Monk Medicine and the Shackles of Myth and Certainty

A photocopy of the ledger of Richard Franklin Hathaway,
containing twelve herbal 'essence formulas' that fascinated me as a child. 

My grandfather died when I was six. I am the youngest son of the youngest of his six children, so I barely knew grandpa the way some of my older cousins did. He was a quiet man, a man devoted to a certain way of life-he drove sixty miles each way in his Woodie (which went through 11 engines and had over a million miles on it) to the Temescal, our larger cattle ranch almost every day of his adult life. My grandmother after his death turned their four-and-a-half acre ‘home ranch’ into a museum, still open to this day. My grandparents property was magical- in addition to the history of the place, the ability to shut out the outside industrial world of Santa Fe Springs and be on a farm that was very much still like it was in the 1940s and 50s- deeply instills a sense of nostalgia for a time period long before my own, a longing and sense of history shared by much of my family. We have more than a healthy dose of nostalgia built into us. We are remarkably both self-referential and self-reverential, to boot.

The passport photo of Jesse & Lola Hathaway and
their three sons, taken for their tour of Europe.
Richard F. Hathaway, my paternal grandfather,
stands back center. 
We have many stories, like most families. In part due to the mystique surrounding one specific topic, and partially due to my own calling towards herbal medicine, some of the most fascinating to me were those stories of an herbal medicine prepared by my grandfather which was called by the family, Monk Medicine. I had heard many stories about it as a child- from its fabled reception to its healing powers all verified by every member of my dad’s generation.

The story is simple, although everyone tells a slightly different version. My family went on a European tour, my grandfather was a teenager at the time. Traveling north out of Italy and into the Alps, my great grandmother fell and injured herself. Enter monk. (There was always a Saint Bernard in my head as a child in this story as well). Monk applies medicine, giving her a small vial. She heals very well. Return home to Southern California and the daily life on the ranch.

My grandfather then becomes fascinated with the Monk Medicine (as it was deemed). He started writing the driver they had used, who tried helping him track down the holy men and get the recipes. I do not know where the recipes we have came from specifically- perhaps we will never know, but there are twelve ‘essence’ recipes in his Lab Ledger, alongside chemical notation for cattle feed supplements and insecticide formulae, notes on how to perform chlorine analysis and how to determine fertilizer components.

Each of the essence recipes has anywhere from four to fifteen herbs in it, all tinctured in 95% pure alcohol. There are no markings as to which is the singular “Monk Medicine” that was used throughout my father’s childhood and up until my grandfather’s death. The formulas have names like “Danzig”, “Carmelite”, “Benedictine”, “Breslau”, “Life Essence”, etc. What herbs my grandfather couldn’t get, he grew.

My father relates its effectiveness with two scars on his body. One you can only see a slight hairline- which was a cut down to the bone he said, and monk medicine was applied. The other scar, highly visible, was one from a wound half as deep but stitched up by a doctor. 

When I was a young teen an starting to look into western traditions of magic, it was really easy to project upon my grandfather this mystical man, further made all the more enigmatic by my not knowing him well. My memory was limited to videos and photographs, stories of him and the embedded time capsule that was the Museum. He was obviously an herbalist. An alchemist practicing the ‘hermetic arts’ (a term he himself *did use*). When my father shared the copy he made of my grandfather’s ledger, the notebook where he kept all his formulas, it was not unlike a family Book of Shadows. I was enthralled.

The 'Big House' my great-grandparents built on the Home Ranch
in Santa Fe Springs, now part of the Hathaway Ranch Museum.
 It took me some time to realize how much of a disservice this did to the man who *did* do all this- my projections and fantasies limited him to my own agenda. And understanding the actual context of the Ledger and of my grandfather made the reality of Monk Medicine even more fulfilling. The more I learned about him, the more fascinating he actually became. Here was a man who was decidedly un-religious. His father instilled in him an extreme distrust of religion. He was born into a family business that he worked in until the day he died- he was born and died on the same property. He didn’t need to be a secret herbalist, the Ledger didn’t need to be anything other than what it was to be of value. It had no prayers, but it had his diligent effort all in it. He corresponded for years to many different people, religious orders, seed traders, herb importers- not to mention his continuing study of lab chemistry to care for the day-to-day of the ranch, tending to the cattle, horses, and crops… When Monk Medicine is put in that context, it opened my eyes to how important the Ledger was as a whole.

When I look at the current publication of ‘Black Books’ and the resurgence of popularity in texts like ‘Long Lost Friend’- I see many peers disappointed by these tomes of folk magic. Disappointment is the miscarriage of expectation, so one might wonder what they were expecting. Certainly my own experience is one possibility.  These Black Books are notebooks, with udder cream recipes and bullet blessings and tick remedies, a smattering of Christo-conjure and pragmatic herbalism. Not manuals for demon raising, certainly, although a demon’s name may be used (as might an angels or a saints, of course) if it brings power to a shotgun or protects an axle. 

We have lost so much of our connection to life with our practice of magic that we often forget the whole purpose of ‘magic’ to begin with- to live. Often magic becomes only about ritual, or ‘expanding consciousness’, fantastical escape through pastoral nostalgia and sense of taboo and other. 

It is a different thing to talk about agricultural praxis as metaphor when its ONLY metaphor for you, in a carpeted room picking up a tool you've only ever used "or the more noble and glorious purpose of". Swords and demons are much sexier than milking the cattle, walking the dog, and mopping the floor. Yet when does a ritual begin? It is easy to ignore (or be ignorant of) the way we are standing or talking to people until the scripted line is supposed to be uttered. What of the time in between? When does a ritual begin? It is in the allotted time, or in the preparation, or in the forethought, or in the inspiration- or, possibly, is there some quality that flows throughout all this, and more? Perhaps, if we are lucky, we can find a more stirring everyday thing to do that takes it out of ritual action/metaphor alone, which then also allows for the expansion of any activity to be an intentional expression. 

It is as much in the tick remedies, the cattle supplements, the stomach bitters, the hair tonics- here is the magic of daily living. Caring for your family as best you know how. Making sure you have the antidote to what challenges your loved ones and livelihood as best you can. Being prepared for whatever life throws at you. Being part of a purpose, whether collective or individual. 

The Ledger still kicks my ass. It is how I’ve heavily communed with my grandfather in the last decade, reading his handwriting and exploring the essence formulas- and I still make myself read the notes on fertilizer, on de-worming formulas- I 'see' him writing it down, making sure he had the arsenal of his lab on his side, to be prepared for anything the world threw at him.  The myth I've made of him. Different from the myth I wanted as a witchy teen, but.. 

Always, the reader changes what they read. (And the post-modern NYU thought comes forth...) So I project upon grandpa, upon the ledger itself- how does this change him? how does this change my relationship to him? what things am I ignoring because they don’t fit my agenda or pique my interest? How often do I do this to the living, not just the dead? What am I ignoring because I need something else from someone I'm talking to? What stereotypes, archetypes and myths have I frozen in time to allow quick judgement, but now are bound by the shackles of my own shorthand?

Necromantic nostalgia, post-mortem pragmatism. The Ledger brings many things for me, and this has proven even as fruitful as any study of the essence formulas proper- for me, 'Monk Medicine' necessarily includes this reflection. The herbs mix with those time-ghosts of memory, all swirling around in the Everclear. Shatter the myth, observe the myth, shatter the myth, observe the myth. Solve et coagula. A private alchemy, but an alchemy all the same. In letting go of what I wanted him to be, he taught me more than I ever could have hoped. Thanks for this, Grandpa. 


  1. This is a great post on the effectiveness of herbal medicine and home remedies. Before training as an acupuncturist in Oriental medicine, I would have doubted the effectiveness of herbal ointments, tinctures, or pills to cure ailments. But after successfully treating myself and others with herbs, I’m a strong believer that herbs and plants can cure. You’re the heir to a great legacy. I’m sure your grandfather would be proud to see you walking in his footsteps. Great post!

  2. This is a fantastic post! A lifetime of practice and knowledge is found in the treasure of his ledger. Thank you for sharing this!


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