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?

Herbal Rituals: Pine

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It is a new month and a new plant to explore in Judith Berger’s Herbal Rituals. The focus plant in December is pine, which is already quite prevalent in mundane celebration this month. I was thrilled to find some beautiful white pines in our local park, well away from the roadways, and private enough for me to gather some needles ethically without having to explain myself to passers-by.

December is the end of the Gregorian calendar and in a lot of traditions, the winter months were not considered actual months at all. They were somewhat of a time outside of time, when people would largely hunker down, eat food from their stocks from the harvests, and spend time in community. Particularly in northern latitudes, it would be a dark and cold time, and it could get dreary, I imagine.

Pine, in Berger’s book, is not only traditionally associated with December holidays, but also has uses in warming, nurturing, and grounding the body and spirit during this cold and dark time. But they are also associated with light and illumination. In Scottish tradition, “pine candles” or chunks of resin-rich pine fatwood are burned in their saining ceremony, particularly in rituals for newborn babies. So pine, as an excellent natural fire starter, can also represent the return of light, which begins at the end of December with the winter solstice.

Pine makes an excellent infusion or decoction, rich in nutrients that are particularly good against ailments common in winter. Or it can be infused into vinegar, honey, or both as a pungent tonic. Perhaps I will explore these other preparations after my next foraging trip, but for this batch, I went a different direction.

I decided to look at the warming and grounding properties of pine in my preparations this month. I used Berger’s infused oil recipe to create a pine-infused olive oil that I can use as a warming massage oil during the dark, cold months. The aroma will be soothing to my spirit while the oil itself will bring blood into the areas of my body that might grow stiff with cold and inactivity. I chose not to include the additional evergreens in her recipe, partly because I did not mange to forage all of them, but also because I found the scent of my pine needles just so intoxicating and wanted an oil of just that beauty.

I also decided to infuse some of my magnesium bath salts with pine needles by alternating layers of salts and cut-up needles in a jar and letting it sit for a few weeks. This will make a beautiful ritual bath for midwinter. Bathing is one of my favorite ways of grounding and releasing tension and negativity, and like many others, I find myself somewhat overwhelmed with the darkness of the time of year.

At the same time, the period between Samhain and midwinter are personally more difficult because it is a convergence of anniversaries of grief-filled events in my life, so I often find myself in need of a warm cocoon to which to retreat and replenish my energy. Perhaps I will find that peach in the boughs of my pine medicines.

Herbal Rituals: Mugwort

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Recently, I was introduced to Judith Berger’s beautiful book of herbal tradition, Herbal Rituals, in which she connects each month of the year to a plant or two. Her book starts in November, just after Samhain, at the pagan new year. And she starts with Mugwort.

One of the concepts of green witch herbalism that I adore is the idea of finding your “green ally.” This is a plant that isn’t necessarily the only remedy you might need, but is a specific plant that has been speaking to you. And the tenacious patch of mugwort outside my front door has called to me lately. She has survived many weedings (the perils of living in rented housing) and provided me with copious bundles of mugwort for a myriad of recipes and storage.

And then, while participating in Regina Prichett’s “Plants and Ancestors” class, I realized that something deeper was calling me to this patch of mugwort. After sharing this, she pointed out that mugwort in indigenous to most of Europe and the British Isles and any one of my pan-European ancestors (seriously, no one nation or area of Europe can claim a full half of my ancestry, apparently). So as whether I am connecting with my Scots-Irish ancestors or the Magyar, mugwort is an ally to my work.

The best thing I’ve found to do with her is to use the process I learned from Alexis Nicole on TikTok (and Instagram), which she got from Shell (@wild_food_around_the_world) to treat harvested mugwort leaves like green tea. The process of steaming, rolling, drying, and roasting yields an amazingly fragrant and smooth cup of mugwort tea, even though I harvested my leaves much later in the season that was ideal. And the tactile connection to the leaves brings so much experience to the process.

In her book, Berger talks about November as a time for rest, but also vision and memory. Samhain, the opening of both the pagan year and November as a month, is a time at which the veil between the world of the living and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, making it a time for ancestor connection and divination. The idea of the new year being a time to get in touch with your intuition and vision strikes me a gentler way to think about New Year’s resolutions. Rather than choosing to what box you want to conform, you consult your essence to see how you can better accommodate its expansiveness.

Mugwort as a remedy is associated with divination, trance, and dream work. Drinking it as a tea or working with it before going to sleep is supposed to induce vivid dreams. As someone who has recently found myself less able to fall asleep and sleep restfully, I chose to make a mugwort dream pillow from the book this year. I had a remnant of beautiful dusty lavender colored linen that a seamstress friend sent me when it was leftover after she made a dress I bought from her. It has been sitting in my fabric stash for over a year and this seemed the perfect way to honor it. I sewed it with intention and meditative calm, and then filled it with rice for weight, mugwort for vision and dreams, lavender and hops for relaxation, and a pinch of mint to enhance clarity. It’s a large pillow and covers about half my face, the weight of it making it a soothing way to release the tension in my face, and the scent lulling me into rest.

A cup of mugwort green tea and a lie-down with my dream pillow puts me into the perfect state to receive the rest and dreams that November will bring to me. I wish you a restful and meditative winter.