All posts by Jack

On Black Nightshade

Part of the family of witching plants that includes belladonna, datura, mandrake, and henbane, black nightshade is their humbler cousin. Commonly called garden nightshade, common nightshade or petty morel (for its similarity to belladonna—the great morel), Harold Roth of Alchemy Works has given this plant the nickname The Black Toad, and indeed it strikes us as being very toad-like.

Of a Saturnian, watery nature, black nightshade has qualities in common with other “toad plants”. It is a hedge plant, growing in waste places but still close to humans, occupying liminal spaces at the edges of fields and the bottom of the garden. Spreading foliage provides summer shade for garden toads, while small star-shaped white and pale purple flowers give way to small green fruits that ripen to a glossy juicy black. The plant is also poisonous; it contains the glycoalkaloid compound solanine and so should not be consumed [though some cultures boil the young greens repeatedly like poke (Phytolacca americana) to remove the toxin and then eat them, it’s not something we’d recommend]. Instead, put it to use in other preparations for magic and witchery which will not be consumed by the living.

Plants associated with toads (like toadshade, toadflax, ferns, and the humble dandelion) are often innocuous-seeming, but really are quite powerful. Our experience with the plant spirit of black nightshade has shown it to be less dangerous than the dark belladonna, and less capricious and tricksy than datura, and quite willing to work with a serious minded witch. It is useful in spells to augment and boost the personal power of the witch; use it in spell pouches, potions and preparations especially in situations where you want to overcome or coerce another.

Like other toad plants, black nightshade has the power to raise storms. For this purpose the leaves and stems are brewed with fresh spring water or rainwater and the resulting liquid, once cooled, is used to bathe rain bringing effigies or stones.

Black nightshade occupies a liminal space between the world of the quick and the dead and is possessed of chthonic power. Its fruits are often used to make inks to write messages to the dead (and we use it in making our own black ink—soon to be restocked!) It can be used as a key to unlock passageways and may be implored to help the witch travel to the underworld. Black nightshade is also used in offertory rites for the spirits of the dead.

Finally, lore tells us that Black Nightshade is associated with the witch-mother and herbwife Hecate, and, like the other witching plants in the family solanaceae, may be used in rites and spells and offerings to contact her for various purposes.

Rare to find in commerce, we offer our organically and witch-grown black nightshade. These plants sprouted up, self-seeded, as a gift from the spirits in the hedge of our witch garden. We harvested and dried these whole plants under a dark moon before the end of the season, and includes flower, stem and leaf as well as dried ripened and unripened fruits. They may even have viable seeds which you can start yourself (they’re fairly easy to grow like the other related solanums–tomatoes and peppers).

On Old Christmas

Traditional craft groups often observe holy days which fall outside of the 8-fold wheel of the year. It’s strange for us to be asked what we did for Yule, for instance. While some of our holidays align with the familiar neopagan wheel of the year, the winter solstice (and new Christmas) are but minor concerns filled with celebration and gifts and gin punch.

For our hearth, the more serious observance is Old Christmas, which, by happenstance, co-occurs with Epiphany.

Some of you may be thinkng – “Christmas? Epiphany? But, these are Christian holidays, not Pagan ones!” But many holidays observed by traditional witchcraft groups have distinctly Christian origins, sometimes with a thin Christian gloss over older traditions, sometimes not. The presence of these (albeit heretical) Christian observances makes these Traditional Hearths not distinctly pagan faiths, but something born of both.


Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas, the official close of the Christmas season. It is a holiday celebrating the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi, as related in Matthew 2:1–12. There are a lot of European traditions involving the “three wise men”, who are seen as magicians, scholars, diviners and astrologers and kings from the east where they may be petitioned as saints for assistance in magic. For this purpose, we recently formulated an incense from the traditional gifts they offer –gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

One of our initiating traditions taught us that Epiphany or 12th night is the end of Misrule, when order is restored and the pattern of the world fixed anew. All New Year’s luck spells should be finished by this time in order to be woven into the pattern of things to come. Though the wild hunt still rages on certain dark nights throughout the winter and protections should remain in place, the power of chaos to interfere and intrude upon our lives is diminished outside of the liminality of Misrule.

Old Christmas

Old Christmas is a cultural phenomenon amongst some mountain communities in Appalachia and remote parts of the UK owing to an 18th century calendar shift. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII amended the Julian calendar which had shifted forward ten days since the time it was adopted by the ancient Romans. Since King Henry VIII had already removed England from the remit of the Holy Roman Empire, the new calendar (named the Gregorian calendar) was ignored by Britain and her subjects. By the mid-18th century the calendars were separated by 11 days, and when Parliament decided to adopt the new calendar in 1752, they dropped Sept 3-13 of that year. British subjects in far removed places, like Appalachia, (and parts of Scotland, Wales and the West Country too) who refused to move Christmas based on government interference and the influence of the Catholic church, counted forwards 11 days to celebrate Christmas on the old date—January 5th. By the 1880’s the calendars had separated by another day, shifting “Old Christmas” to January 6th. In many places in Appalachia from the late 1800’s on, both holidays were celebrated, with New Christmas taking on a festive outgoing party tone, and Old Christmas retaining a more serious family oriented religious nature. Old Christmas was documented as being observed in a number of places in WV, KY, NC, TN, and GA until the time of the Great War and many folks in the mountains remember their grandparents and other old timers talking about celebrating Old Christmas.

There is traditional lore concerning certain mystical occurrences on Old Christmas Eve that are of interest to witches. One is that animals are gifted the power of human speech precisely at midnight. If one were seeking to have the ability to communicate with animals, or you have a burning question to ask your cat, it’s an appropriate time for such an undertaking. Bees within the hive were supposed to awaken from their winter slumber and sing the 100th psalm on Old Christmas Eve, offering thanksgiving to the Lord. It’s certainly a good time to bless the hives in the middle of their winter sleep. Additionally, like the mystical appearance of fern seed at Midsummer, certain Elder trees were supposed to burst forth in golden bloom at midnight on Old Christmas Eve, and if that’s not a witchy thing, I don’t know what is.

Finally, Old Christmas Eve is the traditional time for the apple tree wassail. A meal of hard cider and spice cake is taken into the orchard and shared with the trees with a charm of blessing that they “bud and blow and bear” an abundance of apples. Evil sprites are scared away with banging pans and firing shotguns.

Our own Old Christmas rites are conducted by lantern light beneath the slowly revolving winter stars. Central to our rites is the apple tree and the serpent that dwells within it. We wassail the apple trees so that they may be fruitful (and we may make more cider) and offer to our spirits so that the compact between us may be renewed. Through our Hearth’s celebration of Old Christmas, and our particular current of witchery, the symbols of the season are united– the Lucifer, the Christ child, the light in the dark, the light of knowledge and indwelling divinity, the themes remain the same. May the light crystallize in your blood and reveal to you the secret fire.

Who are the Ancestors?

Two weekends ago, Tom and I took Otherworld Apothecary to our local pagan pride day in late September. The theme of this year’s gathering was “Ancestral Rites”, and I was asked to give a lecture on “Who are the Ancestors?” The talk was scheduled as the first of the day as a basic introduction, to be followed by talks on particulars of ancestral devotion, shrines, offerings and related topics. While not quite what I was contemplating speaking about (the influence of Spiritualism in early 20th century occulture), the lecture seemed to be well received. Following are my notes written up in long form for anyone who may be interested in my perspective and thoughts on the topic.

A simple ancestor shrine

Hello, and welcome to East Tennessee’s Pagan Pride Day 2017. Before I get started with the lecture, while folks continue to wander in a bit, a little about me and my background. I’m Jack, and I’m half of Otherworld Apothecary, a magical shop operating since 2004, selling herbs and resins, oils, incense, potions, and other such things as well as doing consultations and magic on behalf of clients. I am a traditional witch of two admissions — an initiatory pre-Gardnerian British witchcraft tradition, and, more recently, the old Kentucky line of Gardnerian craft. I also am the Magister of a small hearth and a practitioner of Appalachian folk magic. Specifically to this topic, I’ve maintained an ancestral devotional practice for nearly two decades.

I’ve been asked today to give a talk on “Who are the ancestors?” Most pagans and magical practitioners spend a part of their ritual year, typically the fall and early winter — generally around Halloween/Samhain — thinking about and working with their ancestors. Other traditions, such as mine, work with them year round, but find these practices heightened during this season. A commonly heard phrase, borrowed from spiritualism, is that “the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest at this time”. So you’re likely to start hearing a lot more about “the ancestors” as the weather shifts and the leaves begin to change and the mist comes over the mountains.

But “who are the ancestors?” This is a question with a lot of different kinds of answers. There’s one pretty straightforward answer: the word ultimately comes from the Latin “antecessor” meaning one who goes before. Ancestor means a person from whom one is directly descended. They’re the people, now dead, whose genetic material combined in the great dance of life and ultimately gave rise to your physical body.

This straightforward dictionary answer is unsatisfactory in depth for a 45 minute talk, though, and additionally there are other answers to the question “who are the ancestors?” that depend on culture, tradition and circumstance. This is my take on the topic, drawn from my own personal practice and my informing traditions. I will also attempt to bring in lore from outside my own experience that I’ve picked up over the years in conversations with others from other traditions and perspectives.

To begin, I’m defining ancestors as “dead folks,” so, though one’s parents are technically “ancestors”, I don’t consider the word applicable to them until after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. There are different types of dead people, categories if you will, I’m going to discuss 6 of them and for ease of discussion I’m arranging them into 3 groups. Though these are not hard and fast or mutually exclusive groups, they’re a good way of conceptualizing. The first group is the one closest to you, and generally the easiest one to contact and start working with. These are your Blood Ancestors—your own lineage, and include 1. The Beloved Dead and 2. The Ancestral Stream. The second group is based on where you live and the culture you’re a part of; they’re a part of your place and the stories you tell and partake in. These are 3. The Dead of the Land and 4. Heroes and Saints. The last group is of interest if you’re a witch, if you have The Sight, or you’re otherwise tied into magical currents. They’re 5. the Mighty Dead and 6. The Restless Dead. I’ll discuss each of these groups in turn, and then give a few thoughts on why any of this is at all important.

Old Grey Cemetary, Knoxville TN

1. The Beloved Dead

This is most often what people mean when they talk about “ancestors”. These are people you knew in life bound to you with love: your grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and may include friends and lovers. This is the easiest group of ancestors to contact and work with, and generally the most healing to do so. You know these people, what they enjoyed in life, their history and their stories, you miss them and want them to be well wherever they are now.

Often, people have a shrine to the beloved dead in their home. In southern Appalachian culture, this is fairly ubiquitous, even in homes where no one practices any kind of occult or magical work. It may be called a memory wall or memory table and is often along or under the stairs, hallway, or other liminal space and consists of photos and objects belonging to the beloved dead as well as members of the ancestral stream.

Working with these folks can involve simple practices, such as leaving flowers in a vase or a nod and prayer to your Gran for strength. Spiritual practices can also include providing vessels of fresh cool water to magnify their presence, offering special or favorite foods, and communicating through spirit boards.

2. The Ancestral Stream

In my tradition’s worldview, and many others I know of (Germanic heathenry and other Northern European traditions, Celtic Reconstructionism, Anglo-Saxon sorcery, and others) the soul is composed of multiple parts. This soul conglomeration dissociates upon death, and the different parts go their separate ways. One of these pieces is the ancestral stream. Like the beloved dead, these are your blood ancestors, but farther back than people you knew in life. You are bound to them with your blood and body. From one perspective, outside of the here and now, you’re already dead and part of this stream.

Old lore may speak of the ancestral stream as the Distaff and Spear, which refers to the female and male branches of your family, respectively. In Germanic heathenry, particularly powerful members of the ancestral stream are known as Disir and Alfar. You may find, as you develop your ancestral practice that you’re contacted by some of these particularly powerful individuals, or specific members with which you resonate for a variety of reasons. Generally, though, the ancestral stream tends to speak as a collective, or as indistinct voices offering wisdom, guidance and strength.

3. Dead of the Land

In contrast to the previous groups, which are the ancestors of blood, the dead of the land are based on where you live and the culture of which you’re a part. For our culture, particularly, Appalachians tend to be very placed based; these are folks who lived in the shadow of these mountains and loved them just like we do. Their hearts and memories are tied to the land we live on. Your relationship with these ancestors is based in the land. You have an intimate bond with the dead buried in the land you live on. Their bodies are interred in the ground, break down into soil nutrients and are taken up by plants, which you then consume for food, medicine and magic. In times past, these place-based dead were blood ancestors, but nowadays, folks tend to live outside of their ancestral homesteads and instead the dead of the land are other East Tennesseans, Knoxvillians, and mountain folk.

The dead of the land can be powerful place based guardians. This may be one of the intentions behind the building of mounds for dead, the merging of human dead with land wights to become powerful persistent guardian spirits. In southern Appalachian lore, the first (or most recent) person buried in a graveyard becomes the guardian spirit of that place, and should be petitioned and acknowledged before any magic is performed there. Additionally, practitioners who work outside in lonely eldritch places will often meet the dead of the land at their working sites, and it behooves us to remember that they, too, are our ancestors of a sort.

4. Heroes and Saints

Another class of ancestors, based around the culture we belong to and the stories we tell and partake in, are those dead considered heroes and saints. The veneration of deceased heroes started in classical culture, where people gave offerings to particularly powerful heroes that were in the process of becoming divine and which could aid them from the afterlife. For the most part, these are localized dead who are culturally famous in a specific place, though individuals like Odysseus, Heracles, Ariadne and Orpheus are also among them. The notion of hero cults extended into the rise of Christianity where saints, many of them again powerful localized dead, were able to help those who venerate them. Saints feature in many magical traditions and spells today, like the charming traditions of magic from Ireland and Scotland (see the Carmina Gadelica and other sources), Iberian folk magic (see the work of Jesse Hathaway Diaz), and some African traditional religions.

British cultural heroes, like King Arthur, have a played a fairly large part of the modern pagan revival. They were invoked to lend their aid by Dion Fortune to save Britain from the Nazis and are also still worked with by the Gardnerian Tradition. Though modern Americans don’t really have cognates to cultural heroes like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or localized powerful Saints outside of Latin America, the idea can still be applied in the form of People’s Saints. These are cultural figures whose life is notable and exemplary, who may be venerated, emulated and invoked for aid in certain areas of one’s life. For instance, those working for environmental causes may declare John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold as people’s saints and invoke their aid in raising awareness of environmental issues and protecting land and resources. [I’m planning a future blog post on People’s Saints soon]. These are just a few ways that cultural ancestors are still relevant to modern practice.

5. The Mighty Dead

A fifth class of ancestral spirits relevant to those who are witches and/or initiated into specific magical lineages are those called the Mighty Dead. Gardner believed they were witches who no longer reincarnated, but instead acted as teaching spirits to currently practicing witches. In Witchcraft Today he says: “But I am told that in time you may become one of the mighty ones, who are also called the mighty dead. I can learn nothing about them, but they seem to be like demigods — or one might call them saints.” They are also sometimes termed the Hidden Company (as Evan John Jones calls them in Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed). The Secret Chiefs or Ascended Masters of Theosophy and Dion Fortune’s Society of Light and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn are a related concept, seen as mysterious specific teaching ancestors and guiding spirits of the order.

As a class, the Mighty Dead are practitioners of the magical arts bound to you by lineage and virtue; when joining an initiatory tradition, they’re often specifically named and formally introduced to you. This hidden company of witches guide and teach, protect and sometimes cause mischief, and help the living members of the group develop and grow. They are honored and participate in the rites because they are still a part of the circle of Art and still a part of the People. For those who work on an apprenticeship model, the mighty dead may also be part of the chain of Virtue from teacher to student down through the years. For those not of an initiatory lineage, they may still make their presence known through Dreams and spirit contact.

Critically, though this is a concept shared by many magical groups by different names, the names are not simply interchangeable. Each group or tradition has a distinct set of master practitioners who have gone before. Therefore it is useful to not jumble terminology, as Ascended Masters and the Hidden Company, for example, are the same only in concept, not in membership.

6. Restless Dead

The last class of spirits I’m going to talk about are the outliers here. They’re not really ancestral spirits. In fact, you don’t want your ancestors to end up in this category. They are the restless dead, those who in Appalachia we call ‘haints’. People have encountered and feared the restless dead since ancient times. There are all sorts of spells for protection and for laying or getting rid of the restless dead from the Ancient Greeks on down. These are people who died badly, who have unfinished business, who are forgotten, stuck, hungry. Part of the work of ancestral devotion is so that your ancestors do not end up as restless dead.

Appalachian family afternoon

Why ancestral work?

Which brings me to the close of my talk, a few notes on why it matters.

The first answer I have to offer is simply: Because we should. Without any magical benefits or considerations of spirit contact at all, it’s human nature to remember the dead. It’s natural to want peace and light for people you love and who are now gone from this world. We owe a great debt to the people who came before us; a great many of them paved the way for us to have the life we do, in a world of more freedom and more opportunity, just as we strive to make our world better for the future.

This brings me to my second reason for ancestral devotion: increased luck. Your ancestors lived their life so you could live yours, you are the continuation of their legacy and they want what’s best for you. They want you to have a happy, full life with opportunity and love. They can help open opportunities, and smooth things in your life. Essentially ancestral spirits improve and safeguard the luck of their family and descendants.

Relatedly, your ancestors can also offer protection. This is both spiritual protection as well as protection of a more mundane nature — using your intuition to warn you about being in the wrong place at the wrong time, ward your house from fires and theft, etc.

I was taught that regular devotion to your ancestors also builds your might in the spirit world. Practice contacting the spirits of your ancestors means you will have the skills to contact people who are not your dead, but who might be helpful in some capacity. We start with those closest to us, our lives and our sphere of influence and eventually are able to interact with a whole host of spiritual entities and forces. Other spirits will also notice the might you gain from regular ancestral devotion.

Lastly, wisdom, guidance, and magic may be had from the ancestors in their whisperings if you only listen. One of my blood ancestors got me into genealogy and guides me in finding the branches of our family, their names and their stories. Another has given me recipes for healing teas a few days before I came down with a cold. I assure you, your lives and your magic will be enriched through ancestral practice.

I leave you today with a quote by the brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist, Erwin Schrodinger. He said “No self is of itself alone. It has a long chain of intellectual ancestors. The “I” is chained to ancestry by many factors… This is not mere allegory, but an eternal memory.”

On Herbal Correspondences

Recently one of our students asked us about correspondences for planetary ruler and element for herbs and resins. In the process of explaining where those come from and the underlying theory for deriving these correspondences, Tom and I took the opportunity to revisit and update the ones listed for the botanicals on the Otherworld Apothecary website. We thought we’d write an article to share this information with you, dear reader, as well.

Like many occultists when they first start learning magical herbalism, Tom and I supplemented our early botanical learning, gleaned from gardens and woodland wanderings as young witchlings, with the magical information found in the one of most common books on the subject at the time: Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Though not without its flaws, it is a thorough introduction to magical herbalism, and for every entry Cunningham gives planetary and elemental correspondences. But where do these come from? Why do some herbal sources disagree on these associations?

Planetary and Elemental correspondences arise from classical medicinal herbalism, where the practice of herbalism was coupled with medical astrology– a system which started in ancient Greece and continued through the medieval period into early modern medicine. In this philosophy, all herbal medicines and remedies used in treatment have their own inherent Nature and Temperament reflected in the traits of the plant. They also have, through these qualities and virtues, certain astrological affinities with specific planets and signs of the zodiac. In essence, a plant’s astrological and elemental attributes are a sort of filing system to categorize their specific Natures and their action upon the human physium.

Perhaps the most famous practitioner of this sort of herbalism was Nicholas Culpeper, an early 17th century English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer. Culpeper revolutionized medicine through the development of a sophisticated system of herbal-astrological medicine, applying reason and the scientific method to study, offering cheap and easy herbal treatments, and by attempting to educate laypersons about their health through the publication of his books. Of note is his popular and widely available herbal, “The English Physician or The Compleat Herbal”, which has been an influential text for Tom and me and countless other practitioners. Our herbal correspondences are based upon his foundation.

Planetary Correspondences

The planetary association of herbs arises from two theoretical underpinnings: plant traits and medicinal action on the physium. As mentioned above, a plant’s astrological correspondence is a way to categorize its specific Nature, which is reflected in the traits of the plant, including growth form, color of its flowers, leaf shape, scent, taste, reproductive structures, habitat and other characteristics of note. This is also coupled with the effect that the plant has upon the human body and used to assign a particular planetary affiliation.

For example, evergreen herbs like rosemary, whose expression of the Life Force is steady and constant like the Sun, are considered solar, as are plants that possess yellow flowers like calendula or those that look like the sun like eyebright. Medicinal actions that are solar in nature include: strengthening the heart (associated with the astrological sign of leo, and ruled by the sun), bringing a feeling of warmth and ease and well-being, and stimulating or clearing the eyesight. So, for instance, St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perfoliatum) blooms around midsummer, has flower buds which produce an amber red fluid, has bright yellow solar flowers and is used to dispel anxiety and promote feelings of wellbeing, thus it is an herb of the sun par excellence.

Where a plant grows is also a trait that can also be an indication of its planetary nature. For example, herbs that grow in waste places like graveyards and ditches are generally plants of Saturn. Culpeper’s entry on Henbane from The Compleat Herbal states: “I wonder how astrologers could take on them to make this an herb of Jupiter; and yet Mizaldus, a man of a penetrating brain, was of that opinion as well as the rest; the herb is indeed under the dominion of Saturn, and I prove it by this argument: All the herbs which delight most to grow in saturnine places, are saturnine herbs. But Henbane delights most to grow in saturnine places, and whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes, and scarce a ditch to be found without it growing by it. Ergo, it is an herb of Saturn.” That henbane is also a poisonous herb only adds to its Saturn nature.

Elemental Correspondences

The elemental correspondences of herbs arise from humoral theory–the four humors or temperaments are elemental in nature and are a combination of two different axes: Hot vs. Cold and Wet vs Dry. Here are some action keywords that describe the differences.

Cold: Sedating, quieting, slows
Hot: Exciting, activating, moves and circulates
Dry: Focuses, Constricts, constrains, dries, irritates
Wet: Expansive, diffuses, infilling, moistens, eases

As you can see from the chart at right, herbs that are cold and dry are those associated with elemental Earth, those that are cold and wet are elemental water, hot and dry elemental fire, while herbs that are hot and wet are elemental air.

To determine elemental attributes under this system, one considers the plants Nature with regard to the two axes. For example, patchouli is exciting and activating and so is “hot’, and also is expansive and diffusive into a space, and so it is “wet”. Thus, even though it has an earthy smell, patchouli’s nature is of elemental air. This is also reflected in patchouli’s magical use—it’s used in money magic to increase flow and commerce (an air trait), in lust magic to increase and inflame passions (like air on a flame), and also in divination and sight blends (also an air quality).

Myrrh is another good example. It’s sedating; if you’ve ever been in a room clouded with myrrh smoke you know the feeling of heaviness that it causes. Thus it’s “cold” on the hot vs. cold axis. It’s also focusing and constricting and drying (used medically to dry up wounds), so is “dry”. Thus myrrh’s nature is cold and dry–elemental earth. While it is used in trance (often thought by magicians to be a “water” trait) myrrh’s nature is of earth, and is used for “earthy” necromancy, preservation and protection.

And so on, for each we considered.

In many cases our judgement agrees with Culpeper and Cunningham, and in other cases we differ, as is to be expected given different people working in different places and times and giving different weight to the various aspects of the plant under consideration.

Initially, we included the planet and element as a sort of key or guide on the herb labels for those shopping in our festival booth. They then transitioned over to the website since they were already in the database, where they persist (along with an embarrassingly large number of the original label descriptions!). We feel these categorizations are useful to occultists for a variety of reasons, from making fluid condensers to gaining a richer understanding of the energetic subtleties between similar aromatic resins. We hope you are able to make use of them, and that this insight into our process aids in that as well.

Shop Update: Dreaming Harvest

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!

On Labdanum

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.

Labdanum collecting flail

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.

On Dittany of Crete

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.

Dittany of Crete

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.

A Method of Dream Discernment

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.

The Vision of Endymion (1902) by E. J. Poynter; (c) Manchester City Galleries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Night’s Garden Tea

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.

A Ghostly Ballad

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.

(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.”