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
In my last essay on working with the land I discussed the importance of access and solitude to establishing a relationship with your locality. In the next part of this series I want to look at a few simple practices you can begin once you have this sort of access. But first I’d like to examine the concepts behind them a little more closely, particularly that of ‘practical’ animism.
Animism is a popular topic at the moment, at the innovative edge of the academy and in the occult world. It’s also getting attention at the more radical end of herbalism. I am very pleased to see books coming out like Nathaniel Hughes’ Weeds in the Heart, which approach plant medicine from an animist perspective. I believe this interest is driven by a move away from materialism and a growing awareness of ecology and eco-criticism. In the occult world, it is also a feature of increased syncretism and sharing between different esoteric traditions, especially those outside of Western Europe which have retained more of their spirit-work elements.
But the problem with the term animism is its novelty. It was coined by 19th century anthropologists and originally applied, derisively, to the beliefs of tribal cultures. Edward Burnett Taylor defined animism in 1871 as the ‘theory of the universal animation of nature,’ from Latin anima ‘life, breath, soul.’ This is still a useful definition for us, although it is important to keep in mind that Taylor saw animism as the most ‘primitive’ form of religion and a state of great ignorance, as opposed to scientific materialism. Animism has been applied as an umbrella term to a diverse range of beliefs, belonging to peoples who may or may not accept this definition.
I want to leave aside the issue of animism in anthropology and related disciplines for now, and discuss two expressions of animism you’re likely to encounter in contemporary Western counter-culture. You could call these ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ animism, in the way reconstructionists frequently differentiate ‘soft polytheism’ from ‘hard polytheism.’ But I find this division problematic and inherently judgmental. Instead, I’m going to use the terms theoretical and practical animism.
If contemporary Western animism accepts the central tenet that ‘all of nature is animated’, then two questions immediately arise: what are the metaphysics of this ‘animation’? – and – how do we respond to an animate universe? The first is a fascinating topic of discussion, involving various esoteric and philosophical theories of the soul, spirit, life-force-energy and the boundaries of individuality. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know the answer, although I have a few ideas and am always keen to engage with the question. Theoretical animists are those willing to accept the idea of an animate universe in theory. I’ve spoken with many people somewhere on the spectrum of theoretical animism, and not all have been pagans or occultists. It is a philosophy that appeals to members of many faiths, and of none.
However, it is the second question that is vital to my interests – how do we respond to an animate universe? If you’re born into a culture where animism is the dominant world-view, you’re likely to find this easier. For those of us brought up to believe that ‘animate’ only applies to moving organisms or, at a stretch, those with biological life signs, it will always be a challenge. Accepting that challenge means placing yourself at odds with the rest of your culture. The good news is that you don’t need to define the metaphysics of animist belief to enjoy practical animism, and yes, I mean enjoy. Practical animism can be full of wonder, connection, community and the sort of magic that makes your heart sing. It can also be terrifying, especially if your relationship with the non-human lacks respect.
Practical animism means living in a the world that is not divided between ‘people’ and ‘things.’ If everything is animate, then humans and animals are not exceptional. If a river or a car or a pebble is a person, in the same way your brother or mother is, how does that change the way you live? It should revolutionise it. If you truly acknowledge this world-view, then everything you do becomes part of a relationship. You take your place in a wider society of beings beyond your species. You become at once less exceptional and more connected.
How do we move from theoretical to practical animism? First, we have to decide what sort of relationship we want to have with non-humans. Just like our human interactions, these will be complex. Do we want to develop relationships in which we have power or in which we share mutual respect and co-operation? Can we conceive of a world in which our species is not at the top of the hierarchy of being? Do we even get to decide how these interactions will develop if the other party is uninterested or antipathetic to us?
To begin to with, we need to learn from others. Contemporary cultures with a living animist tradition and those of pre-modern Europe. Imagine, for example, that you are attending a formal event – a wedding or a dinner party, in which you are completely unfamiliar with the forms and manners expected of you as a participant. You do not wish to make a fool of yourself, or offend your hosts – so you watch carefully, listen and observe. If the person next to you knows how to behave, then you follow their example. This is not cultural appropriation – it’s simply learning from those with a better understanding of how to act in an animate world.
The second guide we have, inferior to the first, is our intuition. It is inferior only because it is subject to our own ego-desires and wishful imagination. If we are not careful, we can fool ourselves. The intuition is the only sense we all have that recognises the spirit-world. When we come to a place where we are not welcome, it will fill us with dread. When we are being watched, we will feel that presence. Learning to listen to our intuition is a survival skill, as much as a means of communication. With intuition we can learn how to practice animism directly from the non-human parties we seek to engage with.
Finally, I will add that even though I extol the virtues of direct, solitary engagement with the land – you do not need to have such access to practice animism. The animate universe does not begin where human civilization ends. The chair you are sitting on and the room you are in are just as alive and spirit-haunted as the wildest forest grove. Begin to recognise this and work with your household and urban spirits, and you will be in a good place to engage with those who inhabit wilder spaces.
Theoretical animism is not a weaker form of practical animism, it is a step towards it. We have to rearrange our minds before we can change our relationship with the non-human. However, accepting that the world is animate and treating it as inanimate will not make you any friends beyond the human. The practical animist does not just believe that the mountain is alive, they bow to it.
The heart of my magical practice is working with the land. When we talk about working with the land we often imagine a deeply rooted connection based on a life-time of living and working in the same region. Such connections are invaluable, however they are increasingly rare. Many modern witches and magicians live in urban environments far from their ancestral roots and move several times over the course of their lives.
This is certainly my experience and has led me to develop a series of concepts, methods and practices for initiating and developing relationships with my new locality. Currently I live in a semi-rural part of Northern England, but I have also lived in outback Australia, in leafy suburbia and in a high-rise in the heart of a modern city. Wherever I live, I’ve always found it is possible to establish and maintain relationship with the land.
This will be the first in a series of posts examining the idea of land-work which I hope will offer some practical information. The practices I discuss are rooted in traditions and folklore from various cultures and are respectfully syncretic. However, they have grown and flowered through direct experience. Tradition is a valuable guide, but each land has its own particular ways and if you listen and observe, it will teach you how to work with it.
When we talk about the land from a magical perspective, we are usually interested in the land spirits and the land’s inherent energy or power. From an animist perspective, the land spirits are those resident in a place. In Norse traditions, they are referred to as land wights or Landvættir. In the Roman world, they were honoured as genii loci. They are sometimes referred to as faerie in British folklore, however that term is also used for the dead and the pre-Christian gods. Generally speaking, land spirits are associated with a particular physical place rather than a culture, tribe or family. They are independent of human recognition or interaction and sometimes disinterested or antagonistic to us. That said, they have historically been accorded respect and given offerings. The land also encompasses the spirit-presences of the plants, animals, stones, rivers, springs, mountains and other beings that inhabit it.
Land power is the energetic force present in the land. The English language is rather impoverished when it comes to terms for the life-force, though I’ve heard traditional witches speak of the red serpent, sprowl or the red thread. I believe modern Druids use the word ‘Nwyfre.’ Much like the life-force present in living bodies, the land has its own complex web of energies made up of flora, fauna, funghi and geological phenomena. The land power of chalk downs feels very different to that of iron rich clay. The energy of a forest differs greatly from that of a mountain range or a desert. Connecting to this power is not only useful in one’s own work, but allows us to recognise and respond to changes in the land. It is not difficult to access. As soon as we enter an environment we become a part of it, whether we are conscious of this fact or not. Indeed, the more we immerse ourselves in the land and give up our illusion of separateness, the greater access we have to this power.
Regular and free access to the land is vital to establishing these connections but can be difficult to obtain. Even in rural environments, land access is heavily contested and frequently privatised. Scotland, theoretically, has some of the most extensive rights to roam in the United Kingdom. However, when I first visited I discovered this right was severely hampered by miles of barbed wire. Getting access to the land can be particularly difficult in urban and suburban areas. Sometimes, it is necessary to broaden our idea of what the ‘land’ means. When I lived in the city, the only unpaved land I had easy access to was the river’s edge. I walked along the shore daily and became familiar with the tides, the waterfowl, the moods and currents of the river. The river itself also had a powerful and ancient spirit to whom I made offerings.
In suburbia, I’ve found public parks and undeveloped land offer sites for access. Of course, land doesn’t stop being land because its built over and paved. Cities have their own spirits and energies. Personally, I’m more comfortable with wild or rural landscapes, and most of what I write here concerns working with such environs, but that doesn’t mean that urban land is any less magical. If you likewise need some wildness, then regular journeys to a national park or nature reserve may offer a solution. Returning regularly to the same place, even if it is hours from where you live, is enough to establish a connection, especially if you go alone and give yourself time to fully immerse in the landscape.
Solitude is integral to my work with the land. The reason for this is very simple, when we are with other humans we are enclosed in a bubble of humanity. We filter our experiences through their reactions and the weight of their presence makes it harder to detect more subtle presences. Being alone with the land is itself a deeply magical experience. Even if you don’t have access to remote wild places or live in a city, being unaccompanied will give you a greater awareness of the energies and spirits around you. Gain access to the land, and spend time there alone. This is the cornerstone to all land-based practice.
In future posts I look forward to discussing different types of land spirits, methods for raising land power, eating the land, beating the bounds, the relationship between land and memory, intuitive magic, augury and several methods for developing and deepening a connection with your locality. If you have any questions please leave a comment.