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/

A Historic Shaman’s Drum is Restored to the Sámi People

The drum was used in divinitory rituals. (Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum)

In the fall of 2021, Sámi[1]Also called Laplanders, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a bit of Russia people living in Norway asked the the queen of Denmark and the  Danish National Museum if they could have one of their old-time shaman’s drum back.

The drum belonged to a Sámi shaman, Anders Poulsson, who was arrested and imprisoned, according to court records. It was confiscated and became part of the Danish royal family’s art collection before being transferred to Denmark’s National Museum in 1849. . . .

“Through this drum, we will be able to explain so much about Sámi history. It tells a story about emancipation and the Sámi struggle to own our culture,’ added [the president of the Sámi parliament, Aili] Keskitalo. “The drum is the key to explaining our heritage.”

Nomadic Sámi people, about 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)

The drum, confiscated in 1691 as part of a larger effort to turn the animistic Sámi into good Lutheran Christians, went to Denmark because at the time Norway was ruled from Denmark, a “union” that lasted four hundred years and ended in 1814.

Now the wheel — or the drum — has turned.  The Danish royal family, which technically owned it and had loaned it to the museum, has agreed to return it.

It is the first Sámi drum to be repatriated from abroad and the only one in the collection . .  .  Now undergoing conservation, the drum will go on display as the centrepiece of a new exhibition on 12 April.

The formal handover of the object is an event of huge significance, according to Sámi film-maker Silja Somby, who is making a film about rune drums to be shown during the Venice Biennale in August. They are, she said, “like bibles for us. Each has its own special meanings and symbolisms”. . . .

Rune drums were once a central aspect of their nature-based religious life. When a noaidi struck a reindeer-skin and birchwood rune drum with a reindeer-antler hammer, a brass ring would move across its surface. Depending on how the ring moved in relation to the symbols on the drum (painted in a red dye made from alder resin), the noaidi would divine future events. The drumming would also help the noaidi enter a trance and travel in different realities, for example among the spirits of the dead.

Notes

Notes
1 Also called Laplanders, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a bit of Russia

Old Issues of “The Ley Hunter” Available as Digital PDFs

cover image, The Ley Hunter no. 66, 1975

Cover of issue 66, published June-July 1975, edited by Paul Screeton.

The Ley Hunter was a British zine devoted to “earth mysteries” (which could include such things as Fairy encounters as well as ley lines, etc.) published from 1965–1998. As Isaac Koi describes it,

Its website described it as “the longest running journal to cover the ‘earth mysteries’ complex of study areas (it invented the term over 20 years ago!)”, including “‘ley lines;, (earth tie geophysical) energies (studied from both a primary sensing – experiential – point of view and that of physical monitoring), folklore, traditional lifeways, archaeology, all aspects of geomancy or sacred geography, shamanism and other aspects of archaic consciousness, unexplained natural phenomena, and so on”.

Its first two editors, Jimmy Goddard and Paul Screeton, have given permission for their issues to be digitzed and uploaded, covering 1965–1976. Paul Devereux, the last editor, did not give permission, and Isaac Koi explains why at his blog, where you will find the link to download each issue in PDF format.

Loads of vintage paranormal zine goodness here!

UPDATE: Issues from 1976–1986 are available at another site.

Neoshaman Barbie Number 2

Neoshaman Barbie 1 with her drum.

There have never been any little girls in my house, so consequently no Barbie dolls, but they cost only about $2–$4 in the thrift stores. So I decided last year to make a neoshamanic Barbie, because I like the idea of “theme” Barbies (like “New Mexico Barbie“) and because the very thought of her reminded me of a certain author and teacher who is “widely acknowledged as a major link between the ancient world of shamanism and modern societies thirst for profound personal healing and a deeper understanding of the pathway to enlightenment.”

I made one and on a warmish day in January placed her way up behind the house in some boulders that I call Ringtail Rocks. She has her magickal assignment, she is hidden by rocks, and I will never disturb her.

Neoshaman Barbie 2 with her necklace of power and her spirit animal.

But there was one more Barbie left, so today, now that the last snow has melted and the trail is dry, she went to a different cluster of boulders with a similar assignment, along with her spirit animal.

These are part of a series of “installations” that I have started. You can tell that I was not a studio-art major, because I cannot produce 3,000 words of art-prose about what I made.

But since producing prose (and editing other people’s prose) is what I do all day, these and the other installations are just thigs that Iet bubble up, and I don’t have to produce a lot of discourse about them. I am not even completely clear on their magickal purpose

A geocacher would spot this as a “suspicious pile of rocks,” but there are no geocaches in the area either.

You can see a couple more on Instagram, because Instagram is no place for long writing.

Now I have this box of skulls and beads and wire and you know, all the usual stuff, and when the weather warms up, I have more un-formed, inchoate subconsciously directed ideas.

“Weird things in the woods” pretty well covers it.

Other Barbie-related posts:

October 29, 2003, “Barbie, the Hot Pagan Witch.”

January 26, 2005: “Inanna Descends to the Underworld (Barbie version).” The link is dead though, and the Wayback Machine did not help.

March 5, 2005, “Some Pagan Publishing Gossip.

April 27, 2006, “Pagan-Studies Barbie.”

“Witness of Another World” is a Powerful Documentary about “Visitor” Encounters

Aside from an occasional excursion, I am not much into UFO studies. It was years after it came out that I read Jacques Vallée’s [1]Born in France, Vallée has spent most of his life in the US. His career includes astronomy, software engineering, venture capitalism — and UFO studies. Passport to Magonia, and it shaped my thinking.

I put its thesis like this: Instead of chugging through interstellar space to Earth, the UFO-nauts have always been here. “They” appear in many different shapes, some humanoid, some not, as it suits their fancy. Sometimes They just like to mess with us for reasons we do not understand. Or in more refined language,

As an alternative to the extraterrestrial visitation hypothesis, Vallée has suggested a multidimensional visitation hypothesis. This hypothesis represents an extension of the ETH where the alleged extraterrestrials could be potentially from anywhere. The entities could be multidimensional beyond space-time, and thus could coexist with humans, yet remain undetected (Wikipedia).

Back in the 1970s, Vallée and his wife flew to Argentina to investigate the case of Juan Pérez, a 12-year-old boy from a gaucho family in northern Argentina. Sent out one morning to bring in the family herd, Juan saddled his favorite horse, Cometa (Comet), and rode off into the pastures. On his ride, Juan encountered . . . something . . . that seemed to be a typical flying saucer. Tying Cometa to the craft’s ladder, he went up into it, he said.

There he encountered two beings. When he went home and told his story, he soon became a UFO celebrity. Cometa, however, sickened and died mysteriously only a few days after the encounter.

Juan’s life was wrecked. Call it PTSD. Call it a bad case of susto (soul loss). He fled the ufology scene. He ended up a fifty-ish bachelor, living an isolated life with just his dogs, working seasonally on neighboring ranches and otherwise alone.

There he was until an Argentine filmmaker, Alan Stivelman, decided to reunite him with Vallée, with whom he had had a good relationship as a youth. Vallée was enthusiastic about the plan — all he wanted was a couple of months to study intensively to improve his Spanish.

Stivelman’s documentary, Witness of Another World, is just beautiful movie-making. Whether on Argentinian pampas or up north in the jungle villages of Guaraní Indians, who play an important part in the documentary (Juan has some Guaraní ancestry) or exploring the texture’s of Juan’s crumbling house, it is good to look at.

It is a story of a man brought back from the edge, a spiritual rescue mission, where ufology meets shamanism meets a compassionate reunion of old friends —  the eighty-year-old scientist and the grown-up but still frightened gaucho boy.

You can rent it (download) for $4.99 or buy it (download) for $12.99. It is on Amazon Prime as well.

Listen to what Jacques Vallée has to say about “the phenomenon,” his term for the whole UFO/demon/fairy/visitor complex. Watch what the shamans do. And remember that “They” are not necessarily our friends.

Bonus: On his Dreamland podcast, Whitley Strieber interviews director Alan Stivelman, with contributions from Jacques Vallée.

Notes

Notes
1 Born in France, Vallée has spent most of his life in the US. His career includes astronomy, software engineering, venture capitalism — and UFO studies.

A Shortcut to the Lower World

M. and I were hunting mushrooms when she found this. “It’s the entrance to the Lower World!” she said.

“For the squirrel shaman,” I responded.

It’s not shamanic, but I have been putting some stuff on Instagram, like this photo. Instagram is not the place for long posts with lots of links, but if you’re an IG user, visit at
letterfromhardscrabblecreek.

Siberian Shamans Hold Camel Sacrifice — It’s Traditional, They Say

Watch this powerful video, which is also embedded in this article in the Moscow Times online: “Siberian Shamans Revive Ancient Camel-Burning Rite ‘to Help Russia.’”  The location is given merely as “the Irkutsk region” but elsewhere there are references to Tuva, a Central Asian republic that is part of the Russian Federation.

The shaman quoted, Artur Tsybikov, says that the sacrifice is traditional but has not been performed for thee hundred years.  I am guessing that he means in a time before the area came under imperial Russian rule and before Orthodox Christian missionaries arrived with imperial backing.

Tysbikov is also involved with political efforts to boost the prestige of traditional shamanism and animism, including this shamanic congress.

Let’s face it, all traditional (that word again) polytheisms involved sacrifice, usually of animals. You give to the gods, they give to you, right? There was even carryover into the Middle Eastern monotheisms — Kapparot for some Jews,  sacrifices of sheep or cattle at Eid al-Adha, and of course Jesus as the “lamb of God” who is the supreme sacrifice. Some people sacrifice their sanity—less blood that way.

Pentagram Pizza: It Resembles the Shaman’s Drum

Shaman from Tuva (Siberian Times).

• Once again, magic and sports don’t mix. According to Siberian Times (July 1), shamans invoked the ancestors to aid Russia’s team in their World Cup match against Spain. As a result (?), Russia won 4–3. But then they lost to Croatia a few days later and are now out of the tournament. Those ancestors, so fickle. (See also, magic and politics).

• Still on Russian shamans: Now they are seeking official recognition as a “traditional religion.”

For the first time ever, the shamans of the Russian Federation have come together and elected “the supreme shaman of Russia” – Kara-ool Dopchun-ool, head of the Kyzyl Local Religious Organization of Shamans – done so by an almost unanimous vote (115 out of 166 votes) and called for official recognition as a traditional religion of the country.

And there is a “United Council of the Shamans of Russia.” How do you think that that will turn out? Is herding shamans like herding cats? Still, it is an interesting bid for greater legitimacy.

• Can occult studies make you crazy? Or just a little unbalanced?

Over the years, as I’ve studied this subject, I’ve encountered a fair number of cautionary tales. People who become unduly interested in psychic phenomena – interested to the point of obsession – can find their mental health deteriorating, their relationships fragmenting, and their social status undermined. Of course, obsession is a bad thing regardless of its focus, but I suspect that it’s easier to become obsessed with the paranormal than with, say, stamp collecting. Something about this field of inquiry tends to draw people in and make them vulnerable to harm.

Read the whole thing. Was Arthur Conan Doyle driven over the edge? The article references The Trickster and the Paranormal, which is one of those “every esotericist should have this book” books. You can end up “one foot over the line,” it’s true.

On Michael Harner (1929–2018)

Michael Harner (FSS).

The news of Michael Harner’s passing has been going around, and of course some magical practitioners have to react by disrespecting him.

You might well have heard the usual string of insults: he is an academic poser, he’s a fake . . . a cultural imperialist . . . from the “wrong” background . . . caters to the  “wrong” people . . . a wannabe.  Et cetera.

This is what you call “virtue-signaling,” in which the speaker tries to demonstrate that his or her virtues, practices, cultural connections, and so on are superior to those of the person being denigrated.

And perhaps if all the people doing it were themselves shamans of lengthy lineages, it might have worked. But usually they were not. They were merely jealous that an academic anthropologist could reinvent himself as a shaman, form the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, train other teachers, and try to re-inject shamanism into Western culture.[1]In a way, shamanism still existed in the Spiritualist churches, complete with pious fakery, but that is another story.

Not just Western culture either — this is something that his facile detractors do not know about or chose to ignore.

Although shamanism is a cross-cultural practice, the word itself comes from peoples living in Siberia and Central Asia. And after the end of the Soviet Union, Harner’s Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) had a presence in some of those former Soviet republics starting in the 1990s — teaching shamanism!

Irgit Kalzan-ham’s arrest photo.

Why was that necessary? Because the enlightened Marxists of the USSR approached shamanism this way:

The photograph had been taken by the NKVD [Soviet secret police] when they arrested [the Tuvan shaman] in 1938. Two years later he died in prison.[2]Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Phoenix Books, 2003 [2002]), 108.

All shamans were criminals for ideological purposes!

Setting out on her research, Anna Reid, author of The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia encounters two elderly Soviet-era anthropologists who disparage the new post-Soviet native shamans as being just “performers.” And she hears Michael Harner speak at a conference in Moscow but mentions only the fact that the FSS charges for workshops in the USA and sells drums.

But you have to start with where you are. With so many shamans executed in the 1930s — although some underground practice survived, the two anthropologists said)— who is left to remember “the right way”?

I give the FSS credit for supporting some of the surviving shamans with recognition and with money as detailed on this FSS website page. 

(You can also see some revived Mongolian shamanism in the 2009 documentary The Horse Boy.)

What about those hotel workshops? I went to two of them. One, indeed, was in a hotel, in Colorado Springs in the mid-1990s, the introductory workshop, taught by Sandra Ingerman, and another on “Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature,” taught at some lodge on the Utah side of Bear Lake by an FSS teacher from Salt Lake City.

I will admit that the first workshop seemed a little awkward — a group of strangers with all the teaching pitched for absolute beginners — and how else could it be?

The “Spirits of Nature” workshop, however, lingers with me still. It was almost non-stop journeying, indoors and out, in a group and alone, and by the end of it, my consciousness was definitely altered. When it was time to go, I drove all afternoon on quiet two-lane roads in Wyoming and Utah, avoiding the interstate highway, the way people feel after immersion in a festival — wanting to postpone the return to mundane world.

But back to Harner. While I dispute some of his ideas on European shamanism (and that will come out in the current writing project), he took a big important step. You can whimper that ours is not a shamanic culture, or you can claim that you learned shamanism from your grandmother, but for a lot of people, step one to learning about shamanism — whether you call yourself a shaman or not — was Michael Harner. And that’s a Good Thing.

UPDATE: A thoughtful and appreciative essay on Harner’s contributions — and the controversies — from Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen (Netherlands).

Notes

Notes
1 In a way, shamanism still existed in the Spiritualist churches, complete with pious fakery, but that is another story.
2 Anna Reid, The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia (London: Phoenix Books, 2003 [2002]), 108.

Pentagram Pizza at the Mongolian Grill

pentagrampizzaSome links worth exploring:

• In post-Soviet Mongolia, shamanism is a “growth industry,” says an MIT anthropologist. In Manuduhai Buyandelger’s Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia, she writes how, “shamanism is a historical memory for people who lost parts of their ancestral homeland, and who had been marginalized and politically oppressed.”

• Photographer Rik Garrett (formerly of the Occult Chicago blog, now relocating back to the Pacific Northwest), is interviewed at beautiful.bizarre.

Rik harnesses old, analog photography techniques and a deep sensibility that is both educated and magical. I dare to believe he is opening doors to the past, recreating a cross-section of witchcraft and the earliest technologies in photography, and to the spirit realm—illuminating phenomenon and sparking the imagination beyond the typical scope of artistry.

• Is this the first baby step toward recording your dreams?Scientists Figure Out What You See While You’re Dreaming.” I am imaging YouTube full of Inception-style videos. Yikes!

• Should you be hung as a witch? Take the test and see if you are guilty of witchcraft. (Link fixed.)