Guest Post: Of Herbs and the Elements by Anne de Courtenay

Anne began training in the Western mysteries with Althea Northage-Orr under a hybrid Golden Dawn/Gardnerian lineage in 2003. In this vein, she focuses on comparative mythology, magickal herbalism, Qabalistic study, and the development of ceremonial rites of passage and seasonal celebrations.

OK, fellow mages, pop quiz:

Which of the following statements about the magickal uses of herbs have I just made up?
  1. Cut an apple in half. Count the seeds that fall out. If you have an even number, you will be lucky in love. If you have an odd number, your love will be starcrossed.
  2. An amulet containing nutmeg will bring luck and money.
  3. Five cardamom pods placed above the door will ward off evil.
  4. Meadowsweet, carried by an expectant mother, will help prevent miscarriage.

As a serious student of herbalism for almost a decade, and a seeker in the mysteries for longer, I’ve spent no small amount of time plumbing the depths of the traditional magickal uses of plants. The result? Confusion, early on, and frustration, a bit later. It seemed like almost any herb fit into one of four categories:

  1. banishing evil spirits/bad luck
  2. attracting/divining love
  3. attracting wealth
  4. bringing visions

And then there were a few odd specific categories, like growing hair or preventing drunkenness or shining up your codpiece or some such.

Fourth category above aside (we do know for sure that some plants do indeed produce visions and dreams), the others seemed practically interchangeable and often somewhat arbitrary (eep!). In other words, the more I studied about what herbs actually do in the body, the less inclined I was to believe in these categories which seemed to reduce herbs to mere superstitious trinkets, harvested and carried to bring about simple wishes.

Yeah, I know, it’s all about “intention.” I remember the first time I went to a medicine-making class in California and tried to explain to my instructors the alchemical approach to making herbal medicines, spagyrics in particular, and being told in an unnecessarily slowed down cadence, “OK, so that’s a good example of ‘intention.'” But one man’s rose is another man’s asafoetida. And if you look at enough books on herb/magick correspondences, you’ll find that on very few herbs do they really agree.

I certainly advocate living with, meditating upon, and sensually experiencing as much as is safe, a particular plant to discover its magickal powers.

But another approach, one a little bit different from the common fare in plant magick guides, is to examine plants from an elemental perspective — that is, to identify their elemental signature (Air, Fire, Water, and Earth), and to wed this to what they do in the body. In the West, herbalists have been gathering and sharing information about common herbs and, thanks to empirical evidence and scientific research, they have been agreeing (more rather than less) upon herbs’ mechanisms of healing. The action of an herb in the body should give us a very important clue as to its elemental correspondence, and thereby its magical and elemental power. As above, so below.

Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine have always assigned to herbs specific “energies” — that is, hot, cold, wet, dry, etc. Beginning with Dioscorides, Greco-Roman medicine in the West relied upon a similar system. These systems were based on the four traditional elements, the essential building blocks of all matter. Use one element to control or augment another. It is an elegant and effective way of using herbs to heal that is still very much in use today.

As the caduceus, symbol of healing, is carried by Hermes, so too is magick within his purview. Healing can certainly seem like magick. Let’s face it, on some level healing IS magick — it is the willful manipulation of elements to bring about balance and well-being. When we know what an herb can do to bring our vital physical systems into balance, we can rather deftly arrive at its actions on the more subtle bodies, and on the subtle energies affecting the day to day world in which we live.

Want to find out more about common herbs and how you can use them as allies to bring about harmony in your life and magickal practice? Come to my class at the Brotherhood’s Spirit Faire and learn to orient yourself to the basic elemental nature of plants!

(Answer above: C)

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