A Critical Look at Correspondences
One of the things that folks often ask me is what plants correspondences I use. The short answer is: I don’t. The long answer is that as an animist I find the concept of “Correspondences” to be antithetical to what I do. I also find most commonly used “correspondences” to be almost nonsensical. There are no sources or rationale as to why a plant is “good” for a certain kind of working just an explanation you are expected to accept at face value. I want to address some of the problems behind the idea of correspondences and why I find it to be antithetical to animistic approaches to magic. Of course all of this comes from my personal opinion and in no way should suggest that correspondences don’t work or “isn’t magic” this is simply why I find it to be ineffective in my worldview.
Note: this applies to all materials used in magic as a whole but given that most of my work involves local plant life I have a bias towards talking about plants. The methods remain largely the same for minerals.
Most modern magic makers have been taught to use plants and minerals in their works. They’ve also been taught to pay special attention to what these components “correspond” to in some kind of reference book. Very rarely is an explanation offered as to why malachite may be “good for money work” other than the fact that it’s green. Modern folks aren’t taught to seek out materials and work directly with the spirit to inform their craft and that is where my disconnect with this system arises.
As an animist I see each material in my work as possessing a spirit. When I mix incense I am addressing and working beside multiple spirits to create something new. When I meet a new plant I ask what that plant is talented at doing and that plant may convey to me that it is a healer or a curser. Most likely a plant spirit will tell me that they have many talents. The spirits themselves will also tell me if they are willing to work with me.
I may also look to my local history, folklore, family superstitions, or “the doctrine of signatures” in order to incorporate a plant into my work. All of these are valid individually, but my approach always goes back to animism. If folklore tells me a plant is good for banishing but the plant itself conveys to me that it is primarily a healer, I will most likely take the spirits word over folklore in that instance. This can happen because not all plant spirits perfectly align with tradition and plants may change over time. Plant spirits can also be tricksters, so that is something to keep in the back of your head.
Folklore provides us with a plethora of materials that magic workers use in their work. A classic example is the use of sulfur and asafetida in banishing spirits. A pinch of sulfur in a fire keeps witches away. Burning asafetida scares off evil spirits. The reasoning behind this is immediately apparent to anyone who has ever smelled sulfur or asafetida. It stinks like hell. Half the time burning it makes me want to move out of my house so it’s no wonder spirits will book it.
Most families also have some kind of plant based superstitions. For instance my grandmother, a Southern Baptist who thinks rock-and-roll is the sound of the Devil farting, has always taught me that keeping lavender by the door will bring in good luck. She ain’t a witch or folk healer, but she has held onto a piece of folk wisdom that I have brought into my life. So even if your family has no time for magic that doesn’t mean they don’t have a little bit of folk wisdom in them.
Tradition can be a powerful thing, but often is lacking in any kind of explanation. Which is my biggest criticism of correspondence approaches to magic. So why do I like these family superstitions? Because they are often grounded in something a bit deeper. Keeping a full bloom lavender plant by the front door means that guests entering are immediately hit by the calming scent released from the flowers. This can cause a direct shift in how someone feels when they enter the room, most often (in my personal experience) forgetting whatever shitty things happened before they walked through that door. So in that bit of folk wisdom I think there is a practical element. That isn’t necessary, sometimes its use as a tradition is simply enough for use, but it allows the use of critical thinking when applying folk wisdom.
The Doctrine of Signatures is the concept that if a plant resembles a human body part, it can interact with that body part. In magic the application is more broad, if a plant looks like something it shares characteristics of that thing. When used in medicine, it often doesn’t work out well. However in sympathetic magic, this approach can be incredibly powerful. This approach can be seen employed often in hoodoo, African American folk magic that has a strong presence in the American South. The doctrine of signatures can be particularly important to folks who have a difficult time with spirit communication but can identify that the plant resembles something else. Sympathetic magic relies on likeness of image for effective work, meaning you don’t have to speak to the spirit to gain the results.
Looking to local history for inclusion of plants in magic is highly variable. An example from my area is the Palmetto. I think of palmetto as a foundational plant for shelter, substance, and cleansing. In works of magic Palmetto helps me sweep out unwanted influences, maintain a good home, and keep food on the table. This ties back to the Sabal Palmetto’s place in Florida history. Palmetto frond were used by the Seminole (The Indigenous People of Florida) to create chickee’s, open air homes that were pivotal to survival when the United States Government committed genocide against the Seminole people. Chickee construction was faster than traditional housing and allowed for more movement when US troops infringed upon the Seminole People. Chickee’s are made of cypress logs and thatched with palmetto. Florida Crackers would later use palmetto in their early homes, before the creation of the more well know Florida Cracker House architecture.
Sabal Palmetto’s link to food is more apparent from its other name, “Swamp Cabbage”. In doing some digging for this article I actually found out that some folks call it “Heart of Palm” which, while accurate, makes me squint. It’s swamp cabbage, it's survival food. You tear through each layer of the tree till you get to the center and you rip that out for eatin. Most folks think of eating swamp cabbage as a part of the past but it is still actively eaten by many folks throughout Florida. Only now it’s rarely eaten for survival and more likely to honor the traditions of our ancestors. Every year there’s a swamp cabbage festival held in Labelle, Florida where you can get some grub without having to pull apart the tree yourself.
Sabal Palmetto is so indicative of survival that I can’t imagine just chalking it up to a “correspondence” because it almost feels offensive. These plants have lives and histories deeply tied to the people that relied on them that cannot be boiled down an excel spreadsheet.
Why I don’t like correspondences
Magic doesn’t really care about explanations, its about results. So if you pick a plant out because a chart says its good for bringing money, and you get results, thats awesome. However I still feel that the use of these charts takes away the active participation of the magic maker in the process. It encourages folks to be passive, accept this chart as the only reality and keep going. They also take away the autonomy of the spirits at play in the work. If you are an animist who ignores the spirit components in magical work you are doing, that is a problem within that worldview.
Additionally, as a folkloric witch, these charts are not localized. They pack together plants from around the world with little rhyme or reason most of the time and (wether intentionally or not) encourage purchasing plant materials from retailers rather than foraging from the land. And for localized practitioners, it can be difficult to find the plants specific to your land. Reliance on these charts devalues having an intimate relationship with a few plant allies and emphasizes having a large collection of herbs in jars from around the world; which I am fully guilty of as well. We have bought into the concept that local plants are nonmagical and because we want to embody the aesthetic of the witch who has their own personal apothecary. If we want to be in-tune with the land we cannot ignore the fruits of it in favor of Eurocentric products.
One more note, not as an animist but as a queer person. Correspondence charts have a strange habit of gendering plants, of ascribing "masculine energy" to palm and "feminine energy" to hibiscus. Gender is a social construct that doesn't really inspire me much. The inclusion of assigning gendered energy to plants is just incredibly odd for me, and does nothing but reinforce the gender binary and the ciscentrism that is rampant in modern witchcraft.
These charts fail the practitioner as a resource more often than not. What these charts can be good for are those people who are new to magic in general. These charts can also create a sense of wonder for many new people who may see magical properties of kitchen sage for the first time and feel a sense of enchantment. It’s not all bad, but for an animistic practitioner they need to be seen with a critical eye.
All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.
Photo taken by author. Spanish moss, angel trumpet pod, and foxglove flowers set to dry. (2018)