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/

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.

“Wælcyrge or Witchcraft: Identifying Heathendom in late Anglo-Danish England”

Just one of many presentations from the just-finished online conference  Performing Magic in the pre-Modern North.

Here, Ross Downing deals with such issues as whether witchcraft and Heathenry were defined differently in the time of King Alfred the Great in the late 9th century, including details as the execution of condemned witches as well as animals accused of being witches’ familiars (although that was not the Anglo-Saxon term), including ethnic and gender issues in witchcraft accusations.

These all look fascinating, and I will have to watch three a week to finish by Candlemas. Read more about the conference, which focused on Scandinavian but here includes Anglo-Saxon and Danish-ruled England.

There is an enormous amount of material here, and it is all free at this time.

Interview with Helen Berger, Leading Scholar of Paganism

Prof. Helen Berger

At his blog, now called On New and Alternative Religions, Ethan Doyle While interviews Helen Berger, one of the leading American scholars of contemporary Paganism.

Since completing her PhD research on the early modern witch trials in the 1980s, Berger has devoted her career to the sociological analysis of modern-day communities whose practitioners call themselves witches. Her first book, A Community of Witches: Contemporary Neo-Paganism and Witchcraft in the United States (University of South Carolina Press, 1999), was a landmark in the subject and was followed up with important studies such as Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (with Evan A. Leach and Leigh Shaffer, University of South Carolina Press, 2003), Teenage Witches: Magical Youth and the Search for the Self (with Doug Ezzy, Rutgers University Press, 2007), and most recently Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans and Others Who Practice Alone (University of South Carolina Press, 2019). Currently a Professor Emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania and an Affiliated Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, Berger is continuing to work on the modern Pagan milieu, exploring its relationships with far-right politics. She tells us about her career and her thoughts on the future of the academic study of modern Paganism.

She explains how her interest in today’s Witches and Pagans grew from earlier research on the Salem Witch Trials and similar events. In the mid-1980s, she gave a series of lectures at the Boston Public Library — and realized who was in the audience.

The audience for each of the lectures varied with some people who attended every week and others who came only for a particular lecture. One elderly woman with white hair always sat in the front row, listened intently, and asked interesting questions. I looked forward to seeing her there every week. At the final lecture, when I said what was then a surprising fact; Witches looked like everyone else. You could be living next door to, or working with, a Witch and not know it. She stopped me mid-lecture and asked, “are you saying there could be Witches in the room.” As the average age of the participants had dropped significantly for this lecture, I offered that I thought there probably were Witches in the room. She stood up, turned around with her hands on her hips, and asked, “are there any Witches here?” I think it is because she looked like the quintessential grandmother that a number of people raised their hands.

Read the whole thing. Helen Berger has also published a number of articles in The Pomegranate as well as being one our most valuable peer-reviewers in the sociology of Paganism. Her 2015 article “An Outsider Inside: Becoming a Scholar of Contemporary Paganism” reflected on some of the issues involved.

Z Budapest Is Still Creating

Z Budapest (Los Angeles Times)

Z Budapest, one the first public witches of the 1970s in the United States, is “largely retired from ritual work” but still creating, according to a profile pubished in the Los Angeles Times.

“I don’t agree with all her views, but in the history of the craft, she is an important person,” said Sabina Magliocco, professor of anthropology and religion at the University of British Columbia. “When you look at all of the witchcraft as feminist resistance that flowered in the Trump era, none of that would have existed if it hadn’t been for what Z and others like her did in the 1970s.”

Here she speaks in Malcolm Brenner’s 1991 documentary Out of the Broom Closet, which was digitized and placed on YouTube by the New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library. Archives and Special Collections. Valdosta State University. Valdosta, Georgia.

Free Download on Historians of Witchcraft

To be clear, The War on Witchcraft treats historical writing about the late medieval and early modern witchtrials, seen as an outbreak of “unreason.”

From the publisher :

Historians of the early modern witch-hunt often begin histories of their field with the theories propounded by Margaret Murray and Montague Summers in the 1920s. They overlook the lasting impact of nineteenth-century scholarship, in particular the contributions by two American historians, Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918) and George Lincoln Burr (1857–1938). Study of their work and scholarly personae contributes to our understanding of the deeply embedded popular understanding of the witch-hunt as representing an irrational past in opposition to an enlightened present. Yet the men’s relationship with each other, and with witchcraft sceptics – the heroes of their studies – also demonstrates how their writings were part of a larger war against ‘unreason’. This Element thus lays bare the ways scholarly masculinity helped shape witchcraft historiography, a field of study often seen as dominated by feminist scholarship. Such meditation on past practice may foster reflection on contemporary models of history writing.

Free PDF download here.

The 1970s, When Witchcraft Sold Skin Mags

From The Reprobate, “Your daily slice of art, culture and social commentary,” a photographic review of such long-gone late 1960s–1970s publications as Witchcraft, Bitchcraft, and Satan, all dedicated to the notion that “the occult” was sexy and could sell magazines.

Much of the same content exists today, if you care to look for it, on Tumbler.com and elsewhere. But I don’t know who makes money off it.

Author David Flint notes,

Today, there are several witchcraft magazines in print, but all seem to take themselves and their craft very seriously, and I very much doubt that most of the Witches of Instagram would be very amused by the cheerfully exploitative nature of these ancient publications. But I might be wrong – perhaps there is a gap in the market waiting to be filled. If so, then we are happy to step up and revive this gloriously tacky, cheesy and outrageous world of sex, sin and Satanism.

More than “several,” I think.

“Childish and Credulous Fantasy”: How the BBC Viewed Witchcraft in 1962

Cecil Williamson, left, and BBC interviewer Alan Whicker (BBC).

Pop over to the BBC archive to watch presenter llan Whicker pontificate about witchcraft in a short television segment from Hallowee 1962.

Among other non-information, Whicker trots out the bogus “nine million witches executed” figure from the Renaissance and Early Modern witch trials.

He also interviews Cecil Williamson, Gerald Gardner’s original business partner in the Isle of Man witchcraft museum, whose opening, I suspect, had much to do with the formal creation of Wicca.

William, meanwhile, announces his official “witch ratio”: 1 witch to 53,000 population. Now you know.

The Witch’s Hat: Where Did It Come From?

Abby Cox tracks the history of the black, conical, flat-brimmed hat with a deteour into eighteenth-century dressmaking and other things: “Swedish witches are defnitely cottagecore witches, and I’m here for that.” If you are in a hurry and wish to skip patriarchy, etc., start at the 11-minute mark.

Not discussed: handfuls of the “witchy aesthetic” derive from the movie The Wizard of Oz (1939). It’s amazing how many people think that its costuming and makeup (green skin, striped socks) represent some kind of Historical Truth.

The “eighteenth-century” part is because she spent years as a dressmaker and interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She is not a historian of witchcraft, but she does make an interesting argument from a fashion viewpoint, Written as an article, this video could have fit into the last issue of The Pomegranate, which was devoted to Pagan art and fashion.

She is not saying that Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends, founded as a radical religious group in the late 1600s ) were seriously mistaken for satanic witches.[1]Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times. She is saying that the Quakers’ “look,” one that emphasized out-of-date fashions for women in particular — “fifty years out of date” — might have influenced the way that witches were portrayed in 18th, 19th, and 20th century popular art. (She dates the first graphic appearance to 1720 — see 27:40 in the video.)

There is no particular dress style associated with the actual women (and men) who were persecuated as witches in the 1400s–1600s. They wore whatever people wore in their time and place.

Notes

Notes
1 Some propaganda, however, showed Quakers as influenced by the Devil, so the boundary was blurry at times.