Key Concepts for Casting Magic Spells - Elements of Magic Spells

The Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells - Judika Illes 2009

Key Concepts for Casting Magic Spells
Elements of Magic Spells

Although one can just start casting spells, learning by trial and error, understanding certain key concepts boost the chances of a spell-caster’s success.


Magic energy radiates from everything and everyone that occurs naturally on Earth to varying degrees, or is derived from naturally occurring parts. Some objects are sources of greater power than others. Frankincense, roses and wild Syrian rue, for instance, permit greater access to magic power than many other botanicals. Certain areas are also sources of greater power than others, with “area” meant both in a literal and a metaphoric way.

Thresholds are border areas where one force, power or element encounters another. These meeting areas are potentially the most highly magically charged of all. Thresholds exist everywhere: the seashore, that transitional area where ocean meets land; the foot of mountains, where land begins to rise; and caves, the subterranean thresholds between Earth’s outer and inner powers.

There are architectural thresholds: doors and windows. There are thresholds in time: twilight and dawn, where an incoming power approaches before the outgoing power has completely dispersed. Life cycles are thresholds: the birth of a new baby, particularly a first child whose birth transforms someone into a parent. Death is a threshold between one existence and the next. Someone who lingers in a half-life is described as having a foot in both worlds, straddling the threshold. Any transformative ritual is defined as a threshold, by virtue of its very capacity to transform. There are thresholds on the body: the mouth is the threshold between thought and speech.

Thresholds are simultaneously the areas of greatest magical potential and also of extreme vulnerability. A vast percentage of protective amulets, rituals and spells are designed to guard thresholds and the transformative process. In fact, every magic spell can be perceived as a transformative threshold, from a past that has left something to be desired towards the future that the spell hopefully produces.

Most thresholds consist of a simple boundary: with one foot you stand inside the house, with another you stand outside. If your feet are small enough and your balance is good, you can stand poised, neither inside, nor outside.

With one foot you stand in the river or ocean, with the other, you stand on the land. The ancient Egyptians called their country “the land of the red and the black,” because there was a distinct division, a visible dividing line between the black fertile land of Nile silt and the stark red land of the desert. You could literally stand with one foot in each color. Each color also typified a different kind of magic and a different spiritual ruler. The black belonged to Osiris, with his arts of orderly civilization; red belonged to his brother Seth, anarchic, chaotic Lord of Magic.

These are simple boundaries: you can hop from one to the other. There are also expanded, exponentially super magically charged thresholds.

The Crossroads

The crossroads are literally where different roads meet and where they separate, where opportunity emerges to change directions. They are unpredictable; you could take any one of a variety of choices. Magically speaking a crossroads is the place where multiple forces converge, where anything can happen, where transformations may occur. Energy is liberated and expanded at the crossroads. Instead of hopping over boundaries, you can stand in the center and be inundated by power, potential and choices.

There are four-way crossroads and three-way crossroads—the proverbial fork in the road. A classic movie scene, albeit one that occurs in real-life if you’ve ever been lost in the country, shows someone arriving at a fork in the road. With no identifying road-sign in sight, our hero or heroine is forced to choose a road. Choose either one and your destiny may be altered forever. Crossroads offer the opportunity for transformation, for a change of direction, a change in destiny.

Crossroads are ubiquitous in magic. Many spells demand to be cast at the crossroads; others require that the remnants of spells—left-over candle stubs, ashes and the such—be buried at the crossroads, where their energy can safely disperse.

Specific types of spiritual entities, known as “road-openers” and inevitably beings of great power, preside over crossroads. These beings can be petitioned for knowledge, information and for a change in destiny. They control thresholds and roads and determine who has free access and who finds roads barred, who will choose the right fork in the road and who will wander hopelessly lost forever.

In ancient Greece, Hermes ruled the four-way crossroads, while Hecate presided over three-way crossroads, her epithet Hecate Trivia emphasizing this aspect. Trivia, from which the English trivial derives, literally means three roads.

In West Africa, Eshu-Elegbara rules the crossroads, as does his Western hemisphere incarnations Elegba, Papa Legba and Exu. In Brazil, Exu’s female counterpart, Pomba Gira, presides over T-shaped crossroads.

Once upon a time, crossroads were where people met, where nomads rendezvoused, where gallows stood, where the death penalty was enacted and corpses left to hang, where suicides were buried. If magic spells were cast according to direction, then midnight at the crossroads must have frequently been a crowded, busy place, especially on a night like Halloween when the veil that divides the realms of living and dead is at its most permeable, leaving an open road for inter-realm communication.

Christian authorities frequently urged people to avoid the crossroads, particularly at night, as it was the devil’s stomping grounds. If you were looking to meet Satan, however, if you had a proposition or a request for him, the crossroads was where you were most likely to find him. When legendary bluesmen Tommy and Robert Johnson journeyed to the crossroads to trade their souls for musical ability, were they looking for this devil or for the sometimes lame, Papa Legba, or could anyone even tell the difference anymore? (See Identification/Syncretism, page 63.)

Unfortunately, the most accessible modern crossroads are traffic intersections. The magic energy remains, however. Think about a busy intersection: on a good day you fly straight through, making a journey faster and easier. A traffic tie-up, however, is an energy build-up with added potential for accidents and road rage.

Faithfully attempting to follow a spell’s directions may leave you playing in the middle of traffic. In Rio de Janeiro, Pomba Gira’s devotees take this into account: offerings aren’t left where you might expect, at the center of the crossroads, but by the side of the road. No matter how powerful your spell, it will have no opportunity to work if you get hit by a car during the casting. Find an appropriate old-fashioned crossroads, a safe area of a modern crossroads, or read between the lines—figure out what the spell really requires (why you’re being sent to the crossroads, for what purpose) and adapt and substitute as needed.

Not all crossroads are literal intersections of roads. Magic spells also emphasize other, very specific crossroads.

The Cemetery

The cemetery is the threshold between the realms of the living and the dead. It too is a place of transformation. Many spells demand that a spell either be cast in the graveyard or that spell remnants be buried there, as if one were conducting a funeral. These include protection, banishing and love spells as well as hexes. Significantly, many necromantic spells, spells for communicating with those who have passed on to the next life, do not require a trip to the cemetery.

The cemetery, like the more general crossroads, swirls with energy, albeit of a more specific kind: ghosts, souls of the departed, abstract life and death forces, spiritual entities, protective guardians and those malevolent beings who are attracted to grief or decay all make their home in the cemetery.

Whether the cemetery is a benevolent or a threatening place depends largely on cultural perceptions of what happens to the soul after death. Cultures that depend on protective ancestral spirits rarely fear the cemetery; cultures who believe that human memory and emotion truly dies, leaving nothing but a hungry, destructive ghost will avoid the graveyard except for purposes of malevolent magic.

The Pros and Cons of the Graveyard

The cemetery is the place where dangerous entities lurk, dangerous people, too! Although a Greek word, the term “necropolis,” city of the dead, stems from ancient Egypt. Once upon a time, the devastatingly poor made their home amongst the graves. This situation still exists in many places, to greater or lesser extent. On the other hand, cemeteries are places of great neutral power (think of all that swirling radiant energy!), which is able to be harnessed for good or evil, as the practitioner intends or desires.

Even in the cemetery, bypassing actual grave-sites, certain areas are more packed with power than others. The threshold of the threshold, so to speak, is at the cemetery gates. Older cemeteries traditionally feature iron gates to provide this boundary. Iron, with the exception of menstrual blood, is the single most protective substance on Earth and will repel and contain malevolent spirits and ghosts. Many spells request that items be left at the cemetery gates: this is not because people were afraid to enter the graveyard itself, but because that threshold is so much more powerful.

Many powerful spirits, such as India’s Kali and Shiva, Matron and Patron of Tantra, reside in the cemetery, as does ancient Egypt’s road-openers, Anubis, the jackal-headed inventor of embalming, and Wepwawet, a wolf deity. (Say the name fast and hear that wolf cry.)

Accessing the power of crossroads and cemeteries is common to most magical traditions, to varying extents. Specific other traditions recognize and incorporate still other crossroads.

The Bathhouse

Prior to the advent of private, indoor plumbing, the public bathhouse was a place of great social importance, a crossroads to which everyone eventually came. Its purpose was not only hygienic and social but spiritual and magical, too.

In the days before privacy, public bathhouses were required for spiritual cleansing rituals as well as physical ones. The bathhouse attendant, now most frequently a lowly janitorial occupation, was once a respected, and perhaps feared, ritual leader who wielded great power. In many cases they might be the only ones privy to occult secrets.

Many traditions still retain the equivalent of a bathhouse: the Jewish mikveh, the Native American sweat lodge, the Aztec temescal. Not all bathhouses feature water, as the sweat lodge demonstrates. Finnish saunas and Turkish steam baths access other methods. In the same way, cleansing spells (see pages 185223) are as likely to use smoke, sound or other methods as water. The bathhouse, whether wet or dry, was frequently the scene of many threshold experiences:

Babies were born in bathhouses

Preparation/or brides and sometimes grooms occur in the bathhouse

Cultures that isolate menstruating women frequently have rituals held in the bathhouse to signal her return to society at large

Bodies are prepared for funeral rites in the bathhouse

The frequency of these experiences in the bathhouse would exponentially increase the potential power contained within.

The bathhouse is the descendant of ancient springs, each the home of resident magic spirits. Many bathhouses were built on the site of springs, and the spirits took up residence in the new bathhouse. Water spirits, like the nature of their element, are frequently volatile, replete with treasure, but also with dangerous currents. These can be tremendously benevolent spirits (water spirits rank among the most powerful love spirits), but you have to know how to handle them. With the coming of Christianity and Islam, rites of devotion and pacification were forbidden and abandoned. Many spirits packed up and left; those remaining, starved of attention, are frequently grouchy. Thus the bathhouse is both a place of power and danger. Enter alone to access the spirits or avoid entering alone so that the spirits cannot access you!

Russian magic, in particular, manifests this ambivalence and will direct many spells to be performed in the bathhouse, usually at midnight.


Ruins of buildings and cities, particularly (but not necessarily) those that met their ruin in violence, are perceived as swirling with power. This is the stuff of fairytale: the European witch convicted purely because she has been gathering herbs amidst the ruins. It’s not like there’s any other reason to be there, the witch hunters say. Indeed, some of the most powerful magical herbs, mugwort and Syrian rue, thrive best amongst ruins. Many practitioners believe that these botanicals, already more powerful than most, are at the height of their power when picked there, especially at midnight, twilight or just before dawn.

Stone ruins are most powerful because stone, although silent, is in magical terms hardly inanimate. Stone is believed to retain memories of whatever occurs in its vicinity. Those memories may be accessed by those who know how.

Souls of those who perished in the ruins may linger, as may others drawn to the site. They may be accessed, if you dare. Djinn not found lurking in the desert, behind doorways or at natural springs will be found amidst ruins, the more broken the better. If you want to access them, that’s where you’ll find them. If you’re afraid they’ll access you, hurry past without stopping.


Crossroads and cemeteries are places of power precisely because they allow energy extra space and opportunity to radiate. Sometimes you want the opposite effect, a concentration of energy. The need is to concentrate power and energy in one spot, a focal spot, the very center of the crossroads, if you will. An altar allows you to do this.

Many spells direct that you build an altar.

Although the term is used by many religions to indicate an area dedicated to a deity, this may or may not be the case magically speaking. An altar at its most basic magical definition is a tableau or arrangement of specific articles. Small children are inveterate builders of tableaux, with no conscious conception of religious devotion. They simply pick up power objects and arrange them. For practice, pick any theme, magical or not, and devote a shoe-box diorama or a table top to it.

The simplest ancestral altar consists of a white candle and a glass of water. The most complex Vodoun altar is an entire room, with each object carefully chosen and arranged meticulously. Nothing on an altar, whether simple or lavish, is random or arbitrary. If it’s there, it’s there for a reason.

Altars are generally erected for one or both of the following reasons:

As a communication device to summon a spirit. By adjusting objects, colors, and fragrances, you send out a specific signal requesting attention. Thus the Yoruba deity or orisha, Oshun, recognizes herself in the spectrum of colors from yellow to orange, in certain types of flowers, in honey and cinnamon. Her objects include peacock feathers and mirrors. Her number is five. The concentration of special themed objects catches her attention and invites her presence. Ideally she’ll drop by to see what’s going on. Because certain objects may be shared between deities (Aphrodite, Juno, Kybele, and Maria Padilha all love roses, although not necessarily the same color or number, and Maria Padilha prefers hers with long stems but no thorns), the more specific and detailed the tableau, the more likely you are to summon the right spirit.

Altars may be erected in tribute, as an offering of thanks for previous favors or as part of a petition process.

As a means of concentrating energy. An altar can be devoted to a spell, not necessarily to any kind of spiritual entity. Spells that are conducted over an extended period of time, for instance nine-day spells, may benefit from a concentrated area: the spell doesn’t blend in to the background but remains distinct, its boundaries and thresholds clear. Thus all objects involved in the spell (and some spells may involve several candles plus assorted dishes and objects) are arranged together in formation.

Altars are most frequently placed atop flat furniture surfaces—dressers, bookshelves and coffee tables. Old-fashioned televisions built into wooden cabinets were once popular altar areas.

There are a wide variety of altars beyond the tabletop tableau. Candle spells require that an altar be kept in plain sight, and many prefer this method because the constant visual presence of the altar empowers many spells. However, it is not necessary. An altar may also be maintained discreetly, within a cabinet or closed box: a shadow box altar. Miniature altars can be created within old-fashioned cigar- and match-boxes.

One might also consider an altar a method of demarcating sacred space

A spell may he cast by creating an altar; similar to feng shui, articles and objects are arranged to create a desired energy transformation

Although some spells specify creating one. even when it isn’t suggested, an altar may always be incorporated

Likewise, if you are seriously challenged for space, remember, magic is always about improving your life. The goal of magic is to eliminate difficulties and stress, not produce new ones. If you have no room for a formal altar, delineate space as possible. Plenty of people burn candles in the bathtub; you won’t be the first

Altars may also be created outside. A garden, window box or flowerpot can contain a living altar, an Earth altar. The possibilities are endless.

Altars may be intensely private or public: visualize the roadside shrines frequently erected at the site of fatal accidents. French Caribbean altars are created in sheltered places within tree trunks. If a statue is placed within the tree, passers-by can come with offerings of flowers and candles. Spells of petition dedicated to the Brazilian spirit Maria Padilha invariably begin with directions to lay black and red cloths on the ground: you are demarcating the spell’s space, effectively setting up an altar. Spells dedicated to deities of the sea often instruct you to dig a shallow pit in the sand, within which to burn candles. That hole in the sand becomes the altar.

Altars can be created from anything and erected anywhere. Water spirits, for instance, frequently prefer the bathroom to other rooms of the house, as the most watery place. A shrine (essentially a more lavish altar) dedicated to mermaids belongs in the bathroom rather than in another room that might be considered more “spiritually appropriate.” Spirits dedicated to love prefer altars in the bedroom where they can supervise and stimulate activity. Intellectual spirits like Yoruba’s Oya or India’s Sarasvati prefer their altars to be placed near books. Access the childlike, creative playful part of yourself and it’s not difficult to build an altar.

Objects may decorate an altar or serve as the altar. Watermelons are sacred to the Yoruba spirit, Yemaya. Place a slice on her altar to call her. Hollow out a watermelon, insert some candles and the watermelon has become the altar. Wood may be used as altar decoration but also as the altar. This is particularly true of special sacred woods, such as sandalwood or aloes wood. Sometimes the deity is the wood. Hera was represented by the oak in Greece, while Diana was represented by that wood throughout Europe. A log segment is given center-stage, dressed with oil and adorned with ornaments, small candles or charms.

Unsurprisingly, the bed serves as the altar for many love spells: sheets are sprinkled with powder; power objects are tucked beneath the mattress and the pillows. Botanicals may hang over the bed or candles burn alongside it.

The body serves as an altar in many spells, particularly those for healing, love and protection. Oil and powder may be applied to the body in the same manner as to a candle. Henna and other body decoration transforms the body into a living altar. Next time you get dressed, as you apply cosmetics, jewelry and other ornaments, consider that you are dressing your altar—an altar that serves to communicate with other beings and concentrates your power and energy.

Not every crossroads is a location: a formal magic spell is a crossroads where the inherent magic energies of the spell’s components converge. The result of the spell is the symbiotic reaction to that convergence.


Consider the herbalist’s scales: things are carefully weighed out to achieve a desired balance. Magic plays with balance, too. Sometimes the desire is for all forces to be equal and harmonious. At other times goals are accomplished by deliberately, consciously tipping the scales to provide the required effect.

Left and Right

Once upon a time, not too long ago, the concept of Dualism associated the direction right with God, high, male, and all those good things. Thus children were forced to use their right hands, the dexterous hand, whether that was their naturally dominant hand or not. Children who were naturally left-handed (the sinister hand) literally had it beaten out of them until they were dexterous too. Consider various phrases: in the right, Mr. Right, the left-hand path, a left-handed compliment.

Connections between genders and these directions, however, predate Dualism and Christianity. They exist in completely unrelated cultures, including some that were isolated for a very long time. Hawaiian magic, for instance, associates left with female, right with male as surely as the Chinese and many Asian, African and European traditions. Frequently offerings to female deities are made with the left hand (by both men and women) while offerings to males are made with the right (by both men and women). Feng shui suggests that it’s beneficial for women to sleep on the left side of a common bed, while a man should sleep on the right. (Although spells intended to reverse the power dynamic within a relationship may suggest those sides be switched.)

Sometimes spells direct that an action be performed with either your left or right hand. Either one of two things is being requested.

Because left is yin and yang is right, the left side of everyone’s body is yin or affiliated with “female forces” while the right side is yang and affiliated with “male forces.” Most frequently a spell’s success depends upon accessing one force or emphasizing one quality over the other

Sometimes the spell’s success depends upon not using your dominant hand. Because until recently everyone was forced to be right-handed many older spell books will specify casting a spell with your left hand, because it’s assumed that everyone is right-handed. This is, obviously, no longer the case

Where the importance lies in not using your dominant hand, this is specified in spell-directions. Left-handed people will be directed to use their right hands. Where no such direction is given, if the only stipulation is to use your left hand, then this applies to everyone across the board.

Materia Magica

Spells utilize various items and materials. Many items occur naturally on Earth (rocks, metals, flowers); others do not, but are creations of people, crafted from one or more of those original materials (magic wands, candles, magic mirrors, etc.).

There is a vast quantity of materials to choose from. It’s unlikely that you will need them all. Some will appeal to you, will resonate for you: those are your best tools. If you don’t like them, if they fail to hold your interest, it’s not likely that they’ll work for you, at least not consistently.

Once upon a time, all magic was made by hand from scratch, from soup to nuts. If a spell required paper, you would make that paper, perhaps even gathering the material. You’d make the ink, too. Old-fashioned, you say? Yes, but this soup-to-nuts method has very important benefits, notably, control over your materials and your spell. When you do it yourself, you know that things were done correctly, all powers were properly propitiated, all ingredients genuine. That said, magic is intended to make your life easier, not more difficult. If you are challenged for time, purchase as much ready-made as possible. The botanicals you grow with love and care will always have more power for you, but if you don’t have a garden or green fingers, buy them from someone who does. If you’re not “crafty,” you can still cast spells. Plenty of other people are and they’ll be happy to sell you their wares, oils, candles, wands, and herbs. However, hold these craftspeople to the same high standard that you’d hold anyone else. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and specify your needs.

Preparing For Spell-casting


Remember: Magic spells take many forms, from spoken word to candle burning, to mixing oils to something as simple as posting a specific image on the wall. Your energy, focus and intent are what transform simple actions, words and gestures into magic spells.

Cleansing is not meant literally but refers to methods of removing spiritual residues. Not everything requires cleansing because not everything retains this residue. Botanicals and candles do not, for instance. Rocks, crystals and magic mirrors may require cleansing, particularly the first time you use them, because they retain memory and impressions. You don’t necessarily know everything that’s retained within a mirror. (Harry Potter fans: remember Tom Riddle’s diary. There was a lot hidden within those seemingly blank pages.) Cleansing gives you the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start a fresh.

Most metals fall in a category between rocks and botanicals and so sometimes need cleansing, with the exception of silver and iron, which are impervious to spiritual tarnish. You can still cleanse them, however, if you prefer.

Two areas are typically cleansed prior to initiating any important spell: the ritual space and you—your body. Cleansing will empower you and your spell, removing impediments and obstacles to success.

Further information on cleansing, techniques and spells can be found on pages 185223.

Charging the Materials

Magic is latent in everything containing life. How is it accessed? How is it directed towards your purpose? By charging the materials.

Charging the materials is magical parlance for imbuing the physical components of your spells, be they stones or plants or fabric or anything else, with your personal energy and the goal of your spell. It is a crucial magical concept, and is akin to charging a battery—a transfusion of energy.

Exactly how necessary it is to charge a substance depends largely upon specific traditions. Some place greater emphasis on charging than others, although no tradition would tell you not to charge an item.

Although every spell does not direct you to charge your materials, it is a given that doing so will increase chances of success.

Charging techniques are spells; they can be used to imbue any object with your magical energy and power, whether these objects will be used in a formal spell or otherwise.

This is the simplest charging technique of all:

Hold the object with two hands, clasped together so that the object or a portion of it is sandwiched between them.

Close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths.

Clear your mind so that there are no conscious thoughts. If thoughts arise spontaneously, consider whether this derives from communication of one sort or another with the object.* Make a note of the thoughts so that you may return to them later, and clear your mind once again.

Just hold the object, focusing on energy flowing out of your hands and into the object. (Depending upon the nature of the object, this may be a one-way or two-way energy flow.)

When you feel that the object has absorbed sufficient energy or is now in harmony with your personal vibration, place it down and consciously withdraw your attention from it.

If you would like to charge the object with the purpose of a specific spell, follow the instructions up to Step 3. Instead of clearing your mind, visualize the achievement of the spell’s desired goal. Hold this steady in your mind. When you feel that the object is sufficiently charged, remove it from your hands and consciously withdraw your attention.

Expanded Ritual Charging

Perform appropriate space and personal cleansings, as needed.

Prepare an altar dedicated to charging the materials.

Hold a white candle between your palms while you concentrate on what you wish from the article you are charging.

When you’re ready, place the candle on the altar and light it.

Hold the article between your palms, charge it with your energy or goals, using the technique explained above.

When you’re ready, place it down next to the candle.

Allow the object to remain there until the candle burns out completely.

Objects can be charged with specific forces, usually sunlight or moonlight, so that they will contain some of this essence. Objects may also be charged with elemental forces.

Blessings of the Elements

Each element can provide ritual blessings for spell tools and materials. Whatever is blessed is empowered and charged with that element’s special energy. Choose what is appropriate or desirable, alone or in combination.


Because magic is an exchange of powers. consistently effective magic isn’t all about mc, mc, mc! The universe doesn’t exist solely to serve you: there is always an exchange of energy, an exchange of gifts. Magic is about mutually satisfying relationships between forces and powers. including but not limited to your own. Power and favors must be balanced. You are as much a contributor to the universe as a receiver of its bounties.

When you want something from a power, offer something in return. When you receive a gift or favor, give one in return. This maintains a balance of power in the universe. In some cases, it’s necessary. Botanicals work more powerfully for you if you reciprocate, offering libations, when harvesting. Many spirits will not work with you. unless they essentially receive payment of some sort, which may be as simple as devotion or as complex as specific ritual, depending upon the power.

Air: Pass the object through or hold within incense smoke. Smudge with a smudge stick

Earth: Sprinkle with dirt, particularly specially chosen dirt (crossroads dirt, or dirt gathered from a shrine or holy place)

Fire: Pass through aflame or hold within the flame for a few moments (obviously this is for materials that won’t burn or be damaged)

Metal: Allow the object to rest overnight atop the specific metal

Water: Sprinkle with regular water or magically charged formula water (see Formulary, page 1037). Obviously this is for materials that won’t be damaged by this technique


Some spells recommend that objects be consecrated. In general, these spells invoke spiritual assistance of one sort or another. Consecrating the object dedicates it to that spirit or deity, enabling it to serve as a conduit to that deity’s energy or blessings.

Build an altar dedicated to the spirit or deity.

Charge the object with your desire.

Consciously request that the object receive the needed blessing and energy of the spirit.

Allow the object to remain on the altar, in close proximity to the spirit’s image if one is used, or else to various power items. Time allotted varies but it is usually at least overnight.

* Sometimes this communication is very desirable, particularly with an object that is intended for divination. Instead of charging the object, follow the thought and see where it leads. If it turns out to be disturbing or undesirable, perform further, stronger cleansing before attempting again to charge the object.