Genius in the Picatrix: Ritual Prep and Setting the Altar

Last time, we started talking about a particularly interesting bit of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, the “Goal of the Wise”, sometimes just known as the Ġayah, but definitely better known in the West as the Picatrix, most likely written in Arabic sometime in the middle of the 11th century CE.  Everyone knows the Picatrix, everyone loves the Picatrix; it’s a fantastic text of astrological magic, and among the earliest of true grimoires in Europe.  Although focused on what we’d nowadays call stellar image magic, the creation of astrological talismans bearing magical images and scenes made under particular stellar configurations, the text is famous for its wide inventory of bizarre magical concoctions and confections for a variety of purposes, its lengthy invocations to the planetary spirits, and its preservation of older pagan practices from the Hermetists, Sabians, Nabataeans, and various other Mediterranean peoples.  It is not, however, a particularly theurgical text on the whole, even though it contains a wealth of information on philosophy, spiritual and cosmic frameworks, and the like in how and why magic works the way that it does.  Yet, in book III, chapter 6, we encounter an interesting section on the “Perfect Nature”, a sort of guiding spirit or genius, originally encountered by Hermēs Trismegistus himself.  The last post went on at length analyzing the meaning of the vignette of Hermēs Trismegistus encountering Perfect Nature; if you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

So, after the vignette, or rather as part of it, Perfect Nature introduces itself to Hermēs Trismegistus.  But he doesn’t just stop there (Warnock/Greer translation):

I asked him who he was, and he replied: “I am Perfect Nature; if you wish to speak to me, call me by my proper name, and I will answer you.” I asked him them by what name he was called, and he answered me, saying, “By the four names mentioned above I am named and called.” I asked him next at what times I should call him, and how I should make the invocation.

At this point, Perfect Nature describes a ritual to Hermēs Trismegistus to be done to invoke the Perfect Nature as a form of divine communion.  According to the Picatrix, which itself claims that all this is according to the Kitab al-Isṭamāḵis/Liber Antimaquis, “the ancient sages used to perform this working every year” (the Atallah/Kiesel translation says “once or twice a year”) “for the sake of their spirits, so that they might put in order their Perfect Natures”.  The Picatrix also goes on to say that Aristotle himself claims that this allowed the ancient sages to have “his proper virtue infused into him by exalted spirits, by whose powers their senses were closed, their intellects opened, and sciences revealed to them”, and that “this virtue was conjoined with the virtue of the planet ruling the radix of the nativity” (i.e. one’s ruling planet, the almuten of one’s natal chart) “so that the virtue thus co-created in them strengthened them and gave intelligence to them”, and that in this way the sages “helped themselves in their knowledge and understanding, and the increase of their business and possessions, and guarded themselves from the plots of their enemies, and did many other things”.

Warnock and Greer make an important observation at this point in their translation:

This entire passage is reminiscent of the Poemandres, the first dialogue of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which Hermes has a conversation with a similar spiritual being.  The ritual that follows is of great interest; it seems to bridge the gap between classical rituals for evoking a guardian spirit, of the sort found in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, and early modern rituals for the same purpose such as the famous Abramelin working.

Based on the ritual that follows and everything we already know about the Perfect Nature, I’m absolutely in agreement with them.  Perfect Nature is already being presented through the vignette as an actual spirit one can interact with, and is described as a sort of spirit that neatly fills the role of genius, tutelar, agathodaimōn, or guardian angel.  What’s interesting about the Picatrix, however, is that it also breaks out the single entity of Perfect Nature into its four works of Meegius/Tamāġīs, Betzahuech/Baġdīswād, Vacdez/Waġdās, and Nufeneguediz/Nūfānāġādīs, each corresponding to a particular power—or individual spirit, if you choose to interpret the Picatrix that way.  In either case, Perfect Nature is both one and many: a single entity with distinct powers, or a single entity as a collective of four spirits.  I lean towards the former interpretation, as discussed earlier.

According to the Latin Picatrix and its translations, the ritual to commune with Perfect Nature is to be done when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries (i.e. between 0°0’0″ Aries and 0°59’59.999…” Aries); it does not matter whether the ritual is done during the daytime or nighttime, so long as the Moon is in this degree of Aries.  On average (and this can vary incredibly depending on the specific speed of the Moon at this time, based on where the Moon’s apogee/perigee is relative to the first degree of Aries), this gives you a window about 110 minutes long on average, or a little less than two hours, once every 28-ish days.  This also puts the Moon starting a new sidereal cycle, coinciding with:

  • The first lunar mansion, An-Naṭḥ (Alnath), which is good “to go on a journey, so as to travel safely and return in good health…to place discord and enmity between husband and wife, and between two friends so that they become enemies, and to sow discord between two allies…to cause servants to flee” (book I, chapter 4), as well as “for destruction and depopulation” (book IV, chapter 9).
  • The first face/decan of Aries, “a face of strength, high rank and wealth without shame” (book II, chapter 11), which makes one to be “always victorious in battle, litigation and controversy and gain what they wish, and are never defeated; and…to hinder the milk of beasts and destroy their butter” (book II, chapter 12).

Granted, these observations are really more for making talismans in the vein of stellar image magic than anything connected to the present ritual, although the notions of “going on a journey safely and in good health” along with “strength, high rank, and wealth without shame” and victory without defeat are always nice suggestions, too.  What matters most is that the Moon is in the first degree of Aries; if you wanted to put a nice touch on it, you could aim for this to coincide with a planetary hour and/or day corresponding to the planet that governs you, or have a sign of that planet rising or culminating, but these are secondary concerns at best.  However, in the Atallah/Kiesel translation of the Arabic Picatrix, the phrasing is given somewhat differently: “when the Moon comes down to the level of the Head of Aries at any time in either day or night”.  This might be a poetic or idiomatic way of saying the same thing the Latin Picatrix is saying (“cum Luna in primo gradu Arietis fuerit in die vel in nocte”), but it could be interpreted in other ways.  For instance, knowing that the first lunar mansion is associated with the star β Arietis (Sheratan, the lower/first horn of Aries), we could do away with signs and lunar mansions entirely and link the entire ritual to the conjunction of the Moon with this star, ignoring the effects of precession.  Still, I think the simple explanation here is the easiest and most straightforward: the ritual is to be done in that brief window of time when the Moon is in the first degree of Aries.

Taking a step back, now that we know when to do the ritual, what about preliminary purification or other spiritual preparations to be made ahead of the ritual?  Although the Picatrix doesn’t really say much about this, it does say that the philosopher Tintinz the Greek (طمطم الهندي Ṭumṭum al-Hindī in the Arabic Picatrix, a name known to students of geomancy as a student of Hermēs Trismegistus) claims that “one who desires to perform this work ought to abandon all intention and contemplation concerning other things, because the root and foundation of all these workings consists of contemplations” (see above about the role of contemplation as the main vehicle for empowering images), and that either the philosopher Caraphzebiz (in the Arabic Picatrix, كرفسايس Karafsāyis?) or his student Amenus (in the Latin Picatrix, who is not mentioned in the Arabic Picatrix as far as I can tell), likewise says that (Warnock/Greer translation):

…any sage who wanted to work magic, and preserve himself with the powers of the spirits, ought strictly to give up all cares and all other sciences beside this one, because when all the senses and the mind, and all contemplations about other things, are strictly turned to magic, it may be acquired with ease; and since many assiduous contemplations are appropriate to this science of magic, the magician must wrap himself in these, rather than being wrapped around any other things.

In other words, yeah, works of purification and other preliminary preparations of the mind, spirit, soul, and body should be undertaken before this ritual, even if only to refine the focus and desire of the person who undertakes it.  This is especially backed up by what Ibn Khaldūn says in the Muqaddimah:

A man is said to have done this after he had eaten but little and done dhikr exercises for several nights. A person appeared to him and said, “I am your perfect nature.” A question was put to that person, and he gave the man the information he desired.

So, based on this, I would suggest engaging in a period of fasting accompanied by works of steadfast devotion and sincere prayer, especially the repetition of divine names or chants (perhaps including the Four Names of Perfect Nature as well?), at least for three days leading up to the ritual, but more preferably seven or longer, perhaps even for a full lunar month starting from the previous time the Moon entered the first lunar mansion.

Before or during this preparatory period, gather together the following supplies:

  • Almond oil
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with a neutral oil not otherwise listed here.
  • Walnut oil
    • Warnock/Greer and Attrell/Porreca both only say “nut oil” based on the Latin “oleum nucum”, but Atallah/Kiesel specify “walnut oil” for دهن الجوز duhn al-jawz.  The word there can mean nut generally, but it is used specifically for walnuts as well.
    • If walnuts are a no-go, use another nut-based oil that is not almond oil that’s sweet and good for baking or in cooking desserts, like hazelnut or macadamia nut.
    • If one has an allergy to nuts, substitute with pine nut oil.
  • Sesame oil
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “vinegar oil”, and I have no idea what they mean by that.  Perhaps a thick, reduced vinegar, like a balsamic vinegar?
    • The Arabic phrase used for this is دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall, which does literally mean “oil of vinegar”, and is called for in another part of the Picatrix (book III, chapter 11, “that you may appear in the form of any animal you wish”), where, again, the Latin Picatrix renders this as “sesame oil”.  There are also other Latin works based on Arabic works that do seem to regularly translate sesame oil for “oil of vinegar”.
    • The confusion here is between دهن الخل duhn al-ḵall (oil of vinegar) and دهن الحل duhn al-ḥall (oil from whole sesame seeds).  In Arabic script, the difference is of the presence or absence of a single dot, which can confuse the two meanings.  In general, it seems that the use of “vinegar” here is a typo in the Arabic, given how common it was across the Mediterranean to translate this phrase as “sesame oil” into a variety of languages by different translators.
    • I suppose, however, that one could make an argument that this is something more alchemical than anything else (a la “oil of egg” or “oil of gold”), but this seems unlikely to me.
    • I would most recommend sesame oil (reading it as duhn al-ḥall), as it makes the most sense in this context, though if the vinegar approach were taken (reading it as duhn al-ḵall), this would probably be implied to be balsamic vinegar.
  • Cow’s milk butter
    • I’d recommend unsalted butter, personally.
    • Although there exist non-dairy butter substitutes, I cannot recommend their use due to the symbolic importance of this having come from a living creature (more on that later).
    • In the case of an extreme allergy to dairy, I might recommend the use of shea butter or cocoa butter, but only as an extremely limited case.
  • Wine
    • Atallah/Kiesel just say “alcohol”, though the word used in the Arabic Picatrix is خمر ḵamr, wine.  However, no specific type of wine is mentioned in the Latin Picatrix or its translations.  My personal preference would be a semi-dry white wine, and barring that a light sweet red wine, but that’s just me.
  • One large glass serving dish
    • A large low glass bowl would be perfect for this, even better if it had a separation in the middle (a la a chips-and-dip serving platter).
  • Eight glass pint-sized pitchers or tumblers
    • Each of these holds the wine, oil, or butter.  Warnock/Greer say that each of these pitchers “should have a capacity of around one pint”, while Attrell/Porreca and Atallah/Kiesel both say that these pitchers should be big enough to hold one pound of the wine, oil, or butter.  Checking WolframAlpha, making these to be pint-sized containers does in fact check out.
    • However, that assumes we know exactly which “pound” is intended for use.  One avoirdupois pound (standard in the modern US) is 453.6 grams which is equivalent to 497mL or 16.8 fl oz, but there are other definitions of pound out there historically, too, and may be closer to what was intended in the original Picatrix (using olive oil as a neutral base for unit conversion and comparison here):
      • Roman pound, equivalent to 328.9 grams (360mL, 12.2 fl oz)
      • Byzantine gold pound, which was originally 327.6 grams (359mL, 12.1 fl oz) but decreased over time to about 319 grams (349mL, 11.8 fl oz)
      • Byzantine silver pound, equivalent to 333 grams (365mL, 12.3 foz)
      • Byzantine oil pound, equivalent to 256 grams (280mL, 9.48 fl oz)
    • Based on these, I’d personally go with the Byzantine oil pound, which means instead of using pint-sized (16oz) pitchers, one needs more like 10oz containers, so a little more than half that size, about the size of a standard disposable styrofoam cup or a little more than halfway of a Solo cup.  I think this is fine, especially as almond oil or walnut oil can be expensive.
    • No material for these pitchers is specified, though I’d recommend glass to match the large serving dish above and the symbolism of the glass lantern in the vignette.
  • Sugar
    • Date palm sugar would be best if you wanted to go for cultural or historical accuracy.
  • Honey
  • Coal
  • Incense blended or compounded from frankincense and mastic
    • Atallah/Kiesel say “kandar, a good-smelling glue”.  From what I can find, this is actually a Persian term that just refers to frankincense, but probably high- or top-grade milky-white frankincense.  However, a gloss in the footnotes says that either a part of this phrase that references what to use (بالكية والكندر) is either just frankincense or is frankincense and mastic.  I’d go with using both.
  • Aloeswood (aka oudh or agarwood)
  • One tall candle
  • Two braziers for burning incense
  • A table

Before the ritual, physically clean and spiritually cleanse the ritual area so that it may be made “clean and splendid”.  Although the Picatrix says “house” here, this should better be understood to mean one’s temple space or ceremonial chamber—though cleaning and purifying the whole house where this would take place certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Once the ritual area has been appropriately cleaned and cleansed, prepare the altar.  On the eastern side of the ritual area, set up a table (a card table, coffee table, etc. would be perfect for this).  The Warnock/Greer translation says “a raised table”, the Attrell/Porreca translation “a table raised from the ground”, and the Atallah/Kiesel translation “a table…on a step higher than the ground”.  What we’re looking at is a table set on a dais or other low platform, with the dais probably no more than a foot in height.  For comfort’s sake, I’d recommend the dais be a little larger than the table itself, but not too much so.  An impromptu platform made from bricks, a piece of plywood supported by some low cinderblocks, or the like would be perfect.

Before setting up the altar, a particular kind of sweet confection must be made with butter, honey, walnut oil , and sugar.  Based on the Latin and Latin-translated Picatrix alone, this may look like a sweet whipped creation, much like a buttercream frosting.  Atallah/Kiesel, however, say that this is “a candy” (later, “candies”, suggesting less a mass of substance and more parceled-out bits of it) made with “lots of sugar” and that “it needs to be very sweet and heavy on oil”.  Rather than buttercream frosting, what this may mean is to aim for something closer to toffee or butterscotch candy.

The altar should have the following things on it:

  • One pint-sized pitcher of almond oil, set towards the east on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of walnut oil, set towards the west on the altar
  • One pint-sized pitcher of cow’s milk-based butter, set towards the south on the altar
    • This could be solid or melted or something else; given the presence of liquid oils for the other three such containers, melted butter or even clarified butter may be meant here.  My preference would be for whipped or otherwise non-compacted butter.
  • One pint-sized pitcher of sesame oil, set towards the north on the altar
  • Four pint-sized pitchers of wine, one placed to each of the four directions on the altar
    • These may be placed immediately to the side of the containers of the oils and butter along the edge of the table, or just beside them closer to the center, or with the pitchers of wine on the outside and the pitchers of oil and butter on the inside.
  • A glass dish filled with the candy/confection made from cow’s butter, walnut oil, honey, and sugar, placed in the center of the altar
    • No description of the containing dish is given beyond “glass”, but to my mind, simple clear glass would be best; the other containers for wine and oil would best be made of the same material, ideally even in a matching style.
    • Clear a space in the center of the dish to hold the candle later, if at all possible.

I suppose, of course, that one could also cover the table with a tablecloth; I’d recommend a white linen cloth that hangs down generously around the table, but that’s just me.  None is mentioned in the original text, so we’d be fine without it.

In addition to preparing the ritual space and the altar, we also need to prepare two braziers or censers, one to burn a mixture of frankincense and mastic (or just frankincense, maybe? per the Arabic Picatrix), the other to burn aloeswood, but the Picatrix does not say where to put these things.  If free-standing braziers are to be used (which seems to be the best practice here), I would put the one with frankincense and mastic to the north of the altar and the one with aloeswood to the south, at least three feet away on either side, depending on how much space one has available.  If smaller censers are to be used, they may be put on platforms of their own (milk crate-sized boxes would be perfect, or taller standing pillars if you wanted to be fancy) in the same positions.  Other options for using smaller censers could be to put them directly on the altar itself (I’d recommend keeping to the north/south positioning halfway between the cups and the dish) or underneath the altar directly on the dais (which I don’t find likely or recommended here at all).  The brazier approach, or otherwise keeping the censers off and away from the altar, seems to be the most reasonable.

Unlike other parts of the Picatrix that specify the metal to be used for the censers (e.g. book IV, chapter 2), no description of the material is given, so it probably doesn’t matter.  Simple braziers, made from a steel or iron bowl or chafing dish to hold the coals and incense and supported on metal or wooden legs as a tripod, or otherwise simple small censers, would really be best, especially given the simplicity of the ritual as a whole.  However, if you wanted to customize this aspect of the ritual setup for yourself based on other Picatrix practices for your own ruling planet, the metals from book III, chapter 7 would be good to observe:

  • Saturn: iron
  • Jupiter: tin
  • Mars: bronze or brass
  • Sun: gold
  • Venus: electrum (gold and silver alloy)
  • Mercury: “fixed mercury” (mercury alloy)
  • Moon: silver

If you wanted to go the extra mile, you could also make a special censer for yourself based on the instructions given in book III, chapter 5.  Such a censer would be best used for works with a particular planet, to be made with that planetary metal in the form of a hollow cross, open at the top to allow smoke to exit, and with the container for the coal/wood/fire and the incense underneath such that all the smoke of the incense would flow up through the cross and out the top.  This also has the beneficial symbolic association of smoke rising up a single channel, in the sense of rising up from a pit or straight up to Heaven in our inverted vignette.  Again, this is almost certainly and entirely unnecessary for the present ritual, but the Picatrix does have quite a lot of tech to share.  For reasons that we’ll get to later, a more general metal or material rather than one specific to any given planet might be better; better to keep it simple.

And yes, of course, for those who are operating on a budget and cannot afford braziers/censers, frankincense/mastic resin, and aloeswood (whether as whole wood chips or as powder), using self-igniting stick or cone incense is also acceptable.  It’s definitely better to go with loose incense on coals, especially as stick and cone incense tends to be compounded with fillers and other scents, but it’ll work for those who need it to work.

All this is a lot to talk about the initial ritual prep, but there’s still more to talk about along these lines, not to mention the ritual itself.  That’ll be in the next post, so stay tuned!

De Regnis: Altars and Sacred Spaces

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 altars and sacred spaces.

On Altars

Altars are important in the work of any spiritual person, as they provide a focus for one’s work.Altars may be any sacred place where one addresses the gods or spirits, or where one performs rituals or sacrifices at. At its most general, an altar is a dedicated spot that is not one’s own but so that one may work with the larger cosmos. Altars can take many forms, but are most often raised platforms, from the size of large hills to small corner tables or portable boxes. Depending onthe purpose of the altar or its target of sacredness, however, the altar may also take the form of a pit, a cast iron cauldron, or some other focus of reverence and spiritual power. Although all altars express the same idea of a place where one interacts and works with the sacred and the spiritual,altars commonly fall into two main categories based on their primary use: devotional altars for divine sacrifice and operational altars for magical ritual.

Devotional Shrine. The devotional shrine is a place or surface, such as a table or a cairn, where one makes prayers, performs sacrifices, and exalts the Divine. Holy symbols or images, such as statuary or icons, are common at devotional altars, and such altars are commonly decorated or embellished in manners pleasing to the devotee and devotor. Devotional altars may be prepared for accepting sacrifices of liquid, blood, meat, fire, incense, or other offerings as deemed acceptable by both spirit and man alike, or may be simple surfaces where one presents plates or bowls of the offerings to them. Devotional altars may be a single surface with many spirits or gods represented on them, or one may have multiple such altars each dedicated to a particular divinity. Any spirit, force, or god to be communed with or revered should have at least some representation and offering at an altar.It is always recommended to have at least one candle burning at all times on a devotional altar, or at least while one is making devotions there.

Operational Altar. As opposed to the devotional altar which is intended for prayers and sacrifices, the operational altar is a construction specific for the magus to work magical ritual. While supplicating the Divine may be done at the devotional altar, the operational altar is intended for a magician to directly contact and work with the forces of the cosmos directly or through the conjuration and invocation of other spirits. Instead of offering sacrifices, the operational altar typically holds the tools of the Work, such as wands, chalices, candles, talismans, and other such magical goods in order to perform ritual. Operational altars may be used for consecrating, blessing, en-chanting, or otherwise empowering objects to be made into talismans or amulets; for conjuration of spirits and angels; or for other particular magical endeavors such as energy work and healing. The primary distinction between an operational altar and a devotional altar is that operational altars are for one to interact with the cosmos on one’s own, while a devotional altar is for one to interact with the divinities and spirits of it on their own

Altar Care. Whether an altar is intended for one’s devotions or one’s operations, it is necessary to keep altars in good condition. Unless one has the direct suggestion from a spirit, altars should be kept clean and free from debris, dust, and all filth. Old offerings and sacrifices should be removed from the altar when the offerings have been consumed, usually immediately after the ritual or a day or so afterwards, depending on the spirit. Ash, extra herbs and powders, and loose supplies should be disposed of appropriately. The altars should ideally be kept hidden from outsiders or anyone who does not work with them, preferably in a separate room free from pollution and miasma; however,when in public or in a space where guests may be present, covering the altar with a clean cloth used only for that purpose may suffice. Before approaching an altar, one should be clean and purified physically and spiritually. Just as with one’s tools, altars should be taken care of for as long as they are in use. When an altar is no longer required, all its tools and equipment should be respectfully removed, a prayer or working done to officially deconsecrate the space or furniture used for the altar, and the furniture respectfully removed or given away.

On Sacred Spaces

Just as an altar provides a concentrated focus for one’s spiritual activities, larger spaces may also be used for devotion and ritual. While altars may be placed anywhere, they are commonly found in nested levels of sacred spaces, while some sacred spaces have no altars or only temporary ones erected for a specific purpose for a short time. Sacred spaces may be dedicated entirely to one particular spirit or type of working, or may be more generally consecrated for any number of rituals.

Circles. A circle is the simplest form of sacred space, consisting of a closed off area for protection or purity drawn about in a circle. The use of a circle is important, though features outside the circle such as braziers or stands may be in a square, pentagonal, or some other shape. The circle itself is sacred, due to its shape and property of consisting of a single unbroken line. A circle should be drawn clockwise and erased counterclockwise, as a symbolic means to create and remove the circle. Circles may be drawn by tracing a wand or blade on the ground, or may be drawn out in paint, powder, salt, or some other material. The defining feature of a circle is that it is inherently a temporary space, though a fixed circle drawn in something permanent may be reused in multiple rituals. Circles may also be drawn to be pushed out to the boundaries of whole rooms, such as by pointing the wand or blade up at the corner edges of a room in a circle instead of down on the ground.

Temples. Unlike the temporary circle, a temple is a dedicated space for spiritual work. A temple consists of some sort of structure, from a single small room to a sprawling construction complex,which is completely given over to spiritual work. Non-spiritual work should be limited or prohibited in the temple, which may house multiple altars for separate divinities or operations. Though the word “temple” is used, it may be applied to any similar structure, such as a church, synagogue, mandir, jinja, or masjid. Personal or small-scale temples may be set up in a house by dedicating a whole room or a corner of one to spiritual work, often with an altar and keeping it separate from the rest of the house and household activities. Other structures that may be related to spiritual work but not used for spiritual work itself, such as storerooms or galleries for religious art, maybe considered part of the temple if the actual temple space used for spiritual work encloses or is connected to the other structures or rooms. While a circle may be used to interact with the spirits,the temple is often seen to be the home or residence of a spirit. Small temples, such as those which occupy only a part of a room, may often be referred to as shrines, especially when they house some sort of cult image or relic. Oratoria, or prayer rooms, may be considered a type of single-room or part of a room dedicated to prayer and devotional work.

Precincts. Enclosing whole temples, large spaces known as precincts or temenoi are large areas of land and real estate given over to a temple, often including groves, parks, lakes, or other natural features of the land. These are most often reserved for large temples, but the precinct is sometimes the temple itself, especially if a spiritual tradition has an emphasis on open-air rituals such as in ancient Greek rituals. Sacred precincts serve to provide a retreat both in body and spirit to provide an immersive environment separate from worldly matters. These sacred lands may also be seen to provide an earthly paradise for man and god alike, as well as a place where man may be closer to divinity through nature or through meditation in a large area dedicated to a particular divinity.

Space Care. Similar to altars and tools, sacred spaces must be cared for and maintained, though the area covered by a particular sacred space may be difficult to maintain. Any sacred space must be kept clean and free from miasma; regular cleaning and cleansing of the area is good, as is ensuring that all who enter are pure and cleansed. Any who try to enter a sacred space with contrary or ill desires, or with an intent to harm, steal, or defile the sacred space, should be kept from entering at all costs. If the sacred space is not meant to be opened to the public, the space should be locked or somehow protected from trespassers. If a sacred space is created for a temporary purpose, the area should be thoroughly cleaned first in every way before consecrating the area. If the sacred space is dedicated to a particular god or divinity, the blessing and guidance of that spirit should be invoked both for the consecration of the space as well as for its maintenance. When a temporary sacred space is deconsecrated, all the spirits and work there should be honored and all tools, supplies,sacrifices, and work should be respectfully removed according to the wishes of the spirits and gods there; this done, the space itself should be thoroughly cleaned once more and all altars and furniture decommissioned and disassembled in a respectful manner, followed by the invocation of the spirits there to release the area back to the world to no longer be used for a holy purpose. If a sacred space was dedicated to a particular spirit or a particular type of working, workings or worship of spirits antithetical or opposed to that consecration should not be done in that area.

On Shrine-hoarding

I’m starting to slowly get back into my temple again for small tasks, hopefully leading up to bigger ones in the future (time and energy permitting, of course, and with the usual caveat that I need to spend my time and energy wisely between work, religion, home, friends, and the like).  As I mentioned in the last post, I’m slowly going through some of the stuff I have, either things I’ve procured or things I’ve made, and am putting some of them up on my Etsy store for others to buy and, hopefully, use in their own works.  Old woodburned placards, prayer beads, necklaces, altar supplies, even some stones and the like are things I’m putting up because…well, let’s be honest, I don’t need them.  I like them plenty, but most of these things aren’t things I’ll miss if I get rid of them.  The really important, vital, or precious stuff is going to stay mine and stay used, but then again, that’s the distinction, isn’t it?  If I use it, or if I know that I actually will use it, then it stays; if not, then it goes.

There’s a difference between stockpiling supplies for future use and simply hoarding stuff.  Raw supplies, stones, dirts, herbs, bones, beads, resins, and the like are all ingredients towards the Work that can be used in any number of ways; those are things that I can always use more of, even if I’m not running low or using at the moment, because they can come in use at the drop of a hat.  Those are things that we should all endeavor to hoard, absolutely, and use as needed.  The other stuff, on the other hand…spare crystal balls, unconsecrated statuary, beaded or otherwise handmade crafts meant for tools but never used for anything more than decoration, or other things that were made for a purpose but never really fulfilled it according to my desires, all those are things that I really have no desire to hold onto except for the sake of sentimentality or beautification.

One of the major hurdles in getting back to my temple work is that, in the…seven or so years I had to set it up, I amassed quite a bit of stuff.  Not a household’s worth, by any means, but I have shrines for the seven archangels, the Virgin Mary, my own guardian angel, the Three Kings, Hermes, Apollo with Asklepios with Dionysos, Aphrodite with Hephaistos, Saint Expedite, and Saints Cyprian, Justina, and Theocistus.  I have a small shrine to Hestia in the living room, and Demeter lives outside.  I have altars for my work for my conjuration/planetary stuff as well as my Mathesis work, and a more recent shrine to the planetary divinity of Saturn.  And all those are things I’ve kept; there are a handful of shrines or altars or other special working areas I’ve set up before and took them down either due to them having completed their purpose or things just not working out how I had planned or wanted.  And then there’s my initiation into La Regla de Ocha Lukumí (aka Santería), where I have a bevy of orisha shrines to maintain and work with (and which I’m marked to receive even more).  If I didn’t have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, I could swing the determination and discipline to maintain all of these shrines and altars and work, but…I do have a full-time job with a nontrivial commute, and I don’t have the time.   Quite honestly (and it hurts to admit this), all the shrines I have is more than I can actually handle to maintain or keep up with.

To clarify some of my thoughts, let’s start with a bit of a distinction.  For me, an altar is essentially a working space, not meant for worship or veneration as much as actual spiritual or magical works to be done.  Conjuration of spirits, consecration of items, sacrifice of something, establishing crystal/energetic grids, those are all things apt and appropriate for an altar.  I only really have two of those, and while I like to keep them set up and ready to go, I can collapse them and set them up again or change them as needed and as desired.  Then there are shrines, which are meant for the veneration of spirits, gods, saints, or other divinities; shrines serve as a sacred seat or home for a spirit, in my mind, and are a physical representation of the relationship one has with them.  In that sense, for me to evaluate the meaning and need of a shrine is to evaluate the meaning and need of the relationship itself with the spirit of the shrine.  And that itself requires dialog with those spirits, recalling what pacts and vows one has with them, respect for and from those spirits, and honesty with oneself.

This is where my distinction between auturgic and lineage-based work comes into play.  Lineage is easy: you sign up for a specific relationship with a spirit, you’re given a set of terms and conditions to follow, you’re handed the powers and tools you need from your initiator, and boom, you’re set.  Just follow the vows you’ve signed up for, over which you have no say in except to say “yea” or “nay”, and you’re good.  Auturgy, on the other hand, is both easier and much more difficult: you establish your own parameters, vows, pacts, and agreements, and you determine how things work; you need to build your own tools and power and relationships, which can’t be handed to you because there’s nobody to hand them to you.  Most of my work is auturgic in that sense; I’ve built my shrines, I’ve consecrated my statues and talismans, I’ve set up my own protocols and rhythms of prayer and sacrifice for these spirits, and so I have say in how and when and whether these shrines should be established.  On the other hand, my Santería work is lineage-based, so I can’t just up and give Oshún a metal case to live in because I think it’d be more convenient for me; Oshún has what Oshún is supposed to have, what she wants, and what I’m obliged to give her.  More than that, I can’t ignore or just not work with my orisha, as that’d go against the agreements I signed up for with them; I don’t have say in those pacts, and to ignore them is to violate them.  That’s one of the costs—and strengths—of lineage.

But for the shrines (and relationships) that are of my own desire and design…well, there’s the hard choice of whether I want to keep them around, and if so, what really needs to stay on them.  I’ve taken down shrines before; for instance, once upon a time I wanted to set up a shrine to Hades and Persephone as part of a Hellenic approach to working with the spirits of the dead.  It never really got off the ground, even though I had all the supplies and niche set up and everything, so down it went into a box (and, if you’re interested, I still have the unconsecrated Hades statue and offering bowl, in case anyone ever wants to buy it off me).  Then there’s an erstwhile tronco I set up to begin initial work with Quimbanda spirits; I was able to make contact, such as it was, once I had my consulta, but…I never really got anywhere with that, and I didn’t have much of a purpose to work with them given the other works I had going on, and so I worked with them to disassemble the baby-tronco I had and to dispose of their implements in a way they directed and agreed to.  Point is, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge the decline or absence of a sufficiently necessary or stable spiritual relationship to where a shrine is no longer needed, and carry that through.  But, just because I’m not ashamed, doesn’t mean I don’t feel bad about it; sometimes I feel like I failed in maintaining my agreements and plans, and other times I feel bad because I realize that the designs and purposes I had in developing something didn’t turn out the way I hoped for and have to accept that keeping a shrine set up without maintaining it isn’t doing me or the spirit any favors.  I have a few such shrines at home that I really need to talk with to see about just that.

But even then, even for the shrines that I do want to keep set up, there’s the notion of clutter and hoarding things.  I’ve seen some beautiful shrines by other occultists and priests online, and some even in person, where there are these beautiful, intricate, elaborate setups girded by chains and beads and all sorts of everything.  You know, the highly Instagrammable/Facebook viral share-worthy pictures, the ones that are actually done up in real life and not just a temporary setup for a shadow-cloaked shot in the light of a single candle’s flame.  I love the aesthetic, but…I’ve come to realize that I have neither the space nor the means to actually do that for myself, but more than that, I’ve come to realize it’s not my style, either.  I’ve decked out some of my shrines in the past, but I don’t need to live in a city of multiple Parthenons, where each shrine’s district is filled like a forest with votive offerings or whatnot.  Especially with the influence of Santería now, I see the simple elegance of just giving what’s enough and what’s needed for a shrine.  If a particular implement is needed for the functioning of the shrine or the use of the spirit within, by all means, give it!  But decorating it like a Mardi Gras parade and accumulating everything under heaven that even has a shadow of a tangential relationship to that spirit for the sake of having it be pretty is…well, it ends up collecting more dust than it’s worth.

A shrine doesn’t need much to be effective: an image or physical representation of the spirit, maybe a place to set lights or incense, maybe some implements or tools directly associated with them that one has a strong feeling (if not an explicit or confirmed directive) to provide, perhaps some supplies to be left in the care of the spirit until it can be used in workings with or without them.  Space is at a premium, after all, in my temple room and house, and a shrine doesn’t often need that much space.  Barring specific protocols or vows, anything else is probably just decoration for the sake of the devotee and not the divine.  To accumulate more and more of those latter accouterments is just…hoarding.  Having more shrines than you need is likewise hoarding.  Both of which eventually become a burden, both to maintain the cleanliness of even a single shrine as well as to maintain your relationships with those spirits, and unless you’re actually getting something out of that arrangement, perhaps it might be better to cut back, both on the shrines as well as the stuff within them.  After all, you don’t need to be a dragon to be a devotee, and we’re not often worshiping dragons that demand devotional donations.  (Of course, if you are, then different rules apply.)

That’s one of the reasons why I’m going through my temple and cutting back both on the shrines and the stuff within them.  If I’m not maintaining a relationship with a spirit, or if that spirit isn’t maintaining a relationship with me, then there’s no real need for a shrine; it’d be best to disassemble it respectfully and confer with the spirit on how and where their sacred things should be disposed of, or if they can be given to another to care for them.  (Yes, Justice, I’m aware, and I haven’t forgotten, forgive me my lateness!)  If the spirit still wants to stay and I don’t want to maintain the shrine, then an agreement can likely be brokered to pare down the shrine to a minimum, shrink it, or hold onto something to make a temporary shrine with later as needed; temporary shrines, set up on unused or other working tables, are a great way to carry out devotional work every once in a while that aren’t otherwise a full-time thing.  Otherwise, if the shrine really is to stay as a permanent installation, then I’d go through all the things on it, see what’s not necessary or essential to the shrine, and consult with the spirit on how and where to dispose of the other things that they’re okay with parting with, whether it should just be thrown out respectfully, sold, given as a gift, or used for another purpose.  It depends, and it’s a careful, sometimes heart-scouring process, but a necessary one that I need to go through.  There are some things I want to get rid of, honestly, but the spirits are adamant I keep, whether for their own use or for my own in working with them, and it requires honesty and openness to be aware of these things.

I suppose that clearing out my temple room (and the other sacred spaces in my house more generally), taking a thorough account of my spiritual relationships with my courts and pantheons, and seeing what I really need for my Work is the first step to really getting back to working with them all.  After all, I can’t go into my temple for single-minded work if I dread walking in due to all the reminders of the missed offerings, forgotten festivals, and dust gathered on them distracting me for the purpose I walked in for.  If I don’t want to be distracted, then I need to fix the distractions, and in order to do that, I need to fix my shrine situation accordingly in a way that is best for both me and them.  Only then can I be really sure about my Work, my physical and spiritual spaces, and my spirits and the relationships I have with them.  And, hey, in the process, if I uncover any goodies that I don’t need or want anymore, someone else might be lucky enough to get them for something they need or want.  Besides, I have future projects I want to plan, and should any of those require shrines or a permanent installation of some sort…well, I’ll have to evaluate if I need to give anything else up to make the time, energy, and space for it, and whether I really need to go down that route, if nothing else will do.

If you’re facing a similar situation, then it might be well for you to do a similar disassembly and decluttering of shrines and shrine stuff.  We can’t all be full-time priests tending to and taking care of all these temples of our own design; with our limited time and energy, we can only take care of what we must and what we really need to.  Be honest with yourself, and be honest with your spirits.  If you need to limit your practice to just one or two things, then let your temple or sacred spaces look and function accordingly.  Hoarding shrines may make us look cool and hardcore, but as many occultists learn at some point, we’re in this for more than just looking cool.  If you can manage that while also getting the Work done, awesome!  If not, then simplify and focus on the Work.  They say, after all, that simplicity is the highest form of elegance; some people, like myself, could do with taking that to heart.

On the Three Biblical Magi as Spiritual Allies

So, Christmas has come and gone, but it’s still the Christmas season, more traditionally called Christmastide.  Surely, dear reader, if you’ve grown up in the Anglophone world, you’re familiar with that old carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, yes?  Many non-Catholics or non-traditional Christians think that these are referring to the twelve days leading up to Christmas Day, but it’s actually just the reverse; Christmastide begins at sunset on December 24 and ends at sunset on January 5, the evening before Epiphany, spanning twelve days in the process.  So, even though Christmas was this past Sunday, there’s still so much going on over the next few days:

  • December 25: Christmas
  • December 26: Feast of St. Stephen
  • December 28: Childermass, or Day of the Holy Innocents
  • January 1: Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

All this culminates on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, also known as the Theophany.  Many modern Catholic churches celebrate this mass on the Sunday closest to January 6 (between January 2 and January 8), but I prefer to keep to the day itself instead of the archdiocese’s schedule.  This day celebrates the revelation of God through the mortal Jesus to the world, and most famously remembers the visitation of three special people to the babe in the manger.  When you think of a Nativity scene, with Mary and Joseph in the manger with Jesus in the crib of hay, what else comes to mind?  Gabriel above, perhaps, maybe alongside a bright star, and a number of shabby-looking nomads and herders around.  Among the crowd coming to see the newborn King, however, there are often three special people who stand tall amongst the rest.

Usually decked in flowing and elaborate robes and accompanied by at least one camel, the Three Kings are among the gatherers to witness and praise the newborn Son of God.  Also known as the Wise Men or Magi, this bit of Bible lore comes from Matthew 2:1–12:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

In other words, at some point soon after the birth of Jesus (between 40 days and two years after the birth itself), several magi came from the East following a particularly interesting star that led them to Judaea so as to meet with the coming “king of the Jews”.  They met with Herod, the puppet king installed by the Romans who ruled Judea at the time, to ask him where the new ruler could be found; this promptly caused Herod and the other elite and aristocracy in Judea to freak out, due to the fragile balance of power and protection that Rome afforded Judea at the time (cf. later in Jesus’ life when he was being proclaimed to be king, which would have upset the power structure as a symbol of insurrection against Roman rule, and thus resulted in his crucifixion).  Herod, disguising his fear and plotting under a mask of reverence, tells the Magi what his advisers told him according to old Jewish prophecy: Bethlehem, the birthplace of the old King David.  Herod sent the Magi off to Bethlehem and told them to return and pass along where, specifically, the newborn ruler could be found so that Herod too could “go and worship him”, though he was going to have the God-child murdered instead.  The Magi left Herod’s, followed the Star of Bethlehem, and finally come to find Jesus with Mary (not necessarily in a manger at this point), and they presented their three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to him.  A dream was sent to them that warned them not to return to Herod, so they left Bethlehem and Judea generally by a different route entirely, declining to tell Herod where Jesus could be found; around this same time, Mary’s husband Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to flee to Egypt with his family.  And so the Magi went back to the East and Jesus et al. went to the West, as Herod realized that he had been duped by the Magi and ordered all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area under the age of two years old to be murdered.  Only once Herod died did Joseph receive another dream telling him to return to Israel, but we never hear of the Magi again in the Bible.  Traditions have surfaced since then that say that, due to their recognizing God in Jesus, they either professed a kind of proto-Christianity on the spot, or later willingly became full Christians after having encountered an apostle of Jesus; they were then martyred, possibly in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, and their remains were discovered by Saint Helena in Palestine and transported to the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and eventually (by way of Milan and the Holy Roman Empire) to the Shrine of the Three Kings in the High Cathedral of Saint Peter in Cologne, Germany.

Although technically the Bible doesn’t specify exactly how many of the magi came to see Jesus, the nativity scene in Matthew explicitly lists three gifts, so it has become tradition for there to be three of them, one king bearing one gift each.  These gifts are gold, myrrh, and frankincense, each of which were (and are!) precious goods of no small price themselves, but also have spiritual symbolism regarding the prophesied life of Jesus as Messiah:

  • Gold, as one of the most recognizable precious metals, has always stood as a symbol of wealth, status, and royalty to many people across the world.  It is rare, and it adorns the bodies and palaces of those who have money and power enough to obtain it; I don’t think much explanation here is necessary.  Hermetic magicians know gold as a metal representing the perfection of body and spirit, but also that of the Sun’s might as it rules the solar system.  In the Three Kings story, gold is a symbol of Jesus as King, come to bring rule and dominion to the world as he establishes the Kingdom of God on Earth.
  • Frankincense is a bright yellow to white resin most famously used as an incense and an ingredient in anointing oils, and has mild psychotropic uses as an antidepressant.  It has a bright and vaguely citrusy smell, and has been used in religious rituals for thousands of years across the world.  In Semitic languages, its name reflects its white or milky nature, and Judaism has frankincense as a symbol of the Divine Name and an emblem of prayer generally.  Frankincense, in other words, indicates the presence and worship of the Divine.  Hermetic magicians know this to be an especially good substance for Solar works, but many grimoires and traditions say that frankincense may be used as a general incense for any ritual or spirit.  In the Three Kings story, frankincense is a symbol of Jesus as God, worthy of our veneration and praise and prayer, with frankincense burnt as a sacrifice to adore and worship God as Man.
  • Myrrh is a dark brown or black resin used in incense, medicine, and embalming of dead bodies.  Its name comes from Semitic languages meaning “bitter”, given its metallic bitterwseet aroma and taste, and has been used in medicine both as an antiseptic and a painkiller.  In Egypt, myrrh was used for embalming of mummies, and has had long-standing associations with death and the tomb, though it was also used as an anointing oil generally.  Famously, at the crucifixion of Jesus, Mark 15:23 describes Jesus as being given a drink of wine mixed with myrrh.  Hermetic magicians recall the association of myrrh as one of the plants and incenses associated with Saturn and the sephirah Binah, the third emanation of God.  In the Three Kings story, myrrh is a symbol of Jesus as Mortal, born human and destined to die as human, with a life full of pain, bitterness, sorrow, and suffering, with myrrh there to help him numb the pain in life and to protect the body in death.

Most traditionally, the three high-and-powerful guys who come to visit Jesus are known as magi, a Greek word that should be familiar to all my readers: each one of them was a μαγος, a magician-priest or (euphemistically) a “wise man” who knew the workings of the cosmos and how things come to be and how things can be used in this world to affect everything else.  Note that each of the gifts they brought not only have monetary value but spiritual value, as well.  They are giving the tools and supplies of their own magical and priestly trade to Jesus, not just as a “gift”, but as tribute; after all, one does not give their ruler a “gift”, since the ruler could just take what they want from their subjects as their own regal right, but one gives tribute to their king, showing that they owe all they have and could produce to the blessing of their ruler.  The Three Magi recognized Jesus as their ruler, even bowing down, kneeling, and worshiping him; they thus recognized that Jesus is the source of their power and their protection and salvation in the future.

It is important to note that the word μαγος had slightly different connotations than it does now.  In ancient Persia, the μαγοι were a specific caste of astronomer-priests, the same one that the prophet Zoroaster belonged to; these priests paid specific attention to astrology, and since astrology was (and is) considered one of the foremost sciences of the world, the μαγοι were not only priests but scientists.  They kept track of the passage of the planets and stars, and had a role to play in determining the lives of people in Persia, though the term is not synonymous with “king”.  Rather, the idea of the Three Magi being kings is one adopted from Old Testament prophecy, where it is described that all the kings of the world shall fall down and worship the Messiah.  With these three roles coming together—scientist of the world, priest of the soul, king of the people—we have the three routes of understanding and working with the world, and three types of elders who rule the world and the affairs of its people.  Thus, according to the Three Kings story, no matter what path in life one turns to, all paths lead to the selfsame Divinity.

The most common names for the Three Kings are Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar, sometimes with small variants in the spellings.  As for their origins, there are two major traditions about where each king comes from:

  • The most traditional set of origins for the Three Kings has Melchior coming from Persia, Balthazar from either Babylon or Arabia (the two, historically, were not considered too different as large areas), and Caspar from India.  These are all, generally, to the East of old Judea, and are each considered ancient places of wisdom and learning befitting their status as “wise men” or Magi, though technically only one of them could be a true μαγος, with Melchior being the only Persian among them.  Still, astrology and priestly religions filled these regions, so to Jewish eyes, they would all be equivalent as noble heathenry.
  • In the Americas, especially in Latin American spiritual communities where the Three Kings are one of the more popular religious icons, they represent the three religious, spiritual, and occult traditions that came together to form the modern spiritual life in the Western hemisphere: Melchior represents the European or “white” religions, Balthazar the African or “black” religions, and Caspar the religions indigenous to the native inhabitants of the Americas.

It’s generally agreed-upon that Melchior is the king bearing gold, Balthazar myrrh, and Caspar frankincense.  As traditional iconography is often wont to do, each king has a set of color associated with them to make them easier to pick out when one can’t necessarily see the gifts they bring.  Additionally, by correspondence with each gift, not only can they be seen as emblems of the life of Jesus, but also as spiritual strengths that humanity is to exercise.  Plus, befitting their status as magicians, each can be tied to one of the three Hermetic arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy as suggested by the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus:

King Origin Color Gift
Traditional New World Matter Symbol Strength Art
Melchior Persia Europe White
Gold
Gold Kingship Virtue Alchemy
Caspar India Indigenous Brown
Green
Frankincense Divinity Prayer Theurgy
Balthazar Babylon
Arabia
Africa Black
Purple
Myrrh Sacrifice Suffering Astrology

So why bring all this up?  Well, I have a small on-again-off-again practice with the Three Kings, and I figure, what with Epiphany coming up so soon, that perhaps it’s a good time to get the word out about them.  After all, much of modern Western occulture seems to either ignore or be ignorant of the Three Kings, when we have—literally hidden in plain sight—biblically attested and venerated magicians known the world over as purveyors of wisdom, power, grace, charity, and gifts.  Plus, with many of my colleagues working in various ATR, hoodoo, or other eclectic spiritual paths, I think many of us could benefit from this trio of eclectic magicians with a running work of two-thousand-plus years.

What can the Three Magi do for us?  Well, they’re magicians, scientists, priests, and kings.  Do you want to become any of these things?  Do you want to learn any of these disciplines?  Ask and ye shall receive!  If you consider the traditional origins of the Three Magi, you have a spiritual link to the old astrologers of Persia, the conjurers of Babylon, and the monks of India to learn from them, the ancient civilizations that even ancient Egypt considered to be wise; you have a mentor in each of the three Hermetic Arts of alchemy, astrology, and theurgy to guide and teach you as you want to grow and learn; these are masters of seeking what we are meant to find, our guides on the many paths up the mountain of Divinity.  If you’re involved in a diasporic ATR like Santeria or Umbanda, you have links to the three influences that culminate in your practice: European religion with Solomonic rituals, African gods and magic, and native or indigenous practices that still survive and breathe through these practices.  If you consider the role of the Three Kings as Santa-like dispensers of gifts and prosperity, then they become powerful friends who can help you obtain your desires and wishes.  As the first adorers of Christ, they represent pilgrims putting faith and working in their own disparate religions, coming together to uncover the One, the Source, the Whole that underlies all religions and practices.

How can we set up a space or shrine for the Three Magi?  Unfortunately, I haven’t found many resources in English on specific offerings, workings, or rituals one can do with them, but it’s not hard to guess for those who have worked with other saints or entities how to entreat and build a relationship with the Magi.  For setting up a shrine, you could do for the Three Magi what one might do for any Christian saint: get an image, such as statues or an icon, of the Three Kings, a candle, and a glass for liquid offerings, and set them up respectfully on a platform, shelf, or table.  I prefer to have a camel figurine with them, representing their own faithful steed who bears their burdens, and set out a smaller glass of water just for the camel, sometimes atop a bed of fresh cut grass as well.  For libations for the Three Kings, when not offering water, I suggest something very sweet: dessert wines, juice or fruit nectar with a bit of rum, maybe a fruity soda with some vodka.  Alternatively, one could offer three drinks together for each of the magi: one of water, one of juice, and one of wine.  You can burn a single candle for all Three Magi, and many botanicas or spiritual stores sell premade/dressed candles for this reason, but you can also set out three smaller candles as well, one for each.  Besides the images of the Three Kings and, perhaps, an image of a camel, I also incorporate a Star of Bethlehem into my shrine, hanging from above as the Three Kings look up adoringly at it.

So, what about prayers?  Again, being minor figures in Bible lore, there’s no wealth or treasure of prayers to the Three Magi like how there might be for, say, the Archangel Gabriel or Saint Cyprian of Antioch, but there are a few things I like to call on when working with the Three Magi.  Probably the most well known of all such texts is a common Christmastide carol that commemorates the Three Kings called, perhaps shockingly, We Three Kings, written by the Episcopalian rector John Henry Hopkins, Jr. in 1857.  It’s a lovely bit of minor-key music that recalls the quest, gifts, and symbolism of what the Three Kings brought to Jesus:

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star

(Refrain)
O Star of wonder, star of night

Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy Perfect Light

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain
Gold I bring to crown Him again
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign

(Refrain)

Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh
Prayer and praising, all men raising
Worship Him, God most high

(Refrain)

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes of life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb

(Refrain)

Glorious now behold Him arise
King and God and Sacrifice
Alleluia, Alleluia
Sounds through the Earth and Skies

(Refrain)

There are many renditions of this carol, some more beautiful or haunting than others, which you can find on YouTube or sung at your local church or whatever this time of year.  The song itself is one I use frequently as an introductory prayer when approaching the Three Magi, and a good way to get into the mindset of working with them.  Beyond that, many of the usual prayers used for Epiphany refer to the Three Kings, and while they have special potency when used on Epiphany itself, they can be used at any time of the year.

In addition to doing once-off things, since Epiphany is coming up, why not a novena?  As you’re probably already aware, dear reader, novenas are nine-day sets of prayers done leading up to and completing on the feast of some saint or holy figure, and the Three Kings have their own novena for Epiphany, as well.  This would mean, then, that for the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6, novenas for Epiphany and the Three Kings should begin tomorrow, Thursday December 29.  The most common novena I can find is a fairly standard, easy Catholic one, with a short invocation to the Magi followed by a Gloria Patri, with the invocation for each day focusing on a different virtue of the Magi that the one performing the novena wishes to inculcate in themselves:

  1. Hope for the birth of the Messiah
  2. Speed and conviction to seek the Messiah
  3. Strength to persevere any difficulty for the sake of the Messiah
  4. Humility to seek help to find the Messiah
  5. Joy in the face of despair when lost finding the Messiah
  6. Faith in finding holiness amidst filth and poverty for the Messiah
  7. Charity, prayer, and penance as gifts for and tribute to the Messiah
  8. Protection from danger in staying true to the Messiah
  9. Attaining the beatific vision of the Divine as a result of one’s spiritual vows and believing in the Messiah

Instead of just that, however, since a novena takes place over nine days, since 9 = 3 × 3, and there are three gifts from Three Magi, I also figured that it might be good to explore the threefold symbolism of each gift of the Magi by means of a small meditation on each day, broken up into three groups of three:

  • Meditations of Melchior Bearing Gold
    • Day 1: Birth of Royalty in Squalor and Scorn.
    • Day 2: Crowning of Man in the World.
    • Day 3: Rulership over All.
  • Meditations of Caspar Bearing Frankincense
    • Day 4: Prayer of Man ascending to Heaven.
    • Day 5: Elevation of the Spirits of Mankind.
    • Day 6: Holiness of Divinity.
  • Meditations of Balthazar Bearing Myrrh
    • Day 7: Grief and Suffering in the Hearts of Mankind.
    • Day 8: Death and Entombing of Man in the World.
    • Day 9: Resurrection in the World into Heaven.

Also, it’s a tradition in some Catholic countries and communities to take a piece of chalk blessed on Epiphany and bless one’s house by it in a special formula.  Given the year XXYY (such that the year 2017 would have XX = 20 and YY = 17), one would write “XX + C + M + B + YY” (or, for this coming year, “20 + C + M + B + 17”) on the top threshold of the front door.  This calls on the three initials of the Magi and,  by it, asks them to bring gifts to the home for the new year just as they brought gifts to the new life of Jesus, but the letters also stand for the Latin phrase “Christus Mansionem Benedictat”, or “May Christ bless [this] home”.  Depending on the community, this is done sometimes by the local priest, sometimes by the head of the household, or sometimes by carolers specifically blessed and charged with playing out the role of the Three Kings for the community.  I do this for my own house, and leave up the chalk until the end of the year when I do my whole-house cleaning and cleansing, leaving the lintel bare until Epiphany.

While my own relationship with the Three Kings is still nascent, I plan on committing more time with them later on once my current spiritual projects and processes wind down, but I do like to give them focus this time of year regardless.  Perhaps later on, I’ll start compiling some of my ideas for workings, oils, and the like with the Three Kings for others to use, but right now, what I have is pretty bare.  What about you?  Do you work with the Three Kings?  If so, how do you work with them, and what are some of your experiences in working with them as spiritual saints?