Plant Magic

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(This post was originally publish on Gods & Radicals)

Like gods and people, plants exist for themselves — and as part the complex ecologies from which they emerge.   Many contemporary magical practitioners approach them simply as inert objects to be used in ritual or spellcraft– a perspective and approach that both emerge from and reinforce capitalist materialist culture’s denial of the living intelligences of the other than human world.    Far richer, more powerful, and more revolutionary magic comes from engaging plants as allies.


“We must have died alone, a long long time ago.” –David Bowie

When and how did plants become mere material for the fulfillment of human needs and desires?   To some extent the process began with the birth of civilization, but it was completed in the bloody birth of capitalism.

Capitalism was born of tremendous violence — the forced displacement of the western European peasantry, genocide and ecocide throughout the Americas, and the kidnapping, murder, enslavement, and exploitation of millions of Africans. The collective trauma of this violence created a collective dissociation,  a psychic numbing that distanced many of its survivors and their descendants from the emotional impact of past and ongoing brutality.   The alienation that characterizes life under capitalism arises from that violence and helps to perpetuate it.

As English and French philosophers and scientists began to articulate a new vision of the world, a paradigm arose with and from capitalism that served to erase most of the remnant elements of animism and communitarianism from European (and the emerging colonial North American) culture where, prior to the enclosures, they still maintained a degree of influence in both daily and ritual life in rural communities despite the best efforts of church and state.  The local economics of mutual aid were replaced by a model that saw individuals acting in their own narrowly defined self interest as the economy’s primary actors.   Simultaneously, medicine shifted from a context in which a person who cultivated deep relationships with other than human realms made offerings, petitions, and agreements on behalf of a person  who was suffering in order to restore balance in microcosm and macrocosm to one in which technicians who held specialized knowledge performed precise interventions on the inner workings of bodies that were seen as identical machines.   Like the human body, the world itself began to be seen and treated more like clockwork than like a living, fluid system with an animating intelligence of its own.

The alchemy of the sixteenth century was rooted in a cosmology that saw the material world as an imperfect and fallen representation of what the Christians’ god intended it to be, and sought to find the process by which a thing could be reified into its essence.    In the seventeenth century, that cosmology degenerated into one in which the world was made up of resources waiting to be reified into wealth.    Human lives were viewed no differently from anything else in either cosmology.   In the Christian mysticism that underlay European alchemy, humans were seen as sinners who through the pursuit of wisdom could attain a gnosis that would imbue grace.    In capitalism’s more toxic mimic of that world view, stretches of time of human lives could be bought for money and become instruments of productivity that would yield wealth to the men who bought them.

How else would other than human lives be viewed in such a paradigm than as resources that could be extracted and refined to yield value — primarily as foods and medicines whose forms would become more and more distant from those of the plant bodies that yielded them as capitalism advanced, until, under late capitalism, corn syrup became liquid gold capable of producing sufficient wealth to buy elections, and most medicines ceased being made from  recently living plants at all, instead becoming simulacra of plant molecules crafted from the fossil remnants of long dead ancient life?


As much as it represented a challenge to it, and a resurgence of some of the aspects of human life destroyed and suppressed by it, the magical revival of the later half of the last century emerged from within the culture that commodified the world.   And as much as recent generations of Pagans and Polytheists have spoken and written about the sacredness of all life and the re-enchantment of the world, many contemporary texts, teachings, and practices involving plant magic treat herbs as tools in a ritual or a spell, and base their sense of a plant’s role in the work at hand on memorized correspondences rather than on any direct relationship with plants themselves.

Pagandom has too often also been complicit in the New Age appropriation, distortion, and commodification of plants with whom  Indigenous people have long  and deep magical and ceremonial relationships.

White Sage, Salvia apiana, is a case in point.   Based on a limited and decontextualized understanding of the ritual cleansing practices of some of the Indigenous peoples of what we now call southern California, many people who have no direct experience of the living plant burn it to clear a space or prepare for a ritual.  The overharvest of White Sage for commercial smudge sticks has decimated wild populations of the plant and disrupted the ability of people whose families and communities have worked with Salvia alpina  for thousands of years to maintain their connection with the plant.

To be sure, White Sage produces a beautiful smoke.   Hir scent stirs a deep recognition in the amygdala that then signals our muscles to relax and our awareness to open.   But the same is true of the Coastal Mugwort I find growing by the harbor, and the Cedar outside my bedroom window.   Every landscape in the world contains aromatic plants whose scent shifts our consciousness toward connection with other than human realms.   But there is a profound difference between what happens when I burn the needles of a Cedar I have stood beneath on sweltering summer afternoons and cold rainy winter nights and what happens when I burn White Sage that was commercially harvested, wrapped in plastic, and scent hundreds of miles north.   There is a different kind of magic involved.


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Gods&Radicals is a site of Beautiful Resistance and a daily journal of Pagan anti-capitalist writing.
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