A quick search at Amazon.com for books on herbal magic gives a list of 130 texts on the subject. Here’s one more to add to the pile. Harrison compiles her knowledge on the subjects of herbs, magic and formulating magickal potions for the reader. There’s not actually much alchemy, other than the idea that magically-made potions can lead to personal transformation or be used in spell work. Sorry, but that’s a few French fries short of a Happy Meal! There’s no indication of depth research into alchemy, the Persian or medieval alchemists, or their techniques. It’s a true blue book of witch-crafting with herbal potions with a side-order of astrological magic.
Nevertheless, the author is a good writer and supplies a well-organized treatment of the subject. Harrison takes her cue solely from Paracelsus, a late medieval doctor and alchemist who straddled the transition from folk herb lore to modern medicine. Paracelsus worked with the Doctrine of Signatures, also known as the Law of Correspondences. This is an ancient theory that links plants, trees, stones, days, and symbols with particular planets. Correspondences are the backbone of magickal utility through methods of concocting potions infused with planetary virtues.
The book opens with Part One: Herbs and Their Planetary Signatures. The first ten chapters supply summaries of the ten planets, their magical applications and corresponding herbs. Each chapter includes instructions for a planet-related spell. Part Two: Practicum briefly describes methods for concocting loose incense, ritual oils, bath salts and elixers, herbal amulets, potpourri, philters, elixers and fluid and herbal condensers. Part Three: Combining Planetary and Elemental Influences gives instructions for using astrological timing and numerology to create individualized potions. This is followed by eight appendices with a range of tables and lists for easy look-up, and an index.
Compared to similar texts, this is a high quality book comparable to standard references like Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. It gives the aspiring witch or magician just enough information to be dangerous. This isn’t referring to putting poisonous herbs into a love philter, although that’s a potential boo-boo. The problem comes from the author’s breezy assurance that “you do not have to be an astrologer to…help you create a blend” or any of the other potions suggested in the book.
Here’s a very specific example of the potential dangers of messing around with astrological timing without knowing diddly-squat about astrology: a practitioner wants a love potion, and decides to make it on Friday, January 21, 2011. There’s a love-related Leo Moon and it’s the Day of Venus, the goddess of love. This is what the book advises - so far so good. What the practitioner doesn’t know is that the moon is void-of-course, in opposition to Neptune and applying to uncomfortable non-Ptolemaic aspects called “inconjunctions” to both Jupiter and Uranus in Aries. Inconjuncts aren’t included in void-of-course calculations, but they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. Yes, the potion will have the properties of attraction, but – according to magical theory – what it will attract will be unpredictable and capricious (Uranus), and will quickly spin out of control (Aries) with any number of unwanted consequences (Jupiter). This is certainly not what the practitioner intends, but the potion will have all of those effects. Ignorance is not bliss.
Harrison has a highly optimistic, New Age view of Mars, Saturn and the outer planets. Make no mistake – Mars and Saturn aren’t called malefics because they collect bottle caps – they’re called that because their effects are evil. The outer planetary deities are amoral, uncontrollable and should be regarded with extreme caution, especially by novices. The author makes the planets=signs=houses error and subscribes to the “higher octave” theory, i.e., Neptune is a higher octave of Venus. These theories are errors of 20th century astrological praxis that are being discarded in the growing resurgence of Classical (Ancient, Hellenic) astrology. The Law of Correspondences is part and parcel of that ancient tradition, so knowledge of those ancient rules is a necessity.
An additional problem is the lack of a credible foundation for planet/herb correspondences. Herbal correspondences are a 2,000-year old pissing contest with a plethora of divergent and contradictory trains of thought. There is no discussion of this, nor does the author supply her own train of thought (or any references) for including substances in a planetary category. The outer planets have never been worked into the correspondence system by anyone with the astrological and scholarly clout to make it stick, so their inclusion is fraught with dubious guesswork.
Taken as yet another book on herbal magic in a witchcraft paradigm, this is a well-written example of that species. Scrutinized under the lens of Arabic and medieval astrological magic and alchemical practices that were powered by explicit, mandatory rules for timing, it leaves a lot to be desired. With those provisos, this book is recommended for intermediate spell-crafters who aren’t concerned about those issues.
~review by Elizabeth Hazel
Author: Karen Harrison
Red Wheel/Weiser 2011
pp. 239, $21.95