Originally printed in Clavicula Nox issue 5 published by Ixaxaar, 2014.
My beloved friends who practice the arte of magic inform me I am a bad influence, yet they all say it with a smile on their lips. I am the seductive siren offering drink and smoke and unguent; soothingly saying to try and trust, “it will be pleasant,” and “you’ll be fine”. All listen and trust despite the mysterious twinkle of mischief in my eyes. I brew meads and potions in my witch’s kitchen of bones and skulls. I blend herbs to smoke and burn as incense. I craft witches’ unguents of belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake, my beloved solanaceae, which I blend with rendered animal fats, bone dusts, and ashes of feathers for the artes of flying and shape-shifting. I grow the poisonous plants of ancient Europe in my garden and wild harvest the white-spotted red mushroom in forests of birch and fir with my sharp witch’s knife. I am a priestess of intoxication, a seeress, and a poisoner.
The Path of Intoxication
“I bathe thy palmsIn showers of wine,In the lustral fire,In the seven elements,In the juice of rasps,In the milk of honey”
— The Invocation of the Graces, Carmina Gadelica
To follow the path of intoxication is to surrender control, to walk in the footsteps of the ancient ecstatic cults, and to become an intoxicant oneself so the energy of your presence alone seduces people to the path of ritual ecstasy. To be a priestess of intoxication is to be temptress and seductress. It was the bee and the honey that led me down this path. The sweet honey, the ambrosial nectar of flower and fruit, made surrendering to intoxication oh so very willing and easy indeed. Like the mysterious Melissae of ancient Greece I learned the secrets of fermenting honey into a golden elixir called mead and later learned how to infuse it with psychoactive herbs. In Teutonic lore it is said mead confers great wisdom and the tongue of a poet to whomever drinks deeply of its richness. It is a great ally of poets, musicians, artists, seers, and lovers – being one of the most ancient aphrodisiacs sweetening the tongue, the lips, the heart, and the mind. The Proto-Indo-European root medu means honey, mead, and intoxication. In Teutonic lore it is said to bring great inspiration and is sacred to Odin, a practitioner of possession, trance, and seidr. I bring my homebrewed mead to the rites of my local magical community for sacred offerings and to share for the revelry afterward. When I consume mead I easily achieve ecstatic trance and so use this sacred brew for my rites as a seeress performing divination and visionary journeys. Under the sweet thrall of mead my spirit spirals upward into the ether, its release from the flesh like an orgasm of complete surrender.
After mead came mandragora. It came soft and seductively, whispering instructions in my ear. I painstakingly ground the thick dried roots and crafted from them an ointment as made by Medea in the ancient story of Jason and the Argonauts. The old tales say mandrake sprouted up from the ichor, the god blood, of Prometheus when he was impaled, imprisoned, and tortured by Zeus and that is why this sacred root can lend us mortals the powers of a god when ritually prepared. It is also sacred to Aphrodite as a dark, earthy, lusty Venus. I bathed in the waters of the seven springs of my holy mountain and one evening, after sunset, I sacrificed to Hekate at a three-way dirt crossroad in the forest and invoked her three times to empower the ointment I had crafted.
I anointed myself. Heat, waves of heat like the building of lust or shame from deep within. It is an incredibly pleasant sensation. I feel this same heat when I sing chants of transvection and when calling spirits to me. I went outside in my garden to sit with my poisonous plants and the cooling night air made the heat of my body balance and I felt comfortable even though I should have been cold. Time went by quickly. My thoughts were clear and my sight was focused and sharp. Saliva built up in my mouth and words became confused to speak aloud though my thoughts were still clear. I touched the fragrant blooming moonflower. “I’m thirsty,” it said with no words. My other poisons and medicines agreed. I felt this very strongly and focused on their need. I touched the earth and it was quite dry. Suddenly, it started to rain when none was forecasted and the evening sky over my mountain had been clear. I learned to be careful and clear in my intent when intoxicated by mandrake root.
I anointed the witches, young and old, who had come to the dark moon sabbat. The mandrake root made their eyes bright, cheeks flushed red, and skin hot with smiles and laughter upon their lips. They sat by the fire for the heat to allow the ointment and its poison to better soak into their pores. Their intent and energy became one with the willing surrender and suspension of disbelief. Out came the fiddle, the violin, and the drums. Around went the mead horn, for mandrake and wine mix well together. The intoxicated witches danced and danced more and ever more sensually. We circled, weaving in and out, chanting and howling like wolves to invoke the old gods. We danced until the energy raised and the waves of heat were too much to take. Then it was time for the seer’s arte. The mighty dead, the ancestors of our craft, were invoked with song. The procession of witches lined up before the two seers in their seats by the fire and the querents listened to the mandrake and mead-fuelled fates and visions of the spae women while those waiting chanted and drummed, continuing to feed the energy built. I was one of the seers and the fortunes and advice fell from my lips as if from another’s and I do not remember them. Afterward the witches continued to chant and drum and dance and make love in offering to the gods, spirits, and ancestors through the night and into the morning – the spirit of mandragora not letting them tire or grow weak. Along with the drumming and dancing, many reached states of ecstatic trance receiving visions or their spirits soaring from their bodies into the heavens above. In the morning none were sore or exhausted from the intoxicated sensual revelry and the witches recounted their powerful dark moon dreams of magic and spirits.
We learned not to be afraid of using intoxicants for joyful rites of celebration and offering full of music, dancing, and song. Mead, herbal sabbat wines, and many entheogens with aphrodisiac and stimulating properties, such as mandrake and fly agaric, were traditionally used in ecstatic rites devoted to spirits and gods because they allowed people to dance and play music all day and night without tiring or suffering ill effects afterward. With such gifts of stamina and exhilaration it is no wonder such intoxicants were used in rites of sex magic throughout the centuries.
The Path of Seership
“Heith they named her who sought their home,The wide-seeing witch, in magic wise;Minds she bewitched that were moved by her magic,To evil women a joy she was.”
— Völuspá, Poetic Edda
Scotland is well known for its abundance of seers. With my Scoto-Scandinavian blood I shouldn’t have been surprised when the dreams and visions of the future and of spirits came unbidden. I follow the path of a spaewife or spae woman and, though I have waking visions, most of my spirit work is done through dreams and dream-walking into the otherworlds and also into the dreams of other practitioners of arte. In Old Norse I would be named völva or spaekona. These names refer to a female seeress, sorceress, and spirit worker believed to use psychoactive plants to enhance their powers as is evidenced by the findings of henbane and cannabis seeds among the grave goods of such ancient practitioners in Denmark and Norway. In a similar practice of the Scythians, the seeds were ground and placed on a fire to produce a hallucinogenic smoke inhaled to induce a shamanic trance and cause visions.
Henbane came to me through a friend and fellow poisoner and potion-maker. He sent me seeds and I grew them after dreaming of this ancient poison, medicine, aphrodisiac, and intoxicant. Every seed germinated and every seedling planted grew like a weed until my garden was filled with impossibly tall henbane plants with thick woody stalks completely covered in endlessly propagating flowers and seed pods. I harvested every part and grew more the next year from the seeds I had gathered. Henbane smells like onions and rotting meat. Its leaves are sticky and hairy. It had a tendency to kill the beneficial bees and spiders in my garden. But I loved it. I couldn’t get enough of it and often sat under its large sticky leaves late at night, blowing smoke offerings of its cousin tobacco from my lips.
It wasn’t until after growing it with such success that I learned it was a plant of seers being sacred to the Pythia of Apollo and to the völur who worshipped Freyja and the Norns. I found henbane seed within darkly shamanic incense recipes from Scandinavia along with mugwort and yew, in more incense recipes from ancient Greece burned to see and summon spirits, in the remnants of fermented brews found at Neolithic sites in Scotland, and as flavouring for meads and ales in the Middle Ages. I crafted the incense recipes with the henbane seed from my garden and burned them in my rites of seership and necromancy. The spirits came. I carved beads from the thick woody stems to create for myself a ritual necklace and I kept one of the roots to turn into an alraun to use both for my rites of spaecraft. I read of a völva found buried, wrapped in her bear hide and knew what to do with the bear fat I’d recently rendered. Bears are masters of the dream world with how much of their time they spend sleeping in a half-death-like state akin to trance. I soaked the ground henbane seeds and leaves from my garden in bear fat for a full cycle of the moon. I strained the mixture and added beeswax to make an unguent and anointed my body with it during my full and dark moon rites before going to bed holding my seer’s wand. It made my dream-walking as simple as breathing and with it came my usual prophetic dreams but with more clarity and ease of remembrance. It was as if a primal part of my soul remembered that the henbane, the bear, the visions and the dreams were one. Henbane became my main ally as a seeress alongside my ambrosial meads.
The Path of Poison
“And I ha’ been plucking plants among,Hemlock, henbane, adder’s tongue,Nightshade, moonwort, libbard’s bane,And twice by the dogs was like to be ta’en.”
— Ben Johnson, The Masque of Queens
I walk the path of veneficium, of the poisoner. I do not call myself a poisoner because I seek to kill. I am a poisoner because I grow poisonous plants and brew poisonous potions. I eat, drink, inhale, and rub poisons on my skin, not to harm myself, but to absorb the powers of plants for my practices and rituals of magic. Many seemingly harmless substances can be poisons if used enough in excess. We poison ourselves every day with caffeine, cocoa, tobacco, and alcohol. I choose to poison myself in a sacred ritual manner to aid in inducing trance, imbas, visions, possession, and to enhance my abilities of prescience, dream walking, shape-shifting, and speaking with spirits. Such poisons are known by many names: entheogen, hallucinogen, psychoactive, and intoxicant. We modern witches often hear whispers of flying ointments and mumbles of madness-inducing herbs like aconite and belladonna, but so few of us trace the lore to the pre-Christian ritual uses of these plants and their traditional preparations – let alone actually put them to use in our magic. We fear their misleading and incomplete descriptors of “poison” and “hallucinogen” more than the plants themselves. We fear death and madness, but more than that we fear letting go and losing control. For this is what such plants represent to us: surrender to another’s will, surrender to the loss of self and individuality, surrender to our primal nature, and surrender to the death of ego.
Within these poisonous plants lies a key to the mystery of shamanic death and initiation. With such complete surrender comes great knowledge and wisdom of ourselves, the world around us, and of the universe in its entirety – of the microcosm and macrocosm. Each plant entheogen is a key to an otherworldly door in the World Tree whether it be to the upperworld or underworld, within or without. The secret is to find which key, or combination thereof, opens your preferred door to the mysteries and the path of the mystic and seer. Do you seek a sensual Venusian key of intoxication and ecstasy or a chthonic Saturnine key of death and dismemberment? Often times we do not get to select which poisonous plant will by our ally and it chooses us instead; arriving in dreams, visions, from the hands of a friend, or invading our gardens uninvited.
A word of caution – poisons do not gladly suffer fools and some will seek to harm you for plants can curse as well as any witch. If used recreationally and without respect these poisons will often teach one a lesson not soon forgotten, taking one to the edge of madness and horror and, at the very least, leaving one with the nastiest headache, nausea, and hangover of a lifetime. Taken improperly they can result in brain damage, heart damage, blindness, paralysis, coma or death depending on the plant and how it was applied. Careful research should always be carried out beforehand to discover the proper dosage and preparation method as some plants are best eaten, some brewed into spirits, some smoked, and others only used externally as unguents. Each plant is unique and each person’s physical and spiritual reaction to it will also be unique. Some practitioners will react strongly and others not at all to the same plant and dosage.
Aside from my beloved solanaceae, the poison that calls the strongest to me is the yew tree which coincidentally grows in the Pacific Northwest, where I live, and in Scotland, the land of my ancestors. The first time I met a yew tree I fell in love with its succulent dark green needles and fleshy red berries. I didn’t know what it was at first or just how deadly it could be, but it was love at first sight. Every time I would go by it I would leave offerings at its complex roots. When I began woodcarving it became one of my favourite woods to work with despite it being as hard as stone and breaking often the tips of my knives. When I touch it for long periods of time its spirit works its way inside to the darker corners of my soul and reveals my own shadows to me. It brings out that which you try to hide from yourself and others. The yew tree’s nature embodies shamanic initiation and death being both ancient and newly born at the same time. As it rots from the inside out in its old age, new suckers are always growing and so the tree may never truly die as it is always being reborn. Yew comes to me in my seer’s dreams over and over as World Tree and door to the underworld with ancient stone steps winding down a cliff side to the sea. In my journeys to the eldritch world my ancestors tell me to eat the sacred number of three yew berries, without the seeds, and three only in my underworld rites. Into my ancestor spirit vessels go yew needles and wood with bone and red ochre to better commune with the mighty dead. Into a traditional sorcerer’s incense of evergreens and pine resin goes a small portion of deadly yew needles along with my other allies of henbane and mugwort to burn on coals for my rites of trance work and spirit work. Yew is my drum beater and yew is my staff, my altar and chthonic offerings bedecked with its branches. When I die, I want a female yew planted over my corpse and I will haunt that tree, whispering to witches who find my grave.
Reviving the Paths
A plant is a living, sentient spirit. Enter into a relationship with an individual plant and get to know it well before using it or blending it with others just as you would get to know a person well before becoming lovers. Plants change our very DNA which is ever more intimate than sharing bodily fluids with another person. Take things slowly and savour each step from growing the plant, harvesting, and drying it to consecrating it to its intended purpose, preparing it, and then finally using it in your magical work. Grow and harvest the plants yourself because, in my own experiences and having communed with other poisoners, we have found a plant unwilling to work with you is a plant who will not grow for you or reveal itself to you in the wild. If growing a specific plant or finding it in the wild seems as easy as breathing for you, then the plant wants to work with you as much as you with it. Keep detailed notes of your experiences growing, harvesting, dosing, preparing, and using entheogens. The more we modern practitioners document and share our knowledge and experiences of these traditional plants and intoxicants with each other, the more lost wisdom of our primal ancestors we regain as a community.
Long-dead are the ecstatic cults of Dionysus and Artemis. Long-dead are the oracles of ancient Greece and the venefica of Rome. Long forgotten are the mysteries of the völur, priestesses of Frejya and the Norns. Long-forgotten are the recipes for poisonous ritual brews, unguents, and incenses of the British Isles and from Western to Eastern Europe. Many turn to the ones still remembered and used today in South America and Africa, but is time for us to remember the ancestral knowledge of the traditional entheogens of our European forbears and to put them to use once more as reverently and responsibly as we are able. It is time to let go of our Western civilized fear of losing control and to surrender to the wild wood and our animistic nature once more; trusting that in surrendering we will be held by our ancestors and familiar spirits.