Sacred Plant Medicine by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Sacred Plant Medicine: The Wisdom in Native American Herbalism
Stephen Harrod Buhner
Bear & Company, 2006
208 pages

Reviewed by Ser/Ket

This book presented a lot of interesting, thought-provoking information, though it proved tough for me to get into. I believe the largest disconnect lay in the frequently referred to concept that the world we live in (the everyday, mundane world) is less “REAL” than the sacred world. For me, all is sacred in some way, even the rainbows of oil slicked across the parking lot, and doesn’t exist in a separate space. I’m not claiming any view is right or wrong, but it did require me extra work to stick with the writing.

The author explores a variety of belief systems and traditions used by indigenous people throughout history. This was enjoyable to me, as I’m not familiar with very many of these practices, though at some parts the writing came across as dry and, at times, repetitive. I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the beginning, however, where many of the plants have a lengthy discussion not only of what the plant is used for, but also their appearance, location, associations in other cultures and belief systems, and personal interactions with the plants through meditation as well as personal use.

The most resonant part of the story for me was a personal one from the author, describing his journey from doctor to doctor to determine the cause of his debilitating pain. I myself spent many years trying to root out the causes of my own pains and can empathize with his frustration and disenchantment with the world of pharmaceuticals. The author’s story ends happily, by discovering a medicinal plant and working with it to heal, and leading him on the lifelong quest documented in this book. Through his work, I can see others joining him on this path, learning to work with the plants both in their local area and featured in this book.

A final point I’d like to mention were the inclusion of occasional songs, including sheet music and lyric translation. Not something I was expecting, but a nice touch!

Overall, I would give this book a score only slightly higher than “average” due mainly to it’s writing style. For me, I need the style to move me through the material presented, and I felt this book’s style was a bit halting and difficult. The dryness, coupled with an initial difficulty to relate to the content, kept me from really enjoying my reading experience. Of the positives in the book, the songs weren’t numerous, and the author’s experience with the plants contained much of the “REAL” belief system that I’d had trouble adapting to.

Three pawprints out of five.

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Nature-Speak by Ted Andrews

Nature-Speak: Signs, Omens & Messages in Nature
Ted Andrews
Dragonhawk Publishing, 2004
448 pages

This is a book that I’d had my eye on for several years before finally picking up a copy. What Animal-Speak is to animal totems, so Nature-Speak is to plant spirits and landscapes. It follows much of the same pattern–some basic theoretical information about a particular set of beings or phenomena in nature, then some exercises to work with them, and finally a dictionary section. Andrews addresses some of the expected beings like trees and flowers, but also gives “weeds” a place in this veritable garden as well.

And like Animal-Speak, this book is written in a friendly, inviting manner. Andrews had a knack for writing to a wide audience, making the information accessible and interesting enough to make the reader want to try it out for themselves. This is a book that’s good both for the novice and for the more experienced nature pagan.

However, it also deviates into other areas of esotericism. There are rituals for the Sabbats, for example, drawing on Andrews’ rich experiences in nature. And he delves into such areas as work with angelic beings, as well as splashes of Hermeticism and other ceremonial traditions. In this way it’s a more eclectic text than Animal-Speak‘s quasi-shamanic flavor.

The only real complaint I have about the book is the proliferation of typos. It’s possibly one of the worst for that, to be honest. Every few pages I was picking out some misspelled word or grammatical error. I am unsure what Dragonhawk Publishing’s internal structure was like; it was Andrews’ own company, and now that he is sadly deceased I can’t simply ask. So it may be that he was editing his own work.

Still, for all that it’s a worthwhile read, and I highly recommend it for those interested in its subject matter.

Four pawprints out of five.

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Holy Smoke by Amy “Moonlady” Martin – new edition

Holy Smoke: Loose Herbs & Hot Embers for Intense Group Smudges & Smoke Prayers
Amy “Moonlady” Martin
Moonlady Media, 2010
110 pages

On rare occasion I will review a book a second time, especially if it’s undergone a lot of reworking. In its initial incarnation, this title was known as Spirit Herbs: Simple Recipes for Hibachi Herbal Magic & Sacred Space, and I gave it a glowing review because it was just so awesome. So a while back (longer than i care to admit, thanks to grad school eating my life), the author was kind enough to send me the new, updated, and even better version of the book! She removed a few things that she felt no longer fit, and added a LOT more practical material.

If you’re not familiar with the original review, this is a book all about alternatives to the usual sage smudging wand that everybody and their coven mother uses at the beginning of group neopagan rituals. Smudging is one of those practices that often gets taken for granted. “Okay, we’re going to waft smoke over you–and then get into the REAL ritual!” Yet this text takes what could be a brief step and goes into much more depth.

Some of the material is meant for the aforementioned group rituals. Beyond the initial “clean-up”, there are also smudges meant for much more intensive work over a duration of time, even a couple of hours. And whether you work with a group or alone, the “smoke prayers” are incredibly useful, both for offerings, and for focuses for meditation. At the center of all of these is the concept that scent is one of the most powerful senses we have; in fact, studies show that aromas are even more evocative than visual memories for bringing us back to a place and time, and Martin uses that to connect specific smudges to particular states of consciousness, ritual settings, etc. This is powerful stuff!

Better yet, she offers a variety of recipes for loose herb smudges. If you want a more organic alternative to chemical-laden incense sticks and cones, and especially if you’re big into DIY creations, this is a superb resource. The recipes can get you started, but she also takes care to familiarize you with a variety of ingredients and what they do, which will help you start making your own blends.

I thought I couldn’t say enough good about this book, but this new edition proved me so wrong–for which I’m quite happy! Whether you’re an herbalist looking for an addition to your library, a member of a group wanting more interesting material for rituals, or simply someone who appreciates the full use of the senses in spirituality and magic, this is a most excellent text to pick up!

Five pawprints out of five

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The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios by Marlene Dobkin de Rios

The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios: 45 Years with Shamans, Ayahuasqueros and Ethnobotanists
Marlene Dobkin de Rios
Park Street Press, 2009
190 pages

Note: This review is by Bronwen Forbes, who has been a huge help in cleaning up the last of the backlog of review books.

Under ordinary circumstances, I would not have been all that interested in reviewing this book. Even though I grew up in the 1970s, my drug of choice has always been alcohol, not marijuana, not hash, not (passé though it may have been by then) LSD. My chosen Pagan path cannot under any definition be considered shamanic. However, over this past winter I had a regular Saturday afternoon gig reading tarot cards at a local shop that sold and promoted ethnobotanicals. When the store was raided and preemptively temporarily shut down by a SWAT team (literally) in anticipation of a state bill making the pot-like K2 illegal (K2 brought about $7,000 profit into the shop a day) I suddenly became very interested in ethnobotanicals, their history, and why the Powers That Be shut down a shop over a substance that wasn’t even illegal yet.

The Psychedelic Journey didn’t answer my questions, but it did provide some very interesting insight into why naturally hallucinogenic plants are such a big deal for a culture – whether that culture is “for” them or “against” them. de Rios did most of her academic research in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, but was able to apply much of what she learned to the drug culture in America.

What de Rios learned, or at least what she was most interested in studying, is how the ritual and cultural influences surrounding the consumption of ethnobotanicals (native hallucinogenic plants) impact the user’s experience. Here in the 21st century we may say “Well duh!” at the notion that one’s background and cultural orientation influences one’s altered-state experience, but back in the 1960s and 1970s this was apparently a totally new idea.
Knowing that de Rios is an academic, and having ready my share of dry, scholarly research (I was first editor for my husband’s Ph.D dissertation in ancient history), I expected to be bored silly by this book. I wasn’t. de Rios writes in a very accessible, easy style that even a novice in the field – like myself – can understand.

For the mainstream Pagan community, The Psychedelic Journey probably isn’t going to be very interesting or very useful, although the references to bufotonin (prime ingredient in old witches’ flying ointment recipes) are interesting. For anyone following a more shamanic path, I’m sure that de Rios’ insights in the field of ethnobotany and how native healers around the world use those plants will be of great value to their personal spiritual practice.

Four and a half paws out of five

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Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac – Various

Llewellyn’s 2010 Sabbats Almanac
Various
Llewellyn, 2009
312 pages

Note: This is a guest review by Bronwen Forbes, who graciously agreed to take on some of the extra review copies I had when I decided to go on semi-hiatus.

I am honored to be a guest reviewer for Lupa’s book review blog, eager to read something closer to my “field” than the erotica and science fiction I normally critique for a national book review magazine. I bravely told her to “send me anything” only to receive the most random collection of Pagan books I’ve ever seen!

First on the stack was Llewellyn’s Sabbats Almanac: Samhain 2009 to Mabon 2010. In the interest of full disclosure, I will say upfront that I am a relatively new member of the Llewellyn author family. That being said, this latest addition to the Llewellyn annuals (Witches’ Spell-A-Day Almanac, Witches’ Companion, etc.) is, I think, a useful and worthy one. I may not feel comfortable pulling out a Llewellyn Witches’ Datebook out of my backpack when scheduling my next dentist appointment in this small Kansas town, but the Sabbats Almanac is something I will likely refer to from time to time throughout the year – in the comfort of my own home, of course.

Contributing authors to the Almanac include a deliberate mixture of relatively new writers and Pagan “celebrities”; Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, Kristen Madden, Ann Moura, Dan Furst, Raven Grimassi, Michelle Skye, and Thuri Calafia (plus others) all add their expertise and voices.

The history of each sabbat is thoroughly discussed, including an astrological section by Fern Feto Spring. I would have liked a little more explanation of astrological terms for the zodiacally-impaired reader. Kristen Madden provides seasonal recipes for an appetizer, main course, dessert and beverage for each holiday far beyond the usual “bread at Lammas, apple pie at Samhain” fare. Every sabbat section ends with a holiday ritual that can either be done as a solitary or with a group (except Mabon, which definitely requires several people).

In further interest of full disclosure, I’ve never once opened any of the Llewellyn Almanac series until Lupa sent me this one. If the Sabbats Almanac is any indication, I’ve been missing out on a basic, useful source of inspiration and ideas. The Sabbats Almanac, at least, may just become a permanent addition to my holiday book-buying binge.

Four and a half paws out of five!

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Ancestral Airs by Verda Smedley

Ancestral Airs
Verda Smedley
Dim Light Books, 2008
700 pages

As I was reading this book, I was trying to figure out where to fit it into the categories on this blog. On the one hand, it’s purportedly a reconstruction of a culture 6,000 years old; this includes extensive research into botany, mythology, history and other scholarly studies. But, when you get right down to it, it’s also a fascinating set of stories with well-developed characters, settings, and plots.

Beyond a certain point, we can really know only so much about cultures prior to written history in a region. The stories supposedly tell about the people who lived in the British Isles 6,000 years ago, well before there were any written records; while the author draws from texts about the Celts and other older cultures, these are still newer peoples than what Smedley describes. Whether the people of 4000 BC lived in ways the book described is unknown; nonetheless, the author does a lovely job of weaving together a solid description of her thoughts on the matter, and we get a good picture of what it is they did and believed.

So I chose to primarily read this for its storytelling value. Similarly to my experience of reading MZB’s The Mists of Avalon, it didn’t matter whether the story was literally true or not. I found myself sinking into a world where animism was the central belief, where the plants, animals and other denizens of nature were so important to the people that they took their names from them. I read about the rituals these people performed, as well as the participants’ feelings about them. I witnessed the interactions between individual groups of people, and how they wove into the greater overarching culture of the time. It didn’t really matter whether this was the way things “really happened”; it was a great journey anyway. Even if seen only as a novel, it’s a worthwhile read.

I can’t entirely vouch for the validity of the herbal information; the author knows more about that than I do. A lot of the information about plants peppering the stories dealt with magical uses; however, there were some medicinal uses mentioned as well. For those intrepid enough to backtrack the author’s research, there’s an appendix with the common and Latin names of all the plants (numbering in the hundreds) mentioned. Additionally, she included a thorough bibliography for further research and fact-checking.

This is a book I had to read in bits and chunks over time; at 700 pages, it’s a lot to read! The formatting left a bit to be desired, most notably the complete lack of page numbers which, in a book this length, is frustrating when trying to find where I left off, or where I found a piece of information or a snippet of story I wanted to go back to. Also, I can’t for the life of me find information about the publisher, the owner of the publishing company, or the author.

Ancestral Airs is a thoroughly enjoyable read, regardless of how much salt you choose to take the research with. Whether you choose to read it as I did, in little pieces, or simply spend several hours going from cover to cover in one fell swoop, I hope you like this unique combination of research and narrative.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

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Lllewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac – various

Llewellyn’s 2008 Herbal Almanac: Herbs for Cooking and Crafts, Health and Beauty, Growing and Gathering, History, Myth and Lore
Various
Llewellyn Publications, 2007
312 pages

People often assume that because the Llewellyn almanacs are dated (and are called “almanacs”), that most of the information in them isn’t relevant beyond the year they’re published. The truth is to the contrary. While the 2008 Herbal Almanac does include a few pages of lunar information that can be used with herbal magic and growing, this is no Farmer’s Almanac. Instead, it’s an anthology of informational essays on a wide variety of topics related to herbs and plants, sure to be relevant for years to come.

The book is divided into sections: Growing and Gathering Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Herbs for Health, Herbs for Beauty, Herb Crafts, and Herb History, Myth and Lore. Each section contains anywhere from three to eight essays of a nice variety. While overall I enjoyed the quality of the writing and information in here (albeit as someone who does not work extensively with herbs beyond cooking), here are a few of my favorites:

Endangered Herbs by Patti Wigington: Because some of the most commonly used herbs in magic are often ubiquitous (and even weeds) it can be easy to forget that not everything that’s an herb is easy to procure, or has a healthy population overall. This essay details a few herbs that, while used frequently in magic, are endangered from habitat loss, overuse, and other reasons. The author offers some excellent alternatives, as well as tips on sustainable consumption (culinary and otherwise) of these plants.

Shadowplay: Herbs for the Shady Garden by Elizabeth Barrette: You don’t need full sunlight to be able to have a garden. This excellent essay details what may be planted in the shade, as well as some ideas for helping the herbs to grow.

Organic Gardening Practices by Lynne Smyth: Another one of the gardening essays, I liked this simply because it’s a good, basic introduction to ways to garden without chemicals, and in a sustainable manner. Those who claim to be close to the Earth would do well to adopt as many of these practices as possible.

Henna for Hair by AarTiana: I love henna, and have been using it for a few years to dye my hair red. This was a nice guide to using henna, and while I already knew a good bit of the information, I learned a few things (including the fact that Lucille Ball used henna!)

Paracelsus, Plants, and the Doctrine of Signatures by Mark Stavish: This was a little denser read than most of what was in this book, but still quite accessible. A good introduction to a hermetic/alchemical take on magical herbalism, and a more thorough explanation of why we use correspondences than most short writings offer.

Crafts for Kids Unfold Outdoors by Sally Cragin: I’m childfree, but I wholeheartedly support exposing children to nature as soon as possible. This lovely article not only promotes an Earth-friendly approach to using natural items in crafts, but includes a number of how-tos on some very simple creations that can be fun for kids and grown-ups alike!

Overall, this is a great collection. Some of the essays are more 101-level, so this would be an excellent choice for a newbie, but there are some interesting things for the more advanced as well.

Five pawprints out of five.

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Spirit Herbs – Amy “Moonlady” Martin

Spirit Herbs: Simple Recipes for Hibachi Herbal Magic & Sacred Space
Amy “Moonlady” Martin
Moonlady Media
eBook (approximately 70 pages printed out)

Lots of pagans use smudge wands at the beginning of a ritual to purify participants and the ritual space. However, there’s much, much more you can do than the usual sage bundle. In this creative text, Martin offers a whole new level of smudging with herbs of all sorts–and all you need is a garden (or barbecue) variety hibachi.

Although the subtitle of the book mentioned recipes, there’s more to it than that. Martin offers a wealth of practical information to get you started. From the virtues of different sorts of tools for burning herbs, to what part of the plant has what sort of energy, to why trying to burn a pound of resins at once is a bad idea, she gives us everything we’ll need to safely and effectively use the herbs. While she thankfully avoids stuffing the book with a bunch of spells and rituals, she does offer up some of her favorite herbal blends and gives information for what they’re best used for. She also includes a helpful dictionary of a good diversity of herbs.

I love the author’s writing voice. While she conveys the information clearly and concisely, she simultaneously slips in a good bit of humor. Neither condescending nor airy-fairy, she’s sensible without boring her readers senseless.

This is exactly the kind of book that I want to see more of–not rehashes of the same old stuff, a bunch of reworked Culpeper and Cunningham. In this book, we get an innovative collection of ideas with enough information to effectively put them into practice, but without a bunch of fluff and filler. In short–this is an awesome book, and I can’t recommend it enough. I know I’ll be keeping it for my own use.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Weiser Concise Guide to Herbal Magick – Judith Hawkins-Tillirson

The Weiser Concise Guide to Herbal Magick
Judith Hawkins-Tillirson
Weiser Books, 2007
126 pages

I am really excited about this book–and it takes a lot to make that happen these days! Usually what it takes is somebody writing something that fills a particular niche, or explores something different, or otherwise manages to stand above the crowd. Judith Hawkins-Tillirson has managed to provide a book on herbal magick that will appeal to practitioners both of “low magic”–witchcraft and related practices–and “high magic”–ceremonialism and ritual magic.

Now, for myself, most of my magical experience and knowledge of herbs comes from the likes of Cunningham, books that do a lot of research on other books that do a lot of research, and eventually come down to the original texts from whence most herbal correspondences in formal magic come today (as well as various bits of folklore of dubious origin). What Hawkins-Tillirson has done is gone directly to the original sources, starting with Crowley’s 777 as well as other Qabalistic and related sources, and ferreted out the bare bones of herbal correspondences. She then provides us with concise (as the title suggests) yet meaty entries for herbs associated with the various planets, the Sephiroth and paths of the Tree of Life, and the classic elements. What this leaves us with is a handbook for those who don’t really want to go through all the trouble of reading through countless texts on ceremonialism, but who do want a more solid background to their herbalism than “Someone way back when once said….”. This makes the text appealing both to detail-oriented folk who are sticklers for proper research, and to more free-form practitioners who want information they can apply to their own works.

Anyone who knows me should be impressed by now that I’m speaking well of a book of correspondences–this is one of those “blue moon” occurrences! However, that’s not all this book offers. The last few chapters are dedicated to practical applications of the knowledge that’s been provided, including equipment, techniques, and considerations to keep in mind when making everything from tinctures to poppets. They’re not lengthy chapters, nor should they be considered the only source you will ever need for creating these things. However, for those who already have a decent background in the hands-on aspects of, say, making a pouch and stuffing herbs in it, these chapters draw clear connections between the theoretical material described in the first part of the book, and how they may actually be used.

Finally, I have to give the author huge kudos for the last chapter, “Franz Bardon and Herbal Magick”. Bardon is one of those magicians who has received a lot less attention than he deserves, and I was delighted to see her discussing his techniques of fluid condensing. While I haven’t worked a lot with Bardon’s material, my husband has, and no doubt as soon as I finish this review he’ll be spiriting the book away for his own purposes!

As I said, this is not the do-all and end-all of herbal magic. However, the bibliography is substantial, and there are wonderful endnotes, a huge amount for a book of this length. Hawkins-Tillirson has certainly done her homework, theoretical and practical, and I am highly impressed by this text. If you have any interest in herbal magic whatsoever, even if it’s just as components in spell pouches, you’ll want to pick up a copy of this text.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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