Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism, Plant Poisons, and “Knowing Thyself”
While I have been indisposed in hospital I have been contemplating a deeper conversation surrounding my previous post, particularly on the Poison Path, my beloved Nightshades and my prolonged illness.
My copy of Thirteen Pathways to Occult Herbalism by Schulke arrived and I devoured quickly and eagerly. This short book is not a Grimoire, so do not expect many practices and rituals here. It does not delve into great detail about specific plants, but does serve well as an introduction to Viridarium Umbris and offers suggestions for how to engage in plant practice, offering pathways, gardens, and lore surrounding plant wives, husbands and teachers throughout different cultures and religions.
I highly recommend reading it alongside Harold Roth’s “The Witching Herbs“, Dale Pendell’s Pharmako series and possibly even Raven Grimassi’s Grimoire of the Thorn Blooded Witch. Even though the latter author has made books that have made me head-desk in the past, this book was definitely more personal and therefore more honest and practical than others in his repertoire.
The truly good books will teach new techniques, methods, and knowledge. When it comes to herbalism, both medicinal and occult, it is best to have a variety of sources and teachers and Schulke encourages this way of learning in Thirteen Pathways.
To be a plant witch, and especially a Poisoner, can be a painful and deadly foray into the Otherside. So many people believe that Nature can be tamed and that natural things are safe, and often forget that Nature is wild and governed by her own whims.
“The Poison Path is the narrow way, the twisting path, or no path at all. You could make it, O Nobly Born, you just might survive, yes, but who could follow you? Better to send them down the big road, well trodden and paved; this Poison Path is no shortcut. The Poison Path is best suited to tricksters and magicians who, if the stories are to be believed, come back to life after getting killed.”- Pendell “Pharmako/Poeia”
The Poison path should be accompanied by very serious self-knowledge, forethought and extensive research both into the botanical, and spiritful side of things. I have been walking the Poison path for a few years now and still feel like a beginner.
As someone who suffers from suicidal ideation, depression and “high functioning” anxiety, people would think that surrounding myself with various poisonous plants would be foolish, especially ones so much associated with madness like Hellebore and Datura. However, I have found much solace on this path and feel that abusing poisons in such a way would be counter-intuitive.
A large part of the Poison Path is in “Knowing Thyself”, as is the notion of “Knowing your Poison” It is a path that cannot be walked without exploring the Shadow, and the Daimonic territories of the Otherside. There is nothing safe about it, and Pendell warns in Pharmako/Poiea against teaching Poisons to The Unlucky.
Sometimes I wonder which I am- destined for something other than this capitalistic torment, or doomed for ruin.
Maybe I am too small to see the Patterns.
Being a witch is many things to many people. For me it has always been something in the blood and the bones. You either are or you are not a witch. I am not talking about being born a witch by heredity but rather the esoteric concept of “witchblood”, which at the heart of it, is about talent, skill, determination, passion and desire. You can fool yourself, you can even fool others, but you cannot fool the spirits, being a plant witch even more so.
“The common English idiom of possessing a ‘green thumb’ or being ‘green-fingered,’ echoing old appellations of faerie, implies a secret bond of personal power with plants, particularly in horticulture. It is also suggests that some people do not possess it, and are therefore excluded from plant power: the lack of this miraculous green digit is often given as reason for a strained or nonexistent connection with plants. This enduring perception of a relationship to plants as being a knack, a rare gift, or as the practice of an elite, resonates strongly with the concept of occultism and magic, for these are extraordinary concepts, trafficking in rarity, concealment, and alienation.” – Daniel A. Schulke ‘Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism’
There was a time in my life, shortly after my Ouma died that I had a series of strange dreams which have begun to make more sense over the years… three generations of women, all marked in some way by strange afflictions, ill-fate and a strange passion for plants.
My Ouma was a Master gardener, and while her Venusian specialty was of the Orchidaceae and Rosaceae, she had a knack for growing all things, and would often grow the strange and carnivorous, as well as that illusive Opium Poppy, which I have been struggling with for many years. Her garden was both wild and tame, filled with trees, and poisonous berries, and I would often be found in the tree alcoves or in the faery garden full of mosses and pink flowers.
Earthdragon’s experience with poisons is not my tale to tell, but Oleander, a plant I grew to love interacting with as a child, is a medicine she knows well. As a child I would blow the seeds wishing on them like dandelions- little fae which I would chase around the garden and into the air. Knowing they were deadly, and always hearing my Paternal grandmother bemoan the presence of the plant in the garden, I could not hold back my love for the dark, dangerous and otherworldy even then.
The Call is unmistakeable, and I did say Yes.
Angels and Devil’s will whisper in your ears
“If all is well augured, respectfully cut a small branch length to be retained as the prime arboreal liaison of instruction- The Magistellus of Wood. Thence, let it pass within one’s private devotional shrine, to become part of daily contemplative practices.
“Through the alchemy of time, praxis, and innate understanding the raw branch may assume the form of a wand, key, stave, idol, mask, or olisbos, in accordance with the magical aims of the practitioner. The wood will have thus moved from activity, through contextualized empowerment, to activity anew: the hidden deeds of Art. In this manner the occult herbalist receives the impress of the Tree’s power in omina, having set foot in the Circle of Green. This reflects motions from the potentials of ethos, through the activity of praxis, into the dynamisim of spirit-congress which lies at the heart of occult herbalism”. Daniel A. Schulke ‘Thirteen Pathways of Occult Herbalism’
I had been growing and interacting with my Brugmansia candida for many years before I began collecting her flowers for offerings to the Hound gods. I had been offering her flowers for many years, and researching both scientific and ethnobotanical journals, before I began creating oils and ointments from her plant matter. And I had been using the ointment both medicinally and magically for some time- working very directly with her serpentine energy- before carving her roots risking direct blood to poison contact with sharp implements and tools.
Whenever working with wood, root or bone carving and shaving, I recommend wearing gloves and a dust mask because the dust and shavings fly everywhere, and you don’t want these substances in your lungs or open cuts. Accidents do happen with sharp objects and I have often cut myself on the legs while carving in the past due to small and insufficient working spaces and amateur hands.
The first Brugmansia Talisman was carved around a year ago, a strange creature- half bird, half beast – a Trickster. He is highly ambivalent, something darkly, and oddly unnerving. I felt the poison in my blood, smelled it in the air, the energy in the working space thick and cloying-not malevolent, but ambiguous, and I knew death was coming.
Sometimes we may have to work with spirits of misfortune, illness and volatility. To undertstand the poison, is to understand the cure.
The second Talisman is different, birthed from the same tree and the same roots, her shape is that of my Fetch-Beast, my other self. She too is poison. She too is cure.
Queen of Heaven
Queen of Hell
Spiritual, Mental and Physical Afflictions
“However, where Spiritual Poisons are concerned, the most important of such venoms are not self-administered, but given of the Fates: disease, heartbreak, the death of a loved one, a stroke of ill fortune.” Daniel A. Schulke “Veneficium”
While I am sure that there is a definite physical cause or reason for my illness the nature of both stays in hospital, the difficulty in identifying the cause; spirit contact and card reading; my feelings surrounding my early Saturn return; the intensification of my depression and my increasing restlessness surrounding my career being at odds with my goals and passions, has made me realise how much fate, ill fortune, and sickness have collided with the structures of my life.
While my illness has been debillitating, it has certainly given me perspective on the Poison path. I have had both dark and difficult, and kind and gentle experiences with the Unknown which have led to deep transformation, and Poison has often been the catalyst or gateway.
“Poisonous flora or fauna may serve as the summoner or patron daimon or familiar spirit of the Witch, heralding the unfolding of blessing or bane, or the indication of poison as a source of her power. Like the bestial retinue which attends upon the dark children of the serpent, a harrowing illness too may also serve as the toxicon’s ordalium, and in some cases bring dream or vision. ” Daniel Schulke- ‘Veneficium’
Sometimes it can be difficult to see. I feel like Saturn has me bound up, like the Eight of Swords.
Is it surprising that it is my heart and my lungs that are bound by this blight?
Suffocation. In three years I have almost died from physical suffocation three times. Saturn is the Binder, the Restricter, The Constrictor- the Serpent’s deadly chokehold.
Viewing illness as more than just a physical affliction, especially when science, medicine and technology are constantly progressing has often gotten its fair share of mockery, even among Pagans-we tend to think of illness in a very rational and linear way.
The old wisdom of knowing that spirits can often be the cause or catalyst of illness has long been forgotten in favour of something less occult and mysterious, and while I am a firm believer in getting professional, medical care and highly respect good doctors, I also believe that forgetting the spiritual and occult dimensions of illness, can be detrimental. We have forgotten about cycles, about patterns, about Fate.
It is difficult for me to see a way out of this Capitalist hell. I trust my allies even when they have tested me and devoured me. I trust them even though they could be nothing more than delusions and fantasies concocted by a broken mind in a very broken world. This is how we view the Occult, The Hidden, The Other.
Science teaches that everything can be broken down into rational parts. Science dissects, names, orders and rationalizes everything. “Psyche” is no longer “Soul” but “Mind”. While Science and Psychology have their applications, they are always limited in their reductionist methods.
Emma Wilby goes into great detail regarding the visionary experiences, and encounter narratives of both Shamans and and Witches in ” Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits”, and offers a nuanced way in which to view these experiences by examining psyche-spiritual and physical-visual experiences contextually and and emotionally.
Artists, Poets, Mystics, Witches and Shamans all have the touch of the Other, of some kind of madness that separates us from the general public- an inclination for fantasy, fancy and visional experiences, and perhaps it is why so many Witches have their own creative Arte. We can pathologize or psychologize these experiences, to take all the Magic out if we wish. But I do not wish to live in such a way.
“But before we say another word, you must look into your heart and you must answer me a question. Just one. If you have been touched by the demon, it’s like being touched by the back hand of God. Makes you sacred in a way, doesn’t it? Makes you unique, with a kind of glory. The glory of suffering, even. Now, here’s my question. Do you really want to be normal?” Penny Dreadful- Season 1 episode 8
The Garden of The Yaga- Weaving together Poison, Magic and Myth
Schulke writes about 13 gardens which can be reached by 13 or more paths. These gardens are imaginal concepts which make use of different occult ideas- the planetory, the sensory, the mythological. It reminded me of the different paths and sections in my Ouma’s Grande Garden. I would often walk certain routes to get to different places, some I would avoid, some I would walk with deliberation only at certain times of the day- some paths were more dangerous than others, some had snakes, some had toads, some had glow worms-the different sections all intertwined but each still had its own special feelings.
I still visit this garden in my dreams, even though time and others have ravaged away the physical essence of it all. This garden is instilled deeply into my heart, and whenever I think back the roots of my practices, I think of this place which my Ouma tended with her old, crooked and sun wornhands, her delicate nails, and her hair in a loose grey bun.
When she died her ashes were scattered among the plants that we were able to keep, some of them are still with me now, but even when I have forgotten which ones, it is with my Ouma’s hands that I sow new seeds.
Years ago I wrote a list of all the poison’s I wished to grow:
Some were mild- The Azalaea’s, The Hydrangea’s, The Lily’s
Some were harsh- Datura, Belladonna, Wolfsbane, Oleander
Some were Toads, and some were Foxes- Hellebore, Foxglove, Black Nightshade.
Many have found their way to me in one way or the other- the deadly, the, the visionary, the edible, the sweet, the intoxicating, the healing, the violent, some I have yet to come by.
There is an older wisdom at play in this world than what the books and rational sciences can teach us. It is a wisdom that comes from the bones, the blood, the heart. It is the dream world, it is the realm of art, madness and unreality. It is the the Other, it is the Hidden. It is a place among the spirits- life and death on a knife’s edge.
Witches walk the two worlds and bring back a bit of the Other. As a Plantwitch and a Poisoner, this is what I bring- from the threads of my mother, and her mother, and all the mother’s before.
This is a garden borne of the crooked, ambiguous hands of The Yaga.
This is the garden of Poison and Bone and Blood.