The Sacred Herbs of Samhain: Plants to Contact the Spirits of the Dead by Ellen Evert Hopman, Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2019
With my love of the Wheel of Light with its eight spokes and communing with plant spirits through ecstatic trance, I found this title irresistible and had to purchase it. The Sacred Herbs of Samhain takes the reader on a journey along one spoke of the Wheel of Light, the spoke that falls between the Fall Equinox and the Winter Solstice, i. e. Samhain, the time when the veil between the worlds opens, the time when the spirits of our ancestors come alive. Samhain is at end of October, the time of Halloween. The early elements of wearing costumes and trick-or-treating are found in this ancient tradition.
Hopman describes in a fun and enjoyable manner approximately 30 herbs and their preparations for healing, and especially for communing with the benevolent Spirits and Fairies and protection from the malevolent ones. These herbs are also for purification, for their ability to facilitate journeys of divination, and for releasing and honoring the spirits of the dead on their journey into the other world.
Besides ingesting the herbs as teas and tinctures, some are used externally as a salve or a poultice. Some are used homeopathically or as an essence where the preparation is repeatedly diluted such that little if any of the herb remains. But what makes Hopman’s stories most enjoyable are her descriptions of how the herbs are used for making wreaths and equal armed crosses to be placed on doorways, gates, and in other places of the spirits, as bouquets for special altars to the spirits or worn on the person to facilitate communication with and protection from the spirits. Some herbs are burnt as a cleansing smudge for the grieving or for cleansing the corpse, and some are placed in the casket of the dead or planted on the grave to facilitate their journey into the other world. These herbs are central in the celebratory rituals around the Samhain bonfire or in special recipes for Samhain feasts. Many of these uses are based in the ancient Celtic myths or more contemporary stories. Hopman’s telling of these myths and stories bring this book alive especially with my familiarity and love for these stories, stories that I cherish hearing again and again.
One may question the purpose or effectiveness of the rituals in using the herb without ingesting it. When calling upon my animal spirit guides that provide healing and direction in life, these spirit guides do not need to be ingested. Herbal spirit guides are powerful in themselves as recognized by homeopaths and those who use the essence of the plant. The rituals with wreathes and crosses and other bouquets of the plant pay homage to the power of the plant and recognize its spiritual power without the need to ingest it.
I will select three of the herbs to review to provide a flavor of Hopman’s descriptions: Rowan, Artemesia, and the preparation of acorn flour for a special feasting cake.
I selected the Rowan tree with its orange to red berries because of my intent to plant one this next spring in my Celtic Wheel of Light Garden. Also, when I played the Highland Bagpipes one of my favorite pieces to play was The Rowan Tree. The Rowan Tree twigs are used for protection and for communing with the spirits when displayed as equal-armed crosses tied with red twine. These crosses are placed throughout the barn to protect the animals, and bits of Rowan can be tied to a cow or horse’s tail or made into a wreath placed about the animal’s neck. Rowan berries are strung as a necklace again for protection and for summoning the spirits. A branch of Rowan as a staff or wand is also used for protection.
The Rowan berries harvested after the first frost can be cooked in cakes and breads or added to mead. The berry juice and syrup is used for sore throats and colds, and berry tea is helpful for a wide variety of maladies. A recipe for Rowan Berry Jam is offered, but Hopman reports that the berries should never be eaten raw and their overuse can cause vomiting, diarrhea and kidney disease.
Artemisia vulgaris or Mugwort is used as a visionary herb and for divination. Mugwort is often give out at the conferences of the International Association for the Study of Dreams to be put under the pillow at night to facilitates dreaming. I have frequently journeyed with Mugwort through ecstatic trance and have a close relationship with it as one of my spirit guides. It is considered the first herb in the Saxon “Nine Herbs of Woden,” and it has a prominent place in my Nine Herbs of Woden Garden. Mugwort may be worn in celebrations as a crown or a belt for summoning the spirits. Drinking Mugwort tea and smudging with Mugwort at a funeral facilitate communication with the deceased and for their protection on their journey through the veil. Medicinally it is used to treat diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, premenopausal syndrome, and to aid with epilepsy, chronic fatigue and depression.
Hopman offers a number of special herbal recipes for Samhain feasts including the “Dumb Supper” when no one speaks in preparing, serving and eating the meal. One herb is the meat of the Oak acorn. The best time to collect the acorns is when they are still somewhat green and have not be infect with a worm that causes them to rot. I aim to collect acorns next fall for the purpose of making acorn flour. Once the acorn meat is removed from the shell and blended to make it into a coarse gruel, it needs to be washed in water and strained daily for about two weeks in order to remove the bitterness of tannin. Once this leaching is complete the gruel is dried and ground into a fine flour for making acorn cakes and breads that are served with maple walnut ice cream, or freshly whipped cream as a special treat for the Samhain feast.
Hopman’s trance ritual for calling the spirits includes smudging and calling the spirits from each direction, both part of my practice of ecstatic trance, though I also use specific ecstatic postures to give direction to the trance experience. She also suggests that besides calling the spirits from each direction, they may be called from the Celtic Three Worlds: the sacred land, sea and sky. I am looking forward to experimenting with calling the spirits from these three worlds in my practice of ecstatic trance. These stories and many more make this book a very enjoyable read, offering me many ideas of how to celebrate Samhain.
I am excitedly looking forward to reading Hopman’s next book, The Sacred Herbs of Beltaine: Magical, Healing and Edible Plants to Celebrate Spring that will be coming out this next April. I hope to read this new book before next May’s Beltaine. I also hope that Hopman has in mind writing similar books for the other six spokes of the Wheel of Light. Again this book is a very enjoyable and useful read for those who value and celebrate the eight spokes of the Wheel of Light.
Buy The Sacred Herbs of Samhain: Plants to Contact the Spirits of the Dead by Ellen Evert Hopman on Amazon
Nicholas E. Brink, PhD is the author of :
- Ecstatic Soul Retrieval (publisher – Inner Traditions / Bear & Co.)
- Power of Ecstatic Trance
- Baldr’s Magic
- Beowulf’s Ecstatic Trance Magic
- Trance Journeys of the Hunter-Gatherers
- Grendel and His Mother (publisher – Routledge)
- Applying the Constructivist Approach to Cognitive Therapy: Resolving the Unconscious Past (Routledge)
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Randi Thorneau loves to write product reviews. Reach out to her through the main submissions email for Celtic Nations Magazine – firstname.lastname@example.org