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 build our civilisation, while plants like Woad and Weld were used by our ancestors to dye their cloth, and can be used by us to fashion our ritual clothing.
4. The use of plants for journeying in consciousness: the use of plants psychotropically to alter consciousness is well documented in many ancient and contemporary indigenous traditions. There is no evidence, however, of its use within ancient Celtic cultures or within Druidry, despite the prevalence of the Psilocybin mushroom commonly known as the Liberty Cap, and of Fly Agaric. There are some, though, who suggest that certain herbs, such as Mugwort, were smoked to stimulate psychic powers. Traces of Mugwort have been found on the drinking cup of the recently unearthed ‘Druid’ of the first century near Colchester, and it seems sensible that for health reasons the modern Druid should follow this example, drinking rather smoking Artemisia Vulgaris.
5. The medicinal use of plants: the history of herbalism is undoubtedly as old as the history of humanity. The classical writers only recorded the Druids’ use of four plants for magical and medicinal purposes: Mistletoe, Vervain, Selago – probably Fir Club Moss – and Samolus, possibly Water Pimpernel. But by correlating archaeobotanical records of the plants that grew at the time of the ancient Druids in their source-lands of western Europe, with the writings of contemporary herbalists such as Dioscorides, and the references to herbs in the old Celtic tales, we have been able to build a pretty good idea of the medicinal plants the ancient Druids would have used, such as Valerian – which is prized for its calming effect.
6. The use of plants for annointing: as an example, oils of primrose and vervain, mentioned in some of the old texts as being ingredients of Ceridwen’s brew, can be used to bless a Bard.
7. The use of plants in ritual: flowers are often used in Druid ceremonies and garlic is used in the Druid ritual of Samhain. Cloves are sprinkled across the threshold before inviting Spirits of the Departed into a house to partake of a ritual feast. Flower petals might be used to cast a circle at a festivity such as Beltane.
8. The use of plants in incense: in Druidry incense is often used to cleanse and perfume a working space or the aura. Agrimony and juniper berries are good for this purpose.
9. The use of plants in lustrations: ritual washing or laving, of the hands, face, body, altar, circle or tools can be enhanced with the addition of plants to the water being used. Again a good plant for this is Agrimony, known as Mur-druidhean, literally ‘the sorrow of the Druids’ but really meaning ‘the dispeller of sorrow used by the Druids’.
10. The use of plants in spells: Druids are cautious of spells, knowing the wisdom in the saying, ‘When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ The ancient Druids did use spells, and contemporary Druids might sometimes too, having carefully considered the ethical and magical implications. In the old days, fern was used in spells for invisibility. A Druid today might still use fern if they were wishing to pass unnoticed through a hostile crowd for example.
Fern by Will Worthington from The Druid Plant Oracle
11. The use of plants in charms and talismans: followers of the Old Ways are familiar with the idea of energy and vibrations. A plant will emanate a certain vibration, and if we carry some of this plant with us, perhaps as a piece of dried root in a pouch around our neck or in our pocket, it will exert a continuous influence on our aura – broadcasting its unique vibration into our energy field. Betony, one of those plants which has so many beneficial properties it became known as a ‘Cure-All’, was traditionally used in this way, as was Mandrake – a plant so renowned in ancient times it was almost certainly imported into Britain even in those earliest of days.
12. The use of plants as offerings: giving gifts seems innate to humankind. Part of being alive involves wanting to give – if only of our DNA to further the species, and so offering plants to a deity on an altar, or to a couple on marrying, or to a grave at a funeral seems the most natural thing in the world, and clearly our ancestors found Meadowsweet with its sweet almond-like scent an ideal plant of offering, as is Vervain – the Enchanter’s Plant, mentioned by Pliny as being one of the favoured plants of the Druids.
13. The oracular use of plants: while parts of some plants, such as the stalks of Yarrow (in the Celtic lands and in China) have been used as tools of divination, and while other plants, with psychotropic ingredients, have been used in attempts to access oracular powers of consciousness, The Druid Plant Oracle takes the traditional meanings associated with many of the plants that were likely to have been used by the ancient Druids, and translates them into contemporary terms – bearing in mind the sorts of issues we will be struggling with today.
We decided to create the oracle when we saw how much traditional plant lore there was, and how similar in feel it was to the traditional animal lore we had worked with when creating The Druid Animal Oracle. To create a plant oracle felt like a natural progression – and the completion of a thirteen year cycle in which we worked on three oracular systems: the plant and animal oracles and The DruidCraft Tarot.
What became increasingly clear to us as we developed these, was that oracles could either be used in an attempt to predict the future, or with the aim of trying to gain more insight so one could make informed choices. Just trying to see into the future, as if it is something inevitable – as if we are fated – disempowers us. But using oracles to look beneath the flow of surface events, to try to gain some insight into what is happening in our life, has the opposite effect – it empowers us to make decisions and actively shape our destiny. In this way these oracles become magical tools that help us create the future.
So that’s it! Magic as creativity and as a way of putting us in touch with the deeper currents of our life is why we have developed The Druid Plant Oracle. At the same time we hope it will inspire readers with an appreciation of the richness of the plant lore that exists in these islands, and that they will be encouraged to explore the thirteen ways of working with plants.