Healing Plants of Greek Myth
by Angela Paine
Published by Moon Books
Publication date: April 29, 2022
Angela Paine’s Healing Plants of Greek Myth has a wonderfully focused subject area which it sticks to very well: exploring the plants which play roles in ancient Greek mythology, especially those which had medicinal use. It’s useful to note that unknown and potentially fictional plants do not make an appearance here; moly, for example, is not explored at all.
The book starts with a detailed introduction to the central deities, heroes, and stories of Greek mythology, as well as a lovely description of the author’s visit to the Asclepeion at Epidaurus. This provides good context and framework for the medicine and mythology to be discussed in the book, though a lot of this material will probably be familiar to anyone who has spent much time with Greek mythology. There is also some historical information given about the evolution of Greek society in antiquity, and medicine as it figures in the writings of Hippocrates, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Galen, and others.
Part two focuses on the sacred trees of Ancient Greece: oak, almond, ash, laurel, myrtle, willow, and many others, while part three explores plants and flowers of ancient Greek myth: artemisia, crocus, garlic, gentian, iris, and many others.
Each plant entry gives us some quotes about the plant from historians, and notes how the plant was used in mythology. It also includes a physical description of the plant, traditional medicinal uses, basic preparations, warnings about usage, and any revealing modern-day research about the plant. This last point is particularly useful to herbalists who wish to incorporate medicinal usage into their practice and understanding of these plants. It’s nice to see it paired with the mythological information, as the scientific and mythological approaches are usually on opposite ends of the herbalism spectrum, and rarely appear in the same volume.
Part four delves into poisonous plants, but in less detail — here, anecdotes are related, but there’s far less information about medicinal uses of these plants (I assume because the author didn’t want to tangle with the potential dangers of publishing this information, but I don’t really know), and these plants don’t get their own individual entries. The poisons are explored more through the lens of myth than that of medicine.
From what I can tell, the scientific and medicinal information presented here is very solid; this seems to be the Paine’s area of expertise. The mythological information is also generally well-researched. However, there are also a few spots where things are asserted as historical fact that are not certain (for example, that the kykeon of the Eleusinian Mysteries contained some psychoactive substance — a much-favored theory, but one which still does not boast solid proof). There are also a few historical statements that are just plain wrong, such as the idea that the ancient Greeks ever used the term “entheogen.” While it is linguistically rooted in Greek, “entheogen” is a neologism invented by ethnobotanists in the 1970s as an alternative to the terms “hallucinogen” and “psychedelic” that describes the spiritual experience of these plants.
There were also several places in the book where the author referred to her own prior writing, specifically the book The Healing Power of Celtic Plants, for additional information. In some cases this seems to be information that otherwise would have been included in this book, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t. I understand that the author may not have wished to reproduce the same information, but I found myself wishing that this book would stand on its own and have all the information since I haven’t read the other. As it is, I feel like I would have to buy that book in order to fully complete this one.
Aside from these issues, I really enjoyed Healing Plants of Greek Myth, and I thought it contained a lot of great information. It’s well-referenced and has many areas where the reader could easily pursue further research — it has 348 pages, but pages 274 onward are all reference and bibliography materials. Some readers might not value this, but especially when writing about the ancient world, it’s very important to find and share primary sources. It’s also really nice to see a book like this written by someone with a solid scientific and medicinal background, complete with citations of actual scientific research.
Beyond the very occasional mention of related practices, Healing Plants of Greek Myth sticks purely to the realm of Hellenism, and doesn’t make any stabs at eclecticism. Without impugning the nature of eclecticism and the desire for synthesized belief, I think that the eclectic approach can sometimes present a challenge to witches who want to avoid accidental cultural appropriation, or to explore a specific practice from a specific culture, rather than a whole field of related practices that don’t have a common culture tying them together. By staying on the topic of Hellenic plant knowledge and use, Healing Plants of Greek Myth stays focused and accomplishes its goals. I think anyone who has even a basic interest in herbalism or Greek mythology is likely to get a lot out of this book; I know I did.
Angela Paine comes from an academic background: PhD in the chemistry of medicinal plants and first degree in Human Physiology. She grew up on a beautiful farm overlooking the Weald of Kent where she absorbed her plant knowledge from her botanist father. Visit her page on Moon Books to see more information on her other published works, The Healing Power of Celtic Plants and Healing Plants of the Celtic Druids. You can also find Angela on Instagram.
About the author:
Sarah McMenomy is a visionary artist, author, and witch. Pulling inspiration from trance states, dreams, auras, psychedelia, and the natural world, she weaves together themes of nature and the occult in her artwork and writing. She has created art and written for books, magazines, games, and more, as well as producing digital fine art prints and acrylic paintings.
She is the creator of The Entanglement Tarot, a hex-shaped occult Tarot deck designed for spell-craft.
She is co-runner of Pagan Pages, for which she also writes articles and book reviews, and she also publishes art on her Portfolio site and other work on her Tumblr.