I use holy water a lot. Like, a lot. I use a shotglass’ worth to cleanse off after taking a shower, I spritz myself with a spraybottle of the stuff (sometimes mixed with Florida water) first thing in the morning before meditation and before doing any ritual, I spray it around the house to do a quick cleansing of the airs, I wash off votary gifts for my altars before giving them to the gods, I mix it into omieros and other washes to give it a good kick of holiness, I pour some into the wash for laundry; you name the purpose and I probably already use holy water for it. About the only thing I don’t do is drink it, and even then, I’ve been known to sprinkle holy water onto large batches of food for parties to bless people with without their explicit knowing (I mean, since it’s just salt water, it’s not like it leaves much of a taste). As a ritual tool and supply, holy water is a must-have for magicians. As for obtaining it, you could get it any number of ways: getting it from a Catholic or Orthodox church, taking some home from the local shul’s mikvah or temple, or even making it yourself. I make my own using a combination of Catholic, Orthodox, and Solomonic techniques, based in part on Fr. Rufus Opus’ directions from his Red Work courses. After a lot of experimentation, I make mine with plenty of sea salt so that it can keep for a good long while, even with a dash of hyssop or basil in it so that it doesn’t get all moldy inside.
Now, while I use my Christian-Solomonic holy water for pretty much everything, even filling small wearable containers to act as an amulet for protection, its main use is that of purification and spiritual cleansing. In that regard, another name for it would be “lustral water”, or water used for lustration. Lustration, in ancient Roman and Greek practice, was a purification ceremony, often to remove one of evil spirits, miasma, negative influences, and the like, and the term survives in any kind of purge or forceful removal of negative or detracting forces in a group or organization. Lustral water, on the other hand, is any water specifically blessed or consecrated in some way to aid one in spiritual lustration, and its use can be seen in most of the world’s religions and practices. Sometimes the lustral water was taken from a holy river or spring, and sometimes the water had to be prayed over or otherwise ritually consecrated. And, yes, the ancient Greeks and Mediterranean peoples had their own holy water variants, which I want to talk about today.
In ancient Greece, lustral water was called khernips (χερνιψ), and the use of khernips for lustration was called khernimma (χερνιμμα). There are several guides and tutorials to making khernips on your own, including a YouTube video by the author of the Hellenic reconstructionist blog Baring the Aegis (who has written about khernips several times on her blog, since apparently this is a source of confusion for people in Hellenismos). The general idea is that you need to combine the elements in it which makes it able to purify a person or a place, and the process is fairly simple to produce:
- Procure an amount of clean water and fill a vessel, known as the χερνιβειον (khernibeion). You might mix spring water with seawater, or just use clean tap water.
- Light dried herbs, a stick of incense, or a torch above the water and quench it in the water. The herb can be verbena or laurel or something else, depending on the sources I’ve seen so far.
- Wash the hands with the water, then the face. You might say “Χερνιπτομαι” (“Kherniptomai”), meaning “I wash with lustral water”.
- Sprinkle the area and all participants in the ritual with the khernips,
saying “Εκας εκας εστε βεβηλοι” (“Hekas hekas este bebēloi”), or “begone, begone ye profane!”. Alternatively, you could say “Απο απο κακοδαιμονες” (“Apo apo kakodaimones”), or “begone, begone evil spirits!”.
- I should note that both of these phrases, though common (the former from the Golden Dawn, the latter from my mentor Fr. Rufus Opus via vaguely Thelemic influences), are bad Greek and more like word salad. A good example (courtesy of Martiana over at Satrix) is Θύραζε πονηροὶ δαίμονες (thúraze ponēroì daimones) or “out, wicked demons!”, based on Attic Anthesteria chants.
- Also, technically speaking, khernips is lustral water, not holy water. There is a difference; more on this later.
That’s basically it; the simplicity beats out my Solomonic holy water by far, though there is a trade off. I’ve noticed that my Solomonic holy water definitely keeps its charge over a long period of time; I usually only need to make a large batch once every season, and I’m good to go even using liberal amounts of it every day. Khernips, on the other hand, wouldn’t last as long, and it’s suggested to make it every day or before every ritual as part of the preparation and setup. I can definitely see the argument for that, even if one produces a sufficiently large enough batch just for one day’s use, though it’s certainly different from what I’m accustomed to.
So, why wash off with khernips at all? Given the simplicity of it, it’s not about physical hygiene; a brief rinse of the hands and face in a communal basin does not make you sanitary, nor anyone else for that matter. There’re two major thoughts on the subject, and both relate to miasma, spiritual pollution. Spiritual pollution happens; it’s part of being mortal and living a human life on this orb we call the Earth. Birth, death, sex, masturbation, murder, lying, breaking vows, and the like are a matter of fact for everyone, often every day, and these wear on us and collect like dust on a mirror. The gods despise and loathe miasma, being alien to it, and will not accept offerings from one tainted by miasma (at best) and could actively harm or curse the tainted one (at worst). The two theories are that either the miasma is an internal, mental thing and khernimma relaxes us and frees us from the cares, concerns, and fears of the world and puts us in the right state of mind to counter the gods; the other is that miasma is an external thing and is on us whether we feel good about ourselves or not. I contend that both are at play, but miasma is definitely (and especially according to the historical record) an external thing; we incur miasma by living, end of story. We have a naturally pure state, but so does a freshly-made clean mirror; just as the mirror collects dust over time, we collect miasma just by being in the world. It’s a thing. We clean off with khernips and we’re good to go. It helps to meditate briefly on being purified and collected and calm for the ritual, but that comes as a matter of course after one cleans off the miasma that’s already collected.
I’ve been thinking of making a mathesis-specific ritual for making holy or lustral water because…well, while my Solomonic holy water certainly works, it feels a little weird to use it when it comes to mathesis, like a bit of cognitive dissonance pulling on the mind. It works, definitely, but I decided to try something simpler and more ancient-y than my Renaissance-European-Christian-Solomonic method, and if possible to develop a specific ritual that fits within the parameters of mathesis for my practice. The simple method above, using laurel leaves (since laurel was a plant associated with Apollo, the god par excellence of ritual purity), works quite nicely, but why not be a little more original than that? Besides, we can tie in the creation of khernips and ablution into our daily practice, too, and since I’ve been discussing the use of holy water or lustral water without explicitly describing a method for mathetai to make the stuff, I may as well do so now.
Taking a cue from Elani at Baring the Aegis, I’ve decided to work making khernips into my daily routine, making enough to last me for one day. I make and use khernips as preparation for invoking and meditating on the Tetractys, as well as using it just before approaching Hermes Oneirodotes as I begin my process of winding down the night for bed. However, I make a sufficient amount in the morning (you don’t need much) to allow for another lustration in case of a mathetic ritual at some point during the day, as well as to allow enough for others to lustrate themselves in case anyone else participates. To create a simple style of khernips to carry out the khernimma, you will need:
- One whole bay laurel leaf
- A small amount of salt, preferably sea or rock salt
- A measure of clean water (tap water works fine)
- A wide, shallow bowl, preferably white
- A lid or cover wide enough to cover the bowl
- A clean dishtowel, preferably white
Pour out the measure of water into the bowl, then sprinkle in a pinch of the salt. Light the tip of the bay leaf until it’s on fire, then quench it into the water. As you do this, say:
For the sake of purity and becoming pure, be purified!
If you have a large or high-quality bay leaf, set the bay leaf aside; otherwise, you can just drop the whole leaf into the water. If you save the leaves, they can be reused until they’ve burned down enough to be disposed of, preferably outside.
Scoop up some water with the right hand and pour it on the palm of the left, holding the left hand above the bowl so that the water drains into the bowl, then pour some more water onto the back of the left hand, wiping the hand off from the wrist down to the fingertips. Repeat the same process with the right hand, pouring water onto the palm and then the back with the left hand. Then scoop up water with both hands and gently wipe them off with the khernips, again from the wrist down to the fingertips. Scoop up some more water and wash the face from the top of the forehead down to under the chin. With hands and face still moist, say:
In purity, I cleanse myself and free myself from defilement.
Dry off with the cloth, wiping the hands downward from the wrist to the fingertips and the face downward from the forehead to the chin. As you wipe off your hands and face with the water and the cloth, let go of your worldly concerns, your cares outside the work to be done, your fears, and all the like. You’re now purified and fit to approach the gods and the mysteries.
If you need to use the khernips to purify the area, which I recommend before beginning any ritual in an area where ritual is not normally done or has not been done for some time, dip the fingers of the right hand into the water and sprinkle it around the ritual area in a counterclockwise fashion four times, saying:
Begone, begone, you profane spirits, you evil spirits, begone, begone!
However, I should say that, as noted above, khernips is lustral water, i.e. water used to lustrate and clean oneself before ritual work, and not holy water, i.e. water used to spiritually purify or banish or exorcize. While it has become a modern practice to use khernips for this later need, it is technically an overreach. There are plenty of ways to purify or banish an area, and while sprinkling with water certainly is one (especially for those familiar with the Christian practice of asperging holy water), there may well be better ways to do this than with khernips. Still, for those who wish to use khernips in this way, perform the above as stated.
Dry the hand off once more with the cloth. At this point, if there are other ritual participants present, they should wash their hands and face in the same manner as you did after the area has been purified. Cover the khernibeion with the lid and set it aside in a high place until it can be used later that day again to wash the hands and face and, if necessary, the ritual area, being sure to cover the khernibeion afterwards. Fold the towel loosely, placing the bay leaves within a fold of the towel, and lay it across the khernibeion lid. At the end of the day before retiring, uncover the khernibeion and empty it outside, preferably on a patch of earth or grass, but if this is not possible, dumping it in the sink respectfully will do. The khernibeion and the towel for drying off should be washed at least once a month, preferably on unlettered days of the month.
To be fair, the use of bay leaves specifically isn’t something required here. What makes khernips khernips is the use of three elements: salt, water, and fire, perhaps to represent the three realms of Earth, Sea, and Sky, or perhaps the three of the four elements (the fourth, Air, being represented by the actual words spoken in lustration). If using up bay leaves isn’t to your taste, you might experiment using a cotton ball soaked in grain alcohol or wine, or better yet, a tincture made with purifying herbs. Such a tincture (alcohol-based herbal solution) might be made from frankincense, bay laurel, hyssop, basil, and mint, all soaked in grain alcohol or high alcohol content rubbing alcohol; mine is made from basil, hyssop, and frankincense. I take a cotton ball on some forceps or long tweezers, briefly touch it in the tincture, light it on fire, gently waft ir above the surface of the water, quench it in the water, press all the remaining alcohol out against the bottom of the khernibeion, and boom. The specific herbs used is icing on the cake at this point, I believe, so long as you have something on fire you can quench into the water. If making such a tincture isn’t in your ability and you don’t like burning bay leaves, you might consecrate a batch of cotton balls and rubbing alcohol under Apollo just for this purpose and use those as a sort of sacred torch.
All told, even though I’ve made my khernips ritual a little more complicated than Elani’s or other Hellenists’, it’s still far simpler than my Solomonic holy water, and much more in tune with the general feel of mathesis. I wouldn’t push the use of khernips for a heavy purification or cleansing ritual except as a preliminary to loosen what really needs to be scoured or blasted away; for that, I’d still rely on something stronger, like my Solomonic holy water. Still, for basic meditation and approaching the mysteries, this mathesis-specific lustral water is definitely a tool I plan on using in the future. Not to the extent of my Solomonic water, perhaps, but definitely for mathetic rituals. Speaking of, if we tie in the use of khernips into our daily practice, then I expect it’d look something like this:
- Consecration of khernips and morning khernimma
- Invocation of the Tetractys and Tetractean meditation
- Meditation on the letter of the lunar date
- Daily grammatomantic divination
- Offering to the god of the lunar date
- Evening khernimma and disposal of khernips
- Invocation of Hermes for sleep and dreams
- Recollection of the day’s activities
However, given the simplicity and speed of making khernips (though it should be done thoughtfully and slowly enough for it to count whenever possible), then it’s not like one’s burdens are substantially added to. I was already in the habit of purifying myself with a spritz of holy water perhaps mixed with Florida water, even just washing my hands and face in a similar way with khernips; I’ve noticed that some gods candles wouldn’t light until after I had cleansed myself accordingly. Using khernips instead of my Solomonic holy water is a much better match for them, anyway, so I recommend its use for mathetic work. Eventually, I may change the short prayers said over the khernips to using Greek or using barbarous words of power, but to start with, simple mystical commands work fine.
Also, just one final note I’d like to tack on. When I prepare a ritual bowl or vessel for something, like the khernibeion bowl for the khernipsI like to specially cleanse it out first. It’s pretty simple, and it blasts everything out of it for use for pretty much anything, especially if it’s been used for another ritual and needs to be thoroughly “reset”:
- Take off all stickers, gunk, markings, etc. as much as possible. Rubbing alcohol is your friend here, just make sure not to damage the vessel itself.
- Wipe it out with holy water (not khernips, but something stronger).
- If the vessel is sturdy and heatproof enough (i.e. metal, ceramic, etc.), pour in a small amount of 99% grain alcohol or denatured alcohol and set it alight. If it’s not heatproof or sturdy for that, light a cotton ball soaked in the stuff and wave it around inside the container with a pair of pincers.
- Once the vessel cools down, turn it upside down and set a candle on top, then light it. A tealight is fine, you don’t need anything bigger.
- Once the candle goes out, the vessel is ready for ritual use and further consecration if needed.