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?

Red Thread and Fiber Magic

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One of my favorite book series as a girl was Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet. The books follow the life of a young magic-user in a fantasy realm, but one aspect of the story that I always found fascinating was when the main character is teaching a group of young people to act as their village’s magical practitioners and is teaching them the crafts involved in enchanting using household tasks, particularly fiber.

As someone who crochets, spins, and sews, fiber arts are something that intrigue me in the context of my craft, and in the folk practices that call me, thread and string are key players in common charms. So when I saw that my go-to yarn source had come out with a new three-ply wool yarn, I decided to look into string and thread charms more deeply.

My first stop was my book on Scottish charms and the writings of Scott Richardson-Read of Cailleach’s Herbarium. My trusty book of Scottish charms and amulets talks of the “rowan and red thread” charm, where two crossed sticks of rowan wood are tied together with red thread. Incidentally, this charm reminds me a bit of the “god’s eye” charms we made in elementary school. The color red has associations with protection and counteracting harmful magic across cultures. And Scott has written of the snaim, or three-knot charm, using red, three-ply wool string to perform a ritual knotting and chant to banish the evil eye.

Though I have no cattle to be blighted or any mysterious illnesses of my own, the use of folk protections like this appeals to me, especially when it involves a medium that I feel a close connection to. I’ve taken up spinning because I appreciate the meaning and symbolism of both spinning a thread, as well as the focus that goes into it. While my current batch of wool is undyed grey Shetland wool, perhaps I should consider dyeing some red fiber to spin my own thread for protection charms. Even without the threat of baneful practitioners who might curse me, a little protection is never a bad idea.

And this is the philosophy of practice that I find so attractive about traditional folk magic — it is not about large rituals, but about weaving magic in with the mundane. In the same way that the pre-Christian beliefs were intertwined and syncretized with Christian belief, the mundane and the sacred are blended in such a way that the magic imbues all areas of daily life. It isn’t about specific rituals, but about finding the magic in small charms. As I crochet a project, sew an apron, spin a skein, prepare a meal, or simply make a cup of tea, intent and focus lend magic to all of these actions, making them into small workings, even when I am not sitting down to “do magic.” It is all magic.

Eventually perhaps I may need to put some of these ideas together. I’ve thought for a while of creating my own special shawl to wear when I’m doing particular workings. While I had hoped to use my own handspun yarn, I worry that it will not be rugged enough to stand up to near-daily wear, so I have been looking at using commercial yarn. And crochet is similar to a series of knots. Perhaps a three-repeat pattern would be a powerful way to knot intention into the piece. And perhaps I should run a red thread through it to remind me of the protection of mundane crafts.