The Poisoner: Pharmakos and Veneficus-Poisoner’s Apothecary

The Poisoner: Pharmakos and Veneficus-Poisoner’s Apothecary July 18, 2017
Forest Pathway. Photographer Carey E. Ward.
Forest Pathway. Photographer Carey E. Ward.

Walking the Crooked Path

There are few words to adequately describe my nature as a practitioner of the Nameless Arte.  There is not one single title that I identify with on a regular basis, but a collection of diverse practices that contribute to my identity.  I am often hesitant to call myself anything when it comes to magical titles.  Many of the words used to describe ourselves today originated during a time when people like us were feared.  Many of the cultural terms for witch used in European vernacular during the Medieval Period were also associated with malevolent supernatural entities.  If I had to choose a term that most closely describes what and who I am; it would have to be one of the old names used in the ancient world to describe sorcerous practitioners with the knowledge of botanical poisons and powers.  The Greeks called them Pharmakos because of their knowledge of the powers of plants.  In the Roman Empire they became known by the Latinized version of the earlier Greek title.  The Veneficus of Rome specialized, not only in plant medicine, but also in botanical toxins.  Assassination was a common occurrence in Roman political society, and the apothecary played a central role in the turning of political tides.  With their knowledge of plant poisons and antidotes, a practitioner of the Venefic Arts could be an invaluable tool.  Witchcraft was synonymous with the venefic arts in ancient times, and has remained a tool of the politically and socially oppressed.

In modern terms of religion I consider myself a Pagan since I have never felt entirely comfortable using the term Neo-Pagan to describe myself or my practices.  I don’t see anything wrong with those who identify with this term, and I recognize it as a legitimate academic term.  Just like other major religions, there are many diverse traditions under the umbrella of Paganism, Neo-Paganism included.  Both titles are able to coexist simultaneously as they refer to different ends of the spectrum.  The concept of religion as an institution based on specific doctrine is a relatively modern idea.  Pagan spirituality as a whole does not fit into this compartment.  I think as fellow Pagans we all follow a similar path when it comes to our reverence for nature and our relationship with the spirit world.  There are many branches off of the path of paganism, each with its own unique cosmology.

Photographer Carey E. Ward.
Photographer Carey E. Ward.

The Path of Poisons and Witchlore

The Poison Path or Veneficium as it has become known is a facet of traditional witch lore based on the ancient arte of plant magic.  The story of the Fall, in which divine luminaries descended from the heavens is a central pillar of traditional witchcraft lore.  The Fallen Ones brought knowledge of the arts to mankind, including the art of wortcunning.  In addition to this knowledge, they made wives of the daughters of man, and through this union brought the legendary witchfire or Mark of Cain into the human gene pool.  This ancient myth with its pre-Christian origins has been shared throughout human history preserved in occult lore.  The Poison Path is just one of the ways in which we can unlock the secrets of the spirit world through communion and partnership with the spirits of nature.

Part of our practice on the verdant way is the collection and preservation of traditional plant lore.  What we do not obtain from written sources we are able to learn directly from the plants themselves.  Spending a lot of time in direct communion with plant-spirit allies is a great advantage to any practitioner of green witchcraft.  Whether it be sitting with a single special plant of your own cultivation or immersing yourself in the forest surrounded by its collective spirit.  One of the most effective devotional practices for building a strong bond with the green current is meditative walking in the forest, and cultivating traditional witch herbs.  So much can be learned about the hidden nature of any plant by tending to it every day and watching it go through its life cycle.

Photographer Carey E. Ward. Lindenwood Nature Preserve.
Photographer Carey E. Ward. Lindenwood Nature Preserve.

Plants of Tradition

There are certain plants that are more associated with witchcraft and sorcery than any other.  These are the herbs of traditional witch lore.  The Nightshades are amongst some of the most infamous witch’s herbs, including well known names like Belladonna and Mandrake.  Other banes like Wolfsbane are associated with shapeshifting, sorcery and the Underworld.  The infamous Fly Agaric Mushroom found across cultures has been used by shamanic practitioners to part the way between the worlds and travel back with newfound knowledge.  All of these well-documented botanicals have been associated with magical practice and occult secrets over the centuries.  I believe that these plants allied themselves with ancient men and women who were the first keepers of esoteric lore.

The plants within this category make powerful allies for any magical practitioner, and are not limited to those containing large amounts of toxins.  Like many powerful plant spirits, just their presence and proximity is enough to bring one into a trance.  Regular meditation with the living plant spirit is one of the best ways to develop a spiritual bond with the plant.  Harvesting these plants is a sacrament in itself, and one of the primary practices of the green witch.  The harvest ritual can be as simple or complex as the practitioner desires, and offerings are made to the spirit of the land.  The plants retain their power within their bones long after their waters have left them.

Poisoner's Accoutrement. Photographer Coby Michael Ward.
Poisoner’s Accoutrement. Photographer Coby Michael Ward.

Underworld and Harvest

As plants of life, death and resurrection their bodies are transformed by their harvest-death returning from the Underworld as powerful spirit fetishes for artifice.  Artificium is the creation of magical tools, objects and artifacts using sacred mineralogical and botanical materials, and is one of the artes of the path.  Strangely enough the Nightshade plants of the Witch’s Garden have roots that are perfect for the making of altar totems and ritually prepared homunculi.  The berries, leaves and seed pods of these plants also produce natural amulets and tokens.

While different methods of ingestion and absorption have been utilized ritually and medicinally, it is imperative to gain one’s own experience and understanding of the plants before any ritual ingestion is attempted of any kind.  Any such ritual should be treated with reverence and rarity of occasion to maintain potency.

Green Witchcraft, or plant magic in general has associations with the Underworld via direct connection through the earth.  The plants of the Poison Path draw nutrients up through their root systems, taking in energy from subterranean realms.  While most plants draw their energy from the Sun, these shade loving denizens of the night draw their power directly from the Underworld.  Their additional Saturnian correspondences further connect them to the Underworld.  These witch allies nourish themselves with the dark and verdant light below, occasionally descending to its depths for protection.  Because of their time spent in the Underworld during the winter months they are able to return more powerful or more numerous than before.  Like a witch returning from a night at the Sabbath they bring with them new powers and lore.

The Underworld is a place of ancestral knowledge and where the hidden powers of nature reside.  It is the repository for the Mysteries, where through initiatory experiences one returns with new understanding having communed with Elder Gods.  The chthonic powers of the underworld are presided over by the Witch Queen or Queen of Elphame, whose consort and spirit retinue comprise the courts of the Fair Folk.  It is the resting place of that divine fire that fell to Earth many millennia ago, still casting its dim green glow over the landscapes of the world below.

Plant-Based Magical Practices

The Poison Path or Crooked Way not only emphasizes the baneful herbs of medieval witchlore, but all plants with potent relationships with mankind.  Understanding the balms and antidotes is the other side of the path as it weaves crookedly through the forest.  Throughout history there have been certain plants that seem to have a special affinity towards humanity, plants like Lady’s Mantle and Vervain are known for their powers as catalysts for magical operations.  Such plants are also known for aiding practitioners in the practice of plant alchemy.  There is a rich history of botanical lore that preserves medieval folk practices, and complex herbal preparations recorded in handwritten grimoires.

The historic relevancy and emphasis on academic research is another aspect that attracted me to classical witchcraft and the Poison Path.  Part of my practice is piecing together bits and pieces of botanical folklore to create my own compendium of sorcerous allies.  I am very interested in any documented historical use of the traditional plants of European witchcraft, and also any modern pharmacological research available on botanical entheogens.  This path weaves together many facets of witchcraft mythos, including the Witches’ Sabbath and the infamous Flying Ointments of the Medieval Period.  Interestingly we find many obscure pieces of magical practices hidden within the botanical folklore of the world.  Many of the lost practices of antiquity can be regained through our direct communion with these elder spirits.

Learn More About the Poison Path Here

 

 

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