Throughout history and throughout the world, herbs have played a major role in magick, religion, superstition, and divination, as well as in the development of humankind. Witches and Pagan folk the world over have held a special relationship with herbs since the days of antiquity. Developing various methods to harness the magickal energies contained within flowers, leaves, roots, and bark, they have used them as tools for healing, divination, spellcrafting, and connecting with Deity. The ancients believed that all herbs possessed a spirit, or, as in the case of many poisonous or mind-altering plants, a demon. Nearly every culture has recognized the occult vibrations of herbs, and attributed certain magickal properties to their native plants and trees.
It is said in the Magic and Medicine of Plants (Reader’s Digest), “Our distant ancestors did not need to be trained botanists to observe and appreciate the remarkable energy and diversity of the plant world.”
Early civilizations sought to harness and direct the magickal powers of plants for curing diseases, warding off misfortune, divining the future, and appeasing the gods. In ancient Egypt, a land that has been described as “an ideal breeding ground” for magickal herbalism, plants such as the lotus, the papyrus reed, and the onion (which was often presented as a sacrificial offering to the gods) were greatly revered and believed to possess spiritual virtues.
Despite the fact that myrrh trees were not native to Egypt, myrrh played a vital role in the religious and magickal ceremonies of the ancient Egyptians. The fragrant aroma produced by the burning of myrrh was believed to be pleasing to the gods. Myrrh was burned every day at the midday hour as an offering to the sun god Ra, and was also fumed in the temples where the goddess Isis was worshipped.
The people of ancient Greece and Rome linked their native trees and plants to the gods and goddesses of their pantheons. In the old Greek and Roman religions, plant myths figured predominantly. Tales of mortals and gods alike being transformed into trees were common, and nearly every deity was known to have held one or more tree and/or plant as a sacred symbol.
Historically, belief in the magickal properties of plants was by no means restricted only to Pagans and pre-Christian religions. Numerous references to herbal magick and botanomancy (the art and practice of divination by plants) can be found throughout the Bible, from the burning bush oracle of Moses, to Rachel’s use of mandrake roots to magickally increase her fertility, to Jacob’s magickal use of striped poplar, almond, and plane-tree rods to bring forth striped, speckled, and spotted livestock offspring.
During the Middle Ages, Witches (or, perhaps more accurately, women and men who were accused of being Witches) were believed to have employed a wide variety of plants to bring about evil, as well as to do good if they so desired. Those who made use of poisonous plants such as hemlock and henbane to lay curses or cause mischief were labeled “Black Witches.” Those who applied their herbal wisdom for the benefit of others (such as for healing or working love magick) earned for themselves the reputation of a “White Witch” (which was equated to being a good Witch.) Those who were “White Witches” were far more respected in most circles than their “Black” counterparts. But of course not all Witches were exclusively “White” or “Black.” Those who practiced a little bit of both were said to be “Gray.”
However, as a charge of Witchcraft (regardless of its “color”) oftentimes resulted in a death sentence preceded by the most heinous acts of torture, wise Witches of old needed to carefully practice their craft veiled behind the shadows of secrecy. A great deal of what little botanical witch lore remains from centuries past is contained in the transcripts of the Witchcraft trials that took place during the Burning Times. “From such sources,” observe the editors of Magic and Medicine of Plants, “we gather that witches were heirs to ancient lessons about the medicinal properties of many substances found in nature. The Witches preserved and continued to use plant lore that the Christian church had suppressed as ‘heathen’ mysteries.”
In the United States, magickal herbalism is largely rooted in European botanical lore brought across the Atlantic by immigrants from distant lands, and influenced to varying degrees by Native American herb lore and the plant magick practiced by African slaves.
In contemporary times, as it has been in the past, herbal magick remains an essential part of the Witches’ craft. It can be used to assist an individual in attracting a compatible lover, landing the right job, changing bad luck into good, and even increasing one’s wealth! Empowered by the energies of Goddess Earth and her elementals, herbs have long been used as amulets to protect against evil, dried and burned as magickal incense during rituals, and added to flying ointments and cauldron brews.
Herbs can be used to cure or to curse, as well as to conjure or to banish supernatural entities. They can enchant our gardens and our homes, and guide us on the path to transformation and self-improvement. But, most importantly, herbal magick can open the door to spiritual realms and other worlds,
and serve to connect a human being with Mother Nature and the Divine.
There probably exists no plant or tree that hasn’t at one time, in some part of the world, been used in a spell or potion, or utilized as an amulet. And it is said that all parts of a plant, whether they be roots, buds, flowers, stems, or bark, are magickally significant.
Herbs are Mother Nature’s gifts to all of humankind, regardless of spiritual beliefs, magickal tradition, or culture. And whether you pride yourself as a country Witch or an urban Pagan, herbs can reward you with a wealth of enchantment, divination, and folklore.