Herbs for the Otherworld with Asia Suler of One Willow Apothecaries

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Samhain is traditionally the time when the boundary between our world and the Otherworld is at its thinnest, and, like many of us, I have felt the tug of the Otherworld leading into Samhain and since. So to encourage, support, and connect with those impulses, I thought I would add to my herbal education with a course from Asia Suler at One Willow Apothecaries called “Herbs for the Otherworld.”

While this is not a recap or review of the course, I will say that right from the start, I appreciated Asia’s teaching style. She started with a meditation to ground and focus us so that we would be more receptive to the exercises she prompted us to go through as we moved through her presentation. The class is an audio file that I could listen to when I had some time, which I appreciated, since uninterrupted time is a luxury in my life right now. But throughout the presentation about the nature of the Otherworld and the associated spiritual ideas, she sprinkled in times to reflect silently and write out intentions and experiences.

It was through one of these exercises that I realized that, in my exploration of my ancestral wisdoms, I was neglecting my father’s ancestral line. In particular, one of her exercises led me to realize that one of the feelings this Samhain season has dredged up has been a feeling of disconnect with my father’s father’s ancestral line. My paternal grandfather was the first one to instill in me a love of the outdoors, ancestral plant wisdom, and traditional crafts. And in neglecting to explore that side of my lineage, I was approaching my ancestral truth from a very lopsided perspective.

One of the reasons I find that Celtic spirituality resonates with me is because of the vague idea that I have Scottish heritage, although I have little to go on besides the religion with which I was raised and some vague ideas my mother has about “family over in Scotland.” But when I took this prompt, realized that I was being called to pay more attention to my paternal grandfather’s line, I went into my genealogy and almost immediately found that one of my ancestors along that line had an ancient Dal Riatan surname that indicated migration from Ireland to Scotland, likely in the Middle Ages.

From there, I took the lessons of shamanic connection and spiritual journeying and started exploring on my own. I found a local mushroom farm that sells a reishi mushroom elixir. And I also decided to include my own intuitive herbal ally, my mugwort, to create a reishi and mugwort tea for Samhain Eve. Practicing with some of the Otherworld connection techniques from the course, I was able to deepen my Samhain practice and reach out to that ancestral line that had requested attention.

I was also intrigued by her discussion of “ghosts” are more than just departed people, but any departed energy that was still “haunting” us. It was interesting because most of what resonated with me in the course, was this idea of needing to connect, with ancestors and with this Otherworld. But I recognized that when listening to the section about banishing ghosts that there are still energetic aspects of my past that still linger and are not serving me. Since I don’t have Angelica accessible to me right now, I chose to use my Reishi tincture along with my carnelian stone and sat with this idea of connecting to and banishing my ghosts. And what more fitting day than Hallowe’en to work with ghosts?

The course offered not only a lot of information about the plants and techniques and context of the Otherworld, but helped walk me through these offerings to help me build my own relationship with the Otherworld. In connecting with these practices, I not only deepened my practice, but added to it. And that was a profound thing.

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.

Samhain: Happy New Year

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It is no accident that I chose to launch this space on Samhain. In the pagan world, Samhain represents the end of the old and the beginning of the new. It is the beginning of the cycle of a year that represents death, and the time from Samhain until the Winter Solstice is a liminal time, a time of change and preparation for rebirth.

It is also the time of the Cailleach.

I will pen a proper introduction to the Cailleach later this month, as the first in a series of dives into deity figures, but at Samhain, the Cailleach takes over the influence of the season and brings us into the dark half of the year. Despite the fact that the days have been shortening since the Autumnal Equinox, or Mabon, around the end of October is when I really start to notice the shift. And it is the end of the harvest season, which is why daylight savings time ends around this time, plunging us into every-earlier evening darkness.

And in this time of darkness, we not only look to bring the light to soothe our minds, but we reconnect with the aspects of death. The traditional Jack o’the Lantern was a wandering soul, with an ember in a carved out turnip to light his way, a flickering eerie light, if my experiments with carving turnips are any proof. It is the time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld is the thinnest, and a time for divination, ancestor work, and shadow work. A time to sit and contemplate.

One way that I’ve chosen to mark this holiday is by doing a lot of work to connect with that Otherworld and my ancestors. I’ve taken some courses, about which I will write later this month, that have helped me reconnect both with my personal genealogy journey, as well as my own intuitive understanding of how my ancestry informs my practice. And the Cailleach is the divine representation of that deep, crone ancestor who came with the land. So as I sit in the times of darkness, before sunrise or after sunset, I am sitting with the departed and the deep ancestors.

But it also a celebration. As I said, it is the final harvest festival. We often think of the end of autumn and into winter as the lean and sparse times, the hungry times of the year, but there was an interesting section on a podcast I listen to on the history of Britannia, where the creator talks about harvest practices in the ancient world. Our ancestors were not foolish, and they knew they did not have our robust food supply chain. They knew they had to preserve their food. So the late autumn and winter were the times of plenty. Right after the harvest was brought in, it was prepared for storage and the stores would be full. A wise society with a robust production would have plenty of food to last through the winter and into the spring until the new plantings yielded plenty again.

So while Samhain may have marked the time when our ancestors might have found themselves without the fieldwork that occupied them during much of the rest of the year, they were not starving. In fact, it’s possible that this was the time that they had to create dishes from their stored food. Think about the traditions of baking around Yule and you’ll see that it doesn’t make sense for this to be the entry into the lean times. So Samhain, for me, is an entry into a time of homey cooking, baking, and other around-the-house crafts that keep us cozy as the weather brings in a chill. The world outside might begin to look dead and skeletal, but it is merely resting, in hibernation, conserving its energy to burst forth in the spring.

Blessed Samhain!