct moment to do so, though the human science of astrology is perhaps not best equipped to interpret it.

How useful then, is this system of associating plants with particular celestial bodies and signs? How can we best practice astrological herbalism or herbal magic while respecting the nuanced nature of individual plants? As this has not been revealed to me by Asclepius himself, I can only offer a few suggestions.

The first is observation. Textual tradition³ is an excellent starting point, but we must observe and work closely with plants to uncover the stars’ influence on their species and individual character. As Agrippa suggests, this involves considering their colours, odours, motion and medicinal effects. We can go further by examining location, the timing of major events in their life cycle, such as emerging from the ground and flowering, and the geometric and numerical structure of their leaves, fruit and flowers. The herbalist may find that different parts of a plant demonstrate different astral associations, or that the planets exert stronger influences upon them at certain times of the year. By their choice of location, timing and physical characteristics they may demonstrate individual differences. To return to our example of nettle, it is almost always classed as a martial herb, yet we find it has other features. Nettle is highly nutritious – a jupiterian characteristic, it loves to grow in moist soil and will not tolerate drought – suggesting a watery quality at odds with fiery Mars. Nettle is used to treat the kidneys (Venus) and as a galactagogue (Moon). The picture of this species quickly becomes far more complex and, I feel, more interesting once you look beyond the surface and give up the system of attributing herbs to one planet only. It also means you need not stress over guessing the ‘wrong’ ruling planet or sign for a herb.

The second suggestion comes back to Asclepius’ insistence on the correct times and places one must pick the plants. This is truthfully the cornerstone of astrological herbalism. The moment of collection has all the significance of the calculation of a horary chart or of the creation of a talisman in astrological magic. It is often accompanied by ritual actions and prayers. Many prescriptions to pick herbs at, or just before, dawn no doubt relate to the fact that this is always the hour of the planet on whose day it falls (ie: dawn on Wednesday is the hour of Mercury on the day of Mercury.) In theory you would pick a herb of Venus on the day and hour of Venus, or at a time when that planet was in a strong position. However, this does not work if our herb is not allocated to a single planet, but shows characteristics of several. How then do we know when to pick it? The answer is simple: we concern ourselves not with forcing the plant into a single rulership, but by looking at which property of the plant we are seeking to draw out. If we are working for love, then the hour of Venus may be suitable. If we are picking the same herb to help inspire dreams and visions, then the hour of the Moon would be better. After all, plants have many virtues and can assist us in various ways. Medical herbalists may prescribe a herb for one condition, while recognising its ability to support and assist others. Likewise no herb is exclusively for protection, success or wisdom – although these may be among its virtues.

Finally, if we are coming from an animistic position and respecting both the plants and stars as spirits, we can speak directly with them. When planting, watering or gathering herbs we may offer prayers and praise to the plant itself and the stars under which it flourishes. Better yet, we can listen and ask for knowledge and understanding. Like Thessalos, we are in danger of arrogance and failure if we practice only what is written in books and may find instead that the greatest revelations come when we admit our own ignorance to the spirits.

The study of astrology and astral magic can deepen our relationship to plants and offer a useful system for coming to understand their virtues. By recognising the complexity and agency of the herbs we work with, we can hope to learn from them directly, both in observation and by requesting information which may be revealed in dreams, trance or visions. Tradition and intuition can work hand in hand in this art.

1. Thessalos of Tralles’ full text is not available in English translation, however you can read the preface here http://www.philipharland.com/travel/Thessalos.htm
3. Culpeper’s planetary rulerships: http://www.medievalastrologyguide.com/table-of-herbs.html
Some of Agrippa’s suggested rulerships can be found on the second page of Joseph Peterson’s online edition linked above


Image from the Tacuinum Sanitatis