Herbs in Worship
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Marshall and Patty
Posted on: January 16, 1999

What herbs are used to worship certain gods?

Herbs are inextricably associated with many religions in the world. It is impossible to document all the herbs and faiths that have been linked in this posting. No doubt all of the major faiths have some connection to plants in one form or another. This is a fascinating topic which would require a lifetime of study to fully grasp and appreciate the full extent of the role herbs have had in worship.

Some books worth looking at include "Bible Plants for American Gardens", "The Master Book of Herbalism" (European paganism), and "Sacred Plant Medicine" (native American ritualism) – all available from Richters. A good university research library will have many more.

What follows below is a serendipitous but brief look at the vast subject.

The mycologist, Gordon Wasson, pointed out that the only plant ever to be deified is the soma plant. This plant-god is described in the ancient Hindu religious texts but its exact identity has never been resolved. Wasson argued in his book, "Soma", that the plant was the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), a cosmopolitan poisonous mushroom known to have been used in ancient rituals throughout Asia to induce visions.

In Tibetan Buddhism, which traces its origins to Indian Buddhism, one of the secret tantras is closely associated with the myrobalan tree (Phyllanthus emblica). In this tantra the Medicine Buddha is depicted holding a branch of myrobalan with a plum-like fruit. In Tibetan and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, myrobalan is considered one of the most important medicinal plants, with almost a panacea-like reputation and reverence.

Of course, there are many plants that have assisted in religious practice, if not serving a central role. In native American traditions, the use of sage (Artemisia ludoviciana and Salvia apiana) is widespread as a purifying herb used to smudge the body and place. In European paganism, which thrived before the expansion of Christianity, many herbs were used to induce visions. Herbs such as mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) and stramonium (Dature stramonium) were used with respect.

Basil holds a special high office in Hinduism. Known as "tulsi" it is commonly planted around temples for protection. It is thought to be an emanation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. In Mexico, many plants possessed special religious powers; some include ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa) and diviner’s sage (Salvia divinorum) as well as various hallucinogenic mushrooms. In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there is still preserved a rich traditiona of divinatory rituals in which wild mushrooms are consumed to bring people closer to God.

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