Druid Plant Lore
A rich heritage of plant lore exists in Merlin’s Isle, as Britain was once known, and we can trace this heritage at least as far back as the Bronze Age, which began here around 4,000 years ago. From the analysis of pollen grains we know that during this period people in the Orkneys, Scotland and Wales used Meadowsweet as a floral tribute at burial sites. Up above the dark brooding lake of Llyn y Fan Fach in Wales the cremated remains of a young girl’s bones have been found in a cairn, alongside traces of Meadowsweet pollen, pottery and flint tools. It is fitting that such a cairn should be there, for in this majestic barren landscape it presides over a lake that is renowned for being the site of the origin-story of the Physicians of Myddvai. According to this legend, out of the waters of Llyn Fan Fach came a mysterious and beautiful Lady of the Lake who taught the first of the Physicians about the healing power of plants. These Physicians of Myddvai appeared in the Middle Ages, and the last of their line died out in the 19th century, when the story of the Lady of the Lake was first recorded, but the fact that the ashes of a young girl were buried with Meadowsweet above this lake thousands of years before this time is inspiring – as if a gentle feminine spirit has always hovered over this landscape, bringing with her the gifts of healing and plant-lore that we can still draw upon today.
In Ireland, Airmid and the Goddess Brighid act in a similar way as legendary sources of healing and plant lore, and when we explore their gifts, and the wider heritage of plant-lore that exists throughout the Druid source-lands of the British Isles, Ireland and Brittany, we can discern at least thirteen ways in which to work with plants in a sacred manner as we follow the ‘Old Ways’. In Druidry, many of these are traditionally the province of the Ovate, who might choose to devote a lunar month to each of these ways in turn, so that after a year they will have made a study of all thirteen ways, which they can then choose to deepen in whatever way they wish.
1. The use of plants as food: food as sacred and life-sustaining – as a conveyor of the Druid life-force Nwyfre. Wheat has been used in a sacred way in a number of traditions: in the Eleusinian Mysteries, in Christianity, and in Druid and Pagan traditions at the harvest time of Lughnasadh. The Bean is another food with deep symbolic associations, this time to the Ancestors and the Otherworld. A study of the mythology attached to the pig in Celtic tradition, alongside a study of the Bean will reveal many similarities.
2. The use of plants in drinks, elixirs and tonics: just as ingesting plants as food in a ceremony can become a central feature, so can the ingesting of a sacred drink. In Druid rituals this is usually mead, often produced by bees feeding on Heather – a plant filled with associations to joy and community. But a variety of herbal elixirs, such as those made from Burdock and Dandelion, or Birch sap, enable the modern Druid to enhance their health and feel connected with the past while also honouring the stereotype perpetuated by the Asterix cartoons, of the magical elixir-quaffing sage.
3. The use of plants as clothing: modern Druids know how the use of clothes, and sometimes no clothes, can enhance the experience of ritual. Linen made from Flax was the main component of clothing for thousands of years – as it was of sail-cloth. As a result, the tiny seeds of Flax have helped us to build our civilisation, while plants like Woad and Weld were used by our ancestors to dye their cloth, and can be used by us to fashion our ritual clothing.
4. The use of plants for journeying in consciousness: the use of plants psychotropically to alter consciousness is well documented in many ancient and contemporary indigenous traditions. There is no evidence, however, of its use within ancient Celtic cultures or within Druidry, despite the prevalence of the Psilocybin mushroom commonly known as the Liberty Cap, and of Fly Agaric. There are some, though, who suggest that certain herbs, such as Mugwort, were smoked to stimulate psychic powers. Traces of Mugwort have been found on the drinking cup of the recently unearthed ‘Druid’ of the first century near Colchester, and it seems sensible that for health reasons the modern Druid should follow this example, drinking rather smoking Artemisia Vulgaris.
5. The medicinal use of plants: the history of herbalism is undoubtedly as old as the history of humanity. The classical writers only recorded the Druids’ use of four plants for magical and medicinal purposes: Mistletoe, Vervain, Selago – probably Fir Club Moss – and Samolus, possibly Water Pimpernel. But by correlating archaeobotanical records of the plants that grew at the time of the ancient Druids in their source-lands of western Europe, with the writings of contemporary herbalists such as Dioscorides, and the references to herbs in the old Celtic tales, we have been able to build a pretty good idea of the medicinal plants the ancient Druids would have used, such as Valerian – which is prized for its calming effect.
6. The use of plants for annointing: as an example, oils of primrose and vervain, mentioned in some of the old texts as being ingredients of Ceridwen’s brew, can be used to bless a Bard.
7. The use of plants in ritual: flowers are often used in Druid ceremonies and garlic is used in the Druid ritual of Samhain. Cloves are sprinkled across the threshold before inviting Spirits of the Departed into a house to partake of a ritual feast. Flower petals might be used to cast a circle at a festivity such as Beltane.
8. The use of plants in incense: in Druidry incense is often used to cleanse and perfume a working space or the aura. Agrimony and juniper berries are good for this purpose.
9. The use of plants in lustrations: ritual washing or laving, of the hands, face, body, altar, circle or tools can be enhanced with the addition of plants to the water being used. Again a good plant for this is Agrimony, known as Mur-druidhean, literally ‘the sorrow of the Druids’ but really meaning ‘the dispeller of sorrow used by the Druids’.
10. The use of plants in spells: Druids are cautious of spells, knowing the wisdom in the saying, ‘When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.’ The ancient Druids did use spells, and contemporary Druids might sometimes too, having carefully considered the ethical and magical implications. In the old days, fern was used in spells for invisibility. A Druid today might still use fern if they were wishing to pass unnoticed through a hostile crowd for example.
11. The use of plants in charms and talismans: followers of the Old Ways are familiar with the idea of energy and vibrations. A plant will emanate a certain vibration, and if we carry some of this plant with us, perhaps as a piece of dried root in a pouch around our neck or in our pocket, it will exert a continuous influence on our aura – broadcasting its unique vibration into our energy field. Betony, one of those plants which has so many beneficial properties it became known as a ‘Cure-All’, was traditionally used in this way, as was Mandrake - a plant so renowned in ancient times it was almost certainly imported into Britain even in those earliest of days.
12. The use of plants as offerings: giving gifts seems innate to humankind. Part of being alive involves wanting to give – if only of our DNA to further the species, and so offering plants to a deity on an altar, or to a couple on marrying, or to a grave at a funeral seems the most natural thing in the world, and clearly our ancestors found Meadowsweet with its sweet almond-like scent an ideal plant of offering, as is Vervain – the Enchanter’s Plant, mentioned by Pliny as being one of the favoured plants of the Druids.
13. The oracular use of plants: while parts of some plants, such as the stalks of Yarrow (in the Celtic lands and in China) have been used as tools of divination, and while other plants, with psychotropic ingredients, have been used in attempts to access oracular powers of consciousness, The Druid Plant Oracle takes the traditional meanings associated with many of the plants that were likely to have been used by the ancient Druids, and translates them into contemporary terms – bearing in mind the sorts of issues we will be struggling with today.
Information on The Druid Plant Oracle can be found here.