Yesterday was a beautiful East Tennessee day, with blue skies and an early autumn sun. While walking in the fields along the river, Tom and I wild-harvested passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) growing amongst the datura for our dreaming tea. And then last night, we harvested wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa) under the full moon, and began the process of tincturing it to create a dreaming potion. It’s shockingly green!
In our last blog post we covered the famed Dittany of Crete. This week we’re discussing another Mediterranean magical ingredient also native to Crete: Labdanum. Labdanum is a dark semi-solid oleoresin produced by evergreen shrubs in the genus Cistus, the rock-roses (generally either C. ladaniferus in the western Mediterranean or C. creticus in the east). This resin is exuded from glandular hairs on the leaves of the plant in the summer to protect the plant’s photosynthetic machinery from oxidative stress caused by the intense Mediterranean sun.
There are two traditional ways the resin is gathered. The first is by combing it from the hair of goats who have browsed and grazed among the shrubs. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, tells us in his Histories:
Ledanum, which the Arabs call ladanum, is procured in a yet stranger fashion. Found in a most inodorous place, it is the sweetest-scented of all substances. It is gathered from the thighs and beards of he-goats, where it is found sticking like gum, having come from the bushes on which they browse. It is used in many sorts of unguents, and is what the Arabs burn chiefly as incense.
The second traditional method of harvest, and one that’s still employed in the eastern Mediterranean (especially the island of Crete), is to gently beat the bushes with a lambadistrion, a sort of rake with leather thongs instead of teeth. It is here we discover an interesting possible symbolic key in the Western Mystery Tradition. Early 19th century Egyptologists averred that the beards worn by pharaohs in emulation of the resurrected Lord of the Dead, Osiris, were in fact the beards of goats smeared with labdanum resin. Further, some of them suggested that the ritual flail of Egypt could have two cultural origins: the winnowing flail used to beat the chaff from the grain *and* the instrument used to collect labdanum from the Cistus bush. In effect, the tool symbolizes that which brings forth the staple of life by separating the wheat from the chaff and that which brings forth the indwelling divine substance which marks sacred kings. This flail was one of the tools used by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in their syncretic Egyptian ceremonial magic system, and from there, probably entered the toolbox of British Traditional Wica as the scourge.
To return to labdanum, as the quote from Herodotus given earlier suggests (“used in many sorts of unguents”), the resin was used in many beauty products of the ancient world. Many ancient writers call labdanum the “perfume of Arabia”. The ancient Egyptians also used labdanum in a number of their preparations as did the Etruscans and the Greeks. Diosciordes lists labdanum among the ingredients of the Royal Unguent and so does Pliny the Elder. Cistus bushes also grow on the island of Cyprus (Kypris) where there was a large temple to Aphrodite in the ancient world that included a perfumery, and the resin was used in their blends and burned as an offering at her altars.
In addition to offerings to Kypris, the goddess who delights in the pleasures of the night, labdanum was also included in another famous incense offering – it is likely the mysterious ingredient Onycha in the sacred Ketoret incense of the Hebrews. The book of Exodus, chapter 30, gives the formula as follows:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Take unto yourself sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum; these sweet spices with pure frankincense: of each shall there be a like weight: And you shall make it a perfume, a confection after the art of the apothecary, tempered together, pure and holy: And you shall beat some of it very small, and put of it before the testimony in the tabernacle of the congregation, where I will meet with you: it shall be unto you most holy.
The word onycha here is Greek, meaning “nail” and derived from onyx (the stone) and was chosen to replace the original Hebrew word shecheleth, related to the Syriac word shehelta meaning “tear, drop, distillation, exudation”. This word is rendered in the Arabic as ladana – labdanum. Further, biblical scholars and linguists suggest that all the words used are poetic descriptions of Cistus in some way: nail for the petals of the plant or words referencing the blackness of the dark resin.
As a powerful scent used in so many preparations, you may find yourself wondering what it smells like. Labdanum has a complex scent, described by perfumers as sweet, warm, basalmic, and floral. It has notes of the richness of leather and the sweet earthiness of musk and vanilla. It is said to be reminiscent of Ambergris, a famous and quite rare perfume ingredient which comes from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. In fact, labdanum is often used as a substitute for this rare ingredient, which is considered an aphrodisiac amongst occultists. Finally, labdanum is one of the important scents in the famous French perfume family known as Chypre, named for the ancient perfumery of Aphrodite on Cyprus. François Coty created the first modern chypre fragrance in 1917, with labdanum, oakmoss, florals and bergamot. The scent was highly popular, and even ended up in Hoodoo, where it was said to bring fast money and fast women.
So, what then are we to make of all this material? To what uses can a modern practitioner of the occult arts put this highly fragrant resin exuded in the burning summer sun of the Mediterranean? Synthesizing, we find an association with goats and possibly the flail/scourge, with sensuous Venus, the sacred incense of YHVH, and with the perfumers of la Belle Epoch in France. I suggest, that taken altogether, Labdanum would seem to be ideal for blends used in sex magic, diabolic work, and the black mass. One could see the biblical scapegoat, sent into the desert as a sacrifice to Azazel, his thighs and beard smeared with the black resin of labdanum, the same fragrance used to perfume the occultists and bohemians at the turn of the century.
Though Huysmans’ scandalous 1891 novel “Là-Bas: A Journey into the Self” gives the incense for the black mass as “De la rue, des feuilles de jusquiame et de datura des solanées sèches et de la myrrhe; ce sont des parfums agréables à Satan, notre maître!” [Of (Syrian) rue, of the dried leaves of henbane and thornapple in the nightshade family, and of myrrh; these are pleasing perfumes to our lord Satan.], this blend lacks a sort of diabolic decadence, which could be supplied by the complex sensuous fragrance of labdanum.
Of course if summoning demons and profaning the rites of the Christian church isn’t your bag, labdanum is appropriate for other rites too—the summer moonlit rites of the Wica, to accompany paens sung to Babalon, ritual attempts to woo the Bright Lady of the Hollow hills, to perfume Dionysian revels. The scent of Labdanum calls for uses that are sensual and subversive, wild and free, glamorous and embodied.
One of Tom and my goals for Otherworld Apothecary is to provide rare and potent magical herbs and resins for practitioners. Pursuing this goal prompts us to undertake sojourns and hikes to ethically wildharvest local plants, to grow others in our gardens, and also to import quality materials from exotic lands. Last week, we got a shipment of ethically harvested Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) directly from Crete.
Dittany of Crete is a species of oregano which only grows wild on the mountains and cliffs of the island of Crete. As such, it’s fairly rare and not often found in commerce. Though it can be grown in warm climates (Tom and I have given it a try ourselves), the yield is not very high. We have been to a number of metaphysical shops and seen herb merchants selling marjoram or oregano labeled as Dittany of Crete instead. But the true plant is fairly distinctive. Dittany of Crete may be easily recognized both by the characteristic woolly white-grey hair on its stems and round leaves and the fairly bright pink-purple bracts that surround the flowers during the growing season. Perhaps due to this beautiful plant’s rarity it’s developed quite a large magical reputation.
In the ancient world, Dittany of Crete was considered a potent healing herb. It was said that the wild goats that lived in the mountains of Crete sought out the herb to heal themselves of arrow wounds. Virgil relates this bit of lore in the Aeneid Book XII when the goddess Venus heals the wounded hero with the plant:
Hereupon Venus, smitten by her son’s cruel pain, with a mother’s care plucks from Cretan Ida a dittany stalk, clothed with downy leaves and purple flowers; not unknown is that herb to wild goats, when winged arrows have lodged in their flanks.
The “father of modern medicine”, the Greek Hippocrates, prescribed the herb as a panacea, especially good for digestive complaints and healing wounds.
The Cretan name for this plant is Erontas “love herb”. Cat Yronwode, folk magic collector and hoodoo practitioner, was taught by a folk magician in the 1960’s that Cretan women made sorcerous love magic with the herb. There’s romantic folklore that states that young men, smitten by love, would climb the dangerous cliffs and steep rocky mountains of Crete to obtain a bouquet of the flowering herb to give to their sweethearts to prove their love, bravery, and physical prowess. Thus, it developed a use in love magic, particularly as an aphrodisiac fed to a lover to increase their passion for the magician.
But perhaps the bulk of Dittany of Crete’s magical reputation comes from a branch of western esotericism formed New York City in 1875, the Theosophical Society. The Society was formed by a number of leading occultists, including the controversial Helena Blavatsky, and was part of a web of occultists that included the Spiritualists, the Hermetic Order of Light, the Hermetic Order of Luxor, the Mesmerists, various Rosecution groups and others. The contributions of the Theosophists to the history and practice of modern occultism could be a book in and of itself (and will probably be the subject of another blog post), but include the The Hidden Masters, a focus on Universalism, and the notion of a recurring enlightened teacher incarnating through the ages. But here I will constrain myself to their use of Cretan Dittany, which they consider a powerfully magical plant.
In The Theosophical Glossary, Blavatsky writes:
“The Diktamnon is an evergreen shrub whose contact as claimed in Occultism develops and at the same time cures somnambulism. Mixed with Verbena it will produce clairvoyance and ecstasy. Pharmacy attributes to the Diktamnon strongly sedative and quieting properties. It grows in abundance on Mount Dicte in Crete and enters into many magical performances resorted to by the Cretans even to this day.”
And, Blavatsky gives a more mytho-poetic treatment in Isis Unveiled:
“As the sun, what better image could be found for Jupiter emitting his golden rays than to personify this emanation in Diana, the all-illuminating virgin Artemis, whose oldest name was Diktynna, literally the emitted ray, from the word dikein. The moon is non-luminous, and it shines only by the reflected light of the sun; hence, the imagery of his daughter, the goddess of the moon, and herself, Luna, Astarte, or Diana. As the Cretan Diktynna, she wears a wreath made of the magic plant diktamnon, or dictamnus, the evergreen shrub whose contact is said, at the same time, to develop somnambulism and cure finally of it; and, as Eilithyia and Juno Pronuba, she is the goddess who Æsculapian deity, and the use of the dictamnus-wreath, in association with the moon, shows once more the profound observation of the ancients. This plant is known in botany as possessing strongly sedative properties; it grows on Mount Dicte, a Cretan mountain, in great abundance; on the other hand, the moon, according to the best authorities on animal magnetism, acts upon the juices and ganglionic system, or nerve-cells, the seat from whence proceed all the nerve-fibres which play such a prominent part in mesmerization. During childbirth the Cretan women were covered with this plant, and its roots were administered as best calculated to soothe acute pain, and allay the irritability so dangerous at this period. They were placed, moreover, within the precincts of the temple sacred to the goddess, and, if possible, under the direct rays of the resplendent daughter of Jupiter — the bright and warm Eastern moon.”
In essence, the Theosophists considered it sacred to the goddess of the moon, and a powerful aid to achieving trance states.
This usage, in turn, impacted the magician Aleister Crowley. In many of the journals which detail his workings, he mentions using Dittany of Crete as an incense to help him obtain evocation to visible appearance, as a boost to his own spirit sight as well as source of magical power for the spirit. It is in one of these workings where he and George Cecil Jones are attempting to manifest the Goetic Demon Buer (published in Chapter 57 of Magic Without Tears) where he says “we decided to use this [Dittany of Crete], as H.P.B. [Helena Blavatsky] once said that its magical virtue was greater than that of any other herb”.
Modern practice mostly continues upon these foundations laid by Crowley. Dittany of Crete is used as a herb to promote spirit sight. It is added to animating potions for crystal balls and scrying mirrors and burned to help spirits manifest in the dense white smoke that arises. Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft suggests Dittany of Crete be mixed with the incense where “a materialization is required in the operation”. We include it in our Visions Incense and our To Call Spirits Incense for this purpose, and in various other blends to promote clairvoyance and ecstatic trance. Lastly, Janet and Stewart Farrar, drawing on the association of the herb with the wild goats of the ancient world, include Dittany of Crete in their incense to the Goat-foot God, the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and this recipe has been shared widely amongst modern witches.
All told, Dittany of Crete is a potent ally to magical practice and we’re excited to be able to offer it ethically harvested directly from its native hillsides of Crete.
Here, gentle reader, I continue the theme from our last post–Dreaming. As I said last time, the importance of prophetic or true dreams, dream congress with spirits, and dream travel in this world or the other is emphasized in many traditions of modern witchcraft, including our own. Many Appalachian families were (and are) known to have the ability to Dream True (a term that both encompasses prophetic dreaming as well as getting information like the location of lost objects), while some have the ability to meet with the spirits of the dead in Dreams. Many magical practitioners who lack these abilities still get deep insights into their lives and inspiration through the rich symbolism of their Dreams.
The magical application of different types of dreams have been utilized for a very long time. The Ancient Greeks and Romans practiced dream incubation, often in a healing context. They differentiated between true and false dreams, which were said to come from different gates in the underworld, made of horn and ivory respectively.
“Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.”
~Virgil, The Aeneid: Book 6 [John Dryden translation]
Symbolic dream interpretation is utilized in the Bible (notably by Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame), hence its persistence in folk magic of all kinds. A root of early modern witchcraft, the Witches’ Sabbat, is grounded in dream flight and sorcery. And all that still persists into modern practice.
I personally conceptualize dreams as 5 different types (though one dream can have elements of more than one type):
- Prophetic Dreams (Dreams of things that Shall Come to Pass)
- Symbolic Dreams (Communication using the language of symbolism, either personal or universal, to impart information)
- Dream Travel (Faring forth in Dreams, either in this world or the other)
- Dream Congress (meeting and interacting with spirits and/or other practitioners in Dreams)
- just dreams (your brain processes a lot of information and does some pretty cool biochemistry at night, sometimes dreams are just the result of this–note the lowercase, these are not magically significant)
But how does one discern between something significant and magical and something that’s merely what we do when we sleep? Many Dreamers will tell you that there’s a different quality to a Dream, a difference in the light. Some will say that they just know, and there’s a certainty that it means something. Those are both well and good, but magicians of old also developed another method–divination through geomancy.
I love geomancy, and we’ve written about the use of geomantic figures in our magic before. It’s also one of the methods we utilize in readings and consultations for clients. As a divination system, it’s elegant, simple, and practical. And it’s useful for determining whether a dream is a Dream or not (for which Renaissance magicians employed it). [If you too want to delve into your own love affair with geomancy I recommend John Michael Greer’s excellent book on the subject. Also check out Dr Al Cummins who also loves geomancy and gives lectures and workshops on the subject.]
So on to the method, which briefly is: Ask if the dream in question is significant. Cast a geomantic chart. Look at the figure in the
9th house, which rules dreams. If the geomantic figure there is one of the stable figures (Acquisitio, Albus, Caput Draconis, Carcer, Fortuna Major, Populus, Puella, or Tristitia) then the dream is significant, and you can rely on the information gained, start delving into the symbols, or work on developing or furthering a relationship with the spirit you’ve encountered.
Andrew Chumbley, in his essay ‘Provenance, Dream, and Magistry‘, discusses the importance of Dreaming in the Craft as he knew it. “An important dimension of magical and folk religiosity was the oneiric or dream realm.” In dream, one may attend the Dream Sabbat, a “convocation of magical ritualist’s souls, animal selves and a vast array of spirits, faeries and Otherworldly beings. It is considered that the location of the Sabbath is at the crossroads of waking, sleeping and dreaming, that is the state of True Dreaming – the realm in which the Lady Moon, the nocturnal sun, illumines a world beyond the reach of the uninitiated.”
This emphasis on dream travel and congress with spirits in the dream realm (along with seeking prophetic or true dreams) is encountered in many different traditions of witchcraft, including our own. As magical herbalists, Tom and I have studied and experimented with herbal allies that assist with Dreaming. About a decade ago we started offering a workshop dealing with this aspect of magical herbalism which was, at that time, not often discussed–covering herbs which facilitate trance, dreaming, and spirit contact.
Night’s Garden Tea arises from some of that work and is designed to aid the Dreamer in their explorations. While every witch’s physium and subtle body is different, and many factors including sleeping habits, stress levels, and various spirituous criteria affect the efficacy of certain herbs to the work, this blend includes nervines (which calm the mind and relax the body making one receptive to dream and trance states), oneirogens (which enhance the dreaming state) and herbs which are used to strengthen the subtle body which fares forth in the dream realm. Though herbs are never a substitute for natural talent and hard work, they can be powerful allies to the witch.
To that end, we spent the summer growing and wild harvesting ingredients for this tea, following ritual protocol for harvesting and making due sacrifice to the plants themselves. They were subsequently dried, processed, and blended into this tisane in a magical setting.
Jasmine and rose (being flowers– the portion of the plant most aligned to the Dream) are included to strengthen the dreaming body. In addition summer roses lend their power to the other oneirogens, while jasmine, allied to the moon and the night, blesses the wings of dream flight. The powers of mugwort, vervain and passionflower (all potent magical plants) have been covered previously on this blog. The mugwort in this blend, being a witch-grown, local variety, is less bitter than the cut-and-sifted mugwort that one often acquires from herb suppliers and is a particularly powerful dreaming and trance ally.
An additional ingredient is lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Writing in 1589’s Magia Naturalis, Giambattista Della Porta recommends this herb “to cause merry dreams. When you go to bed, to eat Balm, and you cannot desire more pleasant sights then will appear to you, fields, gardens, trees, flowers, meadows, and all the ground a pleasant green, and covered with shady bowers. Wheresoever you cast your eyes, the whole world will appear pleasant and green.” In the practice of the spagyric alchemists, lemon balm is made into preparations that provide renewal and and strengthen the brain and memory. Lemon balm helps one relax, improves dream recall, and as Porta states, brings a vivid quality to dreams.
The seventh and final ingredient in the tisane is peony flowers. Esteemed in China as a refreshing tea which spread in popularity throughout the middle ages, this ingredient is added at the suggestion of one of our teaching spirits. The plant does have some dreaming lore about it; the roots and seeds of peony have been used in protective magic against nightmares, night terrors, and predatory night spirits for centuries. Again, the subtle nature, scent, and taste of flowers lend themselves well to the subtle arts of Dreaming.
Though we do not offer medical herbal advice as a rule, in general with lunar potions such as this one, women are advised caution. The same plants which ally the subtle body to the rhythms of the night and moon and effect the body of the dreamer are often those which cause changes to women’s cycles and flow.
Tonight is Martinmas eve, associated in old ballads and poetry with the growing dark and the returning dead (as in The Wife of Usher’s Well). As such, I thought it an appropriate time to share this old verse written by Reinelm and published in 1841. The themes in it have commonalities with the Child Ballads and those collected from Appalachia. Interestingly, it also features the burial of the unquiet dead at a crossed roads, which is one of the reasons witches are thought to work there.
THE OLD SMITHY
(a farm house tale)
“The snow is drifting on the ground,
And loud the east wind roars;
Come, men and maidens, hie you in;
Kate, bar those creaking doors.
Call in the dogs, rouse up the fire;
And, mistress do you hear?
Heat us a jug of elder wine,
For the night is chill and drear.”
The good old dame, with clanking keys,
Hung by her apron side,
Throws back the carved oak cupboard door,
With hospitable pride.
There, tall-stalked glasses, flagons, flasks,
And horns with silver rim,
Old china beakers, cups, and bowls,
With claws and frosted brim.
Spice-bread and nuts for winter cheer,
And saffron cakes are stored,
Tea, sugar, coffee, jars of sweets,
And rum a liberal hoard.
They hob and nob, the old house clock
Hath barely stricken seven,
But wine and warmth have made them yawn,
As though it were eleven.
The fire-light flickers broad on racks,
On tins and homely delf,
Long guns are resting on the wall,
Above the chimney shelf.
The dogs lie slumbering on the hearth,
And loud the kitten purrs,–
Says one, “Twill be an awful night,
God help all travelers.”
“Amen!” replied the good old dame—
“Amen! “the farmer cried—
“That minds me of a darksome tale
Of the Black Common side.
‘Twas at the time of Martinmas,
As near as near could be,
That a horseman stood by the four cross-roads,
Under the Blasted Tree.
The wind blew wildly from the moor,
The red fern whistled shrill;
And his good steed had cast his shoe,
Upon the weary hill.
The traveler held his gallant grey,
With his hand upon the mane.
‘Twas dark with sweat, and red with mire,
Foam fleck’d the bridle rein.
When, hark! –chink chink –‘twas the hammer’s clink,
And he wildered looked around,
And he joyful heard, a bow-shot off,
An anvil’s welcome sound.
Drear was the night, the way was lone,
When gladly did he mark
A cottage built by a clump of firs,
And a smithy’s ruddy spark.
The smith that wrought that midnight forge,
Was tall and giant limb’d
And he seized the rein with a rude, rough grasp
And a hand with soot begrimm’d.
‘Now ply the hammer, farrier,
I pray thee make good speed,
For we’ve many a weary mile to go,
I and my gallant steed.’
He loos’d the girths from the panting horse,
The saddle-bags hung low.
And the farrier heard the chink of gold,
As they swayed to and fro.
A thought shot through his burning brain,
‘Twas in an evil hour,
The night was dark the road was lone,
The traveler in his power.
He raised an iron bar on high,
The stranger gave not heed—
He fell’d him dead with a single stroke
At the feet of the startled steed.
He buried him deep on the dismal heath,
As I’ve heard my father tell.
And he cut the throat of the noble horse,
And buried him as well.
The raven croak’d from the Blasted Tree,
As from the heath he ran,
And the wind sighed low in the quaking fern,
Like the moan of a murder d man.
Years pass’d away—the smith had wed
And a thrifty wife had he—
None knew nor guessed of the blood-bought gold,
For he spent it warily.
And he lived in the cot by the clump of firs,
As though his soul were cleared
Of the dark red stain, or his harden’d heart,
By an iron brand was sear’d.
‘Twas in the time of Martinmas,
When the ways were drear and lone,
There ran by the smithy a long, lean hound
And he dropp’d a fleshless bone.
A bone, ’twas a human skull!
All grinning, bleach’d and bare,
With its eyeless sockets upwards turned,
With a grim and ghastly stare.
The farrier started from the forge,
A conscience stricken man,
And he hang’d himself on the Blasted Tree,
Just where the cross roads ran.
They buried him deep at the dead of night,
Where suicides must rest.
No coffin closed his guilty head,
No shroud enwrapp’d his breast.
But there by the tree in that dread spot
Where the four cross roads do meet
A stake was driven through his heart,
A stone weighed down his feet.
His wife grew sick of a broken heart,
She pine’d away and died,
And none have lived since in the ruined cot,
By the Black Common side.
And such as dare to pass that way,
When Martinmas comes ‘round,
Have heard the midnight hammer’s din,
And the ghostly anvil’s sound.
And then comes the tramp of a weary steed
When the road is drear and lone,
And the wind sighs low in the ragged fern,
Like to a dying moan.”
“I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger…”
In our last post, I mentioned that I planned to blog more about cemetery work and ancestor veneration. Cemeteries are one of the working sites important to our craft and the location to perform many traditional Appalachian spells. We prefer those that are somewhat secluded and yet “awakened”– that is, they possess a ineffable presence, something lying under the feeling of peacefulness, a sense of being observed.
If you’re going to undertake magical work in graveyards and churchyards, it’s important to develop a relationship with these places. Walk around in the day and try to get a feel for those whose bones lie in the land, whose hearts and minds are tied to it. Do some research into who they were. In the old days you’d know the dead and their stories, because they’d be your kith and kin, your family and extended community. Though we’ve had the good fortune to work in many mountain family plots, it’s common nowadays to end up living rather far from your ancestors’ resting place. In our experience, all awakened cemeteries may be used as a liminal point of contact between the worlds of the living and the dead. And so, at this powerful place on this past dark moon, we set out to do some Work.
The blessing of myrrh to strengthen its necromantic virtue:
On the night of the dark moon, Tom and I made our way to one of our local working sites, a cemetery, for the interment of myrrh to be used in necromancy, ancestor veneration, and contact with the spirits of the dead.
In the dead of the night, anointed with wormwood and cypress and carrying offerings, a jar of myrrh, and trowels, we make our way to the Northern Gate. We hold our breath, bow our head, stamp 3 times with our left heel and enter, the familiar motions of entering the hallowed burial ground helping us begin our descent into trance.
Once inside the cemetery bounds, we seek out the Guardian. In Appalachian lore, this is generally thought of as the spirit of the first person interred in the graveyard, and it may have it’s origins in the Brythonic spirit known as the Ankow (also spelled Ankou or Anghau). Many urban legends repeated by spook huntin’ teenagers report seeing hooded or cowled figures or large black dogs (perhaps a continuation of the British folklore) at night in certain cemeteries; this is the Guardian– a sort of genius loci of the burial ground, linked to the stones and the trees and the dead. We get a sense of his attention, an unnerving feeling of intense focus upon us, and we state aloud why we have come. We give him offerings of incense and Tennessee whiskey and the unnerving feeling abates. We ask to be hidden from the eyes of the curious and to perform our night’s work in peace.
Continuing, we wander a bit in our trance state and find grave beneath a large black walnut tree that “feels right”. Just then, the churchbells chime, tolling the lateness of the hour as we lie on our backs on the cold grave. We petition the spirit whose body lies 6 feet below us and offer an ancient compact: in exchange for disturbing the peace of her grave and using it as a portal to the Great Below, we will offer prayers on her behalf. She assents, and the night wind stills as we sit up and begin to dig. Digging down deep, removing dirt to be replaced later, we bury a large mason jar full of high quality tears of myrrh to be blessed with the power of this liminal place, a key to the realm of the dead. We light a vigil candle on top of the freshly packed earth, and begin to sing.
Three nights, with prayers and candlelight offered each night, the myrrh laid interred in the darkness of its grave as the moon passed into the sign of sign of Scorpio. Upon being dug up, it was placed in the depths of our working cauldron on our hearth to leaven and has not been exposed to daylight since. We offer it in our shop, and will also use it in incense preparations for our own work with the dead through the growing dark of the year.
We’ve been quiet here for the last couple of weeks, but we’ve been fairly busy.
We celebrated Lammastide by feasting on fresh produce from the garden and performing our traditional rites of purification and transformation. We bid farewell to the Red King (Le roi est mort, vive le roi!), and drank good Kentucky bourbon in his honor. And, as always in this red season, when summer hasn’t lost its heat yet the knife-edge of autumn begins to be noticeable in the early morning, our thoughts become somewhat darker.
We ponder graveyard work to be done in the coming months, and begin crafting products to assist with communication with the dead. And we and a number of our friends are wrestling with fresh loss and grief. And so it goes.
Part of our regular practice includes tending an ancestral shrine and offerings to the spirits of the dead. I’ll blog more about that in the coming weeks leading up to Hallows, but for now, I’ll offer this simple prayer to Our Lady of the Underground written by an anonymous author. For those of you looking to start working with the spirits of the dead, or for those of you who have recent losses, it’s a fine place to start.
“Lady of the oldest churchyards,
Lady of moss-covered stone,
Lady of the land where row upon row
Of crosses stand, hold out your hand
And soothe the souls that come your way.
Show them through the shining door,
Rock them gently in your arms
To slumber in more peace and calm
Than they ever found in life.
Lady of the quiet slant of sunlight
On the crumbling words of grief,
Wash the sorrow from our eyes
As from the souls of the fearful dead,
And help us come to peace as well
With all the mournful losses of the world.”
“But there are some things I know for certain: always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder, keep rosemary by your garden gate, plant lavender for luck, and fall in love whenever you can.”~ Sally Owens in Practical Magic
The scent of lavender is one of the more powerful sensory experiences of the summer herb garden. This sweet, green floral aroma with notes of camphor has the magical ability to conjure a drowsy nostalgia and memories of the past. The complex fragrance of lavender is created by the merging of roughly 180 chemicals which evolved to lure bees and other pollinators in the summer heat to the purple flowers. Indeed the plant–with its flowers (which are not quite blue, gray, lilac, or purple), its very strong fragrance, and its fine leaves and feathery growth form– is perhaps the quintessential plant of Mercury and elemental Air.
There are currently about 39 recognized species in the genus Lavandula (which is part of the mint family), all of which are native to the Old World. These species include the common Old English lavender, French lavender and Spanish lavender. Lavender grows readily in the hotter drier climates of the Mediterranean and flourishes best in dry, well-drained soil in full sun. It is also cultivated in temperate gardens all over the world, but the plant can be susceptible to root rot in areas with high humidity or saturated soil. It blooms throughout the summer, and the scent is carried in the foliage as well as the flowers.
Lavender has been consistently used since ancient times. Its names, both common (lavender) and scientific (Lavandula), come from the latin verb for washing, lavare. Many of it’s usages throughout history have been related to cleanliness. It has been an additive to bathing water through ancient Rome, medieval Europe, to the Victorian Era and on into the present day. Likewise, and still tied to the notion of cleanliness, lavender was used to scent linens and to keep moths and insects from clothing through all of those periods. Additionally, because the plant produces a large amount of essential oil which is easily extracted with steam distillation, lavender has long been an ingredient in the art of perfumery. In fact, it’s one of the ingredients in the popular Victorian Eau de Cologne Florida Water, which also has ties to cleanliness. In hot summers, where Victorian fashion dictated that one wore a great deal of clothing, Florida water provided a bit of cooling relief as the alcohol evaporated, and helped mask the odor of sweat. Today, Florida water continues to be popular with magicians and occultists for all manner of psychic cleansing.
In addition to its cleansing properties lavender is also a useful healing herb, and healing uses were first described by the Roman physician Dioscorides in the 1st century CE. Lavender was quite popular in the medieval materia medica; the medieval herbalist and botanist Saint Hildegard of Bingen perscribed it for a number of maladies. Our old friend Nicholas Culpeper (the 17th century English herbalist) says of lavender: “Mercury owns the herb; and it carries his effects very potently”. By this he means it is an airy, balancing herb and very efficacious against the maladies of Jupiter. The diseases governed by Jupiter include apoplexy, pleurisy, diseases of the liver, piles, colds and influenza, and, in the mental sphere, restlessness and overheating of the mind. Throughout the centuries Lavender has also been prescribed for headaches, faintness, hysteric fits, panic attacks, heartaches and grief. Modernly, lavender is showing promise as an aerosolized antiviral and calming agent in some hospitals and clinics, hinting that the knowledge of physickers may not be that far off the map. It’s also being explored as an effective topical treatment for wounds and burns with anti-bacterial, anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properies.
Given these associations, lavender is a lovely ingredient in many different kinds of healing spells. It is an appropriate addition to healing baths especially ones to treat fatigue and the effects of anxiety and stress. It can be added to magical ointments, poultices and potions applied externally to wounds, burns and sprains. It’s an easy herb to incorporate into healing candle spells and can be used to stuff healing poppets.
Many modern sources cite lavender as an ingredient in love spells, but its inclusion in modern love spells is curious. During the middle ages, lavender was thought to cool the fires of ardour and preserve chastity. In Freeman’s Herbs for the Medieval Household, she quotes a fifteenth century German manuscript called the Hortus Sanitatis (or Garden of Health): “The Mother of God had great love of this herb for the reason that it preserves chastity…If the head is sprinkled with lavender water it will make that person chaste as long as he bears it upon him.” On the other hand, it is related that Napoleon Bonaparte’s mistress Josephine made an aphrodisiac potion by steeping lavender in milk and using it to make hot chocolate. It may be that she was, in fact, subtly trying to ensure fidelity in her partner. 19th century folklorists relate that unmarried women drink a potion of lavender on St. Lukes eve (October 17th) to dream of their future husbands. Given it’s homemaking applications (especially in scenting the marriage bed) and medieval use in ensuring chastity, I’d suggest that lavender is appropriate for certain types of love spells promoting pair bonding and fidelity.
On the same lines, in modern times lavender has developed an association with modern gay love magic. This probably dates back the 1920’s when the lavender plant and its scent had become linked with effeminate men, possibly through its association with the aesthetic movement of the late-Victorian and pre-war Edwardian periods. Phrases like “streak of lavender” were being used in popular culture to refer to non-masculine men (and sometimes slyly suggesting that they preferred their own gender), like in this 1929 song by Cole Porter “I’m A Gigolo” :
“I should like you all to know,
I’m a famous gigolo,
And of lavender, my nature’s got just a dash of it.
As I’m slightly undersexed
You will always find me next
To some dowager who’s wealthy rather than passionate”.
This association carried through into the gay rights movement of the 1970s and the occult practitioners who were a part of it (like Herman Slater, owner of NYC’s Magical Childe) from whence it spread into popular usage.
These uses aside, our personal view of the Nature of lavender is one of ease and succor and the comfort of home. We have a number of uses for it. We have added it to purification and cleansing baths, particularly those with a goal of soothing anxiety and calming frazzled nerves. We often burn lavender with frankincense as an incense to create a calm and serene atmosphere. We use it in a number of healing blends and spells, particularly our witches’ friend ointment. We spray linens with the essential oil to provide a calm, restful sleep; my grandmother used to do this, and fresh, clean, lavender-scented sheets never fail to remind me of staying at her house. Lastly, though lavender can sometimes be overwhelming in tea blends, it does have a number of culinary applications like infused honeys and cookies and cakes. These are nice to give to friends and neighbors going through a rough time and to provide comfort which is so part of lavender’s nature. All in all, lavender is a lovely and highly practical addition to any witch’s herb cupboard.
If you’ve been paying close attention, you’ll notice that things have a fresh look here at Otherworld Apothecary. We’ve been busy taking new photos, updating product descriptions, and re-working our website design. We’ve also started blogging with more regularity about magical herbalism, traditional witchcraft, and our personal practice; we’re aiming to have new posts on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Our blog updates are posted at our facebook page as well– feel free to comment over there or here. If you have topics you’d like to see covered, let us know.
We’ve also decided to offer $5 shipping on all orders!