Posted tagged ‘herbs’

Episode 96 – Curanderismo with Cheo Torres

July 15, 2016

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Summary:

Today’s episode is all about the traditional Hispanic-American healing system known as curanderismo. We speak with University of New Mexico Professor Eliseo “Cheo” Torres on the topic, hear about one of the folk saints form the tradition, and enjoy a bit of lore and music as well. NOTE: THIS EPISODE IS NOT INTENDED AS MEDICAL OR LEGAL ADVICE. Please consult a physician or medical professional if you have medical needs.

 

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Producers for this show: Corvus, Diana Garino, Renee Odders, Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, Raven Dark Moon, Ivory, The Witches View Podcast,  Sarah, Molly, Corvus, Catherine, AthenaBeth, Jen Rue of Rue & Hyssop, Shannon, Little Wren, and Jessica (if we missed you this episode, we’ll make sure you’re in the next one!). Big thanks to everyone supporting us!

 

Play:

Download: Episode 96 – Curanderismo with Cheo Torres

 

 -Sources-

Our primary source is the excellent Curandero: A Life in Mexican Folk Healing, by our guest Eliseo “Cheo” Torres, as well as is his curanderismo course on Coursera. He also teaches a continuing education version of the course in-person at the University of New Mexico.

In addition, we also drew upon the following sources for this episode.

You may also want to check out some of our previous shows on the topic, including:

We should be launching our newest podcast effort, Chasing Foxfire, in the next few months as well.

If you have feedback you’d like to share, email us or leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you!

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter! And check out our Facebook page! For those who are interested, we also now have a page on Pinterest you might like, called “The Olde Broom.” Have something you want to say? Leave us a voice mail on our official NWW hotline: (442) 999-4824 (that’s 442-99-WITCH, if it helps).

 

 Promos & Music

Title and closing music is “Pig Ankle Rag,” by The Joy Drops, and is used under a Creative Commons License (available at Soundcloud.com).

Additional music:

  • La Tab – “Fuego Fatal”
  • Sergei Cheriminsky – “Mother’s Hands”
  • Turtle – “Grow Grotesque”
  • Maria Pien – “Por me que lleva” and “Fruto prohibido”

The above songs can found at the Free Music Archive and Soundcloud and are used under a Creative Commons License. The song “Mariachi Dote” by Armando Palomas is from Archive.org, and used in the Public Domain.

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Blog Post 173 – Spring Tonics

February 21, 2013

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Ah! Spring is in the air! The warm breezes, the crisp blue skies, the flowers poking their heads from beneath the stiff and frosty soil…wait, never mind. It’s still winter, isn’t it? But I did see a few daffodils showing their buttery yellow tops recently, so spring can’t be too far away. That brings me to the topic of the day: spring tonics. These are potions, concoctions, teas, tisanes, and other preparations which are taken not to react to a medical problem (although some do claim to treat a specific disorder) but to provide general or specific proactive health support. I make the standard disclaimer before we begin that this is not a medical blog and nothing herein should be construed as medical advice; it is provided in a historical and folkloric context only and any medical treatments should only be undertaken with the advice of a trained physician.

Tonics of one kind or another can be found in many places, but I will specifically be looking at the mountain traditions of eastern North America today (the Ozarks and Appalachians). This region has a long history with tonics as part of its medical culture, and even in its economy (which we’ll get to in a bit). Just what is a spring tonic, though? Let’s look to the sourcebook series on Appalachia, The Foxfire Books for a definition:

“After a long winter, spring was the time to refresh the spirit and tone up the system with a tonic. The mountain people used teas and beverages as tonics. They would gather the roots or barks in the proper season, dry them, store them in a dry place, and use them as they wanted them. People used sugar, honey, or syrup to sweeten the teas. Common spring tonics were sassafras, spice bush, and sweet birch” (Foxfire 2, 49).

The book says they were used to treat everything from digestive disorders to gout, sore eyes, skin problems, and liver ailments. They were usually used by making a strong tea (or tisane) and sweetening to taste. Spring greens could also have a tonic/purifying effect, such as wild asparagus, dandelions, dock, poke, wild onion, ramps, and nettles. So the simple answer is that a tonic is a plant based, preventative medical remedy aimed at improving overall health. They are frequently taken in the spring, but in some cases might be used throughout the year.
What kind of tonics were—and in some cases are—common in the mountains. One of the most widely used was sassafrass, which we’ve looked at before. According to Appalachian healer Emogene Nicholas Slaughter:

“We always have a spring tonic of sassafras tea. The red is the best. It makes the best tea. It’s the same thing but in different localities the roots are different because of the soil. I get mine generally over here along the river, and it’s the red roots but I can go back up here against the mountain on the north side of the hill and it’s the white roots. The old people always say that it (spring tonic) thins your blood after the wintertime you know. Cleared out the blood stream. Just makes you feel better. I really feel that it does” (Milne 94)

As you can see, even the specific location from which the roots were dug could have an impact on the healing quality of the tonic. Folklorist Vance Randolph recorded the use of sassafras and similar roots in Ozark tonics:

“Many Ozark people make a tea from the bark of the spicebush (Benzoin aestivale) in March and April.  They drink this just as they do sassafras tea and regard it as a tonic and blood thinner. It tastes quite as good as sassafras, I think. Some old folks say that in pioneer days the spicebush was used to season game it softened the wild taste of venison and bear meat. Spicebush twigs are still used as a mat beneath a possum, when the Ozark housewife bakes the animal in a covered pan or a Dutch oven. Choctaw-root or dogbane (Apocynum) is also made into a tea, mildly laxative, which is said to “thin the blood an’ tone up the system.” I have never tasted this but have met men who say that it is better than either sassafras or spicebush. Some yarb doctors fortify their choctaw-root with wild-cherry bark and ‘anvil dust,’ whatever that may be” (Randolph 105)

Randolph also identifies wild-cherry preparations which would be used to make “bitters,” similar to those used in making cocktails but specifically focused on health benefits. He also mentions the purple coneflower (Echinacea), which has been touted in contemporary times as an immunity booster.

Sassafras and spicebush were far from the only spring tonic taken regularly in the mountains. Here are some other examples of spring tonics:

  • Seventy-seven willow leaves boiled down in water to a pint of liquid is a good chills tonic (Hyatt 109)
  • Ginseng, which we’ve covered in another post, was reputed to have a number of tonic properties
  • To regulate the flow in menstruation, boil the inside bark of a sweet- apple tree and use as a tonic: if flowing too much, the bark must be scraped upwards from the tree; if too little, downwards (Hyatt 111)
  • “An amateur herbalist at Pineville, Missouri, told me that a tonic mixture of whiskey, tansy, and ragweed leaves was indicated in all such cases ; “I take it every day myself,” said he, “an* it agrees with me fine. I aint had the hiccoughs but once in fourteen year!” (Randolph 100)
  • A strong tea of red-clover blossoms is highly regarded in some quarters as a blood purifier and general tonic. It is used in the treatment of whooping cough, too, but if the whooping cough is really bad nothing will help it but mare’s milk. Many a father has been routed out in the night to ride to some farm where a mare has lately foaled (Randolph 105)
  • “Bloodroot or red puccoon (Sanguinaria) is also supposed to be a great blood remedy, apparently because it has bloodred sap. By the same token a leaf shaped like a kidney, or a liver, or an ovary, or what not is supposed to designate a remedy for disorders of the organ which it resembles. The yarb doctors are all familiar with this principle, but they don’t seem to take it very seriously or follow it consistently.” (Randolph 105-6)
  • “Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey” (Foxfire 3, 247)
  • “Corn whiskey was a common cure for many ailments, many of which were feigned, people say. A mixture of whiskey and honey was used to treat toothaches, sore throats, and minor stomach ailments” (Montell 103)

Whiskey played a major role in the decoction of tonics, as you can see in some of the above examples. Likewise strong solvents like vinegar could be used to draw out the wonderful properties of plants and create a powerful tonic. We touched on this in our post on Four Thieves Vinegar, for example. At the top of this article you can see an example of a brochure for a vinegar-based tonic (I picked this up at a nearby Amish market). The inside portion is below:

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Several of the tonics we’ve mentioned so far specifically speak of their effect on the blood, either as “blood-thinners” or “blood toners.” These preparations were supposed to help undo the sluggishness and thickening that occurred during the winter within the body.

“Tonics known as ‘blood toners’ or ‘blood builders’ were used mainly in the spring to restore vital properties to the blood. One of the most popular was sulfur and molasses. ‘Blood purifiers’ or ‘blood thinners’ were also used in the spring and during episodes of sickness to clear the blood and organs of toxic waste, or what Southern Appalachians termed ‘pizins’” (Cavendar 65)

They also made herbal bitters which helped digestion and purified the blood. Eventually, tonics were commercialized and turned into wonder pills and patent medicines. Some examples of the many patent medicines available throughout the early twentieth century: Dr. Enuf, Peuna, Dr. Simmons’ Liver Regulator, Dr. Thatcher’s Liver & Blood Syrup, Dr. Taylor’s Family Cordial, and Thedford’s Black Draught. Some, like Dr. Enuf, were essentially caffeine and sugar energy pills claiming marvelous properties. Some legitimately helped. Most were made not in the mountains, but in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, or Baltimore. The Chattanooga Medicine Company made two successful medicines, however: Wine of Cardui for ‘female complaints,’ and the laxative Black Draught (Cavendar 72-3). These patent medicines (which I may cover in another post at some point) had a huge impact on Appalachian economies, especially for people trying to get out of the farming life:

“The J.R. Watkins Medical Company, founded in 1868 in Winona, Minnesota…enjoyed great success in selling their medicines in Southern Appalachia…[They] offered men, and later women, the opportunity to have their own business by becoming local sales representatives. For many, it was a way to escape farming life and become prosperous. A 1916 issue of the Watkins Almanac has a picture of a man in a hat and overalls standing beside a horse-drawn plow. His head is turned toward a Watkins truck rolling down a road in the distance. Beneath the picture is the caption ‘I wish I were a Watkins Man.’ The company’s recruitment efforts were successful, for in 1911 it had over 2,500 sales representatives across the nation. Sales representatives not only operated in towns and cities but also served the remote rural communities on horseback. Families in the rural communities often provided food and lodging for the ‘Watkins man’…Watkins Blood and Skin Purifier, for example, was recommended [in their almanacs, another source of revenue and advertisement as well as a pharmacopeia for the rural Appalachian] as a curative or preventative for influenza, catarrh, headache, boils, acne, blackheads, ‘change of life’ (menopause), languor, and diarrhea because these disorders were all thought to be caused or complicated by defiled or weak blood” (Cavendar 74-5)

As medicine became restricted and patent medicines came under increasing scientific and legal scrutiny, these “Watkins men” and their ilk slowly disappeared, but the tonics have remained popular up to the present day (as illustrated by the Yoder’s Good Health brochure above).

Some tonics also got administered to animals for their general benefit, too: “Ordinary soft soap made with wood ashes is regarded as a sort of universal tonic for hogs, so the hillman just mixes a little soap with the hog feed occasionally. ‘Soap will cure a hog no matter what ails him, if you git it to him in time,” said one of my neighbors’”(Randolph 50). In some cases, plant materials were completely unnecessary and a tonic could be made by simply using water from a natural mineral spring. I hope to cover the many miracle curing hot springs at some point in the future, but I’ll briefly mention one such spring due to its connection to tonics:

“The unique sulphur spring was promoted as a cure for a variety of illnesses, but especially for influenza…promoters boasted that one could drink the waters and bathe in them for a few weeks each summer and thus prevent catching the dreaded disease during the winter months. The water was even bottled for a while and distributed throughout the nation as a cure-all” (Steele, 63)

If you’re already seeing the word “tonic” connected to the spring water and you’re thinking cocktails, you’re in good company. Tonic water, the kind you mix with really good Old Tom gin (am I showing a bias there?), comes out of the tonic-brewing tradition. Happy hour for your health, anyone?

I hope this has been a nice—if brief—look at spring tonics in their various forms. If you know of tonic recipes or variations I’ve missed, feel free to post them in the comments section below!
Thanks for reading,

-Cory

Sources

  1. Cavendar, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia (2003).
  2. Hyatt, Harry M. Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois (1935, 1965).
  3. Milne, Gerald C. Signs, Cures, & Witchery (2007).
  4. Montell, William L .Upper Cumberland Country (1993).
  5. Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore (1964).
  6. Steele, Phillip.Ozark Tales & Superstitions (1983).
  7. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 2 (1973).
  8. Wigginton, Eliot, ed. Foxfire 3 (1975).

Blog Post 158 – The Doctrine of Signatures

June 1, 2012

Greetings everyone!

In this entry, I want to talk a little bit about a concept that can get very sticky, and which may very well put me at the outer limits of credibility. Before I dig into the meat of the subject, however, I think I should remind everyone that THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG. NO INFORMATION PRESENTED HERE IS INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE FOR ANY ILLNESS, AILMENT, OR CONDITION. IF YOU HAVE A MEDICAL NEED, PLEASE SEE YOUR PHYSICIAN OR QUALIFIED HEALTH PROVIDER. ALL INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN IS STRICTLY IN THE INTEREST OF PRESENTING FOLKLORE AND PERSONAL OPINION.

Now that the big, scary, all-caps part of the post is done, let’s talk about the Doctrine of Signatures. I was actually rather surprised after our last episode to hear from several people that the concept of the DOS was unfamiliar to them. I realized at some point that the ideas founding the DOS were so internalized, and I was assuming that most people who worked with herbs had heard of those concepts. Now I’m thinking that I may have just been sort of lucky to have picked that information up early on (I know my mother shared a bit of that with me based on herbs she grew and I learned a lot of it from my first few years as a practicing neo-Pagan hanging around rock and herb shops).

So what is the Doctrine of Signatures? In this case, I think I’ll leave the general explanation to better folklorists than myself. First, I’m going to quote a somewhat neutral (though erring on the side of skepticism) article by folklorist Wayland D. Hand:

“Advocates of nature’s way in natural and organically grown foods, probably still have a lingering belief in the doctrine that for every illness with which man is afflicted God himself has provided a healing agent. All one has to do is to learn to seek out these wondrous plants. It was on this essential premise that the Doctrine of Signatures was enunciated by Paracelsus, Giambattista Porta and the early botanists. This theory is most ably stated by William Turner, an English botanist, who in his The New Herbal of 1551, wrote: ‘God hath imprinted upon plants, herbs, and flowers, as it were, a hieroglyphic, the very  signature of their vertues, as on the nutmeg, which, being cut, resembles the brain.’ Writing a half a century later, Johannes Franck, one of the leading German botanists of his day, compiled a book which  he called Signature, that is, a Basic and True Description of Plants Created by God and Nature. This doctrine went somewhat beyond the shape and color of plants to their activity and function. One of the earliest examples of this kind of sympathetic connection is found in the writings of Pliny the Elder who flourished in the first century, A.D. Calcifrage was recommended to combat the stone. This prescription  comes form the fact that this hardy plant which could penetrate the fissures of the hardest face of a cliff, would certainly be able to break up kidney and gallstones, as the name of the plant itself suggests:  calci-frage, ‘stone breaking.’” (Hand, “Magical Medicine,” Western Folklore)

Next, let’s look at a much older (and much more cynical) opinion about this idea, from plant folk-lorist T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, whose Folk Lore of Plants is something of a classic:

“The old medical theory, which supposed that plants by their external character indicated the particular diseases for which Nature had intended them as remedies, was simply a development of the much older notion of a real connection between object and image. Thus, on this principle, it was asserted that the properties of substances were frequently denoted by their colour; hence, white was regarded as refrigerant, and red as hot. In the same way, for disorders of the blood, burnt purple, pomegranate seeds, mulberries, and other red ingredients were dissolved in the patient’s drink; and for liver complaints yellow substances were recommended. But this fanciful and erroneous notion ‘led to serious errors in practice,’ and was occasionally productive of the most fatal results.” (Dyer, TFLOP, Chapter XVI)

The idea of plants bearing the divine mark which indicated their use is a very old concept. Hand notes that Pliny the Elder recorded such an idea, and it was debated even in his time with question to the validity of this method.  The idea—in one form or another—appears in herbal medicinal systems throughout the world, including Chinese traditional herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine.  Many people swear by it, and a number of ‘yarb doctors’ have treated ailments with it for centuries with relative success. Yet at the same time, the doctrine has been misused, misapplied, or just plain wrong in some cases and has caused an increase in illness or injury.

I bring up the DOS at all because it’s so fundamental to New World magical concepts. The idea that God, the Creator, or some other spiritual force has set in motion a world which bears hallmarks of its design seems to have been taken as de facto truth among many early settlers in America, particularly poor folks with limited access to medical treatment. An entire profession of folk herbalism, or “yarb doctors” arose in the Appalachians, and similar practices (such as curanderismo in the Southwest) appeared elsewhere. In most cases, these medicine men and women did not make their primary living off of their knowledge of herbs and plants, but rather in many cases refused payment for such services, feeling that it was their God-given duty to render help when help was needed. Of course, such high-mindedness was not universal, but even in cases where money or goods changed hands, yarb doctors cost less than a typical doctor in most instances.

Determining which plants have which signatures is a strange and murky process. For instance, an herb with heart-shaped leaves might be good for treating a physical heart problem, an emotional disorder, working a love charm, etc. The hairy stems of mint might indicate that it has the ability to ‘prickle’ the lungs and stimulate respiration, or they might signal that rubbing mint on one’s scalp would stimulate hair growth. The tall and showy joe pye weed, which has the nickname ‘gravel root,’ is used to treat kidney stones—frequently referred to as ‘gravel’—but its hollow stems might signal a use in treating sore throats as well as problems of the urinary tract, which both feature hollow tubes leading to external orifices. In this latter case, we can see another important aspect of the Doctrine, in which many plants receive their folk names based on their folk medical uses (boneset, feverfew, eyebright, etc.). Critics of the DOS sometimes point out that the retroactive ascription of signs to the plants, such as noticing that joe pye weed has hollow stems and therefore would be good for urinary problems, does not indicate a heavenly marking of use, but rather makes for an easy mnemonic device for remembering what plants are good for what ailments.  Further complicating the matter, some signatures are not visual markings, but rather based on sounds the plant makes when shaken, for example, or perhaps on a specific odor the plant emits.

There are also potential problems separating out a ‘signature’ from a legendary or mythical ascription of plant demarcation. Passionflower, which I’ve written about previously, is a good example of layered interpretation, with the numerical and color symbology of the plant being so closely linked to Christian mythology that the flower essentially contains a sermon. Was passionflower marked, given its unusual structure by a Creator to illustrate a story? Likewise, a number of plants are reputed to have some tie to the Crucifixion in Christian myth, such as the holly berry. Thiselton-Dyer also records a similar blood-staining myth related to poppies, in which they have been dyed by the blood of St. Margaret. In these cases, the plants are ‘marked,’ but not necessarily for use. They bear the signs of an interested and involved divine power, but are not strictly Doctrine of Signatures material since those signs illustrate a story and not a practical application. Yet, by a stretch of imagination, one could link the poppy’s use as an opiate and intoxicant to the story of St. Margaret, who famously battled a dragon. Since the use of poppy-derived-opium (and its relative, heroin) was known for a time as “chasing the dragon,” the connection does, by a bizarre happenstance, make some degree of sense. But was the flower marked with foreknowledge of the phrase, and thus was it pre-figurative? Or is all of this just strange coincidence?

It’s probably time for me to come clean, as I’ve been sort of dancing around my opinion on the Doctrine of Signatures. I’m a believer. Not a hard-and-fast, every-plant-bears-a-signature-and-medical-science-is-quackery kind of believer, but I tend to think that the DOS has some validity. My personal work with herbs and plants has led me to see the connections between their form and their functions. I don’t think that we necessarily understand every signature in every plant, and I do think that we frequently misinterpret the signs we see, but I do think that there’s an element of deliberate design within most flora that has to do with its use. This probably hedges a bit close to the Intelligent Design argument for some folks, and I don’t want to get bogged down in that discussion. I don’t make claims as to who marked the plants—perhaps they mark themselves in some way, for all I know. And I don’t necessarily think that I could wander into a meadow, find a foot-shaped plant, and use it to treat bunions and corns. I tend to agree with the skeptics about the retro ascription of plant signatures that human understanding of the plant signatures comes after we figure out what they are used for. But that does not diminish—to me—the idea that the design is implicitly connected to the use. It only emphasizes that we should be paying much more attention to what plants have to teach us, and to the hidden language of the world working around us.

So that’s my nutshell version of the Doctrine of Signatures. There are many authors who discuss this concept more handily than I have here, so please do some research and see what you think of the whole thing. Have you ever noticed signatures in plants (or even in animals, weather phenomena, etc., which are sometimes included in an extended version of this doctrine)?

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Podcast 42 – Plants and Witchcraft

May 25, 2012

Summary
On this episode of New World Witchery, we look at the world of plants and how it affects the world of witchcraft. We talk about sourcing herbs and roots, wild vs. cultivated plants, and whether you need to work with them at all.

Play:
Download: New World Witchery – Episode 42

 -Sources-
We don’t cite a whole lot of sources, so I’m just going to list a few of the herbal books/resources we discuss or which I turn to regularly:

The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham
Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, by Cat Yronwode
The Folk-lore of Plants, by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies, by Jude C. Todd, M.H
The Complete Book of Herbs, by Lesley Bremness
Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpepper
A Modern Herbal, by Mrs. M. Grieve (also known as botanical.com)

We mention Mountain Rose Herbs as a great source for buying herbs, and we make several failing attempts to recommend our shop, the Compass & Key Apothecary. You should also check out Sarah Lawless’s great herbal supply shop, Forest Grove Botanica.

You can now request Card Readings from Cory via email, if you are so inclined.

Don’t forget to follow us at Twitter!

 Promos & Music
Title music:  “Homebound,” by Jag, from Cypress Grove Blues.  From Magnatune.

Promo 1 – Inciting a Riot
Promo 2 – The Infinite & the Beyond
Promo 3 – The Pagan Homesteader

Blog Post 156 – Passionflower

April 20, 2012

Greetings blog subscribers (and casual readers, too)!

When I first stumbled on today’s gorgeous botanical subject in the hilly areas around Chattanooga, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The passionflower is one of the most outlandish, garish, over-the-top, and beautiful blooms I’ve encountered in the wild. It looks as thought it would be more at home in a tropical nursery than growing in the foothills of the Appalachians, and yet this clinging vine with big, showy blossoms is right at home among sweetgum trees, sassafras, and tulip poplars.

The flower is sort of ‘leveled,’ with a base of beautiful petals which come in vibrant colors like purple and pink upon which rest elevated pistils and soaring stamens in a delicate (and highly symbolic) pattern. The passionflower goes by several names, including the maypop, herb of the Cross, and maracuja. The latter name comes from Spanish-speaking localities in which the twining vine blooms, and the flower has definitely found a home in the folklife of Hispanic herbalists. But before I get ahead of myself with all of that, let’s look briefly at some of the Old World lore about this lovely bit of flora.
Here’s a description of how the passionflower got its name, from perennial (pardon the pun) favorite, T. F. Thiselton-Dyer’s The Folk-lore of Plants:

“The passion-flower has been termed Holy Rood flower, and it is the ecclesiastical emblem of Holy Cross Day, for, according to the familiar couplet:—

‘The passion-flower long has blow’d
To betoken us signs of the Holy Rood.’ (CH XVII)”

“A plant closely connected by tradition with the crucifixion is the passion-flower. As soon as the early Spanish settlers in South America first glanced on it, they fancied they had discovered not only a marvellous symbol of Christ’s passion, but received an assurance of the ultimate triumph of Christianity. Jacomo Bosio, who obtained his knowledge of it from certain Mexican Jesuits, speaks of it as ‘the flower of the five wounds,’ and has given a very minute description of it, showing how exactly every part is a picture of the mysteries of the Passion. ‘It would seem,’ he adds, ‘as if the Creator of the world had chosen it to represent the principal emblems of His Son’s Passion; so that in due season it might assist, when its marvels should be explained to them, in the condition of the heathen people, in whose country it grew.’” [21] (CH XIX)

The passionflower naturally fits into a schema of religious botany, then, and would seem to be a sort of pinnacle representation of the Doctrine of Signatures, which essentially states that every plant (or creatrure, for that matter) bears certain visual, olfactory, or other cues indicating what the divine intends us to do with it.

Medicinally, this plant has a powerful sedative effect, though not one so strong as something like valerian root. This can be seen as a sort of ‘peace,’ bestowed by the plant as its creator would bestow divine peace. You can read a good bit about its medicinal qualities here and here, where they are able to get much more into the hows and whys of passionflower’s sedative effects. [Though I will note here, as I always do, THIS IS NOT A MEDICAL BLOG, AND I DO NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. PLEASE CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN FOR MEDICAL INFORMATION ABOUT HERBS, SUPPLEMENTS, OR ANY OTHER TREATMENTS YOU ARE CONSIDERING].

Moving into passionflower’s magical side, there is surprisingly little to do with its ability to inspire religious faith, offer any kind of divine protection, or even be used as a decoration on altars to holy saints, which greatly surprises me. I would think those uses would be nearly the first use I’d put them to, but wiser workers than I would note that passionflower’s real power is not just in its blossom, but in its less showy bits: the tangly and highly clinging vine which supports the gorgeous floral display.

Cat Yronwode describes the passionflower as an ingredient in the Chuparrosa (or “hummingbird” in Spanish) charm, which is used to foster feelings of love and attachment (hence the clinging-vine quality):

“Dried Passion Flower leaves or pieces of the root may be carried in a red flannel bag dressed with Love Me Oil. Mexicans are known to add such a bag a charm to the Divine Hummingbird, or Chuparrosa. In the old days this would have been dried hummingbird heart, but it is illegal to kill hummingbirds or to possess their body parts in some states now—and with good reason, as the birds are under tremendous habitat destruction pressure from human beings. A metal charm of a hummingbird sewn to the bag or carried inside will do just as well” (Hoodoo Herb & Root Magic, 142)

Beyond its love-bringing and binding qualities, the flower also seems to bring feelings of peace and contentment between lovers and members of a household, likely due to its soporific effects in its medical applications.

In Latin American countries, the passionflower has similar applications, including use as a love-binder and spiritual sedative. It’s also used in a Brazilian floral horoscope, where it represents the month of June. Again, I’m surprised at its limited appeal as a holy or divine flower, as I think it would likely be an excellent addition to offering altars to Marian incarnations or to do work with Jesus in various forms. But that’s merely speculation on my part, so I digress.

If you’ve had any experiences, magical or otherwise, with this amazing bloom, we’d love to hear about them! Feel free to leave a comment below or email us if you know more about this beautiful, intriguing addition to American flora.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 154 – Buckeyes

April 11, 2012

I imagine that I’ll get a sharp increase in visitors from Ohio with this article. Today’s featured botanical is the buckeye, which is both the name of the tree and the fruit (or nut) of that tree. It grows in a wide variety of locations, including all over Europe and North America, and is also frequently referred to as a “horse chestnut” (which is actually a very specific species within the bigger buckeye family). Since you can find a great deal of botanical information on the tree elsewhere (like at the USDA Plants database), I’ll narrow my focus here to the folklore and magical uses of the nut.

T.F. Thiselton-Dyer, author of the botanical mythography classic The Folk-lore of Plants, makes the following observations about the horse-chestnut:

“A Worcestershire name for a horse-chestnut is the ‘oblionker tree.’ According to a correspondent of Notes and Queries (5th Ser. x. 177), in the autumn, when the chestnuts are falling from their trunks, boys thread them on string and play a ‘cob-nut’ game with them. When the striker is taking aim, and preparing for a shot at his adversary’s nut, he says:—

‘Oblionker!

My first conker (conquer).’

The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the fruit itself.” (CH XVIII)

Already I love this plant, don’t you? Essentially they seem to be used as marbles in children’s games (give them one point for that), and they also have a nice phonetic connection to the powerful hoodoo charm, John the Conqueror root, which is frequently called John de Conker (and that’s another point to the buckeye!). They actually look llike smoother versions of High John roots in some ways, so it doesn’t surprise me to find that they sometimes get substituted in for their powerful underground counterpart:

“Buckeye nuts are believed by some hoodoo “doctors” to increase a man’s sexual power. Shaped like miniature testicles, they are sometimes carried in the pants pockets as charms to bring men “good fortune in sexual matters.” In the southern and eastern regions of the United States, buckeyes are carried in mojo bags to cure or prevent such ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, and migraine headaches” (Gerina Dunwich, Herbal Magic, 86).

Cat Yronwode similarly cites buckeyes as charms for increasing male potency. Both Yronwode and Dunwitch, however, make it clear that a buckeye’s primary powers are to aid as a gambling charm and to help stave off aches and pains—particularly rheumatism and headaches. This view is heavily supported by a number of folklore sources:

From Newbell Niles Puckett, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro

  • Where the left hind foot of a graveyard rabbit, a buckeye, a horse chestnut, and a luck bone from a pig ham are put together for good luck [A charm for good luck] (316)
  • A buckeye carried in the pocket will surely bring one good luck (314)
  • A buckeye carried in the left pocket is generally supposed to work a cure for rheumatism as well as for piles, a belief apparently English (360)
  • Red pepper rubbed up and down the back ‘warms up de system,’ as does also a new domestic sack half full of salt into which nine grains of red pepper and four buckeyes have been put. Wear this around your waist and you will never again be bothered with chills (366)
  • In Mississippi and Alabama it is believed that if one carries buckeyes in the pocket he will have no chills through the year (366)

From Harry M. Hyatt, Folklore of Adams Co., Illinois

  • 1328. “My brother always carries a buckeye in his pocket to get money.” (28)
  • 1329. “I always carry three buckeyes in my pocket to always have money. My grandfather did this through the Civil War, my mother did this, and I am carrying three buckeyes too.” (28)
  • 4534. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never becomes sick. (99)
  • 4688. The person who carries a buckeye in the pocket never suffers from backache. (103)
  • 5233. A buckeye carried in your pocket or the band of your hat prevents headache. (118)
  • 5588. As a treatment for piles, a buckeye is worn: in the pocket (usually the left), or one in each pocket, or one pinned to the underclothes, or one round the neck, or one rolled in the top of each stocking. (126)
  • 5684. One buckeye is worn in one of several places as a rheumatism remedy: about the neck, on the breast, in a pocket (especially a hip pocket), round the waist, and under the bend of the knee.  Sometimes, they say buckeyes are ineffective for rheumatism, unless you begin by using an unripe one. Moreover, it is occasionally said, to lose this nut in the process of curing yourself brings bad luck. And finally, because a buckeye is also called a horse chestnut, the real chestnut is worn as a substitute, but this seems to be rare. (129)
  • 5685. Buckeyes used for curing rheumatism should always be carried in pairs. This also makes you lucky at the same time. (129)
  • 5686. “If you carry three buckeyes in a sack so they will be on your skin, good for rheumatism; if the buckeyes dry all up when wearing, then they are doing you good; but if they don’t dry all up, they are doing you no good.” (129)
  • 11073. It is lucky to keep a buckeye in your purse, on your person, or in your house. (262)
  • 13443. Keep a buckeye in your pocket while playing baseball and you will have good luck. (310)
  • 13984. You obtain good luck for a card game, if a buckeye is worn in your right pocket. (319)

From Daniel & Lucy Thomas, Kentucky Superstitions:

  • 1224 – One subject to a headache may prevent it by carrying a buckeye in his pocket (105)
  • 1288 – Carry a horse chestnut [another name for a buckeye] in the pocket, to avert piles (110)
  • 1299 – To avert rheumatism, carry a horse-chestnut in the pocket (111)
  • 2887 – You will have good luck if you carry a horse-chestnut (219)

Kentucky Superstitions also has this rather fantastic bit of lore about the good ole horse-chestnut:

  • 2889 – If one eats a buckeye, his head will turn around (219)

Vance Randolph devotes a sizeable amount of space to the folklore of buckeyes among the hillfolk of the Ozarks, also pointing out their strong associations with healing and protection from painful diseases. He relates an excellent story about just how deeply ingrained the belief in buckeye powers was in the mountains:

There is an old saying that no man was ever found dead with a buckeye in his pocket, but this is not to be taken seriously. Most people who carry buckeyes regard them as a protection against rheumatism, or hemorrhoids. One of the most successful physicians in southwest Missouri always carries a buckeye ; when it was mislaid once he was very much disturbed and let an officeful of patients wait until his pocket piece was recovered. It is very bad luck to lose a buckeye. I asked this doctor about it once. “No, I’m not superstitious,” he said grinning, “I just don’t want to get the rheumatism!” (Ozark Magic & Folklore, 153)

There is some excellent lore about the buckeye and just why it became the namesake for Ohio from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources website. They mention the lucky association, likening it to a four-leaf clover or rabbit’s foot, and links the state nickname to William Henry Harrison or alternatively to Col. Ebenezer Sproat (a simply fantastic name), both Ohioans of historic and heroic stature.

Probably my favorite bit of folklore concerning the lovely horse-chestnut comes from an online forum I found while researching this topic. You can read the full thread here, but I simply cannot fail to mention this fantastic tidbit:

There is a belief by some that only half the buckeye is poisonous, and that only squirrels know which half that might be in a particular nut. Squirrels do sometimes eat a part of the nut.

There you have it: squirrels are smarter than we are. But I’ve known that for a while (at least in my case it’s true).

At any rate, the buckeye can be carried as a lucky charm or worked into other magical preparations, and it has a huge body of lore associated with it. So much, in fact, that I’ve barely (prepare for pun) cracked the shell here. If you know of great buckeye lore and magic, I’d love to hear about it! Or if you just want to pelt me with horse-chestnuts for making bad puns, I’ll be here all day.

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

Blog Post 153 – American Ginseng

April 4, 2012

Hello dedicated (and not abandoned!) readers!

This month, I’m going to be spending a lot of time looking at various botanicals found throughout North American magical practice. What with it being springtime and all, I thought a little stroll through our native meadows, forests, fields, and fens would be a good way to get back in the swing of things, and might even open up some new avenues of exploration for somebody. As always let me emphasize that THIS IS NOT A  MEDICAL BLOG, AND THE INFORMATION HERE IS NOT INTENDED TO DIAGNOSE, TREAT, OR OTHERWISE MEDICALLY PROVIDE FOR ANY ILLNESS OR AILMENT. ALL INFORMATION IS PROVIDED AS FOLKLORE ONLY!!!

I’m starting with a plant that may or may not be familiar to most people: American Ginseng (panax quinquefolia).  This plant can be found throughout the mountainous regions of North America ranging from Canada down to the Southern states. It’s long been highly valued in Chinese medicine, and has been considered a panacea (hence its botanical Latinate name of panax) for a wide variety of complaints. You can read a good bit about the botanical and medical side of the plant at its Botanical.com entry, so I’ll focus today more on the folklore side of this incredibly useful root.

When I was growing up in the rural South, I had a good friend in high school whose father would regularly take him ginseng hunting (or “sanging”) in the hills and mountain areas a few hours away. It was a profitable side business for them, as it has been for mountain folk for nearly three centuries. In the Foxfire Book #3, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to ginseng, there’s a history dating back to the early 18th century in which Father Joseph Lafitau had local Mowhawk tribes in Canada begin gathering and curing native ginseng for sale on the Chinese market (244). At one point, ginseng was reputed to be worth its weight in gold, literally. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies includes this tidbit about the economic value of the root: “Even Daniel Boone gathered it [ginseng] to sell because it was more profitable than hunting and trapping” (18). Unfortunately this demand led to an overzealous glut of wild harvesting, and ginseng’s botanical population dwindled steadily into the early 20th century. It’s made something of a comeback in the last 50-60 years due to stricter laws governing its harvesting, but as my story about my friend’s family demonstrates, it’s still a very common practice and hard to regulate.

Mountain communities have long known the curative and tonic value of ginseng root. Looking again to Foxfire #3, we find the following:

“The early colonists not only gathered ginseng for sale, but used it in tea to encourage the appetite or strengthen the digestion, especially of elderly persons or puny children. Ginseng plus black cherry and yellowroot made a potent tonic, especially with the addition of some home made whiskey. An early herbal suggested gathering ginseng root and steeping it with chamomile flowers for fainting females” (247)

Its primary powers are to enhance male vigor, and its described as a potent aphrodisiac in a number of sources. This may be due to either its stimulant effect on the circulatory system or the distinctively humanoid shape of the root (a factor which has earned aphrodisiac and potentcy attributions for other roots like mandrake and ginger). Preparations vary from chewing slices of the fresh root to brewing teas to even more unorthodox decoctions. One informant’s method:

“‘You can take the roots that are dry and take a sausage mill or something and grind’em up and drop a pretty good little handful down into your vial of conversation juice [moonshine]. Take this ginseng and liquor and pour out just a small little amount of that ina teacup and set it afire. Strike a match to it, you know, and it’ll burn. And I mean burn it good. And then turn it up and drink it. It’s an awful bitter dose to swallow, but if it don’t do you some good you better get to a doctor and pretty durn fast. It really is good for that [male vigor]. And it’s also good for female disorders. Very good, they tell me, for that’”(Foxfire #3 250-1)

In one example I found, the act of finding ginseng has its own value. From Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia: “For some, the pursuit of ‘sang’ and other herbs is a therapeutic activity in itself. A ninety-year-old woman from eastern Tennessee said: ‘When I feel down in the dumps, I go sangin’” (60).

Therapeutic uses of ginseng in modern preparations reflect its historical value. Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies recommends it as a tonic and aphrodisiac, and gives this recipe for a male tonic:

“TONIC FOR MEN: Mix ½ ounce each of ginseng, shepherd’s purse, corn silk and parsley. Mix well and add 1 teaspoon of the mixture to 1 cup of boiling water. Let steep 15 minutes, covered. Strain and sweeten if desired. Drink several cups per day for 1 week. This helps to tone up the male reproductive organs. The stimulation to the prostate is helpful to all parts of the system” (120)

It also considers ginseng one of the great coffee subsitutes available in the wild. It is still considered a great digestive aid, as well. The folklore tome Kentucky Superstitions calls it “A sure remedy for all kinds of stomach trouble” (107).

In the folk magical realm, ginseng again parallels its medicinal uses, as well as adding a few new tricks to its repertoire. Cat Yronwode describes a recipe for soaking a ginseng root in Holy Oil which can then be used to anoint the male genetalia to enhance sexual performance. She also mentions it’s a key component of an old-timey gambling mojo, too. The root seems to have made its way into curanderismo practice as well, as the Curious Curandera lists the following uses for it: “Love, wishes, protection, luck, spirit communication, visions, divination, male vigor, gambling luck, to control another.” And Judika Illes, in her oft-recommended tome The Encylopedia of 5000 Spells, gives a number of great magical applications for ginseng root:

  • Tie a red thread around a ginseng root and carry with you for beauty and grace (1026)
  • Wrapping the first dollar earned at a new business around a ginseng root w/ red thread will help improve income (167)
  • Mentions its name as “Wonder of the World root,” and tells how it can be used in hoodoo to enhance longevity, libido, & performance in sexual situations (527). Also says you can carve a wish on a whole root & toss it into running water to gain what you desire (763).
  • Can be burned to break curses (598)

This incredibly verstatile root definitely has a place in a folk magician’s cupboard, though I would recommend acquiring it from legal sources. While I’m normally an advocate of wild harvesting roots for practice, in ginseng’s case three centuries of such harvesting have taken a toll, and since it grows well in cultivation I’d rather see the wild stocks remain alive and untouched for a long time to come.

If you have experience with ginseng or know of any unique magical applications for it, I’d love to hear them! Until next time, thanks for reading!

-Cory


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