Christopher Penczak is the co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, a magickal training system, tradition and community rooted in Salem, New Hampshire with membership growing worldwide. Identifying as a Witch at heart, and an occultist by vocation, he has been writing, teaching, seeing private clients and leading retreats full time for over twenty years, helping others seek the mystery of their own path blending time honored truths and traditions with our understanding of the modern world and new ways. Initiated as a High Priest in the Cabot Tradition of Witchcraft and trained in various healing modalities, Christopher has gone on to create a system of education and magickal development based in finding the sacred within yourself and all around you and to further that goal, he’s the co-owner of Copper Cauldron Publishing. The author of over 20 books and recordings, more on his work can be found at www.christopherpenczak.com.
When did your spiritual and magickal relationship with plants begin?
Probably as a little kid, eight or nine, when I became obsessed with making an herb garden next to my father’s vegetable garden. I grew sage and lavender and parsley. I think it actually began with a garnish at a restaurant, of parsley, and wanting to know what this strange smelling sprig of green was. I had always been a fantasy oriented kid, Dungeons & Dragons and lots of movies and cartoons involving magic, so the herb garden led to folklore and learning a tiny bit about herbalism and magical folklore. I became obsessed with making dandelion wine, and then lilac wine, one spring. Then I began gathering little bottles and drying various flowers and leaves to make a magical apothecary. While I didn’t really have a conscious idea that magick was real, it did awaken something. I soon became obsessed with little bottles and making play potions. That led to an interesting in alchemy, and at the time, most alchemy books in history ended with “and that wasn’t real but lead to chemistry.” So I almost became a chemical engineer before switching gears to music for college. And while in college, I studied Witchcraft, and fell in love with potion making. Some of my most magickal experiences were mixing potions under the full Moon. Basic herbal magick then led to wanting greater understanding of healing, almost full circle, and I studied flower essences and medicinal herbalism. They served to deepen my Witchcraft and luckily, my teachers in both of those fields were very spirited and encouraged direct communication with the intelligence of the plant, as well as researching the medicinal side and folklore of the plants.
Can you explain what a familiar is, and what a plant familiar specifically is? Does one have a primary plant familiar or can one have several?
For me, a familiar is an intermediary spirit, usually a spirit invested in the work of the Witch. There is a lot of varying opinions on physical animal as familiar vs. entities from other realms vs. parts of your own soul complex. I am not one to draw hard lines and think that the familiar is a manifestation of the Witchcraft Mysteries, and your relationship and understanding of it evolves over time. Familiars may be the guide or ally, the daimon and good spirit assigned to us at birth by the Ladies of Fate. Some familiars are composite group entities, hive-like beings. Some merge and bond with aspects of your soul. Some start in a particular manifestation, giving you a concrete idea about them, to only become like mercury and shift, or a chimeric composite of several different forms, forcing you to reevaluate the mystery and your own confidence in knowing exactly how the worlds work. Ultimately I think the familiar acts as an intercessory, an intermediary between you and another realm or power, forming a bridge for that power and information to flow, but its a two way flow, and just as they offer, they expect things in return for the relationship to be mutually beneficial.
A plant familiar is the consciousness of a plant species or plant family that works with a magickal practitioner, bridging the gap between human and plant realms, just as an animal spirit might do the same to the animal realm. The plant spirit carries an essential nature, that we see as its magickal power or medicine, a unique orientation to life. It is an expression of that plant’s will and purpose in this world and the spirit world. The spirit of the plant is expressed with a theme on its many levels, including in its physical medicinal constituents, nutrients, chemicals and poisons. It is reflected in its magical operations and how it heals on the subtle level through its homeopathic and flower essence preparation.
I think the more you practice Witchcraft and the more you immerse yourself in the green world, the more potential allies and familiars you can have, as there is an interconnectivity in both nature and the spirit world that most human tend to ignore or forget. While some might feel a particular plant is core to their own magickal identity, I’ve found like relationships and friends, you have some that stay a long time, even a lifetime, and others that wax and wane as your own work, and theirs, changes. While Datura has been primary in my life, and really a gateway into understanding my relationship with plant familiars on this level, I also have strong relationships with the spirits of Mandrake, Yarrow, Lemon Balm and Comfrey. And in the last few years, Henbane has made deeper connections between us. Many find themselves with a small “team” of plant allies, particularly if they do spirited herbal healing work with others. They will have their “go to” allies to help them in their own life, and with clients.
One of the things that I find interesting is how you discuss that one witch’s relationship with a plant familiar may differ from another witch’s relationship and provide different types of magick with the same plant. Can you give an example of this?
Plants are people! Well, not really, but plants are as individual as people in terms of their roles and relationships. You might be a mother to your children, but a sister to your siblings, a wife to your partner, a boss to your employees, and a friend to your friends. Plants have different relationships to different communities, influencing the magick of that plant in that place and time. The core vital energy is the same, but it will be applied differently. Echinacea is a well know immune booster for us today, and has been used that way by some tribes in the Americas, though in other areas, it is more often used topically to draw out snake venom. It has both powers, and the essence of its spirit power is to remove poison, but it pathogen by stimulating the immune response, or as a drawing agent to pull out poison. Those who use it for snakes have other immune herbs, and those using it for immune system have other toxic drawing agents. Even if both groups have basically the same plants, they revealed different relationships. Today, we are less versed in our communal relationship with plants, and have access to information from all across the world. So we forge individual relationships with plants and as Witches, the more we dive in, the more they will reveal to us, medicinally and spiritually.
When I was training in medicinal herbalism, there was someone at the center where I studied who was deeply allied with chickweed, a simple cooling herb often used salads. While very beneficial, it’s not a heavy hitter in terms of chemical constituents and responses. I had used it with moderate success for some weight loss issues. But this person used chickweed in everything, and had success, as it was her ally. She used it as a poison ivy cure. She used it for digestive problems. She used it for headaches. She used it for colds and flu. She used it in healing magick and in love magick, and even in money magick. It didn’t work that way for me. But I didn’t have the relationship with chickweed that she had.
Yet I could really get amazing responses with yarrow, so much so, that in the teachings of plant spirit medicine, I was able to simply invoke the spirit medicine of yarrow with a client on too many pharmaceuticals to try herbal remedies without fear of reaction, and he had an immediate, physical diaphoretic response clearing up his edema within forty eight hours. I didn’t even have the flower essence to give him. Yarrow has been an amazing teacher, helping with the traditional boundary issues, but for me, also an ally in astral travel, shamanic journey and merkaba mysticism, which is not always the classic lore about yarrow, but if you understand its nature and relationship with the flow of the physical and energy body, you can see how could work in that way. Yarrow has opened the way to the faery realm for me as well, because until I started working deeply with it, I don’t think my consciousness was prepared to withstand the psychic pressure of the deeper faery work. I know when I started growing yarrow in my garden, deeper contact with the faery nations and the faery queen we work with in the Temple of Witchcraft, was initiated, really transforming my life.
You divide plants essentially in three main categories. What are those categories and what do they mean?
Well when trying to categorize everything for the ease of teaching, the plants themselves, Datura specifically, gave me a model that I would never have created on my own. While I group things in terms of the shamanic worlds, elements, planets and zodiac signs for correspondences, she gave me a simple three system plant guide – balms, banes and tree teachers .
Balms are the herbs generally predisposed to help humanity. On some level they want to interface with us. They are the green foods, fruits, vegetables and medicines. While everything can have a toxic dose, they are the ones that are generally “safe” and provide nutrition and medicine to us.
The banes are the poisonous herbs of the Witch. While I hesitate to say they are the Witches of the green world, as I think some balms and trees are, these are the darker, toxic plants. Their role is to initiate. Generally they don’t like the mainstream of humanity, and tends to work with those who approach them with respect and honor. Initiation mysteries often deal with death and resurrection, so who better to teach us and initiate us, than those who could kill us? But their view on human life spans is different than ours, so just because one tells you that it is safe to eat, don’t believe it just yet. When I was instructed to do so by my baneful ally, I questioned it. She said, “you’ll just come back next season.” “What does that mean?” I asked. Essentially she said don’t worry, if you take too much, you’ll come back and get a new body, just like us, next season. Not wanting to quicken the cycle of reincarnation, I opted not to eat it in that setting, but when using them medicinally, they are often the herbs of the Witch’s flying ointment. While they are dangerous, I think their dangers have been grossly exaggerated when compared to many other plants, and house hold chemicals we are exposed to everyday without the same fear.
The tree teachers are the high priestess and high priests of the plant world. They are the story keeper and record keepers. They are the elders who don’t lose their body each season, but simply sleep in the winters. They are like the elders of the green world and can act as teachers to Witches.
In your interaction and gnosis, Tree Teachers give have an important message for humans, what is their message for mankind?
Basically the Tree Teachers have told me that humanity is to be the “trees” of the world of flesh and blood, meaning it is our job, like the trees, to connect the energies of the world below, the world between and the world above, mediating the flow between the worlds. We do that simply by being clear and open, but we are not so clear and open as a race, and our imbalance is helping imbalance everything. The deepest service we can do is to be emotionally and mentally clear to allow the flow of heavenly and underworld energy down and up in harmony and balance. That is what the trees do and with humanity cutting down forests, they can’t even make up the strain for what humanity is not doing, so it is even more imperative that both the green and red creatures of the Earth who can balance the energies and keep the flow do so. They don’t care so much if I”m training Witches in my classes, as long as the result is clear people, who can be priestesses and priests, mediators of energy, for the world. That is their definition of the work of a priest/ess. So a big part of my own work, and hopefully so many others, is to keep ourselves clear.
You have very fascinating perspectives on five petaled flowers on plants and trees and relate it to the pentagrams. What is the significance of that?
Well the root of the teaching comes from my flower essence training and the work of The Flower Essence Society’s Patricia Kaminski and Richard Katz. Essentially the teaching is on the geometry of the flowers, how many petals, and how flowers with the same pattern of petals will have similar themes. I’ve certainly embraced the five petalled teaching deeply as it has associations with the pentagram, the planet and goddess Venus and her potential association with the Venefica, and that at its core, the rose family of plants, all with five petalled flowers are a key to the Western Mysteries much like the lotus in the east. Plants with five petals are portals, like the pentagram we draw or hold up to open and close gates to the elemental realms, or to call the gods and spirits. These plants open the gates of life force, either in the direction of incarnation or excarnation. Some are incredibly healing and bring in the light and life force, like St. John’s Wort. It’s whole signature is to bring in more light to alleviate depression, trauma, dispel nightmares and bring protection from unwanted spirits. Others, like Datura, send life force out, and are used in the Flying Ointments because in that mix, one attains “flight” to the sabbat or other journeys, through the sending out of consciousness, of life force, as if dying. That is why the poisons are so holy, for they usher us into the spirit world, but the trick is knowing how to use them safely. In flower essence and homeopathic form, these plants can have similar effects in much safer ways.
Think of five petalled flowers on a spectrum. At one end is the life enhancing herbs, though even they can be dangerous. St. John’s Wort can make you photo sensitive to photo toxic, having difficulty with the sunlight, because you are too sensitive. In the middle range plants on the spectrum, neither deeply medicinally healing nor deeply toxic, and middle doses of the other plants on the spectrum, you might feel yourself between the worlds, or simply more aware of the flow of life and the mysteries, such as with a rose elixir. It is the balance point. Then as you get to the far end of the toxic spectrum, you find deadly poisons like Belladonna and Datura.
You discuss that the paths of working with flora, fauna, and lapis help us to reach three other types of beings (faery, ancestors, angelic). Can you explain this idea and why they help us?
For me, this concept was solidified by work in the Three Rays of Witchcraft, a received teaching expanding upon my experiences with the occult idea of the Science of the Seven Rays. The three primary rays are the paths of three kinds of spiritual beings, each with a manifestation in the physical world for their type of consciousness, leading practitioners to deeper understanding. Angelic beings are linked with crystals, for both have indomitable wills. Notice how many angelic oriented people love their stones? But a stone is far more likely to change you than you are to change a stone. It has had much longer to practice being a stone ,and holding its vibration. The creatures of flesh and blood, which include animal spirits and ancestors are linked to our work with animal magick. Fur, antler, bones and feathers help us in this work, as well as our own pulse and heartbeat. And the faery beings are deeply linked to the patterns of growth on this planet, including all the herbs, weeds, trees and our harvest crops. They move through similar cycles on different planes of consciousness. Gardner’s and herbalist often feel a kinship with the faery beings and forrest. So if you find yourself attracted deeply to one kind of magick, that can lead you to a relationship with the ray beings linked to it. Or if you find yourself imbalanced, you might look to the other types of magick, and other entities, to help find balance. In the old days, most charms we made had a little bit of animal fur, a stone, and a mixture of herbs, to balance all three “kingdoms” as they used to say. While the ancestors are most likely to help us, as they are closest to us, when we attune to a specific type of magick and spirit, we attract these deeper forces because we become in resonance. I think the angels, fey and ancestors are always looking for a deep and conscious connection with humanity to restore balance. So we help them and they help us.
One of the fascinating aspects of your book The Plant Spirit Familiar that makes it unique is your inclusion of various different approaches of working with plants from herbalism, to alchemy, to witchery incenses and brews, to homeopathy and flower essences, to the spirit work of the plant. Does working with plants in different ways bring out different qualities of the plant, and if so what aspects?
Absolutely! You can burn an herb to attune to its power and vibration, but that is different than having a conversation with the plant spirit, who like a spirit guide, can give you advise or take you on a journey into its world. You can ask a plant to help you in magick, like getting a job or a lover, and carry it as a charm with you until the spell manifests. Imbibing a plant, safely, is a way to truly integrate its magick and medicine into you, be it a high point in a specific ritual, or small amounts of time to really get to know the plant, inside and out. In herbal healing, they say “drink your teachers” and i think it is fine advise. Teas often bring a more physical manifestation. Flower essences the more spiritual qualities, changing your emotions and minds to heal. Alchemical tincture are initiated plant spirits – small amounts utterly change you, working in your body for they have a divine wisdom even beyond the traditional plant spirit, and will elevate and expand your consciousness, and root out that which does not serve.
You’ll find rather than look at herbalism in a Western medicine – take this herb for this ailment until you get better, you can move through cycles of having the plants evolve and develop you, changing who you are, rather than wait for a crisis of health. Taking some sort of plant or alchemical elixir is a part of my own daily spiritual practice. Right now I”m working through some metallic alchemical tinctures, but I am sure i’ll be focused on plants again.
The mandrake is a plant so closely associated with witches and sorcerers, and we even see this lore still preserved in magickal movies such as Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth? Why do you think this plant has such a strong link to witches in people’s mind?
I think Mandrakes are little Witches of the plant world! They are a link between humanity and the poisonous green. Despite their lore and fear based myths, I find them so loving. But I’m a Witch, so perhaps they are not loving to those who are not. I don’t know. But everyone I’ve “introduced” to mandrake has had a wonderful, but intense, experience. I feel they have such a will of their own, and their spirit forms get out of the pots and move around. They dance and sing and do their own magick for us and for themselves. There are many nights I swear we have a mandrake dance party around here. I think their variety of effects, magickal and medicinal – aphrodisiac, sedative, entheogen, poison, guardian, protector, healer, curser – are all the powers and blessings of a Witch. But ultimately they are unique and hard to pin down and won’t be stifled by your assumptions of them, also like a Witch. People might not know that is the reason, but it plays a factor in the link between Witches and Mandrakes…. If I ever go back into music, I think I have my next band name – Witches & Mandrakes!
Lastly, anything we can look forward to from you in the near future? Any new books, projects, tours, events?
Well, I am taking a step back from travel in 2019, as I’ve been traveling pretty much non stop since 2002, doing multiple conventions, festivals, retreats and weekend workshops every year, along with local classes, online school and private clients. It will be a year to focus on writing new classes and finishing up some book projects, though I’ll still be doing work for the Temple of Witchcraft, including speaking at Templefest 2019 and co-running The Water Temple Retreat in the fall in Maine, following up our Fire Temple retreat in Sedona, AZ. I have a few books in the pipeline in various stages of editing, including a book on Candle Magick following up The Casting of Spells; a book on cauldrons, Cerridwen, alchemy and inspiration; and a strange prose book that will most likely turn into a fundraiser for the Temple of Witchcraft, seeking to answer the question of “Why there are Witches?” and “Why do Witches get blamed and scapegoated?” in a more artistic form. If anything, its a sequel to the Phosphorous Grove, but a totally different style.
Patreon Exclusive Bonus
In this guided audio, Christopher Penczak calls to the spirit of Datura and leads a guided meditation to journey into the Green Realm to meet the plant spirit Datura to begin a working relationship with the plant. Exclusive of Christopher Penczak On The Spiritual Bond Of Plants And Witches. This is available for Patreon supporters with the tier “In The Know Jackalope” and higher.