As I write this blog, I notice that it winds around like a vine, wrapping itself around whatever it grabs hold of, climbing into crevices where I couldn’t have foreseen it would grow. There should be a joke about irritation here—but I’ll leave it to you to make.
As we were clearing land for the kindred hof and ve, my husband got into some poison ivy and spent a week learning about cortisol while he was in Scandinavia. As we piled wood for the fire, we had to check to make sure we weren’t sending toxins airborne. Plus, a thing about poison ivy is that the toxin is carried in a non-water-soluble oil, so if you try washing the affected area with water, you will just spread the irritant further.
“What’s this got to do with magic?” you ask?
Nothing really. It’s just one of those “timing” things.
Last Friday our kindred hosted a clever teacher for an enchanting workshop on wands. Gypsey Teague,
author, artist, librarian, witch, superhero, and all around wonderful person, trekked to The Bamas to teach us a thing or three about wood and its magical properties. One of the most spellbinding items Gypsey brought along was a wand made of poison ivy. It seems she sells out of her carefully constrained inventory of poison ivy wands at a premium cost—about six-times what she charges for pine or birch or ash or, you know, woods without the word “poison” in it. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why folks would want a wand made of poison oil.
So, I did what Gypsey suggested: I sat down and talked to the plant.
Let me tell you what I learned.
There’s a reason why Poison Ivy such a troublemaker for Batman and Robin. Preoccupied with safeguarding the natural environment, she makes a perfect archnemesis for Bruce Wayne, ultra-wealthy business magnate and entrepreneur, and his ward, Dick Grayson, The Boy Wonder. He’s all about acquisition–gimme-gimme-gimme. She’s all about shelter.
“Shelter?” you ask. “Poison ivy is such an irritating plant; how can it be a protestess?”
Well, if you think of a female protective spirit as warm and fuzzy like the angel on the bridge or the sexxxy images of deviantART-style Valkyrie (instead of the ferocious Valkyrie of the Wild Hunt, above), you’ve never met Palden Lhamo (below), a (real) Norse Shieldmaiden, or even the terrifying side of Galadrial from Tolkien’s tales.
Not all guardians are appealing—that’s kinda the point. The message of the guardian is: “You are not welcome!” “Turn back!” and “Go away!” This makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
And it brings me back around to poison ivy.
Poison ivy is most common at the edges of the woods. Poison ivy is a protectress to the depths of the forest. Birds and other mammals, for the most part, have no negative consequences whatsoever if they come into contact with her, um, charms. The message poison ivy sends is sent directly to humans. When poison ivy creeps along the edge of the forest, she seals it off and guards its edges from encroaching bipeds. Let’s face it, humans contribute to erosion, deforestation, and pollution. Poison ivy protects her territory from intruders.
What is a warning to some can be a teasing invitation to others. If we heed Poison Ivy’s message to tread lightly in these sensitive areas . . . she will often lead us to places of beauty seldom seen by two leggers. Once we have been initiated into this process, she may also lead us . . . [to] exquisite discoveries . . . . [T]his injection of knowledge . . . is sometimes painful to the recipient. . . . Her teachings therefore speak to the gaining of insight and compassion through the process of Regret. Poison Ivy can help up with regret, loss, and grieving. . . . Poison Ivy shows herself to be sacred to Hecate [the goddess of the crossroads], who rules most of the baneful, toxic, and entheogenic herbs. . . . If we find ourselves at a crossroads in life, with a difficult choice to make, perhaps Poison Ivy’s link to Hecate can be availed. . . . Planting Poison Ivy can be a truly revolutionary, enwildening action, politically, personally, and spiritually, and will certainly strengthen the bond between you and this powerful Plant Ally.
I love the way she says, “Once we have been initiated” by poison ivy. I thought about this for a good long time.
Initiation is not supposed to be easy—if it is, you prolly did something wrong or weren’t fully invested. After all, receiving wisdom is almost always associated with pain, poison, and even near-death experiences. I think about the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the snakes of the Minoan Serpent Goddess (like the protection of Wadjet); these seem to me to be like the unsympathetic trials of ayahuasca.
Just as the simplest identification of poison ivy—“leaves of three”—is triadic, so is the image of the triple goddess. Like her, poison ivy can keep a place virginal, can initiate as the mother, and grant wisdom like the crone.
Hecate, Mór-ríoghain, The Norns, The Moirai, The Erinnyes.
And if that wasn’t cool enough, wait—there’s more.
The oil that makes poison ivy such a pain in the, um, wrists and ankles mostly, is called urushiol. It’s also found in poison oak, some variety of sumacs, mango, a tree (ironically) called “soapberry,” cashew, and pistachio (the trees, that is). As it turns out, the word urushiol has nothing to do with the Hebrew underworld, Sheol, my first instinct. The origin of the name is “urushi,” a material gathered and refined from Asian trees, meaning lacquer.
It’s that shiny, shiny gloss that we are used to seeing on Classical Japanese and Korean art.
But that’s not even the punchline.
Shugendō Buddhist monks mummified themselves alive by using urushiol in a practice called Sokushinbutsu. Basically, what happens is the monk practices 1000 days (2¾ years) of extreme fasting followed by 1000 days of bodily purgation; this is followed by another 1000 days of self-poisoning with the lacquer/oil which renders the body too toxic for maggots. In this state, he sits in the lotus position until he dies. He would ring a bell every day to indicate that he was still alive; once the bell stops ringing, he is sealed in his tomb for a final 1000 days where his remains are mummified.
It hasn’t always worked.
So, what then is the message of this use of urushiol?
Wouldn’t you say it was about the same? The message of the crossroads is always one of sacrifice for knowledge. The monks’ ordeal was geared toward Enlightenment—a wisdom for which he gave his life.
In The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky wrote: “in all the ancient cosmogonies light comes from darkness.” In Hebrew lore, Adam and Eve traded innocence and immortality for the knowledge of good and evil; Odin traded his eye for wisdom; the oracles of old put their lives at risk for a glimpse into the underworld. The agnishvattas “fell” so that they might bring “light.” Likewise Prometheus. Hermes himself is the god of both trade and wisdom—you see, there is an ineradicable connection between the two concepts.
What will you sacrifice for knowledge? Nothing? Good luck with that.
The pain and danger of poison ivy seems to me to stand guard between “safety” and the kind of enlightenment which requires a spiritual (and physical!) sacrifice.
 Truthfully, she brought three.
 I think she said six a year.
 I collected it in what looked like a hazmat suit and a lot, a lot, a lot of plastic and cardboard. All while articulating supplications.
 And it’s a good thing I did. One of my seidrlings has decided to make urushiol oil and poison ivy wands on her own. I want to get a “leg up” on the info to help her out. Turns out? You only need about 0.25 ounce (7 grams) of pure urushiol oil to inflame every living human being on the entire planet! Plus, the oil can stay active for up to 5 years. I’m vaguely less worried about the magical repercussions than the straight-up physical ones.