Understanding Herbal Correspondences

The subject of magical correspondences is a complex one, and created from a variety of sources. To begin with, we have the traditional uses for herbs, both magical and medicinal, which come down to us in the accounts and survivals of folklore; some herbs were thought to attract fairies, other to dispel disease and negativity, some were hung up as a protective measure and so on.  We also have the assignations given to herbs by various religions, and different plants used in the worship of specific gods, or associated with them in mythology. Where I have assigned gods and goddesses to herbs it is because those plants were connected with those particular deities either in their mythology or worship. I have seen books and websites that arbitrarily assign gods to herbs, while others ascribe them based on their planetary rulers, but this is incorrect. Why would a plant from China or the New World be sacred to a Greek god when those plants were unknown in ancient Greece, for example? Treat such assignations with caution.  

When you look up the correspondences of a plant, you may read that such and such an herb is ruled by the sun or Mercury and so on. Most of this lore is from mediaeval astrologers who believed that all herbs and plants came under the rulership of the planets:

  • Sun: The sun is dynamic and expansive. Herbs ruled by the sun turn towards the sun or have yellow flowers like marigold, St John’s wort and dandelion.
  • Mars: Mars is the planet of war, so Mars plants symbolise a war-like spirit and generally have thorns or stings, like thistles and nettles.
  • Saturn: Saturn is the planet of aging, limitation and death, so Saturn plants are slow growing or long-living and woody, thrive in the shade, have deep roots, or are poisonous, foul smelling or considered evil, such as hemlock and henbane. 
  • Mercury: Mercury is the planet of communication, so Mercury plants include fast-growing weeds, creepers and winding plants, or plants with hairy, fuzzy or finely divided leaves. They may be aromatic.
  • Venus: Venus is the planet of love and beauty, so Venus plants overwhelm the senses with sweet scents and lovely flowers, red fruits or soft, furry leaves.
  • Moon: The moon governs the tides, and moon plants often grow near water or have a high water content or juicy leaves.  They may have white flowers or moon-shaped leaves or seed pods.
  • Jupiter: Jupiter is the bringer of abundance, so Jupiter plants are usually big and bold, and often edible. 

For at least a couple of thousand years and right up to the seventeenth century and beyond, it was usual for physicians to take astrological influences into account when formulating treatments for their patients, based on which planet had caused the disease or which part of the body was afflicted:

  • Sun – heart, spine, general vitality
  • Moon – stomach, digestive system
  • Mercury – brain, five senses, hands
  • Venus – throat, kidneys, ovaries
  • Mars – muscles, head
  • Jupiter – liver, thighs, feet, growth
  • Saturn – skin, hair, teeth, bones

This means that if you had a heart problem, you would treat it with herbs of the sun, or if you had a bone problem, you would treat it with herbs of Saturn.  The astrologer-herbalist tradition was recorded most comprehensively in The Compleat Herbal (1653) by Nicholas Culpeper. 

Naturally, ritual magicians also worked to the same astrological principles:

  • Sun – dynamic, male and expansive energy. Sun rules over prosperity and general protection
  • Moon – subtle, feminine and inward looking energy. The moon rules the instinct, emotions and psychic abilities
  • Mercury – rules the mind, intellect and communication
  • Venus – feminine, creative, harmonious and loving energy
  • Mars – male, assertive, spontaneous and daring energy
  • Jupiter – benign, expansive and optimistic energy
  • Saturn – Saturn’s energy is to do with limitation, change, the crystallisation of efforts and with endings

The more recently discovered planets have also been assigned traits:

  • Uranus – inspirational, inventive and intuitive.
  • Neptune – passive, visionary and dreamy.
  • Pluto – the energy of Pluto is sexual.

The old astrologer-herbalists of Europe assigned planets and elements to each known herb according to its characteristics and virtues. This means that New World and oriental plants generally do not have such attributions, though modern magical-herbalists are attempting to rectify this – some with more skill and understanding than others, it has to be said, so be wary when you come across them.

The Elements

In modern Pagan magic we also work with the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. The four elements as the basic building blocks of creation were first defined by Empedocles, a fifth century BCE philosopher from Sicily who was an initiate of several mystery traditions. His Tetrasomia or ‘Doctrine of the Four Elements’ influenced Western philosophy and magic in the succeeding millennia. He didn’t actually call these four principles ‘elements’ (stoikheia), but ‘roots’ (rhizai), since he was a magical herbalist. For him, the elements were not just physical forms but manifested spiritual essences or even god energies; they were the fourfold roots of everything which had existed in fixed quantities since the beginning of the universe, not as isolated things, but part of the whole.

  • ·         EarthThe powers of earth are concerned with what is manifest, the material, the fixed, the solid, the practical, with what is rooted. Earth magic is concerned with manifestation, business, health, practicality, wealth, stability, grounding and centring, fertility and agriculture. Earth plants tend to be nourishing or earthy-smelling, like cypress and patchouli.
  • Air – The powers of air are concerned with the intellect, the powers of the mind, knowledge (as opposed to wisdom), logic, inspiration, information, teaching, memory, thought and communication. Like the other elements, the powers of air can be constructive or destructive. Air magic is usually concerned with the intellectual or the spiritual, and in ritual air is symbolised through the use of perfume or incense. Air plants tend to be freshly fragrant such as bergamot, lavender, lemon grass, mint and pine.
  • Water – Water is a liquid, like the blood which flows through our veins. It is associated with the emotions, feelings and the subconscious, and water magic is usually concerned with divination and scrying. Water plants are juicy and fleshy, or grow near water, such iris, lemon and jasmine.
  • Fire – Fire is the most mysterious of all the elements. It seems almost supernatural in comparison to earth, air or water, which are states of matter while fire is energy. Fire magic is concerned with creativity, life energy and zeal. Fire gives us vitality, igniting action, animation and movement. It sparks courage and acts of bravery. It heats passion and enthusiasm. Fire is the power of inner sight and creative vision, directing it and controlling it to make it manifest in the world.  Fire plants tend to have fiery sap or to taste hot like ginger, or warm perfumes, like carnation, clove and cinnamon. 

© Anna Franklin, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Llewellyn, 2018

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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