Christopher Penczak’s The Plant Spirit Familiar is a decent primer on the possibilities inherent in plant work suited to new students on the plant path.
The Plant Spirit Familiar by Christopher Penczak
General Book Info
The Plant Spirit Familiar was written by Christopher Penczak in 2011. Penczak is a prolific pagan author who has written several popular books on topics ranging from Reiki and Gay Witchcraft to Spells and Urban Witchery. The Plant Spirit Familiar seems to be a lesser known book in the collection of his works though it is generally highly regarded by those who have reviewed on Goodreads. Penczak, a very public pagan figure, working (it would appear) out of the east coast of the USA, also runs a Witchcraft Training Program and claims to have studied Herbalism (though he isn’t listed in the American Herbalist Guild and doesn’t list who he studied under – bearing in mind of course that Herbalist accreditation doesn’t really exist). Note that his knowledge of plants seems to be solid, so I’m not questioning the claim.
The book itself is structured into several different sections, roughly, in my words: a history of plant work and magic in European witch traditions; different forms of said workings; understanding the spiritual relationship with plants (with a focus on what is done in other cultures); learning to cultivate said relationships; the types of plants and using them in the circle; and using the plants magically and as tools. Note that this may not be how Penczak himself sees the chapters.
I think there is a lot of good and thought provoking information in this book for a practitioner looking to go beyond Pagan 101 literature. It attempts to consolidate information in a way that prompts practitioners to think about how they can develop magical relationships with the green world around them.
There is a lot of hand holding in this text: Penczak gives you formulas and tips based on his own practice. He shares some of his own chants, recipes and knowledge in order to help readers see how they can apply what he is talking about in their own practice.
If you are not familiar with this area of magical work or tradition, Penczak gives you a lot general background information that readers new to this area might not know. And while his bibliography is a rather eclectic mix, there are a few decent reference books that individuals wanting more information can turn to.
Penczak gives a nice primer and shows an interesting link between magic and flower essences, allowing readers to extrapolate the knowledge and apply to their own solar and lunar infused waters (as well as making their own flower essences).
In the margins of my book I’ve written: “It took 88 pages to get here!” Meaning that it took 88 pages of the 281 page book to get to what I thought was the point of the book: learning how to build a relationship with the plant so that it becomes a magical familiar. 88 pages of history and tangents and background knowledge that I mostly already had. This frustrated me to no end. I’ll be honest. I slogged my way through the first quarter of the book because of it. There were times I was reading the book when I felt downright hostile over the side tracking tangents that felt like filler.
He often acts in a way I find irresponsible when it comes to working with plants (and the faery – which is an example of the tangents he tends to take). For example, he writes:
“But faeries could also reveal the virtue of healing herbs and scared sites for other illnesses, and in general, once allied with a human faery doctor, could walk with the human, as a co-walker, and reach with or through the human into the spirit of the patient to effect change and heal.” (55)
What I find troubling about this quote is twofold: there is a lack of sourcing for this information (which is completely new to me – not unheard of but still, completely new) and that no where does he follow up on his conversations about faeries with a warning about how treacherous working with the faeries is known to be. It’s fine to talk about what the fey folk can teach, and perhaps he’s assuming anyone coming to his book knows this information, but if that’s the case, then his book is an odd combination of assumption and condescension.
Additionally, while I understand that there is a western patriarchal assumption inherent in expecting sourcing of some sort for experiential knowledge, there is quite a bit of lore (once I googled it) on this topic that can be drawn on to support his discussion. And I find it odd what he doesn’t source or reference and what he does. If the book is really meant to be helping students learn to travel this path, this sourcing would be helpful. This is especially pertinent for consideration when we see him quoting fiction as potentially fact:
“In the novel Mistress of Spices […] a seemingly fictional system of Indian spice magic describes a phenomenon similar to the plant familiar, the “root spice” or mahumul. […] Divakurani describes a very plausible system of magick akin to the cunning arts of the Witch.” (63)
I cannot for the life of me understand what is the point of including such a quote (edited for brevity). While it’s sometimes a fun wish fulfillment to take fiction and imagine it to be real (I’m an avid bookwork, I get this), it doesn’t strengthen his argument in any way shape or form. I don’t understand why his editor kept this.
Which brings me to another point: who edited this book? Because I don’t know what the original looked like, but the final published copy, while generally grammatically decent and typo free, has an internal idea development issue that begs the question: why weren’t more judicious choices made in terms of content? We don’t literally need to throw everything at the wall in order to make it stick. It screams of insecurity and takes the reader down so many rabbit holes that you’re left lost like Alice in Wonderland, trying to figure out what to do with all the half-baked cakes you have in your hands. Of all the things that drove me most batty while reading this book, this was it. I wanted the editor to have made some editorial decisions that actually left readers with a body of work that they could really use to go beyond the Pagan 101 or even maybe 200 level (if I’m being generous).
It’s this throwing everything in the tub with no regards to what the reader is being introduced to that is my final complaint about the book. I often felt like Penczak was catering to a dark poison path witch aesthetic that was problematic. It’s fine that you want to explore the poison path, but maybe in a book that purports to be teaching readers about how to build a relationship with plants, readers should be encouraged to try their hands at doing so with balms instead of banes in the beginning. Penczak has some rather elaborate, dressed up rituals which include calling the quarters using the baneful plants in the main text. He includes the balms in the appendix, but one has to wonder why he chose to model the baneful plants first when they can be particularly tricky to work with and can upend a practitioners life. All shadow work does and yet Penczak makes no mention of how plants like Datura or Mandragora can pull all your skeletons out of the broom closet.
He also briefly mentions the idea that these are working relationships and they require a certain level of commitment and awareness. At one point, he speculates that witches’ sacrificing a dog for their manakin root, had to be ok with the sacrifice of the dog involved. What I feel he misses in this discussion is how any baneful work will ask us to look at what we are willing to give up (or need to give up) in order to grow. He often throws readers into the deep end without the tools they may need. From ascribing elemental associations to baneful plants without rationale to giving examples that readers might not have a solid enough foundation for; Penczak writes in a way that can sometimes be cavalier as he panders to a dark green witch aesthetic.
I think there is a lot of interesting and thought provoking information in this book for a practitioner looking to go beyond the Pagan 101 literature. As I’ve mentioned, I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the choices made but I think (hopefully), the mish mash nature of the text doesn’t give anyone but the most foolhardy dabblers enough information to really get themselves into trouble.
The book was interesting and attempted to consolidate information in a way that prompts practitioners to think about ways they can develop magical relationships with the green world around them, something that is maybe not explored as much as it could be in Pagan literature. The problem is that it actually doesn’t go far enough. It hints at what can be done and gives some tools, but doesn’t really delve into what a plant familiar relationship on an experiential level. I have found more profound information from Richo’s Strictly Medicinal Seeds blog; Harold from Alchemy Works and a myriad of other herbalists and poison path workers on Instagram (Bane Folk, Persephone’s Path, etc). Penczak hints at what others explicitly say. And while he consolidates a myriad of information to tease out some possibilities; he falls short of actually committing to in depth knowledge that will help readers really develop informed plant familiar relationships.
Would I recommend it? Yes-ish. It’s not a top of the list read. And I wish the book had been edited for more concision and practical development. But if it’s something you know nothing about, it’s an interesting introduction to the topic.