A wise sage once told me “where there is great light, there is great darkness.” For many, this is especially true during the festive holiday season between Thanksgiving and New Year”s. This is a time when expectations run high — expectations of ourselves and of those we love. Old family hurts and rivalries often come to the surface. Along with an awareness of all the good in our lives, we find ourselves dwelling on what we lack.
Indeed the holidays can be a bitter time for some among us leading to what is commonly called the “holiday blues,” a strange, depressive melancholy. Amidst the glitter, colorful lights and giddy feasts, we may not realize that the holidays are also the time when there is a significant increase in domestic violence, murders, suicides, and according to one study, a notable rise by one third of heart attacks.
In short, the holiday season is a time that brings out crazy behavior in some, and it is possible to spend many a sleepless night trying to understand what can only be deemed irrational.
Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the symbolic origin of at least some of those colorful Christmas ornaments hanging on the tree was to serve as talismans against dark spirits.
Once upon a time, traditional country healers and herbalists were sought to create talismans and charms, along with intentional rites and affirmations for healing troubled spirits. Yes, I know, you may think me crazy to go to resort to such thought, however throughout my career as an herbalist and healer, I have created and found such articles to be of benefit whether I really believed they had any power or not. The main thing is that the recipient believes in them, but sometimes it seems even that may not be necessary if it is created with a strong enough intention.
I’m reminded of my own years of study of the Tarot based on the teachings of Paul Foster Case. All transformation begins with the question, “What do you want?” It is not always so easy to identify our needs clearly. As much as we strive to fulfill every one of our needs, most of us fail to come to a clear enough intention to accomplish anything on the spiritual level. Instead we try to fill our needs with “things.”
So what do we do once a need is identified? We need to communicate it to the deepest level of our being. It is where the “word is made flesh,” where spirit takes on a corporeal form. Perhaps what we are seeking is represented by an image, a deity, tarot card, a song, a poem, an herb, or stone. Since prehistoric times, this encapsulation of intent into a material form has resulted in the creation of stone Venus figures, saints” relics, the black Madonna, the cross, Tibetan thangkas and more.
As herbalists, we can develop our own symbolic meaning of herbs, stones or other natural objects and imbue them with intention to create talismans for dispelling negativity and promoting a healing of spirit. It can be as simple as taking a small pinch of specially selected herbs and tying them in a small pouch for the recipient to wear or carry for a specific period, or to set on their altar, or hang on a tree.
I codified my own symbolic plant system in the Herbal Tarot. Following are some of the associations I assigned to the Major Arcana:
The Fool = Ginseng: The Fool represents infinite possibility and pure energy. Ginseng is an herb that is used for energy.
The Magician = Astragalus: Astragalus is a Qi tonic as well as an immune tonic. As such it has more specific Qi-tonifying properties that incorporate both protective and creative qualities.
The High Priestess = Peony root: Peony root is a blood tonic and antispasmodic that works internally as the High Priestess develops her knowledge through internal intuitive powers.
Death = Elderflower: For centuries, the elder tree has been planted in European and North American cemeteries to protect against negative spirits.
The Herbal Tarot represents my own personal attributions. If they resonate with you, great; if not (and even if they do) it would be good for you to make your own assignments.
To make a talisman, set a clear intention that flows through every aspect of its creation, including meditation, thought, song, breath, and more.
I recently made a talisman for a friend who had a problem understanding her occasional anger and fights with a man she loves. She found herself unable to sleep trying to understand why they were squabbling. So, not only were the fights a disturbance, but also dwelling on them in an effort to figure them out. Our ancestors might have blamed such problems on some passing negative spirit or energy to which they were vulnerable.
With that in mind, my goal was to remedy the vulnerability through strong intention and to set in motion higher qualities. I cut a small bright red cloth into a four-inch square. On it I placed a small amethyst crystal for higher consciousness. I then strolled around my herb garden and gathered a small bit of lemon balm for depression, rosemary for spiritual awareness, rose petals for love, and Artemisia for “liverish” anger. Using the smallest amount of each I folded the cloth to form a pouch and tied it with a piece of leather. (I just used what I had on hand; I could have used a ribbon, had a special pouch, or whatever.)
I gave her the talisman and told her to either wear it or keep it in some special place and three times a day hold it in both hands to her heart or third eye of her forehead and repeat the Sanskrit mantra that invokes peace: “Om Shantih Om.”
When I first inquired how things had developed for her some three or four days afterward, things still seemed to be a little rocky. She said, “Short answer – worse for a couple days and much better now. Thanksgiving evening I got really triggered (nice day, HORRIBLE night) so I sat with the talisman on my heart for 30 minutes chanting alone in a room until I was ready to talk with him again. It was powerful, and definitely helped in that moment. I was calm, grounded, open, and ready to share my feelings without a charge. But I didn’t handle his responses well, and we spiraled, so ultimately that night didn’t work out at all.”
After another week, it seems that the ‘magic’ kicked in with decidedly remarkable improvement attested by her most recent response: “Since Tuesday of last week, we’ve only been getting better and better, closer and happier. I love him so much! God help me, I’m in love with him for better or for worse, and so we have to work out our shit one way or another! We are so incredibly good together, and I truly don’t see either one of us ever leaving this!”
Only on the most superficial levels do the problems we manifest involve issues of finance, relationships, work, etc. — at the deepest level it is always a spiritual crisis. At these times it is important to realize that the ideal we are seeking is only imperfectly manifested in a material form. Spiritual dis-ease is really a falling out of contact with our source, higher nature. Herbalists and other health care providers often see patients with problems that medicines just can’t touch. What we can do is set a strong intention and space for healing to occur. Talismans are created for just that purpose.
If you find the holiday blues or others’ troubled energy sucking the joy out of your festivities, consider making an herbal talisman and hanging it on your tree or over the door of your home. Set your worries aside and enjoy the season.