Materia & Spiritus

Like a lot of folks, I grew up trained to see plants as things, as food, as matter and “just” chemicals and chemical reactions. When I first got into magic, the whole herbal side of the craft was an intriguing but opaque concept to me. Relying on books, especially in an era of Nancy Reagan telling me to “Just Say No,” I viewed herbs and plants and such as allusive and symbolic. And while I could use symbols in poetry, I didn’t think—or didn’t know or didn’t think I knew—how to use plants to “make poetry.” At the time, I didn’t want to “make poetry” with plants, let alone as a way of “doing magic.”

I have other ideas these days.

But at the time, I saw the various Llewellyn books with herbal and other correspondences in them. I remember my first copy of 777 with all its tables of correspondences, including herbs, and thinking, “Well, I appreciate having tables…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this, though.”

I had a similar experience with stones. I saw a lot of shale, slate, and just generic “rock.” Where I live geologically used to be the bottom of primordial ocean. And as much as other stones were pretty or interesting—my family gathered a bunch of rocks and crystals from holidays to Colorado and the Rockies—they were ornamental at best. The brightly colored stones I found at the local New Age shop were fascinating, the colors bright and splendid with textures I saw nowhere else in the often gray and concrete world I lived in. And again, I saw all the various associations and correspondences for stones, but I didn’t know what to do with them. They were mostly just…rock. Objects. Things.

I knew there were supposedly magical uses for herbs and stones, and Gary Gygax was actually more useful for getting some of that information to me. The old first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide had sections in the back for uses of stones and plants, back in the days when some thought had to go into making magical items in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and you had to acquire materials and go on quests and things like that to make your wand of viscid globs. (Listening to the new episode 5 of Radio Free Golgotha, the Goat’s reflection on the materia for oils including things like a kiss or laugh now puts me in mind of what making potions in AD&D could entail.) But I didn’t know—no, that’s not right—I couldn’t bridge from what was “only imaginary” at the time to “actually magical.”

Holey Stone, Black Mist

Now, growing up, I knew that the wind could fill me with something—could invigorate or rouse my passions or just straight-up inspire me. I’d watch the trees swaying and soughing in the wind—or I’d see the woods or the wet green leaves of spring—and I’d feel that. I realized that I could feel spring roar and awaken everything around me, and I could feel how quiet and asleep everything seemed as winter finally came on. Winter used to fill me with despair, to suddenly be so utterly alone, or so it felt. So, I recognized that I responded affectively to the world and plants (at least trees) for quite a while.

I remember I found a hag stone, a holey stone, in a dry creek bed near where I grew up—a flat piece of slate with a hole in it. Aha—you can see fairies with these. And I took it and went home. I don’t recall seeing any faeries, but something else happened. I had assembled a bunch of ‘90s Llewellyn baby pagan/ baby witch bits and pieces, and I had a black ceramic bean pot for my “cauldron”—which I still have—and I’d fill it with some tap water. And I had my flat holey stone.

witches_add_ingredients_to_a_cauldron

Hexenküche (Witches Cauldron) (Ulricus Molitoris from De laniis et phitonicis mulieribus Teutonice vnholden vel hexen). I haven’t had the chance to do this with my little ceramic pot yet. Goals.

One night, I had the window open, I was up late, and I was poking at my makeshift altar that was really the top of a dresser or desk or something like that. And I set the pot with water atop the stone—and that felt curiously right. “Huh,” I said. A little later, I tried inverting them. I put the holey stone atop the cauldron of water—and that resulted in something far more visceral.

I had the distinct impression that something went wrong, and I had the impression of black mist coiling up from the pot and through the hole. I had the definite sense of not only “What the fuck?!” but also “ewwww.” And I pulled them apart—tried to get whatever it was off of my hands.

I had also tried making a little sigil on my holey stone—but as soon as I did it, I regretted it. Black Sharpie. Ugh. It’d been far truer unadorned.

I lost that stone at some point.

Mythical Landscapes

I had also begun engaging with the local landscape, and I don’t know if it was being young and first into magic and so forth, but it seemed like everything was weird. We had a huge backyard bordering on an undeveloped street with trees and that dry creek bed and more. And, of course, there were spirits. Many of them seemed angry or “evil,” but on reflection, people were building houses and developing that street. But those spirits were generally associated with particular spots and, wait for it, plants or trees or patches of plants.

On reflection, I feel remarkably not very clever. I think we assumed that spirits had “possessed” those spaces. We didn’t really think that maybe the trees and landscape weren’t that happy about being torn up to put in residential homes.

And as I think about the landscape I remember first engaging with from a magical perspective, I remember how a friend of mine told me how they lived in a haunted house growing up, and on one occasion, they walked into the living room of their family home as a little kid in the middle of the night. They found several spectral Native Americans having a chat—complete with not-quite-all-there legs, and so forth. The spirits apparently complained about the state of the living room, and my friend’s mother woke up to find my friend vacuuming the living room at 3 AM because “the Indians asked.”

Despite stories like this, despite even my own experiences, like many people I knew, I wound up wanting “weird shit” to happen to me, but it so often didn’t seem to. Well, there was a period where I would occasionally look up and ask the universe to have some weird shit happen to me, and I could get a response within a day or so. Mind you, that’s shit for a statement of intent.

So you see, despite much of what was going on, I was still caught within that lie that says the world’s mostly ordinary and dead matter.

When I started doing magic again, it took a few months, but I started getting a sense of that mythical landscape again. Many of the early posts here get at that in various guises. I do remember how I came across my current hag stone, though.

I had been out on a nature trail and ventured off the main trail into what was a natural

planetaryshiftship3

So purple and pastel, kinda like this shift-ship interior from Planetary.

slate-stone stair from an old creek bed, and I could see two realities just to the side of the physical trail. In one I saw a dragon’s skeletal corpse, as if I had been walking along its spinal column and within the rib cage and out its maw. A dragon’s corpse. In another, I saw a curiously gleaming purple and pastel temple. I pulled a name for the dragon whose corpse I had found, did my best to offer something to balm the parched bones on many occasions. I asked and was able to take a stone for myself, and that stone still occupies a central place on my altar. It’s often helped me literally earth myself.

 

On another occasion, not that far away, I ventured onto a side-trail and stumbled upon a rather well-hidden—to casual exploration—ritual site. Several circles linked together and bounded with branches, logs, stones, and it included something like a wilderness altar/throne (I had the sense someone had sat in presence there) with a place for offerings. And I noted, there at the altar, an actual holey stone—a large one. Realizing I’d found someone’s ritual site, I left well enough alone, made my introductions, and wandered off after paying respects.

I would stop by every once in a while, but I soon realized others had started taking the site apart, tearing it apart and down and doing their best to get rid of it. Someone decided it was time to break up a nest of witches or something. I tried obscuring the holey stone, for I felt it was more important than most of the rest of the site, but on subsequent visits, it was obvious that someone was just trying to tear it all down. So I made the decision to rescue the stone.

You see, the stone had multiple holes through it, and it reminded me very much—or, the image that came to me—was that I was holding a stone heart. In my opinion, this was the dragon’s heart. I decided to safeguard it after making sure no one was going to object to that, and the dragon seemed fine with me doing so.

I still have that heart, and it sits within my ancestral shrine.

Plant Allies & Spirits of Earth

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had a series of spirit contacts, and to a good degree, I’ve been learning what spirit contact can be like for me. I’ve pointed to how spirits can talk through me, as if they’re filling me or using me like a sounding board and I “echo” what they say. I’ve learned that daydreams and images that come to mind can be me “just” daydreaming, but many spirits communicate through visual and imagistic means, or even through “moments”—scenes that you briefly inhabit or witness, little one-act plays or brief dreams that are themselves experiences but also communications. My own receptivity matters for the clarity of this contact, and some spirits prefer some modes over others. Some spirits want you to face particular directions or prefer particular times, or other protocols of set and setting and staging.

And after getting some experience with spirit contact, I began to realize just how much plants are spirits. How much stones and such can be spirits. Not just enspirited. Not just “possessed,” like I’d thought the landscape once was. No, they can be spirits with little physical protuberances into a shared physical reality—just like me, in many ways.

Backtracking a little, thanks to Sarah Anne Lawless and others, I have begun to experiment with “plant allies.” Indeed, some of my “spirit allies” directed me to start working with certain plants. I regularly infuse vervain, mugwort, cinnamon, and mullein with honey-infused wine. I wasn’t sure to what end, but it’s what I was asked. I also experimented with some focused journeying after infusing mugwort with wild lettuce and California poppy, and the journeying with that infusion worked really well.

Hell, I’ve tried frankincense and myrrh resin, and that can be a pleasant but intense but brief experience. I tried to listen to Lawless and Juniper Jeni’s advice to “little witches” that it’s okay to use plants for fun and relaxation and not just “for ritual.”

And I found some wormwood, and I made some wormwood tea—

Oh gods I remember the first cup of wormwood tea.

And oh gods, I remember the first sip of wormwood tea as I have more. You kinda get used to it, though. Just let it coat your tongue and move on.

But as I ritualized my use of the wormwood and let wormwood show me what she wanted to show me, I realized she was very much a spirit. And while I didn’t see Kylie Minogue as a tiny fairy, I will say that wormwood is very much green, very feminine, very fae with me.

I mean, I do have a weakness for Kylie Minogue as a green fairy, but wormwood was less Tinkerbelle and more someone else.

And the thing about wormwood is that she “worms” her way through and into places. She infiltrates and can take you places that you might not have been able to find or get into yourself, and she’s good at hiding you as you do so. I recently found an old Lawless post noting wormwood as a “summoning” incense, and I can see why and how. Wormwood burrows a path from here to there and in-between, but that path is also in some way wormwood herself.

But wormwood was my first very sustained experience of a plant spirit—or wormwood as plant spirit and person and entity. But since then, I’ve come to recognize mugwort, vervain, and, well, you probably get the idea. My other allies had been directing me to get in touch with the plants.

And I also recognized how the same is true, though with a different tenor to the experience, for stones and other “materia.” I have held amethyst in my hands and felt how color and presence and the feel of the stone in my hand does something. And, well, that’s probably because the spirit is there.

The other spirit contact experiences I had helped me to pay better attention to and to recognize when spirit contact occurred with plants and stones. (The same is also true for animals, but there’s less a hurdle to acknowledge the spirithood and personhood of animals, especially pets.)

And I had the notion that herbals and lapidaries and bestiaries are, in a way, another kind of “spirit list.” And while we like to taxonomize magically plants and animals and stones by sephira and elements and planetary associations, I think the Neo-Platonists we inherit much of that lore from over-determined the whole phenomenon. They’re all persons with personalities, traits, quirks. They may align well with Mercury or fire, but I think it’s less a top-down hierarchy from the heavens as Mercuriality and Fire trickle down into a particular thing. It’s honestly, like so many of these things are, a far more “organic” or definitely rhizomatic eruption from the Depths. I am rather Mercurial—but so can plants and animals be.

And the personhood of wormwood is distinct from my own, or at least our expressions of our personhood differ. Wormwood’s physical body spreads, germinates, and distributes—germinates and spreads—and I’m unsure how much I’m engaging with “individual” wormwood “spirits” or with a wormwood chorus or if “individual” is even the right concept to apply to wormwood or to myself—from certain points of view.

And that’s an insight I want to sit with and consider for what it means to be human, to live with humans, to live in the world, and to think about with other spirits and persons, too.

But I also just got a discounted (damaged packaging) rather large obsidian shewstone, and I pulled it out, and I immediately felt obsidian and whatever else had come along with it. And while I did put it through a be-salting, and I ritually purified and consecrated it earlier–well, I look forward to seeing what this obsidian will help me see.

Featured Image: Absinthe Robette (Henri Privat-Livemont)

 

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