Books Read 2015: Herbs of the Northern Shaman

510-iHrDINL.jpgHerbs of the Northern Shaman was an extremely frustrating read. It’s unclear whether the cause of that frustration can be laid at the feet of the author for writing a book with so much potential that then fell short, or at my own for expecting too much.

What I expected: a detailed catalogue of northern European plants, with explanations of habitat, identification, dosages, and related ritual contexts.

What I got: a catalogue of plants quite literally above the Equator, with inconsistent descriptions, artsy photographs often useless for identification, no information on preparations or dosages, and no mention of appropriate ritual contexts. There are no citations for the authors various assertions, such as “It [Fennel] was once used by the Romans to increase stamina and courage” (p. 41).  Oh, really?  That’s nice, where’s your source?

In addition, several species are included from the Asian continent. At the risk of appearing blatantly Eurocentric, CM herbal preparations are not something I’m particularly interested in, and their inclusion frankly felt jarring. They are technically not outside the bounds of the book since it includes all of the northern hemisphere, but Andrews makes no mention of Chinese culture or traditions in his introduction. If Asian traditions are going to be included, own them up front with the rest of the cultures mentioned in the introduction (Nordic, Russian, Celtic, and Native American), which by themselves lead the reader to assume a European/North American expectation for the species covered.

Another problem is that many of the entries are included because there are compounds in the plants that are known to be psychoactive, but there is no evidence or experience of them being used historically or currently in a ritual or shamanic context–if that’s the case, why include them?  For example the entry on Meadow Buttercup:

According to author Gareth Rose in his booklet The Psychedelics, early Chinese literature states that a flower that grew by streams and brooks could cause delirium…Some authorities [who?] feel that the herb referred to is the common species of Buttercup.  Far more investigation is needed to confirm whether or not the species described actually is the Meadow Buttercup, as the leaves of this type are not really “rounded”. (pp. 15-16)

So, an unverified herb from China, asserted to be a Meadow Buttercup (R. acris) by some unknown “authorities”, may or may not have psychoactive properties. Just how, exactly, is this information either relevant to the topic at hand? In Andrews’ favor, where he does have experience with a particular plant and its effects he details them.  It’s just that those little jewels are few and far between–the exception being the 7-page love letter to Cannabis  (when most entries are 1 1/2 pages at most), which nearly resulted in the book being thrown across the room.

The bibliography does have a few solid sources in it, such as Culpeper and Grieve, and frankly one would be better served in many ways to consult these books directly. There are a couple of other useful titles included there that I may add to my reading list. It’s a fairly “old” bibliography, however, most of the books being from the 1990s or earlier.

I’m more than a little uncomfortable writing this, as I received Herbs of the Northern Shaman as a review copy, and I very much would have liked to give it a good one.  The best I can say for it is that it can serve as a starting point for shamanic herbal exploration. However, to expect anything more of it is to invite disappointment.

*Andrews, S. 2010. Herbs of the Northern Shaman. Winchester: O Books.

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4 thoughts on “Books Read 2015: Herbs of the Northern Shaman

  1. It’s always good to have the low-down on books that might be a potential purchase, and quite fair for you to give your honest opinion of it if it was submitted for review. Certainly north of the equator is technically ‘northern’ but hardly what one would expect. And the engagement with individual plants seems rather vague to judge by your examples,

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  2. Thanks for the heads up on this. Having to write poor reviews can be tricky, can’t it? In the past because I’ve felt bad about putting other writers out of pocket so I’ve said I’d rather not review than write a poor one. You’ve made the braver choice here. Which is why I only review books of my choosing (which I haven’t done for a while) these days!

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    • I’m sad to say that I did in fact choose this one to review, largely because I had such high hopes for it! It *is* tricky because I truly believe more fantastic authors should be encouraged (and that the publishing industry does a piss-poor job of it) and that reviews are a way to accomplish this; I also don’t want to shy away from criticism when it’s warranted.

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  3. Something I have noticed about quite a few books regarding Shamanic herbal uses (regarding the psychoactive herbs, specifically) is that the author (or the publishing house, or whoever) makes the decision to be intentionally vague about certain plants. Cannabis is a widely known plant, so it is not strange that the author would go into great detail about its effects, uses, and everything else. However, it may be that the author didn’t want to give anyone the bright idea to go out, identify, and possibly USE the other plants listed (so not uncommon, as I have come across this many times in books relating to the use of herbs, both mundanely and magically). You did a brave thing here in reviewing the book honestly, and I hope that the author reads your review and takes your thoughts into account (as an author, an honest review, whether seen as good or bad, is hard to swallow sometimes but it is necessary). I definitely wish that there was a good reference guide for the psychoactive herbs in the Northern Hemisphere, with dosage suggestions, preparation methods, and a general history of the herbs use – perhaps it just hasn’t been published yet! 😀

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