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Traditional Chumash Medicine

"Dream Sage"

Image by Anton Darius

  • Flickr

Chumash Elder Art Cisneros demonstrates a quick and easy dialogue with the plant spirit you wish to bring home with you.

Video by Olivia Robért at El Capitan Creek, February 2020

While we were walking to the beach Art told me of a dear friend of his, a Chumash medicine woman named Cecelia Garcia who wrote a book with James David Adams, Jr. an Associate Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Southern California. The book was called Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West: Cultural and Scientific Basis for Their Use. In it Cecelia calls mugwort “dream sage”, because it is a powerful spiritual tool for dreamtime, just like sage is a sacred cleansing tool in the waking life. 


Mugwort has been used for thousands of years all over the world. It is a medicine that has been used for digestion, pain killer, insect repellent, and many others. It is a part of the genus Artemisia, named after Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, wild women, and the moon. There are around 500 species of Artemisia distributed across Asia, Europe, and North America that have a rich history of use as a cultivated sacred plant. The name Mugwort is attributed to its historical use in flavoring drinks, specifically in beer. 


Mugwort has been used by women historically to stimulate menstruation and to aid unwanted pregnancies, because it acts on the uterus. 12th century texts extensively describe Mugwort as a menstrual tonic, and one 14th century text discusses Mugwort’s use in expelling dead fetal tissue after a miscarriage (Van de Walle 1997).


The focus of my research on mugwort is its use for vivid dreams, astral travel, and divination. 

The reason behind its association with dreams is the psychedelic components present in the plant. “Like its abortive properties, Mugwort’s widespread use as a psychoactive substance is due to a variety of terpene compounds like α- and β- thujones (which also stimulate the heart and the central nervous system) (Alberto-Puleo 1978). Three additional terpene compounds are also found in A. vulgaris leaves, and work synergistically with α- and β- thujones to account for Mugwort’s hypnotic and psychedelic effects.”

"Wild Mugwort at El Capitan State Beach"

by Olivia Robért

Referred to in Russian as “zabytko” which means forgetful, Mugwort’s strong camphor like oils, when inhaled, open up chambers of ancient memory within the brain, bringing one’s dream life stirring visions of past and future that overflow with magical imagery. The symbols which dance through our Mugwort-touched dreams pull out the cobwebs of our forgetfulness and assist us in remembering old, unwritten ways of healing and living that attend to the needs of the spirit and soul”.

 – Judith Berger, Herbal Rituals

This amazing little “weed” can be found growing in watery areas, and likes plenty of sun. If you are a UCSB student, look toward the IV Ethnobotany website to find where it grows around campus and Isla Vista. 

Drawing Meditation:

In a phone interview with Betty Seaman, who trained with Eliot Cowan, author of Plant Spirit Medicine, said one of the best ways to get to know a plant is by spending time sketching it. The process of intent focus on its shape and characteristics will help when trying to dream with it, as well as noting where and how it grows.

Ted Talk by Ralph Ammer: "How Drawing Helps You Think"

"Mugwort Drawing Meditation" by Olivia Robért

Dreamtime and Health:

Dream health is considered one of the most important aspects of Chumash culture, but it is something Western society brushes off. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung looks at elements of the unconscious as they appear in dreams.  The scientific world had begun to remember the knowledge which their ancestors once knew. 


Mugwort is one of the herbs that can illuminate dreams and bring clarity.


Well, this interesting 2012 study goes in depth on the preparation of mugwort to treat anxiety and ADHD in traditional Chumash communities. The recipe for dreams is as follows:

“To induce dreams, place the stems and leaves, under a pillow and sleep on the pillow. The fragrance helps with dreaming. When the plant dries, strip the leaves and stuff them into a small pillow. Place this under the regular pillow and continue sleeping on both pillows. This is a traditional use of A. douglasiana especially in very ill or aged people who cannot dream. Dreaming is considered an essential part of life and healing.” 

The conclusion to this paper, written by James D. Adams at the University of Southern California, says this: “The sedative, antianxiety and dreaming effects of mugwort should be tested in clinical trials. Medicine frequently neglects dreaming as an essential part of healing.”

When it comes time to harvest, make sure you are creating a good relationship with the herb. Here is my dear friend Art to show you a way to ask for permission before harvesting. Offering tobacco is traditional, but if you do not have access to it, a coin, strand of hair, water from your head, cornmeal, or even chocolate (if there are no dogs in the area) can make a good gift. The point is to stay in reciprocity with the earth and give something of value in return.

“All things enjoy ecstatic union with nature. Life without ecstasy is not true life and not worth living. Without ecstasy the soul becomes shriveled and perverted, the mind becomes corrupt and the body suffers pain. Ecstatic union with nature is necessary for normal health. It is normal for survival.”

- Eliot Cowan, Plant Spirit Medicine. Page 29.


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