The Craft of the Wise (by Swansister)

I am a fourth-generation Appalachian Herbalist. Herbalism, hearth magic and ancestor worship make up a large part of my craft practice. I don’t separate my magical practices from my mundane life. My home is my temple and my apothecary. I find meaning, use and beauty in the things I have adorned and equipped my home with.

In my thirties, I took great joy in learning how to cook and bake in a wall-to-wall fireplace in a one-room cabin in the wilds of West Virginia with my ex-boyfriend. Two important times in my life I have gathered my water from a natural spring instead of from a city water source. In these instances, I gave thanksgiving to the water through seasonal rites of cleansing. I planted mint in my spring and called upon the Goddess to keep the water flowing and clean for consumption by chanting “Born of water, cleansing, powerful, healing, changing, I am.” (The chant is by Linda Lila from the CD Return of the Goddess, Sacred Chants for Women.) Water is very sacred to me and I find myself drawn to springs, creeks, rivers and waterfalls. The sound of water carries my mind away from mundane worries. Many times I have found a sense of peacefulness sitting beside the river on my favorite rock. This makes it easier for me to carry out my work and open to spirit and guidance.

Though I do work with the deities of the Feri Tradition, I don’t always need to participate in Deity worship to wield my craft. My work with the beings, plants and animals of nature can also be described as “shamanistic”. I gain understanding by listening to the spirits of nature and observing the plants and animals around me. I often see the image of a specific plant that a person needs for healing when I ask the plants for guidance. After being diagnosed with Celiac Disease, I began seeing the common mallow plant (Malva neglecta) everywhere and was relieved to discover this plant heals issues of the gut. The plant spirits had pointed me to an ally that would prove to be very helpful for my specific disease process. My Appalachian ancestors used the leaves and shoots as cooking greens and salad ingredients, while the seeds were used to accent dishes. The plant’s traditional medicinal uses included soothing skin rashes and easing coughs. Most importantly for me, it is also used to reduce inflammation in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems.

Mallow Root Coffee 

  1. Use a digging tool to unearth a dozen or more common mallow taproots.
  2. Remove stems and leaves and wash and scrub roots with a vegetable brush.
  3. Chop the clean roots into 1/4 inch pieces and spread them out in a roasting pan.
  4. Roast in a 350 degree oven until dark brown, about 30-45 minutes.
  5. Grind and brew like coffee beans, combining with roasted chicory, dandelion, or coffee if desired.

I follow the rules of nature and consequence. My craft is not a religion; it is a daily practice of observation, prayer and listening. I work with items taken from or derived from nature such as bark, feathers, flowers, gemstones, herbs, rocks and soil. I gather my tools from my garden or woods and ethically wild harvest in the Appalachian forests surrounding my home. I prefer the company of nature and a few close friends. I feel most peaceful and powerful while working in nature.

I follow the rhythms of the moon and the seasons, and I plant during the appropriate time of the moon to bring about the desired outcome. I learned these techniques from my Great Grandmother, Grandmother and parents as a child watching them plant and harvest in our gardens. My father, grandmother and I often set out early in the morning with our backpacks loaded with trowels and lunch ready to hunt for treasures. I became acquainted with bloodroot (Sanguinara Canadensis), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), mullein (Verbascum thapsus) and other early spring herbs and flowers. I loved bringing our finds to Great Grandma Jack. She steeped the gathered mullein leaves for several minutes in boiling water and made a tea to drink as a cold remedy. A mullein root brew can also be administered to small children for the croup. However, she advised that it was best to gather the roots in the fall after the flowers had died away. Coltsfoot leaf, boiled in water and sweetened with honey, was also a well-tried remedy of hers for the common cold.

I make medicine as act of rebellion against Big Pharma, as part of my relationship with the plants and to honor the heritage of my Appalachian ancestors. I like knowing where my medicines come from. I enjoy having a relationship with and understanding the plants, watching them grow and respecting their wisdom as I harvest and celebrate the power of the plants I used to heal myself and others with. I believe it is vitally important for an herbalist to live with her plants. To know them and fully understand them, she must smell, see, hear, and live with them. This is part of the Craft of the Wise. I have been able to identify the plants of Appalachia since I was a child. It has only been in the last five years that I have come more fully into my understanding of the medicinal uses of the plants by completing basic and advanced herbal medicine programs. Every herb and root has a medicinal and magical property of some sort. Each shows its properties by its form, shape and spirit. This Doctrine of Signatures is a part of my craft of knowing and being aware.

The herbs I use in my Craft practice are not the same as used in other traditions. I use herbs and roots from plants that grow in Appalachia, whereas Traditions like Conjure may use plants that grow in other regions. It is important to note that many of the herbs and plants famous for their magical properties are highly toxic if ingested. It’s very important to never ingest plants unless you know exactly what they are and what effect they will have on the human body. Some herbs used in Traditional flying ointments are not safe for ingestion, such as henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) or Datura (Datura stramonium).

Flying Ointment

In general, most of the herbs in this recipe will cause your body temperature to drop and pulse rate to quicken. The “Witches Flying Ointment” produces psychedelic effects and was said to be used by Witches in the Middle Ages. It consisted mainly of parsley, hemlock, water of aconite, poplar leaves, soot, belladonna and henbane. The ointment was supposedly rubbed on various parts of a Witch’s body to enable her to “fly” off to the Sabbat. The ointment induced incredible hallucinations, psychic visions and astral projections.

  1. Melt four parts shortening, over low heat, to one part herb mixture.
  2. Heat on low for approximately 4 hours. Strain into a heat proof container, add 1/2 to one teaspoon tincture of benzoin as a preservative.
  3. Mix equal parts of: cinquefoil (Potentilla), hellebore (Helleborus niger) and henbane into an ointment.
  4. Spread a small amount ointment on arms and legs. Be careful not to ingest any ointment.

Common aromatic herbs like sage (Salvia officinalis) are not only good for culinary and medicinal use but also have surprising magical uses too. Sage is one of the best protection herbs there is. It can shield you from evil and harm, banishing negative influences and aiding in divination work.  Sage smudge bundles come to mind for me.

I honor the spirits of the land and my Appalachian and Native American ancestors in my practices. My family has lived in the same area of Appalachia for over 150 years. One afternoon, as my sister and I were playing in the creek behind my Grandmother’s house, a bee stung my sister. Grandma immediately sent me down the creek bank to search for the brilliantly orange and yellow colored jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). She knew jewelweed soothed many skin ailments, including bee stings and rashes caused by poison ivy. Later, as an adult, I learned our native orange and yellow jewelweed is part of the Impatiens family. The annual flower Impatiens we plant in our flower gardens each spring is related to the jewelweed native beauty. Grandma used to simmer a quart of jewelweed in a pot of boiling water for ten minutes. She would take the strained mixture and apply it to affected areas of the skin.

Jewelweed Decoction

  1. Gather a fistful of jewelweed plants by lightly grasping the stems and pulling upward to unearth the shallow roots.
  2. Shake the roots to dislodge soil and crumble the entire plant into large pot.
  3. Add fresh water to cover the crumbled plants and bring to a boil.
  4. Reduce heat, place a lid on the pot, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  5. Allow the orange decoction to cool to room temperature and pour through a strainer into jars or ice cube trays.
  6. Refrigerate jars or freeze trays and dispense as needed for stings, bites, or rashes.
"Jewel Weed Impatiens capensis Flower" (c) 2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Jewel Weed Impatiens capensis Flower” (c) 2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – Self-photographed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

I was born on Memorial Day and spent my birthdays at our family cemetery cleaning, tending, playing and adorning the graves with flowers and mementos. I remember having conversations and learning things from family members who had died years before I was born. My Grandma served favorites foods of our dead on these Memorial Day picnic dinners, like green bean sandwiches and wilted lettuce topped with bacon. These visits taught me respect for my ancestors. I am passing this on to my daughter whom I named after my favorite herb, and I hope she will become the fifth generation of my family to learn the Craft of the Wise. We are Appalachian Herbalists!

Advertisements