Last week I went to the British Museum to see an exhibition entitled ‘Celts: Art and Identity’. The primary reason was to see a single artefact that was on display or the first time ever in Britain; the Gundestrup Cauldron. It is a silver cauldron created around 2300 years ago somewhere in the east of Europe but discovered in a bog in Denmark. It is comprised of numerous silver panels, each depicting characters – human and non-human – engaged in different activities. One panel has what is probably the most iconic image from the ‘Celtic’ Iron Age world; that of the sitting antlered man/god. This is an artefact I have seen reproduced and utilised in books, websites and articles for over two decades, so the chance to see it up close was too good to pass up (coupled with the fact I get in for free to the exhibition due to institutional ‘arrangements’ between the BM and my institution of work).
Another panel on that silvered vessel that has piqued my interest is the one depicting two lines of men; the first, lower group of identical figures with shield and spear preparing to be immersed in a vessel by a giant, only to ride away again on horseback with unique armaments. The two groups of men are separated by a vine or stem showing seed pods or flowers (I have seen the similarity to Henbane – Hyoscymus niger mentioned online, it’s a tempting possibility). This panel has been interpreted as depicting the end of the life of these men as the initiated pack of the Koryos, and their rejoicing of their tribe as warriors and men.
The immersion event is watched over by a dog or wolf, there are quite a few canines on the cauldron all told. The hound was central to the Koryos; it was sacrificed during their initiation, it formed the core of their being in the Koryos and if we take this panel on a 2000 year old silver cauldron to be in some way representative, the hound was there at their rebirth into manhood and a place in the tribe.
Throughout the Indo-European world, dogs were seen as guardians and keepers of the Underworld, psychopomps. Wolves to the Romans were the epitome of the wilderness and were considered a bad omen if they entered the city. They were the embodiment of the warrior; benign to its own kind, it’s tribe but fierce and protective to others. Personal and tribal names bear the remains of these associations: Cunobelinus, Vidigabius, Vithhund, CuChulainn or even the Lykians of Greece. We have many examples of warriors from the IE cultures donning animal skins – particularly wolves or other martial animals and wearing them into battle. These were the equivalent of the berserks; wild and (likely) drug induced ecstatic warriors who fought with fury and little personal regard.
What is notable is that these skin donning furies are the likely origin of our werewolf folklore and what is interesting is that this folklore runs parallel to witchcraft during the medieval period; when the witch hunts were on, so were the werewolf hunts. Again we have this parallel with the outsiders; the Other in the forests beyond civilisation. Perhaps though the werewolf wasn’t derived from the Koryos but from the other wolf outside the walls; the vargs. Vargs were the loner outsiders, men who were sent beyond the walls as punishment for their social crimes. Whereas the wolf-pack was the coordinated model of the Koryos, the lone wolf, the dangerous monster was the model for the solitary varg. We still use the lone-wolf as imagery for some of our outsider criminals.
Let’s talk about drugs. Almost all our drugs, or at least their ancestral form, come from plants, here though I want to talk more specifically about entheogenic plants. The use of plants and fungi (everyone forgets the fungi), have a long and well documented history amongst almost all human cultures for religious and magical purposes. A year ago, a God tried to get my attention and succeeded, and in the intervening time I have come to know him as a God of many things, one of which is ecstasy. As I work in a botanic institution I have access to (probably) the world’s best botanical and mycological library and its resources, so I set out to do some homework. The classic enthogenic plant family is the Solanaceae; the nightshade family which provides us with a dizzying array of food plants (and is the third most important agricultural plant family after the grasses – Poaceae – and the pea/bean family – Fabaceae). In addition to food staples, this family also has some of the most interesting poisonous and toxic plants like Mandragora, Hyoscymus and Atropa. These plants contain a suite of biologically active alkaloid tropane compounds, all of which function by interfering with various parts of the nervous system. As topical salves – the well-known ‘Flying Ointments’ offer a safer means of experimenting and seeing what these plants offer. That said, there are still significant risks to the healthy let alone those with heart or kidney problems. Personally, they aren’t a group of entheogens I think are sensible to experiment with given the safer alternatives.
So, moving on to a different set of plants which also offer something to the budding entheonaut. Thujone is another compound which offers great opportunities for trance work. Thujone is best known as the active ingredient in absinthe, with wormwood being the contributing plant in the absinthe production process. It used to be thought that absinthe induced hallucinations and psychosis and so it was outlawed in many countries, however it seems that this is largely now considered a fabrication as there are no biological actions by thujone of parts of the brain which could be thought of as being hallucination inducing. In addition, from studies and research, there was never that much thujone in the original absinthes anyway. Practically speaking, thujone is found is some pretty common plants; wormwood (Artemisia absinthum), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), oregano (Oreganum vulgare) and even mint (Mentha spicata), but the highest levels of thujone are found in common kitchen sage (Salvia officinalis). In Sage essential oil, just over 40% is thujone, for Wormwood and Mugwort, 40% or thereabouts. 30mg/kg of body-weight (3g for a 100kg person) will probably induce muscle spasms, 45mg of thujone per kg of body-weight (4.5g for a 100kg person) stands a good chance of killing them if taken orally, and 60mg/kg will definitely kill. I have been trying out incenses with mugwort over the past 6 months, and have also made use of mugwort salves to aid in trancework. Luckily I work with people open to this and they are happy to join in with the experiment. The results are fantastic; thujone in the form of mugwort salves and incense heighten trance work. Rather than create the experience, it acts more to aid and facilitate the experience, the best way to explain it is to say it acts like the turbo boost on a car engine; giving that extra shove, that extra kick rather than being the engine itself. This is borne out by the way thujone works on the nervous system; it makes nerve transmission easier and interferes with the natural nerve-innervation regulation processes. Bearing in mind the quantities given above, it should be fairly straightforward to experiment with mugwort teas (1 teaspoon in a mug to begin with – use honey or sugar, the tea tastes rank) or essential oils turned into salves or diluted with carrier oils.
Fungi! I am one of the curators of the world’s largest scientific mycological collection in London. Whilst I despise eating mushrooms, I am entranced by them in all other forms. Not only are they seriously, seriously weird when you try to compare them to plants or animals (fungi are evolutionarily closer to animals than plants) and function in ways that can blow your mind (for example, fungi have somewhere in the region of about 27,000 sexes). Add to all of that, they produce some of the most important drugs humans have had access to (antibiotics, transplant anti-rejection drugs and cheese) whilst also seeing to our recreational needs too. Two culturally important compounds are found in fungi that are worthy of note;
There are over a hundred species of closely related fungi that produce the chemical psilocin and psilocybin. The most well-known and best course being those species within the genus Psilocybe. Different species from this genus occur all over the, but the biggest source of ethnographic use comes from Mesoamerica. In Eurasia, the entheogenic use of fungi tends to be centred around a different chemical and its parent fungus entirely. Psilocybin is particularly nifty; for one thing you would need to eat over 10 kilos of the dried fungus to get a toxic dose of psilocybin, so poisoning is very unlikely and rare. It also isn’t dependency forming, in fact it is being investigated as a means of weaning drug dependant people off whatever it is they are struggling with. That said, it is a hallucinogen and for the purpose of trancework, spiritwork and communication with the Gods this raises questions over whether what we perceive are the Gods or a psilocybin driven hallucination. The same applies of course to the chemical constituents of Amanita muscaria; the Fly agaric; the epitome of toadstools, the mushroom we learn to identify before we can even say ‘taxonomy’. The chemical of note; muscimol, and its derivative compounds are dissociative hallucinogens, it has higher toxicity and the amount of muscimol and ibotenic acid in any given mushroom cap can vary quite dramatically. Some advice worth bearing in mind would be that a starter dose would be about 5g of the dried cap (a dried cap about 6cm in diameter weighs about 5-6g), however to ensure safety, use 4 caps and take a quarter from each to average out the dosage rather than all from 1 cap. This is because the ‘appropriate’ levels of hallucinogens can be present in as little as 1g of some caps. The history and use of Amanita muscaria is huge; it is a fascinating story in and of itself before you even get into the biochemistry and pharmacological effects.
What I have put own here is for information purpose only. Use it merely as a starting point for your own exploration. And for the love of Gods DON’T try ANY of these if pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you have pre-existing heart, kidney or nervous system conditions.
As witches, we meet our gods in other places, in altered spaces and strange times. We dance with them, we clap our hands at them and we stamp out feet beside them. We bang out drums, we whoop our voices and we thrash and dance and jump and sway with them. Our relationship with drugs is totally fucked up; we are sold caffeine on every street and yet cannabis is pushed to the street corner or back alley. We are sold all manner of body and mind altering stimulants to keep us productive, to keep is calm, to keep us happy and yet have to turn to the criminal dealers for different types of drugs that do the same thing. I am not suggesting we legalise heroin or cocaine; there is a whole tangled web of exploitation and suffering stretched across the globe within which people find themselves willingly or unwillingly trapped. It is not a simple thing to simply legalise them all. I am however suggesting we begin to mend our damaged relationship with plants and take them with us to the sabbat on the hill, or on the heath or in the cave. Once again make them part of our rituals and let them carry us away to dance with our gods and thunder through the night-time at the heels of the Hunt.
We have reached the final stages of preparation; we have a hound, we have a cairn and we have a place to raise it. The final part of this work before next month’s interment and libation is to empower and enliven the skull. The skull I have has been sat on my altar for the past 2 months; fed, sprinkled with spring water and had prayers and compliments offered to it. I see there are two broad options here; first is to encourage and house a canine spirit from the worlds to take up residence and be part of this arrangement, the second is to create the hound spirit form afresh. This latter method is more in keeping with what I am familiar and comfortable with. My intention I to spend an evening or two using mugwort salves and incenses I have and work with ecstatic states to raise and form the energy into a hound. It isn’t such an easy thing to plan out meticulously as these things have a habit of being ad-libbed if Gods get involved. Suffice to say that in my case I won’t be working with a spirit out there, but will be ‘creating’ one for the purpose. This then to be charged with the Hunt and my intent; once done this spirit form will need regular feeding and care like any other ‘wild’ spirit with whom you have entered into an arrangement. I realise this isn’t very helpful in terms of step by step instructions, but it I at this stage that our own idiosyncrasies and the quirks of our respective Crafts come out.
Next month…in only 3 weeks , I will resolve this series with the account of my practice and will also include the hymns for the Hound I used. Of everything that has been written and set out, it is the Hymns I would like to see repeated and used in other people’s work as the link that forges these practices together.