It seems that large portions of the occult and neopagan communities only have a base understanding of herbs and herbology. In general, it is simply assumed that if one wants to cast a spell for wisdom one should use sage. Many will apply a second herb related to wisdom when they want a more powerful spell, while some people simply throw together all the purpose-related herbs to which they have access.
This paper is solely based on the magical use of herbs. For this purpose, I will be using Cunningham's "Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs," and Paul Beryl's "The Master Book of Herbalism," as well as his "Compendium of Herbal Magick." Cunningham is chosen because he makes the process much easier, but Beryl is preferred. It seems that Cunningham makes some assumptions that have no readily apparent basis, or even in rare cases, makes up something completely off the wall to fill in blanks to which he has no answer. Because he fills in many of the blanks with questionable information, I often use him as a starting point and turn to Berryl as my finishing point for a spell. For the purposes of this paper, Cunningham makes many of the aspects regarding mixing herbs easier to illustrate. Since Beryl does not fill in historical blanks with assumptions, it becomes more difficult to encompass some of these aspects when doing complicated mixes.
Let us begin by explaining some people's views of certain entries in Cunningham. He often associates his various entries with planetary correlations. Many of these correspondences even have dual aspects because in ancient times the only planets associated in this way were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. However, with the discovery of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto (even though it's no longer considered a planet), new meanings were created to function concerning these new planets. Some herbs which would have originally been accredited to one planet have in present times been changed to another. Many practitioners use only the old associations, while others account for the newly discovered planets.
Many times the method by which Cunningham accredits his herbs to a certain planet, or in some cases a certain astrological sign, is by examining the chemistry of the plant and judging it based on the minerals that can be found therein. Many metals are associated with planets, and as such, this is an accurate way to account for which planet should be related to which plant. On the other hand, this relation ignores the nature of the plant. Many plants, for example, grow only near extremely wet areas, or only in deserts and dry areas. Some believe this must be taken into account when trying to define various correspondences. As such, while the metal in a plant may indicate one planet, the other material composition or tendencies of the plant may define an elemental correlation which does not correspond to the assumed planetary association. This greatly complicates things and each practioner must therefore discover their own methods of defining such things. Personally, I do my best to make sure that both the nature and the assumed planetary correspondence based upon metallic content of a plant correlate. When this is difficult or impossible I generally decide which application best fits, based on the spell I'm performing.
One of the most important of Cunningham's entries is often the category of elemental association. Cunningham classifies most herbs with one element or another, usually regarding Fire, Water, Wind, or Earth, though there are herbs that have a classification of "akashic" which is a term adapted from Hinduism into the Neopagan community and often serves to symbolize "life" or "spirit." When an herb does not have an historical connection to an element it seems that Cunningham has referenced the planetary correspondence and used the element associated with that planet. The possible issues with this idea are evident from the above discussion of the planetary influences.
Another category that Cunningham uses in his encylopedia is the classification of either masculine or feminine, or similarly, in his Encylopedia of Stones, the alternative use of Projective or Receptive. Other people may look at this as Yin and Yang, Positive and Negative (though that carries unnecessary connotations of morality) or any of a number of other references. The understanding of Projective and Receptive is a bit misleading in that it implies that when a spell is to be projected outward, as in casting a healing spell on someone else, then one must use projective herbs only and while casting a spell which affects the caster internally the spell must be cast using receptive herbs. This is not necessarily true. There are several other understandings of the idea of projective and receptive. For example, many people assume that an herb which is projective and protective is an herb which protects the caster by creating some type of reflective shielding effect. On the other hand those herbs which are receptive and protective protect the caster by absorbing negative energies and grounding them out. There are several other applications of "projective vs. receptive" but that is a paper by itself.
When combining herbs for a purpose one should have an understanding of how they want their spell to work. An internal spell (such as spell cast for wisdom on oneself) should probably carry a feminine weight overall. As such, one should probably try to use mostly feminine or receptive herbs. On the other hand if one is casting a wisdom spell on someone else it works slightly differently. Since the spell is still adjusting the internal mechanisms of the subject, feminine herbs are necessary as before, but since the energy must be projected towards that person, some masculine herbs would be required.
Elemental relations are just as important as the energy relations, but they create a greater level of complexity. First, each of the classical elements represents a plethora of concepts. The Air element not only represents the idea of air, but according to Agrippa's Occult Philosophy it also represents logic. Earth is often seen to represent money, but in Agrippa's case it also represents bone. Healing herbs which are associated with earth are therefore probably the best to use for a magical spell in order to assist in the mending of broken bones. Alternatively, water is often associated with emotions; in many mythologies water is associated with wisdom as well. The Assyrian god who taught the use of writting, magic, healing, and wisdom in general was an oceanic god. He may have even been the forerunner to later mermaid legends as he was half man and half fish. Unlike the classical mermaid, however, his upper half was fish and his lower half was man.
Astrological alignments are another classification of herbs that can be taken into account, as various planets have their own symbolic representations similar to the elemental representations. Some of these symbolic associations can be gleaned from the name of the planet. Venus, for example, was the Roman goddess of love - or lust depending one one's viewpoint - and as such spells related to love may be more effective when using herbs associated with Venus. To specifically apply this to lust one might add in a bit of "Mars" or even "Jupiter" along side the "Venus" herbs.
Many spells can be created that are more complex than simply "attaining wisdom." While a practitioner may want to use herbs associated with divination or visions to learn the likely probabilities of the future, it can be seen that using herbs associated with Venus would help one learn about one's likely paths in love. Furthermore, when seeking an internal revelation, one would generally use receptive herbs. The use of herbs connected with water and/or fire to incorporate elemental associations would also be advantageous, as water is often associated with love, especially psychologically speaking, while fire has, in the past, been associated with lust which, in many people's case is a starting point to developing love. Ideally, one might try to find an herb that is used for divination and love which also corresponds to Venus, water, and receptive energies. A second herb which may be associated with fire (lust), receptive energies, divination, and maybe Mars might also be used. A combination of herbs which perfectly coincide and reflect each other may take a moderate amount of research, study, and calculation, however.
Aside from finding the herbs that have aspects that work towards your goal, one should also account for effects or influences of herbs which one specifically wants to avoid. When creating a spell for intelligence to help with understanding a concept in book, one may want to avoid any herb that also deals with lust. Herbs that deal with opposing ideas (lust is not given to understanding something in a book. . . well maybe SOME books) often work antagonistically to the purpose desired. By the same token, one might want to reference what type of deities or astrological correlations an herb has to avoid conflict as well. For example, Venus and intelligence may not be a good idea to use together unless you're trying to learn about love or sex.
Now that we have a basic idea of the complications that can come into play when using herbs, it's time to complicate things even further. While many might cast something as simple as the above example, many times such simplistic ideas are only the beginnings of a spell. Spells dealing with the ideas of attack and defense are some of the easiest examples to illustrate complexities. Therefore, for the following section, I will primarily be working with these ideas and let each practioner apply the complexities as they see fit in their own way.
Defensive spells, such as circles of protection or similar, are often designed to protect in only one way. The ideologies of protective shields run amok throughout the pagan world, such as absorbative shields, which absorb attacks and then use them to reinforce and boost the shield itself, grounding shields, which ground out a spell and neutralize it similar to grounding an electrical current, and reflective shields, which reflect a spell back at the original caster.
It can be difficult to find herbs to work with the creation of a "grounding" shield or a "reflective" shield (although a guideline towards that exact implication was made earlier). It is not difficult to find herbs which work with the creation of a shield, however. There are a large number of herbs that are used for general protection, the question becomes how do they work, and how can we tell? One way is by looking at their correspondences. It seems fairly obvious to state that "grounding shields" are probably best when applied using protective earth oriented herbs. However, truly complex shields are not a one-step process.
There are several types of spells which a person might want to shield themslves from. For example, one might want to protect themselves against the legendary love/lust spell, especially if it is cast by someone of whom one is not fond. A practitioner might create a combination which is similar to that of a love spell, and then create a protective section which is designed to counter the love spell. Taking into account the ideas from earlier, one would probably use projective herbs associated with the planet Venus, and the element of water in order to create this love spell. By mixing each seperately, the love mixture and the protection mixture, and then mixing the two together one helps to key in the idea of protection from love.
When one looks at protective herbs that work to counter these ideas, the counters work differently according to each user. Some people see fire and water as complimentary rather than cancelling out so in this line of thought one wouldn't want to use a fire based herb to counter a water based love spell. This is also true in another line of thought where fire can be used to represent lust and therefore may actually enhance the love spell. Other people see fire and water as natural enemies which cancel each other out and as such would instinctively and in many cases effectively use fire based herbs. Those who fit into the former category might use air based herbs in order to apply logic to help one think their way through the spell so that it has no affect. While other might use earth, since in chi gong's cycle of destruction earth controls water (the earthen banks of a river controls how the river flows).
The mathematics of herbalism can become very complicated as one works through a spell. Each herb contains or draws upon a certain type of energy. For simplistic purposes we will assume that each herb used is one unit and each unit contains exactly 1 "charge" of each of its energies. Now I am not trying to be biased, but as I usually put it, Projective, Fire, and Air are all considered +1 charges in their individual categories and Receptive, Water, and Earth are considered -1. For every unit of projective herb used I get a +1 value on Projective aspects, so three different herbs used together that are all projective gives the final mixture a +3 projective value. By the same token if I were to then add 2 receptive herbs to the mixture it would leave it with a +1 projective value. This would leave me with a fairly well balanced mixture only a little heavy on the projective side, which would probably be a good ratio for a wisdom spell cast on someone else.
Elements work the same way, Fire and Water relating to eachother as Positive or Negative and Earth and Air. Akashic isn't something I personaly work with and in cunningham, anyway, most herbs that are associated with this element have another element they are associated with as well. While it may seem obvious to the majority of practioners, it may be necessary for beginners to note that when working with the classical greek elements earth does not balance out fire. As such, a mixture which has three units of earth and three units of fire is not balanced. It simply stands at +3 earth and +3 fire. Others may feel that earth does in fact cancel out fire, whether or not this is true will currently be left to the philosopher elsewhere.
It must be stated that not all herbs are necessarily created equal. Some herbs are stronger than others in fire while some seem to have a stronger projective force that others. Generally it seems fairly safe to assume the 1 to 1 ratio of all herbs being equal, however, the more complex the spell, and the more powerful, the more likely one should take differentiations in relative associations into account - especially when it comes to consecrating items to specific purposes.
While it is VERY fluffy, and extremely cliche, I often have a portable aid which I carry with me in certain circumstances. It usually takes the form of a walking cane, but it has been in several forms through my years of practice. I am currently on my 9th such aid, and each aid has been designed and treated differently as my understanding of magic has evolved. My current staff has been the most complex with reguards to herbalism. It aids in healing, protection, wisdom, and a plethora of other things which I find come in useful on a regular basis. It also has several safety aspects that helps to ensure I don't lose or damage the staff in some way.
When creating this staff I was very careful to consider each individual spell. Most of them are balanced on both elemental and projective/receptive levels. Some of these individuals spells are balanced in favor one way or the other depending on how I felt they were most effective. Through planning and research I ended up using nearly 30 different herbs in 26 different spells, and ended up with approximate values as follows:
I specifically designed it this way because my personal magical understandings of my own leanings and preferences makes me masculine, with fire at +1 and Air at +2. It took me many hours of meditating upon the subject to figure out whether I wanted my staff to be like me, my opposite, or a mixture. I went with the opposite so that the staff functions to fill in my personal holes and create a united whole (this theory of course is working on the idea that fire and water are complimentary not necessarily cancelling). So elementally speaking my staff and I form a roughly balanced circle. That was MY decision but it may not be right for everyone.
In creating such a spell as those used on my staff there are several problems which initially come into play. Since there are several different spells which work individually from one another, the staff did not simply use one mixture to enchant it because the conglomeration of such a mixture would do so much intermixing and influencing that almost all the intents I originally wished to apply would have been negated. One might look at it like mixing paint. Purple contains elements of both red and blue but it is definitively not red, nor is it blue. It is its own defined color. If I mix a quantity of different herbs trying to preserve their original intents its not likely to work; instead, they will combine as necessary to form something entirely unique that simply does not work for any of the original intents, such as a very muddy brown paint color.
So what I did, instead, was to create a separate mixture for each spell I intended to lay in the staff and applied them separately. Some of these mixtures contained 4 or 6 herbs as part of the overall balancing act or because the spell needed to be more powerful because I felt it was more important. Other mixtures, by contrast, only used two. I always use at least two in everything I do. By creating each separate mixture I am able to apply them one at a time and allow time for the spell to lay into the staff, similar to how one might apply different coats of paint. I would apply one spell mixture and the ceremony and spell which went with that mixture and then I would wait for a day and go to the next spell.
This helps extensively, but there is still some blurring or smudging which occurs between the different coats. It is a functional way of doing things but it can occasionally produce some unforseen consequences. This is why I want to discuss what I call borders or seals. They function as walls between spells which help to keep the spells separate. Whether or not anyone else recognizes these substances as having this property, I don't know, but I haven't run across it. However, among the Enochian system of talismanic magic one can see the use of seals to protect the ritual from outside earthly influences.
The primary seal I use is heather, which I adapt from certain celtic or pictish ideas where several ceremonies were denoted as having been carried out on matts of heather. Several accounts of these ceremonies as being observed by third person parties have been preserved from roman times - Pliny the Elder, Ceasar and several others. In either case, the implications which I have drawn from study of these ceremonies, is that these matts are used to keep other influences from "smudging" the spiritual effects of the ceremony. I will admit that this may or may not be an entirely accurate understanding. I will state, however, that while this understanding of a use for heather may not be the intent of the original users of such ceremonies, it does seem to be an effect which heather has.
In the past, heather was the only thing I used, but that has correspondences of its own, which I had to work to counteract leaving several of my spells less than ideal in their individual balances. Most recently I have begun to experiment with a few others which may have the same effect and seem to bear strong similiarities to heather in their mystical properties. Among them is sulfer, salt, and black salt (which is a combintation of salt and sulfer used in india). I also experimented with solomon's seal on a random thought at one point, but it doesnt seem to be as functional. Sulfer, salt, black salt, and heather can easily be used to counter balance eachother. This effect allows the other spells to be balanced in the way I feel is most functional for my intentions, and it seems to have given me the best results yet.
Harmonizing is another way of balancing herbs against each other. At this point one must make a notation reguarding an herbs symbolic representations and their mystical uses. When harmonizing one might state that things such as element, planetary correspondence, energy, and deity are all symbolic representations of an herb, while the use and functions of an herb are defined by its powers. For example sage has its own correspondences but is used for wisdom.
A good solid example of harmonizing that dates back nearly 2000 years can be found in the bibilical account of the birth of Christ. The magi who came to visit Christ gave him 3 gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrhh.
Sun/Sky gods (Re, JHVH)
Cthonic (earth) deities
It can be seen from the above table that the magi may have been up to more than just gift giving. We see in the symbolism of gold that which christ was suppose to be. He was the son of a god associated with the sun/sky, king of kings, and male. We see in Myrrh what he did; excorcised demons, enlighted people spiritually, gifted people with psychic powers or used his own, and spread wisdom. However, Gold's uses are in many ways a direct opposition of Myrhh's uses and so Frankincense is used to bring them into harmony. It might be considered that Gold and Myrhh were the two more powerful herbs but a weaker herb, frankincense, was used to bring the desired aspects of each into harmony.
Lastly I would like to state that there are several other things that can or should be taken into account when designing herbal mixtures to make the "perfect" spell. Several runes, for example, in the Elder Futhark represent trees. By representing these trees the rune is similar in several uses or the symbolism of that tree, and one should work to counter balance that representation as necessary. On a similar note there are runes that signify light or the sun which may, depending on the practioner, bring an element of life or fire into to the equation. Of course, one then may have to balance against that. By contrast, sometimes when you simply can't find an herb to properly balance out your equation, the use of runes or stones can fill in the blanks. I know that when I made my staff, despite the number of herbs I applied, I still made use of several runes and stones in order to balance things out accordingly. Runes and stones bring a different type of power to the spell and as such have their own place in balancing as well (the Cunningham guides are a good place to start).
In summary, it can be seen that understanding the complexities of herbology and other archetypes and symbols of magic greatly increases the effectiveness of a spell by increasing the affinity of the spell towards the goal and methods desired. As one comes to an understanding of the elements, astrological correspondences, types of energy, and the complexities that are brought in by herbs and other materials of spell work, one can develope better control of what action a spell might take and it what form this action is taken.
Hopefully, this post will provide some with a new or different outlook on herbs, and be helpful to them. If anyone wishes to see actual examples of the mathematical balancing act I would be happy to work through some or maybe find the copies of my formulas for my staff and post a few sections with explainations. Simply let me know.
Credit must be given where credit is due. Most of my complex spells are actually mathematically balanced by my girlfriend, Avery, who is much better and much faster at it than I am.
Interesting essay, and although there's a decent amount in there I disagree with, I'm glad to see someone taking time to think about something instead of only relying on books.
Interesting essay, and although there's a decent amount in there I disagree with, I'm glad to see someone taking time to think about something instead of only relying on books.
I just got in a decent amount of work for the day, so I don't have time to go piece by piece throughout, so here's just a summary of where I'm at...
My personal practices with worts involves a few qualities that are unique to pragmatic witchcraft:
1. Worts used should be easily accessible if they are to be used. They don't have to be only local-grown, but if they are not wildcrafted, they need to be easily obtained at local stores.
2. Just as most families, on average, only cook 25 different dinner meals over the course of a year, most witches don't have much variation in what they use in terms of worts. In my view, 25 is a pretty good number of worts to work with.
3. Books are an okay jumping off point, but if you're only working with 25 easily obtained worts in your practice, then it is important to get to know those 25 intimately so you don't have to use the books.
So understand that my views are coming from that perspective....
I have a love/hate relationship with Cunningham's plant books. On the one hand, they are very easy to read. On the other hand, he takes a lot of liberties with plants that run counter to my own views (based on a combination of personal interaction and a modified doctrine of signatures-type of mindset). For instance, one thing I found is that if the plant has five petals, he automatically seems to ascribe protection as one of its characteristics. I've found he's off from my perspective on elemental attributes, and he doesn't take into account that different parts of the plant have different elemental attributes.
I also think that the automatic assigning of an entire plant as masculine or feminine (and thus forcing that masculine = projective and feminine = receptive) is not useful, as some plants even have masculine and feminine kinds (for instance, holly plants). If, as many books label it, holly is feminine, what about a male holly tree? I've also seen the mindset that if a plant has prominent flowers it is more likely to be female than male, but most flowers include both the male and female parts for self-pollination.
Even within a single plant, it would be not uncommon to say that the leaves are of the element air, the trunk/stem/branches and roots being of the element earth, the fruit being of the element water, and the flowers being of the element fire.
To me, what works works....so for you to say that using different elements to try and counter a spell is good in some mindsets and then won't work in other mindsets doesn't work for me. Then again, I don't customize countering magics. I have what works, and that's what I use. :)
I also think that a lot of the correspondences for frankincense and myrrh as used in the modern era probably came from the fact that they were given as gifts at the birth of Jesus, and not tied to their uses before.
But the biggest gripe I have is that I don't believe that herbs are "greater" or "lesser" in terms of powers (such that assigning them modifiers is useful) any more than a human is "greater" or "lesser" of a being. I think there's a lot more variation to a human being than just male, +2 air, +1 water, -2 fire, -1 earth (or whatever), and by trying to force that sort of classification on it, you miss out on a greater breadth of usefulness in the "personality" of each. It is those personality quirks in worts that often appear in folk magic. ;)
Anyhow, gotta grab the kid and get started on my work gig...see you all in a day or two.
I very much agree I believe in my post I said I had issues with cunningham myself. You've just pointed out some of the other issued i have with him. I don't like how he goes about assigning elements in many ways because he's far to concerned with the most prominent metals in the chemical makeup of the plant. So in that aspect we actually agree rather than disagree.
I do believe I also state that cunningham is a good place to START. I myself only use cunningham early in designing spells and often disagree with him on several plants, most notably his assignment of lavender as being masculine. However for representation purposes since cunningham does apply an element to nearly every plant in his encyclopedia it makes it much better working through balances until I come to plants I disagree with. Its a place to start nothing more, and it makes it easier to illustrate what I was talking about.
On the different parts of the plant I tend to agree as well, however in many of cunningham's entries, though far from all of his entries, he's only referring to certain parts of the plant. He has an entry called, "parts used." and under that he lists either leaves, roots, stems, petals.
On the holly thing, I think your getting to caught up in the ideas of male and female rather than projective and receptive.
Okay maybe I phrased in wrong. I am not saying one plant is "better" than another. I am saying that in some cases a certain plant is stronger on one aspect than another, but the other plant is usually stronger for a different use. For example I study martial arts. Now i've done some study in classical fencing and some study in kendo. I'm better at fencing than kendo because that is more along the lines of how my mind works. As long as I keep studying the two equally I will always progress more rapidly at fencing that I do at kendo. Other people who study both may be more likely to progress in kendo than in fencing. There are times to use fencing and there are times to use kendo. if you need fencing use my type if you need kendo use someone else, but if someone else isn't available you may have to use me.
On myrhh and frankincense; their associations are a little stylized to christian terms however the uses such as spiritual enlightenment (which would have been better phrased in the old days as "opening a connection to the gods" or some such) and demonic exorcisms (driving away evil spirits) actually date back to the priests of marduk in assyro babylonian mythology, and Frankincense is strongly associated with Atum-ra(re) in egyptian mythology hence their associations with sun and moon. They are used in several workings and their importance in ancient religions is well documented. Elemental associations i'm not sure about as that would have come from the greek hellenistic period.