by Myrriah Lavin
I, last night, lay all alone,
O' the ground, to heare the Mandrake grone:
And pluck'd him up, though he grew full low,
And, as I had done, the Cock did crow...
And I ha' bene plucking, plants among,
Hemlock, Henbane, Adders-tongue,
Night-shade, Moone wort, Libbards-bane;
And, twise, by the Doggs was like to be tane...
Yes, I haue brought (to helpe our vowes)
Horned poppie, Cypresse boughes,
The Figg-tree wild, that growes on tombes,
And iuice, that from the Larch-tree comes...
In her kitchen, root-laden pots and crocks of unguents crowd the tables; ancient formularies line the shelves. Bundles of odd-scented herbs hang from rafters, a steaming kettle simmers on the hearth. She breaks up a bunch of dried basil, mixes it with rose petals, lavender, vetivert, and myrtle. A pinch of this she places in the middle of a red square of silk. She adds a small piece of copper for Venus, ruler of love, and ties the cloth into a small bundle. This she puts on a shelf near the window to absorb the moonlight for seven days.
The ancient magic of root and bud, leaf and flower has always been the province of witch and healer, whose knowledge of the language of plants gives her the materials for helping or for harm. Wortcunning is traditionally gained after years of apprenticeship, during which the novice learns the lore of herbs and trees: where to find them, when to harvest, and how to draw on her inner vision to use each one--singly or combined with others--to work magic. Herb magic is intuitive, based in one of witchcraft's fundamental tenets--that everything in the universe is connected and created by one source of energy.
For early humans, no separation existed between magic and religion or between magic and medicine. As humans evolved, they experimented with the plantlife around them, learning which plants to eat, which to cure with, and which to avoid. Those plants that helped mediate the everyday maladies of the flesh were likely remembered and gathered by those in the tribe whose place it was to use them, and whose province they became. But the more debilitating diseases and death were different. Not born of any natural causes that early humans could understand, serious illnesses and death were thought to result from offenses to the gods or the work of demons. Herbal remedies were supplemented with incantations, spells, and prayers to the gods that the ill might be made well. Those plant-spell combinations that worked became the secret knowledge of the medicine men and women. As these spell-workings developed into ritual, they became the religious formulas for an evolving healer-priest class in a mosaic of cultures in which magic and medicine was one and the same.
In the minds of the common folk, plants came to represent and contain the power of the healing spells they witnessed. By the time of the earliest written records, herbs were a standard ingredient in magical practice. The common people, especially, used herbs in their spells and amulets because herbs were so easy to obtain, unlike the more specialized animal ingredients used by the temple priests. In fact, the early Greeks made little distinction between types of practitioners who used herbs. Witch, sorceress, herbalist, and poisoner alike could craft the herbal preparations called pharmaka, and all these practitioners were equally known as pharmakoi. Pharmaka were initially magical in function, and only later came to be more closely associated with medicines and healers. In Greek legend, the Thracian witches, who were said to howl their conjurations, were famous for their skill with herbs, especially in the compounding of deadly poisons. The powers to cure or to poison with herbs were seen as two of the many effects that herbal potions might have.
During the period in which the paths of medicine and magic diverged, the magical traditions of the Mediterranean lands and the Near East began to merge into an international magical practice incorporating rituals, gods, symbols, and words of power from many cultures. This period saw the proliferation of recorded magical spells and formulas. Of these texts on magic, perhaps the most interesting are the Greco-Egyptian papyri from the 1st to the 7th centuries AD. These papyri are, for the most part, the private notebooks of magicians, filled with recipes, instructions, hints, and ideas that were likely borrowed and adapted from the recipes of fellow magic workers, or created from scratch. This example from the Greek Magical Papyri of an herbal spell for protection calls for "sulfur and the seed of nile rushes" to be burned as incense to the Moon, as one chants "I call on You, Lady Isis, whom Agathos Daimon permitted to rule in the entire Black Land...."
Also from the Greek Magical Papyri comes this Spell for Picking a Plant:
Use it before Sunrise. The Spell to be spoken: "I am picking you, such and such a plant, with my Five-fingered Hand, I, NN, and I am bringing you home so that you may work for me for a Certain Purpose. I adjure you by the Undefiled Name of the God: if you pay no Heed to me, the Earth which produced you will no longer be watered as far as you are concerned-- ever in Life again, if I fail in this Operation, MOUTHABAR NACH BARNACHO'CHA BRAEO' MENDA LAUBRAASSE PHASPHA BENDEO'; fulfil for me the Perfect Charm!"
MAGIC AND THE NAMING OF HERBS
The name of a plant often reflects the magical properties the plant possesses and how it came by those properties. In some cultures, it was believed that the soul inhabited trees or plants after physical death. In others, plants were imbued with their individual power by the gods, and stories of how plants came into existence flourished. Greek myth tells how Myrrha, pursued by her father, was pitied by the gods and turned into a tree, still weeping fragrant tears of myrrh. The scientific name for the reed is taken from the Acadian nymph Syrinx, who prayed to be turned into a reed to evade the pursuit of Pan; from that reed Pan created the pipes upon which he played his haunting melodies. The youth Narcissus, who pined away for love of his own reflection, became the flower by that name. The words narcissus and narcotic both come from the Greek root word narke-, meaning "stupor." In legend, Pluto used the intoxicating fragrance of the narcissus to daze Proserpine and carry her into the Underworld.
Plants were often named for their resemblances to other things. Thus we have such picturesque folk names for herbs as "fairy fingers" for foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), "graveyard dust" for mullein (Verbascum thapus), and "witches' hair" for dodder (Cuscuta glomurata). Naming a plant for its resemblance to part of an animal was quite common, giving us names like lamb's tongue, coltsfoot, and cranesbill.
This is a sample of The Charmed Pot, Part 1 from issue
No. 3 of Obsidian.
Myrriah Lavin has had a lifelong romance with herbsboth magical and culinaryand mourns her herb garden, uprooted in fall by a herd of plundering pigs.
1. C.H. Herford Percy and Evelyn Simpson, eds., Ben Jonson, Volume VII, "The Masque of Queenes," (Clarendon Press, 1941).
PGM VII.490-504. This comes from excerpts of Betz, Hans Deiter (ed.), The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation including the Demotic Spells, (University of Chicago Press, 1986) found at Biblioteca Arcana. This website is large and contains quite an astonishing array of information, references, and articles for anyone interested in magic.
PGM IV.286-95 from excerpts at Biblioteca Arcana (see note 2). Interestingly, the threat of harm to the plant if it fails to comply with the desire of the magician is reminiscent of some of the spells found in Charles G. Leland's book Aradia, Gospel of the Witches.