The Passing of Christian Rätsch, Magical Ethnobotanist

I heard Christian Rätsch (1957–2022) speak in person only once, at a conference in England in the 2000s, shortly after I had bought a book he co-wrote, Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants. I also treasure a recorded lecture of his on henbane beer and such topics, in which he scoffs at the famous Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law of 1516) that limited ingredients to water, barley, hops, hissing, “Hops isss a depresssant!” — CSC

The Undying Contributions of the Late Christian Rätsch

From Coby Michael’s The Poisoner’s Apothecary Patreon page.
Reprinted with permission.

Christian Rätsch, 1999.

On the 17th of September, 2022 author, lecturer and ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch (Hamburg, Germany) died of a stomach ulcer that he had been dealing with himself for years. Rätsch leaves behind wife and fellow author Claudia Müller-Ebeling.

Christian Rätsch, Ph.D., is a world-renowned anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist who specializes in the shamanic uses of plants. He is the author of Marijuana Medicine and coauthor of Plants of the Gods, Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas, Witchcraft Medicine, and The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. He lives in Hamburg, Germany, and lectures around the world. He has served as president of the German Society of Ethnomedicine. (Inner Traditions/Bear & Company)

Ethnobotanical Contributions

Rätsch was one of the single most important authors of ethnobotanical research, the Poison Path, the Psychedelic Renaissance and poisonous/psychoactive plant lore. He earned a doctorate studying Native American cultures living and studying with indigenous cultures. As a child he became interested in shamanic practices and the study of plants. He worked closely with indigenous plant spirit medicine, preserving an extensive body of traditional lore. He also experimented with various psychedelic substances since a young age, and eventually became friends with LSD researcher Timothy Leary. He is the founder and co-editor of The Yearbook of Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness.

His work was something that I discovered early on in my Poison Path studies, because he was one of the only authors at the time to not only take an interest in poisonous and psychoactive plants but also provide the reader with extensive history, folklore and chemical information from a practical and academic standpoint. His book Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices and Healing Plants, was the first work of his that I read, a complete ethnobotanical history of European psychedelic practices in the context of witchcraft.

Plants of The Gods

Originally published in 1979, this book was a precursor to the megalithic Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. Originally written by Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hoffman, all three titans in their own right. World-renowned anthropologist and ethnopharmacologist Christian Ratsch provides the latest scientific updates to this classic work on psychoactive flora by two eminent researchers.

The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants

In my opinion, the single most important modern day compendium of ethnobotanical information in the Western Hemisphere. The book is over 900 pages long with 797 color photographs and 645 black and white drawing. It is a comprehensive tome on sacred plant knowledge from around the world. Accessible and all in one place, this is one of the few books that provides ALL of the available information!

Other titles by Christian Rätsch

Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants

Plants of Love: The History of Aphrodisiacs and A Guide to their Identification and Use

Encyclopedia of Aphrodisiacs

Gateway to Inner Space: Sacred Plants, Mysticism, and Psychotherapy

Marijuana Medicine: A World Tour of the Healing and Visionary Powers of Cannabis

He has written extensively, books and articles, in German.

A Permanent Impact

The work of Christian Rätsch has been invaluable in my own studies of psychoactive and poisonous plants. The tireless work and attention to detail that was required to bring such a tome of knowledge into manifestation is no-doubt divinely driven. While the world has lost an amazingly curious mind, he has left behind a body of work that will continue to grow, evolve and influence those of us continuing this work. I would have loved to have meet you Christian, and thank you for your contribution but I have a feeling we will meet one day.

You can visit his website but it is all in German www.christian-raetsch.de/

The Creeping Triumph of Halloween

I went into Pueblo, Colorado on the 1st for the usual biweekly shopping spree. The weather was sunny and hot — “state fair weather” is the local term for a hot break in the late-summer rains that bring the August mushroom flush.

Halloween displays were in the stores. And we have not even celebrated the Chile & Frijoles festival yet!

Then I looked at my own archive and saw that I had photographed a pop-up Halloween party store there on 29 August 2011.

That same year a Bloomberg News columnist decried the “paganism” of Halloween, even if people only “flirt with the night” in a light-hearted way.

It’s been gaining momentum as being more than “just for kids for” at least thirty years, maybe longer.

I don’t mean for Pagans, I mean for the general population. So praise every plastic pumpkin for serving as a wedge to split open our daytime, materialistic, consensus reality

My First Publisher ASMR Video!

I ordered a book from this small British publisher, Handheld Books. The book is Strange Relics, “an anthology of classic short stories in which the supernatural and archaeology are combined,” which will become a gift to an archaeologist friend who also reads SF and fantasy.

Comes then an email acknowledgement of my order and a link to their very own ASMR video.

They may not call it that, but it qualifies.

Really, the soothing voice, the rustle of tissue paper. I feel entranced already. And filled with anticipation.

CFP: Design and the Occult

Screenshot from Dior’s Autumn-Winter 2020-2021 haute couture promotional video.

After my various posts on the Pagan-ish presentations by the House of Dior in particular (such as “The Tarot of Dior” and “Dior Dresses the Fair Folk” and “I Want to Call Dior’s Cruise Collection Pagan-ish Too“), I was happy to see this call for papers, “Design and the Occult.”

Here is a little of it — visit the link for all the particulars.

Until recently many academic disciplines and subjects avoided the subject of the occult, deeming it too ‘irrational or ‘eccentric’ for serious study. Exceptions to this include the discipline of anthropology, which since the 19th century, embraced the study of religion and belief from Western rationalist perspectives. In recent decades anthropology has explored magic and occultism from a broader range of viewpoints, including phenomenology, relativism, and post-structuralism. In the last two decades adjacent disciplines to design history such as history, art history, sociology, cultural studies, and film studies have increasingly embraced occult subjects. Likewise, the interdisciplinary field of environmental humanities has examined Indigenous, Western and Eastern ideas about the relationships between humans and the natural world, including esoteric, folkloric, and occult concepts.

However, within the field of design history esotericism, occultism, and magic have been largely overlooked with no sustained explorations of their relationships with design and the decorative arts. Notable exceptions to this include studies such as Zeynep Çelik Alexander, ‘Jugendstil Visions: Occultism, Gender and Modern Design Pedagogy’ Journal of Design History, Vol. 22, Issue 3, September 2009, pp. 203–226, and Elizabeth Otto, Haunted Bauhaus: Occult Spirituality, Gender Fluidity, Queer Identities, and Radical Politics (The MIT Press, 2019)

I will have to get this issue of the journal when it’s published. (Pointy hat tip to Sabina Magliocco for the link.)

Even though The Pomegranate published its “Paganism, Art, and Fashion” special issue a while back, this remains a topic of editorial interest.

Oglala Sioux at Pine Ridge Turn against Missionary Groups

Some interesting things are happening in South Dakota, First, on July 22, 2022 the Oglala SIoux Tribal Council (Pine Ridge) demanded that the Jesus is King Mission leave the Pine Ridge Reservation in the southwestern part of the state.

“This week the Jesus is King Missionary was found distributing material that literally demonizes the Lakota Culture and Faith,” said the Oglala Sioux Tribe in a statement. “This is unacceptable and completely disrespectful. It is the view of the President and Council that these ‘pamphlets’ seek to promote Hate instead of Peace. Hate has no place on Oglala land.”

This is not a new issue, as a 2019 news story about Pine Ridge reports.

[Anti-missioniary activist Davidica Little] Spotted Horse and others who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals from church supporters described incidents of aggressive proselytizing and demeaning treatment of Lakota spirituality and language, baptizing children without parental permission, use of humiliating poverty porn to fundraise, and of forwarding a colonial agenda that privileges non-Native values and goals. Some members have made allegations of sexual abuse and financial misdeeds and point to the failure of most organizations to conduct background searches for their workers and volunteers.

Another report on Twitter today (July 28th) said that ““the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council has officially suspended all activity of every single church missionary on the reservation until all employees/volunteers can pass a background check [and provide full financial transparency].” Outside religious groups were also forbidden to use such phrases as “Oglala Sioux Tribe” and “Pine Ridge Indian Reservation” in their printed or online fundraising materials.

If you go the tribe’s Facebook page, you can watch video of the council discussing this registration proposal put forth by Councilwoman Whitehorse and hearing testimony  (At least four hours’ worth—and I have listened only to a little.)

To compress history: when “Indian agencies,” precursors to the reservation system, were created in the West in the latter 19th century, it was often Protestant Christian church groups that agreed to operate them, since the pay was low but they could use the post as a basis for missionary activity. The Episcopal Church had a large footprint on South Dakota reservations at one time.

In the US and Canada, Christian denominations and religious organizations likewise operated until fairly recently many of the residential boarding schools to which many Indian children were forcibly sent — the pope is in Canada right now apologizing for all that.

In the US, the Epicopal Church is “studying its role” in the federal boarding schools. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is conducing a “listening tour” on the issue as well.

For more on the boarding schools and their sad legacy, read here.

Missionary activity continues, and many Native people today are Christian, from historically Russian Orthodox in Alaska to Mormon Navajos in Arizona.

It is common for church groups to “parachute in” youth groups for quick service trips, promoted with language like this: “Spend a life-changing week with the Lakota people of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, and you will truly never be the same! You’ll never forget the wild beauty of the land where the Sicangu Lakota, ‘Burnt-Thigh Nation;  live.

The Oglala are just one part of the larger Lakota nation. But if they do take a hardline on missionaries, it will be noticed. I will try to follow up on this later. It is a complicated issue, and there are law-enforcement issues, land issues, and more involved.

How about Museum of Witchcraft Version 4.0?

You can buy the former mill (built 1828) in Castletown, Isle of Man, that once housed housed Cecil Williamson and Gerald Gardner’s “Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft,” whose name went through various permutations, even as its little restaurant went from being “The Folklore Restaurant” to “The Witches’ Kitchen.”

All you need £425,000 plus associated costs. (It was converted to a residence about twenty years ago.)

Being near to the former residence of the Arbory witch, Elizabeth Kewin, who was in 1666 rumoured to have transformed into a hare and cast evil spells, the mill was soon associated with witchcraft.

By the 1950s, an Englishman named Cecil Williamson had bought the mill and planned to create a museum of folklore and witchcraft there. Later selling it to his friend Gerald Gardner, the mill was revamped as The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft.

After Gardner’s death in 1964, the museum ran for a short time under new owner Monique Wilson, who eventually sold it and its exhibits, but in its relatively short life, the museum was credited with helping to popularise Wicca as a religion.

I would go farther than that. I would say that this was more or less where Wicca was born. There ought at least to be a plaque. (Here is a Manx article about Ronald Hutton’s lecture there in 2010.)

Gerald Garder at the museum in the 1950s.

To have a museum, you must have exhibits, and Phlip Heselton’s Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, vol. 2, shows Gardner scurrying around to find, borrow, or make witchy objects for the museum.

In the museum world, objects must have “provenance,” a detailed description of where they came from and a chain of ownership. Ideally. Think of it as a story with documentation — although the art and antiquities trades are full of examples of forged documentation

In Gardner’s case, he merely had to provide a story. This ritual sword belonged  to . . . wait a moment, it’s on the tip of my tongue. . . “The Southern Coven of English Witches.” In other words, me and my fellow explorers of possible survivals of ancient Paganism, as described by Professor Murray.

“A collection of objects used by witches, lent by an existing coven of witches,” the witchcraft museum’s pamphlet read at one point.[1]Philip Heselton, Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, vol. 2 (London: Thoth, 2012), 474.

And this Southern Coven, they are followers of an ancient religion, called Wicca! It’s been here all along! People still go back and forth about this.

There is a saying in the SF-writing world, which I have seen attributed in its original form to the paranormal researcher Charles Fort (1874–1932), that “It steam-engines when it’s steam engine time.”

The example given is that ancient Mediterranean people knew at a basic level how steam power worked. A few simple examples were built .Roman technology could have produced boilers and pistons, but it wasn’t “steam engine time” yet. There were no situations that required steam engines, no one willing to invest in them. Yet in the 18th-century, steam technology took off and dominated the next two centuries, still having some use today.

Even as Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria could conceptualize a steam engine two thousand years ago, so various people tried various Pagan revivals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some in the Baltic countries, for example, clung to life through Nazi and Communist persecution but did not go world-wide, beyond their own ethnic diasporas.

Wicca went world-wide in the late 20th century, becoming, as Ronald Hutton writes in The Triumph of the Moon, “the only religion which England has ever given the world.”[2]Ronald Hutton The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), vii. Maybe we should just say that “It Wiccas when it’s Wicca time,” and that time was 1950–51. And one of the key locales was an old windmll on the Isle of Man.

In my fantasy, the old mill could be bought and turned into a museum again, complete with dioramas of its 1950s self — a meta-museum! — material on the history of Wicca  as a worldwide religion since the 1950s, and of course a restaurant, selling “Home Baked Cakes in the old Manx farmhouse style” as did the original.[3]Heselton., 429.

Notes

Notes
1 Philip Heselton, Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, vol. 2 (London: Thoth, 2012), 474.
2 Ronald Hutton The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), vii.
3 Heselton., 429.

The Woman Who Invented the Minor Arcana

Reading a new article on Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for what is often called the “Waite deck” among Tarot users, this popped out at me:

Tarot has been around since early 15th-century Italy, spun off from traditional playing cards. The 78 cards are split into two groups called the Major and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana features allegorical characters like the moon, sun, the fool and the lovers, while the Minor Arcana is divided into numbered and face cards in four suits: wands, swords, cups and pentacles. While prior decks were less pictorial in nature, Smith’s is filled with lush imagery that makes their interpretation easier for the reader.

Smith’s Two of Swords (Yale University Library).

“He was the one who instigated the deck, there’s no doubt about that,” [curator Barbara] Haskell[1]Smith’s work appears in At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism at the Whitney Museum in New York.said. “And he probably had quite a bit of input into the Major Arcana.”

Although Waite may have directed the concepts for those 22 cards, the imagery was all Smith’s own. And since Waite was less interested in the Minor Arcana, which comprises 56 cards and were often more simplistic graphics like playing cards, those ideas were “totally hers,” according to Haskell. Smith completed the 78 images from her Chelsea studio in London, using ink and watercolor.

Smith’s influences for the imagery included the indulgent ink illustrations by English artist Aubrey Beardsley, the luminous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the saturated color blocking of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and the ornamental details of Art Nouveau, according to Haskell.

Had she received a percentage instead of a fixed fee for her work, she (or her heirs) might have  made quite a lot, but she took the ready money, as so often creators must.

Notes

Notes
1 Smith’s work appears in At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Witchcraft, Paganism, and Detective Fiction

Jen Bloofield’s Witchcraft and Paganism in Midcentury Women’s Detective Fiction is avallable as a free PDF download from Cambridge University Press through 7 July 2022, if I understand correctly. Paperback copies are US $20.

From the publisher:

Witchcraft and paganism exert an insistent pressure from the margins of midcentury British detective fiction. Gladys Mitchell’s Come Away, Death is dedicated to ‘Evelyn Gabriel, whom Artemis bless and Demeter nourish; upon whom Phoebus Apollo shine’.Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head revolves around a folk dance when ritual words are muttered and a murder is committed. Margery Allingham’s Look to the Lady depicts the spontaneous rebirth of witchcraft in the depths of the English countryside. The theme appears across the work of multiple writers, going beyond chance occurrence to constitute an ongoing concern in the fiction of the period. This Element investigates the appearance of witchcraft and paganism in the novels of four of the most popular female detective authors of the British mid twentieth century. I approach the theme of witchcraft and paganism not simply as a matter of content, but also as an influence which shapes the narrative and its possibilities. The ‘witchy’ detective novel brings together the conventions of Golden Age fiction with the images and enchantments of witchcraft and paganism to produce a hitherto unstudied mode of detective fiction in the midcentury.

How Smokey Bear Would Celebrate the Summer Solstice

It’s a bonfire at mid-June, but a couple of things are a little off.

Flames leapt into the June sky, illuminating the attentive faces of the surroundng watchers, while waves of heat rolled off the fire. Around us was darkness, mountains, and forest.

I was thirsty, so I walked over the cooler to get some water. On the way back, my boot felt loose, so I put it up on the front pumper of Engine 968 to re-lace it.

“It’s a great bonfire,” I thought. “Too bad it’s ten days early.” This was the night of June 11, 2022, and the solstice will come at 3:14 a.m. local (Mountain) time on the 21st.

I live in a Colorado county where evangelical Protestanism is the dominant faith, although there are others, and all the local political races are settled in the Republican primary.[1]As an unaffiliated voter, I can vote in either major party’s primary, so this year I voted as an imaginary Republican, since the alternative is to have no candidates at all. But since I was here, I tried a Wiccan reading of the event: The fire was lit, and people assembled. (That perhaps is backwards from normal practice.) We cast the circle — not drawing it with a sword but digging it with pulaskis, MacLeods, and combi tools.

A spcialized circle-casting tool based on the Army M1088A1 5-ton  6×6 tractor.

Then we marked it in fire —two people circled the perimeter with drip torches to make sure eveyrhing burned

And in water. Another celebrant drove deosil around the circle in a Type 4 wildland engine, spraying a “wet line.”

No salt though.

Pagan-studies scholar Helen Berger recently wrote a summer solstice-themed article for The Conversation (“Academic rigor, journalistic flair”) titled “Wiccan celebration of summer solstice is a reminder that change, as expressed in nature, is inevitable.

All sabbats begin by creating sacred space, mostly outdoors when the weather permits. This is done by those leading the ritual walking around an area, chanting as a form of prayer and sprinkling the area with water and salt, which are believed to be spiritually cleansing.

And it occurs to me that a hypothecal Smokey Bear coven could do a heckuva circle-casting just with what is carried on the trucks. How about a ring of Class A foam?

After all, Smokey Bear is a face of the Great Bear, one of the oldest religions of all. The somewhat Pagan-ish American Buddhist philosopher and poet Gary Snyder composed a sutra for Smokey [the] Bear in 1969. Here it is with some commentary that he wrote in 2005, published in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle.

In the sutra, I see Smokey as the incarnation of the ancient brown bear of the North and of [the Japanese mountain bodhisattva] Fudo at the same time. But, of course, the Forest Service didn’t know anything about all those associations and reverberations. That was part of the fun of it all, turning the establishment’s imagery on its head.

You read this far and you are still wondering about the fire? The larger fire department in my county and the smaller one to which I belong are operating under a temporary “automatic mutual aid” plan for wildfires because it is so dry now. If a fire pops up in their service area or ours, the other department is dispatched too.

This was in their area: it took our two engines an hour just to drive there.

In this case, a member of one of the well-established ranching families, stewards of the land, etc etc., had piled up an acre of “slash” — stumps, tree trunks, limbs and so onefrom logging or fire mitigation (ironic) or whatever. All nicely dry.

Then he (or his hired hand) decided to burn some other trash adjacent to it. “We don’t need no steenkeeng permit.”  And the first fire ignited the slash pile.
The flames were visible for miles, and they sure lit up local Facebook pages as well. It was like a small lumberyard on fire — there was no way we had enough water to put it out, so we just made it burn more completely. One lucky engine crew (not mine) got to stay all night to monitor it.

Notes

Notes
1 As an unaffiliated voter, I can vote in either major party’s primary, so this year I voted as an imaginary Republican, since the alternative is to have no candidates at all.

Who Were the People of Stonehenge?

The British Museum is hosting a big exibition on the Neolithic context of Stonehenge, and obviously I cannot go.[1]“Neolithic” basically means stone tools + settled towns + agriculture + domesticated animals + pottery + some degree of social hierarchy. This what they said about it:

The image of Stonehenge is so iconic that if you were to close your eyes right now, you’d likely have a pretty accurate image of the monument in your mind. However, if you were asked to imagine the people who built and lived with the monument, you’d probably struggle a little more. So to help with that, curators Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin have decided to take you on a tour of their British Museum exhibition The world of Stonehenge, to introduce to some of incredible people that built and lived around the time of the monument.

You’ll see some of the best gold work humans have ever created, some of the best stone work humans have ever created, as well as a pretty decent 1.7 kilometre wooden footpath created to cross an inconvenient marsh (trust us, the Sweet Track is awesome). And overall you should come away with a better understanding of who the people of Stonehenge really were, what they thought about the world, and why they built big stone circles.

“One of the frustrating things about this period is that the peope at this tim don’t represent themselves in artwork, at least in any way that we can recognize. So instead, we need to look at what they were doing. And one thing they were doing, in abundance, was making and using stone axes,” notes one of the narrators.

This was the period of hauling huge stones and carrying tens of thousands of baskets of earth to build artificial mounds such as Glastonbury Tor. Who organized all this? How were people motivated? Were there serious penalties if you did not show up with your basket? Why did peope often live in multi-family longhouses? Sometimes, it all seems rather ant-like to me. For 94 generations.

Yet obviously erecting big timbers and later stones was tremendously important. Farmers did not need to know the sky that closely — farmers go by local cues — “When the leaves on [tree] are as big as a mouse’s ear, it is safe to plant,” that kind of thing

Searching “World of Stonehenge” at YouTube.com will bring up more videos.

Notes

Notes
1 “Neolithic” basically means stone tools + settled towns + agriculture + domesticated animals + pottery + some degree of social hierarchy.