What follows is a basic explanation of plant spirit shamanism and its place within the greater alchemical tradition of the west. This information is for educational purposes only. You are your own person. I take no responsibility for any individual who comes into harm through the use of substances. Certain substances may be illegal in your country. It is your responsibility to know the laws before doing anything that may be illegal and/or dangerous. By learning the cultural historic use of plants we may gain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the role plants play within our lives.
Introduction to Plant Spirit Shamanism
Plant spirit shamanism is one of the oldest traditions in cultures around the world, both mundane and magical. In the Amazonian traditions, the term used would be vegetalista, rather than shaman. A vegetalista is they who have received their power from the plants. Learning the plant life that is around us in nature was and still is one of the most important magical practices. What is food? What is medicine? What heals and what harms? It is arguably humans first foray into spirituality; traversing the Garden of Eden, developing relationships with spirits and peoples of the world. King Solomon had his angels and jinn, while the shaman has his plant allies, chants and power objects.
To communicate with a plant requires more than just preparation and consumption. There is a philosophy that underlines this type of work. It is an understanding that consciousness permeates all things. Animism, from the latin word anima meaning “breath, spirit, life,” says that all things are alive and contain a spiritual essence. When the magician, the alchemist, or the shaman do this work it is a way of engaging with the world. It’s important to hold this viewpoint in all steps of the work for holding consciousness as an inherent aspect of plant spiritual shamanism allows the alchemist to have reverence for the plant. The mind is programmed to recognize other minds. Therefore to treat the other as having intelligence, a consciousness of its own, can help create a dialogue that in one sense activates the resonant energy within and in another bridges the gap between human and non-human communication.
While all cultures have a form of this type of alchemical work with plants and spirit, I have been pulling my inspiration for this from upper Amazonian mestizo shamanism, the alchemical work of Robert Allen Bartlett, and the ceremonial formulas of the Golden Dawn. I think it’s important to bridge the worlds of shamanism and contemporary ceremonial magick as the goals are apparently the same. As said by Stephan Beyer in his incredible work Singing to the Plants, “The healing ceremony is intended to communicate the mystery of healing and the risk and mastery of the healing performer. Shamanic healing rituals in particular are designed to use a multiplicity of communicative channels – costumes, props, music, conjuring, poetry, movement, plots, suspense, stagecraft, dialogue.” It is in my view that the shaman’s temple is nature itself, for in the microcosm are all macrocosmic things found. What is important is the parameters of the work and the boundaries we set to achieve our goals.
La Dieta & Plant Spirit Alchemy
The steps to communicating with a plant spirit can be quite simple, yet can also become very complex and challenging depending on the type of work we are trying to achieve and how long we are intending to continue. Traditionally, a plant diet is the course of time leading up to and including the ingestion of plants to purify the self and acquire the powers and songs of the spirits. Beyer says, “To learn the plants means to create a relationship with the plant spirits, by taking them into the body, listening to them speak in the language of plants, and receiving their gifts of power and song.” We do this through a restricted diet avoiding such things as sugar, salt, spices, alcohol and even sex. One’s ability to stick with such a diet is a strengthening of the will and is considered desirable by the plant spirits themselves.
Different teachers, both plant and human, will require of you to partake of a diet prior to or while working with plant medicines. While it is always highly recommended that one not undertake such a work without guidance from a shaman or vegetalista, it is certainly allowed to create one’s own diet based on intuition and science. Even Terence McKenna was known to have preferred to take his psychedelics alone as it was likely to be a more powerful experience in every way. For those that are not under the tutelage of a shaman, it is incredibly important that we lay out the diet prior to beginning the work. This diet must be held to the highest standards until finally the work is complete.
I would also like to take this opportunity to discuss the difference between a diet and la dieta in regards to Ayahuasca and other plant works within these traditions. When someone is dieting prior to an Ayahuasca ceremony, it is in preparing the physical body prior to working with this medicine and also to make sure there are no negative interactions with consuming the MAOI. Avoiding things that may take a longer time to digest or anything that may have been prepared without proper intention tends to result in a more positive response within ceremony. La dieta is a much stricter regiment in which many things are avoided so as to increase bodily sensitivity and to reduce any external factors within the diet that can cause subtle changes within our mind or spirit. In many ways they are two halves of the same practice, yet it is important to note the distinction.
Seeking the Spirits
Beginning with basic plant infusions, tinctures, and spagyrics, to distillation and rounds and rounds of purification processes, the alchemical work has a depth that can clean out the impurities from your mind, body, and soul. This work allows us to explore the subtle fringes of consciousness, swimming through the grey area between the subjective and objective universe. It helps us to become more familiar with the spectrum of consciousness from the top down towards the unconscious all while maintaining a sense of lucidity.
First, we must find the plant that we want to work with. Usually the magician will have a sense of which plant they want to start with for this work, while the shaman may be guided by messages from plant masters. Others may want to allow the plant to come to them. In this case we would journey to find the one that calls to us in shape, sound, or intuition. This can be done in nature, in a garden, or any other place to which plants grow. However, there is a danger in this type of work in that we may not know if a plant is poisonous or not. In the modern era we have access to a lot of information regarding different plants. It is highly recommended we do our research first. There are more complex methods of working with poison plants that will not be discussed here. It is worth mentioning that there is a power in the workings of poison plants. As stated by Anthropologist Steven Rubenstein in his work with Ecuadorian Shuar healer Alejandro Tsakimp, “One cannot help others unless one works within the same framework that hurts others. The power to kill and to cure is the same because it is embodied in the same instrument.”
Once we’ve found the plant which we want to work with, we begin to meditate with it. We must learn what it looks like and how it makes us feel when we are in its presence. Feel the plant in your hands. Take notice of the colors and shape of the plant. How does this make us feel? Do we see particular colors or symbols? What emotions or memories arise when contemplating this plant? Does the plant have a gender? What is our intent for using this plant? To create that bridge to non-human communication we must not only be aware of how it looks and feels but how it makes us feel. Once you’ve chosen your plant it’s important to do research to know where the plant comes from, what we can expect by using it or if there is any history of traditional usage by cultures spiritually or otherwise.
For those that have made headway with these methods, slowly making the connection and hearing the voice of the plant, we can begin to create an altar for it. This may be a large endeavour of creating a plant altar that consists of those symbols and ideas that represent this plant to us, or as simple as adding this plant to our current altar signifying the incorporation of this plant into our being. The altar stands as a symbol representing that point in time and space to which we transcend into the spiritual realms. By adding the plant to the altar we are coloring this spiritual nexus with the signature of the plant itself. This requires a bit of artistic license on behalf of the practitioner but should be almost entirely guided by the plant intelligence itself if possible.
A little wisdom by Dale Pendell from his Pharmako/Poeia, “Ethnobotanists are generally both botanists and anthropologists, and it is essential for the owl-chemist to have a basic knowledge of these two disciplines if she is to avoid certain terrible pitfalls of the path, such as clownish foppery or early death.”
The idea of plant Masters and plant spirits is important to talk about. It is important to understand how one plant can help you understand the spirit of another plant. Certainly all plants have their own particular signatures and spirits that can invoke very unique energies within the alchemist. Yet some plants are so powerful they seemingly stand above as teachers of the way of the vegetable kingdom. It is for this reason we have plant Masters and the plants they can teach us about.
Today ayahuasca is known as one of the primary plant masters to which allow the alchemist to communicate with lesser plants that have less of a psychoactive effect. It is very common in Amazonian shamanism and vegetalistas to open their plant dieta with Ayahuasca and then proceed to imbibe the other plant to which they will communicate with. They will then over the duration of the dieta imbibe the specific plant and begin attempting to communicate with it. If they are having difficulty making communication they may partake of Ayahuasca during the dieta so to gain assistance and knowledge from that plant master. Once the deita is complete they will close with another Ayahuasca ceremony.
There are many types of plant masters beyond Ayahuasca. Cannabis is another one of these and is far more widespread than Ayahuasca. She is sometimes called Santa Maria in some Brazilian medicine circles. In the realm of plant Kabbalah she would fall under the auspices of netzach (see my previous entry Medicine Tree). Cannabis while being incredibly helpful and healthy in many ways to can easily become a crutch, causing the user to require it for their spiritual practice. It makes everything better so they say and yet it can also become a dominant plant intelligence in our life very quickly. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but it needs to be considered. Cannabis is a plant master in many ways and I have found it to be incredibly effective in communicating with less psychoactive plants.
In our work here, one should determine in advance if they will utilize any master plants or not. It is not absolutely necessary to use them and perhaps even better for a beginner not to work with master plants until they’ve experienced them under the guidance of a teacher or shaman.
Keys to the Vegetable Kingdom
In traditional alchemical preparation there are three aspects of the plant: the sulphur, mercury, and salt. The sulphur is the soul or character of the plant, the mercury is the active spirit of the plant, and the salt is the vehicle or body which contains the other two. The goal of the alchemist is to separate, purify, and recombine each of these leaving it in a more purified and potent state. In this process of working with plants the alchemist in turn is doing the same to themselves. In this way we heal ourselves when doing this work. While we here are concerned with plant alchemy, it is important to note that there are three kingdoms in which alchemy is commonly seen to operate: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Everything is seen as living and consists of these three aspects of sulphur, mercury, and salt.
In plant spirit shamanism there are a number of different ways that we can imbibe the plant spirit. It can be in the form of tinctures, smoked, infused, burned, and even applied topically. Depending on the type of plant we use we can then consider our method of consumption. One of the most common is the infusion. This is essentially making a tea by boiling the plant. Another method would be to smoke the plant either rolled up in a paper or burned as an incense (the latter tends to be harsher on the lungs but is an option during ritual works). In the case of some plants, such as Blue Lotus (Calea Zacatechichi) it can be useful to both smoke it and make a tea (just so you know, it’s name translates to bitter grass for a reason).
One of the most effective methods of preparation is the tincture. This process is quite simple and is the first step in the creation of the alchemical spagyric. After we’ve selected the plant, we powder it using a mortar and pestal. It is important to do this part by hand if possible. The more energy we put into it the deeper the process can work on us. In the cleaned and prepared container we take the powdered herb and fill to covering with alcohol. This is then covered and placed in a dark room for a minimum of two weeks. It is also common to use the “alchemist’s month,” which is from full moon to full moon. Once complete we strain out the liquid. This liquid contains the mercury and sulphur of the herb. This is the complete tincture.
If we so choose we can continue the work and create a spagyric. The leftover plant matter is burned or calcined until all that is left is an ash. It will have been soaked in alcohol and will burn easily. After this initial burning (which yields a lot of potential for ritual and divination use) we can cook the plant in the oven to break it down even further. Following this, through a process of filtering with water, we are left with the purified salts. This is then recombined with the sulphur and mercury to create a spagyric that contains all three aspects of the plant. These are simplified instructions for the creation of a spagyric. It is meant to give a sense of the type of work to expect when doing practical alchemy. For more in-depth instructions I recommend reading Real Alchemy by Robert Allen Bartlett.
Setting an intention is incredibly important in this work. It is for this reason incorporating ceremony and ritual in this otherwise chemical process the alchemist can introduce their intention into the final product. This is a great opportunity to begin listening to the plant and will deepen the dialogue we have started when first deciding which plant to work with. This is where intuition meets science to create a kind of magick. It can be as simple as to heal thyself, or used for more complex manifestations such as astral projection or other spells. This intention should be considered at the very beginning of this whole process. In this way we can cultivate the intention and bring it into manifestation.
Taking note of the astrological weather becomes very important here. Just as we are born with a planetary alignment, so to does the tincture have a birth chart. In this way we can bring these zodiacal dispositions to the forefront and utilize them accordingly. The astrologers out there will certainly be able to understand the importance of this aspect. I personally enjoy making tinctures and spagyrics during full moons, eclipses, and planetary alignments. By using different zodiacal and planetary correspondences we are able to awaken the resonant energies within our psyche.
It is important to layout in advance the method and the traditions utilized so that you can gain a deeper insight into the intelligence of the plant and how it resonates with you. The magical traditions to which I general work within is a syncretic blend of Hermetic Qabalah, Rosicrucian philosophy, Amazonian shamanism, and the devotional practices of the Brazilian Santo Daime.
Song of the Plant
I’d now like to talk briefly about communication with the plant. This is certainly the crux of the work for many magicians, both in alchemy and spirit communication. It is for this reason a magickal meditation practice lends itself to this work. We must be hyper aware of our senses, both physically and astrally, if we are to communicate successfully with the plant spirit.
In south american shaman practices this communication is to receive the powers of the plants through learned songs called icaros. An icaro is a type of song, mantra, or chant that accompanies the energy of the plant. In Ayahuasca shamanism it is used to guide the experience for the participants. Beyer says “the icaro is the language by which the shaman communicates with the plant, and through the icaro the plant will reply.” In a similar way to learning the seal or sigil of an angel, demon, or entity, the icaro is the signature of the plant to which we can call upon it for healing or protection. Rather than vibrating the divine names as would be performed in qabalistic invocation, the icaro is commonly whispered, whistled, or sung. The word icaro comes from the Quechua verb ikaray, meaning to blow smoke for healing, as well as the Shipibo term ikarra, meaning shaman song. There are many different types of icaros one can learn when working with plant spirits. In the beginning it is important to learn the basic song or secret name that will call the plant spirit when necessary.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give is to engage your astral senses when doing work with the plant both in preparation and during la dieta. In this way we can be certain we are fully opening ourselves to the intelligence of the plant. Approaching this type of plant spirit shamanism already familiar with methods of visionary meditation or mediumship can be incredibly useful.
Putting it all Together
We begin by setting an intention or goal of the work. We then begin to find the plant which we want to work with. After ethnobotanical research into history and chemical makeup we can begin to consider the method of ingestion. We can then begin to put together the ritual and ceremonial conditions to which we will extract, purify, and recombine our medicine in accordance with alchemical philosophy. Once the plant is ready to be consumed we lay out our diet which we follow, including the time frame of when we will work with the plant. It’s important in this scenario to avoid socialization and is commonly considered important to go to nature. During this time frame we begin to open ourselves up to the plant spirit. Once the timeframe is complete, we close the work. If all of the conditions are met we may meet the plant spirit and perhaps learn something about ourselves in the process.
We talked a bit about what plant spirit shamanism is, how to find appropriate plants to commune with, plant masters, how to prepare the plants, and an idea of what it means to communicate with a plant spirit. This type of work is a lifelong endeavour and can yield many revelations about the self and the state of the earth. This type of work allows us to open up to that larger consciousness that permeates all things on this planet. It is a method of earth magick in many ways and yet has cosmic implications on the nature of life.
This is a short introduction on how to begin walking the path of plant spirit shamanism and how to incorporate it into your spiritual practices. I talked mostly from the perspective of plant shamanism from the western hemisphere. There are many forms of this practice found all over the world, each being unique unto itself. It is likely if you trace the history of a spiritual practice it will find its way back to a communication with nature and our relationship to our environment.