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The status of plants in neopagan spirituality is somewhat paradoxical. Modern pagans often work with deities who hold jurisdiction over aspects of vegetative life such as harvests or forests. Many celebrate cycles of holidays which are heavily influenced by the growth cycles of plants. And it is fair to say that a majority of today's pagans view plants as important and sacred lifeforms.

As a totemist, however, I've noticed a discrepancy in how plants are viewed in comparison to animals. The subject of animal guides and totems is noticeably a more popular one than plant teachers and totems. Every now and again, a book comes along giving trees or flowers their due, but they are greatly outnumbered by those who offer to teach you how to work with animal spirits. There are, of course, a good number of books on herbalism and spiritual gardening to be found, as well as a smattering of Druid-flavored books about trees. However, the work suggested in these books tends to lean more towards symbolism or focusing on a larger, whole-Earth frame of reference. Very few go into great depth on working with plants as individual spiritual entities and fewer still touch on working with species-specific plant totems.

This was why I was thrilled when I heard Christopher Penczak had published a book entitled The Plant Spirit Familiar: Green Totems, Teachers, and Healers on the Path of the Witch. I didn't hesitate to order it and spent a few weeks reading and digesting its material, hoping for some fresh ideas on partnering with the citizens of the plant kingdom.

It has been over a month since I've finished it and I still am unsure what I think of the book as a whole. On one hand, I felt that it was an informative book about plant based spirituality. Penczak tends to have a knack for fully exploring the history of a topic and always offers multiple options and opinions for his readers to consider. The history of herbalism and alchemy easily transitions into explanations of the more modern traditions of homeopathy and Bach's flower remedies. One chapter details practically every way one can physically work with plants from potions and powders to incense and oils to alchemical “vegetable stones”. I felt there was one glaring omission though. While there is a section entitled “Food” it only talks about adding herbal allies into sacramental cakes. What about forming alliances with other edible plants? Perhaps I'm too biased in favor of working with culinary plants, but I felt that their near absense in a book about spiritually plant work was a shame. Still, despite that oversight, Penczak did a wonderful job in offering aspiring plant magicians many paths and techniques to consider.

Another strength of this book is that it lays down solid stepping stones for those who may be new to plant work and are unsure how to initiate communications with beings who do not vocalize or move in ways our animal senses pick up easily. The Doctrine of Signatures, a method of determining a plant's spiritual properties by studying the way it looks, is thoroughly explained. While visual symbolism shouldn't be the only method used to understand a plant's nature, many plants, particularly flowering ones, do indeed use our sight as a link for communication making a study of the Doctrine of Signatures a valuable one for those just learning to open to their lessons.

Another interesting and useful section focuses on “The Three Kin”, three groupings of plants that tend to work with humans in specific ways. These include Balms (herbs which aid humans medically or psychologically), Banes (poisons and potentially dangerous entheogenic plants), and Tree Teachers (I agree that trees have their own unique ways of working with humans). The nature of familiars originating from these three kin groups is detailed nicely.

There are other subsections of the book that are quite useful for forging relationships with individual plant spirits and/or their species' totem. Of particular note are discussions on fetches, shamanic plant healing, and creating a homunculus out of plant parts or living plants to provide a home for a familiar. I also appreciated the times the author provided personal experiences, and was particularly fascinated by his history with Parsley.

I do feel like Penczak planted many useful seeds (pun intended) for aspiring plant magicians and totemists. However, I also feel like there were many times this book strayed from the focus of working with plants as individuals. A good portion of the book focuses more on communing with plant deities, using plant imagery in meditation and how to cast a “green” circle. One ritual detailed in great length focuses on contacting The Green Devil (the shadow side of The Green Man) using seven different plant-based substances to help meditate on and balance the seven deadly sins. While interesting and probably valuable for some, the plants chosen weren't explained, and it seemed to push the idea of plant familiars to the side.

I also felt the author took a detour in the section about creating plant substances. The information is useful and detailed, but much of this can be found in other books. What was not mentioned, and would have made the section more relevant had it been included, was how familiars and totems might interact with the practitioner while these things are in use. Calling sections like these “filler” would, in my opinion, be an unfair overstatement, but I did feel like the book at times became more about general plant spirituality rather than partnership with familiars and totems. I struggled for a good while with whether or not it was fair to find fault in this, but then again, the title of the book is indeed The Plant Spirit Familiar and I don't think it is wrong to hold it to that.

Thus my main issue with the book is thus: when I consider it a book about plant magic I am impressed and pleased, but when I consider it a book specifically on plant familiars I am disappointed in the detours and off topic sections. Perhaps all the book really needs is a different title, one that encompasses all the subject matter contained within.

On the whole, I am happy I purchased this books, gained some good ideas from it, and will return to it off and on for inspiration. Those new to spiritual plant work or looking for fresh ideas are likely to find this book useful. I'd rate it 4/5.
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paleo: Dire Wolf skull (Default)

January 2013

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