By Isabella @TheWandCarver
Recently I was asked this question. I must remember that not everybody knows the old English/Welsh/Irish/Scottish words for things. To be fair, neither do I in some circumstances, but wort cunning is a very familiar occupation to me. To put it plainly, it is working with herbs and plants. That is the very simplest explanation, but it very slightly scratches the surface. Wort is an old English word for herbs and useful plants. Cunning is the art of working with herbs/plants [or anything] for the purposes of healing/leechdom, charming, protecting, and binding.
Still, this doesn’t fully explain, however, at least now we’re mostly all on the same page. To be a successful wort cunner it takes many years of study – reading and working with herbs and plants, trial and error; in truth, it is an on-going, life-long mission. If you are fortunate, you might have a cunning parent or grandparent who can teach you much along the way. I was very fortunate to have my Nana for the first 22 years of my life to at least get me started in the right direction. I’m forty years passed that now, and still learning.
I’m not trying to teach you how to suck eggs here. There are so many reading this whom already have a fantastic working knowledge of wort cunning and the ones just starting out would do well to buy a few good books, grow some herbs, and get stuck in to your learning experience. What I do want to point out is, just buying and growing herbs successfully, reading a couple of good books, does not a wort cunner make. You must learn when to plant and harvest, chants to say during planting, during harvest, whilst preparing for whatever purpose you have in mind, and other mysteries. That is, if you want the best results.
If you don’t have a wort cunner in the family, then what? It’s alright. The old ones didn’t, either. In many cases, the ones we’ve learned from as the information was handed down through word of mouth and if we’re lucky, published in books, simply made it up as they went, in a way. You wild-gather some plants or herbs…or buy little cups of baby herbs or seeds and plant them. Find out the right time of year to plant…the right planetary hour and day to plant and to harvest…care for them, and watch them grow. Read everything you can about the correspondences of the herbs and plants, such as their element[s], planetary correspondence, deities, zodiac. Also, read what each is or has been used for what problem by others. A very useful first book of herbs is Scott Cunningham’s Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs, 1985. It not only has herbs listed in it but also has a great deal of woods, flowers, and other plant life which have magickal powers. Another informative book to have on your bookshelf is a yearly Almanac. An Almanac is vital for those whom are planning to grow all your own herbs and plants for your practise. Then, you must decide your reasons for working with the herbs and plants you’ve chosen…are you interested in herbal healing? What about herbal charms? Protections and binding magick? You may delve into as many reasons as you like for wort cunning but it’s always best to stick to one line of endeavour and see it through in the end.
It is also useful to think about what kind of magickal herbalism you’re most interested in such as English folk magick…or Asian healing…perhaps you’re more into Voodoo or Hoodoo or Native American conjures. I hope you can understand that I don’t wish to tell you that you absolutely must do one or the other, you can do as you please, however, it is easier to pick a path and walk it well rather than hopping from here to there until you are no longer interested at all. In the beginning, you might have to try a few different paths to “find yourself”, but do keep in mind you will do best at one path in the long run.
Personally, I am not at all familiar with anything apart from English folk magick. I never had to make a choice, but I also don’t feel the choice was made for me…it’s just what I naturally evolved to which probably and most certainly was influenced by my ancestry. I am sure there are many reading this whom are following a path for much the same reasons as mine. Still, there will be those who will need to try a bit of this and that til they know what they lean toward, and that is fine.
In Medieval times immense importance was placed on the rituals surrounding the gathering of herbs or plants for a “spell” and there were ones for everything imaginable whether it was for a protection, a charm to prevent or cure evil, or healing…in those days known as “leechdom”, a forerunner of what we know as medicine or holistic healing these days. If you delve into the old English herbal lore you will see that word a lot. If you can, order a copy of two of my favourite books concerning Medieval healing/leechdom. One is The Old English Herbals by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, 1922 [last new publication in 2011] and Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, edited by Thomas Oswald Cockayne [Vol I, II, and III]. You will see for yourself how dedicated the old ones were in ritualising the very cutting of a herb or plant and how it all worked together to make the intended outcome “be well with him” as is often said of the “patient’s” health after the leech was finished.
A little example of what I mean by ritual, this excerpt is from my copy of The Old English Herbals:
Of periwinkle: “This wort is of good advantage for many purposes, that is to say first against devil sickness and demonical possessions and against snakes and wild beasts and against poisons and for various wishes and for envy and for terror and that thou mayst have grace, and that thou hast the wort with thee thou shalt be prosperous and ever acceptable. This wort thou shalt pluck thus, saying, ‘I pray thee, vinca pervinca thee that art to be had for many useful qualities, that thou come to me glad blossoming with thy mainfulness, that thou outfit me so that I be shielded and ever prosperous and undamaged by poisons and by water;’ when thou shalt pluck this wort thou shall be clean of every uncleanness, and thou shalt pick it when the moon is nine nights old and eleven nights and when it is one night old’.
This is a short example whereas some take several paragraphs with very descriptive instructions such as the day to begin the ritual, telling the cunner to sing the Benedicite and Pater Noster [clearly a Catholic cunner!], how to harvest the wort by “sticking thy knife into work, fast and go away”, go to the church and cross thyself, go in silence not speaking to no man, the sing the Benedicite and Pater Noster again, as well as a litany…and so on. It seems it could literally take a month in some cases to gather, enchant, then make the charm, poultice, salve, or whatever the case may be for!
Mind, these days we have learned to pare down our rituals for such things and everyone has their own way of enchanting their herbs and plants. Some Christo-Pagan witches might still sing a litany over their work, for all I know but most of us do not. You will find as you go that you will perhaps use things others have done and you will also start your own ways. Just like the old wort cunners of the past, we tend to stick to the methods which give us the results we need. And, like them, we should keep strict notes on what we have done and how it worked.
I hope this has answered a few questions and if not, please feel free to contact me. Most of all, I hope I have not confused anyone more than they were! Best of luck in your wort cunning and warmest blessings x
The Old English Herbals by Eleanour Sinclair Rohde, 1922
Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, edited by Thomas Oswald Cockayne [Vol I, II, and III]
Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs, by Scott Cunningham, 1985