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.

Global Mercury Rite

 As those of you who have read this blog for any amount of time know, I’m a big fan of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery materials.  One of the nice things is that once you’ve signed up for the course, you will get invitations to participate in world-wide rituals, usually focused on some sort of planetary energy.  A few days ago, I received a PDF with instructions for a global Mercury rite to be performed between July 29th and August 1st.  So after getting Hufflespawn  to bed, I read through the ritual and decided to stretch the ol’ magical muscles.

One of the things I really dig about Miller’s rituals are that they’re pretty flexible and can easily be combined with other paths and traditions–or perhaps that’s also a function of OBOD rituals and the two just complement each other nicely.  I tend to set up an OBOD grove initially, then move into Miller’s script for the main event–and of course add herbs and spices as desired!  (‘Cause magic really is like cooking–it’s not your recipe until you fiddle it to your tastes.)

I waited until 9:44 PM, the beginning of the hour of Mercury, on the Day of Mercury, to start the rite.  The Moon was in Capricorn, and waxing/almost full, which should lend a more mature and stabilizing influence to all that Mercury energy flying around.  For offerings I used cinnamon incense, dried Nicotiana sylvestris from last year’s garden, and apple cider.  I set up the circle with eight beeswax candles and my own personal Mercury sigil, in addition the to usual ritual paraphernalia.

A couple of immediate takeaways:

  • Even the most eloquent orators have practiced their art.  I botched reading one section of the rite pretty badly.  I took a deep breath and delivered it again, and woah, there a punch there that I lacked before!  The story about William Jennings Bryan practicing speaking in the woods comes to mind.
  • Sometimes clouded vision produces rainbow or other sights of beauty–but to see clearly you still have to wipe them away and stare into the hard edges of the fire.
  • Steady breeze from the West during the entire ritual.
  • The following phrase floated out of the ether into my brain as I closed down the grove: “Three again, and three times three, As I will so must it be.” Now curious about repetition of 12 in magical practice.  Must go research!
  • Very much inspired to make a set of 100 beads for longer ritual chants.  Most of my rosaries tend to be in sets of 3, 4, 7, or 9.  I’ve consciously avoided multiples of ten since that’s what the Catholics do, but they tend to use repeats of five decands, so I think I’m good.
  • I can still pronounce Latin really easily aloud.  Thank you, Dad.

Definitely another ritual for the every-growing grimoire. I’m looking forward to whatever Mr. Miller chooses to tackle next.

The Grass is Always Greener

IMG_0558Last week coming home from work, I stopped at the farmers market hosted by one of the rest stops on the Mass Pike.  A woman, a bit older than I, was selling a variety of hand-milled goat milk soap. Local hand-made soap in and of itself is nice, but what really attracted my attention was the variety of herbs she incorporated into her bars and lotions, and the fact that she made very good use of their natural medicinal properties. They smelled absolutely wonderful, and as I browsed we began chatting.

“Are you heading home?” she asked.

“Yes, I work down in Greenwich, Connecticut on weekends.”

“Oh? What do you do down there?”

“Believe it or not, I’m an archaeologist.” This is the point in the conversation when most folks get this rather starry eyed look, and the soap lady was no exception.

“I was so interested in that sort of thing back in high school!” she gushed. “But then I got to college and had no idea how I would make a living at it. What’s the job market like?”

“Truthfully, I’ve been very lucky. I only have a AB, but through my advisor was able to get my current position after I didn’t get into grad school. But most people aren’t so lucky. That being said,” I added, “I’m only a research archaeologist. I don’t do any fieldwork, or go on digs, or discover new artifacts. I just sit at a desk and help edit papers.”

“But still, that’s amazing! I wish I had been able to do something like that.” She swiped my debit card and finished wrapping up my soap selection, a lovely calendula-lemongrass  blend. “You’re really an inspiration.”

I blushed, embarrassed. “Um, thanks.” This is the point in the conversation where I always feel like a fraud, because no matter how many disclaimers I make, that Indiana Jones archetype seems to override all of my caveats. I forced myself to meet her eyes. Blue and clear, the first signs of crows feet perched in the corners.

In a rush I said, “You know, this is what I really want to be doing.” I gestured at the soaps and herbs displayed on her table. “I’m an amateur gardener and herbalist, and I’d love to make a full-time go of it. So really, to me, you’re an inspiration, too.”

“Me? I’m just a farm girl.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. “The grass is always greener.”

Taking in the Midsummer Harvest

Midsummer is really the beginning of summer here in central Massachusetts.  We are about six weeks off from the traditional British harvest holidays, with the cross quarter fire festivals marking the height of each season rather than its beginning. At least that’s been my experience.

There are a number of sacred herbs that can be harvested from my land. Midsummer seemed like a good time to accomplish this, but I also wanted to incorporate some lunar correspondences. The Full Moon was in Capricorn just after Midsummer, which traditionally is a time where  pruning, or harvesting, is done to promote more vigorous growth in the plant. (Although why I would want this for the Mugwort is beyond me.)

And then it rained on the day of the full moon. All my lovely plans were foiled.

So, I went out the next morning, which was still within 12 hours of the moment of the Full Moon. It was the hour of Venus on a Thursday, the day of Jupiter, both of which should be auspicious for harvesting healing herbs. I managed to bring in the Motherwort, Agrimony, and Mugwort then. For future reference, I will be harvesting Motherwort much sooner next year, as it’s seedpods are very sharp and spiky.

Unfortunately I had to complete my harvest in the afternoon, which is when the essential oil concentrations are the lowest. On the “bright” side (ha!) this was now during the hour of the Sun and I brought in Sweetfern, Lavender, and Feverfew.

I had spied a glorious Yarrow by the side of the road earlier that morning. Sadly, someone mowed it down between that time and when I went out in the afternoon to harvested. I was really cheesed off. I did find a couple of other smaller sprigs though, and I’ll see what wild crafting I can do down in the conservation land for this little herb.

I’ll likely be doing another round of harvesting during the Dark Moon, especially for Mugwort (and probably the Agrimony as well, just because I don’t want it going to seed). I’ll probably wait until the next Full Moon for the rest of my culinary herbs like Sage and Oregano.  But for now, it looks like a goodly supply drying on the walls of my kitchen!

Motherwort and Other Characters

This past week has been one of splendiferous adventures in plant identification.  My best friend recently introduced me to the New England Wildflower Society’s plant ID website, and it has been so much fun tracking down all manner of flowering plants.  Blooming this week in the Assabet River bioregion, we have Common Cinquefoil, White Campion, Motherwort, Sweetfern, and Horsenettle.

 Motherwort set me off on this journey of discovery.  You see, there was this strange little seedling in my garden plot this spring, but it looked so purposeful, that I talked with my row partner and we decided to leave it and see what happened. Now, she (the mystery plant, not my row partner!) is about two feet tall and happily feeding the bees. Motherwort is also a friend to humans, especially women, with many useful medicinal properties. We’ve decided to transplant her to the community herb garden, marking her with a sign as medicinal.

Common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) was another little mystery flower that had been bugging me this year.  Some sources claim cinquefoil as a fairly common medieval spell component, I’m guessing because the five finger leaves are reminiscent of hands. It’s astringent, antiseptic, soothing for the skin, and the powdered roots can be used to stop bleeding.

Every year I forget the name of White Campion (Silene latefolia) and have to look up. Maybe this year it will finally stick.  While it doesn’t have any medicinal uses, being high in saponins (much like quinoa), simmering the root will create a sort of soap. And, it’s just plain pretty to happen upon in the meadow.

Sweetfern is one of the first plants I got to know when I moved to my current home. It is very much associated with poor soils and stands of pine, both of which happened to be abundant on our property. Sweetfern can make a very nice tea and be useful in a variety of ailments, especially as an astringent. I’ll likely be harvesting it this year to experiment with as an insect-repellent incense.

Horsenettle is a member of the nightshade family–Solanum carolinensis to be specific. It’s often classified as a noxious weed, and I’ve had trouble finding any constructive use for it (if someone in the audience knows of one, leave a comment!). It’s the only member of the Solanums that has thorns, which makes its removal particularly tricky.

Lastly, I helped my father identify this little fellow as Sheep Sorrel, a member of the vast dock and sorrel genus. It’s been driving him crazy in the garden, as it sends its roots right underneath other plants and makes it extremely difficult to remove. He noted with some dismay that it doesn’t even have the decency to wilt after it’s been picked!  On the bright side, it is edible, and lens a lemony flavor to salads and soups.

I’ll be harvesting the Motherwort and Sweetfern, along with Mugwort, Agrimony, and Feverfew over the coming days.  I’m finally feeling like I have enough a) reading knowledge and b) glass jars to try making tinctures.  Agrimony is one of the things that keeps me from turning into an absolute badger in March/April when Seasonal Affective Disorder seems to hit me hardest.  I’ve made tea from the dried leaves in the past, and have taken a commercial tincture, but I’m looking forward to trying some of my own brew.

Oh, and the first blackberries are also ready to pick.  Just one more reason to love the Solstice season!

Gifts of Meadow and Mire

Freshly laid frog eggs.

Freshly laid frog eggs.

Fuzzy fiddleheads erupt from the floor of the pine grove.

Fuzzy fiddleheads erupt from the floor of the pine grove.

Dandelions mark the natural date of Beltaine on our land.  It was 5 days later than the calendar date this year.

Dandelions mark the natural date of Beltaine on our land. It was 5 days later than the calendar date this year.

Still working on identifying these lovlies.

Still working on identifying these lovlies.

Garlic mustard is gaining more and more of a foothold, sadly.  I will be making a lot of pest this year.

Garlic mustard is gaining more and more of a foothold, sadly. I will be making a lot of pesto this year.

The swans have returned.  I can't wait to see if we get cygnets again this year!

The swans have returned. I can’t wait to see if we get cygnets again this year!

Kitchen Witchery: Fire Cider

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The same day that Sarah F. and I were making hag tapers, we were also cooking up a batch of fire cider.  Actually, it was the fire cider that was the impetus for the get-together, as apparently someone, not the person who originally wrote down the recipe,* has decided to sue anyone marketing a similar product under the name “fire cider.”

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So in the good ol’ Druidic spirit of “up yours!” Sarah suggested we brew our own. Here’s the original recipe:

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Make Your Own Fire Cider
It’s fun, simple, and easy to make. There are hundreds of variations on this recipe. Here’s the original.

½ cup grated fresh horseradish root
½ cup or more fresh chopped onions
¼ cup or more chopped garlic
¼ cup or more grated ginger
Chopped fresh or dried cayenne pepper, whole or powdered, to taste.*

Optional ingredients: turmeric, echinacea, cinnamon, etc.

* To taste means should be hot, but not so hot you can’t tolerate it. Better to make it a little milder than too hot; you can always add more pepper later if necessary.

Place herbs in a half-gallon canning jar and cover with enough raw unpasteurized apple cider vinegar to cover the herbs by at least three to four inches. Cover with a tight fitting lid. Place jar in a warm place and let set for three to four weeks. Best to shake every day to help in the maceration process. After three to four weeks, strain out the herbs and reserve the liquid. Add honey to taste. Warm the honey first so it mixes in well. “A little bit of honey helps the medicine go down…” Your Fire Cider should taste hot, spicy, and sweet. Rebottle and enjoy! Fire Cider will keep for several months unrefrigerated if stored in a cool pantry, but it’s better to store in the refrigerator if you’ve room. A small shot glass daily serves as an excellent tonic or take teaspoons if you feel a cold coming on. Take it more frequently if necessary to help your immune system do battle.

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We also added golden seal to the mix, since Sarah had some in her amazing and impressive herbal stash.  We decided to leave out the cinnamon, since it didn’t quite seem to blend well with the prodigious amount of horseradish we ended up adding to the brew.  The kitchen smelled nothing short of spicy and wonderful.

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I’ve always loved making potions. Happily, my mother and father indulged my early attempts at chemistry and herbalism, though they sometimes despaired that I had yet again ruined or made unusable some container with my concoctions.  Probably the most successful creation of my youthful dabbling was a weedkiller made by soaking black walnuts in water for a couple of weeks.

The fire cider promises to be much tastier.  I’ve been faithfully shaking my jar, so it should be ready the day I’m scheduled to close on my new home.  I love it when things come together!

*Rosemary Gladstar is the creatrix of the recipe. She also has a video describing how to make her original version of fire cider.