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.
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.
“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.”
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!
The sunrise is golden with a few wisps of pink clouds over the ridge line. As the dew evaporates in the summer morning, I anoint my brow with the oils of saffron and cedar and frankincense. Barefoot and bare headed and silent, I pour out fresh milk and honey in front of the rosebushes. I inhale their scent– spicy and floral with a bit of citrus– and carefully use the curved knife to harvest the heirloom field roses and sprays of soft pink Victorian climbing roses, the richly-scented damask roses, and the golden yellow musk roses. I place the blossoms gently in the tincturing vessel and the potion begins.
We’ve been using Tincture of Roses for a few years now and are planning to add it to the shop this summer. No simple love philtre, this. Rose tincture is added to the sabbat wine to strengthen the bonds between the company of witches, both those in body and in spirit, as well as with tutelary spirits of the group. It may also be used for a period of time to fortify and balance the aetheric body in preparation for works of dreaming, faring forth and spirit contact. Finally, a few drops placed in the mouth before summoning assists in compelling spirits and lends cunning power to the voice of invocation.
This morning while pruning the rosehips to force a second flowering, I was thinking about Aradia. I recently reread Charles G. Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches. The book purports to be a collection of traditional witchery collected from worshipers of the goddess Diana in Northern Italy and was an influential text on the modern witchcraft movement.
Aradia is a complex figure who possibly has her origins in Herodias and her daughter Salome who conspired in the death of John the Baptist. In the medieval period, Herodias was one of the names (along with Diana, Holda and Abundia) of the Lady of Night, the supernatural leader of a cult of witches who flew forth by night and traveled in spirit and got up to all sorts of mischief. Carlo Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath deals with this extensively.
In Leland’s text, Aradia is a messiah figure, the daughter of Diana, sent to the Italian peasants to teach them witchcraft. The arts she teaches them (in addition to operative magic for the attainment of desires) are also tools of subversion and rebellion against the rich who hoard wealth while people suffer, the government that supports this inequality, and the dominant religion which oppresses them. While the Gospel of the Witches is a legend set against the background of medieval or renaissance Europe, it was published in 1899 and certainly also could reflect social inequality and injustices of the industrial revolution. Sadly, it’s also still relevant to modern times. Income inequality, racism, homophobia– these problems are currently all too real and prevalent. Aradia, “the first of witches known”, was sent to teach witches the tools to end oppression, destroy the systems and people who would subjugate them, and to bring liberty and happiness to the Children of Night.
I think perhaps many of us could use her help. To that end, this beautiful prayer to Aradia, written by Jonathon Sousa may prove useful.
Thrice I speak thy sacred name,
Thrice I chant and thrice I sing –
Erodiade, Erodiade, Erodiade –
Daughter of the Moon and Sun,
Queen who reigns at the Mother’s side,
Lady of the Woods,
Protectress of the outcast and marginalized,
Messiah and Second Eve to the Witches of Earth,
come, fierce Erodiade,
called also Herodias and Aradia,
moved by my entreaties.
To the weak, bring strength.
To the oppressed, bring liberty,
with liberty, the knowledge to enjoy it,
and – in that knowledge – the wisdom
to claim its power responsibly.
To the lovelorn and lonely,
and the reminder of their especial bond
with All That Is, a most intimate lover.
To the despondent and broken,
bring healing and peace.
Erodiade, Beloved Daughter,
Soul of Earth, Leader of the Fairy Rade,
Bride of the Goat-footed Angel,
accept this sacrifice of words –
forge it into a garland
worthy to crown your head.
Salve, Erodiade, figghia di Diana,
ascolta a mia scongurazione,
aora e sempre!
We often get asked about the origin of and the meaning behind the symbols drawn on our working oils. The short answer is that they’re our versions of specific geomantic figures that are resonant with the nature and planetary force of each oil.
Geomancy was a method of divination widely practiced through the Renaissance in both Europe and the Middle East and originating in the interpretation of markings in dirt or the pattern of cast pebbles. It was refined over time and became a sophisticated method of practical prediction thought to communicate with the world soul. The practice of geomancy was later resurrected by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but remains underutilized in modern magic. I first encountered the art of geomancy and the sixteen geomantic figures reading Paul Huson’s Mastering Witchcraft (where he refers to them as witch runes) as a young witchling, and then again later in reading Agrippa (there’s a section in Pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy dealing with the practice of geomancy). I find it a highly useful method of divination, and I’ll probably blog more about my work with it and how it fits into our practice in the coming weeks.
The geomantic figures are sixteen figures formed by dots– 4 lines of either one or two dots stacked on top of one another. For divination, you come up with figures using some method of generating random numbers (e.g. random scratches in the dirt, coin flips, the number of chirps in a cricket’s song, the number of pebbles snatched from a stream, etc.) and these figures are combined, arranged and interpreted. These figures have specific meanings, areas of influence, combinations of elemental forces, and associated planets, zodiac signs, and symbols. Thus, much like the runes, they could be said to be specific magical forces that can be used for practical spellwork in addition to divination. This is how they’re used with regard to our working oils.
In the above product photo you can clearly see our sigil on the bottle of The Oil of Influence; this is our version of the figure conjunctio. Conjunctio’s nature is that of the crossroads, the meeting of different forces which interface and work together and is ruled by the planet Mercury, the quicksilver conjurer. Below, you can see the “dot form” of conjunctio on the left, and our sigil for influence on the right. When developing sigilized forms of the geomantic figures, you should retain the underlying double points and single points, but these can be embellished with diamonds, triangles, dots, crosses or open circles, and connected with straight lines or arcs as you see fit. The end result here is an interlocking symbol, bringing together the target of the spell with the magician doing the work. The symbol sort of looks like two tongues, appropriate for work that involves exerting control over people and institutions through communication. Additionally, the center of the figure shows a fixed eye. In many forms of folk magic, including Appalachian practice, “the influence”–a force of compelling fascination, is put on people through the fixed gaze of the witch.
In Frances Barrett’s The Magus, you can find alternative forms of the more familiar patterns composed of dots. Studying these forms carefully will give you some idea of how the dots are connected to form these sigils and from this knowledge you can develop your own versions of the geomantic figures like we did.
Here are another couple of examples of the layered meanings behind our versions of the figures.
The geomantic figure for Love Oil is that of puella. It’s classical meaning it that of love and beauty and femininity and the figure is associated with the handmirror of Venus. In addition to these meanings, our sigil incorporateds the form of a vessel or chalice, bringing to mind the ace of cups in the tarot. This could be the spell of the “loving cup” with the love philtre pouring in, or a representation of the blade conjoining the cup as in the great rite. It’s also a fairly vulvic symbol, appropriate for an oil ruled by Venus, the mistress of love, beauty and pleasure.
For Blasting Oil, the geomantic figure used is cauda draconis, associated with the volatility of fire, disaster and calamity, and combines the forces of the malifics Saturn and Mars. The cross pieces on our sigil are reminiscent of an old alchemical symbol for poison. In addition, the sigil is a clear representation of a forked stave, invoking the poisonous tongue of the Serpent of Old and the forked blackthorn blasting rod.