Judith Hawkins-Tillirson is a well-known and respected herbalist. Skilled in the arts of tarot, Qabalah, and astrology, she is an ongoing member of a Witchcraft coven since the 1970s. Judith has been active in the arcane arts for over forty years, and lives in Georgia with her husband and seven cats. Judith, let me start by talking about your herbal writings.
In the writing of your excellent The Weiser Concise Guide to Herbal Magick, you have given the reader plenty of useful information about plants associated with magick, spell work, and about plants used in ceremonies. Would you say, this is the result of a lifetime of active participation, learning, and discoveries as a follower of Witchcraft practices?
Judith Hawkins-Tillirson: Lee, I need to update the feline data — at present I steward “just the six.” My oldest boy, Grizzle, died at age 15 of kidney failure, shortly after the book went to press. Back to herbs!
In my early Craft studies, I discovered a distinct call towards herbs, and I began to keep a small garden of magical, medicinal, and culinary herbs. The changes in my garden have always reflected the changes in my life’s circumstances — from many pots of herbs on the terrace of my 3rd-floor apartment in Canada, to a lush quarter-acre herb and vegetable garden in Georgia, protected from marauding fauna by an electric fence, to a few pots of basil and rosemary on my only sunny windowsill.
My early Craft instruction and my love of herbs certainly impelled me along that garden path. We studied the columns of correspondences of the old Golden Dawn system (later published by Crowley as 777), including Column XXXIX, “Plants, Real and Imaginary.” I am given to understand that while related material, such as the Perfumes (Incenses), are part of the curricula of some modern G:.D:. schools, the Plants are not. Incense is just sexier than weeds, I guess.
What Witch path do you follow and call your own?
I have been a member of one Traditional European Witchcraft Coven for over 30 years, now. We are active in our study of Qabala, not only for its own sake but also because we find those studies to provide a certain understanding of Craft lore which, often, might otherwise simply mystify.
Have you had paranormal experiences you could share with the readers?
I have been privileged to experience several “other-life” glimpses, in contexts as varied as my ritual interview before I was accepted to receive my First Degree Witchcraft Initiation; at one moment in my CoMasonic Fellow-Craft Initiation (I haven’t been active in CoMasonry for over 15 years now), and while flipping through a knife-making-supply catalogue, admiring the Mammoth ivory handle materials. Those were the most vivid and long-lasting, although “long-lasting” in this context is a little misleading; those experiences were over in seconds, during which I lived an entire life. I did not make these lives up–the “my whole life flashed before my eyes” thing? That was very much the nature of these experiences. I’m certain that many others involved in occult studies have found that their personal “veils” between their lives here-and-now, and there-and-then, are thin and part at the most unexpected times. Witchcraft, in particular, is nothing if not an experiential discipline — this is why, in the end, published materials always fail.
What is your personal favorite spirit encounter?
It’s really my only spirit encounter, I’m afraid, if it was that! (In the sense you mean, I think.) It took place shortly after my first marriage, in the early 70s. Wintertime, we were entertaining some friends in our shabby living-room when suddenly every cat in the room, six or so, suddenly crouched flat-out, fur all a-bush, eyes blazing & frightened, each of them looking fixedly at one point in the room near the top of the window. All of us humanfolk’s skin goosebumped at the same time. The cats held their poses for perhaps an eerie minute, and then they all relaxed at the same time. I still have no idea what it was they were looking at. (Which in retrospect may be a good thing!)
Do you believe more people see ghosts today due to people being more aware of such things, and open to them?
Perhaps. Alice Bailey wrote that World War I marked a stage in the evolution of the human psyche, and as our species’ sensitivities evolve, so, we can suggest, have the proliferation of experiences of the extra-mundane. Or: perhaps it is that we have come to a point where we so badly need to believe in and experience spiritual phenomena. We are, after all, in the Age of Kali, almost drowning hourly in negative, horrifying, materiality, that any suggestion of a realm other than the one we currently inhabit is welcome, not to mention necessary for psychic sanity!
How often do you use plant magick, personally? Do you think that mugwort, among others, makes a tea for opening the pathway to see the paranormal? Is there a special plant(s) you might suggest for such ventures?
I use plant magick every time I go out into my garden and discuss pollination of my squashes with the visiting bumblebees and honeybees. When I am with my plants, I try to listen to them; they are not a collection of separate, senseless things, but colonies of intelligences different from human. That “magick,” and respect, took me many years to grow into.
But Mugwort! Oh yes, Mugwort has been used for centuries, if not millennia, to open psychic pathways in a person. It is the “friendliest” (or least toxic) of the Artemesias. According to Greek mythology it was created by Artemis, the Moon Goddess, and it is undoubtedly because of this traditional association that the Qabalist Éliphas Lévi counted it among the herbs of Yesod, the Sphere of the Moon, on the Tree of Life. But long before Lévi, medicine people, shamans used Mugwort to assist in their spirit excursions. In early February this year, the first ever identified-as-such Celtic Druid gravesite was found in Essex, dated to the mid-1st century C.E. It contained the remains and gear of a Druid “chief.” One article mentions divining rods (for “fortune telling”) a board game, set up, also thought to be oracular purpose, and “a strainer bowl last used to brew Artemesia-containing tea . . .”
Dion Fortune explained the relationship of the Moon and Earth in The Mystical Qabalah. The two spheres share one “soul.” The pathways to Luna’s realm — Luna, Goddess of Night, Dreams, and Visions — is therefore most easily and clearly accessed to those conscious of the connection. This is where Mugwort comes in, in this case as the actual, physical, key to unlock the visions (ideally, the true ones) of Luna. I’ve drunk the tea — one heaping tablespoon of dried herb to a cup of boiling water, steep 10 minutes and strain, sweeten with plenty of honey — to invite “true dreaming.” (Yes, it worked. Of course.) I’ve also read about stuffing a small pillow with the dried herb and sleeping with it close enough to smell, but I haven’t tried with that method myself.
These sorts of things are always best carried out with rather clear intention, and also some internal and external preparation; you want to make, and then drink the tea meditatively, while reflecting on your purpose, to achieve a True Dream concerning ______ — fill in your blank — and try to stay in that respectful, open consciousness as you slip into your tidied bed.
And I very seriously feel that Mugwort is the safest of all the herbs used for traveling the “Roads of Night,” for someone not raised in a shamanic culture.
What are your chief interests in tarot and the Qabalah?
It was Astrology first, from early high school, then in my senior year I bought my first Tarot deck, a Rider-Waite. The Qabala came years later! And what I wanted from them was to understand — to understand me, and my place in the Universe, and as much of the Universe Itself that a human would be able to apprehend. As I studied and developed in each of those areas, I saw them relating — not really as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, but more like — remember biology books, with their transparencies — skin, turn the page, musculature, turn the page, nervous system — each of those arcane studies are different layers of, or maybe lenses to view, the One Thing. Study of the Qabala is particularly edifying, not only because it’s the ultimate filing system, but as you work with it you begin to appreciate how the different aspects of the One Thing (or Reality, or whatever one calls it) relate.
Many consider your book about herbs one of the ultimate herbal bibles…do you agree, and why?
Oh, wow. Who did you say I make that check out to? Seriously — I would never be able to bring myself to think that! I am profoundly flattered by that description, but there are far too many “herbal bibles” I myself rely upon too often ever to think my one little book is the be-all and end-all of magical herbalism. The first magical herbal I studied was Paul Huson’s Mastering Herbalism, and it is still the sine-qua-non for anyone serious about magical herbalism. Paul Beryl has penned some remarkable, wonderful books on the subject, and Scott Cunningham’s many works — and a video he made — about magical herbalism inspire me to this day. These books are of course within the “traditional” Wicca/Ceremonial approach to magical herbalism, but there are other so many other places to start — the “interspecies communication” in the Findhorn Community-inspired work with nature spirits, plant devas, and the like. The subject itself is organic and growing, and so, I’m hopeful to claim, will be the investigations into it.
What are your writing plans for the future?
Aww, jeeze. My husband threatens divorce were I to take it up again, but — I think — he was joking. I’d love to be able to publish the entire book, as I wrote it, with all its (600) footnotes, since the book published as it is is perhaps half its original length. (My editors, Nancy and Jim Wasserman, have earned easily themselves places of honor in the Pantheon of Long-suffering Editors!) Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Pentacle Magazine (UK) titled “The Plants of Brigid” (for their Imbolc issue, of course!). I found my researches into Goddess/plant links so very fascinating, if I were to write more occult nonfiction I think it’d be in that area. I love research!
Do you see contemporary times as becoming more friendly to Witches and herbalists?
I’d like to state, guardedly, “One lives in hope.” At the same time, I’d like to quote Monty Python’s “No-body expects the Spanish Inquisition!” I think Magicians of all flavors are tending to become more open about their activities, so let us pray that we are granted the tolerance guaranteed in this country’s Bill of Rights — or at least benign neglect! Herbalists, though, that’s another matter! I keep seeing evidence that herbal medicine, at least some aspects of it, is becoming virtually mainstream. Again, with guarded optimism, I think this is a good thing, but what folks often forget is that just because something’s “just a plant” and “natural” does not make it categorically harmless. Digitalis, derived from Squill now more than Foxglove, can certainly kill. St. John’s Wort will interfere with many psychoactive pharmaceuticals, not to mention blood-thinning medications. Gingko biloba, prized for increasing blood flow to the brain, has been known to increase it too much, to the point of aneurism. These plants are *drugs,* is my point, and I would urge those preferring a natural pharmacopoeia to a synthesized one to consult someone trained in medicinal herbcraft.
What would you advise to any person beginning a study of Witchcraft and herbalism?
I’d like to answer those separately.
For herbalism — and I’m talking about magical herbalism of course–the novice has a lot of good books to help get started. You also gotta grow some of these herbs, if it’s nothing but a pot or two on a windowsill. Visit nurseries and wander amongst the plants. Your local botanical garden will be a wonderful place to learn plant identification in situ. The leaves that are important are not those bound between covers, but growing on a stem. Keep trying to understand how magical plants relate to the other areas of magick in which you are interested — to take a simple example, look at traditional associations and see for yourself how Mars and Nettle are equivalent — or look deep into the velvety folds of a fragrant red Rose and visit Venus when She’s at home! They’re your Teachers!
In entering the Craft, you should understand that the published word can take you only so far. Of course I’m speaking from a Coven-orientation, but this holds true even more for someone beginning the Solitary Path, without benefit of a relationship to a living Teacher. At some point, after you’ve learned all the nuts-and-bolts about Deity, Festivals, Elements, Tools, all those things, you need to put down your books and spend time with yourself in nature. Meditation instructions of various types abound, online and in books: practice one of them, daily. There’s a tee-shirt slogan I love: “Enlightenment? Inquire within.” I love Scott Cunningham’s books for this reason — you’ll always find some version of what I consider his main Teaching: look inside. There’s where Deity lives, there’s where you’ll find the Goddess and the God, let Them instruct you in Magick. If you can’t–ok, then, here are some Spells.
If you are fortunate enough to find a Teacher, you need to exercise both courageous openness as well as some little teensy dab of sense. Often, a student will stay with a Teacher or Magical Group until the “fun” wears off and the real work kicks in. Then they’re off to find another Group, another Teacher — the unmistakable sign of the occult dilettante. They leave just before they begin their real Great Work, the work on themselves, begins. On the other hand, too many people stay in questionable, abusive or actually dangerous situations simply because they have not exercised the first lesson of our earthly realm, Malkuth — discrimination. If something seems “off” to you, doesn’t feel “right” — pay attention to that! Is that group more involved in “witch wars” than anything else? That should tell you a lot.