On Oils as Offerings

The following is an old post of mine from 2015.  I wrote it a as a guest post for the excellent Quadrivium Supplies, an oil-maker I turn to every so often when I need some real good stuff, and whose oils have never let me down.  She asked me at one point to write a guest post, and I did; it went up in early 2015.  However, she’s since moved platforms and went to a wholesale model, and in that transfer of platforms, her blog got nuked.  While the post went up, it’s no longer there.  I figure I may as well repost it now for posterity, and plus, reading over it reminded me of some good ideas I once had once upon a time.  I hope you enjoy this little relic of writing!


As a ceremonial magician, I go through a lot of supplies.  Yes, there’re the crafting supplies like wood and lead and gold leaf to make Tables of Practice and wands and talismans and the like, but I also go through a lot of consumable supplies like candles, wine, incense, and especially oil.  While I’ve got a grasp of crafting and making some of my own basic supplies, it certainly helps to have friends who can do these things better or who have access to more raw bits and pieces to make better things than I can; after all, while I can make oils for myself, I’d much rather get one of my friends who can expertly create and fine-tune them instead because, well, they know what they’re doing with better equipment and starting goods than I have.

One of my friends owns the lovely Quadrivium Supplies, and she’s an excellent oil-maker that I’ve pinged time and again for very well-made magical oils and advice on how to make a few myself.  My only regret with her work is that I don’t have quite enough income to get some of her oils in bigger quantities!  She knows her recipes well, uses real and natural ingredients that some might shy away from getting, and even makes a series of astrologically-elected oils that are without comparison.  These aren’t cheaply-made garishly-colored artificial oils with a bit of scent, but powerful tools and buffs in their own right.  Recently, she asked me if I’d be interested in writing a guest post on her blog, and I happily obliged.  After thinking for a bit, I figured a good intersection between her work and mine would be a good topic to write on.  Go read my entry there, On Oils as Offerings!

It’s rare that I get the chance to write a guest post for someone else; after all, I have plenty of writing already done and plenty more to do here at the Digital Ambler.  Then again, I’m also not opposed to doing so, since it also gives me a delightful change of pace.


Ceremonial magicians are known for using endless magical tools and magical materia in their works, and I’m no exception; one of the recent choices I had to make in moving to a new house was needing to find a place with a suitable room as my own temple room and magical workshop to house my shrines and altars, as well as providing storage for all my tools and charms that I make.  To be fair, unless tradition dictates otherwise, no system of magic strictly requires material means, but they certainly help, especially in obtaining material ends.  Having a material component in one’s magical work helps to bring down those astral and spiritual forces down, grounding them and giving them a means to work and effect themselves in our world of body and form.  Wands, crystals, talismans, mojo bags, drawn-out circles, engraved candles, and all the rest help in one’s magical works.  Oils are no exception, but they’re also something of a special case.

Not too long ago, I was conversing with one of my spiritual mentors, Saint Cyprian of Antioch, in preparation for a magical undertaking of the Arbatel operation, where one conjures and begins work and initiation with the seven Olympic Spirits associated with the seven traditional planets of Hermetic cosmology.  Saint Cyprian of Antioch, although a Christian saint, was also a powerful magician in his day, and over the centuries has become a steadfast ally to those who call upon him in matters of magic and sorcery of all kinds.  Seeking his advice, he recommended I go through with my plan and conjuration setup: the standard conjuration triangle, crystal scrying medium, incense, yada yada.  However, he suggested one important change: offer the Olympic Spirits a small amount of clear, good oil.  I was considering preparing wine or food, but Saint Cyprian of Antioch turned those down and rather emphatically suggested that I use pure, clean oil as an offering.  He explained that oil has a “volatile” nature, not in the same way as elemental Fire or alchemical Sulfur, but as a magical medium for housing things in a way stronger than water but less than crystal, more pliable than food but less ephemeral than incense.  For housing the soul or power of a spirit, oil would be an excellent offering, especially for entities like those from the Arbatel.

After thinking about this some, I realized that this makes perfect sense.  After candles and incense (and wine, though that’s usually for my own personal use), the material supply I go through the most is a variety of oils.  A full shelf in my supply closet, which is a miniature botanica in its own right, is packed with oils from a variety of distributors and craftspeople, some simple colored-and-scented artificial oils, some intricately developed from the purest extracts all manually taken from herbs and other natural sources.  Most workings that call for candles or talismans will, either due to the recipe or my own inclinations, use an oil in fixing things properly so that a particular power can be fixed.  Abramelin oil, specifically the German recipe, is one I use daily for my own strengthening by anointing my head and palms in prayer.  When using a traditional oil lamp, I’ll mix in some particular oil with the normal fuel for a particular end, like an older cognate to fixing a candle with oil.  I find myself using oils in pretty much any magical operation nowadays; such experimentation has often led me to find alternative uses for oils, sometimes in ways entirely unexpected.

Then again, there are more ways to use oils than in fixing candles or anointing heads.  Among all the oils I have, the one I go through most is common olive oil.  This has a rich history in Mediterranean magic and Western culture generally as a symbol of richness and power, both in this world and in most others.  Simple olive oil can be used towards pretty much any end, not having anything but the pure fruit of the olive tree involved, and when prayed over in a particular manner, can be used on the spot in lieu of any magical oil.  However, I don’t typically use olive oil as a “magical oil”, per se, but as a substance in offering.  For instance, whenever I make an offering to the theoi of the Hellenes, I always pour out an offering of wine with a dash of olive oil.  For one, the Greek gods like the offering of oil with their wine and prayer and incense, but it also suffices to cover the wine and prevent most forms of bacterial or fungal growth in their offerings.  (And yes, the wine still somehow manages to evaporate as the spirits consume it from under the oil, even though this shouldn’t normally be possible, but hey, gods do what they want.)

Of course, I don’t just offer olive oil to the spirits.  Some oils have histories and known uses limited pretty much to offerings, and I’ve taken that route with my own Three Kings oil when working with the Three Wise Men, though they’re also teaching me other methods of using such an oil when working with and under them.  When I need to empower a spirit a particular way, I’ll make them a normal libation but with a few drops of a particular oil that I feel is appropriate.  Household protector spirit needs to be buffed up for an incoming attack?  They’ll get an offering of strong wine with Fiery Wall of Protection oil.  Need to propitiate Aphrodite to help a friend smooth out their relationship?  Sweet wine with Reconciliation oil.  Cleansing a sad spirit who brings in filth?  Clear water with Van Van oil.  Want to placate an angry ancestor with a taste for food?  Good whiskey with turkey drippings (yes, really).  Just as oils can be used to fix a candle or prepare a talisman for ensoulment, oils can also fortify offerings to the spirits and empower them directly.  For that matter, oil can be dedicated to spirits alone for their own use, and if those oils happen to already be consecrated and empowered with herbs or other substances, it can empower the spirit just as strongly as it can empower a talisman.

In the case with the Arbatel spirits, Saint Cyprian of Antioch recommended I use the olive oil as an offering for them to consume, but also to help bring them into the world in their own way.  Oils on their own, according to Saint Cyprian, provide a flexible but useful means to contain the power or presence of a spirit, not unlike talismans or mojo bags, but in a more disposable or usable manner than a set object.  In the case with the Olympic Spirits, Saint Cyprian suggested that I give the spirit pure olive oil to consume and inhabit, then emptying that oil out into the world, allowing the power of that spirit to spread out in our world so it can do its work better in ways that I may not always be able to accomplish.  Oils don’t just evaporate into the air as waters or alcohols do, nor they don’t just vanish into particles like incense or smoke, nor do they stay fixed and firm within a solid containing body.  Oils leak and seep into the world, dispersing themselves and attaching themselves to objects and places, coating things with their powers and imbuing them with their own essences. Oils are much more difficult to get rid of and don’t simply wash away, but they’re not permanent fixtures, either.

Oils, in the end, are just as important a tool as anything else in a ceremonial magician’s temple, if not one of the most important ones.  Sure, not all traditions call for oils in their work, but almost all my workings in a variety of traditions have benefited from including their use for one purpose or another.  I would even rank oil as more important than candles or incense, because a properly prepared oil can take the place of both.  It’s important to remember that oils can be used for many more things than fixing or anointing, but that oils can be used in offerings directly as another method of working with spirits in a way that’s both profound and powerful.

More Misbaḥa Prayers: Crown of the Dead, along with Crowns for Michael, Raphel, and Uriel

I’ve been working under a bit of a deadline recently for one of my own projects.  I’ve mentioned before, sometimes subtly and sometimes (probably most of the time) not, that I’ve been developing a new practice, a kind of devotional-spiritual-magical geomantic practice.  It’s been taking more and more shape, pleasantly enough; prayers, feasts, celebrations, lunar observances, and an upcoming thing which I’m calling the Days of Cultivation: 16 days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, meditation, and a generally intensified spiritual practice.  I mentioned the idea back when I brought up a sort of geomantic calendar of sorts a few months ago.  Having established that the first full day of spring after the vernal equinox in March would be established as a Feast of Gabriel and also the geomantic/solar new year, I also brought up the idea of two more events: a Feast of the Blessed Dead set 17 days before the Feast of Gabriel, and the sixteen days between them being the Days of Cultivation:

I actually feel pretty comfortable with this novel arrangement. Though there are five main feasts that would be celebrated, which would be an odd number for geomancy, it’s really more like four feasts of the Progenitors plus a special feast that they all center around. They could be balanced by adding in the other three feasts of the archangels to yield a constant and balanced eight feasts per year, sure, peppered with the other feasts throughout the year for the other saints and days taken from Catholic (or Orthodox) tradition. For me, though, it suffices to have these primary five (really, four plus one) feasts to act as holy days for a devotional geomantic practice. I can easily envision having lead-up days, such as one to four days of fasting immediately prior to the feasts of the Progenitors or four to sixteen days of fasting, studying, and praying leading up to the feast of Gabriel at the spring equinox, too, which would also work to deepen and focus devotional practices. Heck, we could give these fancy terms, too, like “Days of Cultivation” for the period leading up to the feast of Gabriel…

…What about a day or feast to recognize the blessed dead, whether familial or spiritual, by blood-lineage or tradition-lineage? Again, you could use All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days for this, or other culturally-appropriate Day of the Dead-type holidays; for specific ancestors, you could use their birthdays or their deathdays. Though, given the above system, I think we could do one better. Those Days of Cultivation, the days of fasting and study and prayer leading up to the geomantic new year and the Feast of Gabriel? Why not make the day before that dedicated to the dead? After all, it’s because of them that all this we have can come to pass, and by “starting” the Days of Cultivation with them, we give them their proper due and respect as we would begin our own period of intensive study and prayer and preparation for the New Year. So, that means that the Feast of the Blessed Dead would be 17 days before the Feast of Gabriel

Well, this year, according to the rules set in that post, the Feast of Gabriel is slated for Thursday, March 21, which means the sixteen days prior would be the Days of Cultivation, which means that the day before those start would be the Feast of the Blessed Dead.

Which is today.

I’ve been slowly building up this whole practice, and though I have most of the feasts established in how I want to recognize them—at least for the four archangels, because prayers and rites to recognize the four progenitors Adam, Enoch, Hermēs, and Daniel stubbornly refuse to come together in any way—the last major feast for me to come up with something was that of the Blessed Dead.  After piecing together something that I’m pretty proud of, based on other ancestor veneration practices I use or with which I’m familiar, there was one more thing I felt like I should add: a set of repetitive prayers.  Specifically, something using prayer beads.

I adore the use of the Catholic Chaplet of the Dead, but it doesn’t fit into the overall practices I’m developing, which are more Hermetically theist rather than being Christian, Jewish, or Islamic (though acknowledging the debt I have to all those faiths and practices that have their origin in them).  Plus, it…it doesn’t last that long, and the most awkward parts of it are the reciting of the first three prayers.  It wouldn’t work for what I wanted to do, so I did the next best thing: I wrote my own set of prayers for use with prayer beads.  I already brought up the misbaḥa in a previous post, the Islamic prayer beads of 99 beads broken up into three sets of 33, which is most commonly used for the famous Tasbīḥ Fātimah (In the name of God the Most Merciful the Most Gracious ×1, Glory be to God ×33, Praise be to God ×33, God is Great ×33, there is no God but God ×1), but for which I also developed the Crown of Gabriel, a specific devotion I wrote for the archangel Gabriel based on the Tanakh, New Testament, and Qur’ān.  So, knowing that the misbaḥa can be used in any number of ways, and knowing that I can write prayers for it, I decided to write one for ancestor veneration and prayers for the dead.

Thus, on this day of the Feast of the Blessed Dead, I’d like to present to you a new misbaḥa devotion, the Crown of the Dead.

  1. At the beginning, recite once: “In the name of God, the Lord of the World, the True Judge.”
  2. On of the first set of 33 beads, recite: “May God give … unbounded mercy.”
  3. On the first separator, recite: “O God, for all the evil … have done in life, overlook it and forgive them in death.”
  4. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite: “May God give … eternal rest.”
  5. On the second separator, recite: “O God, for all the good … have done in life, increase it and honor them in death.”
  6. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite: “May God give … perpetual light.”
  7. At the end, recite once: “May … find peace on the wings of the divine presence of God.”

At each ellipsis, you can dedicate the recitation of the Crown of the Dead to a specific person (e.g. “May God give John son of Elizabeth unbounded mercy” or “May God give Jane Doe eternal rest”), or to all the dead generally (e.g. “May God give all the blessed souls of the dead perpetual light”.  Thus, the Crown of the Dead may be performed for a specific person who has passed away or for the benefit of all the dead.

There are basically four influences on the construction of the Crown of the Dead:

So, pretty nifty, I think.  Simple in its execution, powerful in its meaning, and flexible in its use.

At this point, my little prayerbook-in-development now listed three prayers (Dead, Gabriel, and the Tasbīḥ Fātimah) for the misbaḥa instead of just two, which actually made it worth a section of its own.  But why should I stop there?  After all, I’ve gotten some experience writing chaplets for archangels before, so why not try coming up with other misbaḥa-based prayers for the other three archangels that this system would celebrate, Michael and Raphael and Uriel?  Truth be told, I didn’t originally want to or plan to; I was going to use the Crown of Gabriel as a general preface practice for all the angelic celebrations, because this practice is largely Gabriel-centric.  However, when thinking about it and trying to arrange the celebrations right, they just…it didn’t fit.  Not that that should be surprising, but I ended up buckling and coming up with three more misbaḥa practices for the other archangels, named (oh-so-creatively!) the Crown of Michael, the Crown of Raphael, and the Crown of Uriel.

The Crown of Michael:

  1. At the beginning, recite once: “In the name of God, the Most Holy, the Lord of the Heavenly Host.”
  2. On of the first set of 33 beads, recite: “Holy Michael, defend us in battle.”
  3. On the first separator, recite: “O God, come to my assistance.”
  4. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite: “Protect us against the snares and wickedness of evil.”
  5. On the second separator, recite: “O God, make haste to help me.”
  6. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite: “There is none like unto God but God.”
  7. At the end, recite once: “Save us, o Lord, and grant us the defense of your angels.”

The Crown of Raphael:

  1. At the beginning, recite once: “In the name of God, the Living, Eternal, and Faithful King.”
  2. On of the first set of 33 beads, recite: “O God, may Raphael lead me to health.”
  3. On the first separator, recite: “Holy Raphael, o cure of all diseases! Come to my aid, o terror of all demons!”
  4. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite: “O God, through health, lead me to virtue.”
  5. On the second separator, recite: “Holy Raphael, o guide of all paths! Come to may aid, o friend of all travelers!”
  6. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite: “O God, through virtue, lead me to victory.”
  7. At the end, recite once: “Blessed are you, o God, Lord of creation, who bestows good things upon the unworthy and has bestowed upon me every goodness.”

The Crown of Uriel:

  1. At the beginning, recite once: “In the name of God, the One Light of all creation.”
  2. On of the first set of 33 beads, recite: “O flaming sword cutting darkness and deception!”
  3. On the first separator, recite: “God willing, holy Uriel, enlighten me in my dark understanding.”
  4. On each of the second set of 33 beads, recite: “O scales of justice proving truth and fairness!”
  5. On the second separator, recite: “God willing, holy Uriel, enlighten me in my dark understanding.”
  6. On each of the third set of 33 beads, recite: “O abundance of the garden nourishing all the world!”
  7. At the end, recite once: “Glory to God and all his deeds, for all that he does is good.”

There are a variety of influences here, ranging from Jewish blessings to Catholic prayers to calling on the general symbolism of the angels and their powers and patronages.  Personally, while I’m set on the Crown of the Dead and the Crown of Michael, the Crown of Raphael and the Crown of Uriel don’t seem quite finished to me yet; there seem to be some subtle differences in how they’re currently written versus the others that I’m not comfortable with, so those are up for some refining, but I still think they’re quite usable on their own.  I haven’t had much of a chance to actually work them—yet—but I’m excited to give them a swing.

I’m really warming up to the use of the misbaḥa as a general prayer tool.  There are (usually) no overt symbols of faith attached to it, and I like the number of beads and the forms it has, plus the general beauty of them compared to so many rosaries I’ve seen before.  Plus, its simplicity and flexibility allows it to be used for any number of devotions and prayer rules, even if a bit of ingenuity needs to be used to come up with them.  For instance, most chaplets for the angels and saints are done on so-called niner chaplets, chaplets that consist of nine beads; a straightforward, though laborious, way to apply chaplet prayers to a misbaḥa is simply to repeat each prayer 33 times instead of just once, going over the misbaḥa three times total for a series of 9 × 33 = 297 invocations.  Definitely worth taking one’s time, I suppose, or one could just apply separators to every 11 sets of beads, so that each invocation is repeated 11 times instead of just once or 33 times.  Plus, with masābiḥ (I think that’s the proper Arabic plural, even though I’m not 100% certain, because I don’t want to use the Anglicized plural of misbaḥas), they’re large enough to be worn comfortably as a necklace, just like a mala might be, and about the same length, too.  I find wearing them to be important, especially immediately after reciting one of the prayers above, like for Gabriel or Michael; I’m not just calling them “crowns” for nothing, after all.

New divination tools of Hermēs available up on my Etsy!

If you want something done, give it to a busy person.  And boy, between my usual stuff going on, a new shrine project that came together WAY too quickly for it to have been mere chance, and all the 2019 yearly forecast readings going on (have you gotten yours yet? special ends next Wednesday!), it’s a true blessing that I’ve been snowed in for the past few days and have had the time to actually do everything I need and get some sleep on top of that.

I’ve had it in my mind to make some divination tools for the public to have for a while now, based on some of the tools and methods I use.  I’ve written about a bunch on this blog from time to time over the year—granted, most of it is geomancy, which is pretty tool-independent when you get right down to it—and some of them require some specialized tools.  In general, most forms of divination, especially practiced in a modern way, don’t really require consecration or blessing, though it never hurts to do so.  Tarot readers can just pick up a pack of cards and get to work, but it can often help to cleanse them and spiritually prepare them for the work they’re doing.

However, not all the forms of divination I do are so free-wheeling or powered by my own spiritual sense, but are tied directly to the spirits and gods, a true divinization of divination as it were.  To that end, I like to have some of my tools properly prepared, blessed, consecrated, and linked up to the voices of those spirits and gods so that I can read what they say as much as I hear them.  For some time now, I’ve been working on how, exactly, to go about doing that for others, but I kept putting it on the back burner.  Well, no more of that; a bunch of supplies came in, and I promptly got myself read, got into the right headspace, made the right offerings, and got to Work with the Hellenic god of guides and guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes, Hermēs.

Long-time readers might remember two forms of divination I use with him:

Guess what?  You can now buy sets of four coins and sets of five astragaloi on my Etsy page, all consecrated, blessed, and ready to go.

Making these was a pleasure and an honor, and they’re specially made for those who work with Hermēs as the messenger of gods and men to communicate to them, and to any to approach them, the best advice in the time they need and the way they need, so that anyone who comes to the gods with sincerity, honor, and reverence may have the proper guidance to go where they must go, know what they must know, do what they must do, and become what they must be.  Not only are these tools for you, but they may be used through your service for any who come to you.  Just call on Hermēs, and he will answer.

I’ve prepared a bunch of these sets in a batch, which was easy enough for me, but supplies are still limited.  I may make more in the future, or I may make more only as special requests and commissions, I haven’t yet decided.  If you’re interested, head on over to my Etsy while supplies still last:

I include with the coin sets a short guide on how to use them along with a special prayer, but the bones contain no such guide due to the amount of information they can provide.  For that, I would strongly recommend getting one of the following texts:

Of course, there are other ways you can use the astragaloi, too; one such way is to use them for grammatomancy, the Greek alphabet oracle, which I just so happen to have written about and have a highly useful reference text on, too, also coincidentally available on my Etsy.  However, you might also consider getting John Opsopaus’ book, Oracles of Apollo (Llewellyn Publications, 2017), which has that and other divination methods included in it, as well.

So what are you waiting for?  Who can deny the blessings of the gods, and who would ignore their guidance?  Learn how to communicate with Hermēs and, through him, with the rest of the gods today; get in on these tools while they’re still there to get!

Soapbox Time: Animal Sacrifice and “Black Magic”

I tried to not put a post out about this again.  I really did, you guys, especially since I was fortunate enough to completely miss the recent Internet debacle-argument about this topic, and moreso since I wrote one post on the one topic and another on the other years ago and was hoping to not have to succumb to this particular urge again.  But, then again, it has been like five years since I wrote those posts, and though quite a lot has happened, my views on these two topics hasn’t particularly changed much except for being refined.

So, the other day, I put out my write-up on PGM XII.201—269, which I’ve entitled the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, a consecration of an engraved ring of power that protects the wearer and also ensures their success in magical workings, a sort of forerunner to the Ring of Solomon found in later centuries.  Part of the ceremony calls for the sacrificial offering of seven birds—a pure white goose, three roosters, and three pigeons—but since I’m fully aware that not everyone is willing, trained, or able to perform such a ceremony, I also offered an alternative approach using sacrificial, animal-less cakes made to symbolize the offering of the birds instead.  I think that it’s a wonderful ritual that I’m eager to try at some point in the future, using the cake substitutions instead of bird sacrifices, not because I’m unable or unwilling to use birds here, but because I want to keep things simple for a first honest attempt, along with other personal accommodations for my own circumstances and situations.

Well, shortly after I shared it on one of the social media platforms I use, the ritual got a particular comment that rubbed me the wrong way, which was all of: “Whoa. That’s some serious black magick“, complete with a sadface. Granted, with such a terse comment that gave no justification for saying what it did, I honestly can’t say why that particular person commented that this was “black magic”, but I’m pretty certain I can hone in on it.  And I just…I just can’t, y’all.  I did make a reply to that comment, but since this particular thing set me off sore on two volatile topics at once, I figured if I was gonna get this urge out my system, I may as well get it out in full, in depth, and at length here.

First, let’s get the easy bit out of the way: “black magic” is a ridiculous term that we should have abandoned long ago, right along with “white magic”.  For some, it’s an issue of racism; for others, an issue of not understanding other traditions; for yet others, a shaming mechanism to get people to “evolve” into “higher states of spiritual being” from “backwards” or “primitive” or “dark” places.  Whether for these or other reasons, “black magic” is a deplorable term that’s often used to (a) make someone seem way more spooky than they are (b) market themselves as an edgelord sorcerer a la E.A. Koetting (c) shame the practices, rites, and occulture of others because one is uncomfortable with what they do.  Yes, I know the world is wide and full of awe, things that are both awesome and awful.  At the same time, you generally don’t have the right to judge other practices and cultures, especially those which are foreign to you or those which are from antiquity, unless you can also claim some measure of expertise in the context, development, and reasoning behind those practices of those cultures.

“Black magic” is a phrase that’s often more in line with really spooky witchcraft, devil-working, demon-summoning, cursing, and other outright maleficia in the sense of magic that’s intended to cause harm, pain, suffering, or death to others, generally out of a sense of wrath, greed, malice, or other vice-fueled emotion.  Then again, the term “black magic” is used at best when it “accurately” refers to these things as they are actually done; just as often as not, if not more so, the phrase “black magic” is used to describe any type of magic that one might find transgressive, dangerous, unpalatable, or frightening.  This is ridiculous, to be frank about it; the use of magic in general is transgressive and dangerous, and to anyone who isn’t familiar with anything in magic, it’s all unpalatable and frightening.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve scared off by saying I conjure angels, much less work with ancient subterranean deities, and those are generally the more appealing and “kinder” spirits we work with (though angels are terrifying as shit, too, and we should never forget why the first thing they say in biblical literature is “be not afraid”, nor should we ever forget our place amongst the gods lest we fall into hubris and suffer the extreme penalties for doing so).  If you call something “black magic” because it’s unpalatable or frightening, it’s because it’s unpalatable or frightening to you.  Others, for whom it’s their bread and butter, may find it normal and natural, even holy and sanctified in its own right.  It’s much like how many Christians think of a variety of non-Christian religions as “evil”, “wicked”, “witchcraft”, or even “black magic”; to call the practices of another that you don’t understand “black magic” is just as farcical; consider Mark Twain’s The War Prayer, which would be an example of maleficia that’s otherwise grounded in normalized, culturally-acceptable religion.  Heck, even if you do understand it, call it what it is: is it a curse, or devil-working, or maleficium?  Call it that, and be clear and accurate about it!  But don’t call it “black magic” and think that by being judgmental you’re preserving your pristine ethics and morals, because you’re not, and you end up making yourself look ridiculous.

So, the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual got called “black magic”.  Why might that be?  Considering any of the “accurate” meanings of what “black magic” might mean (and I use the term “accurate” very loosely here), we simply don’t find any of that in this ritual.  In fact, we find a pretty standard, pretty pious hymn to the Agathos Daimōn, the “Good Spirit” of Hellenic influence that became a sort of personalized almighty God figure, much as how many modern Christians conceive of God as not just the God of all the cosmos but also their own personal, private God that watches out for them.  We find the preliminary invocation calling upon all the beneficent gods who rule over the world in all its forms and in all its ways, almost in an animist worldview rather than a polytheistic one, so as to establish the authority of the magician in mythic terms with the right to call upon them.  We find the consecration of the ring to be such that the magician “may wear this power in every place, in every time, without being smitten or afflicted, so as to be preserved intact from every danger while I wear this power”, so that “none of the daimones or spirits will or can oppose” them.  If it weren’t for the explicit Egyptian references and comparatively outdated terminology in the ritual, we might be forgiven for thinking this was something from one iteration or another of the Key of Solomon.  I think we can pretty solidly establish that whatever type or field of magic might be referenced by “black magic”, the Royal Ring of Abrasax doesn’t fall into it.

If you want good PGM examples of maleficia, you don’t have to search hard: PDM xiv.675—694 (the Evil Sleep of Seth; much of PDM xiv has similar recipes and poisons for causing “evil sleep” i.e. catalepsy, as well as blindness or death), PGM IV.2622—2707 (the Slander Spell of Selēnē), PGM IV.3255—3274 (Seth’s curse of punishments), PGM VII.396—404 (for silencing, subjecting, and restraining), PGM XII.365—375 (for inflicting the separation of Seth and Osiris or Seth and Isis on two friends or lovers through strife, war, odiousness, and enmity), and PGM CXXIV.1—43 (to inflict illness), to say nothing of all the other restraining and binding spells, as well as all the love spells which verge on domination, subjection, and inflicting pain so as to make someone love the magician.  Then there are also the curse tablets, also known as defixiones or katadesmoi, which we find across the entire western Old World across many, many centuries (more information available at Ancient Esotericism).  Those are all undoubtedly maleficia of various types and kinds, which may or may not have their justifiable uses; the Royal Ring of Abrasax, however, bears nothing in common with these.

The only objectionable part of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, then, must be the use of animal sacrifice, which is seen as a generally distasteful thing amongst…well, let’s be honest: urbanite or suburbanite, middle-class or upper-class, Western-centric practitioners who are separated from the cycle of life and death present in agriculture and animal husbandry as well as social, religious, and magical practices that go back literal millennia across every culture and continent.  On the other hand, I’m a proponent of animal sacrifice, for the ceremonies that call for them, when there’s a recognizable need to incorporate them in those ceremonies, and when performed by someone who is properly capable of carrying out such an act of sacrifice.

Before I continue, I want to mention a bit about the gravity of animal sacrifice.  While a staple of the religious and magical practices of most (not every) culture at some point on Earth, it’s a pretty big deal to sacrifice an animal; more than fruit or grain, raising animals is an investment.  Sure, agricultural goods are investments, too, but the nature of animal sacrifice is different because they’re expensive and, more importantly, have the blood and breath of life in them.  This is what makes them far more potent than offerings of libations, incense, foodstuffs, or other votive gifts, no matter how rare or intricate.  To sacrifice an animal is truly a sacrifice, because you have to come to terms with the cycle of life and death that enabled you to come into the presence of such a sacrifice as well as the process by which you cease its life for the dedication and offering to a divinity, or using its life force in a directed way for magical ends that cannot (whether easily or at all) be accomplished through the use of non-animal means.  It’s not like setting out a cup of barley grains for Hermēs or a plate of pears for Obatala, then tossing it out the next week; the process of animal sacrifice is not to be taken for granted, and neither is the life of the thing to be sacrificed.

Given that, I recognize that there are a variety of reasons one might choose to abstain from animal sacrifice, many of which were brought up in the comments on my original post on this topic from 2012:

  • One takes an egalitarian animist view of the cosmos: everything has a spirit, nothing is spiritually master or owner of another.  In this light, the notion of “dedication” and “sacrifice” become moot, because there is no point in dedicating a sacrifice to an entity that cannot own anything.
  • One takes a strictly pacifist, nonviolent approach in all their works: no harm done to anything as a result of ritual or as part of it.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • One has a sincere love and care for the well-being of animal life, whether they are people, pets, or livestock.  This may or may not overlap with animal rights activism and vegetarianism/veganism out of concern for the well-being of animals.
  • The rules and restrictions of one’s own practices and religion forbid it (e.g. Orphism).
  • The gods and spirits one works with insist on or mandate bloodless sacrifice for their worship and works.

One common argument I see against animal sacrifice is that “you wouldn’t sacrifice your pet dog or cat, so why would you sacrifice a chicken or goat?”.  You’re right; I wouldn’t sacrifice my pet, because pets aren’t livestock.  Pets are animals we raise for support, companionship, protection, and entertainment; for all intents and purposes, pets are family, and I wouldn’t sacrifice a member of my family.  Livestock, on the other hand, do not fall into that category.  They are raised for food, for breeding, for their hair, for their eggs; livestock are animals for consumption.  To cross the semantic boundary between pet and livestock is…even I find it distasteful, but I also recall myths and stories where such things were done in times of extreme need or revelation (e.g. Baucis and Philemon about to sacrifice their pet goose when they realized that it was truly Zeus and Hermēs visiting them in their hovel).

Heck, even if one is okay with animal sacrifice, there are plenty more reasons why one might not do it:

  • Lack of skill in safely and, as much as possible, humanely slaughtering an animal
  • Lack of funds for animals
  • Lack of appropriate space or privacy to keep animals, whether on a short- or long-term basis, as well as to conduct the ceremony
  • Lack of means or skill to properly process and butcher the animal for ritual or personal consumption, if applicable to the ceremony
  • Lack of means or space to dispose of any non-sacrificial and non-processable parts
  • Lack of knowledge of the proper ritual procedure for conducting such a sacrifice

That said, farms that raise livestock for personal use are often quite skilled in quickly and safely slaughtering animals, and butchery is a time-honored profession that overlaps significantly with slaughtering animals.  So long as one is willing to get their hands and apron bloodied, it’s not hard to learn these skills at least to a rudimentary, acceptable level, and make accommodations where needed for processing, disposal, and the like.  Most humans eat meat to some extent, and for many people, it’s a necessary part of their diet and culinary culture.  (Some might argue that nobody needs to eat animals and that everyone should be vegan, but it’s not a sustainable practice for many parts of the world, and it negates the fact that the human body does not operate on a one-diet-fits-all approach.)  Many people don’t get any sort of glimpse into the process of raising, slaughtering, or processing animals for consumption nowadays, especially in the Western urban world, but we can’t lose sight of the fact of where our sliced deli meats, Thanksgiving turkeys, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and pork chops come from, especially considering how many people thoughtlessly and mindlessly pick up such animal products from their supermarkets and grocery stores to eat them later.  More people in the past were far more familiar with what it takes to process animals from field to plate; heck, if your grandparents are still alive, ask them what it was like to pluck chickens.  It wasn’t that long ago that many people killed animals on their own properties for their own benefit and sustenance in many Western first-world countries, either, and many still do, especially outside the Western first-world sphere.

When it comes to the religious use of animal sacrifice, we need to think about the role religion plays in our lives.  In some cultures, mainly the Greco-Roman ones I’m thinking of, there was no word for “religion” in the sense of a distinct field of human activity; there were words to describe particular modes of worship, but they struggled with a way to define the role of religion in their lives, because they couldn’t separate it out from the other things they did on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.  More than just religious festivals and rites of passage, religion was intertwined with every breath of every day.  In that sense, if we’re going to kill something that took time and effort to raise, why not honor the gods by it and give them their fair share?  Also consider the Jewish practice of shechita, the kosher-permissible ritual slaughter of animals for consumption, which ties in with the practice of qorban, the acts and regulations of sacrifice permitted within the Temple of the Jews.  Then, bring in the long-standing and vital role that animal sacrifice plays in a variety of African religions, both practiced to this day within Africa as well as in the diaspora in forms such as La Regla de Ocha Lukumí, Candomblé, Vodou, and so forth; in these moments, animal sacrifices are often special occasions, celebrating a particular divinity, festival, or other sincere need, and are often communal celebrations where the meat is shared.  Indeed, in many traditional cultures, it’s more often than not that people got a substantial amount of their meat intake from participating in religious ceremonies.  And, more recently, some reconstructionist and revivalist pagan traditions are reincorporating the practices of animal sacrifice in their modern practices as was documented to have been done before Christianity knocked them off the map.

There are lots of schools of thought on the exact, precise role animal sacrifice plays (and, moreover, ought to play) in religious works, and generally these are limited to at most a handful of practices and traditions that involve them; I wouldn’t use Neoplatonic views on the appropriateness of animal sacrifice in Santería, nor would I try to impose Jewish ritual practices in a Hellenic ceremony.  Likewise, I would find it unconscionable for someone to judge the practices of another to which they don’t belong.  The most that I would personally agree with would be, if you have an issue for one reason or another, do your best to neither participate or benefit from it.  That’s fine!  In that case, you don’t need such practices, and they don’t need you.  If it comes to pass that you do, for some reason, need such practices as requires animal sacrifice, on the other hand, follow their rules, because they’ve been doing this a lot longer than you have and, simply put, still don’t need you to change, judge, or opine on the appropriateness of their ritual process.  There are a variety of legitimate needs and purposes for animal sacrifice; heck, even in a Neoplatonic setting, Porphyry and Iamblichus are in agreement that it has its place, and for some people, it’s a valuable and useful part of worship and theurgy to make use it in the right circumstances (cf. this excellent paper by Eleonora Zeper on the subject).

Then, on the other hand, we have magical practices.  Rather than following the institutions of religion and their practices that are typically carried on for many generations, magical practices may overlap with religion, take on religion as an independent and asocial activity, or have no overlap whatsoever.  Because of the variety of these practices, it’s hard to say anything about them in general besides the fact that they exist: they’re in the PGM, they’re in the Picatrix, they’re in the Key of Solomon, they’re in the Book of St. Cyprian, they’re in pretty much any and every pre-modern tradition and source text we have (and a number of modern ones, too).  Ranging from frogs to falcons, swine to swans, there are endless purposes for a variety of particular animals, some of which require no more than some hair or a feather plucked from them, some which require blood but without killing the animal, which require their whole burning once sacrificed (as in the Royal Ring of Abrasax), some require torture and deforming (such as a variety of frog-based spells in the Book of St. Cyprian), and so forth.  If you’re able and willing to do such acts for the sake of ritual, do it; if not, don’t do it and move on with your life.

There’s also the case of substituting blood sacrifices with bloodless sacrifices.  I give one example of this in the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual, where instead of sacrificing seven birds, one sacrifices seven specially-made cakes that represent those birds.  Substitution of one ritual process with a similar-enough stand-in is a longstanding practice both ancient and less-ancient; we have records of Egyptian rituals where this was done, we know many folk practices across the world that once relied on animal sacrifices have come to use substitutions instead, and similar substitutions are made in particular traditions of Tibetan and some (but not all) other Vajrayana or Vedic practices, as well.  If done appropriately, done with the right intent, and done in a situation where a bloodless substitute is deemed acceptable by both the magician/priest and the forces they’re working with, then there’s no reason to worry for those who wish to perform a ritual but who are either unable or unwilling to perform the animal sacrifice for it: just use the substitute instead.  However, as Jason Miller points out in his recent post about animal sacrifice and using substitutes, this isn’t always possible: if the use of substitutes is not deemed necessary, whether because there’s a sincere need for a proper animal sacrifice or because the spirits reject bloodless substitutes, then you’re out of luck with substitutes.  I’ve heard stories of at least one modern ATR community that insisted on using bloodless sacrifices for their ceremonies until one of their gods came down in the flesh and demanded it of them, lest he take it from them by force; this type of thing can happen, though hopefully though less extreme measures such as through ceremonial divination and regular check-ins with the spirits you’re working with.

There’s also the possibility of reworking the format and structure of a ritual that calls for animal sacrifice to avoid using it entirely.  Consider that the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual given in PGM XII.201—269 has a parallel, closely-related consecration ceremony of a phylactery later on in PGM XIII.734—1077, where no animal sacrifice is required (though an offering of sweetbreads is called for along with bread, seasonal flowers, and pine-cones).  It is entirely feasible to use this alternate ritual procedure, or adopt and adapt the methodology of one with the prayers and purposes of the other, to come up with a blend of ritual praxis that can (but not necessarily promised to be) as effective as either.  Additionally, consider that one may try to avoid the use of sacrifices entirely and simply use the prayers of the Royal Ring of Abrasax ritual in an otherwise usual, normally-conducted consecration ritual according to one’s regular process.  Is this always acceptable?  Not necessarily; the more you change the format or requirements or implements of a ritual, the further you get from being able to claim that you “did” the ritual, and the less likely you’ll end up with the expected results.  However, it is possible to come up with a new version of an old ritual, so long as you know what you’re doing.

This is a lot of digital ink to spill on something, but in short?  Animal sacrifice does not equate to “black magic”, and “black magic” is a ridiculous term that shouldn’t be used anyway.  If you find the practice distasteful, consider your own dietary habits, your own cultural heritage, your own biases about such practices, and whether you really think you know better than both age-old religious institutions and the gods and spirits they work with before you voice such opinions.  Don’t disparage the works and methods of others from a place of privilege, naiveté, and badly-conceived ethics; if you absolutely have to be judgmental about something, judge on the purpose and merits of the ritual.

PGM Kyphi: On The Incense of the Eighth Book of Moses

Trying to come up with my PGM-style framing rite was pretty fun, I have to admit.  Scouring the entire PGM for things that fit a pattern I work in, trying to select the best or most appropriate verses to use to make sure they’re generic enough to not step on toes while still being specific enough to function for a purpose, and seeing what was really needed and what wasn’t as far as potential options go helped me get an even deeper realization of the abundant (yet never enough!) material available to us in the Greek magical papyri.

Still, there were some design decisions that I had to make about what to include and where.  In the end, I decided to make the framing rite as general and flexible as possible, making lots of things optional rather than just not having them in there (and being asked about it later, or forgetting myself where something might best be placed).  One of the ritual acts that I made optional was a general burning of incense, after the empowerment and just before the ritual proper around which the framing rite takes place.  Personally, I love the use of incense, and I don’t do many rituals without it; I typically find it to be an important, if not outright essential, part of ritual magic, and there are too many rituals in the PGM to count that use some sort of suffumigation or another.

The problem is, though, the use of incense generally outside of a ritual for its own sake.  Looking through the PGM, whenever incense is burned, it’s for a specific purpose, generally to bless a particular object or as an offering.  Incense doesn’t seem to be used for its own sake, whether as a general perfume, a spiritual resonance-tuning method (getting a place more into the “feel” of a particular sphere or spirit), or a method of blessing or purifying a space (a la smudging), which are all pretty common modern uses of incense.  Rather, the use of incense appears to almost always be used as an offering to some god or spirit, or as a suffumigation to bless a particular object under a particular god or spirit.  These acts are intrinsically and intimately bound up with specific rituals, and no one method seems to cover most of them; because of this, I decided against having a general incense burning before the ritual proper in the framing rite.

This doesn’t apply, however, to the final dismissal, where incense is burned, because the parts of the PGM where I pulled those prayers from do indeed call for incense, and it being a dismissal and thanksgiving offering to the spirits, the use of incense is appropriate.  Using that logic, it’s also quite possible and appropriate to make an introductory offering of incense to the same spirits, at least those of time and space (i.e. the Guardians of the Directions, the Lord of the Hour or Day or Sign, etc.) as well as to higher powers such as the Agathodaimon or Aiōn, but I’m also not entirely sold on doing that each and every time; after all, why eat dessert when breakfast has yet to be served?  (Hush, inner child.)

Anyway.  While looking through the PGM for topics and sections involving the use and types of incenses, I came across (once again) the Eighth Book of Moses, split and replicated in several forms in PGM XIII, sections 1—343, 343—646, and 646—734.  These sections precede the section PGM XIII.734—1077, which calls itself the Tenth Book of Moses, which is also the source of the Heptagram Rite (and, thus, the Calling the Sevenths or Heptasphere ritual that’s so common in modern PGM-forms of magic).  Taken all together, PGM XIII presents a fascinating self-initiatory form of magic coming into some of the highest and most glorious powers of the cosmos, and presents an interesting blend of Egyptian and Jewish priestly practices.  One of which is the use of incenses, described in the earlier parts of PGM XIII, which is used both as an offering substance for the divinity or divinities invoked in the ritual as well as an ingredient for consecrating particular inks and drinks in the ritual.

Seven types of incenses are described as proper to the seven planets:

  • Saturn: styrax (στύραξ)
    • Despite the common modern use of styrax (or storax) to refer to benzoin (Storax officinalis, storax or cowbell), this was most likely instead the resin of Liquidambar orientalis, oriental or Turkish sweetgum, a type of balsam which was well-known in classical and medieval times.  However, given the ambiguity of this term, either may be meant.
  • Jupiter: malabathron (μαλάβαθρον)
    • This is an older name for the leaves of Cinnamonum tamala, more commonly known as Indian bay leaf, tējapatta/tejpat/tejpata, tamalpatra, tamaala, vazhanayila, edana, pattai illai, or bagharakku in various Indian languages.
    • Betz also gives Cinammonum albiflorum as an option, but it seems like this is just a synonym for Indian bay leaf.
  • Mars: costus (κόστος)
    • Sassurea lappa, also known as saw-wort or snow lotus.  The dried root was an important and well-known trade item between Rome and India.
    • Currently listed as endangered, making it illegal to dig up the plant for export, so trade of this plant is highly regulated.
  • Sun: frankincense (λίβανον)
    • Boswellia sacra, our gold old friend.  Pretty straightforward here.  We all know and love this stuff.
  • Venus: Indian nard (νάρδος Ἰνδικός)
    • Nardostachys jatamansi, spikenard, which was a luxury item in the Mediterranean.
  • Mercury: cassia (κασία)
    • Cinnamonum cassia, the usual cassia or Chinese cinnamon.  The bark of the plant is as available today as it ever was, and most store-bought cheap “cinnamon” tends to be cassia, anyway.
  • Moon: myrrh (ζμύρνα)
    • Commiphora myrrha, the resin of the plain old myrrh.  No further explanation needed.
    • The spelling for this is weird, using an initial zēta instead of an initial sigma, but so it goes.  Likely explainable due to voicing from the following mu.

In addition, PGM XIII.1—343 says that one should “prepare sun vetch on every occasion”, meaning the “Egyptian bean”.  Here, it’s most likely referring to Vicia faba, or the simple fava bean, still a staple in Egypt to this day.  Another option might be bitter vetch, Vicia ervilia, which was domesticated before fava beans by about 1500 years, but I’m inclined to think that fava beans are meant here.  However, it’s unclear whether it’s the bean itself to be used or the leaves or flowers of the plant instead.

What strikes me as significant is how…Jew-ish all those materials are.  Like, obviously this is not a particularly canon rite that would have been done in the Temple at Jerusalem, but the whole Eighth Book of Moses is definitely appropriating Jewish elements heavily, far beyond just attributing the book to the prophet Moses.  Consider PGM XIII.230ff:

The initiation called The Monad has been fully declared to you, child.  Now I subjoin for you, child, also the practical uses of this sacred book, the things which all the experts accomplished with this sacred and blessed book.  As I made you swear, child, in the temple of Jerusalem, when you have been filled with the divine wisdom, dispose of the book so that it will not be found.

Betz includes a fantastically sharp footnote here for this paragraph: “pretentious hokum”.  Still, it’s indicative of how heavy Jewish influences are in this part of the PGM, and the incense list above indicates a distinct familiarity with priestly practices.  Consider Exodus 30:22—38, which discusses the recipes and uses for the holy anointing oil and the offering incense:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant calamus, 500 shekels of cassia—all according to the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil.  Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer.  It will be the sacred anointing oil.  Then use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand.  You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.

“Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests.  Say to the Israelites, ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come.  Do not pour it on anyone else’s body and do not make any other oil using the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred.  Whoever makes perfume like it and puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from their people.'”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Take fragrant spices—stacte, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer.  It is to be salted and pure and sacred.  Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.  Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord.  Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.”

Note the ingredients of those two special substances: myrrh, cinnamon, calamus, cassia, stacte (most likely storax or styrax), onycha (most likely part of a sea snail or labdanum from Cistus creticus), galbanum (resin of Ferula gummosa), and frankincense.  We see some significant overlap between this part of Exodus and the incense materials given in PGM XIII.  To make matters even more interesting, consider the rabbinic literature of the Talmud: it expands the list of ingredients for the incense offering significantly from the Exodus list:

  1. stacte (understood as the sap of the balsam tree, i.e. styrax, but it could also refer to mastic from terebinth, Pistacia palaestina)
  2. onycha (to which was added Carshina lye and Cyprus wine for refining and steeping it)
  3. galbanum
  4. frankincense
  5. myrrh
  6. cassia
  7. spikenard
  8. saffron
  9. costus
  10. aromatic bark
  11. cinnamon

We know that the Talmudic literature and traditions go back to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and so its beginnings would have been roughly contemporaneous with the PGM authors.  If the Talmudic/rabbinical recipe list given above can be considered something approximating or reflecting actual Jewish practice at the time of PGM XIII’s inception, then we basically have the entire list of incenses given in PGM XIII.  The only odd one to consider is malabathron, which is not listed in either the Exodus or Talmudic recipes; however, knowing that it’s considered close to cinnamon, which we lack in our PGM incense list (except as a phylactery or charm to wear around the neck—perhaps too precious or expensive to be burned?), it could be seen as a reasonable substitute for cinnamon, and some rabbinical scholars suggest that it could indeed have been used in place of actual cinnamon.

There are other Jewish influences in PGM XIII as well, such as how the ritual is to be done such that the 41 days of purification ends with the New Moon in Aries.  This is basically ensuring that you’re timing things to line up with Passover, which generally occurs around the Full Moon in Aries.  That said, the ritual as a whole is really more of a priestly Egyptian kind of magic with Jewish elements mixed in.  This reaches its pinnacle in the idea that one has to receive “the Name” from the “god who comes in” via the initiation; this is that god’s own True Name, which is sacred and powerful and is used in many of the works that follow the initiation in PGM XIII.1—343; this can be seen to also bring in some of the influence of the Divine Name of God, only permitted to be spoken aloud once a year by the high priest in the holy of holies of the Temple.

So much for the Jewish influences.  Anyway, we have seven materials to be used as planetary incenses.  PGM XIII also prescribes the use of “the seven flowers of the seven stars”, a mixture to be made from the flowers of:

  1. Marjoram (σαμψούχινον)
    1. Origanum majorana, sometimes called sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram to ensure it’s kept distinct from oregano which can sometimes be called “marjoram”.  Another species, Origanum onites (Cretan oregano or pot marjoram) could be substituted, but all indications point to it being marjoram proper.
    2. The word used here is not the usual Greek word for marjoram, but specifically a “foreign name”, while the usual classical Greek term would be ἀμάρακος (amárakos).
  2. Lily (κρίνινον)
    1. Betz gives “white lily”, though this is not mentioned in either Preisendanz or the original Greek.  Indeed, “white lily” would have been referred to by λείριον and not the word used in the PGM, while this word here refers to non-white lilies. I’m not quite sure what a good species would be, but so long as it’s a non-white true lily like Lilium chalcedonicum or Lilium martagon (Turk’s cap) or even Lilium bulbiferum (fire lily).
  3. Lotus (λώτινον)
    1. Lots of options here, but most likely is Nymphaea lotus, also called white lotus or Egyptian lotus (unsurprisingly), and was revered in ancient Egypt as a symbol and medicine of strength and power, though it could also be the blue Egyptian lotus, Nymphaea caerulea.
  4. Erephyllinon or herephyllinon (ἐρεφύλλινον)
    1. This name is unknown and nobody seems to be sure what this name refers to.  Preisendanz gives “Dichtlaubpflanze (?)”, literally “thick-foliage plant”, so he’s not sure, either, though he also gives a possible alternative ἑρπύλλινον “herpullinon”.  If I translated it right, this word refers to tufted thyme, Thymus caespititius, and unlike many of the other plants which come from the Near East or South Asia, this one is native to Iberia.  The author may instead be referring here to Thymus capitatus, conehead thyme or Persian hyssop, and is native to the Mediterranean and Turkey, so it’s possibly more likely.
  5. Narcissus (ναρκίσσινον)
    1. This is just daffodil, most likely the type species Narcissus poeticus.
  6. Gillyflower (λευκόϊνον)
    1. “Gillyflower” confused me, but Preisendanz gives “Goldlack” as the name in German, which refers to Erysimum cheiri syn. Cheiranthus cheiri, or common wallflower.
  7. Rose (ῥόδον)
    1. It’s…it’s rose.  If one wanted to get really particular, I’d recommend the Damask rose, Rosa × damascena, which seems to have been cultivated in the classical world and is prized for both its fragrance and flavor.

Though these seven flowers are said to be “of the seven stars”, no association is made explicit between these and the planets.  The order of the incenses might be temping to use as a correspondence, but there are two orders given both for the incenses and the flowers between PGM XIII.1—343 and PGM XIII.343—646, so I’m not comfortable linking them up that way.  It’s possible to deduce some planetary rulerships, but I’m unclear on what sources to use; most modern resources would give multiple flowers to Venus (lily, rose, narcissus, and thyme), leaving not many for the other planets.  For that matter, the planetary patterns of the incenses, too, are unfamiliar to modern magicians.  It’s possible that they would be mixed-up as a blind, but I’m disinclined to think so; what few blinds there are in the PGM are code-names for particular materia magica (e.g. PGM XII.401—444), but beyond that, it’d be odd for blinds to be introduced in what are little more than personal notes or examples that were never probably meant for public dissemination.  All told, I’m not sure we can clearly identify which flower goes with which planet, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s needed; unlike the incenses, there never seems to be a use for individual flowers, but they’re to be mixed up and used as a single substance.

According to the directions in PGM XIII.1—343, these seven flowers are to be taken 21 days “before the initiation” for processing.  The timeline given in the ritual suggests that a pre-initiatory period of sunrise salutes begins on the New Moon for seven days leading up to the initiation, which then would make the initiation occur on the First Quarter Moon.  21 days before this, then, would mean to gather the flowers on the day of or just before a Full Moon.  The text says that the flowers, once picked, are to be ground finely either in a white mortar or into a white incense (the Betz translation gives two options for this), then left to dry in the shade.  However, I’m not sure this makes sense; given the colors of the flowers, grinding them “into white incense” doesn’t seem likely or possible, nor does it make sense to grind them up before drying them if they need to be ground fine into anything except a paste or mush.  Still, perhaps that’s desired; if they are to be mixed up, perhaps making a single mass of them and letting them dry in the shade (protected from the light of the Sun and the Moon and other stars) could be more effective than letting the flowers dry out first then grinding them up into a powder.

The directions further on in PGM XIII.1—343 suggest that the the seven flowers was to be mixed with the appropriate planetary incense into a “bean”, a small nugget of incense, which was then to presumably be burned; later, the incense and the powder of the seven flowers is to be used when making ink for writing on a special tablet of natron before washing it off in wine and drinking the wine.  PGM XIII.343—646 suggests that, as a general initiatory incense, all seven of the planetary incenses were to be mixed with the the seven flowers, along with unmixed wine; additionally, the seven flowers are to be mixed with ink in the same way as before; though no reference is made here to using the incense as well for this purpose, PGM XIII.646—734 does say to use both the incense and the flowers for the ink.

The use of the flower powder and the incense for making ink is outside the scope of this post, since I want to focus on the process of making the incense.  As said above, the end of PGM XIII.1—343 says that the powder of the flowers is to be mixed with the incense and, presumably, sun vetch (fava beans) into nuggets of incense.  Making pellets like this is something I’ve done before, and was definitely done in the old world as well; while burning a combination of resins works, mixing them ahead of time along with a filler to produce more, thicker, or brighter smoke was often done as well.  However, some sort of liquid would be needed in order to steep and soften the resins and barks in order that they can be ground up; indeed, PGM XIII.646—734 says that, “having ground them all to a powder” (meaning both the flowers at minimum and likely also the incenses), one is to add “wine not mixed with seawater”.  This would moisten the incenses and flowers together, allowing them not only to be more fragrant and pungent, but also giving a bit of sugar to it as well, which would help the incense smoke more; the specific note of “not mixed with seawater” suggests that white wine would have been the preference, which would also line up with the Talmudic use of Cypriot or old white wine, dry and with a greater acidity, for the Temple incense.  The use of fava beans would then act as a binder and filler, giving the incense nuggets as a whole an earthy base to solidify on and would help stretch the use of scarce or expensive ingredients.

The process of soaking and mashing the ingredients, plus curing the nuggets once made (say, in a terracotta or clay container), would indeed take about three weeks, giving the magician enough time to have them ready by the time they were to be used.  What we end up with, essentially, is a type of PGM-specific kyphi, the sacred incense compound used in Egypt for both religious and medicinal purposes, which was also a blend of a variety of resins, flowers, barks, and so forth, many of which according to ancient authors are found in our ingredients above (and which, of course, have overlap with the incense and oil recipes given by the Book of Exodus which may also have been influenced by ancient Egyptian priestly practices).  Given the Egpytian priestly influence in PGM XIII, and the fact that we see the use of this incense both as a form of fumigation as well as a type of sacred medicine (when the ink used to write on the natron tablet is either licked off or washed off into wine and drunk), it’s clear that PGM XIII is really giving us a special type of Hermetic kyphi recipe.

Quantities, unfortunately, are missing from PGM XIII (as they often are from much of the rest of the PGM), so it’s unclear exactly how much of each incense or flower we should use, the ratio of incense and flowers to beans, and so forth, so some experimentation would be needed to come up with something that would resemble the incense of PGM XIII.  Off the top of my head (and I could be really wrong about it), I’d probably think a 2:1:3 ratio by weight would be appropriate for resins to flowers to beans, all having been soaked ahead of time in dry, strong white wine that is, of course, with no salt or salt water added.  Moreover, finding these ingredients can be hard; expensive perfumery is as expensive as ever, and while all the ingredients are still technically available, the fact that some of the ingredients (like costus and, increasingly, frankincense) are considered endangered makes getting hold of sufficient quantities exceptionally difficult.  It is possible to replace the use of raw resins and barks (and even the flowers, too!) with essential oils instead, which could then be used for both making incense (when mashed with fava beans soaked in wine) as well as making a PGM-style anointing oil.

I think I’ll keep an eye out for getting some more flowers later this summer.  It’s unclear how close to what the PGM author and I’ve described I can get, but it’s probably worth a shot.  Having a PGM-style temple incense (and maybe even an oil, if I were to go the essential oil route, or simply distill the resins and flowers into an oil without the wine and fava beans) could be useful, indeed.

De Regnis: Supplies and Objects

Although most of my writing is visible and accessible through my blog and my ebooks, there are a bunch of writing projects that I don’t necessarily intend for public release.  When I was recently going through my old documents folder on my computer, I found a writing project I had intended to be a compendium of Hermetic and Neoplatonic knowledge, guidance, and advice that would serve to document my understandings and work as a textbook unto itself, both for my benefit and any who might come after me.  This project, De Regnis or “On Kingdoms”, got pretty far along before it got abandoned, though parts of it serve as seeds or are outright cannibalized for some of my other works.  Though I have no plans to continue writing this text, I want to share some of the sections I wrote that can act as a useful introduction to some of the practices of Hermetic magic in a modern context.  My views and practices and experiences have grown considerably since then, but perhaps it can help those who are just getting started or are curious about how to fortify their own practices and views.  If you have any views, comments, suggestions, or ideas on the topics shared in this post, please feel free to share in the comments!

Today’s selection will be on the topics of supplies, tools, and objects.

On Supplies and Objects

Although the primary heart of spiritual work with the kingdoms of the cosmos is inherently intangible and immaterial, material goods and substances form an important part of many spiritual paths,whether acting as focuses and stimulants for the body or for symbols for the mind to dwell on to obtain higher meaning. The use of ritual tools, magical items, consumable food and drink, and other supplies has a long history across the world, whether offering alcohol to spirits, use of drums and sacred instruments to induce trances, or creating charms and amulets for loved ones to keep them safe. Although there are effectively as many spiritual types of items as there are mundane items, a few large categories are described below that are important to the magus.

Tools. In the course of magical and spiritual ritual, specialized objects that undergo specific consecration for select purposes are used; these are the magician’s tools. Tools may take the form of simple day-to-day objects, such as pens or kitchen knives, but often are elaborated, decorated, and made special through their form, such as by detailed engraving or anointing with oil. Magical tool soften undergo specific rituals of consecration or blessing, where the tools are not only cleansed and dedicated to ritual, but also often for a specific practice or limited use within ritual. For instance,some ritual practitioners have four types of bladed instruments: a ritual sword to represent the element of Air and the powers of the mental faculties, a utility knife dedicated for cutting material things or sacrifices, a spiritual knife to draw circles or engrave special characters, and a war sword used to represent the planet of Mars for offensive and defensive works against spirits and animals alike. Different traditions use different sets of tools, both for their material purposes as well as symbolic meaning, such as the attributions of the elements of Fire and Air to the wand and the sword. However, common sets of ritual tools often include a wand or a staff, a knife, a chalice, a pentacle, a scrying medium such as a crystal ball or mirror, a brazier or censer, an engraving tool,and so forth. Divination tools and supplies, such as a deck of divination cards or dice, also fall into this category.

Clothing. Ritual clothing is similarly important in spiritual work, acting as another type of magical object. Special clothing, kept and used strictly for magical work, helps the magician in both stepping into the proper mindset for ritual work as well as preserving and enhancing the spiritual power of the ritual and the magician. Clothing should be used at the least for enhancing the atmosphere and decoration of the ritual, but may also be generically used for all rituals. Full sets of clothing, such as robes that completely cover the body, may be used across rituals equally well, or minor trinkets such as rings, belts, or boots that may be worn with different outfits can be equally suitable. Ritual clothing may change between traditions or even between rituals in the same tradition, and may be used for multiple purposes at once. These purposes often include protection,preserving purity, aligning oneself to the spirits or to a particular force, and similar purposes.

Talismans. Not all magical objects are those used in ritual. Indeed, many objects may undergo consecration or blessing to bestow benefits or cause changes without any active use. These items are talismans, items that have been magically empowered to cause change. All tools and ritual clothing may be considered talismans, but not all talismans are tools. Talismans are often used to benefit those who possess them in some way, such as protection from spirits or illnesses, enhancing one’s business, or to attract friendship and love from others. Some talismans are dedicated and consecrated by a particular spirit, such as saint medallions, to bestow the attention and blessing of a specific entity upon its bearer. Some talismans are simply set up in the home and left there, such as talismans for protection or safety in the home. However, not all talismans need to be beneficial;talismans to work harm may also be created, left behind as weapons on an enemy’s property or similarly snuck into their belongings to cause malefic influences. Many methods exist to create a talisman, from devout and concentrated prayer over an object to elaborate ritual and sacrifice.

Edible Goods. Particular foods, drinks, and other edible substances may be used in ritual to great effect, either for oneself or for the benefit of a spirit. Many traditions make food and drink offerings, especially those of fresh fruit, harvested grains, clean water, fresh or sacrificed meat, wine or alcohol, and the like; some traditions have the priest or ritual officiant give the food offering entirely without consuming any of it, while others instruct the officiants to partake of the food after the ritual or during it. Blessing food to contribute benefits, or cursing it to harm those who eat it, is a common practice and easily done, either for oneself or for others, even to preserve the integrity of it over long distances or time frames without other preservation. Foods and drinks with a mind-altering effect, known as entheogenic drugs, have been used to enhance or open the mind up to the revelation of gods and the spirit worlds, but should be used with caution. It is important to never use toxic substances without close supervision or control, especially those known to be fatal if ingested. Poisoning others, likewise, is condemnable and generally punishable by governments.

Other Supplies. Beyond food, drink, tools, talismans, and clothing, many other goods often come into play for a magician. Particular incenses, oils, candles, and altar cloths which may be used for anointing or consecration, or for use in different conjurations or communions with spirits, often forms a crucial part of ritual setup, especially given the elemental association of burning incense with pure spirit. Candles, offering light to the world, are burned frequently and used in great quantities to illuminate the world and the worker with the Light from the Divine as well as to honor, exalt, and offer worship to other spirits. Herbs, resins, powders, and dirts from any number of plants, mines, rivers, or other natural features may also be called for, as may some animal parts such as feathers, fur, or blood. Statues, sacred artwork, or other decoration may be desired for work or altar setup, especially when called for by a particular tradition or to call upon a specific spirit.Collecting ancient or authentic artifacts from a particular tradition, era, or culture can connect one with the practices and people who lived in the roots of one’s own tradition. Other implements,such as railroad spikes, horse bits, broken glass, or wooden boxes may also be required for specific rituals. In essence, any object may be used for spiritual or magical purposes, often in creative or novel ways merely by some ideal or purpose-based link that connects an object to a magical ritual.

Tool and Talisman Care. Consecrated objects, being made holy and powerful, deserve careful attention and care to maintain their power and blessed natures. They should not be handled by other people unless it is permissible to do so or if a ritual calls for it, and should not be handled or toyed with by the magician unless actively in use, and unless the magician is in a state of purity to properly handle them. Tools, though they should be regularly used, should also be regularly cleaned, polished, anointed, and similarly maintained. Incense, ashes, dusts, powders,and other debris should be cleaned up and disposed of respectfully, or be reused with care. Any consecrated object, if it requires it, should be duly and carefully consecrated or undergo a type of periodic reconsecration or recharging. Talismans, statues, and images of spirits or gods should be honored and kept clean or anointed, and should be kept in places of respect or holiness such as altars or temples. Metal objects should be gently polished regularly to prevent rust, tarnish, breaking, or similar degradation. Edible and drinkable substances should be kept separate from other supplies, and should be stored and ingested with respect and contemplation. Consecrated objects and supplies of all kinds are a kind of treasure that deserves respect and honor, being made something more than mere matter; disrespecting these objects is to disrespect the spirits and power that made them holy, which can cause problems or punishment by those same spirits.

Compilation Paralysis

I’ve been on a compilation kick lately.  I mentioned in a recent post of mine about the Orphic Hymns that I’m compiling a personal temple text from a variety of sources because I don’t like having books in my temple room if I can avoid it; for instance, I have a copy of Dervenis’ Oracle Bones Divination that, up until quite recently, I’ve been using as my reference for astragalomancy, and have kept it with my shrines for the Greek gods.  This…makes me uncomfortable, so I transcribed all the necessary information from that into a personal ebook for me to keep a printout of instead.  Not only do I get to finally put the damn book back on the bookshelf after way too long, but I also get to reformat it, reorganize it, and include other information I want to reference, as well as tweak some of the translations for my own tastes.

Of course, one thing led to another.  I also included a few pages for grammatomancy, which also references a good chunk of my Mathesis correspondences to the letter, and because Opsopaus included the Delphic Maxims in his Oracles of Apollo book, I decided to include those, too.  Again, nothing too elaborate or in-depth; I have enough experience with these systems and the backgrounds and contexts in which they were written to not have to have all the extra information in a temple reference.  The final result is something I could be content with…except, of course, I wasn’t.  Given all the references to the other gods between grammatomantic correspondences to the zodiac signs and, by those, to the Greek gods (cf. Agrippa’s Orphic Scale of Twelve, book II chapter 14), I wanted to also have a section for the Orphic Hymns.  This is reasonable; after all, my personal vademecum-enchiridion-prayerbook has a number of them already transcribed, and while I won’t use all the Orphic Hymns in my practice, why not have a complete set for reference, just in case?  It wasn’t hard to find a copy of the Greek texts as well as the Taylor translations that I could simply copy, paste, and format for LaTeX’s customary needs.

But, of course, why stop there?  I also ended up adding Gemisthus Plethon’s hymns as well as those of Proclus, which I find useful for my Neoplatonic uses as well as my devotional ones.  And, if we’re going with devotions, I decided to also include a few prayers attributed to Hermes Trismegistus from the Corpus Hermeticum, the Asclepius, and so on, and because of those, I also wanted to bring in a few things from the PGM, which then became more than a few things from the PGM, and then I added in the planetary invocations from the Picatrix because those would be useful, too…

The ebook I was preparing ballooned from a simple reference for divination to a compendium of devotional and oracular texts.  Whoops.

But, yanno, I was hooked!  I wanted to bring in what I could, because it might be useful, whether in a devotion to the theoi or in divination or needing something to reference for meditation.  And, so, my penchant for completionism and perfectionism kicked in—hard—and I’ve been looking through my other references and books, trying to pick out useful prayers, invocations, rituals, and the like for my temple.  In effect, I was essentially making a typed-up version of my vademecum, with a different focus and with plenty more texts that I’m not accustomed to using.

This is all well and good, of course, assuming I could actually use the thing.  And in the form it was in, even in the form it had been in, it was quite plenty useful, and definitely satisfied my original needs of having a handy divination reference in my temple.  But since I brought in all these other things, I knew I wanted more, and because I wanted more, I also knew that it was incomplete.  And how would I tolerate having something be incomplete?  The idea is as distasteful as unnecessarily having books in my temple room.  Because it was incomplete, I didn’t want to print it out prematurely, especially with having to deal with page numbers or section enumeration, because if I wanted to add or fix something, I’d have to go back and reprint the damn thing for consistency, and even though I can get by by using the office printers once in a while for personal ends, I didn’t want to waste that much paper and ink.  Editing a text is one thing—I’m not opposed to using interim texts with scratched-in notes—but putting something on paper, especially printing something out, gives me a hard-to-achieve and yet so-satisfactory feeling of something being “fixed”, even if it is for my eyes only.  So, in order to make printing this thing meaningful, I wanted to make sure it was worthy and proper for printing.

It’s been over a month since I had the original problem of “I need a quick reference for divination”.  It’s also been over a month since I’ve had a workable, totally satisfactory solution for this problem, too, and yet I still haven’t fulfilled my needs.  Instead, I got caught up in a problem I call “compilation paralysis”: not wanting to proceed in some matter due to a fear of not having enough resources, options, or sources.

Some authors, especially those in academia or in teaching-types of writing, might know the feeling well, of not feeling like you have adequate source material to publish.  I have that same sensation, too, for my geomancy book-in-progress, knowing that there’s still so much more that might be included but…well, the benefits diminish after a certain point, and well before that, it’s probably better to cut out stuff that’s truly extraneous and unnecessary before adding anything more.  It does, in fact, help to start off with too much and cut down rather than having the opposite problem, and this is a habit I picked up in college for my research papers (getting down to the ten-page mark was a lot easier than trying to BSing and subtle-formatting my way up to it).  But, at the same time, consider the context: what these authors are dealing with is a single book on a single topic that is published for a single need.  Once that need is met, the book is (in theory, at least) publishable; further books can be written or new editions made with further appendices, but those aren’t strictly needed.  My problem, in this case, is dealing with something for me and me alone that needs to satisfy my sometimes-nebulous needs.

One of the reasons why I support people having a notebook or, perhaps even better from a utilitarian standpoint, a binder with written pages for their vademecum-enchiridion-prayerbooks or records of their prayers and rituals is because these are essentially living documents; as we grow in practice, they grow, too.  As we find new prayers, rituals, and correspondences, we add them in, organization be damned.  We can reevaluate the real use of these things we add, and reorganize what makes the cut, when we fill the first notebook and move onto the second one, as I did not too long ago.  These aren’t things that need to be polished, edited, or fixed in any way except what serves our needs in prayer and ritual, and as such, don’t need to be fancy, embellished, typeset, illumined, or otherwise made particularly fancy.  In fact, I have a personal fear of using those beautifully handcrafted, leatherbound, embossed, etc. journals I see floating across the internet and bookstores because I tremble at the thought of messing up such a beautiful work with errors or wasted paper; not only is my calligraphy not up to par to match the beauty of these books, but I find these things to be more appropriate to true works of devotion and love that are complete and refined unto themselves.  (I only speak for myself, of course.)

So, like, with my personal enchiridion, I don’t particularly care about making errors; there are scratchmarks, crossouts, and addenda all over the damn thing.  The important thing for me is not to waste space, so I try to be as efficient as possible cramming in as much information and references as possible into as few pages and lines as possible.  This is fine; after all, it’s my own personal thing, and nobody else needs to see or use it; besides, Moleskines can be expensive for such a notebook, even if they’re the perfect size to carry around (and fit in a Hyundai car manual leather case, I might add, which gives it extra padding and some extra utility, in case you wanted to try that out as a Moleskine bookcover).  The things I add to my enchiridion are a testimony to my growth and directions and shifts in focus I take in my practice, which I find is informative on its own.  The only important criterion I have for adding stuff to it, truly the only one, is whether something is going to be useful to me; if not, I’m not gonna waste the time writing it in or the ink to write it.

That’s what reminded me to get out of my compilation paralysis.  There’s no need to be scared or anxious about not having enough sources; if I need something later, I can just add it it.  It’s not like I didn’t already have these sources and there’s a threat of losing them; I’ve never needed a copy of the Homeric Hymns or the Nabataean prayers to the Sun or Saturn on hand when I didn’t already have my enchiridion or my copy of the Picatrix at hand, after all, so why should I be so worried about not having them in this temple reference?  I can always add new things into the overall document, print out the necessary pages, and just add them into the binder where appropriate.  It’s not that big a deal.  I know for a fact that I can always get this information should I need it, and if I haven’t needed it yet, there’s no harm to start off with that which I know I need right now and add stuff later.  I’ve got more than enough source material for what I need, anyway, and it’s more manageable to deal with two small binders than one massive one.

It’s a bitter pill for me to swallow, but even I have to admit it: none of us needs to know everything about our practices right out of the gate.  It might be nice, to be sure, but that’s also kind of the beauty of it, to let growth happen organically, especially if you’re in a practice that you’re developing on your own, as so many magicians and pagans are.  You don’t need full copies of the Homeric Hymns or Orphic Hymns in both Greek and English the moment you decide to build a shrine to one of the gods; you don’t need to know all the specific proportions of all the ingredients for the obscure incenses needed for all the planets from the Picatrix when you’re not even going to bother with a planet you’re going to interact with tonight once and probably not again for a few years more.  Part of the practice is just that: practice.  We do things, and then we do both more things and we do those same things more.  We learn, we accumulate, and we incorporate what we do into what eventually becomes our whole practice.  Part of that is necessarily finding more things to add and adding them at the proper time, as well as changing the things we do as we need to change them so as to keep doing them better or, at least, keep doing things better for our own sakes.  If we need to make emendations, do so at the proper time; you don’t know what would need them until you do or until they’re pointed out to you, and so much of that is based upon trial and error, experimentation and evaluation.  It’s not that big a deal.

There’s no need to worry, and there’s no cause for paralysis.  All you need to do is, simply, do.  Amend, fix, and add when you need to.  Don’t worry about trying to have everything ready for everything, especially when you don’t know what “everything” consists of.  Relax, then Work.