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LECTURE: From Carbuncles to Basilisks to Unicorns; On the “Fantastical” in Von Bingen
The 11th Century visionary mystic, musical composer, and herbalist Hildegard von Bingen has captured the hearts and minds of many in contemporary occulture, and rightly so. She was a fascinating polymath and a woman of deep tension, contradiction and obvious power in original thought. In her day she achieved international fame for the efficacy of her medicine despite many barriers such as a hostile patriarchal clerical structure and harsh personal upbringing. She is gaining attention in the present era of anthropology and religious studies as a source of earth honoring, plant-based mysticism from within early medieval Christendom. Similarly her name is growing in familiarity among the current magical revival and the culture of contemporary herbalism as a worker of curative folk magic with herbs, gemstones, animal parts, and of course prayer and song.

However, many more arcane aspects of her work remain underexplored. Her use of a constructed language, the “Lingua Ignota”, has hardly been touched by the magical culture at large, despite obvious magical applications and its resonance with the cipher-craft of later magical writers like Johannes Trithemius. Additionally, and even more controversially, the presence of so-called “legendary” or “fantastical” creatures in her medical work cannot be ignored. Her book Physica is a primary source of practical information on her herbal and natural cures. Physica contains 9 volumes exploring the powers of a wide range of natural materials: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals.

Hildegard was known to be an avid and discerning scholar, a woman of severe intellect who held rationality in high esteem even as she practiced fully visionary oracular trance in her vocation as a writer and abbess. On the one hand she was a mystic, but on the other she was, in so many ways, a true scientist in a time before our current ideas of scientific method and practice had taken shape. She demanded proof of her cures and their efficacy in a time when the threats of disease and blight facing the human race were far more brutal than anything we deal with today.

How then are we to explain the appearance of creatures such as the Dragon, the Unicorn, the Basilisk, and the legendary Carbuncle, a ruby-like gemstone said to glow mysteriously from within, in what is otherwise a rigorously road-tested and practical materia medica?

A common hand-waving technique is usually employed when these questions are raised. The presence of these creatures and beings are often explained away, even by practicing occultists, as superstition, or worse as ignorance. Hildegard’s knowledge and credentials are self-evident, given her acclaim during life, her embrace by an opportunistic Church structure that was powerless to suppress the efficacy of her work and instead elected to profit off it (or, for more orthodox believers, a papacy that recognized her visions as divine) and the widespread present-day interest in her work in herbal and alternative medicine circles as well as among magical practitioners. Von Bingen was clearly not ignorant and in fact had better access to scholarly materials than virtually any other woman in her time.

Another explanation often heard for the presence of unicorns and dragons in the Physica is that such creatures were interacted with then as they are today, as sympathetic creatures accessed through trance, as denizens of an intangible “spirit world”. This fails to satisfy, because these creatures and their remains are clearly being worked with physically in Physica, as when Hildegard encourages the reader to make a belt of the unicorn’s hide or to place the carbuncle on a sick person’s belly button to affect cure.

Physica itself is a fascinating work containing several spell-like cures and expressing ideas about vital life force and energy theories more often associated with the esoterica of Asia or South America than with Latin Christendom. In this class we will tease out a few of these workings and highlight Hildegard’s magical uses of several underrated herbs, with an eye toward exorcism and some exploration of the dynamic balance of life energies and the unique take on the humors pervading Von Bingen’s work.

Yet my focus, as an herbalist, researcher, medium, and magical practitioner, is on pushing the boundaries of our culture’s magical knowledge – on reviving and accessing greater magical potency and wisdom. I’m so glad we all know this is real, and many of us are initiating into traditional lineages, reviving traditional crafts, receiving spirit tutelage. This makes my soul soar but I still have questions:Simply put, if there be dragons, where are they and how can we access them?

I do not claim to have the answers at this time, but I have a good lead on who to ask for more information (hint: she was a profoundly gifted rhineland mystic during life, and seems ever more active centuries after death). Additionally, I can boast a good few years’ experience in the asking, and in this lecture and especially in the workshop to follow, it is my pleasure, delight, and holy writ to share some of these keys with you. I would hope that they might empower your herbal craft, your magic, and your search for truth. What are the limits of our vision in the current magical revival? What sorts of spiritual and magical creatures were accessible to our distant ancestors? How might we work with a text like Physica in contemporary herbal practice and an esoteric saint like Hildegard to open our eyes to a greater and clearer vision of the possibilities of the art magical?

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