Generations ago, there were tiny homes cobbled together by the people of the surrounding village, with each neighbor helping the next to create a community. Inside these little homes you’d find simple furnishings and functional décor. Keep looking and you’d notice a fire burning low in the hearth and table made of heavy wood, flanked by empty chairs and benches awaiting their occupants. On shelves sat tools worn with use, yet cared for by the very hands that worked them so hard. If you were to open the cupboards, drawers and cabinets you’d find them brimming with trinkets of nature, bottles of herbal brews, oils, salves and lotions. This is where the secrets of generations past were stored. This is where the true old wives tales were born and this is where they were passed on.
As an herbalist participating in traditions that were started long before I came into existence, I’m interested in the beginnings of these sacred practices. When I use my mortar and pestle, I imagine the wise hands of elders cupping the hands of young ones, showing them the motions and flow needed to grind the herbs. I picture small bottles of golden oils filled with the essences of plants and pure waters from rain, river and well, being set out for the brewing that was to come. Around a table sat women of generations each with a journal, some as large as tomes, filled with the knowledge of their years. Each book was tabbed with bits of ribbon and string, bookmarked with feathers and scrawled with herbal recipes. Back then (and even now) there were the few that could understand the plants, they were attuned to them and they knew how to use them. It was the plant walker that usually became the medicine man or woman of the village. As an herbalist of today, it is these medicine women of the past that I think of when making healing herbal brews. Learning about traditions that started long ago and were enacted as hearth fires were lit, foods were prepared and the bounties of nature were gathered is part of the herbalist path.
When milestones in the lives of women were achieved, the women of all ages were called together to celebrate and share in the exchange of knowledge. Respect and honor was paid to the plants, to the food, to the drink and to each other. Then began the magic of women. Not the formal magic of spell casting and corner calling, it was the magic of women as they came together to bask in each other’s company, discussing ailments and pains along with joys and enlightenments. Information and traditions were shared. A complaint of knee pain was met with herbal suggestions given by those that came before and had suffered the aches and pains of an aging body for years. Happy moments and announcements of pending births brought on a flurry of activity and the creation of salves, lotions and herbal remedies that would prevent morning sickness, relieve backaches and tenderly comfort the mother-to-be. As the making of herbal concoctions got underway, the smell of herbal waters bubbling would fill the room and eventually the home, entwining each woman in a cloak of tradition and healing.
Though today we may not meet around hearth fires very often, we do still meet around tables whether in a kitchen, a dining room, a living room or a bar…our intentions are still the same, to celebrate the happy times and to comfort and support when sorrow comes. There’s nearly always food and drink, along with the exchange of information and lessons learned. Our elders may not always come from their years but rather from their experiences and I know there is still magic because when our hearts call for friendship, women still answer, it seems to be part of a collective unconscious that we can’t remember but can still feel.
For the rest of this month and into the next, I’ll be celebrating the traditions of the earth women that came before me with posts about home crafts and herbal brews that hold deep meaning and healing. If you don’t have a group of women to gather with (as is the case sometimes) to make these herbal crafts, then remember the women that came before you, those elders who have left their traditions that you can now take part in. By honoring them, they are never forgotten and you are part of their circle.