Monday, July 25, 2016

Blood of the Dragon

Today's entry is all about Magickal Inks. Rarely have I encountered a body of recipes and lore with more fluff, bunk and horse hockey than this one. The internet is nine-months pregnant with stolen recipes that amount to nothing.

They amount to nothing because most of the people self-publishing these stolen writings are just passing along a recipe created by someone else so they can seem more knowledgeable, more experienced or more witchy. Basically, they are witches of cut-and-paste. They have not worked with the stuff one itch. I can tell they haven't because the recipes they provide don't work. I don't mean they don't work for me, or that I had trouble with them. I mean their ingredients are chemically incompatible. Is there a chance these are simply subterfuge to prevent someone really knowing "witch secrets?" Yeah that's a possibility. But I find the best way to keep a secret is to keep silent. Now why does that ring a bell?

The popular, known magickal inks are basically just dragon's blood resin that has had its vibration modified with the addition of herbs of specific powers - dragon's blood ink, bat's blood ink, dove's blood ink. The exception is butterfly blood ink, which is based on saffron.

Being an inquisitive witch, I decided to spatter my work space with red, and did I ever! Be warned: the first lesson of dragon's blood resin is that it's relatively messy. With practice, it becomes less messy, but if this is your first go 'round with dragon's blood, you are in for it, so get prepared. It helps if you attempt this recipe only after you have some experience working with herbs and their preparations. It really isn't a project for a complete beginner.

I feel the need to have a short tirade, which is one I had with my brother recently who wanted to make his own soap, but said it was becoming too difficult. Most of what you will find online is based on a cup of this or teaspoons of that. Frankly, this is hogwash cooking. No good recipe ever gained consistency or quality with those kinds of measurements. If you want to produce anything, even in small batches for a witch of one or two, and do them well, get yourself a few essential precision instruments. Get a digital scale that can measure in grams, preferably to the hundredth of a gram. Get yourself some quality glassware, like a few small beakers and certainly a graduated cylinder of 10 and 25 ml. Get yourself a pharmacy-grade mortar with a matched pestle (not one of those cheap ones made of marble or granite for mixing guacamole). Lastly, some disposable bulb droppers come in very handy and are inexpensive by the hundred. Take your herbal craft as seriously as you take your magickal craft. Do it well or don't do it at all.

As with all recipes, I began by trying out a few of them. I could tell they wouldn't quite work out because of my own experience with herbs and kitchen chemistry. But I plodded through and wasted some materials anyway. Then I decided it was time for some homework.

I'm going to share a few facts so you will have an understanding why certain mistakes are made with this recipe. It will allow you to follow me as I debunk what's all over the internet.

Checking in Wikipedia, you will find that this stuff is a plant resin and that there are several species of plant resin that can be called "dragon's blood." My own experience with botany tells me that common plant names can be misleading, so I began to unpack each one.

There are really only two plants that are of value here. The first is the most common form of dragon's blood, and it comes from the genus Daemonorops. This is the resin you will find most often for sale in markets and online. If the genus of the resin is not given, you should assume you are buying this one. It is a water soluble resin and when used medicinally, will actually cause blood to thin and flow profusely.

The other plant used for this resin is the genus Dracaena, also known as "Medieval dragon's blood" or sometimes "true dragon's blood." This resin hates water, being soluble in ethanol (that's the alcohol we can drink), and will make open wounds stop bleeding.

Medicinally speaking, these two plants couldn't be more different, which points to their internal chemistry. Sprinkling them each on ignited charcoal will make you wonder if they are the same, though there are some subtle odorous similarities between them. Visibly, the Dracaena looks substantially darker - more like blood - than the other, which appears to me like a pinkish talc. When still as a resinous lump, or "rock," the Dracaena can look nearly black; it very much resembles a scab!

The best way to dissolve a resin effectively is for the resin to be powdered. For me, a mortar and pestle is great for some resins, but it wasn't very effective for dragon's blood because the stuff is really, really hard. It didn't really give up to my grinding without giving me more than a workout and a bruise in the center of my palm. Contrary to popular belief, the mortar is not for pounding. Pounding produces projectiles and lots of mess. If your material doesn't give up in the mortar with firm pressure and a twisting, swirling or swaying motion, it's time to move to more mechanical means. I decided to sacrifice my $8 coffee grinder, which up until then had been reserved only for herbs. Powdering dragon's blood was a process of grind, sift and repeat. Eventually, I got some great fine powder. I also ended up with a grinder that could not be used for any other herb ever again, so I labeled the grinder, "For Dracaena sp. ONLY" and shopped for a new $8 coffee grinder to replace it.

Here's the first clue to creating a great ink recipe: remember that these two different resins have different solvents. I decided to test just how resistant they both were to their non-preferred solvent. I dissolved Daemonorops in water, as it preferred, and then began to add small amounts of ethanol. Adding ethanol to the mixture caused the Daemonorops to precipitate - condense - after very little alcohol. It hated ethanol so much, it dropped right out of the solution. By the way, when you use water as a solvent for herbs, you're making an infusion. In America, we incorrectly apply the term "tea," rather than the correct "tisane," but that's all you've made.

Next, I copied the previous steps, but dissolved Dracaena in ethanol, which it did wonderfully. I added small amounts of distilled water over time. The resin held up rather well, but at about 50% water, the solution began to break down, becoming "grainy," which is a sign that the resin wanted to precipitate out of the solution.

All of he internet recipes I had encountered so far included resin, alcohol and water. In the proportions I tested and in the recipes I tried, neither of the resins would dissolve in the solvent. Some recipes also included gum arabic as a thickener. So I thought that maybe that was the key.

First I tried hydrating my own gum arabic. That was for the birds! It may be water soluble, but only just barely and takes a great deal of effort and frustration to mix it up. Next, I purchased prepared liquid gum arabic from my art store after discovering that it is a tool used by watercolor artists. What a boon that was! Here's another warning: adding water in any form to a recipe may require a preservative to prevent mold, depending on the concentration of other chemicals in your mix, like ethanol.

After a few more recipe attempts, I discovered that gum arabic also hates ethanol, even more than Daemonorpos hates it! The droplets of gum turned into a slimy worm at the bottom of the jar, unwilling to play nice with the liquid. Ugh!

It was time for a return to the drawing board, literally. I thought to myself, "What is ink really for?" The answer was simple: making lines. But it is not for just any lines; it is for lines on paper, which means it has to act correctly on paper to make writing legible and drawing precise. So I began to read about inks. The best inks flow from a pen without being so thick that they bind the pen, but also without being so thin that they run or bleed everywhere. They need to be somewhat coherent, which has a bit to do with the fiber of the paper, but more to do with the viscosity of the ink. Additionally, when they dry, their lines should have a balanced color across the stroke, not dark at the edges and lighter in the center, which is a sign of being too dilute to deposit color evenly as the solvent dries away from the particulates.

By the way, there are two functional categories of ink. The first is a chemical stain of the page, as in the case of oak gall ink. The second is a suspended fine particulate that lays on top of the page, though may absorb into the fiber a little. Most inks are the latter, even in today's pens, and that's also what dragons blood resin is.

While working with the mess that Dracaena created, I realized that its resin was remarkably sticky. The only thing that cleans it up is more ethanol, but ethanol does that very well. It is basically like a glue. When the solvent is gone, it stops flowing and stays put, but as long as there is solvent, it will break down and move along. So it seemed logical to me that the right amount of solvent would allow the resin to do the job without any gum arabic. I began to test different solvent-to-solute ratios. I also tested different proofs of ethanol. All of these tests were done using a quill pen and a brass calligraphy tip, which I used to draw lines on standard, inexpensive printer paper.

Since Dracaena hates water, it's best to use alcohol with the highest proof possible. Some states won't sell you anything with a proof higher than 151 (75.5% ethanol). This worked okay, but not great. If you can buy a higher proof in your area, I certainly recommend it. I have to drive to the next state, but doing so let's me buy nearly pure rectified spirit (190 proof; 95% ethanol). Using drink-ready booze like vodka, rum or gin will not work because their proofs simply are not high enough.

Since this blog entry is already too long, here's what I determined is a great way to make dragon's blood ink. It turned out that a simple recipe was best.

Measure three parts of high proof ethanol into jar #1 (ex: 30 ml). Add to the ethanol one part finely powdered Dracaena resin (ex: 10 g). Close jar #1 and shake well for 10 minutes. Filter the contents of jar #1 through 2 layers of muslin into a glass cup with a spout. Be sure to squeeze out as much solvent as possible and be sure to wear gloves. Discard the marc, filter and your gloves. Slowly warm the filtered resin to drive off some ethanol until it reduces in volume by one third. Pour the liquid resin into storage or gift jars. Clean up with more ethanol and lots of paper towels.

This can now function as a base ink to be modified with other herbs for various magickal purposes. I usually just add a few drops of an appropriate essential oil, but sometimes I don't have an EO with the correct correspondence, so I have to use solid herb. In that case, I add powdered herb into the ethanol along with the resin and filter them together. If making traditional dragon's blood ink, add a couple drops of cinnamon essential oil at the end, or add powdered cinnamon into the solvent with the Dracaena to impart the traditional Mars energy. Empower and label.

Wow, that final recipe was kind of simple!