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.
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