HJ: Shamanic wisdom regarding herbs goes far beyond mainstream knowledge and delves deep into the spiritual realms which remain virtually unexplored by modern science. Below, you will find a list of 9 powerful herbs used in the Western Shamanic and Alchemical traditions stretching back thousands of years.
The Nine Sacred Herbs
I. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris)
Names: Mugwort (from AS moughte-wort or “moth-plant”), felon weed, sailor’s tobacco, Artemis herb, Muggons, Naughty Man, Old Man, Old Uncle Henry.
Medicinal uses: Leaf tea diuretic, induces sweating. Regulates erratic menstruation, brings on delayed periods, expels afterbirth, helps with menopausal symptoms. Promotes appetite and bile production, tonic for digestion. Tonic for nerves; mild sedative. Used for bronchitis, colds, colic, kidney ailments, fevers. Bath additive for rheumatism and tired legs. Juice relieves itching of poison oak. Disinfectant and antiseptic. Used for moxibustion.
Household uses: Powder for a moth repellent. Lay branches between onion and carrot rows to deter them.
Traditional Magical Uses: In the Middle Ages, mugwort was connected with St. John the Baptist, who was said to have worn a belt of the herb during his time in the wilderness. St. John’s Herb, as the plant became known, had the power to drive out demons, and sprays of the herbs were worn around the head on St. John’s Eve as a protection against possession by evil forces. In China, bunches of mugwort were hung in the home during the Dragon Festival to keep away evil spirits. The Ainus of Japan burn bunches to exorcise spirits of disease, who are thought to hate the odor. Planted along roadsides by the Romans, who put sprigs in their shoes to prevent aching feet on long journeys. Carry to ward against wild beasts, poison, and stroke. Prevents elves and other evil things from entering houses. Said to cure madness and aid in astral projection.
A pillow stuffed with mugwort and slept upon will produce prophetic dreams. Mugwort is burned during scrying rituals, and a mugwort-and-honey infusion is drunk before divination. The infusion is also used to wash crystal balls and magic mirrors, and mugwort leaves are placed around the base of the ball, or beneath it, to aid in psychic workings. Pick just before sunrise on the waxing moon, preferably from a plant that leans north. A Roman invocation to be used when picking mugwort is: Tollam te artemisia, ne lassus sim in via.
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the plant of Midgard, burned at the start of a ritual. One starts and ends with Mugwort, as one starts and ends with Midgard. Its shamanic purpose is purification. We tend to think of purification, in these days of advanced medical antisepsis, as being sterile. To us, “pure” has come to mean “without life”. When we use something whose basic power is purification, we expect, on some level, for it to clean everything and leave it a blank slate. However, that’s not what magical purification actually does.
Perhaps a better term for it would be “sanctification”. Purifying magics create that aura of sacred space, which is so clear when you’re in it but so elusive to describe. In order to create that energy, they do push out other sorts of energy, including the busy, well-worn, “messy” energy of the everyday. After the purification energy fades, the other stuff may drift back, or it might not, so it can have a cleaning effect in some cases.
Mugwort is the herb that is most often burned as recels, the Old English word for incense; pronouncedray-kels. The act of burning it is referred to as recaning, which can be pronounced various ways, but the most graceful seems to be reek-en-ing; the verb recan is cognate to our work “reek”. Celtic-tradition people use the term saining. It’s an alternative to the Native American-derived term “smudging”, and it can be bound in lashed bundles and burned in the same way as white sagebrush. It also has a clearing effect on the mind, and a heightening of the extra senses, so it is a good thing to start any working that is going to involve an altered or trance state at some point.
II. Plantain(Plantago major)
Names: Waybread, cuckoo’s bread, St. Patrick’s Dock, snakeweed, snakebite, rat’s tail, white man’s footprint.
Medicinal Uses:Rub fresh juice on nettle stings and insect bites. Roots and leaves help urinary tract, kidneys, and bladder. Heals gastrointestinal ulcers. Used in ointment for hemorrhoids. Use in external wash for sores, boils, inflammations, and ringworm infestations. Decoction used for thrush in children. Seeds are edible and can be ground into flour, their mucilage lowers cholesterol. Confirmed antimicrobial; stimulates healing processes.
Traditional Magical Uses: Bind with red wool to the head to cure headaches. Like mugwort, place in shoes to cure weariness on long trips. Hang it in your car to prevent evil from entering. Carrying the root protects from snakebite. Said to cause regeneration – Pliny claimed that if several pieces of flesh are boiled in a pot with plantain, it will join them again.
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the plant of Helheim, the land of the Dead. Its shamanic uses are many and varied and rather subtle. First, it can create a certain amount of invisibility for a short period of time. Notice how the weedy plantain manages to make itself so inconspicuous? That’s a power that you can harness, especially if you are journeying or pathwalking. Second, it can be used in recels to speak to the ancestors, or to find your way to the Helvegr. Its name “waybread” echoes this usage – waybread will help you find the way.
If you actually manage to get yourself astrally wounded, plantain is the plant to resort to. In some cases, it can even save you from astral death, if your body is still healthy. Its regenerative gift of bringing flesh back to life doesn’t work on the physical plane, but I have good reason to suspect that it works on other planes. Since I’ve not ever been astrally killed by enemies, I’ve never been in a position to experiment. Those who find the need to implement it should let me know how it goes.
III. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
Names: Scurvy grass
Medicinal Uses: Rich in Vitamin C and iron, excellent tonic. Fresh plant is an appetite stimulant. Used for catarrh and bronchitis; make cough syrup form watercress and honey. Aids in eliminating retained fluid. Culpeper advises the bruised leaves to be placed directly on the skin to combat freckles, pimples and other skin ailments. Watercress is an excellent diuretic, but large doses are purgative. Leaves are edible and mustard- flavored.
Traditional Magical Uses: None that we know of at the moment.
Shamanic Magical Uses: This is the plant of Niflheim, land of water and ice and mists. Niflheim is one of the two primal worlds (the other being Muspellheim) and in its care “primal” has the connotation not just of “first” but of “unfinished”. There is something shifting and malleable about Niflheim, and not just because a significant portion of it is ice floes and water. Solidity sometimes shifts there….not quickly, but slowly. Watercress can be used to do this kind of slow shifting of reality, seeing its icy solidity become watery and then as misty as the Land of Mists, and then, hopefully, you can shape it little by little.
If you place it under your tongue, you’ll notice that it is peppery, even burns a little. Stay with the sensation. Breathe through it. See your breath come out as mist. Keep breathing, and working with the spirit of the plant, until reality starts to blur a little. This will not happen due to some psychedelic experience – Watercress is certainly not psychoactive – but only due to the work of the plant spirit. Conjure the problem that needs to be changed as if it was a solid object in front of you. Reach out and touch it. If your fingers slip off it, it is still ice – Isa, a blockage – and cannot be changed. Breath and work at it longer. Sometimes it won’t change – you aren’t a god, some things are beyond your power – but sometimes it will start to become more malleable. Shape it quickly, and accurately, with a clear idea in your mind of what it should look like. Sometimes it shifts back on you, and you have to do it again. If three tries fail, give up.
IV. Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)
Names: No others we can find.
Medicinal Uses: Breaks fevers, diuretic, expectorant, use for pain from inflammations. Used for snakebite. Seeds were decocted and mixed in wine “to comfort the heart and drive away melancholy”; i.e. as an antidepressant.
Household Uses: Add flowers to salads, or make into a cordial, or crystallize them.
Traditional Magical Uses: Keeps away snakes. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal describes Viper’s Bugloss as follows: “It is a most gallant herb of the Sun; it is a pity it is not more in use than it is. It is an especial remedy against the biting of the Viper, and all other venomous beasts, or serpents; as also against poison, or poisonous herbs. Discorides and others say, That whosoever shall take of the herb or root before they be bitten, they shall not be hurt by the poison of any serpent.”
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the plant of Jotunheim, the land of giants and trolls. It is a land of great mountains, great storms, great beasts, and great hunters, and this is the herb that hunts down sickness. To use, charge the plant with a spell of seek-and-destroy. I find that this is best done with a song (you don’t have to be a great singer or carry a tune, Atterlothe doesn’t care) which describes to the plant the nature of the prey, why this prey is its natural enemy and deserves to die, and gives it praise and thanks for its great hunting ability. Then you eat the herb, whole or in tea, and let it do its work.
V. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
Names: Baldersbrow, Maegthen, Maythen, Mayweed, Ground Apple, Heermanschen, Manzanilla, Chamaimylon, Whig Plant.
Medicinal Uses: Sedative, antifungal, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory. Relieves gas, heartburn and colic. Applied externally in teabags to heal burns and rest eyes. Ointment is used for eczema, and genital and anal irritation. Mouthwash heals mouth inflammation. Inhalation of steam is good for phlegm and hay fever. May get an allergic reaction from some people. The Sun is also associated with the innocence of children, and Chamomile is the safest possible herb for them, easing the pain of colic when a mild tea is mixed with mother’s milk and giving them rest without the aid of allopathic drugs.
Household Uses: Known as the “plant’s physician”; grow near ailing plants to perk them up. Make into an antifungal spray for tree diseases. Spray infusion on seedlings to prevent “damping off disease” and on compost to activate decomposition. Boil the flower for a yellow-brown dye. Wash blond hair with infusion for lightening. Use in potpourri and herb pillows.
Traditional Magical Uses: A solar plant, associated with the sun and the god Baldur. It is used to attract money, and a handwash is used by gamblers. Use in sleep incenses (and tea!); makes the best sleep potion. Removes curses and hexes when sprinkled around the property.
Shamanic Magical Uses: This is the plant of Asgard, the land of the Aesir. Its English name Maythen was originally pronounced Maegthen, as can be seen from the Lacnunga poem, and maeg is cognate to mage, meaning powerful. Note: There are two kinds of chamomile, related and similar, with the same usages. One is a low-growing perennial, Anthemis nobilis, also known as Roman chamomile. The other is a tall annual, German chamomile. Although there is no proof exactly which is Maegthen, my bet is on for the more northerly German chamomile.
Chamomile is a solar plant, and it harnesses the power of the Sun. As the plant of golden Asgard, it can be burned in recels or scattered as a way to send your words straight to the Aesir and have them hear you. I suspect few of them would ignore you if you were holding Maegthen in your hand. It burns away the darkness and the creeping negativity, as its medicinal nature as an antifungal demonstrates. Used magically, it can be a powerful antidepressant. Why, then, does it cause sleep? One of the symptoms of depression is actually a lack of good, solid, peaceful sleep, and Chamomile is the best plant for this purpose.
There is also that finding a way out of depression is a long, slow journey that may require changes in brain chemistry, a finicky business at best. This sort of thing is best done slowly and quietly, over time, preferably on a sleeping person. To bring the Sun into someone’s life, give them tea made from charged and hallowed Chamomile that has been asked to slowly purge the depressing chemicals from their brain, every night when they go to sleep, for a long time, perhaps months. One day they may find that they no longer need it, but if it does nothing after three turns of the moon, there is something going on that even this herb cannot cure, and you can discontinue it.
VI. Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Names: Nessel, Noedl (needle), Wergulu, Ortiga ancha
Medicinal Uses: High Vitamin C and iron content; eaten as a spring tonic. Used to promote circulation in frostbitten skin. It was brought to the British Isles by the Roman Legions, who would rub their arms with the leaves to keep their blood flowing in the cold, damp weather. Nettle juice is used to treat skin conditions; it is an antidote to the sting of the needles. It is given as a tonic for anemia and diabetes. Tea is drunk for urinary problems and hemorrhoids. Nursing mothers can take it to keep their milk flowing. Tea is used for arthritis and rheumatism, as it clears uric acid from the system. Compresses used on sore joints. Powdered leaves are inhaled for nosebleeds.
Household Uses: Whole plant yields a greenish-yellow dye, and can be retted and prepared like flax; this is called “Nessel-Garn” in Germany, which is also made into rope and paper. The astringent young leaves are used in facial steams, bath mixtures, and hair preparations. The silica in nettles helps falling hair. It can even be cooked and eaten as a pot herb, like mustard greens or spinach.
For Nettle Beer: In a large pot combine 2 gallons of cold water, 5 cups of washed, young Nettle leaves, 2 cups each of Dandelion leaves and Horehound or Meadowsweet flowers, and 2 ounces of bruised Ginger root. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 1 ½ cups of brown sugar. When cooled to lukewarm temperature, toast a slice of bread and spread with one cube of fresh yeast. Float the bread yeast side up on the top of the mixture, cover and allow to ferment for 24 hours. At the end of this time, open and remove the residue from the top of the beer. Add 1 tablespoon of cream of tartar and bottle as you would an ale.
Traditional Magical Uses: Associated with Thor, nettles send curses back to their owner. Sprinkled around the house, it keeps evil away; thrown onto a fire, it averts danger; held in the hand, it keeps away ghosts. It is considered a “carnivorous” herb, and is used in purification baths. Burn for exorcisms.
Shamanic Magical Uses: This is the herb of Muspellheim, the burning land, and its power is aggressive defense. About a year before I discovered that Lacnunga and the Nine Herbs, a great stand of nettles grew up by my door. Some people got brushed by them, and complained; I was told that I should cut them all down, that they were a hazard. Others shrugged and said that they had walked right by them and were never bothered.
I went out with clippers, ready to hack them down, but I couldn’t seem to do it. Something stayed my hand, giving me a strong feeling that I shouldn’t touch them, so I gave up and went back inside. After a while I began to notice that the people who got “attacked” by the nettles were folks who later gave me trouble, or turned out only to want to use my resources and give back as little as possible. My old friends were never touched by them, nor were the members of my household.
Nettle is an aggressive defender, in the sense that it will not only absorb any harmful magic that is thrown at you or the space, it will strike back if you let it. Due to its difficult nature, it’s nearly impossible to handle fresh in ritual, but dried or cooked nettle will lose its sting – physically, anyway. Nettle keeps its rabid-guard-dog energy when burned, or sprinkled dry around an area. You can drink it in tea in preparation for any kind of guardian duty. Sometimes Nettle’s aggressive defensiveness will slip over into offensiveness, so it’s not a bad herb to use before any duty where you’re going to be armed and going into danger.
Because of its association with Muspellheim, Nettle likes being burned, but throwing it into a fire may make the fire burn longer and hotter, perhaps dangerously so. Take care that you have plenty of water around before infusing your little campfire with the power of the Fire World. On the other hand, it can be a symbolic substitute for fire in a place where you aren’t allowed to actually light a flame.
VII. Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis Odorata)
Names: British myrrh, garden myrrh, sweet fern, sweet chervil, British chervil
Medicinal Uses: Infusion used for flatulence and coughs. Roots have antiseptic action and were used to cure the bites of mad dogs and snakes. Steeped in wine, they were a remedy for consumption. Eat as a general tonic.
Household Uses: The entire plant is edible. John Gerard, garden keeper to Queen Elizabeth, reports its leaves and roots were commonly eaten in salads in his day. The fresh leaves can be used as a sweetener for diabetics, and can be cooked with tart-tasting fruits….such as crabapple. The seeds can be cooked into cakes and biscuits, and make an aromatic furniture polish. Used to flavor chartreuse liqueur.
Traditional Magical Uses: It is said that this plant “comforts the heart and increases a lust for life.”
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the herb of Alfheim, used to honor the alfar and the fey. It is a pair with Fennel – “felamihtigu twa”, the mighty two, and they are most often used in conjunction. Tea of Sweet Cicely and Fennel protects against elf-shot; tea to drink or salve rubbed on the afflicted area treats cases of it. Sweet Cicely also aids in the Gift of Sight, in this case the ability to see beauty beneath ugliness, power beneath simplicity, and possibility beneath limitation. It is a useful plant when faced with clients who are living in a swamp of negativity, and you have to find them some hope. Drink in tea or smoke it or eat the seeds (preferably six of them).
VIII: Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)
Names: No others we can find.
Medicinal Uses: Soothes digestion, especially flatulence, constipation, and indigestion. Promotes milk production in lactating woman and animals. The herbalist Nicholas Culpeper relates a common use of it, its seed or leaves boiled in barley water and then drunk by nursing mothers to increase their milk and its quality for the infant. Used in China for food poisoning. Infusion is used for gum disease, loose teeth, laryngitis, and sore throats. Chew to relieve hunger pangs. Fennel has a mild stimulant effect. Recently found to reduce the toxic effects of alcohol on the system. Fennel seed, bruised and boiled in water, and then added to syrup and soda water will relieve flatulence in infants.
Household Uses: Cook in any kind of meat dish, or put in salad. Use in baths for deep cleansing. Chew to sweeten breath.
Traditional Magical Uses: Romans believed that serpents sucked the juice of the plant to improve their eyesight after shedding their skins. Greeks used it to magically lose weight and grow thin. Grown around the house or hung in doors and windows, it is protective. Carried, it wards off ticks and biting bugs. Burn for purification and healing mixtures. In Lacnunga, Fennel is used in charms against all manner of ill-meaning wights, from elves to sorcerers, and even against insanity.
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the herb of Svartalfheim and Nidavellir. Together with Sweet Cicely, it is used to protect against elf-shot, and to treat cases of that remedy. Also like Sweet Cicely, Fennel aids in the Gift of Sight, but it gives the ability to see the darknesses in life – the hidden anger and pain, the inner rot, the creeping deaths. This makes it useful in shamanic client-work when one must discern hard truths about someone’s behavior, or find hidden disease or poisoning. Drink in tea or smoke it or eat the seeds (preferably seven of them).
IX. Crabapple (Malus spp.)
Names: Crab, Sour Apple
Medicinal Uses: Cleansing for the system, especially in the morning. Diuretic for urinary tract problems. Antiseptic and a tonic. A rich source of various vitamins, trace elements, amino acids and flavonoids. Malic acid is the principal acid of the fruit, hence its Latin name. It is useful in the management of immunomediated diseases, and contains an antifungal constituent. It reduces skin inflammation and helps in removing dead skin fragments.
Household Uses: Used for its pectin, to set jams and jellies. Used to flavor mead, and make melomel.
Traditional Magical Uses: Used for anything an apple can be used for, which is tons of things.
Shamanic Magical Use: This is the plant associated with Vanaheim, the land of the Vanir. It can be used for any fertility charm, whether for people, animals, or the fields, as it carries all the fertility of Vanaheim behind it. It is also a powerful healer, and rubbing crabapple slices on an afflicted body and then burying them in the Earth is a useful healing technique, as the clean, sharp energy of the crabapple absorbs disease energy. It can also be charged with healing energy and eaten. Its wholesomeness makes it an inappropriate carrier for seek-and-destroy spells; use Crabapple as a follow-up after using other plants in this way, in order to strengthen the body’s defenses.