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!

Reviewing the Trithemian Conjuration: The Candles and the Brazier

Where were we?  We’re in the middle of discussing the early modern conjuration ritual The Art of Drawing Spirits Into Crystals (DSIC), attributed to the good abbot of Spanheim, Johannes Trithemius, but which was more likely invented or plagiarized from another more recent source by Francis Barrett in his 1801 work The Magus, or Celestial Intelligencer.  Many who are familiar with it either read it directly from Esoteric Archives, came by it through Fr. Rufus Opus (Fr. RO) in either his Red Work series of courses (RWC) or his book Seven Spheres (SS), or came by it through Fr. Ashen Chassan in his book Gateways Through Stone and Circle (Fr. AC and GTSC, respectively).  I’ve been reviewing the tools, techniques, and technology of DSIC for my own purposes as well as to ascertain the general use and style used by other magician in the real world today, and today we can move on to other topics  Last time, we talked about some of the simpler parts of DSIC, namely the wand and the ring, and how other magicians have interpreted them.  If you need a refresher on what we talked about last time, go read the last post!

This is going to be a shorter post, I hope, because we’ve been going at a pretty strong pace, and it turns out there’s quite a lot to say, far more than I ever anticipated writing.  We’ll make this post a bit shorter, hopefully, and give ourselves a bit of a break.  First, a simple topic: the two candles.  The DSIC illustration shows “two Holy wax Lights used in the Invocation by the Chrystal”.  Let’s take a look at our old friend again:

A little later on in the DSIC entry of The Magus, there’s a secondary caption later on that says a bit more: “two silver or other candlesticks with the wax tapers burning”.  So we know we need two wax candles supported by silver candle holders, presumably with one placed on each side of the crystal, one to the left and one to the right.  There’s no mention of them, however, in the ritual text itself, neither of when to light them nor how to make them holy or consecrated.

Fr. RO doesn’t mention using two holy candles supported by silver candle holders in RWC, or even just a candle in general, but in SS, he says to use a lamp or tall candle, put behind and off to the side towards the left of the Table of Practice and crystal.  He describes this as:

This can either be a consecrated ritual Lamp that you use to represent the First Father in all your rites, or a candle stick that you use for the same purpose.  It can also be any tall candle.  I use white to represent the purity of the Source, but the First Father exists before any colors.

He additionally gives a short prayer to say when lighting this candle; suffice to say that it’s part of his own original methodology based on Hermetic devotions to God and not part of DSIC.

As for Fr. AC, he says in GTSC that he puts the two candles on either side of the table and pedestal, and that he uses two silver-plated candlesticks fit with tall beeswax taper candles, lit at the beginning of the ceremony.  He suggests that one might use colored candles depending on the planet (e.g. black for Saturn, green for Venus, etc.), and that they should be new and unused for the ritual (or, at least, I presume, not used for any other purpose besides angelic conjuration).  He also notes that, “although it is not necessary to do so”, one may also anoint the candles with an appropriate planetary/angelic oil, fluid condenser, or the like, as he’s experimented with and gotten good results from.  However, he doesn’t describe any formal consecration method for the candles, which I find kinda uncharacteristic of him in this case; perhaps I just didn’t come across it when going through GTSC.  At the end of GTSC, he also suggests and recommends the use of an altar candle lighter and snuffer, such as those used in formal church settings, so as to better reach them better and offer a bit more formality to the ritual.

For myself?  When I perform altar-based rituals, I use either one single candle (placed in the middle towards the end of the altar) or two (placed on either corner opposite me), supported by either wrought iron candle holders or silver ones, depending on the kind of work I’m doing; fundamentally, I don’t think the material of the candle holders themselves matters much, but that’s just me.  I typically use plain white paraffin-wax candles that, at minimum, I asperge with holy water before lighting, if not undertake a full consecration of them.  Since DSIC doesn’t offer much in the way of this, I developed my own form of candle consecration (and holy water, and this and that), based on various rites from the Key of Solomon; I recommend checking out that page for some of the things I do.  It’s simple, straightforward, and clean.  I light them at the start of every ritual I do at the altar, saying a prayer much like that found in DSIC or other texts like the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano (which is pretty similar), and snuff them with a candle snuffer at the end.  I think this is the most appropriate course, at least for myself; this fulfills the caption-based requirement that they be “holy wax Lights”, having undergone a prior consecration before the ritual itself, but since DSIC doesn’t say anything about it, well…fire is still Fire, no matter what, and Fire is holy by itself.

So much for the candles.  What about the incense holder?  The DSIC text, calling it by the generic phrase “vessel for the perfumes”, should e placed “between thy circle and the holy table on which the crystal stands”.  We’ll talk about the circle later on in a later post, but suffice to say here that we’re to stand in a magic circle (one is given “of a simple construction” in the DSIC illustration), with the crystal and pedestal on the table (or crystal on the Table of Practice, if you combine the table and pedestal into a single object) outside the circle, and the “vessel for the perfumes” is to be placed between the circle and the crystal.  An illustration of such a vessel is given in the DSIC illustration, with the caption “the Tripod on which the perfumes are put, & may be either held in the hand or sett in the earth”.  Oddly, the illustration looks nothing like a tripod to me; if anything, it looks more like a steak or torch with a sharp butt on the bottom, as if it should be thrust into the ground.  Plus, the caption is weird; it says that it may be held in the hand, while the text says to have it placed between the circle and crystal.  I suppose one could hold the vessel such that it sticks out beyond the bounds of the circle, but that seems both dangerous as well as super tiring for the magician.

Now, the vast majority of magicians, myself included, tend to just use whatever sort of incense holder we have available.  Fr. RO mentions nothing special about using a tripod or brazier or anything of the sort in RWC or SS, and simply says in SS that any kind of holder may be used, so long as the incense can be put somewhere during the ritual; in the SS version of the rite, Fr. RO places the incense burner behind and to the right of the Table of Practice and crystal, opposite the candle.  However, if we were to use a more strict interpretation of DSIC, the placement of this would be in front of the Table of Practice, between it and the magician.  That being said, I myself like having the incense burner either off to the side or behind the crystal, but that’s just me.  Admittedly, having the incense between the magician and the crystal would probably help produce visions in the crystal better in the eye of the magician or scryer, and I’ll probably take that approach in the future, but I still feel more comfortable with it behind the crystal.  We’ll talk about specific placements later on.

As for the type of incense, DSIC suggests using a flame that can burn incenses or perfumes; after all, charcoals, flames, and the like was what you had to use back in the day because such a thing as self-igniting incense (like stick or cone) just didn’t really exist as a thing.  However, since self-igniting incense is nowadays easily available, cheap, popular, and relatively safe to use, most people just use that for convenience and simplicity’s sake.  Likewise, Fr. RO says that the magician may use any kind of incense they might prefer, whether stick or loose or whatever.  For myself, it depends on what I have on hand and how much I want to do; if I feel like being simple, I’ll use my stick incense stuck in a brazier pot, and if not, I’ll use a self-igniting charcoal and drop some loose incense on top of it.

Now, all that’s the pretty common stuff that many people tend to do…and, as usual, Fr. AC takes a more strict interpretation.  In GTSC, he describes his tripod in depth, and actually gives a proper tripod shape to it instead of a weird stake shape.  After all, tripod-style braziers are ancient in many cultures, and give a pretty safe and convenient way to burn incenses or flames in a controlled way:

In order to keep a constant airflow, Fr. AC says that he uses a wire mesh to support some (presumably self-igniting) charcoals in the brazier.  He describes a bit more about his specific construction and the benefits to both stability, convenience, lightweight design, and safety, and it’s good knowledge to have.  He also describes the option of holding the vessel for incense to be “rather cumbersome and unnecessary”, opting explicitly for a “self-supporting censor [sic]”.  However, in line with DSIC, he says that the vessel should be placed between the circle and crystal.

There’s really not much more else to say.  Agrippa in his Fourth Book only says a bit about vessels for incense (book IV, chapter 10):

… You shall also have in readiness a precious perfume, and pure anointing oil; and let them be both kept consecrated. There must also a Censer be set on the head of the altar, wherein you shall kindle the holy fire, and make a perfume every day that you shall pray. …

To be fair, the rite of invoking spirits (or, at least, “good spirits”) described by Agrippa’s Fourth Book doesn’t precisely line up with DSIC, and here he says that there should be a censer placed “on the head of the altar”, which I interpret to mean the back of it opposite where we might stand (which gives a bit more credence and grounding to my own preferred approach of keeping the incense burner behind the crystal).  He also describes another use of censers later on in the same chapter:

Then a place being prepared pure and clean, and covered everywhere with white linen, on the Lords day in the new of the moon let him enter into that place, clothed with clean white garments; and let him exorcise the place, and bless it, and make a Circle therein with a sanctified coal; and let there be written in the uttermost part of the Circle the names of the Angels, and in the inner part thereof let there be written the mighty names of God: and let him place within the Circle, at the four angles of the world, the Censers for the perfumes.

Again, while we’ll get into the construction of the magic circle in a later text, here Agrippa says that there should be four censers placed at the four directions just inside the magic circle.  However, technically speaking, this is a separate ritual than the one described in the earlier passage, and is one that’s even more unrelated to DSIC.  Still, it’s informative, and as we’ll see when we talk about the magic circle, there is some bearing this has on the magic circle as used in DSIC.

What about the incenses themselves?  I mean, pretty much any and every grimoire and spellbook gives some variation of incense recipe, ranging from the simple and unoffensive to the truly arcane and noxious.  Fr. AC’s GTSC gives several sets of incense recipes for each of the seven planets, no less, all sourced from different texts, and any of them are pretty much fine.  So long as the incense would be appropriate for the planet and spirit you’re conjuring—frankincense is always acceptable for any spirit, even if only to placate and elevate them—you’d be fine.  I don’t think the specific incense matters, so long as you use it; customize it how you need or want to, or as appropriate for the specific aim of conjuration.  Because of the variability and abundance of incense recipes and choices, I don’t think there’s much worth in discussing that here in this post or even in this series of posts; just use the stuff.

That’s it for today!  Simple and easy, like I promised.  If the emphasis placed on the placement and type of censer/brazier/incense holder/vessel for perfumes seems underused and underemphasized in many modern applications of DSIC, just wait until the topic of the next post: the Liber Spirituum, the Book of Spirits!

Reviewing and Renewing my Offering to All Spirits

Recently, a friend of mine asked if I could share with him one of my old documents, a digitization of my vademecum that I keep with me as my own personal prayer book and handbook for ritual and ceremony.  I had designs to digitize it and maintain a cleaner, more organized version of it, but I never really got that off the ground.  Still, it did serve as an excellent resource for all the stuff I didn’t want to copy by hand into my vademecum, and I’m glad I kept it up for as long as I did, because I apparently forgot about it sometime in, like, 2014.  It had honestly and completely skipped my mind entirely until my friend reminded me of it, so I dug through my Documents folder and, would you believe it, look at all this awesome stuff I was amassing.  (Including a bunch of recipes that I’m personally thrilled to remember again, thank God and the gods.)

One of the entries in my vademecum is an old prayer I was using at the time for a general offering to the spirits.  Not just for a specific spirit, not for a fill-in-the-blank template, but as an honest offering to all spirits of incense and water.  I wrote about it on my blog back in 2012, and gave my general framework for it then and the prayer as I had it then.  According to what I wrote (you’d be surprised what you forget over six years), at the time I was in the habit of generally making “this offering as the first offering I do after my prayers to the Almighty, so that any other spirit I call upon afterwards can also partake of the offering as they come into the area of the altar”.  I apparently stopped this practice at some point, and six years later, I can certainly recall why and why I might not recommend this practice as commonly or frequent as I once would have.

To start with, this prayer and offering practice was influenced by my friends taking Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery class, who shared some of their tech with me.  (If you noticed similarities between my phrasing of things and the phrasing of Strategic Sorcery offering prayers, well, now you know where it came from.)  Jason Miller talks about why we would make such offerings in a recent post of his on generating sorcerer’s luck, when he specifically talks about making daily and widespread offerings:

Not just to specific spirits, but widespread offerings. We use four classes in Strategic Sorcery, but it is good enough to just make an offering to the spirits of the air, land, and underworld where you live. Pour some libarion, light some incense. Do it every day.  Do. It. Every. Day. Not feeling receptive” today? Not feeling “into it”? Not “in the right headspace”? Do it anyway. It’s not about you.  Take care of the spirits and the spirits will take care of you. Shit will start to work out almost as if the universe is conspiring with you. 1000 unnamed helpers from the land in which you live often outweigh the influence of the Archdemon that you spent 3 hours conjuring.

In a general sense, I agree with Jason, because making offerings is a way to build a relationship with the spirits.  It’s like a quote I shared on my Facebook recently, attributed to the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry: “We offer sacrifices to the gods for three reasons: that we may venerate, that we may give thanks, and that we may implore from them things necessary and avert from ourselves things evil”.  By making offerings to the spirits—light, incense, libation, food, blood, song, art, prayer, energy, what have you—we build a relationship with the spirits we engage with, nourish them, strengthen them, and fortify our connection to them.  It’s a wonderful thing to do, whether you think of yourself as a mage or a priest or just as a spiritually thoughtful and considerate person, no matter where you live or what you do.  By showing respect and offering tribute to the higher entities of the cosmos and nourishment to the lower ones, we build up our spiritual networks that we can call upon for any number of ends.

And yet…well, I can’t help but feel anymore that such general offerings, without some limitation or focus or modification to one’s environments, can just as easily be deleterious to one’s safety and stability, or cause other problems that need to be resolved.  Case in point, in fact the very case that got me to scale back these sorts of offerings to begin with: one time I was making my normal prayers in my old apartment, and…something just felt off.  Not wrong, but like there was something there that shouldn’t be, something there that was stuck awkwardly.  It took me a bit to catch on, but there was a spirit stuck in my window.  Like, not trapped in the windowpane, but a spirit that was stuck half-in half-out through my window, like a big dog that tried to get through too small a pet door.  I was caught off-guard when I turned my gaze towards the poor spirit that got stuck there, and the conversation we had basically clarified what happened: it heard my offering prayer and wanted to partake, but something about the protections I had set up on my property had prevented its access inside, while at the same time it was drawn to partake in the offerings within that same property.  This ended up causing an inadvertent trap for the spirit, and it could neither fully enter nor leave as it had gotten so stuck within the property’s spiritual boundaries.  I ended up punching a hole in the protections to the place, gave it offerings of its own, and sent it on its way, but it got me thinking: in my generosity, I was making a banquet for all sorts of spirits, not all of which would normally be permitted entry to my property given my protections, and yet I wasn’t making the right allowances for them.  On top of that, I was also reminded that for those same spirits who were able to partake, how would I be able to keep my property clean and cleansed, and how could I get those spirits to mosey on out if they got too used to enjoying regular offerings to me, without providing any other benefit?

Consider: our resources, supplies, time, and energy are inherently limited.  We might have access to infinity through whatever choice and selection of divinity we work with and call upon, but our capacity to accept and disperse them is limited.  We only have so many hours in the day, we only have so many cups for offerings, we only have so many sticks of incense we can spare, we only have so much attention we can devote to our necessities and chores and obligations.  There’s also the classical notion that we should always give enough, but not too much, so that we might always have something to give, and indeed, my own practices have long since shifted to making offerings only when necessary, and even then, only making the necessary offerings.  This helps prevent certain spirits from getting spoiled and taking us for granted, and it also helps keep me in check so that I don’t get worn out or resentful from always giving so much for the mere sake of giving.  And even then, not all spirits are worth making offerings to; while all spirits are worthy of existence and respect, just like people are, not every spiritual person needs to truck with every spirit.  Some spirits are harmful for us to work with, and some spirits are just those that offerings shouldn’t be received by our hands; I know that, even despite my own good intentions, some spirits find my mere presence harmful, while they might find the presence of my friend more acceptable and so could more easily accept offerings from them.

I understand Jason’s point of view; after all, he’s very much a tantric sorcerer and Buddhist, and in that system, offerings should be widespread, general, and for all sentient beings in all levels of the world.  Really, the systems of offerings he teaches are a kind of very lite chöd, which is wonderful and easy enough for people to pick up and practice without too much danger, so long as they’re diligent about it (and isn’t that really the whole problem right there?).  But in my worldview and practice, that’s not the case; there are some spirits that we simply don’t have any business dealing with or making offerings to, there are some spirits that take us for granted, and there are some spirits that we’re simply not the best ones to make offerings from them even if they want/need them and even if we want to give it to them.  Rather, it’s generally better to at least have an idea of who it is you’re making offerings to, enter into some sort of relationship with them, and gradually build up to making offerings through completion and fulfillment of vows, making offerings for special occasions, and then if the relationship proves itself to be beneficial for the both of you, then making regular offerings.  But even then, there’s also the risk of attracting spirits that we don’t necessarily want around us after the fact; making general offerings can pick up nasty, unwelcome, or harmful spirits who see the offering as a good free meal and then might help themselves to more without you wanting them to, but hey, you’re the one who invited them to begin with.

By no means am I saying that you shouldn’t making offerings for the benefit of all sentient spirits, or for spirits generally, but what I am saying is that you need to be smart about it.  The way I was doing it was wrong, because it ended up being harmful for some spirits that wanted to partake but couldn’t break through the protections I had on my house properly for such a meal, and I know that others who make such offerings often also pick up unwanted spirits that linger around them and cause them more problems down the line that need to be taken care of through banishing and exorcisms that necessarily are harsher than they otherwise would have been.  You need to be careful when making offerings in such a general, widespread format: you need to make sure the door is open enough for them to enter, you need to make sure you keep yourself clean and your place cleansed, and you need to make sure your guests don’t overstay their welcome.  If you can manage all that, you’re set, but figuring out how to do that is part of the problem, isn’t it?  Truth be told, I can easily pick out what went wrong in my earlier practices, and my own mistakes and missteps.

To that end, I took another look at that old offering prayer of mine.  I like the idea, sentiment, and underlying purpose of it, but now that I’m a little older and a little more experienced and wary, there are some changes I’d make to the thing, including the wording of the prayer itself (my writing skills, I like to think, have improved with time).  So, I made the changes, and I’d like to present my updated prayer and methodology here.  One of the most important changes I made to the prayer was that I stopped beckoning the spirits to come to me, so no more “come, all you spirits” again and again; this prevented a need for spirits to try to come to me or enter into my property, because part of the prayer dedicates the offerings to specifically flow out from their place of offering into the rest of the cosmos, so that really, the offerings would come to them rather than the spirits having to come to the offerings.

For this ritual, you will need a simple cup of clean, fresh water and either one stick or three sticks of some generally-pleasing incense.  The water should be left unmixed with anything, though may be sweetened with a drop of honey or rosewater if truly desired; the cup itself is best one dedicated to spiritual work, and better dedicated solely for this specific kind of general offering, but this is not necessary so long as it’s been cleaned and cleansed after each use.  For incense, frankincense is always a good option, but scents like sandalwood, benzoin, sweet or mild musk, jasmine, rose, amber, and the like are also plenty fine; avoid anything too strong, potent, sharp, bitter, or sour.  Blended incenses are perfect, so long as they’re pleasantly fragrant enough without being overpowering.  You don’t need to use sticks, although I find them convenient; if you prefer to go with loose incense, feel free.  Although I like having a candle burning during all my prayers and spiritual work, with an exorcism and/or blessing said over it, it’s not necessary for this offering, as it’s not something being offered to the spirits themselves, although you may find it helpful just in case.  Other offerings, such as food, flowers, candles, and the like may also be set out, but those are entirely extra and unnecessary.  In this case, it’s better to keep the offering simple, short, and clean.

Ideally, this offering would take place in a neutral area, such as an outdoors place not on your own property, or in a place that is not otherwise bounded by spiritual protections belonging to some specific person or ruling entity.  Ideal places for this would be a park, field, crossroads, beach, or some other place that cannot be said to belong to anyone.  It is inadvisable to perform this offering in a place that is controlled by someone else, such as a sacred precinct, church, a place known to be claimed by a particular divinity or spirit, or someone else’s property.  Otherwise, it may be performed in your own home or on your own property, though you may need to ward and protect yourself accordingly to permit the offering to pass from the property without allowing anything baneful to enter in by the same way.  Depending on how you feel afterwards, you may want to follow up this offering with banishing to make sure nothing sticks around that shouldn’t.

When ready, wash your hands, set the cup of water and the incense out on a clean surface, whether on the ground or on a low table or other elevated surface.  Light the incense and let it begin rising through the air.  Hold your arms out, palms upward and out as in the orans gesture and recite the prayer aloud to the spirits:

Hear me, all you spirits, by whatever name you take, by whatever form you take!
Hear me, all you spirits, before, behind, beside, below, or above me who call you!
Hear me, all you spirits, of the north and the south, of the east and the west!
Hear me, all you spirits, within or above the Heavens, upon or under the Earth!
Hear me, all you spirits, with whom I hold favor or disfavor!
Hear me, all you spirits, who owe me debt or to whom I owe debt!
Here do I call to you, wherever you may be: partake of this my offering!
I dedicate to you now this water and this incense as offerings to you;
I give you these offerings freely and joyfully, and ask that you accept them in the same,
as symbols of my thanks, love, goodwill, honor, respect, trust, and joy for you
for your own benefit and peace, that I too might have benefit and peace.

Dip your fingers of your dominant hand (or the hand you prefer to use to give offerings with) into the water and scatter it around you to your front, back, and either side.  Visualize the water to rise up and flow out from the cup outwards as a constant fountain, especially through and beyond the spiritual boundaries of your own property if it is done there.  Resume the orans gesture, then recite the next part of the prayer:

Accept now this water, fresh, clean, and sweet,
that it may refresh you, cleanse you, and cheer you.
Let this water nourish you how it you need it best,
whether as golden rivers of nectar or as boiling seas of blood.
Let this water swell and surround you and the common ground we share,
that we may understand and console each other, comfort and soothe each other.
Let this water overflow this vessel and wash over all that exists,
reaching the uttermost shores of the cosmos in all directions,
that all spirits may partake of this my offering.

With the same hand as before, place it palm-down in the incense smoke, then lift your hand in one swift motion to draw the smoke upwards, then fan it away from you with the same hand seven times.  Visualize the incense to rise up and fill the entire cosmos with its plumes of pure fragrant smoke, especially through and beyond the spiritual boundaries of your own property if it is done there.  Resume the orans gesture, then recite the next part of the prayer:

Accept now this incense, sacred, whole, and pure,
that it may satisfy you, strengthen you, and fortify you.
Receive this incense as you how you need it best,
whether as abundant forests of fruits or as burning mountains of flesh.
Let this incense rise up and fill your beings, your hearts, and your minds,
that we may understand and know each other, hear and see each other.
Let this incense be compounded upon itself a myriad myriad times,
rising up and filling the entire cosmos with its sweet smoke,
that all spirits may partake of this my offering.

Maintain the orans gesture and conclude the prayer:

If I hold favor with you, then let this offering strengthen us and be a mark of alliance and friendship.
If I hold disfavor with you, then let this offering reconcile us and be an expression of apology to you.
If you owe me debt, then let this offering be a symbol of my faith and trust in you.
If I owe you debt, then let this offering be repayment towards its ultimate fulfillment.
Come and take your fill of these offerings, of this water and of this incense!
As you take your fill of these offerings, remember me who gives them to you!
Let this offering aid you in your work; let this offering sate you and please you!
Let this offering of goodwill be taken in goodwill, of peace in peace, of love in love
for your own benefit and peace, that I too might have benefit and peace.
If you came here to me in peace, so now return to your home in peace;
if you reside peacefully with me, so too abide peacefully with me.
Take your fill of this offering and continue in your work,
in the Holy Light of the Creator of us all.

Let the incense burn out completely; you can enter into a period of contemplation or chanting other prayers, if you want to be present for the rest of the offering, or you may take a brief leave and return later.  Once the incense burns out, the offering may be formally drawn to a close. If possible, scatter the incense ash into the wind and pour out the water onto the ground; if done indoors, these may be disposed of in a trash bin and a sink respectfully.  Resume the orans gesture, then recite the next part of the prayer:

The water I poured for you is drained, the incense I burned for you is spent.
The offering I made for you is given, the offering I made for you is complete.
May this offering be pleasing and fit for all spirits where they are,
that they may be at peace, and be at peace with me.
May no ill-will remain, may no malice remain,
but only peace and peace and peace and peace.
All you spirits who have come to me to partake in this offering,
as you have come in peace, so now go in peace.
Go now with my peace, go now with my blessing, and go now to your work,
in the Holy Light of the Creator of us all.

The offering is complete.

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.