“Hekate imparted to her followers the witches one single and sovereign science- the use of herbs.”- Jacob Rabinowitz “The Rotting Goddess”
The Toad Nights have come again with broken promises of rain and plenty of heat. I can feel the spring tides or “The Turning” in my bones, it is like an awakening. It reminds me of the night The Toad Swallowed the Moon, and I watched the Moon turn red . The Turning is here, and I have begun some sowing and planting for the season.
So as to not jinx my plans, knowing full well how easy it is to be struck down by Nemesis, I will not utter the names of the seeds I have planted. Instead I carefully tend to them with patience, and delight in the progress of my established plants- including my Datura, Aquilegia, and Hellebore.
Harold Roth tells us in “The Witching Herbs” that to be a gardener is to be willing to accept risk and with this I wholeheartedly agree- gardening can be brutal. I remember last spring I had newly moved, and was rather unaware of the environment that I had moved into. While I had put up some fencing to keep my landlady’s dogs from crushing and digging up all my precious plants, it was not enough to deter them completely. I planted a large amount of annuals, hoping that they would come up, but because of slugs and other pests which I had never had before, I lost many seeds, and many remained dormant.
It was a horribly hot Spring and Summer, we had water restrictions due to drought, and I worked hard at keeping my plants alive with what little water I could spare. Some plants just did not make it. It was too dry. When the Rains eventually came they come in flash floods and giant torrents which, while leaving my home and plants intact, damaged a great deal of the trees and other plant life around me. This year I have had to deal with aphids, more slugs, and even some beetles eating away at my plants. These are some of the risks of gardening. You could put your heart and soul into the care of your plants, and even then, you may lose them.
It is with patience, risk and hope that I rescued a Hellebore from the Nursery a year ago. It looked absolutely horrid, but I picked it up, and decided to save it anyway. Roth speaks about plants and memory, and how perennials embody their past, even if the harsh conditions that they were growing in have changed. I have noticed many of the plants that I have had in harsh conditions take a long time to recover from the effects of this world. This Hellebore is no different, it is slow to grow and certainly not as robust as my other one, but I will not give up on it.
I grow H. orientalis, a variety of Hellebore which is known for its diversity and hybridization. It tolerates mild winters and therefore can thrive well in South Africa if kept in shady areas. Intense heat and direct sun will scorch the leaves and kill it, so I keep mine in dappled shade inbetween other plants to protect it. H. orientalis is otherwise known as the Lenten rose and originates from Greece and Asia Minor, making it a direct link to Hekate and one of my greatest allies on The Poison Path.
“Herbs she gathered, cut by moonlight with a bronze knife
Poisonous herbs all rank with juices of black venom” Aeneid
“Collectors in ancient times adopted stringent precautions, first circling the plant with a sword and then lifting the roots while chanting to Apollo. At the same time they kept a wary eye open for eagles for, should one of these birds come near, the gatherer would die within the year.”-Frances Perry ‘Flowers of the World’
On Saturn’s day I gathered a Hellebore Root, gently digging my fingers into the soil, and whispering songs to the Toad. The root was dormant but still very much alive, and I had been wanting to pull it up for a long time. The Dark moon is a time for Dark workings and I called upon the ancient witches, invoking them into my own hands and tongue. I whispered and hissed words of madness and poison, and sang songs to the Hellebore root giving of my own blood, spit and breath.
I delight so in Rhizotomoi and feel the ancient threads of connection to the old root- cutters of Classical literature- the secret words of Hekate’s witches whispering their wisdom in my bones, humming their power and magic through my body. While not much information remains in written history regarding rhizotomoi, it is through opening up to the hidden realm and listening to the spirits directly that we are able to reclaim lost parts of our history and heritage as witches.
Working the roots and awakening them connected me to parts of myself that I had forgotten were there- the sensuous, wild and womanly parts which have often been characterized as weak and lacking in society which are interwoven with the other parts of myself- the parts of me that are so often characterized as not feminine enough- too masculine, too passionate, too brutish. Working with the Hellebore root, being itself a plant of ambivalent nature , allowed me to embrace the ambiguity and contradiction of my own womanhood.
Hellebore’s Saturnian nature links it with witchcraft and dark sorcery, and while it has often been used to cure madness, illness and is kept by cottage doors to chase away demons, it can be used inversely to bring upon these afflictions as well. This is a quality many of the witching herbs possess- the power of both life and death, fertility and blight, illness and healing.
“Her tread blights the seeds if the fertile cornfield, and her breath poisons air that before was harmless.”- Lucan
There is a deep potency in Erichtho’s stories that is often overlooked by modern witches as being too extreme or propagandistic, but it is precisely in her extreme otherness and overturning of all the boundaries of what is considered safe and familiar that this power arises.
Erichtho’s frightening nature is often described as repugnant, evil, and animalistic. She acts out of pure malice and a desire for power. She threatened the natural order by breaking the boundaries of what it meant to be a woman in Roman society, epitomizing the witch as anti-fertile, ugly, destructive and selfish. This is the woman out of control, mad-drunk on the power of the underworld and wild nature- The Venefica, the Other, the Witch.
This subversive power lies in embracing the dark, the baneful, even the malevolent. It is not about being violent and cruel to the complete destruction and annihilation of all others but about answering that violence and cruelty with the poisons and demons of an-other nature, ones which are constantly vilified by the current social orders. It is not about being evil, but rather about understanding that evil is a point of view, so often skewed toward what those in power find threatening.
“I invoke the Furies, the horror of Hell, the punishments of the guilty, and Chaos, eager to blend countless words in ruins…” -Lucan
Dark moon magic is subversive magic, it is a time of inversions and a time to embrace the villianized witch stereotypes. While much of the work I do is for the growth and fertility of my garden and the nourishment of the environment, I too work the the left handed magic of blight and destruction, embracing the ambiguity and ambivalence of being Pharmakeia, Venefica, Witch.
Roots hold the power of the underworld, particularly the roots of perennials of which Roth tells us:
“The perennial has Hermit business below the ground: digging, burrowing, traveling in the night of the Underworld, going where The Sun and even The High Priestess cannot or will not go”.
When we dig up and work with roots like our sisters Medea, Circe, Erichtho and others, we are calling up the powers and energies of the Underworld and engaging with spirits of both dread and fertiltiy-afterall while the Toad may be The Poisonous Devil, it is also a Harbinger of Fertility and Rain.
The Witching Herbs- Harold Roth
Veneficium- Daniel Schulke
The Rotting Goddess- Jacob Rabinowitz
Viridarium Umbris -Daniel Schulke