Book Review: The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners by Wolf D Storl

The Herbal Lore of Wise Women and Wortcunners by Wolf D Storl (cultural ecologist) is an interesting look at the history of herb lore and those who practiced throughout the larger history of this world. It’s an extensive book despite only being 384 pages long, looking at various herbal traditions from around the world. Storl has apprenticed with many different herbalists, learning and amassing a large amount of knowledge on plants and plantlore.

He looks at herbalism from many different angles and challenges the reader to think beyond the ‘medical’ and look to the spiritual when working with plants. He presents the argument that our ancestors (including the Neolithic) were very much in tune with the spirit of the plant and therefore acted more intuitively when gathering plant material. He also argues the benefits of whole plant medicine instead of the isolating of one particular gene or element to treat a person; the book presents the idea that holistically speaking, the whole is better when dealing with herbs for medicine – a view shared by most herbalists. Some herbs to this day have not been able to be scientifically reduced to the one compound or chemical that makes it work.

He presents the idea that the wise women and wortcunners of old were not just herbalists in their own right, or just botanists and pharmacologists but also shamanic practitioners and keepers of the occult knowledge about the powerful properties of herbs and plants. He delves into the world of shamanism, looking at how ancient peoples interacted with the natural world around them and the abundance of plant life. Plants are an important part of any life, whether it is for the shamanic practitioner, indigenous person or the individual using them to flavour food – which he also addresses in his chapter on medicine as food. He encourages connecting with the plant and giving offerings in honour of the material it provides. Today many herbalists who are also Pagan, Shamans or shamanistic in their approach to working with plant energy will do this, whether the offering is of a personal nature or simply something to feed and help the plant grow.

His analogy of a modern herbalist was not one I would agree with as a herbalist myself, Storl says; "It appears these herbalists are a strange, secretive, unconventional lot. To the anthropologist, they have much in common with the shamans, medicine men, and witch doctors of the primitive societies that the academics study. Often they dress funny, live in unusual places, have odd habits (such as not cutting their hair - "hair is an antenna with which to pick up vibrations"), eat a strange (often vegetarian) diet, are "religious" but not "churchy", do not drink strong spirits and the like" (pg 28), most herbalists tend to wear white coats and work within a clinical scope. I believe he was referring to herbalists who still observe the traditional ways and are not looking to be clinical or medical in their approach.

Storl explains how to become a herbalist today, looking at the different areas such as collecting the material, distillation, administering the medicine and more. He also encourages people to become gardeners, to understand the cycle of the plants and to know what it is they are using which is common sense to me. A part I found particularly interesting was the chapter exploring herbs as dyes and fabrics. He of course discusses hemp as a material and the succession of local dyes and plant material being lost as an artform as more glamorous colours (saffron to mention one) came in from other countries.

He also discusses the Banes and their place in herbal history, the information is quite rounded and full given the subject manner. There are a couple of historical recipes used in context to explain the use of Banes such as the Solanaceae family, Henbane, Hemlock and Aconite (to name a few). He discusses the lore of the witch and the place it plays in history and even to this modern day. He touches on a lot of different areas, looking into mythology to share ideas on some of the more poisonous herbs, he mentions them being part of Hecate’s garden, understanding banes in her role as Goddess of the Crossroads, the Otherworld, Witches and Magic.

Overall it’s a fantastic book, one I would recommend anyone with an interest in herblore to acquire. In some areas Storl does get quite scholarly, especially when he gets into etymology of words, but generally it is an enjoyable book with something for everyone. If you’re a student of history, mythology or herblore, I would say make the investment because I don’t think you’ll be sorry for it.