Here is an essay based on talks I have given at the Pagan Federation’s conference in Cornwall and at the Lewes Well-Being Festival. Adapted versions of this will go up on the www.druidry.org website and elsewhere, but here it is in its first form.
Working with plants in a sacred or magical way lies at the heart of indigenous spiritualities and earth religions. Many of us are drawn to these ‘Old Ways’ because they combine a sense of deep spirituality with a love for the Earth and Her creatures. Any sense we might have of being split between Spirit and Matter, Inner and Outer, the committed and the detached, even the mystical and the magical, can be healed when we work with solid, sensual beings – such as plants, animals and humans – in a sacred way.
A rich heritage of plant lore exists in Merlin’s Isle, as Britain was once known, and we can trace this heritage at least as far back as the Bronze Age, which began here around 4,000 years ago. From the analysis of pollen grains we know that during this period people in the Orkneys, Scotland and Wales used Meadowsweet as a floral tribute at burial sites. Up above the dark brooding lake of Llyn y Fan Fach in Wales the cremated remains of a young girl’s bones have been found in a cairn, alongside traces of Meadowsweet pollen, pottery and flint tools. It is fitting that such a cairn should be there, for in this majestic barren landscape it presides over a lake that is renowned for being the site of the origin-story of the Physicians of Myddvai. According to this legend, out of the waters of Llyn Fan Fach came a mysterious and beautiful Lady of the Lake who taught the first of the Physicians about the healing power of plants. These Physicians of Myddvai appeared in the Middle Ages, and the last of their line died out in the 19th century, when the story of the Lady of the Lake was first recorded, but the fact that the ashes of a young girl were buried with Meadowsweet above this lake thousands of years before this time is inspiring – as if a gentle feminine spirit has always hovered over this landscape, bringing with her the gifts of healing and plant-lore that we can still draw upon today.
In exploring these gifts, and the wider heritage of plant-lore that exists throughout these islands, we can discern at least thirteen ways in which to work with plants in a sacred manner as we follow the ‘Old Ways’. In Druidry, many of these are traditionally the province of the Ovate, who might choose to devote a lunar month to each of these ways in turn, so that after a year they will have made a study of all thirteen ways, which they can then choose to deepen in whatever way they wish.
In The Druid Plant Oracle we have focused on just one of these thirteen ways to create a tool for the use of plant lore in an oracular way, but we have also tried to touch upon the other twelve uses of plants in ancient or contemporary Druidism, which I will summarise here, with just a few examples for each use:
1. The use of plants as food: food as sacred and life-sustaining – as a conveyor of the Druid life-force Nwyfre. Wheat has been used in a sacred way in a number of traditions: in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in Christianity, and in Druid and Pagan traditions at the harvest time of Lughnasadh. The Bean is another food with deep symbolic associations, this time to the Ancestors and the Otherworld. A study of the mythology attached to the pig in Celtic tradition, alongside a study of the Bean will reveal many similarities.
2. The use of plants in drinks, elixirs and tonics: just as ingesting plants as food in a ceremony can become a central feature, so can the ingesting of a sacred drink. In Druid rituals this is usually mead, often produced by bees feeding on Heather – a plant filled with associations to joy and community. But a variety of herbal elixirs, such as those made from Burdock and Dandelion, or Birch sap, enable the modern Druid to enhance their health and feel connected with the past while also honouring the stereotype perpetuated by the Asterix cartoons, of the magical elixir-quaffing sage.
3. The use of plants as clothing: modern Druids know how the use of clothes, and sometimes no clothes, can enhance the experience of ritual. Linen made from Flax was the main component of clothing for thousands of years – as it was of sail-cloth. As a result, the tiny seeds of Flax have helped us to buil