Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alraun the Spirit Root

An alraun is a magickal charm composed of a plant part, typically a root and traditionally the root of the mandrake plant, that is used as a corporeal domicile by a helping familiar spirit.

Because of the connection between them, any reading or research about the alraun invariably forces one to research the mandrake. But during my study, I have come to question a couple of connections that are unclear. I have therefore come to these conclusions, which I will discuss:

  1. The alraun has a uniquely Germanic name despite that the traditional alraun plant - the mandrake - does not grow in any Germanic area, signaling possible confusion between the mandrake and another plant more common to Germanic latitudes.
  2. The lore of the mandrake has become so notorious that any original alraun lore has become potentially obscured through cultural marriage with the mandrake. Consequently, exposure of unadulterated alraun lore has become impossible.

In contemporary usage, the german word for the mandrake plant is “alraune.” All of the living Germanic languages have a similar word. None of these words directly refer to any plant except for the mandrake plant. This poses a serious problem since the mandrake plant grows only around the Mediterranean, having a distribution no further north than the mountains of Italy.

The lore of the mandrake plant may originate in the 3rd c. BC, when Appollonius of Rhodes, who wrote the story of Jason and the Argonauts, revealed a plant that sprang up from the ground where the juices of the damaged liver of Prometheus dripped onto the ground.

She [Medea] spake, and brought a casket wherein lay many drugs, some for healing, others for killing . . . . and Medea meanwhile took from the hollow casket a charm which men say is called the charm of Prometheus. If a man should anoint his body therewithal, having first appeased the Maiden, the only-begotten [Hecate], with sacrifice by night, surely that man could not be wounded by the stroke of bronze nor would he flinch from blazing fire; but for that day he would prove superior both in prowess and in might. It shot up first- born when the ravening eagle on the rugged flanks of Caucasus let drip to the earth the blood-like ichor of tortured Prometheus. . . . And beneath, the dark earth shook and bellowed when the Titanian root was cut; and the son of Iapetus [Prometheus] himself groaned, his soul distraught with pain (Book III, 828).

Based on the description above, this is a plant known by the ancient Greeks to be an anesthetic against “blazing fire.” It required a ceremonial sacrifice and when picked would cause the earth to shake and Prometheus to groan. Lee claimed that the plant has been identified as the Corycian crocus (281), but its description also matches the plant called the male mandrake by Pedanius Dioscorides (Book IV, 76). Interestingly, Hecate was often associated with dogs, an animal we shall soon see is strongly associated with mandrakes during harvest.

Dioscorides, in his famous materia medica of the 1st c. describes the highly anesthetic qualities of the plant, stating that it is used useful during surgery by causing a “dead sleep.” In fact, the use of mandrake as an anesthetic continued until the eventual adoption of anesthetic ether as late as the mid 1800’s.

The Bible reveals the most famous quality of the mandrake: how to collect it using an animal tied to its roots. In Genesis (largely accepted as being written in the 6th or 5th c. BCE) we learn that whoever uproots the mandrake must die (Frazer, 393). Josephus ties this tale to the description of the herb he calls Baaras, which has been identified by many scholars as the mandrake, by stating that the animal to uproot the herb should be a dog. Neither source states exactly what particular action actually kills the animal. Frazer's suggestion that the action is a kind of "charge" (395) sounds both mysterious and divine.

The mandrake is simply a plant with a vaguely humanoid shape, but coupled with the ability of the plant to bring about sleep, the herb gained significant magical associations (Carter, 144). Also known throughout the Ancient Near East as a powerful aphrodisiac, it produces small fruits known as love apples. The many folk names for the mandrake all express the sentiment that the root housed spirits, though more commonly evil ones. Incidentally, I wouldn't be surprised if the mandrake was actually the plant referenced in the Biblical story of  the fall in the Garden of Eden, but that is an examination for a Biblical exegesis. M.R. Lee’s paper expertly outlines how the idea of spirits in a plant root as well as the ceremonies surrounding how the alraun came to be.

In Armenia and other parts of Europe, where the mandrake does not grow, lore exists that the fleshy, humanoid shape of the bryony root was substituted for the mandrake (Frazer, 395).

Cultural transmission may explain how the Germanic people came to believe in a root in which a spirit lives, and even the ceremonies surrounding the use of the plant as a spirit poppet, though the deeply animistic characteristics of celto-Germanic spirituality does not need cultural transmission to inspire such a concept. Nonetheless, it does not explain why the Germanic people have their own linguistic family of names for the plant.

The connection could possibly be related to beer, or rather brewing. History shows that Mandrake was used as an additive in beer and wine to produce an anesthetic drink. The Greeks used the mandrake to produce a wine designed to bring about an easy, aphrodisiac effect as well as complete unconsciousness. With the dosage correctly measured, the brew could produce a semi-lucid trance state not unlike a shamanic trance used by holy men and seers to gain knowledge. The mandrake herb, after being passed from the Romans to the Germanic tribes in the first century, could have been renamed by the Germans as an herb for brewing an insightful shamans brew. The reader should recall that the mandrake was an herb of the goddess Hecate, who was associated with magic at crossroads. The German word “alraun” could come from the word “alruna” after the Valkyrie, Alruna, who is associated with crossroads, or from the words “ale rune” (Simek). Shamanic practices in Celto-Germanic culture are linked to crossroads because they are places of transition, where the edges of different worlds meet.

Primarily in Germany (Lee, 281) the herb is also known as the “gallows man.” Dr. William Turner cites in 1568 that a doctor in Cologne taught his students that the mandrake only grew under the gallows as a result of the emissions of the dead that hung there (Carter, 146). In folklore, those who die on the gallows are buried at crossroads. These are interesting ideas considering that the runes themselves were inspired when Odin (patron of crossroads and travelers) hung himself on the world tree and become inspired to discover the runes - an experience believed by many scholars to be a description of a shamanic trance. Could there have been an earlier herb used by the Germanic peoples to enter trance, whose name was later applied to the mandrake as the herb and its powers culturally migrated northward from the Mediterranean? This idea is likely, thought what the original herb might have been is no longer known.

Scopolamine, the psychotropic chemical found in the mandrake is found in other plants of the Solanaceae family, namely Belladonna,  Nightshade, Datura, Henbane and other ingredients typically used in recipes for witch's flying ointments. However, the depressive nature of scopolamine alone is more likely to produce unconsciousness than hallucinations, unless another chemical modified the mixture, and with it, the response of the body.

The lore that surrounds the mandrake has become linked to the alraun as a general principle, so there is no way of knowing which elements of the original alraun ceremony (if there was one) correctly belong to the Germanic alraun, and which belong to the use of the mandrake root, specifically. In my study of alrauns (and mandrakes by default) I have run across an exhausting list of rules that must be followed when gathering and using mandrake and alrauns. Here are some of them.

  • The root grows under gallows or over graves as a result of the excretions of the dead
  • To gather the root, it must be at before dawn, or at least at night
  • It must be a Friday
  • It must be a new moon
  • You must face west
  • You must make a sign of the cross three times over the plant
  • You must offer the plant some of your blood
  • You must spill on the plant the urine of a woman or menstrual blood
  • You must dig up most of the root by digging around it, but leave the very bottom root fibers attached
  • You must stop up your ears before pulling it free to prevent its screams from killing you
  • You must tie a dog to the root and force the dog to pull it out, sacrificing the dog.
  • You must bathe the root in water and/or wine immediately
  • You must keep the root in a box decorated to look like a coffin
  • You must give the root a funerary shroud that is white and/or red
  • You must bathe the root every Friday with water, wine, milk, honey, and/or the owner's blood
  • You must give the root a new white shirt every first Friday (the day of Venus)
  • You must bequeath the root to your youngest son
  • To accept the root, your youngest son must bury his father with a loaf of white bread and a piece of money
  • You can buy an alraun, but you must not sell it for less than you paid for it.
You can see how many hoops there are through which one must jump to maintain this root. Much of this comes from the mandrake lore, which was believed to be a place where evil spirits were apt to reside. The useful common thread behind most of this practice employs the rule of putting your money where your mouth is. If you want power in the alraun, you have to do the work to put it there. Traditionally, you treated the alraun just like you would a dead ancestor.

The alraun itself is no longer an idea tied only to the mandrake root. Any root can be used to host a spirit if the proper processes are followed. But an alraun is not a host for just any spirit you can call upon. You should consider these points before beginning. The smartest advice I've found when beginning such a process are these three points from a local witch, Nalaya Oddly.

1. Many spirit forms desire the experience of entering a physical body, having never done so before, and they will be rather sinister in their attempts to gain that access. As a result, the alraun should be opened as a host to only a particular spirit that you know well. (Therefore, this spirit must carry a name that you use to summon it. Since names are actually words of power bound to a being, using the spirit's name exerts your control over it's occupation of the root).
2. You should have a good working relationship with the spirit through trance work. It should be a spirit whose behavior you can safely control.
3. The inhabited alraun is not a pet. It requires a great deal of routine responsibility to keep it working positively for you. You must treat it with respect and honor it as its magic formulae require you to do. No spell works out well if you execute it halfheartedly.

The occupied alraun is different than a spirit occupying an object through direct spirit possession. During possession, the spirit must expel significant energy to remain attached to something material. As a consequence, this attachment does not last very long. The ceremony of creating the alraun is not only an invitation to the spirit to use the body of the plant root, it is also a vow from you that you will feed the spirit with your own energy. You do this by honoring the spirit through repetitious ritual.

Because the spirit is invited to occupy the alraun, it gains a stronger link to it such that it can feel more corporeal, pleasing the spirit, which longs for a proper corporeal life. By giving the spirit a body in which to occasionally reside and receive your adoration, it becomes more powerful and thus a more effective agent for getting things done for you. A similar practice is used in hoodoo magick known as a “spirit box.”

The alraun ritual accomplishes two things. First, it creates a contract between you and the spirit in which you promise to honor and feed it, while it promises to act for you in the aetheric world. Second, it creates a corporeal body protected by you and your magic that no other spirit can occupy. You magically “lock” the root against all spirits except the one you name.

The mandrake is the most traditionally used root, because its lore is both old and related to spirit possession and its root is often bifurcated, making it resemble human legs. Another common root is bryony, used more often than the mandrake by those in central and northern Europe. Roots used in America can be any that are large and fleshy, but that will dry without rotting. Some commonly used have been American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), carrots, parsnips, parsley root, mature Queen Anne’s Lace, and the dandelion (particularly appropriate because the herb belongs to the goddess, Hecate).

To maintain the alraun, you must provide it with three things.
1. The alraun requires a box to act as its resting place. Like any human being when it is no longer alive, the body resides in a coffin, which is more than just a holding place for the body after the spirit leaves, it is a special container expressing your honor of the ancestor and acting as a sacred doorway to the otherworld. In the case of the alraun, the spirit comes and goes from the plant root as it journeys to complete what you ask of it. The alraun coffin does not have to be an actual coffin; it can be any box into which the alraun fits, but it must be ornately decorated by you. These decorations are usually those that are appropriate funerary motifs, because the box should have the feel of being a coffin. The more honor you represent in the decoration of the coffin, the more honor you pay to the spirit of the alraun, and thus the deeper will be your bond with the spirit.

Along with a coffin, the dead should have a funerary shroud. The shroud is simply a red, white or black cloth made from a high quality fabric like silk or linen. This shroud must be periodically changed as it ages, just as you would change an ancestor's funeral shroud. The funeral “shirt” can be very simply made by stitching together the parallel edges of a strip of cloth to make a tube long enough to completely contain the alraun.

2. The alraun requires regular feeding. By feeding the alraun regularly, you honor the cyclical nature of pagan time. You echo the regular visits to a dead ancestor's grave site. You set aside mundane time to augment the magickal working. Just as people need three meals per day, so spirits need regular "meals" of energy to keep working. Feeding can consist of a ceremony to honor it or providing the favorite food of the spirit, if is has one (wine is a standard substitute). The goal is to make the alraun spirit powerful enough to execute the tasks you request of it. The repeated attention is actually reinforced intention. It flatters the spirit and provides it energy to get work done. The best schedule is one that uses your tables of correspondence. Honor it on the day of the deity that it feels most like. If it has an astrological connection, use that day of the week. If you want to use a particular phase of the moon, or other astrological event, that works well also. The goal-schedule is that you should do something to honor it at least once monthly.

3. Because the alraun is not a pet, you should have clear expectations of it. It should be a resource to which you can turn when you want a spiritual helper to do magical work. If you keep it constantly locked in it's box, the alraun spirit will grow bored and will wander away in search of someone more willing to honor it regularly.

The Alraun Ritual

So now that you know all about working with the alraun, how do you actually get the spirit into the plant root? There is no specific ceremony I could find. However, there are patterns in the folklore that can reveal how one can work with this particular magickal power. Here are some suggestions if you are going to write your own alraun invocation ritual.

1. The moment you decide you are going to create an alraun is the moment you begin to rouse nearby spirits. They will feel your intent to create a corporeal body. If you are particularly intuitive, you may notice an increase in spiritual presences in your vicinity. This should subside when the chosen spirit is finally fixed to the root. You should have at least a visiting relationship with the spirit you will ask into the alraun and you should know its name. That means you have spent time with your spirit in dreams, journeys, meditations, or other trance states. The name can be one that you have invented, but it must be one that encompasses the essence of a single spirit in your mind. You must know the spirit to gain a successful invocation.

2. Decide "the what" and "the how" of the root you will use. This will employ your knowledge, or research of magickal herbalism. You might choose a root associated with a particular astrological purpose or deity. It is possible to have alrauns that function as magickal specialists, each with their own working purpose, but maintaining that can be tiresome; a generalist alruan is most common. You should also set up a process for gathering this root by employing electional astrology so that the plant is collected or purchased at the most auspicious time for the end result.

3. When you know how big the root will be, you should design the "coffin" to hold it. This can be a wooden cigar box that you paint, or a box you make yourself. Many craft stores sell small pre-made boxes in the shape of a coffin for Halloween. The symbols you use should be symbols of honor and respect, symbols of your patron gods, and symbols of death or transition such as skulls, spirals, portals. You can paint them or draw them with markers, or even decoupage images clipped from magazines. The interior should look comfortable and restful. The point is to make it look reverent and special to you. Remember that it is your energy that feeds the alraun, so you must enjoy and appreciate all of the details of the experience.

4. Decide where the coffin will reside. You don't put all of your energy into a magickal tool only to store it with the dust bunnies under your bed. It should have a place of reverence, but not a place that it will be unnecessarily disturbed by pets, children or curious house guests.

5. Create the invocation ritual. This should ideally be executed inside a protective circle to reinforce that only the particular spirit you invite will be the one that takes up residence in the alraun. Once the circle is cast, you should conduct the ceremony much like a funeral. Ask the spirit into the circle with you and take time to speak directly to the spirit. Talk openly about the qualities of the spirit as you know them. Use the spirit's name often to reinforce in your intent exactly which essence you are letting into the alraun. Let it know that you have honored it by spending time crafting its body and coffin. Pledge that you will honor and feed it with regular acts of reverence. The root should be carved or marked with symbol(s) that are for the target spirit. These can be a bindrune of the spirit's name, or a symbol that has been revealed during your workings with the spirit. Most spirits have a sigil. Tell the spirit that this root is for it alone, to act as its body - as its home. Create the image of an open door in your mind and raise power. Tell the spirit you will help it into its new home, which is where you wish it to reside until you call upon it for help. At the moment you are about to release your power, tell the spirit to pass through the door, then release your power into the alraun. The ceremony is done. Close the box and the circle. Ground and center.

6. Don't forget to honor the alraun regularly. I find that once per week is sufficient. I like to annoint the alruan and give a short prayer of honor. I have made up my own herbal oil blend that I use only for this. You can make your own also, so long as the blend feels appropriate for you.


Apollonius Rhodius. Argonautica. Book III, 828. Translated by Seaton, R. C. Loeb Classical Library Volume 001. London, William Heinemann Ltd, 1912.

Carter, AJ. "Myths and mandrakes." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2003; 96:144-147.

Dioscorides. Materia Madeica. First Century. Book IV, 76.

Frazer, James George. "Jacob and the Mandrakes." Folklore in the Old Testament, 1919. Volume 2,  p. 372.

Josephus. Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter VI, 3

Lee, MR. "The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil." Journal of the Royal College Physicians, Edinburgh. 2006; 36: 278-285.

Oddly, Nalaya. "Working with Alrauns." Something Oddly. website composed April 12, 2011. at:

Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Brewer, 2008.

Other Sources

Huson, Paul. Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks, and Covens. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970.
Pennick, Nigel. Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition. Leicestershire, UK: Thoth Publications, 2002.
Thompson, C.J.S. The Mystic Mandrake. London: Rider, 1934.
Leland, Charles Godfrey. Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling, chapter 10.
"The Sacred Flora." Harper's New Monthy Magazine. Vol 42 (June-Nov, 1870), 731.
Grimm, Jacob. "Alraun." Deutsche Mythologie. Vol II, p. 1154.
Silberer, H. "The Homonculus." The Psychoanalytic Review. 1919. Volume 6,  pg. 206
Newman, William R. Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature, pg. 208.
Heiser, Charles B. “Nightshades, The Paradoxical Plant“, (131-136). W. H. Freeman & Co.
Christian, Paul. “The History and Practice of Magic” (402-403). Kessinger Publishing.
Illes, Judika. "Mandrake." The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
Larson, Gerald James, C. Scott Littleton, and Jaan Puhvel. Myth in Indo-European Antiquity. p. 157
Simoons, Frederick J. "Mandrake, a Root in Human Form." Plants of Life, Plants of Death. 1998.  p. 127

Sunday, October 14, 2012


For years I have been fascinated by the use of and power in magic words. Recently, my over-analytic brain has fallen upon the old word “abracadabra” and wondered why it is what it is. I have also wondered if it shouldn't be in greater use these days. Certainly, a word with so much fame shouldn't be forgotten in the world of witchcraft.

The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that the word is a . . .

magical formula, 1690s, from Latin (Q. Severus Sammonicus, 2c.), from Late Gk. Abraxas, cabalistic or gnostic name for the supreme god, and thus a word of power. It was written out in a triangle shape and worn around the neck to ward off sickness, etc. Another magical word, from a mid-15c. writing, was ananizapta.

This is interesting, albeit brief. It doesn’t really explain the use of the spell.

Wikipedia has this to say about the word:

Abracadabra is an incantation used as a magic word in stage magic tricks, and historically was believed to have healing powers when inscribed on an amulet. The word is thought to have its origin in the Aramaic language, but numerous, conflicting folk etymologies are associated with it.

The first known mention of the word was in the third century AD in a book called Liber Medicinalis (sometimes known as De Medicina Praecepta Saluberrima) by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus,[1] physician to the Roman emperor Caracalla, who prescribed that malaria[2]sufferers wear an amulet containing the word written in the form of a triangle:[3]
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D
A - B - R - A - C - A
A - B - R - A - C
A - B - R - A
A - B - R
A - B

This, he explained, diminishes the hold over the patient of the spirit of the disease.[citation needed] Other Roman emperors, including Geta and Alexander Severus, were followers of the medical teachings of Serenus Sammonicus and may have used the incantation as well.[1][citation needed]

It was used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune.[4] It is found on Abraxas stones which were worn as amulets. Subsequently, its use spread beyond the Gnostics.

The Puritan minister Increase Mather dismissed the word as bereft of power. Daniel Defoe also wrote dismissively about Londoners who posted the word on their doorways to ward off sickness during the Great Plague of London.[5] But Aleister Crowley regarded it as possessing great power; he said its true form is abrahadabra.[6]

The word is now commonly used as an incantation by stage magicians. It is also applied contemptuously to a conception or hypothesis which purports to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena.

Aleister Crowley replaced the C in Abracadabra with an H, which the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in their Neophyte ritual linked with Breath and Life[2] as well as with the god Horus.[3] Aleister Crowley had taken the place of Horus or the Hierus officer[3] in the Golden Dawn's Neophyte ritual,[4] which means that he personally gave the response explaining the meaning of the letter H.

  1. Vollmer, Friedrich. Quinti Sereni Liber Medicinalis. Leipzig: Teubner, 1916.
  2. The Tenacious Buzz of Malaria". Wall Street Journal. July 10, 2010.
  3. Bartleby
  4. "Abracadabra". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.
  5. Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. London, Dent, 1911 (1722)
  6. Guiley, Rosemary (2006). "Abracadabra". The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy. Visionary Living Inc.. ISBN 0-8160-6048-7.

Aliester Crowley aside, nothing is stated of the actual origin, though the note about its Aramaic origin has me curious. The part about magicians is the most interesting part, however, because that is how the word is used currently. I have my own memories of entertainers using the word during the most mysterious part of a magic trick – the part just before the end of the trick when there is supposed to be something mystical happening behind the scenes to produce the desired operation. But why would a charm of destruction be used as an incantation for creation?

This is revealed by the Brit, Michael Quinion, who writes about the word on his site World Wide Words:

What we know for sure is that it was first recorded in a Latin medical poem, De medicina praecepta, by the Roman physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus in the second century AD. It’s believed to have come into English via French and Latin from a Greek word abrasadabra (the change from s to c seems to have been through a confused transliteration of the Greek). Serenus Sammonicus said that to get well a sick person should wear an amulet around the neck, a piece of parchment inscribed with a triangular formula derived from the word, which acts like a funnel to drive the sickness out of the body:
However, it seems likely that abracadabra is older and that it derives from one of the Semitic languages, though nobody can say for sure, because there is no written record before Serenus Sammonicus. For what it’s worth, here are some theories:
1.      It’s from the Aramaic phrase avra kehdabra, meaning “I will create as I speak”.
2.      The source is three Hebrew words, ab (father), ben (son), and ruach acadosch (holy spirit).
3.      It’s from the Chaldean abbada ke dabra, meaning “perish like the word”.
4.      It originated with a Gnostic sect in Alexandria called the Basilidians and was probably based on Abrasax, the name of their supreme deity (Abraxas in Latin sources).

Here Mr. Quinion reveals the Aramaic origin phrase, which makes perfect sense to use if one is engaged in creation, as in the case of the stage magician mentioned above. The Chaldean phrase is an excellent phrase to use when destroying illness, or anything else for that matter, as a kind of sympathetic magick. Could these be two distinct spells, possibly related, that became confused as one operation? In linguistic history, the language of the Chaldeans was gradually replaced by Aramaic. One need not strain to see that the older form of ke dabra evolved into kehdabra – the noun form of "word" evolved into the verb used to speak words. I think it likely that two phrases with similar sounds have been confused – culturally combined – into one word that is used for both creation and for destruction. Most witches realize that creation and destruction are actually the same thing.

Lets review what makes this charm a kind of sympathetic magic. The wearer shows the fever how to leave by making the glyph that represents it (the writing) systematically decrease on the paper. Here is an obvious example:

Names are important magical words because they unite the identity of a person or thing, which is its very essence, into a symbol on a page or a sound to be spoken. Many creation myths tell the story of deities speaking things into being simply by naming them aloud. Eliphas Levi tells us that, “In magic, to have said is to have done” (quoted in Cavendish, vol. 5, 1418.) In ancient Egypt, Isis uses the name of Re to save him from a snake wound before using the powerful name for herself (Budge, 124). (I reused these ideas from a paper I wrote back in college on incantations and names as words of power.)

Personally, using the power name of a revered deity as a charm of lessening is a little bit improper.  If the pyramid were to be read from bottom to top however, the power of a protective deity would be invoked. I would not use the power name of a supreme deity as an example for decrease unless the deity was known as a destroyer or Cthonic type. To the Chrisitans, Abrasax may have been demonized into a malevolent spirit, so writing the name in a lessening manner would have been representative of lessening an evil force. Ultimately, all we can say with certainty is that the motivation behind the spell is not obviously revealed through its design without more information about the spell operations.

The 1911 version of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives more specific uses for the lessening charm and reveals an alternative pattern that may shed light more deeply into the spell working.

Abracadabra, a word analogous to Abraxas (q.v.), used as a magical formula by the Gnostics of the sect of Basilides in invoking the aid of beneficent spirits against disease and misfortune. It is found on Abraxas stones which were worn as amulets. Subsequently its use spread beyond the Gnostics, and in modern times it is applied contemptuously (e.g. by the early opponents of the evolution theory) to a conception or hypothesis which purports to be a simple solution of apparently insoluble phenomena. The Gnostic physician Serenus Sammonicus gave precise instructions as to its mystical use in averting or curing agues and fevers generally. The paper on which the word was written had to be folded in the form of a cross, suspended from the neck by a strip of linen so as to rest on the pit of the stomach, worn in this way for nine days, and then, before sunrise, cast behind the wearer into a stream running to the east. The letters were usually arranged as a triangle in one of the following ways:—

This is new information. The fact that the charm was found on Abraxas stones is significant because it places the charm in popular use among the Gnostics, which puts the height of use squarely in the first century AD. It also undeniably ties the charm (or a version of it) to that deity.

Notice how the design on the above right (fever-lessening) shows the word being reduced from both ends, rather than just one end, as is seen on the left. Doing so almost perfectly leaves the name of the god, Abrasax written twice down each side of the pattern, which is quite protective magically. The word glyph would then create a wedge-shaped protective shield using the name of the supreme deity. Because the word “abracadabra” is not quite palindromic, it misses naming the god and is not useful in that kind of charm.

If the Near Eastern spells of creation and destruction were confused with the name of the god, Abrasax because they used similar words, it would explain why there are two representations of this charm. The word pyramid on the above left uses the creation/destruction blended phrase, while the one on the above right uses the deity's name, and in both is the evolution of how these two separate concepts became confused. Cleaning up this confusion would mean understanding these are two separate kinds of charms and separating the two charms with unique words. The charm on the left would be a spell of increase or decrease, in which the power is inherent in the word (i.e. an incantation), while the one on the right would be a charm to invoke the protection of a specific deity. The charm for invocation would no longer be based on the Aramaic or Chaldean phrase. Instead, it would be based on a palindromic application of Abraxas (in Latin) to produce the name of the deity down both sides of the glyph. The invocation charm would then look like this:


Using the same principle, a similar protective charm could be made by writing the name on paper of any protective deity of your choice. Folding some protective herbs inside the bundle and holding it on your person would be an excellent folk charm. However, not all names begin and end with the same letter, so a modification may need to be used. Here is a charm of protection to Achilles, who wards against ailments of the blood:

As a spell-worker, I wouldn't be opposed to separating these spells from each other, as I believe they began. Making them into separate spells for creation, destruction and the protection of Abraxas would be fine, but one would have to  be sure to use the specific words of power for the correct purpose: the Aramaic phrase for creation, the Chaldean phrase for destruction and the name of Abraxas for that protective power.


Budge, E. A. Wallis, trans. The Book of the Dead. New York: Bell Publishing Co., 1960.

Cavendish, Richard. “Incantation.” Vol. 5 of Man, Myth & Magic. 1983 ed.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Divining Divination

For many years - perhaps two decades or more - I have been refining a document for my book of shadows that attempts to categorize into only a few general categories, all types of divination. I started with 4 basic forms. It then evolved to 5. Then the titles of the categories changed because the lists had to be reorganized. As I edited that document today, I was considering those groups of divination that function obviously within an altered state of consciousness, like mediumship, and those that function less obviously in an altered state of consciousness, like casting lots. Just before I considered once again starting the whole classification system from scratch, I asked my partner for his input. After a bit of discussion, he basically told me that I was building a list that was of no use.

I was insulted and hurt, but not in a major way. I was injured in that way that I get when my own baggage gets in my way. I start to feel my self worth lessening because I think I'm being viewed as not being smart. Ultimately, I just wasn't seeing his point. So we decided to actually do some divination using tarot, which is the form with which I'm the most practiced. 

There was a time when I did tarot almost daily. For me, the cards stopped being something one looks up in a book and instead became a series of pictures tucked inside a story book - the story of the scenario of the question involved. They became something with which I conversed inside myself, generating an understanding for which I didn't seem to have the words. At times I knew the message inside myself so well that I didn't always have the ability to put it into standard language. But it has been a very long time since I did tarot - really did it in the way I used to.

I prepared myself and entered the receptive state of mind. I did the reading and the story appeared, just as it used to. I even had some trouble telling the story the way I used to. I was not totally on my game, however, because I didn't give in to total trust in the message.

At that point, I realized my partner's point related to my list. Whereas my list was great for academia because it related the types of divination based on their mode of delivery, it failed to isolate and expose for what divination was really used - that is, to engage the psychic power of the mind. 

With this perspective, and with this experience, I came to understand that all divination has the potential to be psychic or superficial. Some are easier than others, such as with tarot where one can lay down cards and simply read meanings from a book. Others, like mediumship, are nearly impossible without practice and access to a psychic power. For me, I only got good at tarot after years of practice, when the superficial meanings in a book transformed into an archetype, a spiritual concept, a life lesson and a message with meaning. I know that the journey was at times tedious, laborious and even downright boring, but there was something beneath the surface that kept me going. I don't know if I could do it all again with another divination form, but I hope each new one will be progressively easier. 

As for the list, I know that it does need to be reworked. But the new list is going to be simpler. I've decided that my book of shadows doesn't need an academic list of divination. What it needs is an examination of how to divine using any tool one might take up. I need to go back to what I know inside, rather than back to the inside of a book.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Please try to put aside all of your ideas about dragons. I am not here to explore the idea of the fire-breathing, scaled creature of today's movies. In my mind, the dragon is different than that and much more than that.

Dragons in The West
The Persians called the primordial chaos a "dragon," but that could have been a translation issue. We really have no English word for the thing that Tiamat was, but it was her body that was used to create the universe. This kind of dismemberment cosmogony was exposed to the cultures of the Ancient Neat East, including the Semitic peoples, before the writings that became the Bible were written. In Isaiah 27, we find mention of "Leviathan" as the dragon of the sea. Remember that the sea was present at the time of creation - "and God parted the waters and made dry land appear" - the sea was the primordial ocean, the representation of the chaotic world before it had any ordered form, and it was out of this that the world was formed. An example can be found in the script of the Hebrews, whose writings did not include vowels. The word "Leviathan" can easily be extrapolated from the consonants in "Lotan," the name of the Ugaritic serpent of the primordial oceans. By the time we reach the formation of the Church in the late second century, the ideas of chaos-beings as serpents were already a part of the religious writings. The element responsible for bringing chaos to the Garden of Eden was, after all, a serpent.

Fast forward 1000 years and the legends written were of knights trying to defeat dragons. Dragons had become the allegorical symbol for the savage and chaotic forces of nature that threatened mankind as he struggled to survive and expand his civilized society. Always at the edge of the pagan village was the expanse of the unknown, into which people were regularly lost. The dragon became a tangible image for the formless unknown of Nature's chaos, and the knight was a symbolic hero of the kingdom, who could drive back the chaos, providing safety for the king's subjects.

By why were dragons always serpents? Snakes cannot be tamed. They cannot be taught tricks like dogs or cats. They do not have fur or hair like our pets or ourselves. They have no limbs and eat by swallowing their food whole. They are a creature that appears completely alien to us. They carry poison in their mouths and can kill us or make us very sick with a scratch, perhaps leading primitive man to think that their whole body may be poisonous, and so unsuitable for food. For all of these reasons, they are the target one of mankind's oldest and most prevalent phobias. The striving for the destruction of dragons in western culture could be based on mankind's combined fear of snakes and untamed nature. The dragon of these early medieval stories isn't really a dragon, it is the unknown, chaos, or simply the phobia of snakes. If we took all of the stories of dragons in western culture and changed the word "dragon" to something less allegorical - perhaps just "snake" - those stories would still do what they are designed to do. This means that the dragon of eastern culture formed separately, fulfilling very different roles in the mind of mankind.

Dragons in the East
The Persian idea that dragons were a primordial force is not far from the concepts of dragons in the Far East. In the East, however, dragons were not simply the chaos at the beginning of the world. They were many of the powerful forces of nature upon which early mankind watched with wonder and attributed to the divine. Dragons inhabited streams, lakes, oceans, mountains, fire, and storms. They gave counsel, protection and luck. It's clear that in the East, dragons were nature spirits, much like the spirits of American Indian paganism, the fairies of the Celts, or the hosts of nymphs, Nereids and satyrs to the Greeks. In the East, however, these spirits were very powerful in the schema of the universe, being godlike and often worshiped.

Dragons in the Present
Based on western cultural history, and our capitalistic propensity to make all things cute and salable, dragons have fallen back into favor. Through cartoons, comic books, movies and novels, we can experience them as friends or as enemies, but marketing will always provide us with a collectible figure that we can keep close to us, no matter how cute or ugly. In more recent years, the cute concepts of dragons have gained ground. Unfortunately, though these concepts ushers dragons back into our lives as objects of affection, we are still missing what dragons truly are.

Dragons are high beings in our universe. They are powerful nature spirits with whom we can build working magickal relationships. The next time you spend some effort working to communicate with the essence of Eagle, or Wolf, or Coyote, don't forget the unsung power in Nature: the Dragon. If the name summons to mind too many fantasy movies to take your efforts seriously, try using one of its original names like "Ryū" in Japanese, or "Lóng" in Chinese, which is the sound of thunder! Dragons will not work with those who are dishonorable or weak of heart. They are powerful beings who prefer to work with those who understand power. No frilly, fluffy-bunny pagan book is needed to learn dragon language or to find a dragon grotto. All that is required is to hold in your mind the correct concept of them, believe in their existence, and provide them with ceremonies that show them honor. They will soon find you and will begin slowly building a relationship with you through your intuitive mind.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Abandoning the Magickal K

During the dawn of the 20th century, a group of spiritualists and occult scholars joined together into what we know today as the Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn. It didn't last very long, but it produced studies and principles that would shake the very idea of what we believed made up the world. Though many witches before them knew of it, the GD introduced into a more mainstream arena the idea of an divine energetic world - one built of an immeasurable stuff called aether - that exists beneath everything we can see, touch, hear, taste or smell. More importantly, this group revealed that human beings had the power to work with this stuff to make changes happen in the world.

One particularly charismatic, albeit flaky, member of the GD was named Aliester Crowley. He worked extensively with the idea of manipulating this energy and coined a word for the process. The use of the unseen energy to cause changes in accordance with one's will he called "magick," spelled with a "k" to distinguish it from showmanship illusions worked for entertainment. Personally, I think the use of this word was a grand mistake.

Since that time, witchcraft has become vastly more public and mainstream. In recent decades, we are seeing numerous books and video presentations of the magick of spell-work. Unfortunately, the magick that is being represented in the media is still not accurate. It still looks too much like showmanship.  The magick done by contemporary pagans does not require the twitching of a nose or cause sparks to fly from magic wands. It is an invisible power functioning behind the scenes. It is no different than praying for something and finding the result occurring by "mysterious ways." The media magick stands as a bridge between the magic of an illusionist and the magick of a contemporary pagan. It has the flash of the former, but the mechanism of the latter. It takes fiction and represents it in the robes of our religion. Though this is a fun experience, in the long run, I feel it damages our credibility as a religion.

If the world were still as it was in the year 1212, instead of 2012, we might not have this problem. We would be able to live in the woods, working our cunning ways in harmony with the forest and with little care what others thought of us. Those who considered us from the sparse villages nearby would say, "That's where the healer lives." They would not only believe in our magick the way we do, but also seek us out to work it on their behalf. One would have a valid reputation among the local community, for those who needed our help.

But we no longer have the isolation of villages and forests. Instead, we live in an age where the community is becoming the whole globe. Some of us are happy to be private witches, but many others feel it is important to be public - to gain approval and acceptance as an equal in a global community full of other valid religions. We live in a world where our nation's leader (President Bush, so I use the title loosely) stated that he doesn't believe we are a religion. I don't need lawmakers to believe in me to make my beliefs real, but I do need their validity to afford my religion the same rights as those of others. We don't have to face any more inquisitions. We don't have to accept that an unstoppable government or religious force can torture us to say things that will validate their hatred of us. We have options open to us - laws on our side, techniques at our disposal. The media is one such technique, but we have been allowing it to misrepresent us as a band of flaky schizophrenics who think our wands will fire off sparks on command, or at the very least, simple-minded people who like to play pretend and can't grow up.

If we are to maintain the validity of our ways in a world that is increasingly driven by the media, I feel we must give up such a silly word as magick, which summons up ideas of fantasy movies and dragon-fighting adventures.

When one thinks about what is really happening, it isn't even close to magic at all, because it doesn't require tools, it doesn't require an audience and it doesn't require that much skill. All that is required is belief that one can do it. The key word in that last sentence is "do." The magick of pagans is an action; it is a process; it is a solemn task on which we focus. More appropriately, it is work - defined as, exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; productive or operative activity.

The power of magick is the power of gods; it is the power used by the gods to create the universe and all things in it. One example could come from Christian myth; when the Christian God created the heavens and the earth in six days, he rested on the seventh from the work he had done. Sounds like working so much magick really took it out of him!

And so, from now on, I'd like to stop using the word "magick" at all, as well as "spells," unless I'm talking about David Copperfield or Harry Potter. When I talk about using magick in a contemporary pagan context, or the powers of gods, I will instead call it Work (and "spells" will instead be Workings), capitalized to elevate this divine process above the mundane kind of work. As above (Work) so below (work).

If you consider that creativity may well be communication from the gods, the two words are not very different at all. .

Friday, January 20, 2012

Candle Blow Out

Many neo-pagan traditions espouse the belief that candles should never be blown out - they should only be snuffed or pinched out. The idea is that overpowering them with the breath (being either the element of Air or the breath of life force) is disrespectful to the the element of Fire. This never really measured well on my truth-o-meter so I decided to dig up whatever I could find about it.

Since we relish blowing out birthday candles, I started there. The tradition of putting candles on birthday cakes started with the Ancient Greeks, who put candles on offering breads in ceremonies to the Goddess Artemis so the breads would glow like the moon. This also allowed prayers to be carried up to the Goddess in the smoke of the candles. There is no indication of how these candles were extinguished and no lasting tradition that demands a ceremonial breath to do the job.

Since the 3rd century BC, candles were typically used to keep time. As candle clocks, weights were cast into the sides of candles so that the weights would fall into a metal bowl as the candle burned down, thus marking the time with a chime. But candles didn't only mark the hours of the day. In Germany, where candle-making became a highly developed art and science,  a single "life candle" was placed in the center of sweet bread to symbolize the light of life. At this point, the lines between what was pagan (the fire of life) and Christian (Jesus is the light of the world) were becoming blurred. These life candles had marks on them, usually 12, and were saved for many years so that one mark could be burned every year on each birthday. Those familiar with candle magick will see the significance of this ritual. Perhaps we blow out a birthday candle to signify that we have burned up our candle mark for that year and are officially one year older. Again, there is no indication of how the candle was extinguished in this tradition. However, since blowing out a candle is a natural, reflexive action when a candle has to be put out, it seems probable that any ceremonial deviation to that natural response would have been more likely to survive as part of the tradition. But this was not the case. In fact, finding prohibitions to blowing out a candle is rather difficult. I found only one claim that there is a superstition in Bulgaria and Romania: blowing out a candle causes a sailor to die.

Blowing out candles when making a wish seems to be a relatively modern tradition. Many of us these days believe that blowing out all of the flames with one breath poses just the challenge that the person of honor must accomplish to win the manifestation of their wish. We say, "If you don't blow them all out, your wish won't come true." Joke candles that will not blow out are made to thwart the efforts of this superstition. This bit of  mundane magic actually glorifies the act of blowing out the candle. Since the Church has pushed many "paganisms" into being simply superstitions, I am confused how the idea that we must blow out candles has survived, despite that many Pagans are saying one should not.

Except in very specific occasions, many Jews do not blow out a candle flame because it represents the soul. There are numerous bulletin board entries of worried Jewish mommies asking if they should allow their children to blow out birthday candles, and numerous responses by people, who claim to know all about Paganism, saying the practice is Avoda Zarah, "foreign worship." Doing so threatens to recognize the rituals of other faiths; it amounts to idolatry. Frankly, I've found that most Judeo-Christian people enjoy working way too hard to find as much dogma as possible to structure their lives, but I commend the strong drive to be true to one's faith. If their souls are truly in danger, I ultimately don't see how snuffing out a soul is any different than blowing out a soul.

Conversely and because of the same symbolism, Buddhists prefer to blow out their candles. The idea is that extinguishing a flame hastens reincarnation because it represents helping a spirit to move out of this incarnation.

Gerald Gardner made no mention of a blow-out prohibition in the fiction work High Magics Aid (1949) or in the nonfiction classics Witchcraft Today (1954) or The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) that began much of contemporary Wicca.  I also found no mention of it in any of the works on my shelf by Buckland or the Farrars, so it seems that it is an element that is not a part of Garderian Wicca, but that trail may simply be beyond my current research.  Certainly possible is that this may be something that was only part of the oral tradition - told from teacher to student. This would make it a great way to identify an inexperienced or false witch.

The earliest mention I could find was by Scott Cunningham in his 1991 book Earth, Air, Fire & Water in which he states that he (personally) doesn't like to blow out candles because he feels it is an affront to Fire (102). Based on his word choice, it seems that Cunningham invented the prohibition. But why?

Cunningham actually received his witch training from Raven Grimassi, a practioner of Italian witchcraft known as Strega. The Strege place enormous emphasis on the hearth and the fire within it because of what it meant to the pagan family, village and people. They have moved a symbol of the hearth to the center of their altar in the form of the "spirit flame," which is a bowl of alcohol burning blue to represent the spirit of the old ways, the power of life, and the presence of the Deity.  Great reverence is given to the spirit flame and it is never extinguished - it must be allowed to burn out. I believe that Cunningham's contact with Grimassi infused him with this reverence for fire and led to his unwillingness to blow out any flame.

Since all candles have to be put out somehow, here are my thoughts on the topic.
1. Blowing out a candle sometimes disperses drops of molten wax around. Not only is this a pain around carpet and altar cloths, this also leaves a trace that a candle was burned - a bad thing if you wanted to keep a ceremony secret. If you want to operate in a manner that honors "the burning times," you might choose to snuf.
2. Snuffing out a candle requires an extra tool on the altar, or you must run the risk of finger-snuffing incorrectly such that you burn yourself. If you are a minimalist or pragmatist, you might choose to blow.
3. The idea that the element of Fire would be disrespected by being overpowered by the element of Air is a stretch (sorry, Scott). Firstly, since the elements make up all things, even snuffing would be an affront to Fire by overpowering it with water or earth. So what's the difference?  Secondly, fire can't exist without earth (the candle wax) or air - the flame is a harmony of fire, earth, and air.
4. If you really think that blowing out a candle blows away the magic, then you don't believe your magic to be very powerful. How will you possibly defend against any curse when your magic can be so easily overcome by a puff of air? Is that much doubt present in your mind?
5. Here's a fair compromise: candles that are for illumination or that represent deities or powers can be extinguished in any way. Candles that are anointed or empowered as a component of a magical working should be capped out (without disturbing the wick) if they are not going to be completely burned at one time. This allows the magic in the candle to radiate out to do its work without any symbolic interruptions or disturbances, though I don't really think it makes that much difference.

UPDATE: April 28, 2015
Adonis Merlin, a very respected reader and teacher, discovered some information recently that might make this topic a bit more understood.

In 1942, Henri Gamache wrote a pamphlet revealing some Hoodoo candle burning practices, which he titled "The Master Book of Candle Burning: How to Burn Candles for Every Purpose." In this short missive, he discussed that many Hoodoo candle spells are done in parts, during which a section of a candle is burned at intervals over the course of a day, several days, or nights. It is imperative during these intervals that a candle be snuffed out, not blown out, because blowing out a candle signals the conclusion of the spell.

Similarly, James Frazer's "The Golden Bough," which is taken as one of the most important and guiding works to pagans of the last century, reviews the use of "perpetual flames" by classical pagan cults. These were flames that were either fed by devotees or by a natural source such that they would never extinguish from lack of fuel. In those cults, the act of letting such flames go out was considered a very malevolent omen and so great lengths were taken to avoid losing the flame.

It should be noted that some older Wiccan spells (those written before all this angst over puckering up and blowing) actually indicate that their candles should be extinguished specifically by blowing them out.

I stand by my previous "compromise" above: those candles used for spells that do not conclude in a single session, or are novenas for saintly or spiritual prayers, should be snuffed out. All others can be blown out. Perpetual flames, of course, should be allowed to burn at all times.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Out and In

In recent years I've noticed a kind of witch becoming more and more prevalent. I have dubbed them "indoor pagans," though they really are just witches. Their ability to operate as a pagan would (should?) in our modern world leave much to be desired.

These are people who have been searching for some spirituality that is other than the dominant triumvirate that currently exists. They want more drama, more mystery, more glamour, and maybe even more deviancy than the others provide. So they find and study witchcraft or one of the traditions of Wicca. Many of them started as people trying to make sense of a world with little apparent morality. Maybe they just wanted a community that allowed them to be a little morally ambiguous themselves from time to time. Let's face it, many of us have our trashy moments, and what's really wrong with that?

My point is that they may be witches, but they are not pagans. They don't enjoy being outdoors, unless its a brief nature walk on a paved path with no hills in good weather. They don't spend time observing the cycles unless its collected for them and published in an almanac. They kill spiders that get in their way; they treat their bodies like hell by smoking, frequently drinking excessive booze or caffeine and they have no desire to look after their diet. I guess "An it harm none" only works when it's convenient. They buy all manner of witchy supplies with no idea how they came to be. I once met a witch who had a tall and gnarled staff carved to her specifications and she paid quite a bit of money to have a small diamond set in the head. I asked her if she knew if it was a blood diamond and she said to me, "No, it's a white diamond."

I don't really care if witches are pagans any more than if I care if Jews or Buddhists are pagans. I just wish they would stop calling themselves pagans. If you want to be a Martha-Stewart-Witch rather than a nature-based homesteader, that's fine. Please, just own it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


It has become pretty clear that I need some help, and I don't mean help with the shaman thing.

I've spent the last few decades labeling myself a solitary pagan and witch. Bully for me. In all of that time, despite starting a few esoteric books, I've found that I'm really not giving my spiritual health very much energy. Of all of the beginners' exercises that are typically recommended, I rarely do any of them. I am prone to starting something and then losing interest and motivation before it's finished, including books, exercises, classes, and projects. This is a real problem.

Lately I've allied myself with a couple of online witch "schools." They are providing a structure to people who want to study the esoteric arts. I think that's just what I need -- structure. I'm willing to start at whatever these schools claim to be the beginning. I want no claims of previous study to place me out of any classes. I want to do the entire program from start to finish. That word "finish" is such a daunting one to my mind. It comes with so much pressure that it need not come. I give it that power and I just need to chill out.

And so I'm going to change the nature of this blog. Instead of being just about shamanism, it is going to be about my whole Wiccan school journey. All of the book reviews, insights, lessons and work that pops into my head will go here. My hope is that it will help me to record where I started and how far I'm developing.

One of the first exercises that nearly every witch is asked to do is just to meditate. Meditation helps the mind to learn focus, opens the intuitive energies of the mind and prepares one to be magical. I was worried that I wouldn't be any good at it, or that I wouldn't be patient enough to do it. Recently, I was able to find some very short meditations for each of the chakras. Each one is around 5 minutes or less and provides the appropriate tones from crystal singing bowls for balancing each chakra. So I figure I will play one of the seven meditations -- one on each day of the week -- and just deal with one chakra for five minutes. At the end of a week, I will have done my meditations and helped to balance my chakras. I hope this does the trick.

If I'm going to start my pagan training at the very beginning, then I'm a "first degree" again, and that means I have a first degree challenge. My challenge is to learn to finish what I start. When I have done my year and a day as a first degree, I will feel more accomplished and validated as a witch, and my justification will be real, not just something I tell myself. As a solitary, it's very easy to create your own justifications because you don't have to answer to anyone or any standard.

I will do the shamanic work, but not until I'm better at meditating. I think quieting my mind will help me to slip into whatever altered state I may need, whether that be for shamanism, for astral projections, for simple magic working, or whatever becomes my forte as a witch. I also expect that my forte will change.