Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review!

The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook: A Grimoire of Philtres, Elixirs, Oils, Incense, and Formulas for Ritual Use, by Karen Harrison (Weiser, 2011).

For those that are cognizant of Karen Harrison’s standing within the Pagan community, she is the owner of a well-known mail order Witch-shop called Isis Books and Metaphysical Gifts[1] located in Denver, Colorado.  This established 20-year old occult store sells the herbs and essential oils employed by many Witches, however, Karen has spent many decades perfecting her own formulas—various incenses and oils for almost any purpose one might need.  That being said, this text is not a standard “formulary”, such as Lady Rhea’s rich text, The Enchanted Formulary (Citadel Press, 2006).  Indeed, what formulas it contains are chiefly reserved for a slim 8-page appendix near the back of the book, while a scattering of spells and other formulas are peppered throughout the text in an effort to more fully illustrate some key planetary concepts within the premier section.
            This book is really one of the best texts to cross my path on the subject of Herbal Magick in several years—and, it is now one that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to my own students of The Craft in a heartbeat!  It shows the wisdom of her years of experience, allowing the reader—whether new to the Craft or an experienced Elder—to directly learn from her as if she were allowing one the opportunity to privately apprentice under her guidance.  A couple tips worthy of note that I saw again and again was the common use of a small dropper bottle filled with grain alcohol in an effort to flush out the dropper when blending numerous essential oils (EOs) together in a formula.  This, however, may be more of a bother than it is worth, especially when considering that most essential oils are bottled with a plastic dropper fastened to the mouth of each bottle which portions out the EO in minute drop-sized amounts; these can even be purchased and snapped onto any bottles of an EO or even liquid candle dyes for ease of use in lieu of droppers should they be lacking.  Another fabulous tip was to blend or brew a herbal mixture in a glass, enamel, or ceramic vessel or saucepan because various herbs and essential oils can react with certain metals such as copper, aluminum and iron, etc.
            The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook is divided into three sections; the premiere being a discussion of the Elemental and Planetary signatures that affect each herb.  Personally, while the planetary rulership or government of a specific plant is very important in Herbal Magick, Karen’s application of it seemed rather somewhat vague and monotonous as if it didn’t matter what herb one chose, so long as the herbs, and their balance, were drawing upon the appropriate planetary signatures in a specific formula.  For example, if one were blending a love potion that was centered upon sex instead of romance, than one might compose a formula with several Martial ingredients with only a bare few Venusian components.  Unfortunately, nothing was mentioned about pagan Herb Lore in the text,[2] which is typically of more value than a given herb’s strict planetary signature/s in my experience.  She seemed to treat this with a rather cavalier attitude.
            There was also the occasional inaccuracy throughout the text, such as referring to one’s “Ascendant” (or Rising Sign) as a planet, when it is actually the demarcation of a specific astrological sign that was rising at the horizon in a given time and at a specific geographic location.[3]  Another was her acknowledgement that “[t]he words amulet and talisman have come to be used interchangeably for an object or charm that repels negativity”.  She then goes on to say that, “I generally use the word talisman to indicate something that symbols or words written or inscribed upon it, while I view an Amulet as an object that is composed of natural materials” (pp. 37).  While these may be her own professed connotations, these terms mean far more than she is admitting to.  According to Doreen Valiente, an Amulet and a Talisman is not the same thing; an amulet is strictly intended to ward someone or some thing by averting disaster, while a talisman is wrought to procure some benefit, whether it is in luck or love, etc.[4]
            It is the third portion of this work—detailing the construction of custom formulas—that makes for the most engrossing study by the casual reader, albeit is again a bit monotonous and vague in its seemingly generic applications, as I have already noted above.  The methods for engineering a custom formula outlined by the author are only a few: employing numerology based upon their name; choosing herbs or essential oils based chiefly upon one’s Sun Sign and the planet/s that govern it; and choosing herbs based upon any lacking Elements within one’s Natal Chart as they are associated within uninhabited Houses within one’s Chart.  In spite of this seemingly generic structure, however, it is still certainly a very thought provoking exercise!
            The second section of this text deals with the general construction of incense and ritual oils, etc.; and, it is somewhat rounded out by a compendium of herbs which take up nearly half the volume of this particular book.  Why each herb is listed with the Magickal uses that it is I cannot profess to know; each attribution is essentially a mystery that only the author can further explain because most do not seem to be based in standard herbal lore.  Such an explanation, however, would have made this large Appendix far more useful for the reader, rather than putting them in the place of merely accepting the author at her word.  For example, if a book says that a rose or vervain may be used in a love spell, it’d behoove the author to explain why on behalf of the reader.  (Hint: both were associated with the respective cults of Aphrodite and Venus in pagan narrative and local traditions.)  I also found it odd that an inordinate amount of time was spent in this Appendix on herbs that are somewhat rare, as well as those herbs that most Witches and Pagans tend not to use other than in Chinese herbal medicinal applications, such as Ginko Biloba.

[2] By “pagan Herb Lore” I typically refer to the mythology that has been attached to various herbs over the course of history; a brilliant text on the subject would be Herb Craft, by Susan Lavender and Anna Franklin (Capall Bann, 1996).
[4] Valiente, Doreene.  Where Witchcraft Lives, pp. 72.

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