Ghosts and Theriac

by Beth Schreibman Gehring

It’s All Hallows Night…the time when the veils between the worlds are at their thinnest, the time when we walk around not quite alone in the night, the time when we can see unsettling things that really aren’t supposed to be there in the shadowy corners. For me, this time of year is always intriguing, because I’ve always been able to see what is, for most people, unseen.

Path through an old cemetery overgrown with ivy

Every time I’m in Europe, I can feel the ghosts of the Black Death all around me as I walk through the ancient museums, catacombs, and graveyards. You can barely miss them. The commemorative plaques are everywhere. I’m thoroughly convinced that this is why most of Europe handled Covid 19 initially with collective wisdom. After all, they’d seen it before.

The Bubonic Plague of 1348 had a catastrophic impact on the trajectory of human and European history. The political, social, economic, and psychological landscape of the countries impacted would never be the same. We know now that the Bubonic Plague was caused by a bacterium carried by infected fleas traveling on rats, but at the time a clear cause for the disease was unknown. In an era when physicians employed techniques such as bloodletting, placing pieces of snake on the pustules caused by the disease, and leeches, the future would obviously seem quite bleak.

Historical illustration of a plague doctor, wearing a black robe and a beaked maskHowever, in the search to find something, anything that would serve as a hopeful cure-all, the physicians of that time turned to an ancient, compounded preparation called theriac. Hailing from the time of Nero and prepared as a medicinal treacle in one way or another since the 3rd century until the age of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), theriac was a time consuming and multi-ingredient preparation. Although it was initially created to cure the bites of snakes, mad dogs, scorpions, and any other beasts, theriac was taken prophylactically by anyone who feared poisoning or was considered at risk of contracting any number of infectious diseases, epidemic or otherwise.

Theriac was compounded with many different ingredients, and the recipe varied from place to place. Ingredients like honey, garlic, viper flesh, cinnamon, ambergris, and opium were the most common ingredients, but there were at least 50 or 60 plant-derived compounds that were used in the making of it. Tiny amounts of poison were a common inclusion in most theriac recipes, as each natural poison was believed to draw out the poisons that were already affecting the patient.

Historic line drawing of an apothecary publicly preparing theriacTerrified people living with the continuous threat of the plague and living within a society without the medical advances we take for granted were looking for one miracle medicine that would keep them from contracting it, or at least give them a fighting chance of surviving it and keeping their families safe.

As a result, theriac treacle was being prepared all over Europe, in hopes that it would be the panacea that would finally keep the Black Death at bay. It does not seem that theriac was toxic when it was used as prescribed; however, there are many accounts of a placebo effect which I find fascinating. My brother, a surgeon by trade, always said that hope, love, and joy were the strongest medicines any sick man could ingest.

By the 19th century, the efficacy of theriac was being questioned, but to this day the legend survives. There is an over-the-counter wound ointment with the same name prepared from Manuka honey and other herbs, roots, and flowers.

Not to be outdone, the herbalists of today have revived the romantic recipes and legends surrounding theriac and are busy creating their own versions of this most curious of alchemical medicines. However, the most important ingredients are hope, love, and joy. Without those three things healing has no place to happen.

Ornately painted vase for theriacAll Hallows Eve is a time to listen to the whispers in the dark and a time when if you dare to ask, those that have crossed over will reappear, sometimes with the answers you need. Even if you don’t listen, sometimes you will feel them pulling you away from danger and then you will look. You’ll never see their misty astral bodies in the sunlight, yet I promise that you will know that they have been there.

Even with the miracle of vaccines and other medicines, our needs haven’t changed much over the centuries. Three long Covid years and many centuries later, the wheel of the year has turned once again towards winter. It brings us back into the dark, plunging us deeply into the time of year when our need to move is inside towards the hearth, away from the bone drenching cold and into the arms of our families and lovers. Every generation has its theriac, but truly? This is the most important medicine that we have.

My mother just whispered to me that I needed to make some good old fashioned chicken soup and to not forget to add the cracked pepper, rubbed sage, thyme, mushrooms, and barley.

I think I’ll listen….

Wishing all of you a blessed Samhain or the happiest of Halloweens however you celebrate.

Photo Credits: 1) Highgate Cemetery East in England (Panyd The Muffin is not Subtle, via Wikimedia); 2) A plague doctor in 1656, with a beaked masked stuffed with herbs thought to protect from the plague (Paul Fürst, Public Domain); 3) An apothecary publicly preparing theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery); 4) Albarello vase for theriac (Wellcome Collection Gallery)

Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.


Gyford, P. 2022. The diary of Samuel Pepys. [Internet]. Venice treacle. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from

Raj, D., K. Pękacka-Falkowska, M. Włodarczyk, and J. Węglorz. 2021. The real theriac – panacea, poisonous drug or quackery? Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 281. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from

Retsas, S. 2020. Clinical trials and the COVID-19 pandemic. Hell. J. Nucl. Med. 23: 4-5. Accessed Oct. 28, 2022. Available from

Theriac: Advanced healing ointment. N.d. Accessed Oct. 30, 2022. Available from

Beth Schreibman Gehring is a lover of all things green, delicious, growing, beautiful, magical, and fragrant. She’s also a lifestyle blogger, storyteller, and occasional wedding and party planner who uses an ever-changing seasonal palette of love, life, and food to help her readers and clients fall madly in love with their lives! Beth lives and works with Jim, her husband of 40 years, and is owned by 17 full sets of vintage dishes, hundreds of books, two cats, one dog, a horse, a swarm of wild honeybees, a garden full of herbs, fruit, vegetables, and old rambling roses, too many bottles of vintage perfume and very soon, a flock of heirloom chickens! In 2014 she took a stab at writing a book called Stirring the Senses: How to Fall Madly in Love with Your Life and Make Everyday a Day for Candles & Wine. Available on Amazon! Join her in her gardens at, or contact her at

A Bewitching Reflection on the Season

A Bewitching Reflection on the Season

By Beth Schreibman-Gehring, Chairman of Education for The Western Reserve Herb Society unit of The Herb Society of America


Will you follow me? Yes, I know that the woods are dark, but isn’t the smell intoxicating this time of year? The leaves are wet and seductively sour, sweet ripe apples are still hanging on the cool bare branches and the musky scent of deer lingers all around us in the still night forest.

The winds are stirring tonight and if you listen carefully they will tell you anything that you need to know. Take a deep breath, notice the smells that come to you. Yes, we are in the deep woods and there are the familiar sounds of animals curling in the brush and the musky, sweet smells of wet leaves, mushrooms and windfall apples.  An owl flies past, wings strong and silent and suddenly the shriek of its prey breaks the still, dark night yet another part of the great dance among the strands of the web of life.

Come gather with me around this friendly balefire. The flames smell absolutely wonderful, burning brightly with the magical woods of apple, oak and ash and scented with fresh branches of lavender for peace, white sage for cleansing and purification, mugwort for protection and rosemary, for remembrance!  It’s a beautiful evening, cool and crisp and I’ve laid piles of fragrant fresh hay all around so we can sit.

cauldronI hope you’re hungry, because I’ve brought homebrewed hard cider  infused with nutmeg, fresh honey and apples. The cauldron is filled with steaming hot pumpkin soup, laced with golden sage, curry and cumin and the last of the season’s sweet corn is roasting by the edges of the fire waiting to be drenched in the melted butter that has been laced with the disarmingly robust flavors of earthy black truffles, chilies from the garden and salt.

The waning moon is hanging by a silvery, slivery thread in the sky and the woods are quiet, except for the disconcerting sense that we are not alone. We’re probably not. It’s All Hallows Eve or All Souls Night, also known as the great Celtic feast of Samhain, the gateway between autumn and winter in the Northern Hemisphere that draws us into the darkest time of the year.  This is the time of year when the veil between the worlds becomes especially thin and the place where all souls can meet is the easiest for us mere mortals to see. I love this time of year, because I always feel so alive and connected to the wisdom of those who have walked before me.

“Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all of my ancestors are behind me. Be still they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands. “Linda Hogan

Samhain is a special time for me because it’s a moment that I simply stop for a long period of quiet reflection. Samhain or as you’ll know it Halloween, is the Celtic New Year and I am definitely all witch, or all Rosewitch as my husband teasingly calls me! Don’t worry; I’m a good witch to be sure. I really do believe in magic. Samhain is my time for deep reflection and divination, the time to honor endings and a time for us all to cast powerful new wishes and create empowering dreams for the new year.

tea spoonsTonight, witches all over the world will look to the night sky while casting spells for dreams of peace and a prosperous world for everyone. We’ll bless and say prayers of gratitude for our ancestors. We’ll give thanks to mother earth and her green blessings that sustain us and keep us healthy and vital. Our creed is to harm none; we are the keepers of the earth’s most magical secrets. For years we’ve been the healers, the quiet herbalists who walk unnoticed among you.  We tend the gardens. We mix and brew the teas that heal and the potions that make life just a bit more interesting. Our recipes are passed down to our children hidden in our cookbooks and on bits of paper tucked away in old books. They are hidden in old bibles and hymnals along with tiny bits of pressed herbs and flowers.

We are the keepers of the older ways, the wiser ways.

For years we’ve lived cloaked in secrecy, afraid to be known.

No longer. The world is clamoring for our juicy green magic.

sage bundles

Yes, sometimes I think that people are afraid of us simply because our very nature is so earthy. Magic for me is happiness, playfulness and tenderness. It’s also about knowing that there are some things that you can control and many things that you can’t. It’s about acceptance and taking care of others as you would want to be cared for yourself. It’s about living powerfully with all in the world, not being afraid to see all that the world has to offer. It’s about tolerance. It’s about being at peace with the dualism of creativity and destruction. It’s about creating your own reality, not waiting for it or someone else to create you. Our gardens do that naturally year after year. Mother Nature is our greatest teacher. She understands the nature of magic inherently. She alone can show us how to evolve or die.

Am I truly a witch? I’ve known these things about myself for my entire life, since the first time I lay in the grass and watched magic unfold as I blew on the seeds of a dandelion. Am I a witch because I seek out the herbal knowledge that this fast-paced world seems to no longer have time for? Is it because the change of the seasons quickens my blood?  Is it because I follow the rhythms of the earth, honor the turning of the wheel of the year?  Because I believe more in the energy and the potency of the green recipes handed down from all the wise women who came before me? Because I would always choose the old ways first? Because I will not quickly forget the knowledge and the wisdom of those who came before me?

Here is what I know to be true.   I am an herbalist who instinctively knows that regardless of how many positive strides are made by western medicine, that there will always be a need for green magic and nature in the healing process. I will be here holding the space of the wise woman. I am the kitchen witch who loves nothing more than to spend long days in my gardens tending the healing herbs, fruits and vegetables, promoting healing through herbalism, flower and gem essences, aromatherapy and Reiki, while brewing delightful herbal potions to help keep you healthy, gorgeous and sexy all over, inside and out!

Witch broom

I dream of a world where we are completely connected to our mother earth and each other again. I’m finally beginning to see it appearing, even among all of the current madness. There are farmers markets on every corner, where we gather together to buy our fresh foods for the coming week. I can’t walk into a bar without being offered the latest craft beer or mead, in fact I’ve even begun to make my own beer and cheese again because everything I need is available for me to do so. We knit, sew and weave our own textiles. We keep chickens and bees. We make candles, soaps, herbal medicines and perfumes. Backyard herb and vegetable gardens have sprung up everywhere and so have community gardens. Every city that I’ve been to recently has its own delightful distillery.

What’s next? Maybe the return of the community bread and stew oven? And why not? One fabulous by-product of the last 20 years is that so many of us are finally cooking again. My phone and more often lately my email is pinging constantly with questions about herbalism, Reiki and natural healing. It seems that we are begging for all of the older knowledge that is tried and true. The old ways may be slower, but there is no better prescription for health and wellbeing than the food that you put on your fork, the water that you pour into your glass or the magical Cocoamicrobes found in a spade full of rich brown dirt.

If that’s not magic alive and afoot, I don’t know what is!

So, come dance under the moon with me tonight.  There’s truly a little witch in every woman and here’s a copper mug filled with my favorite steaming brew to help you find yours!  It’s made from steaming almond milk and fragrant dark chocolate, raw honey, my homemade rose syrup for love and healing, allspice for a year full of good luck, cinnamon for health, chili to warm you, a touch of vanilla for creativity and a lusty shot of herb infused amaro to enable you see between the worlds. I’ve also grated the last bit of my contraband Tonka bean from Paris over the top because who wouldn’t desire more love and prosperity in the New Year?

Sip it slowly, savor its smoky aroma and make a wish. Now tell me, what spicy magic would you like to create in your life this year?

Blessed Be ……. Beth

Herbs essential to magic

By Paris Wolfe, Blogmaster, The Herb Society of America

HeadOverHeels_smallHerbs have power. They change health and beauty. In the past such abilities were considered magic. And, those in the know were often considered witches, witch doctors, wizards and the like. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Today, we know the science behind herbal powers. And that may mean ancient herbalists were among the earliest scientists.

Regardless, on Halloween it’s entertaining to don an archetypal witch costume and pretend to cast spells on unsuspecting mortals. Year ‘round, nonetheless, real practitioners of Wiccan “religion” use herbs for good.

Practicing witch Ellen Dugan may be considered one of the top Wiccan authors. She has written four books combining herbalism and spirituality or “green magick.”

In the Garden Witch’s Herbal (Llewellyn, 2015, $19.95), she defines green magick as “a practical, nature-based system of the Craft that focuses on reverence for the natural world, the individual’s environment and the plants and herbs that are indigenous to the practitioner’s own area.”

Who can argue with that?

She notes that, throughout the year, “certain botanicals … align with the energies of the season.” During Samhain or Halloween (or the night before All Soul’s Day in the Catholic religion), for example, rosemary symbolizes remembrance of loved ones who have passed. Sounds like a good herb for the season in Christian or pagan practices.

The Garden Witch’s Herbal is full of such associations. “A green practitioner is well known for their connection with their living and working environment, by their ethics and by their affinity to the powers of the natural world,” writes Dugan

Her book knits together quotable quotes into a collection of essays exploring green witchcraft in a way that makes the craft seem like it should be mainstream. Again …

“Creative [garden] design is what turns a collection of trees, herbs, perennials and flowers into a garden. The clarity and color schedules found in your magickal garden give focus to your goals and intentions. The complexity in your plant forms, such as texture and pattern will make for a sensual garden that begs to be touched, sniffed and enjoyed.

Dugan has me convinced that a little herbal magic may be what people and the environment need. Check her out online.

Among other things, the author of Herbal Magick (New Page Books, 2002, $14.99) – Gerina Dunwich — collects myths and superstitions. Particularly playful (helpful?) on All Hallow’s Eve, might be “Herbal Spells to Ward Off Evil Spirits.” The list is as follows

  • Burn a dried ginseng root
  • Carry fennel seeds in a mojo bag
  • Hang fennel over your doors and windows
  • Wear the root of a devil’s shoestring around your neck
  • Shake a hollowed-out gourd filled with dried beans
  • Plant holly around your home (I’m safe)
  • Wear or carry and orrisroot or peony root as a protective amulet
  • Hang some plantain or periwinkle above your front door and windows
  • Burn a sage smudge wand
  • Sprinkle an infusion of vervain around the perimeter of your property

While it’s not herb-based, witches make some of us think about the witch scene in Monty Python’s Holy Grail or three witches chanting in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Dugan’s latest titles aren’t yet available at Headquarters, but a number of herbal witchcraft titles can be borrowed by request from The Herb Society’s library, via visit, email or phone. They will be mailed and must be returned after 30 days. Non-members can stop by the Herb Society to peruse books in the library.