Category Archives: Herbs

On Labdanum

In our last blog post we covered the famed Dittany of Crete. This week we’re discussing another Mediterranean magical ingredient also native to Crete: Labdanum. Labdanum is a dark semi-solid oleoresin produced by evergreen shrubs in the genus Cistus, the rock-roses (generally either C. ladaniferus in the western Mediterranean or C. creticus in the east). This resin is exuded from glandular hairs on the leaves of the plant in the summer to protect the plant’s photosynthetic machinery from oxidative stress caused by the intense Mediterranean sun.

There are two traditional ways the resin is gathered. The first is by combing it from the hair of goats who have browsed and grazed among the shrubs. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, tells us in his Histories:

Ledanum, which the Arabs call ladanum, is procured in a yet stranger fashion. Found in a most inodorous place, it is the sweetest-scented of all substances. It is gathered from the thighs and beards of he-goats, where it is found sticking like gum, having come from the bushes on which they browse. It is used in many sorts of unguents, and is what the Arabs burn chiefly as incense.

The second traditional method of harvest, and one that’s still employed in the eastern Mediterranean (especially the island of Crete), is to gently beat the bushes with a lambadistrion, a sort of rake with leather thongs instead of teeth. It is here we discover an interesting possible symbolic key in the Western Mystery Tradition. Early 19th century Egyptologists averred that the beards worn by pharaohs in emulation of the resurrected Lord of the Dead, Osiris, were in fact the beards of goats smeared with labdanum resin. Further, some of them suggested that the ritual flail of Egypt could have two cultural origins: the winnowing flail used to beat the chaff from the grain *and* the instrument used to collect labdanum from the Cistus bush. In effect, the tool symbolizes that which brings forth the staple of life by separating the wheat from the chaff and that which brings forth the indwelling divine substance which marks sacred kings. This flail was one of the tools used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in their syncretic Egyptian ceremonial magic system, and from there, probably entered the toolbox of British Traditional Wica as the scourge.

To return to labdanum, as the quote from Herodotus given earlier suggests (“used in many sorts of unguents”), the resin was used in many beauty products of the ancient world. Many ancient writers call labdanum the “perfume of Arabia”. The ancient Egyptians also used labdanum in a number of their preparations as did the Etruscans and the Greeks. Diosciordes lists labdanum among the ingredients of the Royal Unguent and so does Pliny the Elder. Cistus bushes also grow on the island of Cyprus (Kypris) where there was a large temple to Aphrodite in the ancient world that included a perfumery, and the resin was used in their blends and burned as an offering at her altars.

In addition to offerings to Kypris, the goddess who delights in the pleasures of the night, labdanum was also included in another famous incense offering – it is likely the mysterious ingredient Onycha in the sacred Ketoret incense of the Hebrews. The book of Exodus, chapter 30, gives the formula as follows:

And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy.

The word onycha here is Greek, meaning “nail” and derived from onyx (the stone) and was chosen to replace the original Hebrew word shecheleth, related to the Syriac word shehelta meaning “tear, drop, distillation, exudation”. This word is rendered in the Arabic as ladana – labdanum. Further, biblical scholars and linguists suggest that all the words used are poetic descriptions of Cistus in some way: nail for the petals of the plant or words referencing the blackness of the dark resin.

As a powerful scent used in so many preparations, you may find yourself wondering what it smells like. Labdanum has a complex scent, described by perfumers as sweet, warm, basalmic, and floral. It has notes of the richness of leather and the sweet earthiness of musk and vanilla. It is said to be reminiscent of Ambergris, a famous and quite rare perfume ingredient which comes from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. In fact, labdanum is often used as a substitute for this rare ingredient, which is considered an aphrodisiac amongst occultists. Finally, labdanum is one of the important scents in the famous French perfume family known as Chypre, named for the ancient perfumery of Aphrodite on Cyprus. François Coty created the first modern chypre fragrance in 1917, with labdanum, oakmoss, florals and bergamot. The scent was highly popular, and even ended up in Hoodoo, where it was said to bring fast money and fast women.

Labdanum collecting flail

So, what then are we to make of all this material? To what uses can a modern practitioner of the occult arts put this highly fragrant resin exuded in the burning summer sun of the Mediterranean? Synthesizing, we find an association with goats and possibly the flail/scourge, with sensuous Venus, the sacred incense of YHVH, and with the perfumers of la Belle Epoch in France. I suggest, that taken altogether, Labdanum would seem to be ideal for blends used in sex magic, diabolic work, and the black mass. One could see the biblical scapegoat, sent into the desert as a sacrifice to Azazel, his thighs and beard smeared with the black resin of labdanum, the same fragrance used to perfume the occultists and bohemians at the turn of the century.

Though Huysmans’ scandalous 1891 novel “Là-Bas: A Journey into the Self” gives the incense for the black mass as “De la rue, des feuilles de jusquiame et de datura des solanées sèches et de la myrrhe; ce sont des parfums agréables à Satan, notre maître!” [Of (Syrian) rue, of the dried leaves of henbane and thornapple in the nightshade family, and of myrrh; these are pleasing perfumes to our lord Satan.], this blend lacks a sort of diabolic decadence, which could be supplied by the complex sensuous fragrance of labdanum.

Of course if summoning demons and profaning the rites of the Christian church isn’t your bag, labdanum is appropriate for other rites too—the summer moonlit rites of the Wica, to accompany paens sung to Babalon, ritual attempts to woo the Bright Lady of the Hollow hills, to perfume Dionysian revels. The scent of Labdanum calls for uses that are sensual and subversive, wild and free, glamorous and embodied.

On Dittany of Crete

One of Tom and my goals for Otherworld Apothecary is to provide rare and potent magical herbs and resins for practitioners. Pursuing this goal prompts us to undertake sojourns and hikes to ethically wildharvest local plants, to grow others in our gardens, and also to import quality materials from exotic lands. Last week, we got a shipment of ethically harvested Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) directly from Crete.

Dittany of Crete is a species of oregano which only grows wild on the mountains and cliffs of the island of Crete. As such, it’s fairly rare and not often found in commerce. Though it can be grown in warm climates (Tom and I have given it a try ourselves), the yield is not very high. We have been to a number of metaphysical shops and seen herb merchants selling marjoram or oregano labeled as Dittany of Crete instead. But the true plant is fairly distinctive. Dittany of Crete may be easily recognized both by the characteristic woolly white-grey hair on its stems and round leaves and the fairly bright pink-purple bracts that surround the flowers during the growing season. Perhaps due to this beautiful plant’s rarity it’s developed quite a large magical reputation.

Dittany of Crete

In the ancient world, Dittany of Crete was considered a potent healing herb. It was said that the wild goats that lived in the mountains of Crete sought out the herb to heal themselves of arrow wounds. Virgil relates this bit of lore in the Aeneid Book XII when the goddess Venus heals the wounded hero with the plant:

Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.

The “father of modern medicine”, the Greek Hippocrates, prescribed the herb as a panacea, especially good for digestive complaints and healing wounds.

The Cretan name for this plant is Erontas “love herb”. Cat Yronwode, folk magic collector and hoodoo practitioner, was taught by a folk magician in the 1960’s that Cretan women made sorcerous love magic with the herb. There’s romantic folklore that states that young men, smitten by love, would climb the dangerous cliffs and steep rocky mountains of Crete to obtain a bouquet of the flowering herb to give to their sweethearts to prove their love, bravery, and physical prowess. Thus, it developed a use in love magic, particularly as an aphrodisiac fed to a lover to increase their passion for the magician.

But perhaps the bulk of Dittany of Crete’s magical reputation comes from a branch of western esotericism formed New York City in 1875, the Theosophical Society. The Society was formed by a number of leading occultists, including the controversial Helena Blavatsky, and was part of a web of occultists that included the Spiritualists, the Hermetic Order of Light, the Hermetic Order of Luxor, the Mesmerists, various Rosecution groups and others. The contributions of the Theosophists to the history and practice of modern occultism could be a book in and of itself (and will probably be the subject of another blog post), but include the The Hidden Masters, a focus on Universalism, and the notion of a recurring enlightened teacher incarnating through the ages. But here I will constrain myself to their use of Cretan Dittany, which they consider a powerfully magical plant.

In The Theosophical Glossary, Blavatsky writes:

“The Diktamnon is an evergreen shrub whose contact as claimed in Occultism develops and at the same time cures somnambulism. Mixed with Verbena it will produce clairvoyance and ecstasy. Pharmacy attributes to the Diktamnon strongly sedative and quieting properties. It grows in abundance on Mount Dicte in Crete and enters into many magical performances resorted to by the Cretans even to this day.”

And, Blavatsky gives a more mytho-poetic treatment in Isis Unveiled:

“As the sun, what better image could be found for Jupiter emitting his golden rays than to personify this emanation in Diana, the all-illuminating virgin Artemis, whose oldest name was Diktynna, literally the emitted ray, from the word dikein. The moon is non-luminous, and it shines only by the reflected light of the sun; hence, the imagery of his daughter, the goddess of the moon, and herself, Luna, Astarte, or Diana. As the Cretan Diktynna, she wears a wreath made of the magic plant diktamnon, or dictamnus, the evergreen shrub whose contact is said, at the same time, to develop somnambulism and cure finally of it; and, as Eilithyia and Juno Pronuba, she is the goddess who Æsculapian deity, and the use of the dictamnus-wreath, in association with the moon, shows once more the profound observation of the ancients. This plant is known in botany as possessing strongly sedative properties; it grows on Mount Dicte, a Cretan mountain, in great abundance; on the other hand, the moon, according to the best authorities on animal magnetism, acts upon the juices and ganglionic system, or nerve-cells, the seat from whence proceed all the nerve-fibres which play such a prominent part in mesmerization. During childbirth the Cretan women were covered with this plant, and its roots were administered as best calculated to soothe acute pain, and allay the irritability so dangerous at this period. They were placed, moreover, within the precincts of the temple sacred to the goddess, and, if possible, under the direct rays of the resplendent daughter of Jupiter — the bright and warm Eastern moon.”

In essence, the Theosophists considered it sacred to the goddess of the moon, and a powerful aid to achieving trance states.

This usage, in turn, impacted the magician Aleister Crowley. In many of the journals which detail his workings, he mentions using Dittany of Crete as an incense to help him obtain evocation to visible appearance, as a boost to his own spirit sight as well as source of magical power for the spirit. It is in one of these workings where he and George Cecil Jones are attempting to manifest the Goetic Demon Buer (published in Chapter 57 of Magic Without Tears) where he says “we decided to use this [Dittany of Crete], as H.P.B. [Helena Blavatsky] once said that its magical virtue was greater than that of any other herb”.

Modern practice mostly continues upon these foundations laid by Crowley. Dittany of Crete is used as a herb to promote spirit sight. It is added to animating potions for crystal balls and scrying mirrors and burned to help spirits manifest in the dense white smoke that arises. Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft suggests Dittany of Crete be mixed with the incense where “a materialization is required in the operation”. We include it in our Visions Incense and our To Call Spirits Incense for this purpose, and in various other blends to promote clairvoyance and ecstatic trance. Lastly, Janet and Stewart Farrar, drawing on the association of the herb with the wild goats of the ancient world, include Dittany of Crete in their incense to the Goat-foot God, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and this recipe has been shared widely amongst modern witches.

All told, Dittany of Crete is a potent ally to magical practice and we’re excited to be able to offer it ethically harvested directly from its native hillsides of Crete.

On Lavender

“But there are some things I know for certain: always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for luck, and fall in love whenever you can.”~ Sally Owens in Practical Magic

The scent of lavender is one of the more powerful sensory experiences of the summer herb garden. This sweet, green floral aroma with notes of camphor has the magical ability to conjure a drowsy nostalgia and memories of the past. The complex fragrance of lavender is created by the merging of roughly 180 chemicals which evolved to lure bees and other pollinators in the summer heat to the purple flowers. Indeed the plant–with its flowers (which are not quite blue, gray, lilac, or purple), its very strong fragrance, and its fine leaves and feathery growth form– is perhaps the quintessential plant of Mercury and elemental Air.

There are currently about 39 recognized species in the genus Lavandula (which is part of the mint family), all of which are native to the Old World. These species include the common Old English lavender, French lavender and Spanish lavender. Lavender grows readily in the hotter drier climates of the Mediterranean and flourishes best in dry, well-drained soil in full sun. It is also cultivated in temperate gardens all over the world, but the plant can be susceptible to root rot in areas with high humidity or saturated soil. It blooms throughout the summer, and the scent is carried in the foliage as well as the flowers.

Lavender has been consistently used since ancient times. Its names, both common (lavender) and scientific (Lavandula), come from the latin verb for washing, lavare. Many of it’s usages throughout history have been related to cleanliness. It has been an additive to bathing water through ancient Rome, medieval Europe, to the Victorian Era and on into the present day. Likewise, and still tied to the notion of cleanliness, lavender was used to scent linens and to keep moths and insects from clothing through all of those periods. Additionally, because the plant produces a large amount of essential oil which is easily extracted with steam distillation, lavender has long been an ingredient in the art of perfumery. In fact, it’s one of the ingredients in the popular Victorian Eau de Cologne Florida Water, which also has ties to cleanliness. In hot summers, where Victorian fashion dictated that one wore a great deal of clothing, Florida water provided a bit of cooling relief as the alcohol evaporated, and helped mask the odor of sweat. Today, Florida water continues to be popular with magicians and occultists for all manner of psychic cleansing.

In addition to its cleansing properties lavender is also a useful healing herb, and healing uses were first described by the Roman physician Dioscorides in the 1st century CE. Lavender was quite popular in the medieval materia medica; the medieval herbalist and botanist Saint Hildegard of Bingen perscribed it for a number of maladies. Our old friend Nicholas Culpeper (the 17th century English herbalist) says of lavender: “Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently”. By this he means it is an airy, balancing herb and very efficacious against the maladies of Jupiter. The diseases governed by Jupiter include apoplexy, pleurisy, diseases of the liver, piles, colds and influenza, and, in the mental sphere, restlessness and overheating of the mind. Throughout the centuries Lavender has also been prescribed for headaches, faintness, hysteric fits, panic attacks, heartaches and grief. Modernly, lavender is showing promise as an aerosolized antiviral and calming agent in some hospitals and clinics, hinting that the knowledge of physickers may not be that far off the map. It’s also being explored as an effective topical treatment for wounds and burns with anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properies.

Given these associations, lavender is a lovely ingredient in many different kinds of healing spells. It is an appropriate addition to healing baths especially ones to treat fatigue and the effects of anxiety and stress. It can be added to magical ointments, poultices and potions applied externally to wounds, burns and sprains. It’s an easy herb to incorporate into healing candle spells and can be used to stuff healing poppets.

Many modern sources cite lavender as an ingredient in love spells, but its inclusion in modern love spells is curious. During the middle ages, lavender was thought to cool the fires of ardour and preserve chastity. In Freeman’s Herbs for the Medieval Household, she quotes a fifteenth century German manuscript called the Hortus Sanitatis (or Garden of Health): “The Mother of God had great love of this herb for the reason that it preserves chastity…If the head is sprinkled with lavender water it will make that person chaste as long as he bears it upon him.” On the other hand, it is related that Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistress Josephine made an aphrodisiac potion by steeping lavender in milk and using it to make hot chocolate. It may be that she was, in fact, subtly trying to ensure fidelity in her partner. 19th century folklorists relate that unmarried women drink a potion of lavender on St. Lukes eve (October 17th) to dream of their future husbands. Given it’s homemaking applications (especially in scenting the marriage bed) and medieval use in ensuring chastity, I’d suggest that lavender is appropriate for certain types of love spells promoting pair bonding and fidelity.

On the same lines, in modern times lavender has developed an association with modern gay love magic. This probably dates back the 1920’s when the lavender plant and its scent had become linked with effeminate men, possibly through its association with the aesthetic movement of the late-Victorian and pre-war Edwardian periods. Phrases like “streak of lavender” were being used in popular culture to refer to non-masculine men (and sometimes slyly suggesting that they preferred their own gender), like in this 1929 song by Cole Porter “I’m A Gigolo” :

“I should like you all to know,
I’m a famous gigolo,
And of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash of it.
As I’m slightly undersexed
You will always find me next
To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate”.

This association carried through into the gay rights movement of the 1970s and the occult practitioners who were a part of it (like Herman Slater, owner of NYC’s Magical Childe) from whence it spread into popular usage.

These uses aside, our personal view of the Nature of lavender is one of ease and succor and the comfort of home. We have a number of uses for it. We have added it to purification and cleansing baths, particularly those with a goal of soothing anxiety and calming frazzled nerves. We often burn lavender with frankincense as an incense to create a calm and serene atmosphere. We use it in a number of healing blends and spells, particularly our witches’ friend ointment. We spray linens with the essential oil to provide a calm, restful sleep; my grandmother used to do this, and fresh, clean, lavender-scented sheets never fail to remind me of staying at her house. Lastly, though lavender can sometimes be overwhelming in tea blends, it does have a number of culinary applications like infused honeys and cookies and cakes. These are nice to give to friends and neighbors going through a rough time and to provide comfort which is so part of lavender’s nature. All in all, lavender is a lovely and highly practical addition to any witch’s herb cupboard.

Old English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Old English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

On Angelica

Angelica is a tall, aromatic, perennial herb with a thick, fleshy taproot and hollow stems. The bright green leaves are divided into leaflets, and large flat heads (umbels) of flowers bloom in mid to late summer. The plant is in the Apiaceae–the carrot family–along with fennel, parsley, anise, caraway, coriander, chervil, carrots, parsnips, queen anne’s lace , cowbane, and poison hemlock, though it’s scent is completely different from all those cousins. The scent of angelica could be described as rich, earthy, and musky. The species people are generally referring to when they say angelica (Angelica archangelica) is native to northern Europe (Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway etc), Russia, and the mountainous regions of Germany, Poland and Romania–basically the cold steeps. Interestingly, there’s even an endemic species in the high elevation mountains of the southern Appalachians–filmy angelica (A. triquinata).

If you’ve ever seen angelica blooming in the summer, you know that it’s highly intoxicating to insects; the flower heads are usually covered in a bunch of yellow jackets and native bees. Perhaps seeing it covered in stinging insects is what prompted it to be named Angelica archangelica, after the Archangel Michael of the flaming sword, who in angelic lore is seen as a protector and the leader of the army of God against the forces of evil. The association between Michael and the plant supposedly goes back to the 14th century, when angelica was pointed out to the physician Mattheus Sylvaticus by the archangel as a medicinal plant which could combat the plague. The Archangel Michael is often portrayed fighting Satan or slaying a dragon, representing the victory of light in overcoming darkness, and in Madeline Montalban’s Order of the Morning Star, Michael is viewed as the planetary regent of the sun.

This is a fitting correspondence for the Nature of the plant, for the Elizabethan physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper calls angelica an “herb of the Sun in Leo” and recommends that it be gathered when the sun in in this sign (late July into early August), with the moon positively aspected, during the hour of Jupiter or the Sun. If you want to harvest it yourself and follow his suggestions, you can check the farmers almanac or lunarium, just make sure you’re not harvesting it’s similar looking extremely poisonous cousins, the hemlocks (the genuses Cicuta and Conium).

The sun in Leo tells a good deal about the Nature of angelica and it’s magical and medicinal action. Leo rules the heart, and through this association angelica is thought to strengthen the heart. This is the original purpose of the alcoholic potions called cordials, and indeed angelica is an ingredient in a number of medicinal liquors–Benedictine, Chartreuse, and Dubonnet among others. As one would expect from solar herbs, these tonics are warming to the body and help digestion.

Herbs of the sun are used to counteract maladies of the great malefic Saturn: melancholy, lethargy, poison, and maleficia. Key actions for these type of herbs are that they’re warming and restorative to the vital forces. In the past, they were also thought to allow a person to resist poison. In keeping with this, angelica is used in works of ritual purification and removing maleficia (also called uncrossing).

Through it’s association with another Archangel, Gabriel, angelica also gets an entirely different set of magical associations in hoodoo. Gabriel is the archangel who announced Mary’s divine pregnancy, and angelica’s use in hoodoo to increase female power in the home and in magics for the protection of women and blessing of children is reflective of this relationship. Interestingly enough, the chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis) also called dong quai has been used in Eastern medicine since about 2000BC and has shown to affect estrogen levels and other hormones; many people today use it to control menstrual pain and premenstrual and menopausal symptoms.

Because the dried root is rather large and hard, angelica is a good plant for the creation of carved fetishes, especially those that are to house helpful or protective spirits. The root may either be dug up, gently carved, and replanted to grow into it’s new form (much like a mandrake) or simply dried and carved after harvesting. These fetishes, once enlivened and enspirited, are used to bless and protect, and these products of the witches art are suitable gifts given to bless and protect new homes and new babies.

I offer one final note on the magical use of angelica. In Viridarium Umbris, Daniel Schulke also mentions that angelica is a plant that is powerful in summoning spirits. He recommends using the smoldering root as an offering to attract and add force to works that summon spirits, especially those of a celestial or angelic nature. Because one of the inspiring currents of Cultus Sabbati is the Society of the Horseman’s word, I have a guess that the source of this lore may be due to Angelica’s power to draw and calm horses in addition to the more widely known angelic lore.

angelica

Passionflower

After writing about wild harvesting yesterday, we’re now planning a trip to procure passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for a dreaming tea blend soon to be in the shop. We saw it blooming over midsummer weekend in the near tropical heat and humidity.

The passiflora are generally tropical plants, though nine species are native to the United States. Our local passionflower is a beautiful vine native to the eastern US; in fact, it’s the state wildflower of Tennessee and has been since 1919. The Cherokee in eastern Tennessee called it ocoee and the Ocoee River is named for it. The common name passionflower was given to it by Spanish Catholic missionaries to South America round about the 1600s, who saw in it’s flowers symbols of the passion of Christ. I personally think they look like alien lifeforms one would expect on Venus, but maybe that’s just me. Mountain folks in southern Appalachia call it maypop, or wild apricot, after the small fragrant fruits (they pop when you squeeze them) that ripen in late summer. The fruits of maypop were used they used as a wild plant food and to make jams and jellies and flavored beverages, and the plant was one of the medicinal plants harvested from southern Appalachia and sold for its economic value.

Currently, the leaves and flowers of passionflower are used as a mild sedative that relieves many of symptoms caused by stress. It is used to treat insomnia, tension headaches, restlessness and anxiety. It has been found to contain alkaloids similar to syrian rue which act as MAOIs, though the FDA has determined it safe for food use in reasonable amounts. (As usual, I’m not qualified to give medical advice, don’t use it if you’re pregnant, seek aid of a medical doctor before consuming herbs especially if you’re on medications or have a medical condition.)

We’ve used scullcap (another nervine) for years, to aid in trance and soothing anxiety and insomnia, so we’re interested to be able to try passionflower. We planning on including it with other mild sedatives and trance aids, along with oneirogenic (a fancy word meaning “dream enhancing”) plants in a forthcoming dreaming tea– so look for it to be added to the shop soon!
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On Vervain

A few years ago, Tom and I were having sharing a bottle of wine and talking about witchery and plants (as usual) and he looks over at the vervain growing in our garden and asks “Why vervain?” I didn’t understand his question, and so to clarify, he says “I’m wondering how it got such a wealth of magical lore associated with it.” Indeed, it is quite an unassuming plant. It lacks the dark glamoury of belladonna and datura, the bold sensuality of roses, and the uncanny lightness of mistletoe. It’s lightly scented with small flowers, yet for all its seeming normality, vervain is one of the most well known magical plants, with an abundance of lore outweighing most others.

Vervain is a hardy perennial in the genus Verbena, growing up to 3 feet high, with opposite leaves which are toothed and fairly thin growing on square stems. Small, five petelled blossoms, usually white, blue or lavender, grow on a spike (though some species bloom from a small head of flowers instead) and bloom in the height of summer. Vervain are generally drought-resistant, tolerating full to partial sun, and enjoy well-drained, average soils but can be found on limey soil or calcareous sites as well. There are over two hundred species in the genus Verbena, though many locations have a single representative that dominates–Verbena officinalis is one of the few species native to Europe, for instance. The most diversity in the genus is found in the Americas; we grow 4 species in our garden (V. hastata, V. simplex, V. bonariensis, and V. officinalis). Most of the vervains are possessed of the same subtle witchery in slightly different “flavors”. (Lemon verbena, though, is a completely different plant in a different genus.)

The genus name, as the historian Pliny tells us, refers to the Roman term verbenae, which was applied to a class of plants that was considered very powerful and featured in sacred ceremonies. Pliny also goes on to describe the uses of a plant belonging to this category known as hiera botane (or sacred plant), that the Latins called verbenaca–the noble vervain. It was one of Hippocrates favorite healing herbs, and got a reputation in the ancient world as a heal-all. Various writers in the ancient world indicate that it was used for ritual purification and as part of the rites of establishing holy altars in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures, and that among the names it held in this capacity were Juno’s Tears, and Tears of Isis. Virgil mentions its magical use by and enchantress. Pliny the elder, writing in natural history, relates that vervain was one of the 4 sacred plants used by the druids, contemporary to his own time.

Pliny’s writing is also the origin of many of the harvesting taboos associated with vervain: “It must be gathered about the rising of the Dogstar, but so as not to be shone upon by sun or moon; and that honeycombs and honey must be first presented to the earth by way of expiation. They say also that a circle must be traced around it with iron, after which it must be taken up by the left hand, etc.”

Vervain’s reputation as a magical plant affording healing, protection and purification was undiminished in the medieval period. During this period it acquired the name simpler’s joy for its use in making magio-medicinal potions and preparations. The harvesting charms were Christianized, but they still address the plant with respect due such an herb of power, as you can see in this version dating from 1608:

Hallowed be thou, Vervein, as thou growest on the ground,
For in the mount of Calvary there was thou first found.
Thou healedst our Saviour Jesus Christ, and stanchedst his bleeding wound;
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground

Additionally, vervain was one of the herbs of good Saint John, believed to peak in mystical power on St. John’s Eve.

It is therefore no surprise that the 19th Century folklore writers, eager to preserve a diminishing magical world, collected and described this information in detail. There is also evidence that it continued to be used in magical practice during the 1800’s; it’s one of the magical plants used in spells in Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, and a number of references in the early 19th century mention the gathering of the plant for occult use in northern France. Perhaps these sources prompted vervain’s inclusion in the formation and practices of the modern day witchcraft movement– drawing magicians, druids, and witches alike to the holy vervain.

The ethereal grace of vervain is hard to describe, but when you observe this plant, especially at twilight, it appears as if illuminated by an inner glow. Culpeper’s Herbal (dating from the mid-1600’s) mentions that vervain is good for headaches and those who are “frantic” (among other conditions), and today the herb is often used as a nervine to calm anxious minds. As such, vervain is a wonderful plant to assist in quieting the mind and achieving trance states. Modern practitioners make use of vervain potions for the work of empowering, be this in the form of a wash for empowering magical tools and vessels, a holy sacrifice to charm the place of working, or potions to strengthen and empower the aetheric body. Finally, the inner illumination that can be observed in vervain in the fading light of day indicate its use to increase the Sight, a fact backed up by its use in soothsaying since antiquity.

Ultimately, I had no answer for Tom as to “Why vervain?” but it is definitely an herb of quiet strength and hidden power.

Vervain

On Mugwort

Tonight is Saint John’s Eve, the traditional time to collect fern seed. It’s also a day when certain herbs are at their most potent (which I blogged about a few weeks ago); one of these is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Native to temperate Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa but naturalized throughout North America, mugwort is one of several species in the genus Artemisia along with southernwood, sweet annie, wormwood, tarragon and a number of sagebrushes. It has fairly small, inconspicuous flowers but beautiful, fragrant leaves that are finely lobed and green above and silver beneath. You can often find it growing rather vigorously in waste places, greenways, and along creek sides where it prefers open ground and plenty of sun.

Mugwort likely gets its English common name from its use as a bittering ingredient in beer by the Anglo-Saxons where it pre-dates the use of hops, though Grieve in a Modern Herbal also suggests a connection with the word moughte (moth). In the middle ages, it was called St. John’s Plant or Saint John’s Girdle (Cingulum Sancti Johannis), because when gathered on St. John’s Eve it was believed to give protection against diseases, evil spirits, and misfortunes. Lore says that St John the Baptist wore the plant for protection in the wilderness.

The nine herbs charm, a famous 10th century half pagan and half christian magiomedical herbal preparation which was intended for the treatment of poisoning and infection, invokes mugwort first:

Remember, Mugwort, what you revealed,
what you established at the mighty proclamation
‘Unas’ you are called, oldest of herbs.
you may avail against three and against thirty,
you may avail against poison and against contagion,
you may avail against the loathsome one who travels through the land.

Many Anglo-Saxon leechbooks also state that mugwort is a traveler’s herb, which prevents a traveler from becoming tired and weary. Harvesting should be done on either Saint Johns Eve, or failing that, under a waxing moon before the plant flowers. In the Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald it says that the herb should be plucked before sunrise (i.e. at night), first uttering the words “Tollam te Artemisia ne lassus in via” (I take of you, Artemisia, lest I grow weary on the road) and making a sign over the plant before it is gathered.

The commentary in Sauer’s Herbal Cures, the first published American Herbal, gives us another glimpse at the nature of this magical plant. Mugwort is one of the key herbs in Pennsylvania German folk medicine and is used in a number of remedies like ague and fevers and is especially “devoted to the reprieve of womankind”. One German name for mugwort is beyfuss (goose foot), which is said to refer to the goosefoot tracks made by witches, and another is simply aldi fraa (old woman) which may also refer to the same goose-footed goddess of witches. Additionally it’s given as one of the green herbs used to flavor goose and other poultry.

In Where Witchcraft Lives, Doreen Valiente has this to say about the herb: “Some old time scryers believed that it helped their powers to drink a tea made of mugwort before attempting to practice the art. Mugwort has from the earliest times had a reputation as a “witches herb”.” Valiente further relates the powers of the moon, the crystal ball and mugwort tea, which she testifies she finds “quite pleasant”. Modern witches often use mugwort to empower their divination tools. Since the late 19th century, mugwort has been used to stuff dream pillows as well.

All this lore of night-flying geese and moths, dream pillows and divination tools, protection on long journeys under the watchful eye of the moon, gives us a picture of a powerful plant ally for dreaming and divination. Mugwort is a true witches herb which features heavily in our personal practice and a number of our products.

mugwort

On Frankincense

Light-winged smoke, Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the Gods to pardon this clear flame.
~”Smoke” by H.D. Thoreau

This morning, the house is filled with summer sunlight and the fresh, balsam, lemon, and pine scent of frankincense. In Isis and Osiris, the historian Plutarch relates that Egyptian priests burned frankincense at dawn, and it’s not hard to see why. The scent of frankincense is often described as unmistakably solar. Recent research has suggested that a compound found in frankincense causes a sensation of warmth and a feeling of exaltation when inhaled and may help lower anxiety.

Frankincense (also called Olibanum) is one of the oldest documented resins used in magical and religious practice, and has historically used for blessing and devotion, and for drawing good and blessed spirits and expelling the bad. It’s been used for millennia in various religions as a temple incense. As mentioned above, it was a sacred incense in Egypt. In Hellenistic Greece, it was called for as the appropriate incense offering in a number of the Orphic Hymns. The Zoroastrians burn it for purification. Frankincense is also an ingredient in Ketoret, the sacred Jewish temple incense blend, and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches use it to fume mass.

We use Frankincense for two main magical purposes: purification and sanctification. Whereas many practitioners like to use sage to cleanse their space and etheric bodies, we find that frankincense performs this better. (Sage is suitable for earthing or grounding forces, but in our experience doesn’t really do much to cleanse and purify.) Frankincense also is uplifting to the mind and spirit of the practitioner and helps calm anxiety. It iss useful to establish ritual space, promote an atmosphere conducive to magical work, and to aid in meditation and scrying. Frankincense is also an ingredient in a number of blessing spells and formulae.

Pro tip: To get the best fragrance from your frankincense you need to make sure it doesn’t burn too quickly or too hot. We often use a small oil burner with a tea-light beneath to gently heat higher quality tears. You need a small one where the bowl is quite close to the flame; ours is about 3″ high.

Frankincense

On Aloeswood

“All thy garments are fragrant with myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.” Psalm 45:8

Aloeswood is a rare and intensely spiritual wood, also known as agarwood and lignum aloes, that has been used for millennia in both Eastern and Western magic. Not to be confused with the aloe vera plant, Aloeswood is the resinous heartwood of several species of large trees native to Southeast Asia in the genus Aquileria. The fragrant wood is only produced in individual trees as a defense response to a fungal infection in a process which takes years. Only about seven percent of the trees in the wild are naturally infected with the fungus, and this rarity has led to past over-harvesting and significant risk of poaching. Currently, thanks to new inoculation techniques, sustainable plantations have been established in Malaysia and Sri Lanka.

Generally called lignum aloes in old grimoires and texts, it is often classified as having solar virtue, which as the Astrologer William Lilly describes “are plants that smell pleasantly, are of good favor … strengthen the heart and comfort the vitals, clear the eyesight, resist poison, or dissolve any witchery or malignant planetary influences.” Agrippa includes it in several of his planetary suffumigations, and it’s also one of the ingredients in the incense in the Book of AbraMelin the Mage.

Aloeswood is also mentioned a number of times in the Bible, where we find three main uses: sanctification, sensuality, and embalming. In many of these instances, it’s written of in conjunction with myrrh and cinnamon (or cinnamon’s relative, cassia). Our own consecration incense reflects this ancient relationship. Incidentally, the dual use of scents for the purposes of sanctification or making something holy and for a sensual aphrodisiac may seem strange to our modern view, but this probably more reflects our separation of body and spirit inherited from overarching monotheistic morality.

An early modern materia medica mentions aloeswood being used in the East as an incense burned in holy temples as an offering, but also as a cordial to strengthen the mind and spirit and preserve the memory. Even today, aloeswood is an oft-used incense ingredient in high quality Japanese incenses, and very high grades of the wood are burned and savored at special occasions and fancy parties. The resinous wood also still finds use in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practice.

The scent of aloeswood is highly complex: sweet and woodsy and earthy. We believe its nature is one of sanctification, bringing (or augmenting) holiness to the physical plane. Much like frankincense, it has an uplifting nature as described by Lilly in the quote above. As such, it’s useful as a temple incense, to establish sacred space and attract good spirits, and to strengthen and cheer the mind and spirit.

aloeswood

Solomon’s Seal

Yesterday, with the moon waning in Aries, we harvested a large quantity of whole Solomon’s Seal roots which we’ll be adding to the shop. Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum biflorum, is a beautiful plant native to the shady woodlands of the Appalachian mountains. It gets its name from the round scars on the roots left by old stalks that look somewhat like a royal seal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cunningham lists its magical properties as being those of protection and exorcism, which is likely due to the plant’s association with the seal of Solomon used to bind and control demons. Roots are either placed at the corners of a building to “seal” the place from malign spirits or made into an infusion which is then asperged around the place. I have found it particularly effective as a protection against night hags. Additionally, because of the association with Solomon, the roots are used in modern magic to increase wisdom (to make one wise like Solomon) as well as to attract helpful spirits; Solomon was a sorcerer after all and lore associates him with the grimoires.

Medicinally the roots were once used in Appalachia as a tonic or added to mustard plasters as a treatment for gout and rheumatism. British herbalists John Gerard and Nicholas Culpeper (as well as many subsequent herbals) recommend Solomon’s seal root be made into ointments to help close or “seal up” green wounds and dry old ones, and decocted in wine and administered to help wounded joints through healing torn ligaments and loose or inflamed tendons. I personally have used it in a healing spell for a torn ligament.

Solomon's seal