Of Haunted Herbs & Honorable Harvests

A few months back I continued my education in herbalism through a flower essence course with the wonderful Liz Migliorelli of Sister Spinster and one of the early topics we discussed was interacting with plants as members of our interspecies community. This is vital to my own work with botanical allies and to animism more broadly. Entering into dialogue with other-than-human beings begins by treating them with dignity and forming our relationships on a foundation of reciprocity and mutual understanding. Plants are not merely resources to be harvested for our own purposes, they are living, autonomous beings and loci around which entire ecologies of spirits orbit. In discussing this, Liz suggested we watch a presentation about the honorable harvest by Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass:

Kimmerer’s observations about indigenous ways of being in relationship with plants has parallels with some older European practices. Both gesture toward an animist worldview and what Enrique Salmón identifies as kincentric ecology – the perspective that human beings are part of an extended community with the natural elements of our ecosystems. One useful point of entry for developing these relationships is acknowledging the personhood of the plants we live and work with. Sources from learned magical texts to popular charms attest to the importance of this and it falls right in line with the ethos of the honorable harvest. Included in many late antique herbals, the Precatio Omnium Herbarum, attributed to Greek botanist and physician Antonius Musa, offers one method for opening dialogue with and requesting aid from medicinal herbs:

“With all you potent herbs do I now intercede; and to your majesty make my appeal: ye were engendered by Mother Earth, and given for a gift to all. On you she has conferred the healing which makes whole, on you high excellence, so that to all mankind you may be time and again an aid most serviceable. This in suppliant wise I implore and entreat: hither, hither swiftly come with all your potency, forasmuch as the very one who gave you birth has granted me leave to gather you: he also to whom the healing art is entrusted has shown his favor. As far as your potency now extends, vouchsafe sound healing for health’s sake. Bestow on me, I pray, favor by your potency, that in all things, whatsoever I do according to your will, or for whatsoever man I prescribe, ye may have favorite issues and most speedy result. That I may ever be allowed, with the favor of your majesty, to gather you and I shall set forth the produce of the fields for you and return thanks through the name of the Mother who ordained your birth.”

Present in the incantation is a speech pattern commonly directed toward spirits and minor deities, both regarded as wielding considerable power over human affairs: greeting, praise, authorization by higher powers, request for favor, and sacrifice offered in return. Throughout the botanical allies addressed are treated at beings with their own volition, personhood, and divine community rather than inanimate resources. This pattern threads from late antiquity through the early modern period and even beyond, although the particulars often shift, expanding or contracting as cultural perceptions or agreements with the spirits change.

Another late antique herb-gathering charm appears in the Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyri. Here the plant to be gathered is treated as an adversary, rather than courted as an ally. Although I prefer a more amicable approach myself, the inclusion of violent threat and nomina barbara, often reserved for more dangerous spirits, still recognizes botanical agency because they imply the plant can refuse the demands made of it. A contemporary reading may not gloss this as an honorable exchange, but there’s more dignity in this confrontation than thoughtlessly pulling up plants as though they’re inanimate objects:

“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 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 BARNACHŌCHA BRAEŌ MENDA LABURAASSE PHASPHA BENDEŌ; fulfill for me the perfect charm.”

Both of these examples run counter to contemporary narratives about plant life, in which they’re regarded as helpless non-beings to be used or abused according to human whim. Importantly, recognition of personhood is present at the moment of harvest and there is statement of intent informing the herb why it’s being gathered. Occasionally, statement of intent is all that’s present, offering only a glimpse of the personhood and honorable harvest more explicit in other practices, as in the following from a 10th-century leechbook:

“For mickle travelling over land, lest he tire, let him take mugwort to him in hand, or put it into his shoe, lest he should weary, and when he will pluck it, before the upgoing of the sun, let him say first these words, ‘I will take thee, Artemisia, lest I grow weary on the road.’ Sign it with the sign of the Cross when thou pullest it up.”

At other times, an offering in return for the plant’s life is the only thing that frames the exchange as a mutual relationship. This is dramatically present in the harvesting protocol for baarus, an enchanted root associated with mandrake, as reported by first-century Romano-Jewish historian Josephus and later expanded in subsequent European folklore and magic:

“A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavors to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.”

Animal sacrifice is employed to avoid the root’s wrath, often personified as the grotesque inversion of a baby’s scream at the moment of birth, which effects a form of reciprocal relationship – namely, the life of the mandrake for the life of the dog. Yet even when neither sacrifice nor statement of intent are present, charms often situate plants as community members. This is evident in the many charms that locate the personhood of plants in a landscape of Christian historiola, often implicitly recognizing them as fellow Christians, as in this seventeenth-century English example:

“Hallowed be thou, Vervain, as thou growest on the ground,

For in the mount of Calvary there was thou first found.

Thou healedst our Savior Jesus Christ, and stanchedst his bleeding wound;

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground.”

In the early twentieth-century, the herb-gathering charms collected in Gaelic-speaking Scotland by folklorist Alexander Carmichael continued to encode specific relationships with plant allies. Consider the following charm addressed to hypericum performatum, commonly called Saint John’s wort, but here associated with Saint Columba:

“Saint Columba’s little arm package,

Saint Columba’s little arm package,

Without seeking, without asking!

God and Christ willing,

This year I shall not die.”

A great deal of knowledge and relationship is secreted away in this brief charm. It presents the life of Saint Columba in relationship with hypericum, specifies a method for sustainably harvesting the herb, and its traditional use. Without seeking or asking refers to gathering hypericum only when it is stumbled across accidentally while the reference to Columba’s arm package is informed by the tradition of wearing the herb in the armpit, where its volatile oils can be rapidly absorbed as a poultice-like external therapy. Scottish folklore observes this to guard against the evil eye, bewitchment, and fright, all of which may contribute to premature death.

Trees are also found among the botanical allies indicated in gathering charms. Elder, a tree to which magic and shapeshifting are often ascribed, is legendary for the diverse folktales and superstitions surrounding it. The many charms directed at elder speak to the widespread taboo of harvesting it without permission – a taboo echoed in the Anglo-Celtic isles with hawthorn and ash among others. The following Danish example was collected in the nineteenth-century by folklorist Hilderic Friend and Kimmerer’s request for permission, listening for response, and reciprocation are all present in the formula:

“If you wish to cut down an elder tree, you must first ask its permission, and then, barring rebuke, you must spit three times and three times repeat the formula –

‘Lady Elda,

Give me some of thy wood,

Then I will give thee some of mine,

When it grows in the forest.’”

Although more often relegated to correspondence lists or materia required for an operation in texts of ritual or astral magic, plant allies are also addressed as persons in several books belonging to early modern magicians. Elder makes one such appearance in a sixteenth-century magical manuscript, published in 2015 as The Book of Oberon. An offering and conjuration to the tree creates space for an interspecies dialogue. Called by the name ‘Magrano,’ the elder, anthropomorphized as a beautiful woman, offers the magician a wish-fulfilling herb in exchange for blessing the ground beneath her shadow:

“Go under an elder tree at midday when the Sun is hottest, and under the shadow strew consecrated rushes and call thrice ‘Magrany vel [“or”] magrano,’ and there will appear before thee an herb shining like gold and behind it a fair woman, which will ask thee what thou wouldst have, and thou shalt have anything that thou wilt ask, then take up the herb, and thou shalt not want anything whilst thou keepest it.”

Another tree whose roots are deeply entangled in European folklore and spirit ecologies, apple is addressed in more than a dozen love spells from a seventeenth-century cunning man’s workbook. Published in 2011 as The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet, the operations speak to the fruit of the apple and conjure its occult virtues by the various spirits and ancestors who constellate around it. This illuminates how plant allies can participate in their own complex spiritual communities and how magicians might collaborate with them to accomplish a task:

“Write on an Apple before it falls from the tree these three words with blood: Lucifer Sathanus Rusal and say, I conjure thee by all the demons who tempted Adam & Eve in Paradise so that whichever way through you the woman will taste love for me and desire for me.”

Two entries from a sixteenth-century necromancer’s manual, published in 2015 as The Cambridge Book of Magic, are also noteworthy. Both conjure the spirit and virtue of a whole herb, root and all, in much the same way one might summon the shades of the dead – with devout prayer and incantations calling on saints, angels, and the Holy Trinity. Additionally, the operations require offerings of precious metals and libations, among other things, to be gifted to the herb. This frames the plants as volitional beings, no less a person than a named ghost, demon, or angel. The prohibition against iron, a substance harmful to spirits in both folklore and grimoiric ritual tools, in the entry for gathering vervain further contextualizes the herb as an intelligent and autonomous creature:

‘The plant vervain, whoever wants to have it for their work ought to dig it up after sunset on the vigil of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary or in the month of May if not. And return there silently, and when you come to the place where the plant is growing, kneel and say the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed whilst digging around it with a wooden wedge, not with iron, so that you do not remove the swelling to the end. And beware that you do not pull out the roots of the same plant, but putting down silver and gold, secretly and quietly withdraw, so that what has been done should be thoroughly unknown to all parties. And in the morning, before sunrise, quickly and quietly go to that place, saying again an Our Father and Hail Mary with the Creed on your knees; and afterwards when you want to investigate, say this conjuration devoutly:

“I conjure, noble root, by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and by the forty-four elders, and by the four archangels, and by the twelve apostles, and by the four evangelists, and by the milk of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and by Anna her mother, and by her sweet assumption, that [illeg.] and that you should not leave your virtue in the earth but that I may take you in the same power in which God created and creates you, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

And let this conjuration be said three times, and afterwards dig it up and quickly wash it in wine or in a woman’s milk on account of its nobility, and wrap it in a linen sheet. Place the other plants growing around it in the same sheet next to it, and afterwards have a mass celebrated over them, preserving it honestly…’

Taking interspecies community even further, the entry on valerian invites the magician to marry the plant prior to harvest. This practice is best understood in the context of Catholic sacraments which were believed to possess real magical efficacy to protect, empower, and in the case of marriage bind those blessed by them. Sacraments were often administered licitly or otherwise to other-than-human beings both as part of folk religion and dedicated magical practice. To effect this intimate, truly kincentric relationship, and perhaps mirroring the wife’s removal from her family in early modern Europe, since valerian was often understood as a feminine plant under Venus, the herb is first exorcised of any spirits that might cohere around or be in relationship with it before being bound to the magician in matrimony and gifted with a golden ring:

“‘...I conjure you, demons, whether of the air or of the earth, by the living God, by the true God, and by the holy and undivided Trinity… and by all saints, angels and archangels, thrones, dominions, patriarchs and prophets: that you should not have the power and virtue of this plant which I want to conjure, whether it be valerian or any other plant: so withdraw far from this place, on account of the strength of almighty God, so that you may not be able to disturb or hinder me… I conjure you, demons, that you should not abscond to this place where this plant has been created or planted by Our Lord Jesus Christ, but rather that you should withdraw far away and flee… in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit + Amen’.

Afterwards sign it three times, saying: ‘Be strong, plant valerian, of all things by the Lord by whom you bless + and sanctify +’ Afterwards say an Our Father with a Hail Mary. In those days in which you begin to uproot the plants when you place it, with these being uprooted, say: ‘In the name by which there is wisdom + bless + in + the name of the Father, and of Son and of the Holy Spirit to whom is the gift ... limits I have bound you and pulled you out’. This done, say this psalm: Psalm 67. Having said this, have a ring made of gold and set it down, with salt and a white sheet, and with holy water to the measure of a thumb, and with everything say thus:

‘О valerian, I espouse you; with my wealth + I honour you + in the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit + Amen +' Place this ring on the middle of the plant just like the custom with women getting married. “I ask and conjure you valerian, my spouse + by the Father + by the Son + by the Holy Spirit + and by the holy and undivided Trinity, and by that virtue which the Our Lord Jesus Christ gave you so that you might be excellent and propitious for me and my friends in every place, time, hour and moment: bring wealth and help to my friends, and to my enemies the reverse; since you, health-giving plant valerian, are good for all things and I believe and know you to be above all other plants in the world for giving love, and bringing friends together, and setting enemies apart + in the name of the Father + and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.”

Continuing this more explicitly kincentric relationship model, the creation of talismanic poppets from roots perceived to share human form brings plants into intimate community with their human peers. Called manikins or alraunes, in the popular imagination they were frequently created from mandrake roots, but early modern authors suggest bryony and other herbs indigenous to Europe were more likely suspects. Sixteenth-century botanist Hieronymous Bock claimed to never have seen a true mandrake, but encountered bryony roots, carved into human shape with sprouted barley for hair, passed off as the infamous nightshade. Nineteenth-century author Jean-Baptiste Pitois also described the creation of manikins from bryony:

“Would you like to make a Mandragora, as powerful as the homunculus so praised by Paracelsus? Then find a root of the plant called bryony. Take it out of the ground on a Monday, a little time after the vernal equinox. Cut off the ends of the root and bury it at night in some country churchyard in a dead man's grave. For 30 days, water it with cow's milk in which three bats have been drowned. When the 31st day arrives, take out the root in the middle of the night and dry it in an oven heated with branches of verbena; then wrap it up in a piece of a dead man's winding-sheet and carry it with you everywhere.”

Animal sacrifice, libations, and communion with the human dead recontextualize the dialogue between magician and manikin, transmuting it into a living, intimate relationship. The practice, rebuked as witchcraft or superstition by early modern medical and spiritual authorities, also provides a window into how plants might be integrated into the most foundational of communities – the household. Said to shower their human companions with favor when well cared for, manikins were often cosseted like children and given an honored place in the home. A nineteenth-century pharmaceutical journal reported that in the middle ages a root fetish was believed to bring:

“...good fortune to its possessor, gold to the poor, favor to the lover, and support women in child-bearing, but which required to be cherished and clothed lest it do an ill turn.”

Discrete ritual offerings to plants as part of an honorable harvest reveal themselves in popular fertility rituals. In England, the orchard-visiting wassail is one such example. During Christmastide, celebrants known as wassailers visit local apple orchards to sing and toast the trees while pouring spiced ciders at the base of their trunks or hanging cider-soaked toast on their branches. This is sometimes accompanied by the banging of pots and pans or the shooting of guns to drive away unwanted spirits. The object of the ritual is not an immediate, respectful gathering of plant material but a celebration of giving back to the plants that have already given so much. In early twentieth-century Carhampton, wassailing looked something like this according to folklorist Christian Roy:

“The villagers form a circle around the largest apple tree in a selected orchard. Pieces of toast soaked in cider are hung in the branches for the robins, who represent ‘the good spirits’ of the tree. The leading wassailer utters an incantation and shot-gun volleys are fired through the branches to frighten away the evil spirits. Then the tree is toasted in cider and urged in song to bring forth much fruit. The last verse of the song runs:

‘Old Apple tree, old apple tree,

We’ve come to wassail thee,

To bear and to bow apples enow,

Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full,

Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs.’

The European magicians of old did not approach plants as the passive supernumeraries disenchantment posits them to be. Neither did the herbalists, agriculturalists, and others who lived close to the land. Neither should we today. As Matthew Hall observed in Talk Among the Trees: Animist Plant Ontologies and Ethics, botany increasingly recognizes what animists have known all along – plants are ‘active, communicative, cognitive, and autonomous organisms.’ It’s the foundation of mutual respect on which Kimmerer’s honorable harvest and kincentric ecology stand and which informs my own work with plants when making magic or medicine.

A practice that treats plants as disempowered resources that can be used without complaint or repercussion is an injustice to the entangled, interdependent community we share with them. Plants can and will act as our co-conspirators and community members, but only if we approach them with the dignity and respect so lucidly illustrated by Kimmerer. Finding a mutual language to share with botanical allies can be a life’s work, but ancestral folkways and cultural inheritances offer a well-tread path that plant genii may already be familiar with. Diverse lineages are filled with interspecies behavioral models from which dialogue with these beautiful custodians of the biosphere naturally emerge. Sit with them, seek them out, say hello, let them breathe new life into your practice and witness how something so seemingly small can shift how we move through the world in a fundamental way.

I leave you with this stanza from the Nine Herbs Charm as a powerful prayer for resilience during trying times. Whenever I ramble over the weedy sidewalks of my neighborhood it reminds me of the patient strength of even the most overlooked plants, that they were once valued members of our interspecies family, and continue to be ageless witnesses to history today:

“And you, Plantain, mother of herbs,

Open from the east, mighty inside.

over you chariots creaked, over you queens rode,

over you brides cried out, over you bulls snorted.

You withstood all of them, you dashed against them.

May you likewise withstand poison and infection

and the loathsome foe roving through the land.”