Review of The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook

Cover of The Herbal Alchemist's HandbookFirst impressions: a nicely made, handbook-sized, 240-page book with some stunning big-name blurbs on the back, and the dreaded word “Alchemy” in the title. The subtitle states the purpose of the book: A Grimoire of Philtres, Elixirs, Oils, Incense, and Formulas for Ritual Use. So we know going in that this is not the usual medicinal herbal, but a guide to the magical use of herbs.

According to the author profile and what shows up on the web, Karen Harrison has a Master’s in Herbology (1980) from Max Thuna’s Emerson College of Herbology (closed 1992), a school associated with a wholesale herb business in Montreal. She has been selling herbs and teaching herbology since 1978, and practicing various forms of magic for most of her life.

The book is aimed at practicing Mages in any part of the Western Esoteric Tradition who wish to incorporate herbs into their practice in a systematic way. While people who specialize in herbology will get the most out of this book, it includes many possible applications for others who might want to include herbs only in selected workings.

The references in the Introduction to Celsus and Paracelsus, and a well-structured and intelligent statement of the history and purposes of Alchemy, started easing my initial dread of yet another casual use of the term.

Part 1 details the herbs and their planetary signatures, laying the groundwork (skywork?) for what follows. Part 2, Practicum, begins the “Grimoire” proper, with instructions for various incenses, oils, bath salts (hint: if you have not explored spirit baths, come on in, the water is fine), mojo hands, and in Chapter 15, “Philtres, Elixirs, and Fluid Condensers,” we are treated to some fairly serious practical alchemy, along with numerous simpler processes for “the rest of us.” Thus is the dread of the title finally dispelled, as this section is quite clearly the work of someone who is doing the Work. Part 3 ties it all together, showing how to use numerology and natal astrological charts (and presumably electional charts as well) as a guide to creating herbal blends for specific workings.

Appendix A, the Herbal Materia Magicka, summarizes the properties of herbs, and since it is alphabetical by common name, one can look there to answer questions like, “There’s honeysuckle blooming everywhere, what can I do with that?” It is obvious that much thought went into the plan of this book, as I was pleasantly surprised, each time I tried out a different question, to see how easily it was answered.

Throughout the book, the author gives sage advice on magic, practical matters, and life. It is generally excellent advice, but I could wish she had not lapsed into a certain cheerleading tone familiar to readers of those penny-dreadful spellbooks that few of us will confess to consulting. For example, ending a list of suggested uses with “You get the idea!” or the deadpan advice to the sewing-impaired mojo-bag maker: “Pouches in various colors are available at your local occult store.” Admittedly, this is funny because it’s true: one can never have too many little pouches, and I have five of them on my person right now, four of which came from my local occult emporium. There are gems throughout, with lesser degrees of risibility, like “Always go with the nudge of intuition …”

There are a few oddities in the suggested lists of deities for each planet. I am not sure how “Inannur” (instead of “Inanna”, page 7) got through even the lightest edit, and I’m having some trouble with Pluto as the right category for Astarte. Your mileage will vary on which, if any, deities to invoke; the author does not insist on any of them. Also, the definition of the astrological Ascendant on p. 114 is wrong (the Ascendant is not a planet, it is a point on the chart where the Eastern horizon crosses the Ecliptic, and connotes the sign in which this point occurs).

Harrison’s depth and breadth of experience and knowledge shine through despite these few small lapses, and this book is so full of interesting ideas and potential new directions that it ranks as one of my best new magic books of any kind. I plan to explore it in much more depth, assuming my wife (the Potions Mistress) will part with it long enough.

The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook
A Grimoire of Philtres, Exilirs, Oils, Incense, and Formulas for Ritual Use
Karen Harrison
ISBN: 9781578634910
Book (Paperback)
Weiser Books
6 x 9
256 pages
June 1, 2011

Review copyright 2011, Freeman Presson, all rights reserved. Complimentary review copy from Red Wheel/Weiser gratefully acknowledged, your mileage may vary, usw.

About freemanpresson

Healer, Celto-Cherokee Pagan, Priest, Frater of the Church of the Hermetic Sciences, sometime writer, astrologer.
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8 Responses to Review of The Herbal Alchemist’s Handbook

  1. Linda says:

    Great review Freeman :)

  2. karen1031 says:

    Thank you, Freeman, for your review of my book. It’s obvious that you take your reviewing seriously and actually read the books you review rather than just scanning them. In answer to a couple of your thoughts in the review regarding Astarte and her association with Pluto – sexuality is one of the attributes of Astarte and that is one of the aspects where She connects with the instinctual/sexual energies that Pluto rules. In addition, she is associated with war and Mars being the lower energy octave of Pluto, She makes a connection there. Astarte and Ishtar are often seen as varying names for this particular Goddess in that region of the world and I am also referring the Descent to the Underworld and that association with Pluto/Hades experiences.

    As far as Innanur, my illustrious editor did query me about that godname. It’s one that I have used and understood for years as being an Akkadian masculined name associated with Innana, not unlike Ishtar. Don’t find much if anything when researching the name, so perhaps it’s simply within my own practices during the years that I have made that association.

    And, you’re right, the Ascendent is not a planet but is a vital interpretation point in the astrological chart.

    Again, thanks so much for your review! Karen

  3. Good to hear from you! I did check for references to Inannur, in case it was something like you describe, or perhaps a deity from some other culture entirely that happened to sound like Her. We did find the following in one of the Sumerian hymns to Inanna: “To turn a man into a woman, or a woman into a man, is yours, O Inanna.”

    I also consider Inanna, Ishtar, and Astarte three expressions of the same Queen of Heaven (Sumerian, Akkadian, and Canaanite/Ugaritic). They all have somewhat different Descent stories. In the oldest Sumerian texts, Inanna, at the height of her power, is actually there to try to take over the underworld, and is put in her place. The other myths fell more in line with the more modern reading. The Descent myths were the one thing that made sense to me as a connecting link. It’s a fascinating and fertile area for study and meditation; we have been using aspects of it in ritual for many years.

    I am encountering your book at a good time in my own practice, too, which makes it all the more exciting. I don’t know if I said it explicitly in the review, but I really liked the structure of the book.

  4. No one gave me a hard time about “sage advice” in a review of an herbal. Pay attention out there!

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