THE SPIRITUAL DISPOSITION OF TOOLS

Some of you know by now that ethnobotany is the love of my life. I am convinced that without a working knowledge of plants and the ecosystems in which they flourish our ritual practices that include everything shamanic lack the power and vitality to truly transcend our everyday reality. The spirits that inhabit every single species are uniquely qualified liaisons for very specific purposes. And you have heard me say perhaps ad nauseum to some, selection of a plant was never and should never be random. This is true of everything from the fibers chosen for baskets to the species used for mordant, dye and tanning agents. It is true with our medicine bundles and bags, our prayer sticks, our staffs and wands; the herbs used as smudge, steam and washes. It was true of bows, arrows and quivers and true of handles for stone, bone and antler tools, and the focus of this essay.

We know a great deal about stone. And before I launch myself into the botanical component of tools I thought it would be recalcitrant of me to not speak briefly about stone itself. All of us know about stone circles and megaliths. Great stones were known by many to have the ability to speak and prophesy. Some shriek, cure sickness, and find lost souls; others have volition, move at will, float or fly about; those that rock are used for divination. We wear stones as charms and good luck medicine for every imaginable reason. And we innately know that how we configure them is seriously relevant even if we are no longer certain why. We can feel when the arrangement is off. Whether inordinate in size or insignificantly small the configuration of stone open pathways to other worlds and to those worlds we have made libations and sacrifice throughout, I would guess, our entire history. Stone is ancestral medicine. I wonder how long we have called on stone for not only hunting tools and farm implements but for beads, figurines, talismans, grave goods, and all things magical.

Please note that the spiritual properties of many of the species that are mentioned in this piece can be found in other essays and the appendix on my website so I won’t repeat them here. The fibers used to bind stone heads to handles can be found in the appendix as well. A surprising number of species went to handles for axes, knives, and scrapers including the intrepid oak (Quercus). In the same group we can find alder (Alnus), juniper (Juniperus), bearberry (Arctostaphylos), and box (Buxus) with durability equal to that of brass. Dogwood (Cornus) doesn’t split and was an excellent choice for not only handles but also mauls, awls, and clubs. Poplar (Populus) was not only used for shields and spears its propensity to empower self-expression with strength and gentleness made into a superb, purifying wash for tools. Blackthorn (Prunus) was often used for staffs and wands. We know of blackthorn’s propensity for fortifying inner strength and patience along with its ability to lend support when destructive forces are at work or we are coping with unexpected things. The bark of blackthorn was used to bind a stone head to a shaft. Its pitch was applied as glue and painted on a constructed tool to add strength and waterproofing. The pitch or resin of birch (Betula), pine (Pinus), and yew (Taxus) was used similarly.

Yew is exceedingly versatile and also rendered into adz handles, harpoon shafts, scrapers, clubs, and staffs. We know that it brings the propensities of longevity, wisdom, continuity, and ancestral memory to anything rendered from it. Yew insures safety in unfamiliar territory. It provides inner strength and the courage to change our attitude or direction. Yew helps us release anguish. Wands of yew were used to cast spells of knowledge and judgement. Hazelnut (Corylus) wands are thought to burst into flames once a spell has been cast provided that spell concerns wisdom, arbitration and resetting harmony. The formidable shavegrass (Equisetum), used to polish wood and bone tools, brings its exorcismal, reconciliatory power to the mix. So lets look at a few other choice selections.

Holly (Ilex) was once used to make spear shafts, an excellent selection when one realizes that holly is associated with balancing direct action with sound judgement. It is linked to accepting reality while affording energy and direction for problems hovering on the horizon, creating power in the moment. Holly promotes the concepts of freedom and equality based on patient teaching and not authoritarian intimidation. It is long wed to winter solstice, the medicine of sacrificial sons, and an agent of divination. Holly directly pertains to the difficult challenges we face in life that require courage and vigor to achieve success. When such profound properties are considered there is no way the selection of holly for spears, shafts, and wands could have been haphazard.

Mistletoe (viscum album) has an alluring connection to winter solstice, worn by ritual lovers. It was believed that only sexual bliss brought the blessings of winter solstice through the gate and had the power to stop anything malevolent from entering at the same moment. This is perhaps the reason why mistletoe in general is regarded as empowerment medicine in matters of the heart. Mistletoe is a parasitic creature that prefers crabapple (Malus) and linden (Tilia) as hosts. It is only rarely found on oak (Quercus) making it auspicious when it is. The wood of these oaks is valued for handles of tools used to doctor severe mental aberration, nervous debility, and weakness.

Hawthorn (Crataegus) was another candidate for both ax handles and digging sticks. It is well known as an agent of exorcism and a mender of broken hearts. Hawthorn is one of the species connected to fertility rituals believed to invigorate our Earth. These ceremonies were most often sexual by nature as well. Hawthorn affords inordinate protection, is a symbol of hope, engaged in casting spells, and guards sacred springs where the devout tied strips of rare and treasured cloth to its branches as an offering. As a gateway marker hawthorn opens and closes entries into other realms and is a favored place under which Earth spirits dance. It is the hottest burning wood known and was the premier choice for perpetual fires. We can readily see why hawthorn might be chosen for a tool handle and just how empowered that tool actually was.

Crabapple (malus) was also a good choice for tool handles. It directly relates to nurturing predisposition and gifts that require persistent care. Crabapple is supportive in decision making when one is faced with a myriad of choices. It is a gatekeeper linked to the concept that immortality is attained through inspiration and wisdom. As longevity medicine crabapple renews vigor and youth. This property could be attributed to the belief that groves of crabapple are sacred gateways into other worlds where time is elongated and knowledge older and more complete. Handling crabapple requires attunement to cyclical nature and profound awareness to the subtleties that effect the flow of energy to achieve perfect harmony within nature. It is interesting to consider that an exceedingly average individual who had chosen crabapple for everyday, utilitarian tools lived his or her life with a finger on something extremely powerful.

Hornbeam (Carpinus) was another consideration for a tool handle as well as support posts for lodges. It is an agent of fertility, inner strength, resilience, and relinquishing children into their own lives. The significance of this rests in the fact that children were given over to hereditary clans and societies, spirit handlers, etc. at puberty (this often meant 10 or 12 years old for boys) for the training needed to become productive adult members of their community. You can see that hornbeam used for their mothers’ tools might well have brought comfort to them during these rights of passage.

Maple (Acer) had extraordinary and diverse applications including ax and knife handles. It teaches that adversity creates opportunity for change. Maple is exorcismal by nature and especially appropriate to doctoring the spirits of grief and tragedy. An everyday tool rendered from maple could well have helped to appease these spirits for an individual who had lost a loved one. Maple is also an agent of clarity. It is believed to be superb love medicine that runs the gamut from romantic love to the love of family and community. This property makes maple an obvious good choice when tied up into lodges and bound to wands.

Ash (Fraxinus) is another excellent species for ax, knife, spear, and tool handles. It is rendered into staffs, prayer sticks, and wands, into which were carved spirals: the symbol of inner strength, knowledge, immortality, and self-expression. Ash is an agent of manifestation, calming the mind in order to heighten awareness. It is guarantor of harmony, resilience and endurance. Practitioners handle ash in order to grasp the holistic nature of the universe and peer into the future. By doing so, he or she is capable of escaping the bonds of life and embracing inevitability with peace. Ash has the unique ability to prevent inept or unprepared individuals from disrupting or impairing ceremonial magic. These and other properties hold huge implications for choosing ash for many different types of tools regardless of how those tools were to be used.

As a final thought we must always keep in mind that seemingly utilitarian tools were often superbly crafted from treasured woods and rare jewels of stone. These wonderful pieces were left as offerings on altars, at shrines and groves, and dropped into springs and holy wells. The significance of tools must never be underestimated as spiritually rendered objects of both necessity and sacrifice.




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