With the rise of alternative medicine and as more are turning their backs on contemporary medicine, it’s important to have a frank conversation about the relationship between Wicca and alternative healing modalities. In this article my primary focus is herbalism, but I’m sure at some point others will get the spotlight.
Wicca and herbalism go together like celery and peanut butter, but it is a much more nuanced relationship that requires some boundary definition to discuss with any efficacy. Wiccans generally approach herbalism one of two ways:
- Practically and Physically- Ex. St. John’s Wort is understood to contain compounds that may have antidepressant qualities. The idea that the herb directly facilitates healing in the body.
- Energetically and Spiritually- Ex. White Sage has long been used in Native American religions as a purifying agent and has been adopted by contemporary Wiccan practitioners.
That is not to say these are mutually exclusive, in fact, there can be a bit of confusing crossover. Some may believe St. Johns Wort possesses the energy signature to affect depressive symptoms and some may clean their counters with a tincture of white sage. Confused yet? The doctrine of signatures, a principle from the 1600’s that posits, “things that look like something must heal that something” or “since this root looks like a foot, it must heal the foot”, muddies the waters of understanding further, especially when contemporary practitioners accept this as physical truth.
Hedge and Kitchen practitioners and self-styled Green Wiccans are more likely to delve deeply into herbalism for healing purposes because much of their personal, spiritual practice is centered around the earth and ecology, the garden, and the hearth (in differing percentages). The pervasive scene imagined when one speaks of a Hedge witch is the old woman in the cottage with her mess of herbs and flowers and a batch of bubbling brew. That imagery is intoxicating and many are brought to Wicca because of it; it would be fair to say many are also steered toward Wicca because mainstream faith communities quietly ostracise the chronically ill or disabled. It is also fair to say there is a [misguided] social shift toward alternative healing because patients don’t trust their doctors or the American healthcare system. That being said, seekers typically show an avid interest in herbalism, and are encouraged to pursue it, but may not be ready to delineate between quality resources and dangerous bunk.
My point is this, that old lady in the cottage healed locals with herbs and flowers because that’s what was available at the time. If she had a penicillin dispenser at her disposal, you bet your ass she would have used that.
My point is this: reading three books on herbalism written by Joe Bag-o-Donuts does not make you a medical authority. Please know that truly understanding herbalism as a compliment to medicine is a years-long and costly process of education and practice.
My point is this: it is incredibly obnoxious to suggest treatment for others, even more so when they are under the care and guidance of a trained medical professional. Please understand that someone with cancer undergoing chemotherapy does not what to hear how licorice root can cure their cancer, especially from someone reading books by Joe Bag-o-Donuts.
The very worst part of this is I’ve been there. I’ve been that person. I really thought I was helping, but I suppose this is the perspective that maturity has afforded me. I didn’t understand at the time just how obnoxious and condescending it is to recommend a treatment for a disease the person has been and will be managing their entire life. I cringe when I think back to it. What gave me the right to even make the suggestion even if the intent was pure?
I want to outline the significant issues with suggesting herbs for illnesses both chronic and acute:
- Don’t judge a book by its cover. Is this natural material the material you think it is? People buy dime bags of parsley every day and they take that stuff pretty seriously…
- Take two, they’re small. How much of the active ingredient is present in the dosage? WHAT EVEN IS THE DOSAGE?? Things like growing season, climate, soil composition, and drought conditions can affect the chemical composition of the plant material and most people do not have assess to a mass spectrometer or a gas chromatograph. The person taking it can affect dosage as well… age, weight, and sex to name a few.
- Mac Sauce is just thousand island. What’s the secret ingredient? How do you know it’s the active compound? What are the inactive compounds? What are the side effects?
- Vinegar and baking soda people. How will the chemicals, active or inactive, interact with the medication already being taken, or taken recently?
Those are just a small taste of the considerations that need to be made to effectively treat someone. The best rule of thumb I can provide: Don’t. If you have a peppermint incense blend that will soothe a person’s nerves, that would be incredibly thoughtful. Want to smudge their house with white sage and sweetgrass, what a lovely gesture. Would like to make a healing amulet with aloe and thyme, I’m sure it would be most welcome. Those would be amazingly helpful, supporting, and restorative… in a manner that complements rather than hinders the care they are already receiving.