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.

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.

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.

Botanical Drinks, Michael Isted – Book Review

I don’t usually buy coffee table books about herbs. Luscious, full page photo spreads are visually stimulating but generally accompanied by fairly basic introductions to the subject. They make nice gifts but take up a lot of space on the bookshelf. So when I stumbled upon Michael Isted’s book I was surprised and delighted to find something truly unique; a ‘cookbook’ style compilation that contains original formulae inspired by the history of herbal medicine and magic.

Isted has a slightly unusual background for a herbalist, working for luxury hotels, spas and restaurants to create concept drinks. His middle eastern clientele have required a non-alcoholic approach to cocktails and the influence of traditional Arabic ingredients and techniques can be found throughout the book. Isted is a qualified phytotherapist who understands the medicinal properties and benefits of the plants he works with and acknowledges the traditions of both Eastern and Western schools of herbal medicine. The introductory chapters feature a brief history, a short herbarium and instructions for several methods of processing and preparing herbs. This is delivered in a concise fashion that demonstrates the author is familiar with all the methods and plants he describes. It is approachable to newcomers to the subject, however, this is the only ‘beginners’ section of the book.

 

The recipes themselves are extraordinary. This is a book of potions. Drinks designed to heighten the senses, strengthen memory, induce love, astral projection, dreaming, to heal, clarify and sedate. Unlike the tinctures and teas that make up the apothecaries of most herbalists (present company included) they’re also intended to look and taste exquisite. Isted draws on ancient remedies like theriac and mithridatum for inspiration. There is a drinkable Kyphi, a love potion made with infusion of rose quartz and possibly my favourite – a cordial inspired by Dr Dee with black limes, charcoal and obsidian. Isted’s approach and world view is likewise magical, utilising semi-precious stones and recommending appropriate lunar and solar timings. He even includes a simple charm to be recited along with one of the philtres.

 

The preparations required for many of the potions are extensive. Most are formulated on a ‘base’ – a cordial, sherbet, infused honey, oxymel or glycerine tincture that is diluted with juices, infusions or other liquids to form the drink. This is an excellent idea, allowing for a concentrated and longer lasting ‘stock’ that makes the full effort of preparation unnecessary every time. And when I say effort – I mean it. I realised immediately that I could make very few of these drinks in a day from what I have on hand. Most require weeks or even months of maceration or infusion to extract the plant bases. Many require fairly exotic ingredients – and while some may consider this an unnecessary expense, I feel it heightens the challenge inherent in each recipe. Equal respect is given to foraged, seasonal herbs that can be found in temperate Europe and Isted encourages the use of organic and ethically harvested ingredients.

 

Thus far, I’ve only made one recipe from the collection, the Cognitive Theriac, which includes ginger, fresh ginkgo and rosemary. It is an infused honey, and so I’ll have to wait a few weeks to test it properly, but having licked the spoon I used to press the herbs beneath the honey, I can vouch that it is already delicious.

 

This is not a book I would give to someone starting out in herbalism, or to a student of purely medical phytotherapy. However, if you have experience with basic herbal preparations and are looking for something challenging, inspiring and magically inclined – Botanical Drinks will suit you. There are dozens of spell books out there and a few good texts of occult herbalism, but precious few formularies. While this is far more playful, light hearted and exoteric than something like Ars Philtron, it fulfills a similar desire to heighten the potion makers art.

 

Michael Isted can be found at The Herball http://www.theherball.com/

 

Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism – Book Review

13Paths

While eagerly anticipating the release of Daniel A. Schulke’s The Green Mysteries, I have been fortunate enough to receive a copy of Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism, a companion volume of essays on topics related to plant magic. As a long-time admirer of Schulke’s landmark Viridarium Umbris, one of the first modern works to treat esoteric herbalism in depth, I harbour high expectations of these new titles.

Thirteen Pathways is a slim volume (138 pages) containing four essays, a short preface and bibliography. I have the trade paperback edition, which is nicely bound and printed and features beautiful illustrations by Benjamin Vierling. I found the preface particularly refreshing, written in a simple style in the first person, it clearly outlines the objective of the work:

The purpose of Thirteen Pathways is therefore to examine routes by which we can learn the occult nature of plants, and in doing so, incorporate their powers in our own mystical pursuits, and beyond.

Those familiar with Schulke’s writing will be aware of his characteristic style, which tends towards the poetic, archaic and sometimes obfuscatory. Although Thirteen Pathways retains certain poetic flourishes it is, on the whole, an approachable text, clearly and lucidly written. It is my hope that a similar style has been adopted for the forthcoming Green Mysteries.

The first, titular essay was by far the most inspiring in my reading. Schulke briefly outlines the history of Occult Herbalism, and some common misconceptions relating to the subject. This is followed by the thirteen ‘pathways’, or ‘philosophical routes’ and thirteen ‘gardens’. The pathways are given Greek titles and consist of physical, intellectual and magical approaches to gaining herb knowledge and experience. The gardens are described as visions of symbolic landscapes centered around particular ethnobotanical relationships, such as healing or funerary plants.

Unfortunately, the scope of this essay allows only for a brief summary of each pathway and garden, but it is enough to stimulate and inspire the reader into further exploration. The pathways listed do not prescribe working methods but allow the practitioner to examine their own. Thus it is not a working manual so much as an enquiry into the ideas behind varying approaches. I have long felt that there is an over-emphasis in modern ‘traditional’ witchcraft on entheogens and poisonous plants, to the exclusion of other forms of plant magic. In the ‘gardens’, Schulke helps to redress this balance by placing equal value on diverse varieties of human-plant relationships including perfumery, cosmetics and cloth making. Familiar with the idea of planetary ‘gardens’, I enjoyed the originality of Schulke’s ethnobotanical approach. I believe ‘Thirteen Pathways’ to be a stimulating read for any esoteric herbalist, although not one aimed at the beginner.

Admittedly, I was less excited by the other essays included in the book. I had already read ‘Transmission of Esoteric Occult Knowledge in the Twenty-First Century’ in volume 2. of Verdant Gnosis. The final two essays are very short and approach the topic from a more academic perspective, looking at the history and anthropology behind occult herbalism and drawing upon diverse global traditions for examples. I found both of these pieces to be broad overviews of loosely related concepts, rather than deep investigations of particular practices. There was little I had not encountered previously. For example, the content of ‘The Green Intercessor’ on fallen angels will be familiar to readers of Schulke’s past work and books like The Pillars of Tubal-Cain (Jackson & Howard, 2000.)

For those who have enjoyed Schulke’s previous publications, I consider Thirteen Pathways a worthwhile acquisition. I am curious to see how the ideas expressed in the titular essay are addressed and expanded in The Green Mysteries, and have high hopes for the forthcoming volume.

Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism can be purchased from Three Hands Press.