E is for Entheogen: the Pagan Blog Project

Amanita muscaria (fly agaric), Norway

Image via Wikipedia

The word entheogen (from the Greek entheos, or “full of god”) was coined sometime in the seventies by mythologists to refer to any psychoactive plant used in a religious or shamanic context for the purpose of producing a sense of divinity within the worshipper or promoting inspiration (which, when you come down to it, means pretty much the same thing). Most often, entheogens were also an aid to producing ecstasy–no, not the street drug, but a euphoric trance state (of varying degrees of intensity) in which the barriers between self and the divine dissolve, grow thin, or perhaps entirely melt away.

Odin, in the northern traditions, is commonly considered to be the god of inspiration and ecstatic states, and as such is the patron of poets and berserkers as well as shamans and (sometimes, in about a 50/50 split with Freyja) seidhr practitioners. In fact, His very name means something like “master of frenzy,” the frenzy in question being agitation and excitement of the mind, emotions and spirit. So it is only natural and to be expected that He should have a long-standing traditional (as well as practical) connection with entheogens and their use, and that some of these sacred and dangerous plants should be especially sacred to Him. And in fact, many people would be familiar with the depiction (if not the name or details) of one of the most famous among these: fly agaric or Amanita muscaria, the showy white-spotted red mushroom (cousin to the deathcap, which is exactly what it sound like) that has become so ubiquitous in European Christmas traditions. (The German authors of the book Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide even argue that Santa Claus–due to his red and white garb–is but a personification of this sacred mushroom. No, I am not making this up.)

Entheogens have gotten a bad name in the pagan community, largely due to the psychedelic drug culture of the sixties and seventies in which the use of many of these traditional plants (most notably the truly hallucinogenic ones such as peyote and ayahuasca) became secularized and degraded, used as a route to a quick high or vivid “trip” by the curious. The fact that some of these plants are hallucinogens or can produce a “high,” however, is completely besides the point, and in fact, in my own experience, true entheogen work may have nothing or little to do with the psychoactive constituents of the plant and everything to do with how an individual interacts with the plant spirit itself.

Although it is far more common within paganism to speak of relationships with animal spirits, plants too have spirits that can choose to interact with people, and plants can also like or dislike particular people and choose to either help them or not. This applies even within the context of “simple” healing-focused herbalism, in which some plants mysteriously just do not perform as expected when taken by certain people. When taken in a religious, shamanic or ritual context, this is even more likely to occur.

For example, fly agaric has yet to produce the dramatic effect for me that some people have claimed, and my attempts to use it as an aid to ritual trance states have mostly left me wishing for a big bowl of cream of amanita soup. (Seriously, I love the taste of this mushroom! Please don’t hasten to tell me it’s poisonous; I know that, which is why it hasn’t ended up on my dinner table yet–but still, yum.) So obviously, however much I might drool over this mushroom’s mystique and its rich tradition, amanita and I are not well-suited to each other in this context. I have heard similar tales from other people, of various supposedly powerful entheogens that utterly failed to have any effect on them whatsoever.

Mugwort, on the other hand–another herb closely associated with Odin in both Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tradition–is not generally considered a psychoactive plant, and thus would not be counted as an entheogen by many, but its effects on me when I consume it in a ritual context are immediate and, while not especially dramatic, very effective.

I began my relationship with this remarkable plant when, on Odin’s instructions, I first started incorporating it into my seidhr practice five or so years ago, and over the years have forged a strong alliance with the plant, which I think of affectionately as Grandmother Mugwort. (I see Mugwort as a witchy and somewhat temperamental old woman, sharp tongued and very clever.) For seidhr rituals, I drink a tea of mugwort and rose petals that gently and almost seamlessly guides me into the deep trance state required for my journey to the Well of Wyrd. When cleansing or blessing my home or consecrating ritual items, mugwort smoke is my smudge of choice. If I want to induce vivid or prophetic dreams, mugwort goes into my bedtime cup of tea and under my pillow.

Many people in the pagan/witchcraft community are already familiar with the use of mugwort tea to bathe scrying crystals and black mirrors, or to drink before consulting Tarot or runes. Mugwort–one of Odin’s Nine Sacred Herbs–is well known for its ability to thin the veil between the worlds, or at least allow us a peek behind it. And this effect does not even require the plant to be consumed or burned. One of my co-workers (who is not pagan, so far as I know) commented to me that she used to keep a live mugwort plant next to her bed to induce lucid dreams, but it worked so well that after a while she had to move it out of the room when she simply wanted a good night’s sleep. (Plant spirit relationships often work this way, deepening–like any good relationship–over time.) And yet, mugwort does not contain powerful psychoactive chemicals, just a rather weak thujone content…and a whole lot of attitude.

Of course, not everyone will experience mugwort this way, and some people, inevitably, will not “click” with the plant at all. Which is why, once again, I would argue that it is not the chemical content of the plant that determines an effective entheogen, it is the relationship between the plant and the person, whether a particular plant agrees to work with you personally and how you and the plant function together in a spiritual/ritual context.

For the curious, here is a list of plants associated with Odin that frequently function as entheogens, mostly culled from Pagan Christmas by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Inner Traditions (November 4, 2006):

Heliotropum europaeum (Wodan’s herb)

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) – also known as Odin’s hat or storm hat

Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscara) – also known as “raven’s bread”)

Yew (I personally believe this tree–with which I have a close affinity–to be the “needle-ash” referred to as Yggdrasil in Voluspa)

Mistletoe – in Scandinavia mistletoe sprigs were used as “wishing rods” and were thought to open treasure boxes. A protective barrier against witches and sorcerers and a key to vitality and good luck, but also a vehicle for witches’ flight, especially when found growing in birch trees. Called “witches’ broom” in the vernacular.
Ivy (through connection with the wild man/Green Man, and as a “snake spirit” plant and an intoxicating herb)

Juniper – one of its folk names is wodansgerte. Protective and has been used as a “life rod” (one of a number of plants traditionally used for ritual beating of women and virgins to encourage fertility). The berries, also known as weiheichen (holy berries) have been used as a substitute for frankincense in the North. Heals rheumatism, asthma, pain in the chest or side, sleepiness, depression, and lunacy. An ingredient in beer, schnapps, and gin. Used in protective amulets.

The Nine Sacred Herbs (according to Ratsch and Muller-Ebelling; there is some controversy about the actual botanical identity of some of these plants, which are named in an 11th century Anglo-Saxon charm):

mugwort (“oldest of all herbs”)
plaintain (“mother of herbs”)
stone root (“drives away evil”) – stinkweed or pennycress
wormwood (“venom-loather”)
chamomile
wergulu (maybe chicory)
apple
chervil
fennel

(The phrases in quotations above are from the Anglo-Saxon herb charm, 11th c.)

Rye (used for brewing a special Christmas beer, Wodelbeers (Wodan)

Poppy – cultivated in southern and northern Germanic regions from very ancient times, fields of poppy were called “Odin’s ground” (Odainsackr) and seen as sacred healing sites where Odin performed healing wonders. Poppy juice was believed to ward off demons; poppy seeds are a traditional food of witches and the dead. Also associated with fertility and prophecy as well as prosperity. Traditionally, poppy seeds must be sown on Christmas Eve, three days before that, or on a Wednesday (Odin’s day).

Mugwort – also called felon herb, naughty man, old man, and old Uncle Harry (similar to Harr, or “High One,” one of Odin’s many names). Also used as a “life rod,” as above. Promotes fertility and the transition of souls from the other worlds to earth and vice versa. Was used both as a childbirth aid and in graves, and burned on bonfires for the dead. A boundary plant that grows by roadsides. Protection, love and sex magick. Traditionally used to season the St. Martin’s Day goose to call Wodan’s attention to the sacrifice and induce Him to hear and fulfill the wishes of those making it. (St. Martin’s Day is November 11th, on the evening of which St. Martin is said, in Germany, to be visible riding a white horse through the sky. Farmers finish their year’s work on this day and make an offering to St. Martin—clearly Wodan—of cheese, wool, bread, or flax, also leaving hay or oats in front of their house for his horse.)

Clover (trifolium) – through its associations with sorcery, astral travel and flight, shamanic initiation, and the world wanderer.

Plantain – used in witches’ incense as well as smudging incense to ward against witches. Traditionally had to be dug up with a tool other than iron. Wards off worms, fevers, and evil spirits; protects against love charms; wins lawsuits.

Holly – both protects against and attracts dangerous powers. A plant of evergreen life. Witches were believed to need the red berries to brew thunderstorms.