Odin and Herbs

(Previously published post from 2013)

The Norse myths don’t really mention any sort of connection between Odin and herbs (unless you count the mistletoe that figures into the tale of Balder’s death) but the 10th century 2nd Merseburg Charm (written in Old High German) draws a connection between the continental Germanic Wodan and healing (in it, Wodan is shown healing the leg of Balder’s horse after a number of other deities try to do so and fail), and the more famous 11th century Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Galdor shows Woden banishing poison by invoking “nine glory twigs,” which are associated with the nine herbs described in the remainder of the text.

From my own perspective, Odin is a master of both herbal medicine and herbal magic, both of which arts He learned at the knee of His Mother, Bestla.  A frost giantess, Bestla gets only the briefest of mentions in the Poetic Edda (as the mother of Odin and His brothers, the sister of Mimir, daughter of a giant named Bolthorn, and wife of the Aesir grand patriarch Borr, Odin’s father). She is not quite as outgoing as many of the Jotnar have become in recent years–as Asgard’s Queen Mother, it seems to be Her position that She has no need to be–but when She does make Her presence known in your life, the impact is both powerful and unmistakable.  She is, in my UPG (obligatory disclaimer), a mistress of the twin arts of both healing and poisoning, and although She taught Her eldest son much of what She knows, there are still some dark corners of this very dark art that She has kept to Herself, in reserve.

What Odin did learn from His Mother, however, He learned very, very well–enough so that He could easily reconstruct the crushed leg of a horse by binding “bone to bone, blood to blood, joints to joints” (the arts of binding and unbinding being, after all, among His premier talents), enough so that He could even restore a kind of life to the severed head of His uncle, Mimir.  Of course, whether He did these things with the help of herbs or solely through operational seidhr is unknown, but He certainly did learn from Bestla how a single herb can often be either a poison or a remedy, and since Odin’s skill at taking life is almost universally acknowledged, crediting Him as a healer as well is not much of a stretch.  (To paraphrase a common tenet of witchcraft, “he that can harm, can heal.”)

Herbs–and poisonous/psychoactive herbs in particular–have always fascinated me, but it has only been in relatively recent years that I’ve had the time, freedom, and disposable income to follow up on this interest.  From 2009 until 2015 I worked at a local herb company, which gave me the opportunity to study herbs on company time (in the interest of better customer service), but also helped me build a substantial home herbal cabinet at a deep discount and sometimes for free.  In the meantime, I also began my own Nine Herbs garden in 2010 and began experimenting with making a number of herbal concoctions in the kitchen, from Nine Herbs oil to lavender spinning wheel wax to Odin candles.

To get back to the immediate topic, probably the first herbs most pagans or heathens would think about in connection with Odin are the Nine Herbs from the Anglo-Saxon charm.  The trouble is, matching up some of the Anglo-Saxon names given in the charm with the names of plants in modern English poses a bit of a challenge.

According to the book Pagan Christmas, by Christian Ratsch and Claudia Muller-Ebelling (which I highly recommend, by the way), they are as follows:

mugwort (“oldest of all herbs”)
plaintain (“mother of herbs”)
stone root (“drives away evil”) – stinkweed or pennycress)
wormwood (“venom-loather”)
chamomile
wergulu (maybe chicory)
apple
chervil
fennel

(phrases in quotations above are from the Anglo-Saxon herb charm, 11th c.)

Whereas, the nine herbs I settled on in 201o when I set up my own Nine Herbs garden were:

1)     Chamomile (regarded as an herb that represents Asgard, home of the Northern gods, by many in the Northern Tradition)

2)     Crab-apple (the apple being a common symbol of the underworld as well as eternal life in several European traditions)

3)     Fennel (a common ingredient in Northern European baking)

4)     Plantain (a skin-healing herb with very phallic flowers)

5)     Stinging Nettle (which can cause a painful sting that is reminiscent of the rune Algiz, and also ironically an effective folk treatment for rheumatism and arthritis)

6)     Mugwort (known as an aid to divination and prophetic dreaming, and one of the primary herbs associated with Odin, in my personal experience as well as that of many others)

7)     Wormwood (used to make the infamous drink absinthe; contains the hallucinogenic phyto-chemical thujone)

8)     Sweet cicely (one of the herbs commonly used to flavor the Scandinavian liquor called Aquavit, which in the experience of many Odinists is one of His favorite drinks)

9)     Corn salad (the winter lettuce known as “rampion” in the fairy tale Rapunzel; its theft from the witches garden by the heroine’s mother is the reason for her imprisonment in the tower)

In the final analysis, I’m sure there are as many different interpretations of the Nine Herbs as there are individual Odinists (and/or Northern Tradition spirit workers), so all I can suggest is my own modus operandi: do your own research, use your own intuition, and ask Him (though it wouldn’t surprise me at all if He gives everyone who asks a slightly different answer).

In addition to the Nine Herbs, here are some of the herbs that have stuck out for me (and others) as being particularly associated with Him:

Monkshood (Aconitum napellus) – a very beautiful and very deadly blue-purple flower; also known in Germany as Odin’s hat or storm hat

Fly Agaric mushroom (Amanita muscara) – the infamous white-flecked red mushroom also known as “raven’s bread”); one of the stories of this particular fungus’ origin has it that it sprang forth from Sleipnir’s spittle where it hit the ground as Odin rode Him during the Wild Hunt

Yew – I believe that this is the “needle-ash” referred to as Yggdrasil in Voluspa, but the tree is for me also very strongly redolent of both Odin and His Mother, Bestla.  All parts of this tree are deadly poison, except for the arils of its berries (which I have tasted, by the way; be very careful if you try them though, as the seeds ARE poisonous), yet it is currently being used as an anti-cancer medication–a perfect example of the close and symbiotic relationship between poison and remedy.

Mistletoe –  in Scandinavia mistletoe sprigs were used as “wishing rods” and were thought to open treasure boxes.  A protective barrier against witches and sorcerers and a key to vitality and good luck, but also a vehicle for witches’ flight, especially when found growing in birch trees.  Called “witches’ broom” in the vernacular.

Ivy – I know most people would think of Dionysos first with this one, but ivy is a very English plant as well, and there is a connection with Woden through the wild man/Green Man, and as a “snake spirit” plant and an intoxicating herb).

Juniper – in Germany, one of the folk names for this plant is wodansgerte.  Protective and has been used as a “life rod” (one of a number of plants traditionally used for ritual beating of women and virgins to encourage fertility).   The berries, also known as weiheichen (holy berries) have been used as a substitute for frankincense in the North.  Heals rheumatism, asthma, pain in the chest or side, sleepiness, depression, and lunacy.  An ingredient in beer, schnapps, and gin.  Used in protective amulets.

Rye (used for brewing a special Christmas beer, Wodelbeers (Wodan)

Poppy – cultivated in southern and northern Germanic regions from very ancient times, fields of poppy were  called “Odin’s ground” (Odainsackr) and seen as sacred healing sites where Odin performed haling wonders.  Poppy juice was believed to ward off demons; poppy seeds are a traditional food of witches and the dead.  Also associated with fertility and prophecy as well as prosperity.  Poppy seeds must be sown on Christmas Eve, three days before that, or on a Wednesday.

Mugwort – I need to mention this one again because it is so very significant as an herb for Him, with the bonus of being inexpensive, non-toxic, and widely available.  Mugwort also has a very special place in my heart as one of my own particular allies from the green world.  Also called felon herb, naughty man, old man, and old Uncle Harry (Harr).  Promotes fertility and the transition of souls from the other worlds to earth and vice versa.  Was used both as a childbirth aid and in graves, and burned on bonfires for the dead.  A boundary plant that grows by roadsides.  Protection, love and sex magick.  Traditionally used to season the St. Martin’s Day goose to call Wodan’s attention to the sacrifice and induce Him to hear and fulfill the wishes of those making it. (St. Martin’s Day is November 11th, on the evening of which St. Martin can be seen, in Germany, riding a white horse through the sky.  Farmers finish their year’s work on this day and make an offering to St. Martin—clearly Wodan—of cheese, wool, bread, or flax, also leaving hay or oats in front of their house for his horse.)

Clover (trifolium) – through its associations with sorcery, astral travel and flight, shamanic initiation, and the fact that the plant spreads so easily, making it a “world wanderer.”

Plantain – used in witches’ incense as well as smudging incense to ward against witches. Had to be dug up with a tool other than iron.  Wards off worms, fevers, and evil spirits; protects against love charms; wins lawsuits.

And that should be enough to get anyone started on their own personal herbal cabinet for Him!

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