Be it a strong tree, a mysterious nightshade plant or a fruit-bearing blackberry bush: plants in all their various shapes grow in almost every region of our planet. It is estimated that up to half a million different species make up the total stock of plants living today. In the form of food, oxygen, building materials and heat, they provide us humans with the basics for our survival.
The first time a child is given chamomile tea to treat an inflammatory throat, they learn about plants as a source of power and healing. “Against everything bad there is a weed grown”, as the saying goes. It is therefore not surprising that healers all over the world – and from time immemorial – have relied on the everyday use of plants and their active ingredients as medicine. In non-ordinary reality, plant spirits make their individual powers available to shamans, for example to support them in divinatory and healing work. (1) But what about the work 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 plant spirits in ancient Europe
At first glance it seems easy to find evidence of European ways of working with plants that appear to be shamanic. In ancient texts of Greek mythology, medieval magic books or the work of early 19th century ethnologists we find stories and customs about the use of plants in a spiritual or religious context. However, it is not enough to assign these uncritically to a shamanic context.
A well-known source is, for example, the Lacnunga, an Old English collection of magical-medical healing methods, probably recorded by Christian monks of the ninth, tenth or eleventh century. In these writings, illnesses are considered to have been caused by elves, “worms” or “snakes”, i.e. by some kind of beings thought to be spirits. Plant-based potions, spells, invocations and banishments as well as ritual acts are described as remedies. (3) The most frequently quoted remedy is the famous Nine Herbs Charm: a sickening “worm” crawls to a person and “tears” him apart. Thus, god Woden grabs 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 someone like an Anglo-Saxon shaman who performs this kind of healing work. However, whether an animistic worldview really was in place and whether essential techniques of shamanic practice were employed – such as the consciously induced shamanic state of consciousness or an intention clearly addressed to the plant spirits – is left to our interpretation. Furthermore, the Lacnunga were written at a time when magical – and, if present, shamanic – practices had long been prohibited and suppressed by Christian religiosity.
Plant-based fairy tales as inspiration
Despite all caution concerning historical facts, we should not underestimate the value of such handed-down lore. For the shamanic practitioner, who wants to establish a productive relationship with helpful plant spirits, knowledge of the ordinary aspects of a plant may also be of enormous help. Fairy tales, the etymology of botanical terms and reports from folklore can, ideally, even contribute to gaining knowledge about the “essence” or characteristics of a plant, which can then be useful for practical work. (5)
Here is one example: the stinging nettle is not only to be found in the Lacnunga, but also in fairy tales written down by the Grimm brothers. There it is associated with thunder (“thunder nettle”). If it is collected on Maundy Thursday and stored in the attic, it will protect against lightning strikes. In addition, the nettle protects eggs and beer against decay and farmland against birds and insects. On Walpurgis Night it is used to beat the manure, which keeps witches away from the cattle. (6) Such traditions can serve as a reference for contemporary practices. Do the spirits of the nettle have the power to offer protection under certain circumstances? Shamanic journeys can shed light on this and help giving birth to individual practices.
Talking to the plants
From time to time, research produces results that are surprisingly close to the world view of shamanic or generally traditional cultures; even results from a relatively recent past! A traditional legendary figure in Sweden and Norway, for example, is the so-called skogskrå. These nature spirits, which mostly appear to be female, inhabit old, hollowed tree trunks, often those of oak trees. If you (mostly men travelling in the wilderness) look at them from the front, they appear as bewitchingly beautiful, often seductive women or girls. Seen from behind, their true tree shape is revealed, which causes them to lose their power or to disappear.
Skogskrå are dangerous and charitable at the same time. According to oral reports, which were narrated and then written down between 1854 and 1930 in different parts of western and southern Sweden, they were responsible for hiding cattle, misleading travellers or exhausting them. However, on the other hand, they also bestowed good hunting luck and provided information about helpful plants and herbs for magical or healing purposes, when consulted with a specific request. (7) Also, in the core-shamanic context, divinatory work can deliver recommendations which plants are to be used how and in which situations.
The German book “Pflanzenmärchen und -Sagen” (Plant Tales and Legends) by the botanist and theosophist Dr. Alfred Usteri, written down in 1922, takes this idea one step further. It describes the journeys of the “star wanderer” through non-ordinary (planetary) worlds where the “plant souls” reside. (8) They explain to the traveller about the duties that the sun has assigned to them on earth. (9) In his stories, Usteri thus establishes a whole cosmos of plant spirits, bringing together anthropological, mystical and botanical knowledge. For shamanic practitioners, these texts may serve as an incentive to investigate ecological interconnections in non-ordinary reality that would otherwise remain hidden to them.
Core-shamanic work with plant spirits
The examples of European plant traditions mentioned above serve as relevant sources of inspiration. In addition, modern phytotherapy, homeopathy or traditional Chinese medicine represent important ordinary reality schools facilitating the healing power of plants. However, clear evidence of distinctly shamanic approaches to working with plant spirits is difficult to find. (10)
Burning incense or making teas and tinctures are possibilities that can be carried out well in private settings and can initiate making intentional use of helping plants. Finally, with Shinrin yoku, “forest bathing”, interested people today even have access to the findings of a modern, scientific institute. It investigates the significant influence of walking in the forest and the mere contact with trees on the health and well-being of people. (11)
The decisive factor for a core-shamanic approach, however, is the individual encounter between practitioners and plant spirits in non-ordinary reality. In addition to all the knowledge about plants that can be gained through ordinary methods, the actual dialogue will reveal the specific power and instructions relevant to this practitioner.
One specific example of following a core-shamanic rationale in working with plants is the work of Eliot Cowan. He describes how he personally went into the wilderness after his first encounters with plant spirits in order to make himself acquainted with the spirits of his environment 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 contemporary European shamanism:
- Shamans in almost all living traditions maintain close relations with the spirits of helpful and teaching plants. Many experience plant spirits as extremely cooperative.
- The decisive factor is a personal relationship, which is best established outdoors in the open and in direct contact with the plant.
- Working with local plants in your own living environment seems to be particularly effective.
- In a shamanic state of consciousness shamans and shamanic practitioners try to get to know the spirit of a plant as comprehensively as possible, to gain knowledge about its qualities and tasks as well as about what kind of work and applications are recommended and in which way.
(1) Harner, Michael (2013, Original 1980): Der Weg des Schamanen. Das praktische Grundlagenwerk zum Schamanismus. München: Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, p. 203-229.
(2) For sources of 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 in the handwriting 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. It is not possible to determine the nine medicinal herbs with complete certainty. Mugwort, plantain, chamomile, nettle, chervil, fennel and (wood-)apple are considered to have been identified. However, there are several possible interpretations for the remaining two.
(5) See also Schneider-Fürchau, Edith (2008): Als Alpenblume noch Märchenwesen waren. Bürgel: Echino Media Verlag, 2008. The author attempts such a narrative focus “on the essence”. She writes modern fairy tales in which plants act in the form of a spirit of nature. A climax of each story is the moment when this spirit finally reveals itself as a particular Alpine flower.
(6) See also Gallwitz, Esther (1999): Schneewittchens Apfel. Pflanzen in Grimms Märchen. Frankfurt am Main, Leipzig: Insel Verlag, p. 130ff.
(7) Lindow, John (1978): Swedish Legends and Folktales. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, p. 105ff.
(8) Usteri, Alfred (1926, Original 1922): Pflanzenmärchen und -Sagen. Basel: Verlag von Rudolf Seering.
(9) Harner (2013), S.203. Likewise, Michael Harner describes that the plant spirits receive their power from the sun.
(10) For a discussion of shamanically relevant usage of plants see 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. p. 125-150.
(11) 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) 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 is a shamanic practitioner and lives in Kempten, Germany.