Plants were important to a lot of pre christian cultures and traditions. Sadly, this is somewhat neglected in the modern “pagan” subculture. Yet, plants were more than just some “greenery”, that do nothing except grow roots. And I think that this needs to be understood and acknowledged. When we talk to people today about plants, many will know the chamomile, the peppermint and for sure the tobacco plant. But many have no idea how important they were in ancient traditions, tales, cultures and customs. Plants and trees were sacred. They were seen as living beings. Many gardeners and farmers know the talk about the ever-growing weeds and how annoying they can be.
But it is many of these weeds that were most important to pagan european, asian and north american cultures. Because “Animism”, a term founded by modern Anthropology, perceived them as beings with a soul. Some of these mythological ties to plants and their medicinal as well as traditional use go far back in time, even to the Stone Age. In the european Alps, we have the so called Marienkräuter, 9 herbs, that are blessed by the Holy Maria. When summer comes to an end, she goes back to her godly spheres. But she also blesses and her powers can be found in many of these herbs. That idea is, of course, ancient. These 9 herbs can be found in Neunkräutersegen and also the Kräuterwisch, which is basically a bundle of these herbs. They are used for medicinal and more importantly, religious, ceremony. Some of these herbs are burned as incense during the Rauhnächte in Bavaria and Austria, as her spirit that lives inside these herbs, will be a help to protect against the powers of the Wild Hunt.
But be sure, that these 9 herbs are not a christian invention. They were known as Freya’s herbs of the flying Freya. These herbs were known amongst celtic, germanic, slavic and roman cultures. The yarrow for example is known to be connected to Freya. Freya is an Archetype, and stands for the divine, feminine Aspects of nature and its fertility. Yarrow was known to aid as a women’s herb (Frauenkräuter), when suffering from cramps while having menstruation and so on. We can find something similar in India, where the Goddess of Devi is the Goddess of the plants. Her powers can be found within many holy plants. Mugwort was part of the 9 herbs and is holy and as well connected to Freya. In North America, it is burned as incense when someone gives birth, for it banishes negative energy, yet it opens up the portals the world of the Ancestors, the realm of all origin. The idea, that there is a spirit within certain plants, is of course ancient. It’s where the term Animism comes in an attempt to grasp why and where these beliefs came from.
Another example is the valerian, for example. It’s called Baldrian in German. It was an holy herb, part of the Johanniskräuter, which are harvest during at certain time of the year in order to get all the energy of the Sun from within the plants. BalduR is of course, the Sun God. But more so, valerian is also a christian herb, it was used for the ointment of Jesus Christ. You could argue that Christ himself is a Solar deity, same as BalduR, or Mithra, or Tîwaz, or… the idea behind is the same: The spirit and the power of a deity lives within the plant. For the Celts, the Goddess of Brigit is responsible for the fertility of the Earth and the growth of all plants. She represents the female Mother Archetype. And that Archetype is really ancient and old. For the Germanic tribes, her name is Holda / Holla / Berchta depending on the region, in England it’s the Goosemother, and in India she is known is Maha Kali. Both Holda, Brigit and Maha Kali do have an Underworld connection of Darkness and Death, but also of fertility and new growth. Isn’t that kind of interesting?
For the German speaking people, the Elderberry – Holunder – was most important. It was so sacred, that you couldn’t harvest, could saw on the tree, nothing was allowed. The Old Grandmother, Holda, was living in there. Her spirit resides in there and you could reach her Underworld by connecting to the spirit of that tree.
Just like the sacred mugwort, that can open up the portals to the Ancestors just by smelling the smoke of the plant. These Archetypes are old and connected to certain plants as you can see. But there’s more to it. Pre historic people connected to certain animals to learn about certain plants. In Dakota, USA, the bear was known as the teacher of the herbs, for he knows all the secrets to the herbs. He may show up in one of your dreams while you have fallen ill. He will show you what plant to use in order to heal and get over the illness.
European tribes have had a widespread bear-cult, too. Remnants found in aves in Romania and France have both shown that the bear was some sort of totem-animal to the pre historic people of Europe. The bear was known as the son of Holda, the old Grandmother. For he disappears, just the Holda during the Winter and resides with her within the Underworld. That’s of course a symbol for his hibernation, yet I am also convinced that this is how pre historic people perceived the cycles of nature: The Sun, the Mother, goes down and disappears within the Underworld. When the bear sleeps during the winter, that’s where he resides. There he learns about the knowledge of the spirits and herbs and can teach us. Many plants in German language start with the word “Bär”(bear) for that reason.
This knowledge is old, it is not New Age. You’ll find it in many ancient cultures, in North America amongst the Apache, Ojibwa, Crow-Nation to name a few, the Inuit, the Saami in Lapland and amongst the European tribes as well. Trees and plants were important and sacred. In Germany, there’s the Merseburger Zaubersprüche, there’s 9 herbs charm, Neunkräutersegen, from England and the Marienkräuter. All of them are remnants of an ancient worship of plants and their spirits. What we can learn from it is, I guess, to perceive nature as something more alive and living again.
picture: me on a hike in the Rocky Mountains, USA