Plant Spirits and Shamanism: A look at European Traditions
Whether a strong tree, mysterious solanum or fruit spending blackberry bush: plants in all forms grow in almost every corner of our planet. Nowadays, the living plant population is estimated at up to half a million different species. In form of food, oxygen, building materials and heat, they provide us humans with the foundation for our survival.
Every child who is given camomile tea for the first time against an inflammatory throat learns about plants as a source of strength and healing. “There is a herb for every ailment”, as the saying goes. It is therefore not surprising that healers all over the world – as long as anyone can remember – relied on the everyday use of plants and their active ingredients as medicine. In the non-ordinary reality, plant spirits provide shamans, for example, with their individual powers to support them in divinatory as well as healing work. (1) But what about working with plant spirits within the framework of European spiritual traditions? (2) And what about modern approaches through which shamanic practitioners can develop their work with plant spirits?
Traces of the plant spirits in ancient Europe
At first sight it seems easy to find evidence of shamanic-looking work with plant spirits in Europe. In ancient texts of Greek mythology, medieval magic books or the work of early 19th century ethnologists, we find stories and traditions about the use of plants in spiritual or religious contexts. However, to assign these uncritically to a shamanic context is not enough.
A well-known source are for example the Lacnunga, an Old-English collection of magical-medical healing methods, probably written down by Christian monks of the ninth, tenth or eleventh century. Diseases here have been considered to be caused by elves, “worms” or “snakes”, i.e. by a kind of creatures thought to be spirits. Plant-based potions, spells, appeals and bans as well as ritual actions are described as cure. (3) The most frequently cited is the famous “nine-herbs charm”: A sickness-causing “worm” crawls to a human and “tears him apart”. So God Woden takes nine herbs in his hand, speaks his power- or magic-verse and smashes the worm into nine pieces to bring about healing. (4)
It is not difficult to imagine a kind of Anglo-Saxon shaman who does this healing work. However, it is left to our interpretation whether an animistic worldview really existed and whether central techniques of shamanism were used, such as the purposely initiated shamanic state of consciousness or the concern directed to the plant spirits. Furthermore, the Lacnunga were written at a time when magical- and if existing, shamanic-practices had long been banned and suppressed by Christian religiosity
Plant fairy tales as inspiration
Despite all historical caution, the value of such deliverances should not be underestimated. For the shamanic practitioner who wants to establish a constructive relationship with helpful plant spirits, knowledge of the everyday aspects of a plant may also be of enormous help. Fairy tales, the etymology of plant names and reports from folk-lores can, in the best case, even contribute to gaining knowledge about the nature or characteristics of a plant being, which can then be useful in concrete work. (5)
Here is an example: the stinging nettle is not only found in the Lacnunga, but also in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. There it is connected with thunder (“thunder nettle”). Collected on Maundy Thursday and stored in the attic, it protects against lightning. It protects eggs and beer from spoilage, the field from birds and insects. On Walpurgis Night you beat the dung with it and witches will stay away from the cattle. (6) Such rites can serve as a reference point for contemporary practices. Do the spirits of the stinging nettle have the power to offer protection in certain situations? Shamanic journeys can shed light on this and help establish individual practices.
Speaking with plants
The research sometimes produces results that are surprisingly close to the worldview of shamanic or traditional cultures in general; and this, however, from the comparatively recent past! A traditional legendary figure in Sweden and Norway, for example, is the so-called skogskrå. These mostly female appearing nature spirits inhabit old, hollowed out tree trunks, often those of oaks. If you look at them from the front (mostly men travelling in the wilderness), they appear as beguilingly beautiful, often seductive women or girls. If you look at them from behind, their true tree shape is revealed and they lose their strength or disappear.
Skogskrå are both dangerous and charitable. In oral accounts of their experiences, which were told and then written down between 1854 and 1930 in different parts of western and southern Sweden, they are responsible for hiding the cattle, misleading wanderers or exhausting them. On the other hand, they give hunting luck and provide information about helpful plants and herbs for magical or healing purposes when asked with specific request. (7) Also in the core-shamanic context, divinatory works can give recommendations which plants to use in which situations and how to use them.
Even one step further go the “plant tales and legends“ of the botanist and theosophist Dr. Alfred Usteri, written in 1922. They describe the journeys of the “star-wanderer” through non-ordinary (planetary) worlds where the “plant souls” live. (8) They tell the traveller about the tasks the sun has assigned to them on earth. (9) In his stories, Usteri thus sets up a whole cosmos of plant spirits in which he gathers cultural, mythological and botanical knowledge. The shamanic practitioner may use the texts as an incentive to begin the search for ecological connections with the non-ordinary reality himself, which otherwise would remain hidden to him.
Core-shamanic work with plant spirits
Even though historical sources for clear shamanic dealings with plant spirits are rare in Europe, we find sources of inspiration such as fairy tales and customs as well as approaches for our own work in abundance. In addition to the possibilities already mentioned, modern phytotherapy, homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine can be mentioned as important healing schools of the everyday reality. They all focus on the use of plants at their core.
Fumigation or the preparation of teas and tinctures are further possibilities, which can also be carried out well in a private setting and can be the basis for a relationship with helping plants. After all, with Shinrin yoku, the “forest bathing”, even the findings of a modern, scientific institute are available to interested people today. It investigates the significant influence of forest walks and mere contact with trees on the health and well-being of people. (10)
Crucial for a core-shamanic approach is the individual encounter of the practitioners with the plant spirits in the non-ordinary reality. Despite all the knowledge about plants, which can be gained through everyday methods, the concrete dialogue brings to light specific experiences, strength and instructions that can only apply to this practitioner.
In healing work, for example, the power of the plant spirits serves to remove intruders. (11) The work of Eliot Cowan also originated from core shamanism. He describes how he personally went into the wilderness following his first encounters with plant spirits in order to make himself acquainted with the spirits and his surroundings and to ask how he can confidently transfer the power of these spirits to his clients. (12) Four important findings of his and Michael Harner’s research may serve practitioners as valuable support for their own work in a contemporary European shamanism:
- Shamans in almost all still living traditions maintain close cooperation with the spirits of helpful and instructive plants. Many experience plant spirits as extremely helpful.
- Crucial is a personal relationship, which is best established outside in the field or hallway in direct contact with the plant.
- Particularly effective seems to be the work with local plants in your own living environment.
- In the shamanic state of consciousness, shamans and shamanic practitioners try to get to know the spirit of a plant as extensively as possible, to gain knowledge about its history and task as well as about which work and applications are recommended and in which way.
(1) Harner, Michael (2013, Original 1980): Der Weg des Schamanen. Das praktische Grundlagenwerk zum Schamanismus. Übers. a. d. Eng. v. Agnes Klein u.a. München: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, S. 203-229.
(2) On the source situation for possibly shamanic traditions in Europe see also.: European Shamanism - A Search for Traces.
(3) Bates, Brian (2004, Original 1984): Wyrd. Der Weg eines angelsächsischen Zauberers. Übers. a. d. Eng. v. Johannes Wilhelm. Darmstadt: Schirner Verlag, p. 10f. The Lacnunga are also included in the manuscript MS. Harley 585, preserved in the British Museum..
(4) Storl, Wolf Dieter (2006, Original 2004): Naturrituale. Mit schamanischen Ritualen zu den eigenen Wurzeln finden. Baden, München: AT Verlag, p. 278-287. The identification of the nine medicinal plants is not entirely certain. Mugwort, common plantain, chamomile, nettle, chervil, fennel and (wood) apple are considered to be identified. For the remaining two, however, there are several possible interpretations.
(5) Cf. Schneider-Fürchau, Edith (2008): Als Alpenblume noch Märchenwesen waren. Bürgel: Echino Media Verlag, 2008. The author dares to attempt such a narrative concentration "on the essentials". She writes modern fairy tales in which plants act in the form of a nature spirit. A highlight of each story is the moment when the nature spirit finally reveals itself as a particular alpine flower.
(6) Cf. Gallwitz, Esther (1999): Schneewittchens Apfel. Pflanzen in Grimms Märchen. Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig: Insel Verlag, S. 130ff.
(7) Lindow, John (1978): Swedish Legends and Folktales. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, S. 105ff.
(8) Cf. Usteri, Alfred (1926, Original 1922): Pflanzenmärchen und -Sagen. Basel: Verlag von Rudolf Seering.
(9) Harner (2013) S.203. Auch Michael Harner beschreibt, dass die Pflanzengeister ihre Kraft von der Sonne erhalten.
(10) For a discussion of the shamanically relevant use of plants cf. Harner, Michael (1973): „The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft.“ In: Hallucinogens and Shamanism. Harner, Michael (ed.): London, Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. S. 125-150.
(11) Cf. Li, Qing: Shinrin-yoku. The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing. How Trees can help you find Health and Happiness. London et al.: Penguin Life.
(12) Cf. Cowan, Eliot (2017, Original 2005): „Plant Spirit Medicine.“ In: Shamanism Annual. The Journal of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Issue 30. S. 25-28. und
Cowan, Eliot (2014): Plant Spirit Medicine. A Journey into the Healing Wisdom of Plants. Boulder: Sounds True Inc.
Alexander Jatscha-Zelt is a shamanic practitioner living in Kempten, in the south of Germany.