Sovereigns of the Golden Path

or, how I learned to stop worrying and start my own cult.

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I refer to the SGP as a cult as a way of using humor to minimize the terrifying immensity the task; to start a magical tradition.
When envisioning something as purposefully heterodoxical as starting a cult, you’ve got to maintain a sense of levity, even if it is born from anxiety. I want to create a space, a haven for people who are too strange to fit anywhere else without ignoring or cutting bits of themselves off. Within that space, a conversation.
I want it to be like lichen, defying easy classification; something erased from people’s minds by the limitations of artificial constructs and poor education. Lichen is a symbiotic being, a unity of fungi, algae or bacteria. I love lichen for the same reason I love tardigrades and those alien creatures that live around the hot sulphurous vents in the constant darkness of the sea floor. Against all odds, they persist. They endure. Their regents are very, very old.
When the fungi from a lichen is separated from its symbionts in a lab environment, it is able to survive but loses its shape and structure, becoming a formless mass of hyphae; a purposeless blob. Sometimes I feel like a fungus-less lichen.
The SGP is my attempt to inject a bit of structural bacteria into my practice, along with a desire to spread, to survive. That seems like an inelegant metaphor but it’s going to be organic with a lot of junk DNA to start with that’ll get honed by evolution, and hopefully, helpful outside input. The average human body contains a staggering, uncountable amount of bacteria. Down to our very basest physicality, we are communities, conversations. No thing is born perfect. We grow through error.
The SGP will be about the pursuit of personal sovereignty and truth. The further we stray from truth, the more we suffer. Truth is a stand-in word for freedom, authenticity, spirit, unity, god, source, whatever ineffable, holy quality you need it to be. The name refers to the sun, but it won’t be a path in denial of shadows. The lights in the night sky after all, are themselves tiny distant suns. It’ll be animistic, BYO gods if you have them, a tool not a dogma. It’s firmly rooted in chaos magic, but the more it evolves, the family resemblance becomes less clear.
It’s early days yet, and not all offspring are viable. But I remain hopeful that one day this will grow into a conversation that can continue on without me.

Sacrifices and Sympathetic Magic

Like many pagans, sympathetic magic is a substantial part of my personal practice; be it drawings, photographs, statues or other symbolic representations. Although I do work with live plants, incenses, resins, animal remains and more, the real thing is not always appropriate, possible or practical.

My shrine to the Outsider uses battery-powered LED candles and lanterns because its hidden position makes using real fire dangerous-and I rather enjoy the humour of using fake fire for pop-culture magic.
The consumption of large, juicy strawberries is a perfectly acceptable substitute for human hearts in ritual as far as Lilith is concerned, as another example.
Since the issue of live animal sacrifice is a purely hypothetical one for me in my current circumstances, I leave those moral quandaries to be unpacked at another time. What I can do, however, is make symbolically appropriate sacrifices.
Although I’m not a strict reconstructionist, I do enjoy research and adapting ancient practices to fit my modern lifestyle. In this research I found accounts of animal sacrifice substitutes in ancient Greece being made with bread, beeswax and reeds. As the sacrifice of livestock would have represented a substantial financial commitment for anyone who wasn’t particularly wealthy, I imagine these sympathetic magic substitutions would have been reasonably common.
I have a lot of local natural beeswax on hand from making my own devotional candles, so it seemed the obvious material to use if I were to create my own effigies. It turns out carving/modeling straight beeswax is incredibly difficult and my first attempts were an ugly mess. Instead, I adapted my sculpting and casting knowledge to create small dog and bull effigies, sculpting them in modeling clay then creating a silicone mould so they could be easily replicated in wax.
I use the dogs as apotropaic offerings to Hekate as part of a cleansing ritual, since my relationship with Hekate has a strong bent towards cleaning. I’m yet to test out the bulls, but I have one set aside for dedication and sacrifice to Dionysus. Bulls are symbolically rich animals, however, and could be used for any number of other deities or purposes.
Since I was on a roll sculpting, I also made a tiny human heart replica for healing/cursing or whatever else one fancies. My companion uses them for enchanting and enclosing within his taxidermy pieces, which is delightfully creative.

In the future, I’d like to experiment with various additives such as incense or tiny pieces of dried bull (Companion jokingly referred to it as ‘homeopathic bull’) or dog hair. I’m not sure how I feel about using the shed hair of still-living animals for sacrifices since my practice has always had a distinctly necromantic bent. But does using the parts of an already dead animal nullify the effect of a ‘sacrifice’? Is the intent all that matters in sympathetic magic? Food for thought.


Devotional cooking: Koresh Fesenjan for Hekate

Suffering chronic fatigue, I usually don’t have the energy for big, flashy ritual. Once a month on the day of the new moon, I clean my house as best I can in service to Hekate, and we share the evening meal. If I’m able, I try to incorporate relevant foods such as egg, garlic, leek, honey, and pomegranate.

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Last month I made Koresh Fesenjan-a Persian chicken, walnut, and pomegranate stew.

Ingredients:
(I don’t measure things when I cook; it’s why I’m terrible at baking)
2 spoonfuls of honey
Sprinkle of cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper
Salt-I don’t normally add salt to my food but Hekate requested extra after I’d plated it up
Chicken tenders, cut into small strips
Cup of chopped walnuts
Liquid chicken stock
White rice
Olive oil
Pomegranate molasses

Process:
1. Toast the walnuts in a pan for a few minutes until golden brown and fragrant.
Lightly crush with a mortar and pestle. When cooking for two, using a food processor isn’t worth the effort it takes to clean.
2. Cook the rice.
3. Lightly brown the chicken in a pan and toss in the spring onions with a dash of oil.
4. Add chicken stock, and bring to a boil.
5. Add spices, honey, walnuts, and pomegranate molasses.
6. Simmer until the stew is no longer watery.
7. Serve with rice, garnish with walnut, parsley or pomegranate arils.

It’s a very sweet and sour, rich tasting dish.
I lit a candle and served it with a cup of fruit tea. Hekate seems to have a penchant for dark chocolate as well, which we had for dessert, although she seems insistent on sharing whatever I’m eating. Afterwards, I take her portion to my three-way crossroads altar, as well as a customary offering to the restless dead which I do not eat from.

Some months I’m not able to cook the food myself or make anything quite as elaborate as this, but it is my duty to share this meal and to remember the dead.

Medieval suicide baiting-East Anglians had no chill

If an individual in the marshy fenland of medieval Eastern England became radically unpopular among his fellows, he might find this symbol painted on his door:

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Pictured: a horizontal rectangle representing a willow stake, crossed through vertically with a stylized hemp branch. The cross is surrounded by the words ‘Both grown for you’.

Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads with a willow stake driven through the body to prevent the spirit from wandering.
Hemp was used for making rope.

An unsubtle hint that the individual should go hang themselves.

Source: The Devil’s Plantation; East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft and Folk Magic by Nigel G Pearson, Troy Books, 2015.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Totems, tutelaries and the animal messengers of the gods

To start, what is a tutelar?

The Oxford dictionary defines a tutelary spirit or deity as ‘serving as a protector, guardian, or patron’. Wikipedia further expands this definition to include totems as a type of tutelary.

I prefer not to use the term ‘totem’-the reasons for this are elaborate enough that it would be best to keep them for another post.

In the past I have used tutelar and also totem, in the form it’s most commonly used in modern pagan circles, as almost interchangeable. As I delve further into committing my personal practice to writing, it has become apparent that an expansion of this terminology is needed.

The types of relationships one may create within a magical context vary quite significantly; tutelary alone could easily become confusing and vague.

On top of this, many deities have strong associations with non-human animals; if one works closely with both deities and animals, it can be difficult to untangle which direction the signal is coming from.

I have created a set of terms to categorize types of animal tutelars and their associations; That of Regent, Agent and Individual.

In the following explanation, I will be using the domestic cat as an example.

CAT-REGENT

Regent:

A deity-like figure that represents the gestalt of all cats, the parent of all cats, the archetypal essence of what it is to be a cat; the quintessential cat-ness. A nonphysical being, but one that in this case, currently does have living physical counterparts (Regents of extinct taxa would not, but are still relevant).

If I were to meditate with the goal of entering a trance state and communing with an archetypal being that identifies itself as Domestic Cat, this would be the Domestic Cat Regent.

Individual:

A single cat entity. May be a living cat, a spirit housed in remains of a once living cat, or the incorporeal spirit of a cat.

The feral cat skull I have on my mantle was untrusting of humans in life, and remains so in death. The spirit housed in this skull is generally uncommunicative, and is another example of a Cat Individual.

Agent:

An individual as above, that is acting on behalf of another being, such as a deity or a tutelary regent.

Once, while meditating in my bedroom, I attempted to contact Bast using a small statue of Her image, but I wasn’t able to make a connection.

My cat-son had been sprawled on my bed behind me, and we had been mutually ignoring each other as he didn’t usually involve himself in my magical practice.

This time however, Bast decided to use him as a vessel for communicating with me.

‘Why use a statue when there is a real live cat right here?’ She had chided me affectionately.

In this instance my cat-son was operating in the capacity of agent, albeit for Bast rather than Cat Regent-in this instance, the human equivalent could be deemed to be aspecting or possession.

In my previous post, I described how a living individual domestic cat had acted as a messenger for Lilith. This cat was also acting as an agent.

If I wished to communicate with Cat Regent, I may set up my feral cat skull on my altar to act as an agent.
If Eurasian Lynx Regent was keen to communicate with me, it may use this skull as an Agent. Note-I have had American Badger Regent send me messages through a raccoon skull, so the species don’t necessarily need to be closely related-however if one were attempting to make contact rather than receive, a closer connection may be more viable.

I chose these terms as they are reasonably self-explanatory with context; How would this play out in conversation for example? Someone, upon learning that I work primarily with nonhuman animal energies, may ask me ‘what is your spirit animal?’

I would answer ‘I’ve been working a lot with coyotes lately, but Ringtail Possum Regent has been looking after me for many years.’

This would be referring to the many individual coyotes I work with, but the more abstract nature of my relationship with Ringtail Possum.

If anyone has any thoughts on this method for labeling and classifying types of interactions with animistic spirits, I’d love to hear them.