Many of us aren’t raised with intimate knowledge of plantlife. Unless we grow up in an environment which embraces herbalism or a pagan path, we likely relied on these herbs as sources of food; a way to season soups and meat, or as ingredients in cookies or other desserts. If you were like me, you didn’t even know that these herbs and spices were plants at all. They were just little plastic bottles filled with colorful powders, that sometimes smelled nice, which were used once every few months when a recipe called for it. But despite this rather dull and mundane view of herbs that many of us had, their magick still came through. Their vitality and energy brought life into these dishes, creating delicious entrees, and even more delicious desserts, which pepper the memories of our childhoods. Even those who don’t practice magick recognize the way that smells of certain herbs conjure emotions and recollections that carry them back into the past.
This is just one magickal aspect of herbs. As a witch you are probably aware that herbs, plants, flowers, seeds, and spices can be used for so much more than cooking. Craft books often give the correspondences of each plant and its magickal properties, and most of the spell workings you’ve considered (or performed) called for a handful of different herbs or spices to heighten the spell’s intensity and draw in certain energies. If you’re a Wiccan, Kitchen, Natural, or Green Witch, you’ve probably always inherently felt the power of these herbs and spices in your daily life. You’ve sensed their power, you know they hold magickal energy, but you may not be sure why.
The rest of this post is going to explore the magickal history of herbs to try and help us figure out why, in our modern world, we still trust in the magick power of herbs. .
Herbs in the Ancient World
According to The Green Wiccan Herbal1 a prehistoric burial site in Northern Iraq contained the remains of a Neanderthal man who was buried with yarrow, cornflowers, hyacinths, and thistle, which indicated shamanistic beliefs in the healing and ritual powers of plants. There is some dispute to this theory (but of course there always is); however it is compelling to meditate on the idea that a Neanderthal man who lived 50,000 years ago recognized the magickal importance of witching herbs such yarrow and cornflower.
Ancient Egyptians also placed very high importance on herbs, not just on their practical healing uses, but also for their religious significance. The Ebers Papyrus2 is one of the oldest medical documents archeologists have found, dating to around 1500 BCE, with some of its sources from as early as 3400 BCE. What’s interesting about this document is how we can see the confluence of medicine and religion (which included spirituality and magic). The record “contains over 700 remedies and magical formulas” and promoted “the use of magic, incantations, amulets, aromas, offerings, tattoos, and statues” as methods of treatment. This sounds very similar to many witchcraft practices.
The ancient Greeks contributed more directly to our knowledge of herbs and plants. Particularly interesting to witches is the work Hippocrates did with herbs and the phases of the moon. The Greeks also developed different folklore beliefs3 surrounding herbs such as using oregano to ward off evil spirits, wearing wreaths of rosemary to help students with their memory, or placing thyme underneath pillows to stave off nightmares. There were a number of written works done by the ancient Greeks, such as the Enquiry into Plants, On the Causes of Plants, and the De Materia Medica, all of which contributed to the knowledge of different species of plants and their uses.
In the British Isles, the ancient Celts (and specifically druids) revered herbs and trees and used them extensively as medical and magickal elements. Bilberry was tied to the celebration of the harvest festival Lughnasadh, and nettle4 was believed to indicate a place where fairies dwelled, as well as protect one from evil spells and magic.
Herbs in the Middle Ages
From the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, herbal beliefs and practices were carried forward by way of folklore and midwives, as well as learned men like Nicholas Culpepper (who was responsible for aligning herbs with planetary elements). This period saw a melting pot of classically educated men who attempted to categorize and organize centuries of herbal knowledge and belief, and common people (especially midwives) who just knew the different uses of plants in their gardens because the knowledge had been passed down to them for generations. The aforementioned Culpepper actually authored a guide specifically for midwives, entitled Culpeper’s directory for midwives: or, A guide for women, showing that even those who were considered learned and intellectual recognized the incredible power of herbs and women.
Unfortunately, during this time there was a plethora of misinformation and superstition surrounding those who used herbs as part of their spiritual practice. Most of us have read about the persecution of women who were believed to be witches (again, mostly midwives). This went on from the 1400s through the mid 1700s in Europe, and in the late 1600s with the Salem Witch Trials in New England.
One fallout from this centuries long persecution of ‘witches’, was a moving away from the use of herbal folklore. This combined with a burgeoning scientific medical community that wished to separate itself from what they viewed as, at worse superstitious and at best unregulated, medicinal treatments provided by herbal treatments passed down in folklore. Instead of seeking out a wise man or woman (a shaman figure in eastern culture) or a midwife, people began to call on doctors who had been trained at universities to heal them. Herbal remedies still persisted, but they were relegated to more “backwoods” populations.
Cue the 20th century. As pharmaceutical companies began to chemically prepare medicines and sell them for high profits5, herbal medicine was pushed even further to the sidelines. Today, although herbalism has made somewhat of a revival thanks to a surge in interest in homesteading and homeopathic remedies, it is still thought of as a fringe belief.
Attuning to Herbs in the Modern Day
For those of us in the craft, this is nothing new. However this prevailing belief has made it more difficult for us in developing a background knowledge of why we use certain herbs to draw certain energies towards us. Again, we feel the energies of the herbs, but many of us lack knowledge about the herbs themselves, aside from what we read in witchcraft or Wicca books. To use herbs to their full power in spell and ritual work, we need to do more than just be told to use an herb for money or protection. We need to attune to the magickal energies within the herb. There are many ways to do this, but they do take some dedication and time. Here are a few suggestions:
- Grow what you can! Pick one or two herbs that are good for multiple intentions, like mint or basil, and grow them. You can absolutely do this in a windowsill, pots, or garden if you have space. Take time to sit with your plants, smell them, talk to them, feel their energy. This will make your spells and rituals have even more depth and purpose.
- Spend time in nature. Try going on a walk and choosing a few plants to research. Many ‘weeds’ on the roadside are used in spells for important purposes. Clover, plantain, mugwort, and so many others can easily be found in most neighborhoods. (you probably don’t want to go picking these unless you’re sure they haen’t been sprayed with chemicals).
- Try different recipes for the Sabbats. View these as more than just food – view them as a way to get in tune with the season and the plants that are available at that time. This will help you develop a spiritual connection to the celebration and the herbs involved.
- Try herbal tea. Using specific herbs in tea will also help you develop a connection to their energies. You can make the preparation of the tea a ritual, or use the tea during your spellwork. Focus on tasting the different herbs and feeling the energies that come from different tea blends.
- Learn about the herbs before using them. If you want to work a spell that calls for mint, cinnamon, and lavender , research those herbs first. By learning their histories and uses, you will be more connected during your workings. Eventually, you’ll feel more comfortable picking your own herbs to use because you will have become attuned to which ones will help you manifest what your trying to achieve.
Even though we may not have been raised with gardens, herbal remedies, or any knowledge of herbal folklore, we are drawn towards the energy that is inherent in them. This is the pull of the magick. This is the part of us, the universal consciousness, that was apparent even in prehistoric eras. The part of us that feels at one as a creation of the universe. The one that recognizes how much power flows through the life force of plants, flowers, and herbs. Yes, we may use them for medicine, but even more than that, we know that they have their own distinct energies that help us align our intentions and manifest realities in our lives. Just as our ancestors did, we know that these aren’t just little meaningless weeds; they are living parts of this earth that hold magick much more ancient that we can conceive.