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)

Shop Update

If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice that things have a fresh look here at Otherworld Apothecary. We’ve been busy taking new photos, updating product descriptions, and re-working our website design. We’ve also started blogging with more regularity about magical herbalism, traditional witchcraft, and our personal practice; we’re aiming to have new posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Our blog updates are posted at our facebook page as well– feel free to comment over there or here. If you have topics you’d like to see covered, let us know.

We have a number of new products planned, including the rose tincture, dreaming tea, our personal purification incense, and a few limited release products and tools, so stay tuned for those.

We’ve also decided to offer $5 shipping on all orders!

footer

Purification

One of the important parts of our personal practice is the regular undertaking of a rite of purification. Public discussion of modern witchcraft tends to avoid the whys and hows of the regular performance of purification rites. This is possibly because so many of us reject the notions of moral purity common to many forms of Christianity and its attendant teachings on sin and penance. I certainly do; I’m more inclined to agree with Mary Oliver in her poem “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

But sin and moral impurity are not the kind of pollution that I’m addressing here, where failure to abide by a list of rules makes one unclean. Instead, spiritual pollution is a consequence of living; psychic or energetic pollution would also be appropriate terms. Just as the physical body gets dust and dirt on it from going about the world, so too does the energetic body. Purification, then, as a remedy, cleanses, provides expiation, and re-sets boundaries and order. I tend to refer to spiritual pollution as miasma–up until the turn of the 20th century, miasma referred to contaminated or unhealthy air thought to bring disease and was the precursor to germ theory. It comes from the Greek word for spiritual pollution which had to be removed through purification rites before contact with the gods was made. In our practice and experience, energetic or spiritual pollution is a dark, sticky fog that impairs the aetheric body of the witch and comes from a number of sources.

Sources of Spiritual Pollution
Graduate school taught Tom and Kate and I a lot about the importance of regular ritual purification, mostly because it was a high-stress environment. We were surrounded by people in agitated emotional states coping (or not coping) with large amounts of anxiety, and being immersed in such an atmosphere built up pollution. Our covenmate Kate describes this source of pollution as “emotional detritus”. This unpleasant atmosphere slowly clouds and clings to the aetheric body and eventually clogs energetic centers. People often experience this source of pollution in emotionally charged situations like funerals.

In addition to this sort of passive contamination, modern life affords us the opportunity to come into contact with and be affected by toxic people and people who are jealous of us. It’s a basic tenet of magic that thoughts are things, that deeds and words carry spiritual weight. Appalachian lore tells us about the power of focused jealousy, envy and anger to hex and harm and befoul. One doesn’t need to be in graduate school to experience this; stress from a competitive work environment can be just as bad.

Related to the negativity clinging to ourselves accumulated directly or indirectly from others is that from spiritual sources. Like attracts like, after all; this is the cornerstone of sympathetic magic. One of my favorite terms for spiritual pollution is flocculum abominii— little clouds of negativity that drift about and attach themselves to people and places. Those of an animist or spiritist bent may think of this clinging pollution as attracting little imps that feed on or delight in such energy. And then, there are other more directed spiritual sources of pollution: inherited ancestral baggage, angry ghosts haunting you, offended landwights, the evil eye, and maleficia.

But it doesn’t really have to be anything so dramatic as all that. Spiritual pollution accumulates from living. Life contains hard and terrible things after all. The ancients held that exposure to such things– death, sickness and disease, war, violence, bloodshed, and chaos– caused miasma. Modern life is in no way removed from these, making regular and consistent ritual purification not only a good idea, but also rather necessary. As Ian Corrigan succintly put it: “If it makes you feel fucked-up, it’s pollution. It is the psychic or spiritual or magical residue of those encounters, those feelings, those small, biting imps, which we mean to wash away with ritual purification.”

It should be obvious, then, that one further source of potential pollution comes from ourselves and our personal failures both in word and in deed. Jesse Hathaway Diaz in his blog post recently on the power and place of St Peter within Iberian witchcraft states rather poignantly:

“It is in the small betrayals, not the treason planned and strategized, but in the tiny broken promises of our failed resolve that we find sympathy with Peter. Well-intentioned promises that when put to the test fail, even beyond our wish to keep them. What makes us fail? Were we wrong about ourselves? What we desired? If we hold the straw-man of our idealized self to the flame, will it survive? The cock crows either way. We strive to keep our word… But when we fail, do we become failure instead? How do we react to this failure?”

Though Diaz wasn’t addressing purification, I found his words resonant with this source of potential pollution I believe many people encounter. One of the basic powers of the witch, the sorcerer, and the alchemist is that of transformation. We may take this failure to live up to our own ideals, the self-pollution of disappointment in not being who we would like, and the guilt we may inflict upon ourselves for wrongs caused and transform it. We can strive to make amends and do better. Magicians may destroy who we were, and direct the fire of that destruction toward becoming who we envision. Truthfully, such magical acts go beyond undertaking simple rites of regular purification, but it is a necessary first step on the path.

Purification

Having covered potential sources of miasma and spiritual pollution, what should one expect to gain by getting rid of it? The most basic reason for doing regular purification rites is to feel better. The effects of spiritual pollution are decidedly unpleasant and we are better off without them. For witches and sorcerers, an added benefit to doing these rites are better and more beneficial relationships with spirits and more pleasant journeys into the otherworld. Not carrying a bunch of energetic pollution with us into the otherworld means we’re less likely to attract nasty or dangerous spirits through the principle of sympathy. When the aethric body is free of clinging clouds of negative energies, it becomes easier to send that body forth in dream and trance. Lastly, regular purification offers us a better relationship with luck. A proper discussion of luck is a topic for a whole other post sometime, but the important thing to note is that luck is a thing which can be lost or gained, stolen or accumulated. Cleansing spiritual pollution affords us a better channel for luck to work within our lives.

This brings us to the practical discussion of how one performs ritual purification. Many magical groups have a similar process, and it at its base consists of 3 parts: Ablution, Fumigation and Earthing.

Ablution
The first step involves cleansing with water to dissolve and wash away. Bathing in the sea is traditional, as is standing under a waterfall. You may take a ritual bath of mixed sea salts. Lavender, as its Latin name lavandula (to wash) suggests, is an appropriate additive to ritual purification baths, as is vervain. You may also decide to bless holy water and cleanse the body with it. Please note, this should be more than token sprinkling with an apserger. There are many sources of water that can be used in ablution–water from the sea, waterfalls, sacred springs, holy wells, violent thunderstorms, but in general the water should be from a moving source as this helps to break up and disperse energetic pollution.

Fumigation
This is accomplished through the use of incense to cleanse and restore order to the aetheric body and energetic centers. Fumigation has been performed in both the new and old world throughout history, from the smudging practices of first nations peoples, to old anglosaxon and celtic practices of fumigation and recaning. Many plants and resins can be useful in this sort of work; our own blend uses juniper, rosemary and frankincense. Creating thick white smoke that you can brush with a bird wing or feather fan is particularly effective.

Earthing
Earthing is the same concept as grounding energy promoted by most eclectic modern pagans; the point is that the spiritual gunk you clean off is put somewhere so it doesn’t get on someone else and it can go on to wherever such things go. This step is implied in ocean cleansing, you’re in a very large body of water with a lot of dissolved minerals. This part of the purification rite may also be effected by standing on iron, or in a ring of chalk, bone ash or eggshell, or upon stones at a holy site.

Try to perform ritual purification at least once a month for 6 months or so. If you do, you’ll start to get a sense of when you need to perform it, timed to your own lifestyle and practice.

Waterfall

Hagstones

We went to the beach last week and have now listed a number of hagstones in the shop. Hagstones, also called hex stones or holey stones, are stones with naturally occurring holes all the way through them. They are often found in streams and rivers, in the shingle at the seashore, or even in caves where they are formed by the flow of water.

hagstones
In the worldview of Appalachian folk magic, the otherworld is all around us; we exist in a world inhabited by The Good Neighbors and wee folk, ghosts, demons, angels and all manner of spirits. Following in the footsteps of our old world ancestors, Appalachian folk magic practitioners regard boundary sites like caves, lakes, graveyards, and mountain tops to be places where one can come into contact with the world of spirits. Natural openings or doorways are all believed to form the portals between the worlds–of this and the other. This then, is the general magical essence of a hagstone– a door, shaped by the hand of nature, leading to the otherworld. As such, hagstones are used in all manner of charms and magical operations, of which the following are a few examples.

Holy water
Many practitioners utilize hagstones for the blessing of holy water. Because the stones are created when water wears a hole through the stone’s surface over long periods of time, they become infused with the power of water to change and transform. Holed stones are also reflective of the caves and openings in the earth leading to subterranean waters and the deep waters of the underworld. In areas lacking holy wells, water infused with such potency and blessed by the practitioner may be used to great effect in purification and healing spells. Even in Britain where holy wells are present, the taking of holy waters for healing was often coupled with the afflicted person passing through large holed stones or fissures in rock which were located nearby, suggesting a complimentary relationship between the water and the stone.

Protection and Warding Charms
Traditionally, hag stones were hung in stables over the heads of horses as a charm against the horses being ridden by faeries, witches or hags (hence the name hagstone). Horses thus tormented were found sweating in their stalls with their manes tangled and were supposed to be cured by the application of this charm. The stones are hung with iron, essentially locking the gateway to the otherworld and providing protection from malicious spirits.

Hagstones were further employed in Dorset and Devon as protection charms on fishing boats against being “witched”, or plagued by evil spirits (who may or may not be under the direction of a witch). This condition would manifest as bad luck, accidents and the inability to catch fish. The protective holey stones were tied either to the start rope, or to nails driven in the bow next to the gunwale, and this practice is documented as occurring well into the mid-1800’s.

One final traditional protection charm, this time for the home, consisted of hanging a hagstone from the house key, a practice which again combined the otherworldly gateway (the stone) and the potency of iron (keys were once made of iron), effectively sealing out the interference of malevolent or troublesome spirits. This charm was common throughout Britain and they can still be observed hanging in homes in Appalachia.

hagstone and key
Seeing Stones
A famous 17th century Scottish seer, Coinneach Odhar, was said to have gotten the second sight with the help of a holed stone. This may be the origin of the faery lore which says that one may peer through such a stone to see spirits. A number of fairy stories mention seeing fairies in a hole under a stone and folklorists often grouped them with stories about seeing fairies in a world down a well (also an old technique to gain psychic visions). Using the holed stone to see the otherworld is also attested in Italian folk magical practices; Charles Leland in Etruscan Roman Remains provides a spell employing a holey stone to see spirits in a churchyard. The user once in the churchyard blesses the stone with the following charm:

“In the name of great Saint Peter
And for Saint Blasius’ sake,
By this stone I fain would see,
What form the spirits take”

The stone is then held up to the eye and peered through. Leland suggests that the stone may help to focus the psychic eye as a spyglass does to the physical ones.

Dreams
Because of their use as protection charms against nightmares and charms to allow one to see into the otherworld, holey stones have come to be especially associated with magical dreaming. For example, the following spell utilizing a holey stone to attain dream travel to the sabbat of the witches was given by Andrew Chumbley in his essay “What is Traditional Craft” published in The Cauldron (No. 81, Lammas 1996):

“For this deed of Arte a leather thread and a hagstone are required; the latter being a stone through which there is a hole naturally worn through: a gateway graven by the hands of the earth and charmed to open by the tongues of the river. Taking the hagstone in one’s grasp, one should contemplate its opening and entreat it to be a doorway for your going forth in dreams. One should then take leathern thread and, holding it in one’s hands, should phantasise about the ways of the magical night-procession. Consider the spirits. Think of She who flies forth out of the body and into the freedom of the darksome midnight. Ascend with the spirits through the openings of the flesh; take leave of your mortal abode and roam abroad with the unseen companie of the aire. Step upon the wind and lay yourself into the arms of the sky…. With each poignant atmosphere of phantasie, knot the thread and thus create a rosary of dreaming potentials. When the thread has seven knots, pass it through the mouth of the hagstone and tie to form a loop through which one’s hand may be placed. The stone and thread should be entreated with a final prayer for the spell to work. Then at the end of one’s waking day the stone should be held in one’s hand (generally the one most seldom used) and the cord wrapped around the wrist. The stone should rest within the hand like a child in its crib. Then I bid you forget about it ’til morning. Perchance in dreaming your spirit shall pass through the stone-mouth and wander abroad in the night-walkers’ procession, flying freely to the place that some have called ‘Sabbat’. Where-ever the dreaming takes you, the thread of knots shall guide and bring you home, once more to waken at the edge of day.”

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

Traditional Weather Witching

As I write this article a summer storm has blown in from the west. The sky is dark and lightning is striking towards the ridge. The wind has picked up and there’s a charge in the air. I’ve got the windows open; this is my favorite part of late summer — the thunderstorms. Years ago, I used to stay at my grandparent’s ranch during the summer. Late summer was the time for haymaking, an activity made complicated by summer thunderstorms. You need enough rain for the hay to grow but also enough sun once the hay was cut to that it could dry before being baled and put away. I can understand why charming the weather would be a useful skill.

The weather’s always had a “make or break” influence over humanity, but especially so in late summer when crops depend on rain without devastating storms. As such, magical folk throughout time have been messing with the weather for the good and ill of humanity. Indeed the only law of the Christian Empire against magic made by Constantine in 321 AD exempts magical “steps taken in country districts, that there may be no apprehension of (heavy) rain when the grapes are ripe, or that they may not be dashed to pieces by the force of hailstorms.” There are references to weather magic as early as ancient Greece, as in this quote by Empedocles:

And you’ll stop the force of the tireless winds that chase over the earth
And destroy the fields with their gusts and blasts;
But then again, if you so wish, you’ll stir up winds as requital.
Out of a black rainstorm you’ll create a timely drought
For men, and out of a summer drought you’ll create
Tree-nurturing floods that will stream through the ether
And you will fetch back from Hades the life-force of a man who has died.

You can find spells and charms to influence the weather in a ton of cultures, right up through the modern age, and I’d be writing chapters on them if I were to cover the subject thoroughly.

Wind

“I’ll give thee a wind.
Thou’rt kind.
And I another.
I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman’s card.”
~The Tragedy of Macbeth, I, iii

One of the most basic magical ways for calling up a wind is whistling. Tales in Appalachia tell of those gifted with the talent of “whistling up a wind”. Those who aren’t gifted naturally with this talent can make whistles out of alder wood to conjure the wind. Incidentally the predecessor of the Irish tin whistle, the Feadan, is made from alder wood. Maybe it’s because anyone who could charm the wind surely could charm an audience.

Bullroarers (a long flat wooden blade on a string) can also be whirled around in the air to call up the wind, especially when made of lightning struck oak (though in Cornish craft, such tools are used to call spirits). Specially made weather working brooms can be swung about your head in the same manner. Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) is an appropriate material for a broom made to stir the winds in the sky. Its pungent yellow blossoms are allied with the creatures of the air and its seeds are dispersed over great distances by the wind. Regardless of the method you choose to call the wind, make sure your hair is unbound and loose; binding and knotting are ways to capture the wind, not call it.

winds resized
A male witch selling wind knots to a group of sailors from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, by Olaus Magnus (1555).

In a woodcut (above) housed in the collections of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, you can see a male witch selling a wind charm to sailors. This was a common and well-known practice in pre-gardnerian witchcraft found in Devon and Cornwall. According to Cecil Williamson “There were well known sea witches selling the wind in each of the following places: Sennen, St.Ives, Appledore, Lee, Lynton and Porlock, where one found Mother Leaky still trying to flog her wind strings with their knots, right up to the mid 1930’s.”

These charms are made by going to a high-windswept place, and tying a certain sailor’s knot into a stout piece of rope to capture the wind. Winds from different directions or of varying forces may be captured using this method. Three such knots are tied in the charm, often with each containing a wind of varying strength. Traditionally this charm is then sold to sailors, but good luck getting a sailor, fisherman, or navy man to buy it nowadays.

Rain
According to De Lamiis Libre (or the Book on Witches) written in 1577 by the Dutch physician and demonologist Johann Weyer (quoted by Murray in God of the Witches), witches were said to bring rain “by casting flint stones behind their backs towards the west, or flinging a little sand into the air, or striking a river with a broom and so sprinkling the wet of it towards heaven, stirring water with the finger in a hole in the ground, or boiling hogs’ bristles in a pot.” These are all quite good and time honored methods for calling forth rain but let’s focus on three of the more practical methods for conjuring rain: more broom charms, incense, and water on stones.

As brooms can be used to stir the winds in the sky, they can also be used to bring rain. The broom end is splashed in freshwater (a river, spring, stream, or basin filled with water from such a natural source) and the drops are flung into the air over your head. Though there are many different plants that have rainbringing properties, perhaps the plant par excellence associated with weather charming (and the one best used to make a rain-bringing broom) is Heather (Calluna vulgaris). Heather is allied with the realms of mist and rain, and grows upon the wild heaths of the British Isles. It’d be an excellent herb to include in weather spells of all kinds.

In fact, a medieval incense recipe specifically to make it rain includes heather. This incense, calls for henbane, heather and fern to be mixed together and smoldered beneath the sky to bring forth rain. Many old spells recommend burning various herbs to call rain, most likely because such plants are so allied with the realms of water, mist, and rain that by burning them, you’re calling the rain to put out the fire on their beloved plants.

Lastly an old method for causing rain is to fling water or pour it through a sieve (the ones used for winnowing grain) onto a stone. The stones specified are usually ones considered in folklore to be under the protection of “the Folk” or in some way allied to old pagan religions. If you don’t happen to have standing stones haunted by “the good neighbors” close by, your hearth stone or (one specially designated) will substitute. Pour fresh water (again from a natural source) through a sieve onto the stone, or fling it using your heather broom, while praying and saying charms to bring the rain.

Protection from Storms
The last category of weather spells that need to be covered is the protection from and prevention of storms. Dame Natura isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, storms can be deadly and destructive. Hailstorms, flooding, gale winds and lightning can destroy homes and crops; there’s a wealth of traditional charms to prevent this from happening.

In the mountains of the Appalachians and the Ozarks there are a whole host of spells to prevent storms. One is to take an axe that you’ve used to chop wood and rush in the direction of the approaching storm with it over your head and swing it into the ground at the edge of your property (and presumably the edge of the field or garden that could be damaged by the storm). This will split the storm and save your land. Pocket knifes can also be used in the same manner to nail down, and thus delay, the storm or to cause it to blow over and hit elsewhere. Like most magic in Appalachia, the ability to do this is said to be one that’s taught or a natural skill some folks have (often called knack or gift).

And lastly, there are charms to protect your house and person from lightning. According to East Anglian lore, a houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), known around here as hens’n’chicks, planted on the roof protects the home from lighting, though it “must never be cut down or destroyed or its former protective power will be reversed, and catastrophe will ensue.” Other methods of protection are to plant a rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) at the front door and an elder (Sambucus spp.) at the back of the home, or to hang a pouch of mistletoe (Viscum album) from the roof.

And with that, I’m going to hang mistletoe from the roof of the porch, just in case, pour a glass of sweet tea and head outside to enjoy the summer storm.

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!
186

Wild Harvesting

Though it’s generally preferable to grow plants for magic yourself, or buy them from reputable merchants who do so (organically, sustainably, and ethically), there are occasions when one needs to turn to the wild. This could be because the plant you need isn’t in commerce or is very difficult to find. Often it’s because you want something partaking of the essence of a particular location; plants that have grown in certain sites are part of the spiritual ecology of that place. Sometimes it may be that you want to ensure that proper harvesting protocol is adhered to, or that harvesting occurs under certain astronomical conditions. In many cases, the procurement of plant material from the land of wandering becomes a magical-religious rite in itself.

The hunt for ginseng in the traditional practice of the Appalachians is one good example– the root and the hunter both involved in a relationship in the wooded hollows. In this case, because the plant has been harvested by one’s own hand, one can be assured that no poaching has occurred, the roots were not over-harvested from particular patches, and that the ripened fruits of the plant were replanted by the hand that gathered it. Additionally, in this way, the root carries potency and virtue, because it recognizes the sorcerer in a relationship of mutual respect.

This mutual respect is essential for the practice of magical herbalism, regardless of the species sought and worked with. Here are my thoughts, suggestions, and guidelines (both practical and esoteric) when seeking and harvesting plants from the wild.

Preparation:
The first step in wild harvesting is preparation, which involves both mental and physical components. Like all works of magic, having a clear intent is necessary.

For the mental preparation, make sure you know the plant and are sure of its identity. What is the extant lore about it’s Nature? Are there harvesting taboos, and does it have preferred offerings? Lore provides knowledge from our ancestors and we should take advantage of it. Practically, make sure you can recognize the plant in the wild and know about its ecology so you have an idea of where it can be found. Harvesting the wrong plant is needlessly wasteful and disrespectful, and can also be dangerous. Is the plant you’re wanting to collect threatened, endangered or sensitive? Is it overharvested? Introduced or native to your bioregion? How much material do you need and are you collecting leaf, flower, fruit, bark, root? Plan to collect far away from human habitation. This helps to avoid obnoxious people intruding on your magical outing as well as avoiding plants tainted by heavy metals and pollutants and spirits twisted by human development.

The physical part of preparation mostly involves purity. Like draws like, as above so below, as within so without–these are maxims of the art magical. You don’t need to attract negative wights and sprites, nor should you take your aetheric baggage into hallowed ground, so purity of the physical and the aetheric bodies is important. Take a saltwater bath, cense with a purification blend. Some traditions dictate that you should lightly fast and abstain from sexual activity for a period before-hand; in many ways, these are gestures of devotion and respect. Practically, make sure you have clean tools and clean boots to avoid tracking fungal spores, pathogens, and microbial contaminants from one place to another and infecting the plants and the landscape from which you’re harvesting. Wipe tools and boots both with high proof alcohol. Additionally, because this is a magical rite, take your power with you. I don’t mean that you should wear a crushed velvet cloak and all your magical bling, but anointing oil, discreet amulets, and sigils of power drawn on the skin all are useful. You’re a sorcerer engaged in a relationship with the living spirits of the land.

On the Journey:
Again, remembering that this is a magical rite, be present fully in what you’re doing. When you’re journeying forth into a place, you should become fully present as a part of that place, otherwise one is an intruder. Silence and a observant, focused mind are tools as imporant as a sharpened pair of hand pruners.

Knowing the land is essential. If you’re unfamiliar with the location, you should scout the place first, noting impressions from plant communities and the genius loci. Your intent should be spoken humbly to the spirits of place, and you should take an honest read of the place, notice signs, and/or use divination to ascertain their reply. Offended landwights and unheeded omens tend to mean bad things for sorcerers and witches: poison ivy, stinging nettles, bothersome insects, treacherous ground and getting lost at the least. Elf-shot, blasted luck, and attached spirits are also within their power.

On Arrival:
This is the obviously magical part of the trip. The plant in question should be hailed with an invocation and offerings given. There are many such examples of how this is done in published folklore. I’ve given some examples in the posts on mugwort and vervain. A further example may be found in Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology:

‘Our forefathers also held the Ellhorn [black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)] holy wherefore whoever need to hew it down (or cut its branches) has first to make request “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” – the which, with partly bended knees, bare head and folded arms was ordinarily done, as I myself have often seen and heard in my younger years.’

If there’s no extant lore on how to do this, devise your own rites along these lines. Give offerings– though some plants have stated preferences (blood, sexual fluids, wine, etc.), honey and incense are good standby’s. We have a standard incense offering we use; I’ll share the recipe in a later post.

Harvesting:
Have the proper tools for the job. One of my personal pet peeves is this whole business of the taboo against iron and steel. The Good Neighbors’ avoidance of cold iron is well known and bandied about in magical circles and urban fantasy novels alike. However, modern tool production has given us the ability to have finely honed precise blades of stainless steel for the harvesting of wood, herb and root. Gold, silver, or copper sickles and knives are unweildy and do not hold an edge. A wooden blade is just clubbing the plant into submission. Much like surgery on humans or cats, harvesting from plants should be done with a precise, clean cut. Modern horticulture tools like hand pruners have been designed to cause minimal damage to plants, and stainless steel involves other metals besides iron to render it incorruptible. Invest in proper tools and consecrate them to your work.

Be aware of the health of the environment. If the plants are stressed due to drought or other disturbance, don’t harvest them. Plants change their chemistry in response to stresses like drought and insect and pathogen attack, and you should avoid them. Additionally it will increase the likelihood of the plants surviving for you to harvest later if you aren’t cutting bits off.

Take lateral branches, not leaders. Avoid injuring bark of trees overmuch, as this will result in a slow death. If you need to collect bark, take from newly downed trees or from small areas on random branches. To avoid over harvesting any one population, move around collecting only a small amount of plant material from any one population. Leave healthy seed producing plants in the population to reproduce. Leave the portions you’re not harvesting at the site; that biomass represents nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem, food and habitat for wildlife, and genetic material for the population of plants. Don’t harvest more than you need or can store properly over the next year. Some good numbers to follow for harvesting amounts at a single location are given by Daniel Schulke in Ars Philtron:

• If harvesting the entire plant, take a maximum of one tenth of the total individuals in a given location.
• If harvesting stem or root, a maximum of one sixth of individuals. Dig up and take lateral roots from the plant, leaving the vertical root and some lateral roots intact and then replant. If you harvest the root crown (where the stem meets the root) the plant will die.
• If harvesting flowers or fruit, one fifth of total individuals present.
• If harvesting seeds, one fifth of total individuals present.

Put the plant parts in clean cloth bags (which can be decorated and charmed as you see fit) and process and dry them properly upon arriving home.

foxfire ginseng smaller

Photo of Harv Reid with Ginseng from Foxfire 1

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

Making Rose Tincture

The sunrise is golden with a few wisps of pink clouds over the ridge line. As the dew evaporates in the summer morning, I anoint my brow with the oils of saffron and cedar and frankincense. Barefoot and bare headed and silent, I pour out fresh milk and honey in front of the rosebushes. I inhale their scent– spicy and floral with a bit of citrus– and carefully use the curved knife to harvest the heirloom field roses and sprays of soft pink Victorian climbing roses, the richly-scented damask roses, and the golden yellow musk roses. I place the blossoms gently in the tincturing vessel and the potion begins.

We’ve been using Tincture of Roses for a few years now and are planning to add it to the shop this summer. No simple love philtre, this. Rose tincture is added to the sabbat wine to strengthen the bonds between the company of witches, both those in body and in spirit, as well as with tutelary spirits of the group. It may also be used for a period of time to fortify and balance the aetheric body in preparation for works of dreaming, faring forth and spirit contact. Finally, a few drops placed in the mouth before summoning assists in compelling spirits and lends cunning power to the voice of invocation.

Tincture of roses resized