Flashback Friday: Herbs and Paganism

The use of healing herbs by health-conscious consumers is an ancient tradition with a history dating back to the Iron Age.
Flashback Friday: Herbs and Paganism
Courtesy of Angelica’s Traditional Herbs and Foods

A history of herbs used by the Celts and other pre-Christian tribal societies and their continued ritual use through the centuries, written by Mary Forsell and originally published in the October, 1993 issue of High Times.

Before Christianity, polytheism was the religion of choice throughout Europe and the British Isles. To these country people, all forces of nature were divine. Pantheons of gods and goddesses symbolized the natural energy that ran through every river, stone, tree and flower. The earth provided everything necessary for living contentedly, including a vast array of scented green medicines with mysterious curative powers—known today as herbs. These medicines were so revered that they were a part of religious ceremonies, usually held in the open air at river sources, in forests and other sacred places. Although certain community members were designated to officiate rites, anyone could use herbs for personal magic—they were free for the asking.

One of the most powerful earth religions was that of the Celts, tribal groups who flourished during the Iron Age and spread through the British Isles, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Macedonia and even parts of Asia. Each Celtic tribe had its own deities and style of worship, but all had a priestly caste called Druids, men and women (the latter distinguished by their intricate tattoos created from herbal and berry juices), who led rites in oak groves, burned herbs in bonfires or simmered them in iron cauldrons in worship of deities. When Roman conquerors led by Caesar finally defeated them, they were made to worship Roman deities, although they did this in name only. When Christianity finally became the official religion of the Roman Empire during Constantine’s reign, many of the Celtic rites were adopted by the Church in an effort to speed the transition and convert the pagani, or country dwellers, from their old ways. This is the origin of the word Pagan.

The Christians used festivals of the old earth religion as a basis for their spiritual calendar. Samhain, the festival of the dead, became All Soul’s Day; the summer solstice, St. John’s Day: the winter solstice, Christmas. Beltane became sanitized as May Day, and the old phallic symbol used by pagans to celebrate the rebirth of the earth turned into a ribbony Maypole. The spring solstice, Ostava, became Easter, complete with the pagan custom of coloring eggs.

Wise Women

Despite these religious changes, herbal folk medicine and magic continued as a daily reality. Though people in urban centers were likely to visit monasteries to obtain herbs, country people would visit the local wise woman (or man) for medicinal herbs. The reason that so many women dispensed herbs was that they were midwives and had to learn how to mix anesthetic plant combinations to ease childbirth and help mothers recover. It was the wise women who would have written down the formulas and preserved them, often in spell books with magical incantations.

Some people believe that this is the foundation of Wicca, the religion of witches, which was really a continuation of ancient paganism. The wise women knew how to handle all the herbs, down to the most deadly. As an example, if mishandled, foxglove can be lethal; if administered properly, it yields the heart-regulating drug digitalis, something the witches understood instinctively. (Even to this day, there’s a British folk belief that witches decorate their fingers with beautiful speckled foxglove blossoms.) Modern-day Wiccans explain that because they were attuned to the spiritual energy of particular herbs, they were able to magnify and access their powers—much in the way homeopaths today can use minute quantities and get major results.

With the growing influence and monopoly of Christianity and the rising number of doctors (a.k.a. barber-surgeons) who wanted to keep herbal secrets in their own domain, there was a growing climate mounting against the wise women who were, by this time, known as witches. The Black Plague finally pushed the button that set off the horror of witch trials. No one understood how the disease was transmitted, and the witches were convenient scapegoats. Their intimate knowledge of herbs gave them seemingly boundless powers.

One of the most obsessive topics on trial was the witch’s flying ointment—luridly described by “witnesses” as heinous blends of baby fat and reptilian body parts meant to invoke Satan. More believable records show that the mixture was actually an herbal blend intended to induce an altered state of consciousness—a means of tapping into herbal powers and experiencing something of the divine. It’s not unlike many other traditions. At ancient Greek festivals, for instance, Maenads (female members of the orgiastic cult of Dionysus) would chew ivy to enter a frenzied, altered state and worship the goddess. In the same manner, Bacchantes (who were male devotees of Bacchus) would drink heavily at bacchanalias. On this continent, Native Americans spend days on end in the peyote ceremony. The witches used mind-and body-altering herbs to induce an out-of-body experience (astral travel), not to literally “fly.”

Typical flying ointments were topically applied and contained combinations of wolfsbane, henbane, cinquefoil, hemlock, mandrake, moonshade, belladonna (nightshade), opium, saffron, poplar leaves, and aconite (monkshood) in a fat or oil base and, perhaps, some scented herbs for a pleasant scent or aphrodisiac effect. Blends of such herbs (you probably only needed two types) were sure to induce a disoriented, floating feeling.

What seems incredible is that anyone could survive encounters with herbs that are fatal for most people today.

“First, people’s physical conditions were much more robust,” says Lola Babalon, a German born witch-sorceress now living in Los Angeles who was educated in the European tradition of chaos magic. This makes sense, when you consider all the pesticides, air pollution and food additives that are stressing our bodies today but were absent during the Middle Ages. “Second,” says Lola, “a skilled witch would know how to handle the herbs and realize that their potencies are different at different times of the year.” She explains that certain herbs become sacrosanct after you establish an intimate connection with them and understand their deadliness. A modern-day example is datura, which is considered poisonous. “But if you know how to handle it, you can smoke a little. Carlos Castaneda even called it the ‘little smoke,’ hemp being the ‘big smoke.’ It will induce a trance-like state.” Lola keeps her own garden of herbs for personal use and observes their potencies throughout the year.

Another way witches got the most impact from flying ointments, says Lola, is “by putting them on sensitive parts—temples, inside the arm and even in the vagina as a magical form of aphrodisiac. The image of witches riding on broomstick comes from that.” Today, witches usually induce astral travel by putting “fresh herbs on the third eye and nape of neck” (mixed with ointment to make them adhere). In his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, recommended by many Wiccans, Scott Cunningham suggests using crete and poplar leaves for astral travel.

Green witches are another contemporary link to the wise woman tradition. They believe that plants have the ability to communicate and are not here to trick you. Although Green Witches say they often hear the plants talking, they also judge a plant’s efficacy through a method reminiscent of the Doctrine of Signatures—the belief that a plant’s appearance suggests its uses. For many Green Witches, the following example would apply. Yellow is associated with solar plexus, the sun center of body, which governs organs associated with personality. So, a yellow plant says, “I have to do with personality,” and would therefore be beneficial to the stomach, liver, kidneys, gallbladder and pancreas. Green Witches confidently prepare herbal tinctures using plants that the FDA warns against, touching stinging nettles and not getting pricked. They also prefer not to cultivate a traditional herb garden—they let the plants come to them, growing wild around their homes. (Green Witches abound at the Green Nations Gathering in New York State each year.)

Traditional Wiccan Herbs

For centuries, witches have been associated with certain herbs—broom, obviously, for the material of the broom stick, brambles, hemlock, mandrake, foxglove, St. John’s wort, rue, elder, rowan, oak and vervain. (Incidentally, the old English name for witch, wicce, is closely tied to rowan, wice. After the witch trials, people mistakenly began to believe that these same herbs could curtail witches’ powers. An old English couplet goes, “Trefoil, Vervain, St. John’s Wort, Dill, Hinder witches of their will.” What people didn’t realize is that witches are not Satanists, and therefore use the same herbs as did Christians (who inherited them from the same pagan traditions as did the witches) to protect themselves from evil.

In A Witches Bible Compleat, by Janet and Stuart Farrar, among suggested rituals of protection are gathering up traditional protective herbs in a bottle and, ideally, burying it under the doorstep filled with garlic (for vampires), St. John’s wort (for demons), blackthorn (for summoning the protection of the Goddess), and holly (for general protection).

Pagan Uses Today

Most pagan groups today tend to invent and fine-tune their rituals as they go, although many turn to the books for guidance. Many reject strict ceremony. One witch describes the sky-clad rituals of some covens as “bad play-acting.” Herbs are sometimes used symbolically, other times they are essential for ceremony. The Radical Faeries, a gay pagan group, have no set format for herbs in ceremony, but, they do use them psychoactively. Explains MoonSong of its Seattle chapter, “Our religion is patterned along the lines of pagan ritual. We might go into the woods and do mushrooms or burn rosemary, sage and yarrow sage for cleansing and purification. We create a circle of protection by burning the herbs.”

At a New York Pagan Way meeting to celebrate the summer solstice, incense herbs and fresh herbs placed in containers on the altar were burned for the same reason. “If I have time, I like to blend my own herbal incense before a ceremony. It’s whatever herbs I feel give off the right vibrations on that particular day,” says the High Priestess. “But if I’m in a hurry, we use ready-made blends.”

Other groups are slightly more dogmatic. “Sometimes I prepare teas before scrying (divination, often with crystal ball)—some plants can loosen the mind. I think everyone needs to experiment to find just which one works,” says one Pacific Northwest Wiccan herbalist/librarian. “You can enchant herbs to increase their powers by placing herbs around a bowl and lighting candles appropriate for what you want to do. For instance, for friendship, sweet pea between two pink candles or for sex, lemon grass between two red candles, or for money, marjoram between two green candles. Also for scrying, I sometimes burn some mugwort with sandalwood. You could use the herbs in daily life to induce certain effects, like sleeping on hops pillows for prophecy.”

“In our coven, we have one person who is an accomplished incense maker,” she continues. “In the fall we tend to create blends to worship planets and gods and goddesses. In spring and summer we make them for spell crafting—such as types to burn for a safe journey or to lift the spirits.”

The reason that so many pagans rely on incense is that it is a form of releasing a plant’s energy into the air and dispersing it equally around. Says the herbalist/librarian, “A plant doesn’t need to be ingested to have a profound influence. In the middle of a working circle, there’s a group spell, you feel that plant has a presence and is a being of its own.” In that respect, she suggests, choose an herb that has some personal connection to you—it’s probably growing right outside your door.


The great festivals of European paganism are classic occasions for using herbs. One of the most important happens at the end of this month. Known to most everyone as Halloween, it is called Samhain among the Wiccan community. This is when the Celtic winter begins—the eve of the new year when communication between the seen and unseen worlds is easiest. It is the night when spirits of dead friends and relatives return to the household, the day by which all crops should have been harvested and extra cattle killed. It is, in a sense, the festival of the dead—which doesn’t mean it has to be depressing, but quite the opposite.

Actual details as to how to conduct this ceremony can be found in A Witches Bible Compleat, but any of the incense herbs would play a role: rose, lavender, bergamot, orris root, damiana, cloves—all of which may be burned in a censer. The ceremonial room might be decorated with autumn foliage and fruits. Especially important are apples and nuts. It is best (and most aesthetically pleasing) if you keep them on the twig. Hops vines also figure in as a traditional decoration. Essentially, look to nature to see what would be appropriate for such a ceremony.

The other major festival, Beltane, celebrates fertility and the beginning of Celtic summer on the eve of May 1. Herbs to use here would be of a more flowery nature. This is the time of year when the Sun is “like a young queen in flower.” On this night in the British Isles people traditionally light great bonfires. Blossoming hawthorn and blackthorn branches, sacred to the White Goddess at this time of year, are brought indoors to decorate the home altar (with thorns removed they can be used to decorate the women’s hair). The high priest would wear a chaplet of oak leaves. As the ritual ensues, summer is conjured “With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn,” and later joss sticks are lit—presumably they could be of lavender or some other spiky flowers.

The beauty of paganism is eclecticism and adaptability, and this extends to how one should use herbs—whether as a symbol of eternity entwined in your hair or as a perfumed plume of smoke rising above the ceremonial circle.

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