Traditional Weather Witching

As I write this article a summer storm has blown in from the west. The sky is dark and lightning is striking towards the ridge. The wind has picked up and there’s a charge in the air. I’ve got the windows open; this is my favorite part of late summer — the thunderstorms. Years ago, I used to stay at my grandparent’s ranch during the summer. Late summer was the time for haymaking, an activity made complicated by summer thunderstorms. You need enough rain for the hay to grow but also enough sun once the hay was cut to that it could dry before being baled and put away. I can understand why charming the weather would be a useful skill.

The weather’s always had a “make or break” influence over humanity, but especially so in late summer when crops depend on rain without devastating storms. As such, magical folk throughout time have been messing with the weather for the good and ill of humanity. Indeed the only law of the Christian Empire against magic made by Constantine in 321 AD exempts magical “steps taken in country districts, that there may be no apprehension of (heavy) rain when the grapes are ripe, or that they may not be dashed to pieces by the force of hailstorms.” There are references to weather magic as early as ancient Greece, as in this quote by Empedocles:

And you’ll stop the force of the tireless winds that chase over the earth
And destroy the fields with their gusts and blasts;
But then again, if you so wish, you’ll stir up winds as requital.
Out of a black rainstorm you’ll create a timely drought
For men, and out of a summer drought you’ll create
Tree-nurturing floods that will stream through the ether
And you will fetch back from Hades the life-force of a man who has died.

You can find spells and charms to influence the weather in a ton of cultures, right up through the modern age, and I’d be writing chapters on them if I were to cover the subject thoroughly.


“I’ll give thee a wind.
Thou’rt kind.
And I another.
I myself have all the other,
And the very ports they blow,
All the quarters that they know
I’ the shipman’s card.”
~The Tragedy of Macbeth, I, iii

One of the most basic magical ways for calling up a wind is whistling. Tales in Appalachia tell of those gifted with the talent of “whistling up a wind”. Those who aren’t gifted naturally with this talent can make whistles out of alder wood to conjure the wind. Incidentally the predecessor of the Irish tin whistle, the Feadan, is made from alder wood. Maybe it’s because anyone who could charm the wind surely could charm an audience.

Bullroarers (a long flat wooden blade on a string) can also be whirled around in the air to call up the wind, especially when made of lightning struck oak (though in Cornish craft, such tools are used to call spirits). Specially made weather working brooms can be swung about your head in the same manner. Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius) is an appropriate material for a broom made to stir the winds in the sky. Its pungent yellow blossoms are allied with the creatures of the air and its seeds are dispersed over great distances by the wind. Regardless of the method you choose to call the wind, make sure your hair is unbound and loose; binding and knotting are ways to capture the wind, not call it.

winds resized
A male witch selling wind knots to a group of sailors from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, by Olaus Magnus (1555).

In a woodcut (above) housed in the collections of the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, you can see a male witch selling a wind charm to sailors. This was a common and well-known practice in pre-gardnerian witchcraft found in Devon and Cornwall. According to Cecil Williamson “There were well known sea witches selling the wind in each of the following places: Sennen, St.Ives, Appledore, Lee, Lynton and Porlock, where one found Mother Leaky still trying to flog her wind strings with their knots, right up to the mid 1930’s.”

These charms are made by going to a high-windswept place, and tying a certain sailor’s knot into a stout piece of rope to capture the wind. Winds from different directions or of varying forces may be captured using this method. Three such knots are tied in the charm, often with each containing a wind of varying strength. Traditionally this charm is then sold to sailors, but good luck getting a sailor, fisherman, or navy man to buy it nowadays.

According to De Lamiis Libre (or the Book on Witches) written in 1577 by the Dutch physician and demonologist Johann Weyer (quoted by Murray in God of the Witches), witches were said to bring rain “by casting flint stones behind their backs towards the west, or flinging a little sand into the air, or striking a river with a broom and so sprinkling the wet of it towards heaven, stirring water with the finger in a hole in the ground, or boiling hogs’ bristles in a pot.” These are all quite good and time honored methods for calling forth rain but let’s focus on three of the more practical methods for conjuring rain: more broom charms, incense, and water on stones.

As brooms can be used to stir the winds in the sky, they can also be used to bring rain. The broom end is splashed in freshwater (a river, spring, stream, or basin filled with water from such a natural source) and the drops are flung into the air over your head. Though there are many different plants that have rainbringing properties, perhaps the plant par excellence associated with weather charming (and the one best used to make a rain-bringing broom) is Heather (Calluna vulgaris). Heather is allied with the realms of mist and rain, and grows upon the wild heaths of the British Isles. It’d be an excellent herb to include in weather spells of all kinds.

In fact, a medieval incense recipe specifically to make it rain includes heather. This incense, calls for henbane, heather and fern to be mixed together and smoldered beneath the sky to bring forth rain. Many old spells recommend burning various herbs to call rain, most likely because such plants are so allied with the realms of water, mist, and rain that by burning them, you’re calling the rain to put out the fire on their beloved plants.

Lastly an old method for causing rain is to fling water or pour it through a sieve (the ones used for winnowing grain) onto a stone. The stones specified are usually ones considered in folklore to be under the protection of “the Folk” or in some way allied to old pagan religions. If you don’t happen to have standing stones haunted by “the good neighbors” close by, your hearth stone or (one specially designated) will substitute. Pour fresh water (again from a natural source) through a sieve onto the stone, or fling it using your heather broom, while praying and saying charms to bring the rain.

Protection from Storms
The last category of weather spells that need to be covered is the protection from and prevention of storms. Dame Natura isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, storms can be deadly and destructive. Hailstorms, flooding, gale winds and lightning can destroy homes and crops; there’s a wealth of traditional charms to prevent this from happening.

In the mountains of the Appalachians and the Ozarks there are a whole host of spells to prevent storms. One is to take an axe that you’ve used to chop wood and rush in the direction of the approaching storm with it over your head and swing it into the ground at the edge of your property (and presumably the edge of the field or garden that could be damaged by the storm). This will split the storm and save your land. Pocket knifes can also be used in the same manner to nail down, and thus delay, the storm or to cause it to blow over and hit elsewhere. Like most magic in Appalachia, the ability to do this is said to be one that’s taught or a natural skill some folks have (often called knack or gift).

And lastly, there are charms to protect your house and person from lightning. According to East Anglian lore, a houseleek (Sempervivum spp.), known around here as hens’n’chicks, planted on the roof protects the home from lighting, though it “must never be cut down or destroyed or its former protective power will be reversed, and catastrophe will ensue.” Other methods of protection are to plant a rowan tree (Sorbus spp.) at the front door and an elder (Sambucus spp.) at the back of the home, or to hang a pouch of mistletoe (Viscum album) from the roof.

And with that, I’m going to hang mistletoe from the roof of the porch, just in case, pour a glass of sweet tea and head outside to enjoy the summer storm.


After writing about wild harvesting yesterday, we’re now planning a trip to procure passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) for a dreaming tea blend soon to be in the shop. We saw it blooming over midsummer weekend in the near tropical heat and humidity.

The passiflora are generally tropical plants, though nine species are native to the United States. Our local passionflower is a beautiful vine native to the eastern US; in fact, it’s the state wildflower of Tennessee and has been since 1919. The Cherokee in eastern Tennessee called it ocoee and the Ocoee River is named for it. The common name passionflower was given to it by Spanish Catholic missionaries to South America round about the 1600s, who saw in it’s flowers symbols of the passion of Christ. I personally think they look like alien lifeforms one would expect on Venus, but maybe that’s just me. Mountain folks in southern Appalachia call it maypop, or wild apricot, after the small fragrant fruits (they pop when you squeeze them) that ripen in late summer. The fruits of maypop were used they used as a wild plant food and to make jams and jellies and flavored beverages, and the plant was one of the medicinal plants harvested from southern Appalachia and sold for its economic value.

Currently, the leaves and flowers of passionflower are used as a mild sedative that relieves many of symptoms caused by stress. It is used to treat insomnia, tension headaches, restlessness and anxiety. It has been found to contain alkaloids similar to syrian rue which act as MAOIs, though the FDA has determined it safe for food use in reasonable amounts. (As usual, I’m not qualified to give medical advice, don’t use it if you’re pregnant, seek aid of a medical doctor before consuming herbs especially if you’re on medications or have a medical condition.)

We’ve used scullcap (another nervine) for years, to aid in trance and soothing anxiety and insomnia, so we’re interested to be able to try passionflower. We planning on including it with other mild sedatives and trance aids, along with oneirogenic (a fancy word meaning “dream enhancing”) plants in a forthcoming dreaming tea– so look for it to be added to the shop soon!

Wild Harvesting

Though it’s generally preferable to grow plants for magic yourself, or buy them from reputable merchants who do so (organically, sustainably, and ethically), there are occasions when one needs to turn to the wild. This could be because the plant you need isn’t in commerce or is very difficult to find. Often it’s because you want something partaking of the essence of a particular location; plants that have grown in certain sites are part of the spiritual ecology of that place. Sometimes it may be that you want to ensure that proper harvesting protocol is adhered to, or that harvesting occurs under certain astronomical conditions. In many cases, the procurement of plant material from the land of wandering becomes a magical-religious rite in itself.

The hunt for ginseng in the traditional practice of the Appalachians is one good example– the root and the hunter both involved in a relationship in the wooded hollows. In this case, because the plant has been harvested by one’s own hand, one can be assured that no poaching has occurred, the roots were not over-harvested from particular patches, and that the ripened fruits of the plant were replanted by the hand that gathered it. Additionally, in this way, the root carries potency and virtue, because it recognizes the sorcerer in a relationship of mutual respect.

This mutual respect is essential for the practice of magical herbalism, regardless of the species sought and worked with. Here are my thoughts, suggestions, and guidelines (both practical and esoteric) when seeking and harvesting plants from the wild.

The first step in wild harvesting is preparation, which involves both mental and physical components. Like all works of magic, having a clear intent is necessary.

For the mental preparation, make sure you know the plant and are sure of its identity. What is the extant lore about it’s Nature? Are there harvesting taboos, and does it have preferred offerings? Lore provides knowledge from our ancestors and we should take advantage of it. Practically, make sure you can recognize the plant in the wild and know about its ecology so you have an idea of where it can be found. Harvesting the wrong plant is needlessly wasteful and disrespectful, and can also be dangerous. Is the plant you’re wanting to collect threatened, endangered or sensitive? Is it overharvested? Introduced or native to your bioregion? How much material do you need and are you collecting leaf, flower, fruit, bark, root? Plan to collect far away from human habitation. This helps to avoid obnoxious people intruding on your magical outing as well as avoiding plants tainted by heavy metals and pollutants and spirits twisted by human development.

The physical part of preparation mostly involves purity. Like draws like, as above so below, as within so without–these are maxims of the art magical. You don’t need to attract negative wights and sprites, nor should you take your aetheric baggage into hallowed ground, so purity of the physical and the aetheric bodies is important. Take a saltwater bath, cense with a purification blend. Some traditions dictate that you should lightly fast and abstain from sexual activity for a period before-hand; in many ways, these are gestures of devotion and respect. Practically, make sure you have clean tools and clean boots to avoid tracking fungal spores, pathogens, and microbial contaminants from one place to another and infecting the plants and the landscape from which you’re harvesting. Wipe tools and boots both with high proof alcohol. Additionally, because this is a magical rite, take your power with you. I don’t mean that you should wear a crushed velvet cloak and all your magical bling, but anointing oil, discreet amulets, and sigils of power drawn on the skin all are useful. You’re a sorcerer engaged in a relationship with the living spirits of the land.

On the Journey:
Again, remembering that this is a magical rite, be present fully in what you’re doing. When you’re journeying forth into a place, you should become fully present as a part of that place, otherwise one is an intruder. Silence and a observant, focused mind are tools as imporant as a sharpened pair of hand pruners.

Knowing the land is essential. If you’re unfamiliar with the location, you should scout the place first, noting impressions from plant communities and the genius loci. Your intent should be spoken humbly to the spirits of place, and you should take an honest read of the place, notice signs, and/or use divination to ascertain their reply. Offended landwights and unheeded omens tend to mean bad things for sorcerers and witches: poison ivy, stinging nettles, bothersome insects, treacherous ground and getting lost at the least. Elf-shot, blasted luck, and attached spirits are also within their power.

On Arrival:
This is the obviously magical part of the trip. The plant in question should be hailed with an invocation and offerings given. There are many such examples of how this is done in published folklore. I’ve given some examples in the posts on mugwort and vervain. A further example may be found in Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology:

‘Our forefathers also held the Ellhorn [black elderberry (Sambucus nigra)] holy wherefore whoever need to hew it down (or cut its branches) has first to make request “Lady Ellhorn, give me some of thy wood and I will give thee some of mine when it grows in the forest” – the which, with partly bended knees, bare head and folded arms was ordinarily done, as I myself have often seen and heard in my younger years.’

If there’s no extant lore on how to do this, devise your own rites along these lines. Give offerings– though some plants have stated preferences (blood, sexual fluids, wine, etc.), honey and incense are good standby’s. We have a standard incense offering we use; I’ll share the recipe in a later post.

Have the proper tools for the job. One of my personal pet peeves is this whole business of the taboo against iron and steel. The Good Neighbors’ avoidance of cold iron is well known and bandied about in magical circles and urban fantasy novels alike. However, modern tool production has given us the ability to have finely honed precise blades of stainless steel for the harvesting of wood, herb and root. Gold, silver, or copper sickles and knives are unweildy and do not hold an edge. A wooden blade is just clubbing the plant into submission. Much like surgery on humans or cats, harvesting from plants should be done with a precise, clean cut. Modern horticulture tools like hand pruners have been designed to cause minimal damage to plants, and stainless steel involves other metals besides iron to render it incorruptible. Invest in proper tools and consecrate them to your work.

Be aware of the health of the environment. If the plants are stressed due to drought or other disturbance, don’t harvest them. Plants change their chemistry in response to stresses like drought and insect and pathogen attack, and you should avoid them. Additionally it will increase the likelihood of the plants surviving for you to harvest later if you aren’t cutting bits off.

Take lateral branches, not leaders. Avoid injuring bark of trees overmuch, as this will result in a slow death. If you need to collect bark, take from newly downed trees or from small areas on random branches. To avoid over harvesting any one population, move around collecting only a small amount of plant material from any one population. Leave healthy seed producing plants in the population to reproduce. Leave the portions you’re not harvesting at the site; that biomass represents nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem, food and habitat for wildlife, and genetic material for the population of plants. Don’t harvest more than you need or can store properly over the next year. Some good numbers to follow for harvesting amounts at a single location are given by Daniel Schulke in Ars Philtron:

• If harvesting the entire plant, take a maximum of one tenth of the total individuals in a given location.
• If harvesting stem or root, a maximum of one sixth of individuals. Dig up and take lateral roots from the plant, leaving the vertical root and some lateral roots intact and then replant. If you harvest the root crown (where the stem meets the root) the plant will die.
• If harvesting flowers or fruit, one fifth of total individuals present.
• If harvesting seeds, one fifth of total individuals present.

Put the plant parts in clean cloth bags (which can be decorated and charmed as you see fit) and process and dry them properly upon arriving home.

foxfire ginseng smaller

Photo of Harv Reid with Ginseng from Foxfire 1

On Vervain

A few years ago, Tom and I were having sharing a bottle of wine and talking about witchery and plants (as usual) and he looks over at the vervain growing in our garden and asks “Why vervain?” I didn’t understand his question, and so to clarify, he says “I’m wondering how it got such a wealth of magical lore associated with it.” Indeed, it is quite an unassuming plant. It lacks the dark glamoury of belladonna and datura, the bold sensuality of roses, and the uncanny lightness of mistletoe. It’s lightly scented with small flowers, yet for all its seeming normality, vervain is one of the most well known magical plants, with an abundance of lore outweighing most others.

Vervain is a hardy perennial in the genus Verbena, growing up to 3 feet high, with opposite leaves which are toothed and fairly thin growing on square stems. Small, five petelled blossoms, usually white, blue or lavender, grow on a spike (though some species bloom from a small head of flowers instead) and bloom in the height of summer. Vervain are generally drought-resistant, tolerating full to partial sun, and enjoy well-drained, average soils but can be found on limey soil or calcareous sites as well. There are over two hundred species in the genus Verbena, though many locations have a single representative that dominates–Verbena officinalis is one of the few species native to Europe, for instance. The most diversity in the genus is found in the Americas; we grow 4 species in our garden (V. hastata, V. simplex, V. bonariensis, and V. officinalis). Most of the vervains are possessed of the same subtle witchery in slightly different “flavors”. (Lemon verbena, though, is a completely different plant in a different genus.)

The genus name, as the historian Pliny tells us, refers to the Roman term verbenae, which was applied to a class of plants that was considered very powerful and featured in sacred ceremonies. Pliny also goes on to describe the uses of a plant belonging to this category known as hiera botane (or sacred plant), that the Latins called verbenaca–the noble vervain. It was one of Hippocrates favorite healing herbs, and got a reputation in the ancient world as a heal-all. Various writers in the ancient world indicate that it was used for ritual purification and as part of the rites of establishing holy altars in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures, and that among the names it held in this capacity were Juno’s Tears, and Tears of Isis. Virgil mentions its magical use by and enchantress. Pliny the elder, writing in natural history, relates that vervain was one of the 4 sacred plants used by the druids, contemporary to his own time.

Pliny’s writing is also the origin of many of the harvesting taboos associated with vervain: “It must be gathered about the rising of the Dogstar, but so as not to be shone upon by sun or moon; and that honeycombs and honey must be first presented to the earth by way of expiation. They say also that a circle must be traced around it with iron, after which it must be taken up by the left hand, etc.”

Vervain’s reputation as a magical plant affording healing, protection and purification was undiminished in the medieval period. During this period it acquired the name simpler’s joy for its use in making magio-medicinal potions and preparations. The harvesting charms were Christianized, but they still address the plant with respect due such an herb of power, as you can see in this version dating from 1608:

Hallowed be thou, Vervein, as thou growest on the ground,
For in the mount of Calvary there was thou first found.
Thou healedst our Saviour Jesus Christ, and stanchedst his bleeding wound;
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, I take thee from the ground

Additionally, vervain was one of the herbs of good Saint John, believed to peak in mystical power on St. John’s Eve.

It is therefore no surprise that the 19th Century folklore writers, eager to preserve a diminishing magical world, collected and described this information in detail. There is also evidence that it continued to be used in magical practice during the 1800’s; it’s one of the magical plants used in spells in Leland’s Aradia, Gospel of the Witches, and a number of references in the early 19th century mention the gathering of the plant for occult use in northern France. Perhaps these sources prompted vervain’s inclusion in the formation and practices of the modern day witchcraft movement– drawing magicians, druids, and witches alike to the holy vervain.

The ethereal grace of vervain is hard to describe, but when you observe this plant, especially at twilight, it appears as if illuminated by an inner glow. Culpeper’s Herbal (dating from the mid-1600’s) mentions that vervain is good for headaches and those who are “frantic” (among other conditions), and today the herb is often used as a nervine to calm anxious minds. As such, vervain is a wonderful plant to assist in quieting the mind and achieving trance states. Modern practitioners make use of vervain potions for the work of empowering, be this in the form of a wash for empowering magical tools and vessels, a holy sacrifice to charm the place of working, or potions to strengthen and empower the aetheric body. Finally, the inner illumination that can be observed in vervain in the fading light of day indicate its use to increase the Sight, a fact backed up by its use in soothsaying since antiquity.

Ultimately, I had no answer for Tom as to “Why vervain?” but it is definitely an herb of quiet strength and hidden power.


Making Rose Tincture

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.

Tincture of roses resized

On Mugwort

Tonight is Saint John’s Eve, the traditional time to collect fern seed. It’s also a day when certain herbs are at their most potent (which I blogged about a few weeks ago); one of these is mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris). Native to temperate Europe, Asia, and Northern Africa but naturalized throughout North America, mugwort is one of several species in the genus Artemisia along with southernwood, sweet annie, wormwood, tarragon and a number of sagebrushes. It has fairly small, inconspicuous flowers but beautiful, fragrant leaves that are finely lobed and green above and silver beneath. You can often find it growing rather vigorously in waste places, greenways, and along creek sides where it prefers open ground and plenty of sun.

Mugwort likely gets its English common name from its use as a bittering ingredient in beer by the Anglo-Saxons where it pre-dates the use of hops, though Grieve in a Modern Herbal also suggests a connection with the word moughte (moth). In the middle ages, it was called St. John’s Plant or Saint John’s Girdle (Cingulum Sancti Johannis), because when gathered on St. John’s Eve it was believed to give protection against diseases, evil spirits, and misfortunes. Lore says that St John the Baptist wore the plant for protection in the wilderness.

The nine herbs charm, a famous 10th century half pagan and half christian magiomedical herbal preparation which was intended for the treatment of poisoning and infection, invokes mugwort first:

Remember, Mugwort, what you revealed,
what you established at the mighty proclamation
‘Unas’ you are called, oldest of herbs.
you may avail against three and against thirty,
you may avail against poison and against contagion,
you may avail against the loathsome one who travels through the land.

Many Anglo-Saxon leechbooks also state that mugwort is a traveler’s herb, which prevents a traveler from becoming tired and weary. Harvesting should be done on either Saint Johns Eve, or failing that, under a waxing moon before the plant flowers. In the Anglo-Saxon Leechbook of Bald it says that the herb should be plucked before sunrise (i.e. at night), first uttering the words “Tollam te Artemisia ne lassus in via” (I take of you, Artemisia, lest I grow weary on the road) and making a sign over the plant before it is gathered.

The commentary in Sauer’s Herbal Cures, the first published American Herbal, gives us another glimpse at the nature of this magical plant. Mugwort is one of the key herbs in Pennsylvania German folk medicine and is used in a number of remedies like ague and fevers and is especially “devoted to the reprieve of womankind”. One German name for mugwort is beyfuss (goose foot), which is said to refer to the goosefoot tracks made by witches, and another is simply aldi fraa (old woman) which may also refer to the same goose-footed goddess of witches. Additionally it’s given as one of the green herbs used to flavor goose and other poultry.

In Where Witchcraft Lives, Doreen Valiente has this to say about the herb: “Some old time scryers believed that it helped their powers to drink a tea made of mugwort before attempting to practice the art. Mugwort has from the earliest times had a reputation as a “witches herb”.” Valiente further relates the powers of the moon, the crystal ball and mugwort tea, which she testifies she finds “quite pleasant”. Modern witches often use mugwort to empower their divination tools. Since the late 19th century, mugwort has been used to stuff dream pillows as well.

All this lore of night-flying geese and moths, dream pillows and divination tools, protection on long journeys under the watchful eye of the moon, gives us a picture of a powerful plant ally for dreaming and divination. Mugwort is a true witches herb which features heavily in our personal practice and a number of our products.


A Spell for Beauty

This is a reworking of an old spell for beauty.

On the day of Venus when the moon is waxing, arise early and collect seven fragrant roses as soon as the morning dew dries. Take these roses to your kitchen and steep them several hours in a quantity of whole milk. As evening falls, mix the white of one egg, beaten, with a tablespoon of this fragrant milk and a tablespoon of fine honey. Apply this potion to your face and recite this charm:

luc lac
ovum mel
rosas bellus

Leave the mask to dry for about 20 minutes and wash off with cool water.

On Frankincense

Light-winged smoke, Icarian bird,
Melting thy pinions in thy upward flight,
Lark without song, and messenger of dawn,
Circling above the hamlets as thy nest;
Or else, departing dream, and shadowy form
Of midnight vision, gathering up thy skirts;
By night star-veiling, and by day
Darkening the light blotting out the sun;
Go thou my incense upward from this hearth,
And ask the Gods to pardon this clear flame.
~”Smoke” by H.D. Thoreau

This morning, the house is filled with summer sunlight and the fresh, balsam, lemon, and pine scent of frankincense. In Isis and Osiris, the historian Plutarch relates that Egyptian priests burned frankincense at dawn, and it’s not hard to see why. The scent of frankincense is often described as unmistakably solar. Recent research has suggested that a compound found in frankincense causes a sensation of warmth and a feeling of exaltation when inhaled and may help lower anxiety.

Frankincense (also called Olibanum) is one of the oldest documented resins used in magical and religious practice, and has historically used for blessing and devotion, and for drawing good and blessed spirits and expelling the bad. It’s been used for millennia in various religions as a temple incense. As mentioned above, it was a sacred incense in Egypt. In Hellenistic Greece, it was called for as the appropriate incense offering in a number of the Orphic Hymns. The Zoroastrians burn it for purification. Frankincense is also an ingredient in Ketoret, the sacred Jewish temple incense blend, and the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches use it to fume mass.

We use Frankincense for two main magical purposes: purification and sanctification. Whereas many practitioners like to use sage to cleanse their space and etheric bodies, we find that frankincense performs this better. (Sage is suitable for earthing or grounding forces, but in our experience doesn’t really do much to cleanse and purify.) Frankincense also is uplifting to the mind and spirit of the practitioner and helps calm anxiety. It iss useful to establish ritual space, promote an atmosphere conducive to magical work, and to aid in meditation and scrying. Frankincense is also an ingredient in a number of blessing spells and formulae.

Pro tip: To get the best fragrance from your frankincense you need to make sure it doesn’t burn too quickly or too hot. We often use a small oil burner with a tea-light beneath to gently heat higher quality tears. You need a small one where the bowl is quite close to the flame; ours is about 3″ high.


A Prayer to Aradia

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,
bring companionship,
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!
~Jonathan Sousa

Diana resized

On Setting Lights

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

It’s fairly common to hear modern-day magical practitioners mention “burning a candle” for someone who needs help in much the same way Christians will mention praying for someone. Generally the setting of these lights are meant to ease suffering and impart blessing and healing. This sort of work has a long history.

Oil lamps predominated in early Egyptian and Jewish temples wherein they represented the light of the spirit world. Magic lamps are found throughout the Greek Magical Papyri (a collection of spells, formulae, and rituals from 100 BCE – 400 CE Graeco-Roman Egypt), and directions are given for a number of divination, dream, and love spells involving lamps. The Picatrix, an Arabic manuscript on magic and astrology written around 1000 CE, mentions both candles and lamps used for magical and ritual purposes. Torches were specifically associated with certain religious rites in the ancient world and seem to fulfill a magical purpose; for instance instead of specifying an appropriate incense offering, the orphic hymn to Nyx recommends “The Fumigation with Torches”.

During the Roman empire, candles and lamps were often used as part of the religious and magical work itself, being lit as petitions (votives) to the Gods and spirits, particularly by those who were not priests. Early Christians adopted this practice and it continues to flourish in the Roman Catholic church. By the medieval period, beeswax candles had overtaken the popularity of lamps in magic and ritual.

The Renaissance magician Agrippa stresses the importance of candles or lamps in the performance of magic. In his Three Books of the Philosophy of Natural Magic, he postulates that Light originates in the One, diffuses through the three worlds (Divine, Celestial and Material) and is related intimately to the fire within all things. He states:

The Celestial, and bright Fire drives away spirits of darkness; also this our Fire made with wood drives away the same, in as much as it hath an Analogy with, and is the vehiculum of that Superior light; as also of him, who saith, “I am the Light of the World”, which is true Fire, the Father of lights, from whom every good thing that is given comes; sending forth the light of his Fire, and communicating it first to the Sun, and the rest of the Celestial bodies, and by these, as by mediating instruments conveying that light into our Fire. As therefore the spirits of darkness are stronger in the dark: so good spirits, which are Angels of Light, are augmented, not only by that light, which is Divine, of the Sun, and Celestial, but also by the light of our common Fire. Hence it was that the first, and most wise institutors of Religions, and Ceremonies ordained, that Prayers, Singings, and all manner of Divine Worships whatsoever should not be performed without lighted Candles, or Torches. (Hence also was that significant saying of Pythagoras. Do not speak of God without a Light.)

As time went on, more and more of the magical actions associated with a working were fulfilled by the candles originally used in the work to bring and augment the power of good spirits. By 1913, A.E. Waite described ceremonial magic workings using candles with color correspondences, placement, and planetary and angelic sigils carved on them for specific purposes. Sigils and charms which would have been written out on paper or parchment began to be carved into candles or placed around the glass of novena candles. With the discovery and growth in availability of paraffin and aniline dyes, color symbolism started being incorporated into the candles as well. With Henri Gamache’s publication of The Master Book of Candle Burning in 1942, describing a Protestant variation of the types of candle burning already popular within the African diasporic traditions, elaborate candle burning rituals were cemented into modern folk magic.

Today, candles of pure beeswax or colored paraffin in various sizes and shapes are carved with sigils of magical intent, anointed with scented oils, and dressed with herbs and minerals to be burned alone as a complete spell or incorporated into a complex magical working. Novenas — candles lasting several days — are used to petition saints, angels, and archons. Additionally, candles may be used as devotional sacrifices for spirits. The power of candle magic to fuel a spell or feed spirits comes from the consumption of the wax and transformation into light; using the candle this way substitutes the wax for your own energy. The appropriate signs and symbols, herbs and oils focus the process, harnessing the energy released by the flame to a specific end.