Summer's been different this year. While June had been hot and dry, July and August both had longer phases of colder weather and rain. And right now - in the middle of August -, we are sitting here with woolen clothes and blankets after a surprise rain shower. This feels like a preview of fall. And I can't help but think of this recurring phenomenon that happens each year, usually around late August or somewhen in early September... when there's a sense of change in the air, the first real glimpse of fall. This is when I tend to get a little nervous... it's time to prepare for the colder seasons - it's time to harvest and focus on stocks!
When I think about the prospect of fall and winter right now, I feel an intense desire to fill up our handcrafted medicine chest. If we look back at traditions of hundreds of years ago, it seems that this need during this exact period of time each year, is very wide spread.
We like to look at the different phases of a year in the way the Celts figured them out a long time ago. There is the two solstices in summer and winter (when there's a change of whether day or night is longer) and inbetween these two there are the two equinoxes in spring and fall (where day and night have the same length). These four dates mark the beginnings / endings of the four seasons. And then in between these four points in time, there are four more dates of importance, which mark the heights of each season: Imbolc (winter), Beltane (spring), Lughnasadh (summer) and Samhain (fall).
So if you follow this logic, August - Lughnasadh is celebrated on August 1 - marks the peak of summer - we're half way through this warmest time of the year and also already half on our way to fall. There's been plenty of time for plants to grow while it's been warm, but the end of this abundance is already in sight also...
No wonder people have always felt like celebrating this special time of the year! In some parts of this world - like southern Germany and Austria -, there's a catholic celebration called "Maria Himmelfahrt" (assumption of mary) that is still happening today. Right in the middle of August, people collect medicinal herbs from garden and wilderness, make bunches from them and take them to church on August 15. These bunches are then dried and the herbs are used throughout the next year. In catholic folklore they are said to have extra healing power and the bunches are said to protect humans, animals and even the homes of people.
Why I refer to catholic tradition here is mostly due to the fact that I grew up with it and still experience it as fairly familiar. As soon as I was old enough I left the catholic church and today we are both not part of any religious group, but I am deeply fascinated with pagan tradition or "the old ways" - basically: celebrations that are more about nature than abstract gods. And so the holiday "Maria Himmelfahrt" is interesting for me, not so much in itself and its meaning, but more when it comes to the question of its origins - which may or may not lie in the pagan fest "Lughnasadh" - and the fact that this time of the year, that feels so special to myself, has been of meaning to people for ages...
Long before the catholic church went on their mission to gain a monopoly on people's belief, humans were already eager to make sense of the mysteries of nature. If you have a look at the celtic calendar of celebrations throughout one year, it's fascinating to compare the dates with some of the bigger celebrations of the catholic church.
The following connections can all be found in various sources:
I've read in many sources that the reason for these connections is the following: when the catholic church tried to bring people from polytheism (many gods) to their monotheism (one god), they were struggling to keep people from their celebrations throughout the year. And so they replaced them - with their own traditions and stories and just slightly different dates.
But all of this is not an exact science. Different people celebrated similar fests on different dates over time. And for a long period of time - up until today actually - paganism and catholicism have existed side by side. A catholic tradition of celebrating "all saints" on November 1 dates back to the 8th century for example.
The time from August 15 ("assumption of mary") to 12 September - called "Frauendreißiger" (I couldn't find an official translation, ~ "women thirties") is said to be perfect for harvesting medicinal plants, roots and aromatic herbs in catholic tradition while Lughnasadh (1 August), named after the god Lugh, historically involved great gatherings that included religious ceremonies, ritual athletic contests, feasting, matchmaking and trading. Modern pagans celebrate Lughnasadh as a harvest festival, when the first crops of the year would traditionally have been reaped. Both sounds reasonable...
When I walk around garden, meadows or forest I will see wild medicinal plants galore, many of them in bloom still, but - visibly - not for much longer. If I don't pick them now - I might not get the chance anymore to stock up our medicinals for the next year.
What I take from folklore is this: the connection to nature - which can at some points be found in christian tradition, but is all the more obvious in paganism. I like to look at the celtic calendar as a reference from time to time. I take what I experience on my many walks through nature and compare it to where we are on the calendar to get a better grasp of time and rhythm. And I also like to have a look at what's been done over time, on traditons that revolve around the rhythm of the year, and see what makes sense for us. But always with a critical look, never following any of it blindly. In short: I like to take what's old and translate it to this modern time and to what fits us personally.
And so yesterday, in the evening glow, in company of three cats, I went to pick wild medicinals around our little garden space. Why? Simply to celebrate and to remind myself of the abundance of wild medicinals in our direct surroundings...
And here's how it can be done...
Generally speaking: for a wild medicinal bunch you can use whatever (wild) plant you can identify safely that may be of use medicinally in the coming year. In catholic tradition, there are 7, 9, 11 or up to 99 (!) plants that may be part of an herb bunch - number and choice of plants vary from village to village and both have symbolic meaning - mullein is usually part of the bunch and gets placed in the middle.
The following list contains all the wild medicinals I used for my wild medicinal herb bunch. There are far more wild medicinals around this time of the year, but my plan was to only pick what I could find on a short walk in a close distance...
Mullein: This is an absolute all-round talent in terms of medicinal uses. It's said to be antiviral, pain-relieving, antipyretic and mucolytic. It's traditionally been used for sore throats, coughs and the flu.
Yarrow: This one's used for digestive problems of all sorts. It's said to be anticonvulsant, calming, antibacterial and antipyretic. It's also used to help regulate the menstrual cycle.
Ribwort plantain: An absolutely amazing plant to dissolve mucus and very helpful to prevent sinusitises. Another very popular use is as a remedy for allergic reactions, for example nettle stings or mosquito bites.
Johanniskraut: Best known as "red oil" to treat external irritations and wounds as well as a soft calmative antidepressant.
Dandelion: Most popular as an aid for the liver. But its also said to help with digestive problems in general due to its diuretic effect.
Wild thyme: Typically used for issues with the respiratory system or the throat - and for colds in general.
Wild oregano: Another herb to stimulate digestion and help with digestional issues. Good news that it's delicious, too.
Other common plants are: lady's mantle, chamomile, peppermint, hazelnut, calendula, goldenrod, lovage, rose, mugwort, wormwood, arnica, valerian, nettle,...
Traditional uses are tea, smoke cleansing and making herb powder for humans and non-human animals. Basically you can use the herbs - individually or mixed - for whatever they're useful for, just in the way you would use the herbs if you'd collected them in any other way.
Making these bunches is really just a way of celebrating the abundance of wild medicinals and a reminder of what is to be found in our direct surroundings.
I hope you enjoy making your own wild medicinal herb bunch!