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I finally got around to reading a book that has been on my wish list for awhile –Witchcraft Medicine: Healing Arts, Shamanic Practices, and Forbidden Plants by Claudia Müller-Ebeling, Christian Rätsch, and Wolf-Doeter Storl.  Sarah Lawless first brought the book to my attention in one of her own reviews.  I added it to my Amazon wish list right away and my hubby gave it to me as a Solstice gift over a year ago.  I’m so glad I got it!

First of all, for those of you who don’t identify with the term “witch,” don’t let the title fool you.  This book is about folk healing and ancient practices involving herbs.  There is discussion on witchcraft and witches, but I feel this book is excellent for anyone who identifies as a Pagan and is interested in plants, healing, trance work, wildcrafting, and general incorporation of plants in magical workings. I will say it may be of more use to those of us who follow an Indo-European influenced path or for those who live in similar climates where these plants can grow. Some attention is given to Native American practices and other cultures around the world, though.  I will also say that this is an academic book.  It is probably not for the Pagan novice.

There is so much information in this text.  The authors look into folklore, ethnobotany, and modern research.  Greco-Roman cultures are emphasized and dominate much of the book in the form of discussions on Hecate, Medea, Circe, and Artemis.  Much of our understanding on love potions and flying ointments comes from their lore so it is entirely understandable.  Anyone interested in magic worth their salt should have at least a vague understanding of these figures!  Mary of Christian fame also gets some attention.  I learned much in that section that I didn’t know.  Indeed, women are in the spotlight in this text (sorry boys).  The chapter “Midwives: Fertility and Birth” delves into reproduction and how intimately it is connected with herbalism – whether to aid in fertility, prevent or terminate pregnancy, aid childbirth, or heal a woman post pregnancy.  However there are some great things men can learn about that subject and others that might be of more interest – such as “The Hebe-Ahnin and the Men’s Childbed,” or “Rübezahl: Herbalist and Weather God.”

One of the best aspects of the book is that the authors are not afraid to discuss the plants many now avoid – black henbane, monkshood, belladonna, thorn apple, and mandrake just to name the most infamous.  You won’t really find recipes to make flying ointments, but you’ll learn more about the common ingredients and how they have been used elsewhere throughout the ages – even in brewing!

The book ends with a critical look at contemporary drug laws.  Another reviewer elsewhere took this as the author’s pushing Pagans to take drugs in order to have spiritual experiences – I did not get that impression at all.  The authors are simply sharing the necessary information.  It’s up to the magic practitioner how to proceed and use it.  The book certainly has a lot of respect and caution for the plants as many can be deadly if used incorrectly.  They can also be wonderful medicines if used correctly!  They are worth learning about!

My only issue with the book was, despite the excellent research, some points occasionally made me say, “What now?”  For example, on pg. 15, one of the authors claims that using water during Lughnasadh was taboo to the Celts – this included washing, bathing, and fishing.  I’ve never seen this anywhere in all of my books on Celtic studies.  Maybe there’s truth to it, but it’s eluded me thus far!  Does anyone have any information on this?  Another thing that may occasionally raise a reader’s eyebrow is the sense that these authors wrote from the archetypal perspective.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but some people may find it annoying.  Otherwise, the text is very well-written and packed full of useful, interesting information about a plethora of herbs.  It is a must-read for aspiring herbalists, Druids, and witches!

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Movie Poster – copyright Walt Disney Pictures

The following are my thoughts on the film “Brave” which may contain spoilers.  Please skip to the very end if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want anything ruined!

I recently went to the movie theater to see the latest offering from Disney and Pixar Studios – “Brave.”  I’d heard of the movie for months and months and was excitedly anticipating it.  Every detail made me more and more excited.  A film set in Medieval Scotland?  Already got my attention.  A strong female lead?  Even better!  As concept art became available, and the Celtic motifs grew ever more apparent, I became even more enticed!

I did not go into the film expecting historical accuracy.  This is from Disney and Pixar, for goodness’ sake.  It is incredibly anachronistic in several ways.  Some men may feel it is a bit insulting to their sex.  It stereotypes the Scottish at times, but there are few films that don’t.  As a whole, it’s a bit of a love letter to what modern folks, particularly modern Americans, imagine the Celts to have been: quarrelsome, braggarts, proud, wild haired, perpetually tartan-clad, sensitive to nature, and in tune to the spirit world.  Those are/were only true some of the time, of course, but we have to remember that this is, at heart, a movie aimed at children.  The ridiculousness of the Scottish men is mostly to get the wee ones laughing.  It’s not meant to be a documentary – it’s an entertaining and often moving story.  It’s bardcraft for modern children and the young at heart!  While the story centers on the bond between a mother and daughter, its core is the essence of many familiar Celtic legends.

For me, that’s what really redeems Brave.  There’s been some discussion on film blogs about it being disappointing compared to other Pixar films.  I will say it does depart from the usual theme which seems to have been exploring unseen worlds just out of our sight or somehow parallel to our own.  “Brave” is about an actual group of people, but a people who, unlike most modern folk, already believe in a world parallel to their own.  Some argue “Brave” is more Disney than Pixar, lacking in the comedy and whimsy of previous films.  The magic, it’s been argued, is a crutch of sorts for the storytelling.  But…this is a Scottish-themed fairytale!  “Brave” takes several elements of Celtic storytelling and explores them.  The protagonist, Merida, has the heart and guts of figures such as Scáthach, and Cú Chulainn’s drive to overcome fate.  Her mother, while not portrayed as lusty, is a powerful queen in the tradition of Medb.  In a backstory, four brothers fight over and divide the land to rule.  There are families associated with specific animals and animal transformations.  There is a gathering of the tribes and great feasting!  The threat of war looms large.  Magical creatures inhabit the forests in the form of will-o-the-whisps.  And the witch!

Oh the witch is fun.  She only has a bit of screen time and she doesn’t even get a big song and dance number like other famous animated witches (Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” being a favorite of mine).  The witch of “Brave” is neither good (like Mama Odie, the Voodoo priestess of “The Princess and the Frog”) nor evil (like Maleficent of “Sleeping Beauty”).  Instead she is very much like a Cailleach figure (though smaller); the witch is willing to help but one must be careful what one wishes for.  She is the old, eccentric woman who lives away from society in the forest.  She vanishes (amusingly to attend a wicker man festival), leaving Merida to solve her own problems and learn some important lessons.  In my opinion, the movie doesn’t use magic asa crutch; it portrays its use in many Celtic legends relatively spot on. If the makers of “Brave” got something right, it’s the overall depiction of magic as a neutral force that can be manipulated for good or ill, as well as the overall ambivalence of the spirit world.  Some spirits want to help (in this case, funnily enough, it’s the whisps).  Some actually want help (the prince trapped in the bear).  Others, such as the witch/Cailleach figure…  She’s just having fun and is willing to lend a hand for something in return…but you better be careful how you ask!

If this were an actual Celtic legend, the king, whose leg was eaten by a demonic bear, would have killed the queen (who was turned into a bear thanks to the witch).  He would have then killed the triplets who also became bears.  Merida probably would have killed herself or been carried off by one of her suitors before she had the chance.  Or the queen, in connecting with her primitive, bear mind, would have killed Merida in the forest.  But this is a kids’ film so, despite the threat, it ends lighthearted.  Even though I knew the movie was heading in that direction, I was able to lose myself in the story and feel the emotion.

The mother-daughter theme was also quite engaging to me as I related to it.  I cried when Merida and the queen (as a bear) found themselves playing in the river.  As an adult, I totally got the flashbacks to mama always being there, the frustration related to growing up and still living under mother’s roof, and the realization that growing up shouldn’t mean growing apart.  Living away from my mother now, the film really touched me in that sense.  Part of the power of the film is in celebrating the sacred female – our growing up, our changing roles, our need to be free but also our need to be loved, and our need to pass down and learn wisdom from other women.  Most children won’t grasp that.  Men may even have a difficult time fully appreciating the film for that reason.  Most women, on the other hand, live and experience it.  The film was just as poignant for me as the love story early on in “Up” or the lessons of growing up in the “Toy Story” trilogy.

In conclusion…

I definitly recommend seeing “Brave.”  It’s a fun story that, while not historically accurate, contains several elements of Celtic legends that even novice Celtophiles and Druids will notice and appreciate.  If you can keep the fact that it is a Disney/Pixar film in mind, and let the anachronisms go in favor of a fun story that doesn’t mean any real harm, you should have an excellent time.  The music, while not particularly memorable as other Disney films, works and the scenery is just lovely.  If you have wee ones at home, I think it would be a great film to inspire their curiosity about Celtic cultures and mythology.  

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