Magical Herbalism by Scott Cunningham, ★ ★ ★ ☆
It has been ages since my last Spellbook Saturday feature, but with several new titles on the store shelves, I felt inspired to share! This week I read one of our newbies, Magical Herbalism by Scott Cunningham. This text is described as “the classic introduction to magical herbalism,” and indeed, Cunningham’s works have become fairly commonplace in modern witchcraft circles— he wrote over 50 books. From the back cover: “Practice an ancient magic that is both natural and beautiful—the magic of amulets and charms, sachets and herbal pillows, incenses and scented oils. This practical and poetic guidebook by Scott Cunningham has introduced over 100,000 readers to the practice of herbal magic.” Similarly, the publishers of his Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs boast over 500,000 copies sold.
It would be wrong to assume that because something is ubiquitous that is the definitive text, and while it would seem counterintuitive to give a book we sell anything other than a rave review, I want to be transparent about what I see as the flaws in this book.
First, Cunningham’s practice is deeply rooted in Wiccan traditions. This in and of itself may not necessarily present a problem for some readers, though one might argue that Wicca’s cultural appropriation is indeed problematic. I personally found it to be a bit alienating (witchcraft ≠ Wicca!), as were certain ritual instructions— not everyone has access to secluded hilltops and bubbling streams for our craft. These pastoral recommendations can read alternately as ableist and as gatekeeping, and I strongly believe in making witchcraft as a spiritual or mindfulness practice as accessible as possible.
My second qualm with this book lies with its chapter on “Healing” through magical herbalism. Yes, I am a strong proponent of naturopathic options wherever possible, and yes, I support my health in part with herbal remedies. But Cunningham’s suggestion that “diseases, such as cancer, are usually self-induced” reads as insensitive criticism at best, and potential fodder for pseudoscience at worst. We have seen the rampant dangers of misinformation, and I advise all to read with scrutiny and the knowledge that Cunningham’s statements are not FDA-approved.
With all of that said, this book does have some very strong selling points. I think it is incredibly easy to take for granted the wealth of information we have at the click of a button, and Cunningham’s work makes me a bit nostalgic for the days of small and local occult bookstores as a primary resource. Perhaps it is a result of my analog youth, and without casting any shade at the digitally-inclined witch, but I prefer referencing a book over a google search any day of the week, particularly when I am engaged in any sort of mindfulness or magical activity. I don’t want to be distracted by notifications on my phone when I am looking up magical correspondences, for example, and Cunningham’s works are typically among the first books I reach for when seeking a clear and concise answer.
A physical text also provides something that a bookmarked website cannot— the opportunity to make notes in the margins! I know that the library science witches out there will be upset with me for this, but I am one of those people who dog-ears pages, underlines passages, and sticks post-its in pages (to clarify: when it’s a book I own, never one that’s borrowed!). I find this to be incredibly useful when building one’s practice, and indeed, this book feels like an excellent primer upon which to build. Chapters of suggested spells and recipes may be notated as you experiment, and the “Witch’s Herbal” chapter, detailing commonly-used herbs and their magical correspondences, has plenty of margin room for penciling in your own observations, etc.
Overall, I think that this text provides a fabulous introduction to magical herbalism, with the caveat that it is only an introduction. Use this book as a strong jumping off point, inspiration to develop your own spells and rituals, and an accessible magical reference librarian, not as the definitive voice of herbalism.
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