European Entheogens: Folk Medicine and Magical Aids

If you have an apprehension towards the use of psychoactive plants and their effects on humans outside of the context of Modern pharmaceutical medicine, then you may not wish to read on about this particular subject. Even more so, this topic deals with some substances which are currently illegal or extremely dangerous to use without training, and thus are unsuitable for experimentation by most people. If this concept frightens or irks you, begone! It is better for those who do not know enough about the nature of such things to rely on the advice of professional practitioners, preferably ones who do not fall for the reductionist quackery of Modern medicine (though for most of us, this is unfortunately not the case). However, for those of you who feel compelled to explore such things in depth, or possibly those who feel the call to study the art of traditional medicine, I will present a summary of some of the main plants that can be used in a sacred or ‘shamanic’ context within European culture.

It just so happens that we are among those various peoples across the world who do not have a significant tradition remaining that involves the use of such substances. The main culprit for this current state is the mania that seized our lands from the late 15th to the 17th Centuries AD, which encouraged religious and secular authorities to root out all traces of feminine folk wisdom and brand the practitioners of such arts as ‘witches’. This followed the social calamity of the Black Death and was an attempt by the Judeo-Christian authorities to assert themselves when the drastic population reduction in Europe and the loss of central authority had made folk more reliant on traditional methods in order to survive.

Much of this involved consulting wise women who were skilled in potion brewing and ointment making, as well as the creation of good luck charms and the practice of divination. These disciplines are all inter-related, and many of them can be achieved by working with plants which were once considered sacred. Sadly, the imposition of Judeo-Christianity merely followed earlier, statist attempts to outlaw such substances within the Roman Empire, and under such circumstances the use of these substances typically loses its sacramental context and devolves into a recreational or criminal activity.

Among tribal societies, however, the knowledge of how to work with sacred plants is at the heart of the spiritual, physical and psychological well-being of the tribe and the individuals that use them in this way are treated with a mixture of fear and respect. On one hand, they have an intuitive understanding of what particular plant should treat a specific ailment, and also what the dosage should be depending on the individual requiring treatment. However, their working of potentially poisonous plants and the ability to travel to other worlds and converse with deities and other spiritual beings makes them potentially dangerous. The accusations levelled at women (and sometimes men) who were supposedly engaging in black magic during the Burning Times were not completely unfounded all of the time, as the ability to heal also enables the potential to harm; and so it would be naïve to assume that some of the cunning folk never employed poisoning or hexing, either as an abuse of power or as a way of teaching a lesson to a fool. However, the gift given to such individuals by the gods was one which could be taken away if misused, and so those involved in such practices had to abide by a deep adherence to natural law and know how to work above their own ego.

Below is a list of some of the more powerful substances that are known to have been used in native European tradition. I believe that it is important to focus on our own cultural perspective, as the adoption of practices from other cultures may not coincide with those of our forebears. It is unfortunate that we have experienced such a complete and utter devastation of the traditional use of entheogens in Modern Europe, and so most people’s understanding of these substances is tainted by harmful perspectives that are a result of prohibition.

Whether it be hysterical rejection of the use of such substances because of a belief in their inherently harmful nature and an ignorance of their positive uses, or a completely hedonistic worldview which sees such treasures as a way to ‘get high’ and only seeks such substances for the sake of pleasure, I find it necessary to give a third perspective which focuses on their sacred rather than profane usage. As there are many fantastic blogs which deal with herbal lore, I will only focus on those that are more suitable for a ritual context rather than those which are of a more mild nature and can be utilized for everyday use. Be warned that the penalties for messing with these things may end with a prison sentence or harming one’s body or mind because of side-effects, and I provide this list merely as a guide to entheogenic study.

Belladonna (Atropa Belladonna)

A-127-11 Atropa belladonna

This infamous plant is commonly known as ‘deadly nightshade’, a name which has been attached to it mainly to ward of children from eating the berries, which are luscious and sweet, but usually result in a painful death for them. The main chemical constituents are scopolamine and hyoscyamine, though the latter metabolizes into atropine upon drying and is the main chemical associated with this plant. These chemicals are known as ‘anticholinergics’ and are capable of inducing delirium, realistic or terrifying hallucinations, a rapid heart rate, difficulty urinating and stupor. However, they are also invaluable for their use in treating nausea, insomnia, toothache, low blood pressure and bradycardia (a dangerously slow heartbeat), and were historically used as sedatives before performing surgery.

Despite the lethal danger to children, Belladonna poisoning does not usually result in death for adults. However, its ability to trap a victim in a waking dream of hallucinations and delirium can have disastrous consequences for somebody who becomes poisoned by her, as they are reliant on others to make sure that they do not confuse their hallucinations for reality and injure or kill themselves in the process. It is for this reason that belladonna is feared for her dangerous power, and will only respond positively to those who employ her aid for reasonable purposes.

One particularly notable instance of its use for poisoning was at the Battle of Denmarkfield near Luncarty in Perthshire during the 11th Century. The Danes, led by Sweyn Knutson, had been pillaging Fife and besieged MacBeth near the River Almond. The Scottish king, Duncan, offered Sweyn and his army wine laced with Belladonna as a sign of truce. By nightfall, the soporific effects of the drug caused the Danes to pass out or become delirious, and were easily massacred by the Scots. Sweyn escaped, but the Danes were expelled from our land for good. There is a standing stone to mark the site of the battle near the village of Luncarty. Archaeological excavations have also unearthed remains of Belladonna seeds at the Medieval town of Elgin in Moray, and they are usually associated with monasteries. After the conversion to Christianity, much of the medicinal lore was kept in the hands of the monks, and healing herbs were a common feature of monastic gardens. Though Belladonna is fairly common in England, it is much rarer in Scotland, as it prefers chalky soil and much of our native soil is very acidic and dense in clay.

denmarkfield_standing_stone

Denmarkfield ‘King’s Stone’, said to commemorate the Battle of Denmarkfield, Luncarty

Aside from the medicinal uses mentioned above, Belladonna is known to have been used to induce trance and was used in the practice of astral projection, where the user is able to send their hama (‘soul-skin’ or ‘astral body’) into other worlds to attain visions for the sake of divination or healing. It is for this particular quality that the cunning folk sought her aid in private rituals, although they would usually have needed an assistant to watch over them while they journeyed. Typically, Belladonna was used in the form of a ‘flying ointment’ in conjunction with other, more poisonous herbs such as wolfsbane (aconitum napellus) or hemlock (conium maculatum). Atropine is unable to pass through the skin, and so this would reduce the negative effects on the body that would result from ingesting such a chemical. In this context, the entheogenic use would have been more secretive than that of some other substances, though it may have been used by a group of practitioners to achieve spirit flight.

The chemicals in Belladonna are also known to cause lycanthropy, a condition where the subject believes themselves to be a wolf, and may be connected to folklore about werewolves. An elite band of warriors in Norse society was known as the ulfheithnar, and they were supposedly able to invoke the spirit of the wolf to aid them in battle (much like the ‘berserkers’, whom I will mention shortly). It is possible that Belladonna was used in potions or ointments by these warriors for this purpose, and it could also have been used to contact one’s own spirit animal. Belladonna is sacred to Nerthuz and it can be used as part of a Saturday incense (though this is not recommended).

Cannabis (Cannabis Sativa)

cannabis_sativa

Ah, what a controversial herb this is! Found in every street in all corners of British society, this particular weed is widely utilized for its ability to treat nausea, calm the mind, relieve pain and increase appetite. Sadly, it is more often than not used as a recreational drug, and is associated with a black market that mass produces the plant without any regulation or oversight. As the result of prohibition, it is unable to be used for medicinal purposes unless in the extracted, chemical forms, though the non-psychoactive varieties of hemp are grown for their nutritious seeds which can be used to make oil, and also as a textile.

Nowadays, this herb is associated with Black gang culture and all of the thuggery and degeneracy that goes along with the criminal and recreational elements, but this is only a recent phenomenon. In the past, cannabis sativa was grown all over Europe for its value both as a medicine and as a textile, though it is probably not native. Its native range is probably Central Asia, and it was likely to have been introduced to Europe by the Aryans migrating from the Russian Steppe, where it grows wild in the form of cannabis ruderalis. Cannabis sativa is the cultivated form of the herb and has been widely utilized for its mind altering affects, particularly those relating to euphoria and creativity. The main chemical constituents of cannabis are THC and CBD, though the ratio of these may vary between different strains of the herb.

The connection between Cannabis and ecstasy (the state of being, not the drug MDMA) is well attested today and in ancient times. It is known by names such as ‘reliever of grief’ and ‘banisher of sorrow’, and was used to treat anxiety because of its ability to engage the more logical side of the brain and calm over-active emotions. It has been used by Indian ascetics known as sadhus to assist in meditation and to achieve liberation from the five senses. Naturally, the use of the herb for this purpose requires tremendous will and discipline, and so most folk prefer to utilize its ritual or medicinal uses.

One example is given by the Greek historian, Herodotus, who wrote that the Scythians of the Russian Steppe used Cannabis as part of a funeral ritual, where the seeds (he probably meant the flowers, which are known as ‘buds’ and do not look like flowers) were thrown on heated stones underneath a felt blanket and the resulting vapour was inhaled by the participants. The effects of the vapour were probably intended to soothe grief and accept the passing of a relative, by easing the attachment to that person temporarily. Cannabis was also used by the Ancient Celts, as excavations of an Iron Age chieftain’s grave in Hochdorf, Germany, have revealed traces of hashish (a refined form of Cannabis) on his cloak, suggesting that he was involved in using the sacrament. Hemp seeds have also been found among the clothing of women from Viking Age burials in Denmark, although it is not clear whether they were used for psychoactive purposes or simply for food. Even excavations of William Shakespeare’s home at Stratford-Upon-Avon have revealed traces of Cannabis in clay pipes found in what would have been the garden, supporting the idea that Cannabis has, and still is frequently used, by writers and poets for inspiration and creativity.

Cannabis is not known to be lethal in any capacity (though it may be adulterated with toxins as a result of illicit production) and while its medicinal effects are lauded by those with enough clarity to see them, it also has its downsides as a drug. Some people with a predisposition to addiction may find themselves indulging in the plant for psychological pain relief, something which is possible with Cannabis but must be accompanied by the appropriate therapy, otherwise it becomes a habit and a vice. Excessive use can cause a loss of motivation and apathy, and may even result in a worse mood when the effects of the drug have worn off.

An excessive dosage can also cause tachycardia (rapid heart rate), low blood pressure, hallucinations, anxiety and paranoia (although this last side-effect is probably due to the fact that it is illegal, as the stimulating nature of Cannabis would worsen the worry about this fact). However, within a medicinal context, such issues are rarely a cause for concern, and it is a dreadful shame that many who need pain relief are unable to access it and are forced to rely on the pharmaceutical extracts or on street dealers who have no interest in their well-being. In the UK, Cannabis is a Class B controlled substance, and being found in possession of it can result in up to 5 years in prison or an unlimited fine and it is illegal in most parts of the world. Cannabis is sacred to Freya and can be used for any magic involving love, as it is known to be an aphrodisiac.

Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria)

amanita_muscaria

This visually attractive red and white mushroom is ever present in European artistic aesthetics, as it is commonly portrayed as being surrounded by fairies and is usually associated with Father Christmas and his reindeer. It grows under birch and spruce trees and is native to all temperate and sub-Arctic parts of the world. Though not the ‘magic mushroom’ that will be covered later on in this article, it is still psychoactive, though it is difficult to assess its actual effects for unknown reasons. For some reason, it can either have negligible effects or produce an intense hallucinogenic experience and it is difficult to know how to achieve this.

It is known that the main chemicals of Fly Agaric are muscimol and ibotenic acid, as well as muscarine and muscazone. Muscimol is a hallucinogen, while the other chemicals are simply poisons, and the side effects that can be experienced by this drug include delirium, stupor, vomiting, sweating and low blood pressure, effects which are associated with ‘cholinergic’ drugs. For this reason, there is a lot of superstition surrounding the mushroom, and factors involved in the potency of the drug include the time of year picked, the conditions of the location where it grows (presumably soil acidity is a factor) and how it is dried. The mushroom eaten fresh and picked late in the year is known to produce the most side effects, while those picked earlier and dried are said to yield more positive results.

Though Fly Agaric is commonly described as lethal in mycology guides, this is incorrect, as it is only seriously dangerous raw and in large amounts and would even be eaten after parboiling by natives of Siberia and Asiatic peoples in Northern Europe. It has been observed among the Sami people that reindeer eat the mushroom, and that the poisonous effects are mitigated by drinking the urine from the reindeer after its ingestion. Such practices have also been followed by priests in Western Siberia, where the tribal priests take the mushroom and dispense their urine to their congregation.

In Eastern Siberia, use of the mushroom is less restricted, and it is not considered as essential that only the shaman can ingest the mushroom. The desired effects of Fly Agaric are similar to those of Belladonna and other plants carrying tropane alkaloids, though they have the opposite chemical mechanism on the brain and actually act as potentates or antidotes to atropine poisoning. While Fly Agaric may also cause delirium and stupor, the effects are known to be less unpleasant and dangerous as those of the tropanes, and in its dried form it is relatively safe to be ingested. The ability to induce dreamlike states and visions means that Fly Agaric is very valuable to shamans, and would also have been important to our European equivalents. Fly Agaric is not exactly used medicinally, being more utilized for its mind altering effects than anything else.

Interestingly, it has also become associated with the ‘berserkers’ of Norse lore, and it has been suggested that it was used to induce ‘battle frenzy’ among these men. ‘Berserker’ means ‘bear shirt’ and refers to the use of animal hides used to invoke the protection of an animal spirit. Though the connection between Fly Agaric and the berserker has been dismissed in more recent times, there is sufficient evidence that it was used by them. The Icelandic word for Fly Agric is berserkjasveppur, which means ‘berserker mushroom’ and it has also been connected to the Indo-Aryan sacrament known as Soma (analogous to the Iranian Haoma).

This substance was used by Aryan warriors to achieve mental clarity, though it is difficult to imagine how this was achieved with the stupefying effects of Fly Agaric. It is likely that a combination of and mixture with other substances as well as the intention and discipline in conjunction with ingestion were utilized to achieve this, though it is difficult to assert with certainty due to the lack of evidence regarding its effects. It has also been connected with esoteric Christianity and and teachings of Christ, as one anecdotal claim holds that the subject experienced visions of Heaven and Hell, reinforcing the idea of the connection to Christian imagery. Though not illegal to posses, it cannot be bought or sold under recently implemented drug laws in the UK, which prohibit the sale of non-approved psychoactive substances. Fly Agaric is sacred to Wotan and the dried skin can be used in smoking blends with other herbs.

Henbane (Hysoscyamus Niger)

hyoscyamus_liger

Another one of the tropane herbs, this plant is very similar in its actions to Belladonna, though it possesses its own distinct character and attributes. Henbane grows on waste ground and near the sea across Europe, though it is very rare and considered endangered in the wild. It is not native to Northern Europe, most likely originating in the Mediterranean, though it was brought here millennia ago. Traces of Henbane have been found in a clay pot from Balfarg, Fife, dating to around 3,000 BC, which suggests that it was used as part of a ritual. Henbane seeds have also been found among the burials of women in Viking Age Scandinavia (much like the hemp seeds, making a stronger case for the use of Cannabis as an entheogen). The effects of the herb are more or less the same as that of Belladonna, though it may be slightly less poisonous due to the small size and different chemical composition of the plant (Belladonna is a perennial shrub, while Henbane may come as an annual or biennial). Therefore, Henbane may be more suitable for ingestion than her sister, though this is not recommended due to the toxic nature of the tropane alkaloids.

Henbane was another ‘witches weed’ and was considered especially useful in treating toothache, though the potential side-effects mean that it is no longer used medicinally today. In a magical context, Henbane was plucked by naked virgin girls in Medieval Germany in a ritual attempting to attract rain. It was also part of a potion given by the Iranian prophet, Zoroaster, to King Vishtaspa, who went into a deathlike sleep for three days and travelled to Heaven in that time. Henbane was also used for more sinister purposes by the Ancient Gauls, who dipped their javelins in poison derived from the herb in order to inflict more damage upon their enemies. Henbane may also have been part of the potion given by Circe to Odysseus’ men in The Odyssey, since the connection between tropane alkaloids and believing oneself to be an animal, as well as the connection between Henbane and pigs (which is what they were turned into), may mean that the story is about a witch who stole the wits of men by giving them a potion that made them believe that they were pigs. Henbane is sacred to Nerthuz, though some prefer to attribute its power to Thor, on account of its use in rain-making rituals.

Liberty Cap Mushroom (Psilocybe Semilanceata)

psem4

Also known as a ‘magic mushroom’, this is another substance which is prohibited under Modern law and has become associated with the worst aspects of the hippie culture and recreational drug use. Though more well-known than many of the other entheogens on this list, it is unique in being possibly the only psychedelic drug native to Europe. Psychadelics are different from other hallucinogens in that they do not produce delirium or dissociation, but rather they evoke colourful and geometric ‘visual distortions’ which are sought after by those looking for a step up from the curious effects of Cannabis.

Naturally, such substances are not suitable for social gatherings outside of a medicine ceremony and are frequently abused by party-goers, which can lead to unpleasant experiences. When used in an appropriate setting, magic mushrooms are useful in psychological therapy, and are known to treat depression and anxiety. Another difference between this fungus and the other entheogens on this list is that its medicinal values seem to be purely psychological and spiritual in nature, as is not known to relieve physical ailments. While they are not completely non-toxic, you would need to ingest and absurd amount of mushrooms to become poisoned, and as such they are safe to the human body for consumption in reasonable doses. The main chemical constituents are psylocin and psilocybin (which converts into psylocin during digestion).

Unfortunately, we know next to nothing about their use as an entheogen in Europe, the only clue being that in Ireland, they are known as ‘fairy mushrooms’. That and the fact that they can produce visual swirls and patterns that are reminiscent of Neolithic art suggests that they were known to our ancestors. Mesolithic cave paintings from Spain and Morocco depict strange beings holding mushrooms, and these are suggestive of shamanic use involving psychoactive mushrooms. Another small detail that may go unnoticed is the depiction of magic mushrooms in Medieval art, which feature occasionally and are curiously associated with the Apple of Eden, suggesting that Medieval Europeans knew more about these substances than we may have suspected.

If they were used in a similar way as by the natives of places like Mexico, then the Church would have taken a dim view of such practices and seen them as being used to communicate with devils. Such were the criticisms levelled at the use of magic mushrooms by the Catholic Church when it came to Mexico, and the suppression of these cults is a reasonable explanation as to why we have no indigenous tradition in Europe pertaining to the use of these mushrooms. If their use had been driven underground during the Middle Ages and only surfaced in art, we can be sure that the last vestiges were driven out of our lands during the Burning Times, and so we are left with a dearth of knowledge on how to use them.

Fortunately, we can speculate to some degree based on their usage in Mexico. They were used by the Aztecs and the Mazatecs in order to communicate with the gods, and the purpose was usually to discover a cure for an illness. They could have been used either by the healer alone, or by the healer and the patient if the illness was of a more metaphysical nature and required expelling negative entities from the patient. Typically, these healers are not looking for the fantastic visual effects, but for the intuitive voice that tells them what they need to know. Though magic mushrooms can have awful side effects, these can be mitigated by the guidance of an experienced healer and are not as commonly felt if the participant engages in preparation beforehand.

Usually, a participant would fast and abstain from meat, sex and alcohol for a few days before taking part in a medicine ceremony, as the mushroom cleans out the body on a spiritual level and any toxins remaining may lead to nausea and other discomfort when under its influence. Psilocybe semilanceata typically grows on pasture and grassland and is native to temperate zones, growing near, but not on, the dung of cows and sheep. Its association with cattle means that it is sacred to Frigg and its effects would also associate it with healers. Unfortunately, in the UK it is a Class A controlled substance, which may lead to up to 7 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and (like Cannabis) is illegal in most countries.

The use of these substances is something which is heavily looked down upon in our society, as it is deemed necessary for the state to have complete control over what medicines the people may have access to. Therefore, I neither promote nor encourage the use of such substances, as it is up to each individual to know if it is worth taking the risks that I have mentioned and if they can gain anything from their use. Some people are not meant to take certain substances due to risk factors, and so most of us will remain in the dark about their potential due to the restrictions on what can be done with them.

Though there is more and more evidence suggesting that our common perceptions of psychoactive plants are based on misinformation and lies, governments are slow to respond and prefer to maintain the unregulated black market rather than allow individuals to act responsibly and use what they can to treat illness. It must be kept in mind that if one does choose to use these drugs, then they must approach it with the utmost respect, as disregarding the spirit of the plant may anger it and may even be dangerous for the user. Therefore, it is important to remember what you are using them for and why you need to invoke their aid. Typically, other healing methods should be tried before attempting to deal with psychoactive drugs, and though some of these substances are not illegal, they are still capable of inflicting harm as much as they can heal. Tread carefully fellow travellers, as the world of entheogenic plant spirits is as dangerous as it is rewarding.

Wulf Willelmson

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