The Kinship of Magic and Herbalism

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One of the earliest written accounts of the use of herbs in European history is the Physica of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun, mystic, and scholar of natural science from Germany. From her writings, it is clear that herbal healing and knowledge of natural remedies was intimately linked to concepts of magic and spirituality. From the introduction of her chapter on plant lore, she says that different plants have the ability to not only affect the physical body, but the spiritual one as well.

From there, we can look at Nicholas Culpeper’s English Physician (later retitled The Complete Herbal) and see how, in his descriptions of plants and their preparation and use, he takes into account not only the physical properties of each plant, but the metaphysical. He discusses the astrological correspondences of plants alongside the physical effects in the body.

This is why I am so insistent upon studying the history of my paths. While in the modern day, herbalism has take steps to become “more scientific” in an attempt to gain legitimacy among the world of “modern” medicine, the fact remains that the earliest roots of herbalism are entwined with the roots of magic, witchcraft, and metaphysical study.

And so much of medicine and healing, in any tradition, is intuitive and undefined. When I was being treated for migraine headaches, the doctor told me that there is not as much science behind treating migraines because it’s not entirely known what treatments will work for which people. He started me out with a medication that I knew worked for my mother because those sympathies often exist, but it was a guess. In the same way, how often have you heard a story of a medical issue where the doctor “had a feeling” they should try something, despite not seeing clear signs outwardly in tests?

In the same way, herbalism embraces this vagueness and uncertainty. The herbalist strives to treat the whole person. In a similar way, my experience with acupuncture showed me the benefit of treating the whole person, not just the specific complaint. I had gone to the acupuncturist for help conceiving, but found that the most fruitful sessions we had were those in which he treated my past grief. Medical science is only recently catching up to the ways in which the body is interconnected and seemingly distinct issues are part of a whole.

So in the same way that modern medicine grew out of the herbalism that was intimately interconnected with folk magic, we are still learning and expanding that story in ways that we don’t yet understand. We know these connections are there, but we don’t know exactly what they are. They are like the explanations for the cycles of eclipses or the changing of the seasons before we had observed them through space exploration. The human body will always be that which is most familiar and yet often most foreign to us. And what else is that which we know exists but don’t yet understand but magic?

The Colonizer Privilege of the White American Herbalist

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This is something that has been floating around in my head for a while, partially inspired by some of the videos that Regina at In Her It Blooms has posted, and in part from a class on pre-Colombian indigenous foodways in what is now Mexico. And it’s something that isn’t brought up a lot in the discussions of ancestral herbalism and appropriation, at least as far as I’ve heard. And that is the privilege afforded to American descendants of Europeans to practice their ancestral herbalism on soil that did not originally yield the plants native to Europe.

You see, when Europeans came to colonize these lands, they did not just colonize with people. They also brought animals and plants with them. Rather than just learn to adapt to the native flora and fauna of this land, they brought over the things that were familiar to them. It’s why we farm cattle and chicken and pigs instead of turkey and bison. And it’s why every lawn, at least in my area, is plagued with dandelions. Because many of the medicinal plants from Europe are invasive weeds in America.

It came up when I was chatting with the presenter who was teaching us about Aztec foodways, she mentioned something called garlic vine, which is apparently common in Latin cuisines, but difficult to find outside of Latin markets and I asked if it was similar to garlic mustard, a wild plant that I can find near me in the mid-Atlantic. She hadn’t heard of it, but another class participant pointed out that garlic mustard is not native to the Americas and is considered invasive.

And that reminded me of the lovely patch of mugwort that grows next to my house and yields so much plant matter that I’ve used for various botanical experiments. Well, mugwort is also considered invasive to the Americas. It was likely brought over by Europeans to populate their kitchen gardens and escaped, as many weedy herbs are wont to do (like the spearmint that does glorious battle with the mugwort). And looking at my yard, I can identify many of the plants there. And so many of them are native Eurasian plants that have been “naturalized” to the Americas. But that is just a nice-sounding word for brought over and took over, or colonized.

So, as a colonizer, I can now “wildcraft” plants that are found in my own ancestral traditions by walking out my front door, despite the fact that they’re not native to my home soil. And yet, these plants must be displacing something, which are the native plants of this place, just like colonizers displaced indigenous peoples.

We should also remember those of us on this soil who are not descended of colonizers, but are instead descended of those kidnapped and brought over by force. And while there are some plants that were brought over from other looted lands, they are not nearly as prevalent in the wild landscape of the US. So while I can walk out my door barefoot with a pair of scissors and gather half a dozen different European-tradition herbs that I didn’t even have to plant or tend myself, another American might be forced to find a source of the cultivated herb, paying money to reclaim their own heritage, which my ancestors brought over for me to have for free.

All of which is to say that, while I am thankful for my ancestral traditions, I always try to remember that it is easier for me to practice it than others, still rooted in the ways my ancestors stole this land that I now consider my home. So as I go through my own journey, I am careful to give credit to the traditions from which I learn, respect the traditions of others, and make sure to do all that I can to keep less-privileged traditions accessible to those whose ancestry they are.

Plants and Ancestors with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms

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I mentioned in passing that I had participated in a class called “Plants and Ancestors” with Regina Pritchett of In Her It Blooms, but I felt compelled to write a post specifically discussing my experiences of the class and how it has deepened my practice over the last week or so. The class was in response to the many Instagram posts and Stories Regina shared over the last several months about cultural appropriation in the herbal community, a topic that interests me greatly, and about which I plan to write in more depth in the near future.

But the essence of this class was learning what ancestral herbalism is and how to connect with your own ancestry, regardless of your knowledge of your specific genealogy or biological heritage. Personally, I have both started working on a genealogy, given that I have the privilege of a white descendent of Europeans, and have had my biological heritage mapped by 23andme (although, I’m planning on testing with another company sometime to explore how the results compare). The results are not surprising. I am completely European, within the limits of accuracy of those tests. The largest percentage is of the British Isles, particularly greater London and some parts of Ireland. Matching up to my genealogy, my Gaelic ancestors likely emigrated from Ireland to Scotland in the Middle Ages, and then later to England, based on surnames.

And yet, even knowing this, Regina’s class was illuminating. It is one thing to know who your ancestors are on paper, but quite another to engage with them through an ancestor-veneration practice. In Celtic paganism and Druidry, ancestor veneration is an integral part of the practice, and one that had eluded me as someone with a complicated family dynamic. Of course, there are others with much less access to information about their heritage. So the class focused more on how to intuitively connect with one’s ancestors.

At the end of the discussion, Regina led us in a guided meditation to meet an ancestor who was particularly in need of attention. Interestingly enough, the ancestor who came to me in this vision was a relative of my only living grandparent, my first-generation American grandmother, born to Magyar immigrants who came from Hungary and Romania in the early 20th century. This also happens to be the side of my ancestry that I ever truly had experience with, as my grandmother tried to maintain this tie to her heritage, and I was the one who chose to learn at least some of it from her, mostly in the form of cooking.

And so, beyond considering how to add regular ancestor veneration to my practice, including blending my very disparate Germanic, Norman, Celtic, and Magyar heritages together, I have been reminded that ancestor veneration is about keeping tradition alive. Sometimes that means setting an altar, lighting a candle, and giving the offering (my grandfathers both love whiskey), and sometimes that means regarding the baking of many rolls of walnut beigli and enjoying it with some Romanian fruit tea as a form of veneration.

Beyond that, it has led me to even further investigate the herbal practices of my ancestors. I know my great-grandmother ran a homestead where they lived in Ohio, and that she came from a small, poor, rural village in Hungary, where it was likely in addition to making all of their food, she likely would have used herbal remedies on her family. My mother has some vague memories of home remedies. But now I can research and find things like nettle and elder on the Magyar side, and linden and blaeberry on the Celtic side.

And so I keep reminders of my particular ancestral heritage close to me. It has become less of an academic exercise, tracing the lines and links, and more personal.