I love the sea.

I love the sea.
I have always loved the sea.
As a child I’d play in sheltered inlets, hunting knot eels, baby flounder and sand crabs. Fishing for prawns was an arcane art, guided by intuition, clouds and the phase of the moon.
Rivers would form in the sand with deep canyons and gorges with steep banks, only to disappear in a day. I’d stamp at the edges to create avalanches into the crystal green water below.
On the other side of the sand bar, huge waves crashed directly from the Tasman.
‘It’s time to come back, the tide is coming in.’ A phrase to ward off becoming marooned in an isolated cove.
I’ve stood on dark shores carpeted by thousands of tiny soldier crabs as they swarmed all around me.
I’ve been caught in a rip. I’ve misjudged the depth of a dive and nearly drowned. I’ve fallen off the back of a surf lifesaver’s zodiac in rough water. I’ve sailed, windsurfed, canoed. I’ve slept in a modest wooden hut which opened directly onto an equatorial beach.
I don’t recall when it started, but it must have started somewhere. She began to speak to me. I’d sit on the edge of a rocky pier and we’d talk. I’d ask questions and get my answers from the movement of the waves. Sometimes a playful slap across the face with salty water. Wordless, quiet, knowing.
When I’m overwhelmed, I go to the beach to feel centred. The waves pull, in and out, eternal. There I am the world and insignificant.
Wading into the water up to my neck is to commune with the divine. To sail is to fly.
A whiff of salt on the breeze, or a whisper through a storm water drain, I’m never far from her, my mother. Wherever I travel in the world, she is the same, constant, yet her moods are ever different.
Sometimes black and mild as bathwater, warmer than the midnight air in summer.
Luminescent with billions of tiny lifeforms cresting on the surface of tiny waves.
Glass grey and cold, moody. Knowable only in fragments. Deeper than imagination.
Glimpsed through trees and houses from inland. No mountains draw my eye to the west. Scanning the horizon- always to her. I orientate myself by her borders, not by sun rise and fall.
In dreams I can breathe underwater and feel whole. Awake, I’m not a strong swimmer. Ill health bars me from diving and this causes me great anguish.
Living in a sheltered bay, I don’t often witness her apocalyptic glory. I know, intellectually, why people fear her. I don’t. But wonder is a small step away from terror. Something dark and slimy passes against my leg and I startle. Her other children could kill me easily.
Like glass and stones and shells, she sands off my rough edges. Borders are where I belong. The salt air erodes. Shores change. Nothing stays the same for long.
There’s salt in my blood. One day it will return to the sea. All things return to the sea.

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Necromancy and the Queens of Death

Red Death is for the living. Green Death is for the already gone. White Death is for us all.

Death is a heady subject among pagans. It’s large. It’s divisive. It’s inevitable.
As a necromancer, how do I approach death, my own mortality and that of my loved ones?

This is my framework for conceptualizing death.These aren’t gods or regents but anthropomorphic personifications of natural phenomena. A symbolic representation, but powerful forces nonetheless. 

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Death as depicted in the Rider-Waite tarot.

The Three Monarchs of Death:

The Red Queen of Death is for the living.
She’s sexy, provocative, reckless and impatient. She tastes like the blood in your mouth from a kick in the teeth.
If you get too close to her she’ll burn your fingertips. The wounds will either cauterize and make you numb, or hurt worse than anything you’ve ever felt. They always scar, but sometimes the scars fade with time-time you have because you’re still alive. She’s a gushing, ragged wound; roses and rotting meat. You can hear her laughing when a speeding car misses you by an inch. She claws into your chest and squeezes your heart when you watch a loved one slip away in their sleep. She’s pain and violence, fear and finality.

The Red Queen is always with me. Sometimes she steps behind me and out of my field of immediate focus, but she is always there-trauma, mental illness and chronic ill health see to that.
My relationship with her is intimate and deeply personal; my perpetual dance partner in a tango.

The Green Queen of Death is for the already dead.
She’s motherly, patient and persistent. She tastes like forest mushrooms. She’s the roots of a tree cracking open a skull with slow but inexorable force. She’s a bountiful feast for smaller animals, insects and organisms. She’s silence carrying an ellipses into a promise…of something more. She’s the softness of rotting wood and the hardness of fossilized bone. She’s the serene marble statue of a saint in the vaulted halls of the church of nature.
The Green Death is where I do most of my necromancy work.

I love all of my specimens. However, I knew none of the numerous preserved animals in my collection before they died.
To love them as they were once alive would be to grieve for them in passing. Sadness is too sticky; I can’t flush it out effectively and it lingers. I’ve opted out of preserving anything I’ve had the misfortune of needing to help ease from this world. If I knew them in life, I couldn’t sever their connection to the Red Queen. If possible, I bury them, so they may rest and heal.

It is better for me to love my specimens as I first met them; already dead, belonging to the Queen of the Green Death. In my necromancy practices, I do my best to serve their modest demands. They require a pauper’s supper.
The Red Queen on the other hand, is ravenous for blood. Like fire, she’ll consume everything you let her.

“…Man’s heart is a ditch full of blood. The loved ones who have died throw themselves down on the bank of this ditch to drink the blood and so come to life again; the dearer they are to you, the more of your blood they drink.”

―Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis

What to do then, when a beloved, close family member dies? In most instances in my life, it has not been my decision to make.
When it is, due to their connection with the Red Death, my regular preservation techniques would be too personally traumatizing.

Skulls are spiritually weighty objects which require no context. The spirits which inhabit dead remains have also been irrevocably transformed from their living selves.
Cremains themselves are only as meaningful as that which is ascribed to them by the living; given to a stranger, ashes may as well be a box of dirt.
For this reason, I had my cat-grandmother and cat-son cremated. This process creates a symbolic abstraction of their whole physical bodies without the removal of soft tissue usually associated with preservation.
This way I can continue to carry them with me in my life and in my heart-at least until my own death-as I remember them, as they were. The two boxes of ashes sit upon the mantel at the heart of our home. Their spirits are part of the household itself; friendly shadows slinking around corners just out of sight.

 

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It was much harder to take selfies 15 years ago

 

There is also a third monarch, The White Death, the Grim Reaper. This psychopomp has a single appointment to keep with every living thing and serves as a reminder not to take it all too seriously; because it’ll all be over soon enough.

Preventing the anthropocene apocalypse: A matter of framing

I’m very invested in the well being of this planet.

Everyone should be-at least until we’ve got space travel and terraforming perfected.
My personal politics lean pretty far into syndicalist anarchism due to my environmentalism-which is, in turn, informed by my values as a pagan.

Being poor, disabled and queer, I’m very worried about the future, on both a personal and global level. I don’t have an economic buffer between me and homelessness/death.

When I’m nervous about something, I like to talk about it.
Discussions with people who don’t share similar views to me almost always end up centered around what we would have to give up in order to ‘save the environment’.
‘What about the internet? Electricity? Modern conveniences?’ people often ask me, as if wanting to live a sustainable lifestyle means pretending the industrial revolution never happened. I find this attitude to be a folly, as it frames sustainability from a standpoint of personal sacrifice; people are already stressed and stretched thin. Everyone hates taxes because it’s hard to share when you don’t have enough for yourself. But the scarcity we face is artificial.

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Our species could easily fail to adapt, just like this Gorgosaurus.   Credit: Wikimedia commons

In preventing a human-extinction level event of our own making, we would have to give up a lot, it’s true. But too many people are focusing on the wrong things-I don’t believe sustainability means making peoples lives harder.
The systems in place that are leading to mass deforestation, climate change, unsustainable population growth, water scarcity and more are symptoms of larger economic forces at play.
To remove them would mean disposing of:
Systematic oppression
Extreme wealth inequality
Police brutality
Unfulfilling bullshit jobs
Debt serfdom
Cultural and literal genocide.

I love innovation; medical, communication and accessibility tech is invaluable in improving individual quality of life. I’m very excited about the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. But I also want to see a return to having a connection with land, artisanal craftsmanship, co-operative local food production and the value of human labor. Our lives are short and precious. We have the capacity to make work be spiritually fulfilling and not merely a tool for survival to keep poverty or starvation at bay. We don’t have to accept a world shaped by the rich and powerful to the detriment of us all.
Lay your hands on a hand-carved oak table. Wear a scarf knitted with love. Eat a lemon grown in your neighbors yard. Make a hand-drawn birthday card. Light a candle made from locally harvested beeswax. It’s magic.

I believe it’s beyond the limits of human nature to live in a perfect utopia. Humans are psychologically messy, complicated and often aggressive. Conflicts will arise.
But if we don’t change these systems of oppression now, nature will adapt to the changes we’ve wrought-without us. Perhaps for some future creatures to dig up and be confused over.

I’m scared of zombies because I’m queer

Living as ‘other’ and striving towards authenticity, no matter how transgressive is an intrinsic part of my pagan path.

At least that’s how I’m shoe-horning in this week’s theme. I defy easy classification; or, It’s my blog and I’ll go off-topic if I want to. I’m going to be very blunt about queerphobia. Beware.

I’ve always been terrified of zombies; I can’t sit through Romero movies. I have bad anxiety and need to read plot spoilers. Jump scares cause me physical pain.
This is a bit of a paradox. I love horror movies. I’ve been elbow deep in gore. I’m a necromancer. I make distasteful jokes about cannibalism.
I’m terrified of zombies…because I’m queer.

Zombies can be read as various kinds of zeitgeistic metaphors. Debt, unchecked consumerism, unemployment, the failure of the social order.
So why do zombies scare me so much? In their natural environment they are ubiquitous and beyond reason.

Small bands of survivors huddle together in a hostile, resource scarce world against an unending hoard wishing them death. Am I describing my friends on a Saturday night, or The Walking Dead?

I strive to be understanding, logical and compassionate. All the people slinging death threats at me aren’t. They can’t be reasoned with. There is an unending parade of them. They howl and beat on my metaphorical door through the internet. I don’t have enough ammo (resources, time, energy) keep them all at bay. They get through and they wound me. They claim I owe it to them to change their minds.
You can’t cure zombies. Meaningful change must come from within.

Just like a survivor in the zombie apocalypse I cannot ever feel safe. I was born into a social order that was built from the ground up to exclude people like myself. This world was never meant for me. The zombies have inherited the earth.

Like the characters in The Walking Dead, I can try disguises, slathering myself in zombie guts to walk among them. Not living my authentic self is just as unpleasant.

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Gross. Image credit: AMC, The Walking Dead.

However I can only hide so much of myself, no matter how hard I try. Violent straight people can smell your fear. The disguise inevitably slips. Is this it? I ask myself during every confrontation, and there are many. Is this the day I die?
Which is going to kill me first, a mishap of fate or illness, or an attacker? Or alternatively, myself, after the vigilance and battle has ground away my resolve until I can no longer fight? Death isn’t a question; it’s a promise.

I catch a snippet of television. A politician is claiming Australia doesn’t have a homophobia problem. My friends can’t get legally married and word is passed around about someone local being near-fatally bashed for being gender nonconforming.

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What being ‘straight passing’ feels like. Image credit: AMC, The Walking Dead.

I like to fantasize that humans are rational. I’m often proven wrong. Zombies cannot be reasoned with. If a zombie has broken into my compound and displayed bigotry I try to educate them, but they are too many and too stubborn. It’s often fruitless because zombies don’t want to listen, they want to argue, to gorge themselves on my vulnerability. To feel victimized by my defenses.
I am strong but scarred. My strength costs me dearly. They are relentless. Their self-sanctified opinions do me active harm. For every one I block ten more shuffle forward chanting ‘you don’t exist’. Zombies lack the higher brain function to appreciate the irony. I exist, but if I cease to do so it’s because they have killed me.

Friends and allies mute the groaning from just beyond the wall. But I can still hear it. Queer spaces aren’t perfect safe havens either due to lateral violence; just like in the zombie apocalypse, survivors turn on each other due to the scarcity of resources. Gatekeeping and respectability politics abound. Nonetheless my social justice is intersectional because those survivors in the boarded up building next door? I feel for them, too. I’m not going to use them as bait just so I can temporarily get ahead. Because it’s not a real victory until the war is over.

Zombie media isn’t prone to happy endings. Nor is media in general kind to queers, when we can get them, which is rare. Gays get buried. Women are refrigerated.
I enjoy apocalyptic fiction because it represents a game board hurriedly and messily wiped clear. A chance to start over, and for some lawless, anarchic fun.
The best apocalyptic fiction is queer. Why reinforce heteronormativity when you can have the Gayboy Berserkers and the Vulvalini?

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This is not the visage of a straight man. Image credit: Warner Bros, Mad Max 2.

Mainstream zombie media on the other hand is an endless grind with no hope of closure. Awash with an ambient anxiety that is already the background radiation of my life, it’s littered with the same regurgitated heterosexual romances reinforcing current social mores with the flavor, colour and excitement of mashed potato. It’s not meant for me, and never was.

The zombie contagion has spread too far. There is no hope but for homogeneity. In the real world, people say ‘gay gene’ and my friends and I hear ‘eugenics’. We fight to survive and live but sometimes it feels Sisyphean and pointless.

But to conform and join the hoard is to die, so fight we must.

ALL THE IMPS. Lessons learned from Black Phoenix Alchemy lab.

I’d known about Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, or BPAL as it’s known amongst its connoisseurs, for many years. One day I had a bit of spare cash and decided to give their offerings a try.

Lately I had begun using aromas as a calming stim; a form of autistic self-management to allay the stress caused by the sensory overload of being out in public.

Lavender regent is a motherly, patient, hardy, forgiving and persistent plant (yes, I intend to use my spirit classification system to refer to plants as well). People who have seen me in person will notice I often have a fresh lavender flower tucked behind an ear (aesthetic). When facing unfamiliar situations I’ll sometimes put a single drop of lavender oil on the lapel of my jacket. When I feel particularly overwhelmed it’s not too innocuous to bury my face in that and breathe it in. The sensation is like being hugged by a beloved grandmother or aunt.

I have a very keen sense of smell, so I’ve never been overly fond of wearing perfumes. Even the hair product I use is beeswax based and largely unscented. BPAL has a reputation for being unconventional however, and when presented with offerings with names like ‘Graveyard dirt’, I was intrigued.

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I ordered a bunch of imps (ok…I went a little overboard) and when they arrived I settled down with a jar of coffee as a palate cleanser, to test my impressions.

What do the words ‘graveyard dirt’ conjure in my mind? That fecund, deep smell of moist earth under a cool canopy of dappled shade. Being the tragically literal-minded autistic I am, what I want is a perfume that smells like actual literal dirt.

BPAL’s ‘Graveyard dirt’ smells like perfume. I can’t deny I was a little bit disappointed.

I foisted the ones I truly hated off onto friends as gifts and kept the rest-quickly learning to appreciate that the properties of a scent change when applied to the skin, and then over time as it’s worn. I’m still not overly fond of them however, as to my senses they seem distractingly artificial.

This led me to do some research on the nature of essential oils. One of the joys of working with wood is the smell. I’d recently completed a project using an incredible soft wood (which I have forgotten the name of and will edit in later). I quickly discovered that its oil is in fact poisonous. Oops.

Being highly concentrated chemicals, most essential oils are Serious Business, a business I’m not particularly knowledgeable about. I don’t think the tiny amount of lavender I use is of much consequence other than leaving an unfortunate stain on one of my jackets, and other than that I restrict my use of them to an old fashioned cold and flu congestion remedy.

This journey taught me that not being able to bottle the smell of rain on grass, the salt of the sea, old books or leather makes these experiences all the more precious.

Like taste, scent is fleeting, but unlike cake, scents won’t make my blood sugar skyrocket, so there’s that.

 

Sailing on Melbourne’s tall ship, Enterprize

The sea is a pivotal part of my paganism, so on the 10th of April I took a short voyage with some friends aboard the Enterprize from near my old home town on the Mornington Penninsula to the Docklands, to celebrate my birthday from a few weeks prior.

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The bow of the new Enterprize.

The original Enterprize was a timber two-masted, topsail schooner built in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1830. It was a coastal transport vessel and was used largely for coal, supplies and occasionally livestock.

Although Europeans had sailed up the Yarra river in 1803 on a surveying trip as far as Dights falls in Abbotsford, they did not return to begin the settlement of Melbourne until August of 1835, when the Enterprize was hauled upriver and moored at the site of what is now Williams street.

The original Enterprize disappeared off the Hobart shipping register due to being wrecked on the Richmond River in NSW in 1847, with the loss of two lives.

The new replica Enterprize was launched in 1997, constructed partly from reclaimed materials using traditional boat building techniques.  With an overall length of 27 meters, the rigging is hemp rope and the sails are hand-sewn flax cloth. The bulwarks are Cyprus pine grown on the Royal Melbourne Golf Course and the floor timbers are Jarrah wood salvaged from Melbourne’s old station pier. Below the waterline the hull timber once made up the floor joists of an old Freemantle wool store and the ship’s ribs include wood salvaged from New Zealand brewing vats. The heritage of these recycled materials gives her the feeling of being close in spirit to the original and not just an empty simulacra.

She’d been giving short passenger rides on the afternoon of the trip, so we got to watch her coming in to dock on Mornington pier from a distance as we walked down from the red sandy cliffs above.

After giving a quick offering of some whiskey to the boat and the sea off the end of the pier (I wasn’t able to get rum on short notice) it was time to go.

After a brief flurry of activity hoisting the sails where myself and my companions scampered about either trying to keep out of the way or be useful in helping pull rigging, we were off with a calm but favorable wind.

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The main mast.

Crewed by personable, good-humored volunteers, it’s a quiet ship that hums gently with a diesel engine. The crew love her and she seems happy to soak up their affection-especially the magnificently crafted solid wood steering tiller which happily invites touch. Constructed as faithfully as possible to the original ship, the Enterprize is a real Melbourne icon.

It was a peaceful voyage with a minimal crew and only a small handful of passengers. Although the bay was calm with only small waves, I was still stumbling about like a vodka-filled toddler for most of the trip.

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Port side rigging and bulwark.

Being a traditionally rigged vessel, after spending the afternoon and evening aboard I felt covered in a light coating of tar. The skies were clear and we were gifted with a beautiful sunset, and then a view of the clear night sky with far more stars than I’m accustomed to seeing deep in the light-polluted suburbs where I live.
The sea was playful and friendly as she usually is towards me and I felt content to simply enjoy the experience, staring out across Port Phillip and along the coast in the distance.

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Sunset.

After sunset, pulling in towards the city, Hobson’s bay glittered with sleepy, golden Sunday evening lights as we approached, the sky smudged with smoke and steam.

Cruising up the Yarra back to her home in Victoria Harbour highlighted the contrast of a Melbourne young and old as we passed the new shipping control tower then the old one, abandoned since 1985.

The busy shipping lanes were quiet and largely deserted and dormant; solitary human figures moving about on shore looked out of place, like the peculiar figures in a Jeffrey Smart painting. A lone man jogging along the wharf,  a hooded figure hunched over at the edge of a floating 24-hour boat refueling station.
A huge European freight ship stood silent in the distance; the vast temporary car lots used for moving imported cars off ship lit but empty.

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The Brutalist underside of the Bolte bridge.

The harbor is a vast and awe-inspiring vista of industry, huge machines and ships that are peculiarly alienating in their immensity, dwarfing any human.

We passed serenely under the Westgate Bridge while the crew folded the sails, then under the festively glowing Bolte bridge, until we were back on dry land all too soon.

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Cruising along the Yarra river with the Bolte bridge in the foreground.

The Enterprize runs regular trips of varying lengths (and prices) making it accessible to a broad range of people. I highly recommend the experience to anyone with an interest in Melbourne’s heritage, sailing or the sea to give it a try. She’s a gentle ship, but the capricious sea has caused her deck to see plenty of digestive carnage from seasick passengers. Be sure to take some ginger first.

Dragon’s blood ink: The search for a recipe that actually works

Unsurprisingly, making Dragon’s blood ink is not as straightforward as all the online tutorials with the same copypasted (mis)information make it seem.

The recipe that can most easily be found online is a combination of alcohol, gum arabic and dragon’s blood resin. I put this to the test, and found success hinges on the qualities of the ingredients.

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Dragon’s blood ink and resin.

Part 1: the experiment.

The alcohol:
First test, Polmos Spirytus rectified spirit. It’s the highest purity alcohol (95%) available to the general public in Australia. It’s also $70 per 500ml. I wasn’t willing to spend that much money on booze I’m not going to drink!
So we move down the price scale to vodka. Most vodkas are around 37% alcohol, the rest being water. Due to this high water content, the resin was reluctant to dissolve, and when it did, the drying time was prohibitively long.
My next unsuccessful experiment was with methylated spirits (denatured alchohol). Although cheap, it smells dreadful and leaves a foul smelling residue behind when used as an ink due to the additives which make it undrinkable.

Finally, success with Isopropyl alcohol (IPA). It’s only $9 per 250ml, 99.8% alcohol and evaporates quickly and cleanly. It can be found at specialty electronics stores such as Jaycar.

The gum arabic:
The purpose of gum arabic in ink is to increase the viscosity of the fluid, allowing it to grip the brush.
The problem: gum arabic isn’t soluble in alcohol. Trying to dilute it in water first and then adding it to the alcohol resulted in a stringy, goopy mess.

I couldn’t find any alcohol soluble equivalents, so I left it out.

The resin:
As I covered in my last post, there are primarily two types of resin on the market. Daemonorops draco is not alcohol soluble. If mixed with alcohol, this palm draco resin may turn the alcohol a muddy brown colour, but will quickly settle to the bottom.
Dracaena cinnabari and Draceana Draco will both readily and quickly dissolve in alcohol and are suitable for creating ink.

Part 2: The recipe

What you’ll need:

  • Dracaena resin.  Elfhame’s Apothecary were very kind to provide me with some genuine D. cinnabari, or ‘medieval dragon’s blood’ for testing. It can be purchased here.
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • A storage jar with a secure lid
  • 2 beakers, open mouth jars or
    measuring cups.
  • A brush or other writing implement
  • Some patience

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Step 1:

Powder the resin.
Because my mortar and pestle are quite large and the material very precious, I wrapped it up in baking paper and crushed it using the pestle alone, which minimizes wastage.
As it is quite readily soluble in alcohol, D. Cinnabari does not need to be crushed very fine.

Step 2:
Pour the powder into one of the open mouth containers. Add the alcohol and watch as the blood red colour instantly begins to seep into the liquid, quickly transforming it into a rich, black-red fluid. The process is quite captivating to watch and the resemblance to real blood is striking.

Step 3:
Let it settle for a couple of hours, then gently skim the alcohol off into the second container by carefully pouring it and leaving the bark chunks behind.
Due to the way in which Dracaena cinnabari is harvested, there will be a substantial amount of bark debris left.
Repeat this process until the alcohol runs relatively clear, leaving behind only spent fragments of bark.

Step 4:
Leave the second open mouthed container with no lid in a warm, dry place and allow the alcohol to evaporate down.
Due to the nature of the ink I didn’t find it necessary to filter it further.
Use a brush to make some test marks to gauge the correct concentration. When enough alcohol has evaporated to create the right concentration of pigment, bottle it in a sealable jar. If it becomes too thick, simply add more alcohol.

Conclusion:
It should give a luxurious red ink, but not be too thick as to remain tacky while drying.
Note: keep alcohol on hand for cleaning brushes/writing implements, as it won’t wash off using normal methods. For this reason I recommend using a fine paintbush for writing, as they are easier to clean.

The process is a little messy, but very simple and easy. By making it yourself, you can be assured the ink is genuine. As pure Dragon’s blood ink dries scentless, this also opens up the possibilities for experimenting with adding fragrances and resins to create Bat’s blood or  Dove’s blood ink and other concoctions.

The surprising truth about counterfeit Dragon’s blood

The truth is you haven’t been buying Dracaena draco, and the surprise is; that’s a good thing.
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Dracaena cinnabari in it’s native habitat on the Socotra archipelago. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

Part one in a series on Dragon’s blood resin.

The other Dragon’s blood; latex, dye and poison

In a modern magical context, Dragon’s blood is often erroneously assumed to simply be the resin sap produced by the Dragon tree, but as with most things in this world, the truth is more nuanced.

The Calamus, Pterocarpus and Croton genera contain plants which produce gums, latexes and resins which have been labelled as Dragon’s blood; these have been used medicinally and as dyes. One example, the latex of the Sangre de drago , Croton lechleri, native to South America, can be used as a natural adhesive bandage.
As for their use as pigments, due to the nature of vegetable dyes, kino gums may resemble blood when oozing from wounds on a tree but often do not produce a red colour pigment.

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The familiar kino of the Eucalyptus, Corymbis calophylla. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Outside of ethnomedical studies and natural remedies, these forms of Dragon’s blood are of less prevalent concern to modern paganism.

Next up we have the brilliant but deadly vermilion, also known as Dragon’s blood, or China red. This was traditionally produced from powdered mineral cinnabar. Cinnabar is a highly toxic form of mercury sulphide which was used in antiquity as a dye, cosmetic and in jewelry. Unsurprisingly you’re not likely to encounter this stuff on the market in its natural form, although vintage Chinese cinnabar lacquered artifacts are attractive to collectors. While cinnabar is very dangerous, with careful handling the lacquer renders it relatively inert.

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A wooden plate lacquered with cinnabar. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Finally, the form that most of us are more familiar with; Dragon’s blood incense. This is usually derived from either the Daemonorops or Dracaena genera; only the latter of which is also used as a dye.

The true Dragon’s blood tree

The Dragon’s blood resin you see for sale is very unlikely to be from the true dragon’s blood tree. It’s also worth noting that any form of genuine Dragon’s blood essential oil does not exist.

The popular houseplant known as Lucky bamboo, or Chinese water bamboo, Dracaena braunii, is actually a much closer relative to the genuine Dragon’s blood trees. Continuing the theme of misattribution, it is not Chinese nor a bamboo; it’s native to Cameroon in West Africa.

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Some lucky bamboo growing on my altar.

The family it belongs to, Asparagaceae, gives us the Agave used in the production of tequila and, as one could guess from the name, the vegetable asparagus.

When people talk about the Dragon’s blood tree, they are usually referring to Dracaena draco or Dracaena cinnabari. Although there are other Dracaena species harvested for their resin, I’ll be focusing on these two as they’re the most widely known and referred to. Due to its distinctive long trunk with leafy branches extending from the crown, these trees are sometimes called a Dragon’s blood palm. This is unfortunate because it is not a palm, while its impostor is.

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Not a palm. Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Dracaena draco is a popular ornamental garden tree in Australia, whereas D. cinnabari is much less sought after due to its extremely slow growth rate and similar appearance. Given favorable conditions, the average Dragon’s blood tree takes 10 years to reach a height of just over one meter.

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My child. I picked up this D. Draco at Bunnings when it was only 20cm tall. It’s now 3 years of age.

Unfortunately both D. Draco and D. Cinnabari are threatened species; vulnerable to extinction in their native habitats. Both trees have an incredibly slow growth cycle, taking over a decade to reach their first state of reproductive maturity. Habitat loss, over harvesting, desertification, climate change and modern agriculture techniques all present hazards to their survival.

The common Dragon’s blood cane palm

Daemonorops draco, sometimes referred to as Demon cane due to its thorns, is cultivated in Southeast Asia, with much of the resin on the market coming from Indonesia and Thailand. Endemic to the tropics close to the equator, the Arecaceae family of plants also gives us raffia and coconuts.

dumbvane

Not to be confused with the Araceae family like this Dieffenbachia dumb cane. Because whoever named them hated dyslexic people.

Daemonorops draco is the stuff you’ll commonly see for sale. I often see Dragon’s blood in stores labelled as Dracaena draco, but it’s increasingly rare and difficult to find genuine Dracaena resin.

Although it’s unfortunate that so many otherwise reputable outlets are mislabeling their product, the reasons I posited this as a good thing are threefold.
Firstly, Dracaena draco resin, due to its rarity is prohibitively expensive.

Secondly is the issue of the commercial exploitation of an endangered species, making the use of a plentiful alternative attractive. Harvesting Dracaena resin leaves the tree vulnerable to fungal infection which may kill it. Due to this vulnerability and their low numbers, it is favorable that the commonly available Dragon’s blood incense is derived from the plentiful and fast growing Daemonorops draco, as demand for the resin could not be satisfied otherwise.

Thirdly is a matter of personal opinion in regards to their aromatic properties. The rare D. cinnabari and D. draco are almost entirely scentless unless actively being burnt. As Dragon’s blood resin is used in all sorts of aromatic products beyond incense, such as soaps and papers, these would lose their appeal if Dracaena was used in things that aren’t intended to be set on fire.
Conversely the subtle but commanding, warm, masculine scent of Daemonorops draco is quite pleasant and apparent even when not lit.

sigil_chalk

This red sigil chalk I made using palm Dragon’s blood should definitely not be set on fire.

Now that we’ve established the difference between these three types of Dragon’s blood resin, what about their aromas, magical uses and the mysterious Dragon’s blood ink?

In my next posts I will demonstrate the recipe for Dragon’s blood ink and explore the properties of Daemonorops draco, Dracaena draco and Dracaena cinnabari in greater detail.

Blood Magic

This article has a frank discussion of the uses of blood and photographs of dried blood on paper-all pictures of fresh blood/more graphic images are posted as links. I also refrained from making any ‘blood for the blood god’ jokes even though I really wanted to.

All experiments are valuable; here’s one that didn’t go so well-using fresh human blood as ink.

It’s a pity I didn’t have this project in mind when I was trailing surgical drains [GRAPHIC IMAGE] everywhere I went while recovering from top surgery (a double mastectomy) which would have provided a more than ample supply of human juice.

All the information I could find relating to blood painting generally assumes the blood compounds have been processed and rendered into a pigment-any cursory internet search for blood ink will only net you results about printer ink being more expensive by volume.

Once outside the body, pure blood clots very fast; rapidly turning into a goopy mess. While still in liquid form it displays good brush adhesion and is easy to use as a caligraphy medium, but the working time is a matter of mere seconds.
I experimented with diluting blood with alchohol, water and liquid gum arabic; none of these had any effect on stopping or slowing coagulation.
I wanted to find if there were any other easily available household items that could be used in such a manner.
Somewhere in the dusty attic of my memory, I had filed away a bit of heresay that food grade Tartaric and Citrid acid could be used as anti-coagulants.
At this point the supply I was willing and able to extract from myself was dwindling severly, so more conclusive results could probably be gained with samples larger than a few drops.
Between the citric acid, the tartaric acid and a combination of the two, I couldn’t discern any difference between them.
When a substantial amount of acid was added to blood, it immediately turned a rather unappealing shade of dark brown and became very sticky-remaining so without drying. Pure blood, although also sticky at first, usually dries extremely rapidly.

When the tiniest amount of acid was added the blood only darkened a shade; this also reduced the stickiness-on such a small scale it was difficult to say if it was wholly eliminated.

bloodImage description: marks painted in dried blood on two squares of brown paper.

On the left is a series of marks testing the consistency of blood/acid blends, and on the right is a sigil drawn in undiluted blood.
Although the difference is subtle, the card on the right, pure blood, is a richer red colour than the browned acid/blood mix.

I could have expanded my experiments to using frozen coagulated animal blood, and I may one day revisit this topic, but beyond occasionnaly using my own blood extracted using diabetes lancets as an ad-hoc offering, blood magic is not high on my list of interests. I’ve invested a lot in making sure as much of my insides remain inside as I can, and I’m too germaphobic to want much contact with anyone else’s.

Could either of these acids, used in very tiny amounts, be effectively used to give fresh human blood a uniform texture? I don’t know; I’m no phlebotomist and my knowledge of chemistry is weak at best.
My recommendation to anyone wanting to try painting a sigil or ritual message in blood, is to simply work very fast.

The Animist Apocalypse-Mad Max and the importance of environmentalism

“Where must we go, we who wander this wasteland, in search of our better selves.”

-The First History of Man,  Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015

In post-apocalyptic fiction, signs of an animistic culture are often plentiful in the set dressing; from skull motifs to more subtle expressions of sympathetic magic, to taboos which define when it is safe to travel through an area due to unseen natural forces that demand respect-lest one perish. In these worlds people live in a reality strangled of meaning; stripped of all but the most basic diversions and amusements, choice, and even hope.

Isaac Marion’s post-zombie apocalypse novel Warm Bodies illustrates an America in which people survive by sheltering in huge sports stadiums. Supplementing their diets with vitamin pills and barricaded against outside forces; scouting parties must invade dangerous territory-the former cradle of suburbia, in order to extract supplies.

A sharp cultural contrast to this is the nuclear wasteland of Dimitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series, in which the last vestiges of humanity eke out an existence in Moscow’s vast and sprawling underground rail network. The people of the tunnels farm pigs and mushrooms and must forever remain vigilant against the mutant creatures that constantly test their defenses; an outwards force pushing inwards. Meanwhile political conflicts tear apart the communities within.

Apocalyptic fiction presents fears for the future unique to the inhabitants of the culture it was born from, but it also has a unifying philosophical theme; what does it mean to be human, and what is the point of being alive? People do not simply fight to live another day; they struggle to nourish their souls with scraps of beauty, love and meaning.

In these inhospitable worlds, the rules for survival have changed; nature is no longer abstracted and the ability for people to adapt the environment has become limited-a dire predicament for anyone from a wealthy post-industrialized culture.

One of the things that makes this genre so appealing to me is that this lifestyle shift usually brings with it a return to an animistic worldview of unity with the natural world.

The recent Mad Max: Fury Road has some beautiful examples of a fictional post-apocalyptic animist culture.
It’s a film in which a band of eco-feminists fight the forces of war, patriarchy and greed  against a post nuclear-exchange desert landscape. Also car chases. And explosions.

Between explosions, we get a glimpse of the social order of the War Boys. They ritually scar their bodies with engine schematics, and their medical professionals are referred to as ‘organic mechanics’, displaying an inextricable unity with their vehicles. They have an oral tradition of storytelling in which dying a good death is of utmost importance, combined with a belief in reincarnation and the need to be deemed worthy-a worth  which is determined by their usefulness to their master. A film lush with symbolism, this blending of human and machine is of vital importance-the tyranny of Immortan Joe positions this as a method of control and objectification-as a means to strip away autonomy. People are things, and things are disposable.

The skull motif is ever-present; the skeletal form of Furiosa’s missing arm is painted on the side of the war rig, the sickly war boys are hairless and white, and the very symbol of Immortan Joe’s rule is a blending of the steering wheel and the skull. Skeletons are things, and things do not deserve respect.

FCC-MAD-MAX-FURY-ROAD-Furiosa

When Furiosa learns of the destruction of her childhood haven, she rips off her prosthetic arm and howls in despair. This completes her symbolic rejection of her service to Immortan Joe, which had stripped her of agency and personhood. But just as we are now unable to colonize other planets, there is nowhere left to go; the salt flats extend eternally like the inhospitable emptiness of space.

So our heroes turn back to the Citadel to take back the world. The symbolic relationship between Furiosa and her arm has changed; when she straps it back on, she is reclaiming a right to live in the world cooperatively, interfacing with it with respect, and as a part of her. She is no longer a resource to be exploited.
As Nux’s war paint wears off, we see him as an enslaved child, made terminally ill by the folly of dictators. Finally, he is able to find his better self in service of a great and sincere sacrifice.
It’s no coincidence the Keeper of the Seeds, member of the resilient and free Vulvalini, tried to save as many plant species as she could-not just crop varieties directly useful to humans.
‘Who killed the world?’ asks Angharad, and the answer is damning.

In these fictional scenarios animism flourishes because there can be no disconnection from the land; it is an actor itself and not merely acted upon. The stakes are always high; the natural world must be respected. So fraught with danger, the apocalyptic landscape represents a world that humans have made almost uninhabitable for themselves as they stare down extinction. Be it over wealth inequality, war, climate change or resource scarcity, fictional apocalypses are almost singularly the result of human hubris.

For me, a core part of my modern pagan animist beliefs is respect, cooperation and balance. The importance of respecting the natural world, as a part of us and not an outside resource should be self evident-if we muddy up our biosphere, everyone suffers. My animism is inherently environmentalistic, but everyone should be concerned with the plight of the natural world, regardless of their spiritual alignment. 

Mass-scale, global environmental exploitation needs to be curbed. Let’s hope we can make it happen before the advent of a nuclear wasteland.