“What a desolate place would be a world without flowers? It would be a face without a smile; a feat without a welcome. Are not flowers the stars of earth? Are not our stars the flowers of heaven?” -Clara Louise Balfour
Greek myth tells us that Hecate, the patroness of witches, instructed her daughters in the herbal arts. They, in turn, taught all witches how to use this knowledge. Plant lore from that point forward became a sacred trust for wise people and cunning folk everywhere−for healing, love, fertility, prosperity, and every other kind of magic imaginable.
This myth, which is but one of many linking witches and nature together, gives us a peek into the minds of our ancestors. It seems that our predecessors were a very superstitious lot. Exactly when and where all the superstitions about witches and plants developed is fuzzy because it predates written history. What is quite certain is that historians, philosophers, and modern Wiccans alike have found it difficult, if not impossible, to read anything about one of these subjects without stumbling across information on the other.
For example, in reading a Celtic book about trees, you might discover that ash wood was essential in a witch’s broom to prevent drowning (you know how witches hate water). In a medieval treatise on herbalism, you might discover that all witches had to grow hemlock in their garden to honor Hecate… not to mention the fact that hemlock was a component in their wicked spells.
The Witch’s Garden
Speaking of gardens, popular folklore has it that the sun should not be allowed to shine on a witch’s plants because the light would steal the special properties of the herbs. Around the magical garden one could always find a hawthorn hedge to protect the power contained therein and provide the witch with a handy place to hide. And what the witch didn’t grow herself, she’d find elsewhere.
Be that as it may, for every witch-friendly herb in garden folklore, there is also an anti-witch herb to keep us on our spiritual toes! These flowers and plants were just waiting to be plucked and carried, bound in sachets, sprinkled in wine, buried at a crossroad, or tossed into running water by someone who thought he was enchanted. One example is elderberry. When steeped in water and dabbed on a person’s eyes, it allows that person to see a witch no matter his or her guise. Another example is the combination of Rowan and red thread, which when bound together became one of the most popular and powerful anti-magic charms.
One of These Things is Not Like the Other
Different cultures had their own unique outlook about the uses for witchy wildflowers and plants. People in medieval Germany carried marjoram sprigs to safeguard themselves from a spell, but witches in medieval France used them in love potions! Agrimony and hazel were used by witch hunters to uncover occult activity, while the witches themselves were using these plants to keep nasty critters like goblins at bay and for water witching (dousing). Similarly, it was common practice (and still is in some areas) throughout Europe to lay a broom across the threshold to keep a witch from entering, yet this very same broom could be used as the witch’s magical transportation!
The Role of Superstition & Folklore in Magical Correspondences
In retrospect, all this superstition is rather amusing to a modern-minded witch who has grown accustomed to logic and convenience. Even so, we have to consider the times and settings in which our ancestors lived. The beliefs they held dear were not just happenstance or whimsy. They had grown out of a long-term love affair that humankind developed with nature and Her citizens. Through a combination of respect, faith, and old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness, the ancient magicians and cunning folk built a metaphysical system that would endure through the millennia to heal our bodies, nurture our minds, and advance our spirits.
Thus, the superstitions about magical flowers and plants are actually very important to our studies and applications today. Underneath the leafy layers of lore are some notable historical roots and extremely useful correspondences that shouldn’t be tossed away just because they’re quaint by our standards. Let’s take a peek at some of these origins and then see how those treasures translated into modern practice.
The human fascination with flowers and plants dates back to antiquity, but its long-reaching effects on humanity are still being felt today. In both the metaphysical community and the public-at-large, the interest in natural medicine, non-chemical gardening methods, flowers as a food group, home herbalism, and other related fields has been growing steadily over the last few decades.
Superficially one might say that this resurgence has nothing to do with magic or witches. Yet, the village wise person, shaman, and witch of old was often given the task of remembering and passing along our herbal heritage and traditional plant lore. Thanks to those diligently kept bits of oral history we have a large body of naturopathic information from which to draw!
In reviewing the brief history that follows here, please bear in mind that these people truly trusted in magic as a means to improve their life−something we would do well to emulate.
The Original Spiritual Botanists
Flower and plant magick has been utilized effectively by wives, warriors, charlatans, shamans, and dreamers of all ages. It is important to remember, however, that we are exploring documentable history here versus oral tradition. Oral history indicates that the fascination humanity has had for the natural world began almost as soon as the mind could comprehend a “tomorrow.” Written history doesn’t take us quite that far back.
The oldest written records of plant lore come to us from Egypt. Here, the idea of medicine, perfumery, and magic were united into a “metaphysical” system of cures and allures. The earliest papyruses containing plant lore date from 2000 to 1000 B.C.E. but refer frequently to older texts and oral traditions. These writings talk about the use of various plants in embalming, one of the most important religious traditions for Egyptians. From these records, evidence suggests that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon likely housed flowers, herbs, and other plants for all types of practical, religious, and magickal functions.
Similarly, in India, plant lore and religion mingled freely in a system known as Ayurveda (1500 B.C.E.), a word that means “the science of life.” It was believed that the Gods originally taught Ayurveda to a handful of human disciples. These faithful few placed this information in the Vedas (Hindu scriptures) for the edification of the general populace. By 1000 B.C.E. these techniques were highly developed and expanded in the Rigveda, where over 1,000 plants were listed. This was followed in 1 A.D. by Charaka Sambita, a text listing 500 herbal drugs alongside strong recommendations that people should include meditation in their daily routine as a way of building a healthy body-mind-spirit balance.
Greece & Rome
Moving from India into the Greco-Roman world, around the seventh century B.C., we find the Greeks still observing nature’s magic with awe and respect, as did the Syrians, Mesopotamians, and Persians (to name just a few). In the large trade-oriented regions such as Greece and Rome, magical plant lore was absorbed by all types of travellers, from merchants to kings. During this period, we also find some witches and magicians working quietly in villages, while others assisted rulers.
Cassiodorus, a Roman senator and monk (490-58 B.C.), created a curriculum complete with herbal studies. These herbal curatives included all manner of charms, incantations (with Pagan God or Goddess names changed to suitable divine or angelic names), and mystical properties. While no monk would ever think of himself as studying the occult, these men were expected to perform duties from healing the sick to making fields produce and cattle fertile.
The Christian Connection
By the early centuries A.D., trouble was starting to brew between the Pagan and Christian factions over retaining a social versus a theological worldview. Nonetheless, natural magick and Church ritual still mingled pretty liberally. This may have been fueled by the respected Greek philosopher Aristotle’s declaration that plants possessed a powerful psyche, albeit less than that of humans. The secret powers of herbs and plants were being used readily to heal, divine the future, make amulets, and so forth. In some instances, this very Pagan tradition included a mingling of Christian invocations just for good measure!
Gnostics Enter Stage Right
Sometime between A.D. 100 and A. D. 500 the Gnostic and Hermetic traditions began to mingle. This resulted in long incantations that exhibited the blend of Jewish, Christian, Hellenistic, Persian, Greek, and Babylonian influences. Alongside this we find still more attention to the natural world and its magick. Specifically, in the early herbal writings of Hermetica (a book sometimes historically attributed to Hermes Trismegistus) we find plants categorized by their planetary, divine, and sympathetic associations. For example, any herb linked with Venus (the planet) was also often associated with the Goddess, meaning that the flower or herb would be powerful in love magick! Sound familiar? It should, since modern witches still sort out flowers and plants in this manner.
Between A.D. 641 and A.D. 1096, monasteries were often the centers where plant lore and herbal arts were dutifully tended. Cunning folk were also common during this time, being trusted by the townspeople they served for everything from curing cattle to easing the pain of a broken heart. These cunning folk were truly wise in that they blended pragmatic know-how (often having learned their art at the feet of a mentor, master, or parent) with metaphysical energy. The result was a potent balance between temporal and spiritual, mundane and magic.
Japan & Arabia
Meanwhile, across the seas in Japan we find still more evidence of the global reverence toward flowers, specifically chrysanthemums. On the ninth day of the ninth moon, petals were steeped in wine and given to the Emperor to ensure long life and inspire the muse. This was also the day when the Shogun met with his Samurai as a show of fealty. It’s interesting to note that this very ancient celebration continues in modern times with flower pageantry in early September honoring Japanese history and tradition.
Also, during this time, the Arabic people were busily developing the profession of pharmacist (A.D. 900). This job wasn’t simply a matter of pat prescriptions. These pharmacists were well-studied physicians who employed astrology and various “magically” related rituals as part of their healing techniques, especially that of preparing medicines! After the Crusades (1096-1271), Arabic beliefs were brought back to Europe and added to the wealth of herbal treatments already applied.
When the clever Arab spice traders met the Europeans, they quickly recognized a lucrative atmosphere full of omens, and witchcraft, ripe for harvesting. They used this foundation as an advertising platform−spreading traditional Arabic plant lore associated with their spices and raising the value of their trade goods in the process. So talented were their efforts that the Muslim hold on the spice trade did not diminish for centuries.
Apart from the Arabic practices, the common people of this time employed the renowned magical significance of herbs for boon and bane as needed. Parsley was taken to prevent drunkenness, anise for nightmares, basil for hatred, and Laurel for invoking the gift of prophecy. This is the rich stock from which evolved many of our modern plant correspondences.
The Evolution of Magick Herbology from 1200 to 1700 CE
During the 1200s a book entitled Lacnunga appeared. It was an important compilation of prescriptions from European folk magick, including bits from Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, and Norse traditions that helped document many commonly used healing methods. It also described the flowers and plants called for in various spells, potions, and amulets along with suitable accompanying incantations and ritualistic preparation processes. What’s particularly interesting to the modern practitioner is the fact that the construct of incantations, the use of color and number symbolism, and the application of astrology all sound very much like what we read in magical texts today
During the 1300s the herbal tradition continued with other topical tomes. Some told of how notable figures like St. Augustine used plants and plant parts as spiritual helpmates. Solomon’s herb, for example, was used by the Saint to exorcise evil. This herb was not to be taken internally as a curative, but instead hung around the neck and shown to the afflicted person so any nearby demons would fly away! This is a perfect description of what witches call a talisman or fetish (a specially chosen object with inherent power that evokes some type of immediate response), yet it was used by a Christian Saint! In this manner, St. Augustine quite innocently helped salvage the tradition of natural magic from the grips of disappearing history and increasing social transitions.
An Italian Witch
Come the early 1400s, we discover an interesting woman in Todi, Italy, known as Matteuccia Francisci. This woman was truly a professional witch and could often be found mixing over thirty plant parts into wine for love, fertility, or other curatives. She also created lotions and poppets for similar purposes. Apparently Matteuccia’s abilities, knowledge of plant lore, and adeptness with the magickal arts were substantial enough that she had clients who travelled to see her from hundreds of miles away.
European Magickal Herbalists
At the same time in England, well-known herbalists were proving themselves almost as spicy as their subject matter. John Gerald first published his herbal work in 1597, which actually was a rewrite of Dodens Latin Herbal in part! To his credit, Gerald also included information on exotic plants, of which he personally grew over 1,000 species, including details on each plant’s lore.
He was followed in the mid-1600s by Nicholas Culpeper, an herbalist and astrologer who listed planetary associations in his writings, and whether a plant was “hot” or “cold” (which affected its applications). Alongside Culpeper, the German alchemist Albertus Magnus’s work entitled The Boke of Secrets had become very popular (originally appearing in the 1500s). Magnus taught Thomas Aquinas alchemy, and his writings include information on the mystical virtues of herbs, flowers (including periwinkle, lily, and rose), and plants like mistletoe. It was during this time frame that we find King Louis XIV’s mistress employing a popular witch, Catherine la Voisin, to create love potions, passion mixtures, and beauty preparations. In the recipes for these creations, we find common flowers still used today for love (like roses), and culinary spices like fennel and cinnamon.
By the 1700s the demand for magicians still existed, but humans as a whole were undergoing a kind of mental awakening to the wonders of science. Alchemy became more appealing because of its scientific methods, even to figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Nonetheless, we don’t read too much of witchery during this time. Instead Freemasonry, which has strong mystical overtones, making an appearance along with some
Druidry, which brings us back to nature’s temple.
Magickal Herbalists from the 19th Century Onward
In the 19th century, agnosticism, alchemy, and Pythagoreanism all found themselves experiencing a renaissance. Books on these subjects started to appear, filled with useful plant lore. Eliphas Levi, a mystic revered as the “father of modern magic,” wrote during this era for ritual magicians, while other people were compiling magical almanacs for everyday folks, not simply researchers or historians. While illiteracy was still common, this period marks an important transition for those interested in occult arts. It was no longer going to be an exclusive club, and it has remained open to anyone who wanted to know about it ever since.
It’s also important to notice that no matter the era or culture examined in this brief review, the magical arts have always worked hand in hand with the natural world, and still do. In a wide variety of methods and traditions, herbs, flowers, and other plants were key constituents for cunning folk. This means we have a vast global heritage from which to draw upon today. By so doing we can benefit from our ancestors’ experiences and honor our history, while still being mindful of the times in which we live and the flower and plant data now available. Moving forward the potential for magical practices will continue blossoming based on this rich accumulation of knowledge.
Expanded from “A Floral Grimoire,” by Patricia Telesco. All rights reserved.