Red Madder Root: Reflections and Intentions of the Author
For ten long years while writing the tome Mother Food I took part in a professional writers’ group where we shared short stories, novels, and poems. This creative outlet helped me keep some balance while writing chapters on infant colic, food allergy and nipple thrush.
After Mother Food’s publication, I considered writing a novel. I knew that good ideas take years to ripen, and sometimes decades. I challenged myself to come up with a grand and unique concept, and then sat back and waited for inspiration to hit. But would it?
One of my strengths is my ability to see large historic trends and to think in terms of symbols and archetypes. Maybe I could do something with that.
When my eleven-year-old daughter pleaded with me to tell her “Old Stories” like Snow White, Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella, I felt a spark, the lighting of an ignition, deep in my brain. My daughter was entering puberty, yet she wanted to hear “Old Stories” that are told to young children. What could it mean?
I soon learned that these stories go back 50,000 years or longer. Their origins are in Eurasian shamanism. I was intrigued.
Before I dig in further, let me say that this book, Red Madder Root, Tales of Initiation is not about shamanism or the use of hallucinogens or other similar phenomenon. Rather, these aspects are touched upon lightly, more like sketching the scenery, providing a background or framework where the main characters live and communicate.
Also, although the plant called Red Madder Root is an abortifacient as well has having other properties and uses, and although this use is mentioned in the book, this book is not about abortifacients or abortion. Rather, it is about the suppression of women’s knowledge, medicine and traditions, of which the suppression of herbal abortifacients is but one aspect.
Shamanism derives from humanity’s Paleolithic past but it lives on today in many indigenous societies. Although in the US we equate shamanism with Native American peoples, Eurasian shamanic societies pre-date peoples arriving in the Americas.
Simply put: I believe that shamanism is in all of our pasts. There is no genetic line that does not spring from humanity’s Paleolithic origins or that has not at one time embraced a shamanic world-view. It behooves us to rediscover its living principles – our capacity to feel a connection to the natural world, to intuit unseen realities, to use natural forms of medicine.
Until just recently, shamanistic experiences were deemed “New Age” and “woo” by mainstream scientists. Now, studies on psilocybin and ayahuasca (psychoactive plant “medicines”) shine a positive light on this “therapy.” It turns out that in many cases, one intense spiritual “awakening” on a mind-altering drug can resolve a lifetime of depression and addiction. It is clear that these experiences reinforce a strong sense-of-self and build ownership of purpose and empowerment. We have seen the same hold true for strong religious experience.
Humans crave and need embodied experiences of purpose and meaning. Such feelings and knowings give us strength to carry on in the face of harsh realities. In shamanism, such truths and insights reveal themselves through altered states of consciousness that might be evoked by mind-altering plants, but also by breath work, fasting, isolation, sweating, and rhythmically induced trance with drumming and dance. Such experiences may be used to convey, enhance and ingrain the sacred teachings, rites and initiations.
Shamanic skills are passed by a mentor to an apprentice through years of specialized training. This idea of generational teaching is at the heart of Red Madder Root.
Archetypes were first described by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. He believed that all human societies draw from a pool of shared but forgotten memories which express themselves in our stories and dreams. An example would be the story of a great flood that is survived by a family in a boat. We find variations of this story around the world and, most likely, it was a true historic event. It is familiar to us as the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark.
Archetypes also represent biological imprints and patterns: they are keys to a network of instincts, responses and behaviors that guide us from the time we are born to the moment we die. The mothering instinct, for example, relates to patterns of the brain and body that condition a woman to nourish and protect children. These patterns are also referred to as genetic memories.
The concept of genetic memories and of biological memory is central to the Tales of Initiations and the Red Madder Root stories.
When humans transitioned from Paleolithic (hunting and gathering) to Neolithic culture (agriculture, domesticated animals, living in settlements), our beliefs also changed. Instead of worshipping powerful animals, we worshipped a Mother Goddess. She gave birth to all that exists: stars, earth, rivers, mountains, plants, animals, and humans. She also controlled the weather and the seasons, enabling plants to come alive in spring and to die and disappear in winter.
In researching herbal medicine for mothers, I discovered that ancient peoples associated Mother Goddesses with specific plants with specific medical uses. The association took various forms. Sometimes, the goddess’s name is the same as the plant, for instance: Padma, which means “lily,” Demeter, which means “Mother of Grain,” or Hel, the goddess of the “Elder tree.”
Other clues appear in sculptures or engraved images, such as the goddess of Crete who is shown with poppy-flowers in her hair. Along with plants that support fertility and milk production, mother goddesses are associated with plants that end pregnancy, so-called “abortifacients.” Evidently, women’s desire to control their reproductive functions is as old as culture itself.
It appears that our foremothers encoded medical plants in stories, myths, iconography and statues, to remind us to pass this information forward on from generation to generation.
By the way, animals, too, use plants for reproductive means, especially primates and elephants. But that’s a story for another time.
Thou shallt not speak of Red Madder Root
The title “Red Madder Root” refers to Rubia tinctoria, a plant used from ancient times to impart a deep red color to fabric, wool, leather, and fur. Just three centuries ago, it went without saying that Red Riding Hood’s cloak had been dyed red with the madder root, as synthetic dyes did not yet exist. And so, although the madder root is not explicitly named in the tale, it is smack-dab in the center of the story. And while you and I might think that this connection doesn’t matter very much, the parents who told the story to their children understood its meaning and importance.
The madder root was a known abortifacient.
Perhaps the message of the story was this: When a girl comes of age and embarks on a journey of sexuality—leaving the narrow path and being tempted by the wolf—the properties of the madder root protect her. This interpretation may be too on-the-nose, but it certainly fits. One might also suppose that the message of the story is “cloaked” or “hidden” in the red dye of the girl’s protective mantel.
Again, woman’s medicine had been hidden or encoded in a story that was passed on from one generation to the next.
To my mind, discovering women’s medicine in the tale of Red Riding Hood and in other traditional girls’ stories was just as important as discovering plants associated with ancient goddesses. Women were preserving, hiding, or cloaking their use of plants in the stories they created about women, girls, and goddesses.
Goddesses and Transcendence
I mentioned that the Goddess’s plants support fertility and milk production and that some were abortifacients.
There was one other important use for a goddess’s herbs: as a mind-altering medicine. Indeed, we discover a remnant of shamanism in the cultic and religious practices of Mother Goddesses.
Truth be told, I was dumbfounded when I realized that “barley water,” the beverage used to support milk production in ancient Greece and around the world today, would be mixed with hallucinogenic plants and used in Demeter’s Rites of Eleusis to produce visions of the afterlife.
The same holds true for other goddess cults/religions: the northern goddess Hel offers an infusion of elder flowers to support milk supply and a hallucinogenic beer made with elder flowers for her ceremonies. In Mesoamerica, the traditional milk-supporting drink is pulque, and the Mesoamerican Great Mother Goddess offered her initiates a hallucinogenic beverage based on pulque.
Witches and Witchcraft – Women’s Herbs
The link between women’s lactation herbs and mind-altering brews is not trivial. Across centuries of witch-burnings, laws punished both the use of mind-altering plants and the use of herbs, especially abortifacients. These two areas of medicine must have been viewed as being similar in their degree of evilness.
In fact, we know that mind-altering medicines and plants can mimic the chemistry of lactation, and that a person addicted to heroin or cocaine may begin to (involuntarily) produce milk. (Galactorrhea.) The same is true for certain sedatives and psychopharmica.
Was this connection (between mind-altering drugs and onset of milk production) observed ages ago? And did it leave our society with an unconscious sense of abhorrence and taboo for both milk supporting herbs and mind-altering plants?
Why it matters: Red Madder Root Revealed
This novel is not a story about herbal abortifacients, and it is also not about shamanism. Rather, it is about the general suppression of women’s medical knowledge from ancient times to modern times, and the attempts of women to maintain some semblance of that knowledge throughout changing cultures. While that suppression did aim to curb the use of abortifacients, it extended far beyond them to include herbs such as those to protect pregnancy, to speed childbirth, to help with healing after childbirth, and to bring in and support a mother’s best milk supply.
In suppressing abortifacients, the entire range of women’s medicine was under pressure. It became more and more difficult for women to recall and pass on their ancient knowledge.
We feel the consequences of this today in humanity’s widespread ignorance about natural medicine and lack of immune-supporting measures, in our subservience to and reliance upon modern medicine with its poor outcomes in birth and breastfeeding, rising numbers of C-Section births, and an increasing inability of women to produce a sufficient milk supply.
My Thoughts Today
My millennia-spanning short novel, Red Madder Root, Tales of Initiation, encompasses forgotten history that underlies many of the terrible societal problems we have today.
Through the Initiations, the girl Mayana receives insights and absorbs knowledge. While facing her crushing recognition of life’s harsh realities, she accepts the madder-root-cloak of purpose and responsibility. As it passes to her shoulders, it also passes to the heart and shoulders of the reader.
I worked on this book from 2003-2010 and then forgot about it for more than a decade. Today, I feel gratitude and pride. I feel as though I was honored in some cross-dimensional way to receive these ideas and create this unique and somewhat grand little novel that breaks open the hearts of some readers and encourages them to keep on keeping on, even as our times become darker.