Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Druid's Herbal

My copy of this book is full of sticky notes from research I'm doing
for future blog posts.  The author is both a modern day Druid and an herbalist.
"'I want to be up in time to see them.'
'Who?'
'The witches.'
'Witches? Who told you there are witches?'
'The vicar,' Frank answered, clearly enjoying the joke. 'His housekeeper is one of them.'
I thought of the dignified Mrs. Graham and snorted derisively. 'Don't be ridiculous!'
'Well, not witches actually. There have been witches all over Scotland for hundreds of years - they burnt them 'til well into the eighteenth century - but this lot is really meant to be Druids, or something of the sort.
...the vicar said there was a local group that still observes rituals on the old sun-feast days... He didn't know where the ceremonies took place, but if there's a stone circle nearby, that must be it.'"
- from OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 2
Were you as enchanted by the Druids dancing at dawn as Frank was? That scene in the first episode of the Outlander TV series was magical.

I have always been curious about the Druids. Much of what is "known" about them is mere speculation because their most sacred rituals and practices were never put into writing. To protect their secrets, this knowledge was passed down by word of mouth. What is known is that Druids were prominent people in Celtic society during the Iron Age (from 1200 BC - 100 AD in Western Europe). Most are believed to have been philosophers and spiritual leaders, but some were poets, doctors, and mediators or arbitrators.

The earliest writings describing the Druids are from the Romans who conquered the Celts as they expanded their empire westward to include Britain and Ireland. The Romans describe the Druids as savages who performed human sacrifices and even practiced cannibalism. Of course, throughout history, conquerors have made up stories about their victims, describing them as ruthless barbarians, no doubt to justify their OWN savagery and barbarism toward those hapless people. The Druids could hardly have been worse than the Romans.

In the 20th century, new techniques in archaeology and scholarship began to shed a bit more light on the lives of the ancient Druids. Today there are many individuals and organizations associated with modern day Druidryand their numbers appear to be growing. People are attracted to this movement because of its focus on respect for the Earth and all living things.

One of those people is Ellen Evert Hopman. She is an herbalist, psychotherapist and modern day Druid priestess. She has spent decades studying the Iron Age, folklore and and the stories behind Celtic traditions. Her book,  A Druid's Herbal for the Sacred Earth Year  gives us a well informed introduction to Druid practices. This includes:
• An overview of Druidic history, separating fact from fiction.
• Sections on each of the major Celtic festivals and the herbs associated with them: Samhain, Winter Solstice, Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lugnasad, and Fall Equinox. Each section has descriptions of the medicinal and magical uses of the herbs.
• How to make herbal preparations such as tinctures, salves, poultices, fomentations (strong teas), and syrups.
• There are also chapters that describe how to use herbs in ceremonies to mark births, at funerals, for a house blessing, baby blessings and handfasting ceremonies. 
I enjoy using this book for research because it offers a different perspective from my other references. Hopman is an herbalist - she knows her botany. But she also has extensive knowledge of the stories and traditions that surround the use of plants for medicine, for magic and as sacred symbols. She reminds us of a time when people had a deeper, more complex relationship with plant life. Take apples, for example. Then as now, apples were a food. They were also used as a medicine, useful for relieving constipation and for cleansing the liver. Beyond these practical applications, apples were revered as symbols of life and immortality, and they were buried during the festival of Samhain as food for those waiting to be reborn.

A Druid's Herbal gives us a way to imagine living in connection with the Earth. Not separate from it. Not trying to fix it. But instead, living consciously and appreciating the meanings to be found in the natural world. Whether you believe in magick or not, it is worthwhile to spend some time exploring this point of view.

Related Post:

Preventing Scurvy with Watercress

The Rowan Tree

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