Magical Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Magical Arts

What exactly do witches do? What are their special arts that help define them as witches? Witches around the world participate in all kinds of activities, ranging from healing to divination, from spell casting to spiritual guidance and leadership.

This section explores those magical arts historically identified with witchcraft. It is highly unlikely that any one witch practiced all these arts; individuals have specialties, preferences, areas of interest and expertise. However, all of the arts described below have at one time or another been associated with witchcraft, sometimes to the displeasure of their adherents. Snobbery and class-consciousness exists among the magical arts, too. It’s no accident that certain types of magic are known as “High Ritual” or “Ceremonial” magic while others are known as kitchen witchery or “low magic.”

For centuries, literacy and education was reserved for an elite male few: not all men were educated but an extremely high percentage of educated people were male. Women lacked formal schooling; during certain periods it was considered subversive for women to receive academic educations. Women were prohibited from entering many universities, guilds, and medical schools. Thus the magical arts closely identified with women were those that did not require literacy: divination, spell-casting, root-working, and necromancy, for instance.

The more intellectual, academically demanding arts—those that frequently demand literacy, such as alchemy, commanding and compelling, sigils, and astrology—have historically been identified with well-educated men, many of whom would be appalled to find themselves in the company of what were perceived as illiterate witches. This desire to disassociate themselves from witchcraft did not save them, however, from charges of witchcraft and the same punishments (usually burning at the stake) meted out to the humblest root-worker.

Many of these men were theologians who practiced occult arts secretly and probably genuinely perceived themselves as totally divorced from the women’s art of witchcraft. A famous exception is the Swiss alchemist and pioneering physician Paracelsus, who advised others to throw away their medical texts saying he had learned everything he knew from wise women and Gypsies.

Brief descriptions of some of the most famous magical arts are listed alphabetically below; devotees would suggest that each is worthy of a lifetime’s study.


Alchemy is the ancient art of transmutation: most people, if asked to describe alchemy, would say it was the art of transmuting (changing or transforming) base metals into more valuable, precious ones, particularly gold. The stereotype of the power-hungry sorcerer is largely based on negative perceptions of alchemy.

The birthplace of alchemy is hotly contested, however its primal roots lie in metalworking. The first metalworkers to develop alloys, the first ironworkers, and the first smith to forge steel might all be considered primordial alchemists. Marie Curie, in her compulsive attempts to extract, refine, and ultimately transform one element into another, actually changing its nature and molecular structure, might also be considered an alchemist.

Famous alchemists include Dr John Dee and Edward Kelley, Dr Faust, Count Cagliostro, the Comte de Saint-Germain, Nicholas Flamel, and Paracelsus.

The English word “alchemy” derives from Arabic. “Alchemy” translates as either “the science of the black Earth” or as “the Egyptian science.” The word derives from the Arabic al (“the”) and Khemeia or Kimia (“Egyptian”).

The name “Egypt” is actually of Greek derivation; ancient Egyptians called their country Kemet or “the black land.” So alchemy is literally “the black art,” a term now often used to indicate malevolent, diabolical practices. In ancient Egypt, however, black was considered the color of fertility, growth, abundance, eternal life, and resurrection: in short, a very positive color. Red was the color that indicated danger and malevolence to the Egyptians. Malevolent magic would thus have been considered “red magic.”

One theory suggests that the term “Black Arts” originated as a specific reference to alchemy. As alchemy became increasingly disreputable, “Black Arts” developed into a catch-all phrase for malevolent magic or occult practices in general.

Another suggestion is that the Arabic al kimia derives from the ancient Greek chemeia or chymia, which refers to working, fusing or casting metal.

Transmutation of metals may sound silly today but up until the conclusion of the medieval era it was generally believed that minerals were alive and that they grew in soil just like plants, except incredibly slowly. It was believed that metals progressed through stages. Base metals were very young metals; if metals were left alone in Earth to age, they would eventually transmute into other forms, becoming increasingly more valuable and “pure” with time, similar to the way fine wine improves with age. Gold, similar to a person’s “golden years,” was thus the natural outcome of any metal, although it might take millennia to achieve. Techniques of transmuting base metals into gold or silver were considered a method of speeding up a natural process.

Transmutation may be metaphoric as well as literal. Transmutation of metals is only one of the aims of classical alchemy. Ignorance can also be transmuted into enlightenment; the base human soul may be transmuted into the divine.

Alchemy expressed hope for the possibility of human renewal, the yearning of the soul for perfection and unification with the godhead. Just as base metals could be transformed into gold by removing impurities and imperfections, so a human could be transmuted into divinity. Alchemy is a method of perfecting what nature has left imperfect or unfinished. Alchemy transforms the raw into the cooked.

Many traditional alchemical tools resemble those used for cooking and witchcraft: cauldrons, bottles, ovens, vessels, and stills.

Although obviously there were those who studied alchemy in pursuit of material gain, gold wasn’t only desired for its material worth: gold was considered superior to lead (the base metal involved in many experiments) because gold contained the perfect balance of the four elements from which all matter derives.

These four elements (earth, water, fire, and air or ether) ultimately proceed from the quintessence, “the fifth essence” or Spirit which is what fills the universe with life.

An alchemical symbol illustrating this concept consists of a circle containing a cross. Each quarter of the circle (quadrant) represents one element. The point at the very center of the circle from which the lines emanate is the quinta essential or quintessence.

Other alchemical symbols include the ancient geometric short-hand for male and female primal power: an upward facing triangle indicates fire while the downward facing triangle indicates water. Conjoined together, they produce steam or the breath of life.

Alchemical formulas were frequently encrypted in secret codes, verbal but also frequently visual. Alchemy inspired beautiful, mysterious paintings whose symbols may be analyzed and interpreted in the search for alchemical clues. Formulas were encoded in these paintings; for instance antimony might be represented by a gray wolf. Those unfamiliar with alchemy merely saw beautiful, odd paintings; initiates saw a treasure map.

Among the paintings believed to be influenced by alchemy are those of Hieronymus Bosch. Alchemists themselves eventually became popular subjects for paintings, especially between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Debate rages as to whether alchemy first emerged in China, Egypt, or Greece, or somewhere in the Middle East. Western alchemy, which is largely based on Alexandrian traditions, and Chinese alchemy seem to have developed independently, although as there were ancient trade routes between China, Egypt, and the Mediterranean, it’s quite possible that they influenced each other and that there was communication between early alchemists. However, their paths diverged and are so different that they must be considered independently.

Western Alchemy

Wherever it originally came from, classical Western alchemy first flowered in Egypt, in Alexandria, in the first centuries of the Common Era. Alexandria possessed both a large community of cross-cultural occultists and a community of highly proficient metalworkers, many of whom specialized in copper and silver alloys resembling gold.

Alchemy is also known as “the Hermetic Art” and identified with Hermes Trismegistus, “thrice-great Hermes,” an ancient master of what was then considered the three primary occult arts: alchemy, astrology, and magic. (See HALL OF FAME: Hermes Trismegistus.)

Despite later stereotypes, from a very early stage, women were involved with all facets of alchemy, perhaps from its inception.

The first historically documented alchemist was a woman. Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess, has been identified with the biblical Miriam, Moses’ sister, (Moses was himself identified with Hermes Trismegistus), however she actually lived in Alexandria, Egypt in the early third-century BCE. The oldest existing description of a still comes from Maria and she is credited with inventing and designing several alchemical apparatuses, including ovens. Her most famous invention, the waterbath, remains named in her honor, the balneum Mariae, bain-marie or Marienbad.

Alchemy allegedly first emerged as an art via the text inscribed on the legendary Emerald Tablet (Tabula Smaragdina), allegedly written by Hermes Trismegistus. According to legend, the Emerald Tablet was discovered when the biblical matriarch Sarah, once a priestess of Inanna-Ishtar, found Hermes’ cadaver in a cave in Hebron and removed the Emerald Tablet from his hands. The Emerald Tablet allegedly contained the first reference to the Philosopher’s Stone.

The earliest documented reference to the Philosopher’s Stone is from c.300 CE in the works of Zosimus whose writings are the oldest surviving alchemical texts. Zosimus was born in Panopolis, Egypt but lived in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer, composing at least 22 treatises independently plus a chemical encyclopedia incorporating 28 volumes written with his sister Eusebeia, of which only fragments now survive. Much of his writings incorporate quotes from earlier works, including those of Maria the Jewess, and so have been used to recreate alchemical history.

Even people who know nothing else about alchemy are often conversant with the Philosopher’s Stone—the legendary substance that was the goal of so many obsessive quests over the centuries. Many understand alchemy to be nothing more than a means of acquiring this miraculous substance. Allegedly the Philosopher’s Stone can:

Image Change base metals into gold (transmutation)

Image Heal all ailments and illnesses

Image Prolong life to the point of virtual immortality while simultaneously maintaining youth, health, and vigor

Despite its name, the Philosopher’s Stone was not usually envisioned as a rock but is generally believed to be a chemical or powder, or sometimes a wax or liquid.

In ancient Egypt, a black powder made from mercury was identified with the body of Osiris and the Philosopher’s Stone is most frequently envisioned as a black powder. Fierce arguments have, however, raged regarding the appearance and true identity of the Philosopher’s Stone. In addition to black, it has been described as vivid yellow, bright red or dark red. An Arabic scholar, perhaps trying to maintain peace, suggested that the Philosopher’s Stone unites and contains all colors, hence the disagreements and differences in perception.

Other medieval names for the Philosopher’s Stone include the “Powder of Projection,” “The Elixir,” and “The Tincture.” New names still evolve: the first Harry Potter novel was published in the United Kingdom under the title Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Publishers, fearing that title would be intimidatingly erudite for American readers, renamed it Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when the book was published in the United States.

Alchemy’s traditional secrecy is often blamed on the alchemists’ selfish desires. They wish the Philosopher’s Stone to be theirs exclusively. However historically there have been many other reasons why alchemists cloaked their work in secrecy, and alchemy has been perceived as dangerous and subversive by those in power:

Image If alchemists could produce sufficient quantities of precious metals this could cause dire economic consequences.

Image If alchemists could cause spiritual transformations, then who needs priests, the Church or other religious authorities?

Some rulers, for example Bohemia’s Emperor Rudolph II, sponsored alchemists like Edward Kelley, setting up laboratories for them in the hope that they would eventually be able to produce gold; these alchemists were inevitably kept under close supervision. Other rulers imprisoned reputed alchemists, demanding that they produce gold, torturing and killing them if they were unable to deliver desired results.

Chinese Alchemy

Although “alchemy” is used to describe Chinese and Western traditions, their techniques and goals are not identical. Chinese alchemy places far greater emphasis on longevity and immortality than on the transmutation of metal and accumulation of wealth. Rather than acquisition of the Philosopher’s Stone, the Chinese alchemical obsession has traditionally involved discovery of a potion, pill or magical technique that would produce immortality. Metal, considered a fifth element in Chinese metaphysics, is used to obtain these goals. Although people frequently died during alchemical experimentation, allegedly these experiments were sometimes successful.

In addition to metal, it was believed that manipulating and absorbing another person’s magical power or life essence (see DICTIONARY: Chi) could also provide immortality, or at least extended longevity. Methods for absorbing another’s life essence often involved sophisticated sexual techniques. Eastern Alchemists were, thus, sometimes identified with incubuses, vampires, and fox spirits. (See ANIMALS: Foxes.)

In China, alchemy was identified with Taoism, the indigenous Chinese spiritual philosophy that emerged from shamanism. Sometimes, particularly in older texts, “Taoist” is used as a euphemism for “alchemist.” Alchemy was as disreputable in China as elsewhere; Buddhists and

Medieval alchemists were familiar with seven metals: they identified these with the seven known planets, the seven days of the week, and the zodiac signs. Each metal also had a symbol, based on astrological and planetary correspondences. Some planets are affiliated with two zodiac signs.


Confucians often tried to associate it with Taoism specifically to discredit Taoist sages.

Even if discredited and controversial, Chinese alchemy remained an unbroken, if secret, tradition for millennia. This was not the case in the West.

In 290 CE, the Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed the destruction of all works regarding the alchemical arts. Diocletian specifically condemned “old writings of the Egyptians which treat of the ’chemeia’ of gold and silver.”

Virtually all Egyptian alchemical texts were destroyed following Diocletian’s decree, thus the crucial significance of Zosimus’ work. Among the other few exceptions are two thirdcentury CE papyri discovered in a Theban gravesite. It is believed that because these papyri were buried, they escaped Diocletian’s massacre of manuscripts. These papyri were written in Greek and are now named for the cities where they can be found:

Image Leyden Papyrus X includes formulas for making alloys and for making metals resemble gold, a process known as “tinging.”

Image The Stockholm Papyrus contains about 150 recipes, of which 9 deal with metals and alloys. The remaining formulas relate to color dyeing, the production of artificial gems and pearls, and techniques of whitening pearls.

The study of alchemy in Alexandria centered in a building adjacent to the Temple of Serapis, which was destroyed in 391 CE on the orders of Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria. The study of alchemy went underground in Egypt. Persecuted scholars fled to Athens where some joined the academy of Proclus, the Thracian Neo-Platonist. However, this was only a shortlived solution as all Pagan traditions including alchemy were forbidden by the Emperor Justinian in 529.

Knowledge of alchemy survived in Arabia. Arabic scholars translated many ancient alchemical works, originally written mainly in Greek. Many ancient manuscripts survive only in Arabic translations. Alchemy officially reentered Europe when the Moors settled in Spain from the early eighth century onwards. (Jewish alchemists in Europe practiced discreetly; the strong identification of alchemy with Jews in medieval Europe enhanced its subversive aura for Christians.) Increased contact between Moors and Western Europeans beginning in the twelfth century eventually reintroduced alchemy to Christian Europe.

Chemistry (and modern science in general) is the daughter of alchemy, albeit an ungrateful one that usually tries to disparage and disavow its parent. Chemistry is the secular derivative of this once sacred art. Not that this would have been more respectable or less subversive during the witch-hunt era: many natural sciences were once also considered heretical by the Church.

The scientific laboratory is based on that of the alchemist, and many scientific procedures and instruments were first developed by alchemists. The word “experiment” was first used in the Middle Ages to refer to the practice of summoning spirits and is used in this context in medieval grimoires. Alchemists inspired the concept of the now clichéd “mad scientist.” Moreover, many of the founding fathers of modern science were alchemists and occultists, as, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton.

Alchemy still exists; this is not an extinct art. There are still alchemists, however the emphasis is no longer so much on metallurgy as on its spiritual, transformational aspects.

See also BOOKS: Library of the Lost; CREATIVE ARTS: Literature: Burn, Witch, Burn.


The words “astrology” and “astronomy” derive from the Greek root word astron or “star.” Astrology is the science of the stars. Astrology’s crucial key concept is encapsulated in one phrase, “As above, so below”; the theory at the heart of astrology is that a synchronicity exists between what happens on Earth (below) and what happens up above in the sky. By studying, interpreting, and analyzing celestial activity, one can better understand what happens on Earth, enabling one to make better decisions, understand situations, and (last but not least) foretell the future.

Astronomy is the modern science of the celestial realm. Once upon a time, no division existed between astrology and astronomy, once called “natural astrology.” The ancient science of the stars was a holistic art: clinical observation of the planets, asteroids, and fixed stars (and anything else that might be floating around in the sky) was not distinct from magical and spiritual interpretation. Since the beginning of the Age of Science, however, astronomy has attempted to totally divorce itself from astrology. Astronomers frequently disparage the existence and validity of astrology. Many astrologers however remain keen observers of the heavens and are quite conversant with astronomy.

The word astrology is used here to encompass the sacred, holistic, mystical art; astronomy refers to clinical observations alone.

Astrology is a tool ideally used to improve one’s existence. Like alchemy, Tarot or Kabalah, astrology is a vast topic worthy of a lifetime of study: there is always something new to learn. However, even a minimal knowledge of astrology can be very beneficial. Many practitioners of all sorts of different magical arts incorporate astrology to varying degrees.

Astrology was originally based on observations of the heavens. Seven planets could be seen with the naked eye and thus seven planets were incorporated into the art. However, with the emergence of modern technology has come awareness of planets, stars, and asteroids previously unknown. These have since been incorporated; modern astrologers eagerly await discovery of new planetary phenomena. Astrology is an exciting, vital, living, evolving art, not one stubbornly stuck in the past.

Most modern astrologers use computer programs to cast astrological charts, once exclusively done by hand. The modern astrologer may incorporate as many as 180 asteroids into an individual’s chart. Instead of making astrology obsolete, modern technology has enhanced, refined, and improved it.

The zodiac is the wheel of the year. That wheel is divided into twelve segments, known as signs. Each sign corresponds to a constellation. A constellation is a cluster of stars that appear to make a picture; for example, Ursa Major, the Great Bear.

Virtually all cultures and traditions have perceived pictures in the sky; the concept of the constellation is universal. However how people traditionally interpreted these pictures is something of an ancient Rorschach (ink blot) test. The ancient Greeks perceived Cancer as a crab; the ancient Egyptians saw it as a scarab beetle instead. Stories are often told about how these various constellations were formed or came to be in the Heavens. The ancient Greeks perceived the Milky Way as milk that sprayed from the goddess Hera’s breast, hence the name; the ancient Syrians called it the River of the Snake, while in Teutonic cosmology the Milky Way was called Hulda’s Road. (See DIVINE WITCH: Hulda.) Astrology takes these mythical and magical factors into account in addition to clinical observation.

Constellations have names, as do individual stars. Aldebaran is a star within the constellation Taurus the bull. Aldebaran is also called the Bull’s Eye, which tells you something about where to locate it. The constellations do not move but the planets and asteroids do, each at its own pace and rhythm, in a sort of complex planetary dance. Astrology charts and interprets the movement of planets and asteroids through these fixed constellations.

Every sign is associated with a planetary ruler, a symbol, and an element. Aries thus is a fire sign; its planet is the sun; its symbol a ram. Earth and water signs are considered to radiate yin or feminine energy; fire and air signs radiate yang or masculine energy.

Every year the sun travels through these twelve signs, beginning at Aries and concluding with Pisces. When an astrologer says, “we’re in Pisces,” what that means is that the sun is currently transiting through that sign.

Astrological signs may be understood as an annual, perpetual calendar. Each of the 12 signs has 30 degrees; each degree represents a 24-hour period. The following chart shows the signs of the zodiac in order alongside their symbols, ruling planets, and elements. Dates are approximate as the calendar begins anew every year in conjunction with the vernal equinox.

Those signs and symbols correspond to the Western zodiac, the one most accessible in Europe, North America, and Australia, however there are many systems of astrology throughout the world, many actively in use. Every culture that has gazed at the stars has developed some sort of star-lore, however obviously some systems are more sophisticated than others.

The modern Western zodiac derives from Assyrian, Hindu, and Egyptian astrological systems and, most especially, from the Babylonian system. The Babylonians were extremely sophisticated astrologers; they created calendars sufficiently accurate and reliable to predict eclipses.


The basic elements of the Babylonian calendar are still in use: they pioneered the concept of months, weeks, days, and hours. The first documented use of a Babylonian astrological system incorporating twelve constellations dates back to the early fifth-century BCE. Earlier systems existed but these featured a lunar zodiac, incorporating eighteen constellations.

Babylonian astrology was absorbed into the Greco-Roman system, which is the direct ancestor of modern Western astrology. Ancient Egypt’s astrological traditions also had tremendous influence on modern Western astrology.

Christianity has historically been ambivalent towards astrology. Because astrology pre-dates

Ten out of twelve signs of the Western zodiac derive from Babylonian ancestry; the remaining two, Aries and Leo, are of Egyptian derivation.

Christianity and was intrinsically identified with Paganism, it was initially damned as among the diabolical arts. On the other hand, Martin Luther suggested that signs in the sky should not be overlooked, as they are God’s work.

Italian astrologer Cecco d’Ascoli was burned at the stake in 1327 for attempting to calculate Jesus Christ’s horoscope.

Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism consider astrology a compatible art.

Image Islamic astrology derives largely from the Sabeans of what is now Yemen but also incorporates Greek, Hindu, and Persian influences. Albumasar, a famous Islamic astrologer (died 886 CE) wrote a book called The Flowers of Astrology, which was translated into Latin and was among the first books printed by Gutenberg.

Image Jewish tradition venerates Abraham as a great astrologer, steeped in Chaldean tradition. Jewish astrology incorporates imagery associated with the twelve tribes of Israel, the emblems of Abraham’s great-grandsons.

Image Hindu astrology is known as Vedic astrology or Jyotish, “the science of light.” Vedic astrology uses a different system of calculation: Western astrology utilizes the tropical zodiac (planetary motion is measured against the position of the Sun on the vernal equinox); Vedic astrology uses the sidereal zodiac (planetary motion is measured against the fixed background of the stars). The most obvious effect is that a substantial percentage of planets in a Western chart move to the previous sign in a Vedic chart. Thus you might be a Cancer according to Western astrology; should one cast a Vedic chart, you might be classified as a Gemini instead.

Vedic astrology has developed independently for thousands of year. It is the predominate system in southern Asia. Many swear that it is the most accurate astrological system of all.

Chinese astrology is modeled after the cycle of Jupiter, which takes 12 years, rather than that of the sun, completed in one year. There are thus twelve Chinese astrological signs but each one lasts for one lunar year, therefore the year of one’s birth is incredibly significant. The twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac are (in order): Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.

Vietnamese astrology substitutes the cat for the rabbit as the fourth sign of the zodiac, hence the name of the song “The Year of the Cat.”

Chinese astrology is the oldest documented astrological system on Earth. It is among the crucial factors considered in feng shui. True Chinese astrology is more complex than merely determining one’s year sign; this is also true of Western astrology. Each day, hour, minute and so forth is assigned an astrological correspondence. Every thing on Earth (objects, ethnic groups, plants, nations) also is assigned astrological and planetary correspondences and thus astrology can be incorporated into every aspect of life and every aspect of spell-casting or other magical art.

Although there is now a deep chasm between astrology and astronomy, this wasn’t always the case. There is a tendency to “whitewash” biographies of respected scientific heroes to remove any enthusiasm and involvement with the occult. However, among the heroes of modern science who were also astrologers are the following:

Image Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473—May 24, 1543)

Image Giordano Bruno (1548—February 17, 1600)

Image Tycho Brahe (December 14, 1546—October 24, 1601)

Image Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564—January 8, 1642)

Image Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571—November 15, 1630)

Image Sir Isaac Newton (December 25, 1642—March 20, 1727)

Hippocrates (c. 460—380 BCE), widely acknowledged as the father of modern medicine, and author of the Hippocratic oath, still required of physicians, taught astrology to his students so that they could distinguish “critical days” in illness, treatment, and recovery. It was not an elective course, but a mandatory one. In the sixteenth century, master physician Paracelsus insisted that knowledge of astrology was essential for medical practitioners. Until the dawning of the Age of Science, physicians were expected to be well-versed in astrology.

With the coming of that Age, astrology became a neglected art, preserved only by occultists. Astrology’s decline began to reverse in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, in conjunction with increased mainstream interest in the occult. In the 1930s daily horoscopes gained massive popularity and became popular features in mass-market newspapers. Astrology is now considered among the most innocuous of the magical arts: there are people who perceive it as silly, invalid or untrue but, with the exception of intense religious fundamentalists, few perceive astrology as evil.

See also ANIMALS: Scorpions; DIVINE WITCH: Hulda, Isis.

Candle Magic

Candle magic, also known as “the philosophy of fire,” ranks among the most beloved and popular magical arts. It is not an ancient art: wax candles were once rare and prohibitively expensive. Until the twentieth century candles were not readily accessible to the average person. With the development of paraffin wax, however, candle burning developed into one of the most prevalent arts. Many modern witches might not be able to conceive of casting a spell without the incorporation of candles.

Candle magic involves the use of candles in spell-casting. Candle magic spells can be extremely simple or incredibly complex. The simplest candle spell involves holding a candle in your hands while focusing intensely on your goals, desires, and aspirations, then lighting the candle.

A complex candle spell might incorporate several candles. Color and style of the candle might be dependent on various astrological, magical, and spiritual correspondences. Individual candles might be lit at a specific moment (not necessarily all at the same moment), left to burn for a specific period of time, then pinched out and lit again at specific intervals.

Before wax, there was tallow. Comparatively inexpensive candles were crafted from animal fat. Tallow candles smoke heavily and have a strong aroma, however some prefer them for magical use. Tallow candles can be found in stores catering to Latin American magical practitioners.

Modern candle burning derives primarily from two sources. The first is the ancient art of the magic lamp. Before there were inexpensive candles, there were oil lamps. Cotton wicks were floated in small terracotta pots filled with oil. These wicks were lit, observed and interpreted. Magic lamps were popular throughout Asia and Africa; they retain their popularity in India and the Middle East. Magic lamps based on this concept also remain popular in the French Caribbean and in New Orleans Voodoo.

The second source is ecclesiastical use. For centuries, fine wax candles were reserved for church use. Among the first innovators of candle magic were theologians who secretly dabbled in magic. Other people stole candles from church in order to obtain supplies. This was very dangerous; if caught, they would be vulnerable to charges of heresy, witchcraft, and Satanism for daring to use church property for personal gain.

Candle burning is associated with many types of magic and many different traditions. It is now considered part of mainstream Western magic but for a long time was specifically associated with New Orleans Voodoo and Hoodoo, where candle magic is known as “setting lights.” Thus someone will “set lights” to achieve health and happiness, for instance.

A vast variety of candles are now available in different shapes and colors. Candles are chosen to suit the specific spell. That said, a white candle may always be used in any spell, as the equivalent of a magical blank slate.

Although there are many methods of candle magic, the following is a standard method based on Hoodoo tradition. Candles are crafted by charging, carving, and dressing them.

Charging the candle means magically transmitting one’s goals and aspirations to the candle. This is done by holding the candle in both hands, closing your eyes, and focusing intently on your desires. This is deceptively simple: the key is to achieve a level of focus and intensity. Take as much time as you need.

Some charge the candle at the beginning of the spell, prior to carving, others when the candle is fully dressed, and others at both times and at various periods in between as inspiration hits.

Carving a candle means using a tool to write words, sigils, and symbols in the wax or to draw pictures or images. The goal is to personalize the candle. Thus a candle intended to provide distance healing might be carved with the spell target’s name, birthday, astrological symbol, and perhaps a phrase encapsulating the spell’s goal—something as basic as “I am healthy now” or “I am cancer free.”

Magical arts in general, and candle magic in particular, are not compatible with multi-tasking. A spell cannot be effectively accomplished unless it has your completely undivided attention. So turn off the cell phone; shut off the television. Lock yourself in the bathroom, if that is the only place where you are assured privacy. The candles, oils, and herbs incorporated into candle magic are merely devices. The magic power that ultimately turns the key to success derives from within you.

Love spells frequently utilize a candle to represent each partner. Each candle would thus be carved (personalized) with that person’s name, birthday, identifying information, and so forth.

The candle may now be dressed. Don’t start crocheting little clothes; it’s not necessary. Dressing usually indicates rubbing the candle with oil; however it may incorporate further embellishment such as rolling it in herbs or glitter or anything that can be safely burned.

Oils are selected to magically enhance the goal of the spell. Hoodoo has an elaborate science of what are known as “condition oils” (because they’re intended to cure your condition). These once mass-marketed formulas have specific names and ideally are crafted from authentic materials. Commercial products are often little more than mineral oil and food coloring. It’s best to craft one’s own oils or only purchase from reputable practitioners and manufacturers.

The candle may now be charged again, if desired, and burned. The basic philosophy behind candle burning is that matter never entirely disappears. When candles burn they appear to disappear but (metaphysically speaking) in the process are actually transmitting the candle’s goal (its “charge”) to the powers that decide such matters.

Candles may be burned all at once or at intervals. Reaffirm the spell’s goal each time you light the candle. It is considered bad metaphysical manners to ever blow out a candle. Pinch it out instead or smother the flames with a candlesnuffer or small fireproof plate placed over the flame until it goes out.

Professional magical practitioners and stores that sell occult and spiritual supplies make and sell candles to suit the needs of individual spellcasters. Some people prefer to have a professional craft their candles, although the advantage of doing it oneself is that one transmits one’s own energy into the candle at every stage, thus enhancing its power. However, some professionals are expert candle-workers and may have access to a wider range of botanical and other materials. Should one purchase a candle crafted by another, the spell-caster should still personally charge it, as intensely as possible, for optimum chances of success.

Candle burning, as perhaps befitting its early church background, is an inherently spiritual art. Candles are often incorporated into spiritual petition. Candles are color-coordinated to match a saint or deity’s sacred colors, thus candles for the orisha Oshun are customarily yellow.

Spirits and saints possess specific sacred colors; those heavily incorporating astrology into their craft might choose colors based on astrological correspondences. Beyond that, however, perceptions of colors are intensely personal. If green symbolizes romance for you, then incorporate that color into your romantic spells, even if that is not the conventional correspondence. Candle magic is a very personal magical art; the more vividly one personalizes any candle the more likely it is to achieve success.

That said, the following are traditional color correspondences:

Image Black: fertility, healing, prosperity, protection. Black candles are burned in malevolent spells but also used in defensive magic to counteract another’s negative intentions

Image Blue: healing (especially emotional and psychic healing), protection, the power of the Sacred Mother; blue banishes malevolent spirits

Image Brown: justice, stability, prosperity

Image Gold: wealth, glory, victory, solar magic

Image Green: growth, prosperity, fertility, financial success, healing especially for physical ailments including cancer and other serious maladies

Image Pink: self-love, self-confidence, youthful romance, spells to benefit children

Image Purple: personal power, self-confidence, sex

Image Red: luck, protection, self-defense, prosperity, healing in terms of general vitality, love, sex and romance, menstrual magic, fertility

Image Silver: lunar power, personal fertility, success, lunar deities

Image White: creativity, initiating new projects, lunar magic. White candles can be used to substitute for any other color if necessary or desired

Image Yellow: Love, romance

Once upon a time, you were lucky to get a plain wax candle versus the omnipresent tallow; today candles come in every imaginable form, some so beautiful it’s impossible to burn them.

Candles are easily handcrafted as well. Wax molds are available to make sophisticated shapes in addition to the standard candle-crafting materials and tools. Sheets of beeswax can be rolled and folded to form beautiful, exceptionally fragrant candles.

Candles now come in an almost unimaginable variety; part of the fun of candle magic is searching for unique ones as well as letting the candles find you.

Charm Bags

This is among the simplest, most universal and most primal of magical arts. Charm bags go by countless names: amulet bag, mojo bag, mojo hand, medicine bag, tobie, gris-gris bag, huanga bag, gilly bag, and so forth. Virtually every language, magical tradition or culture has at least one name to describe this concept. In Romany, for instance, the charm is known as a putzi or pocket, which, in fact, is where they are frequently carried.

Charm bags involve a very simple concept: one or more magical ingredients are wrapped in fabric or placed in a container. This may then be carried on the person, pinned into clothing, slipped under a mattress or pillow or preserved in another private place. Sometimes they are openly hung on walls or doors as amulets and talismans.

It is an incredibly creative form of spell-casting; the possibilities are endless. There are innumerable ways of crafting a charm bag. The crucial point is to choose the ingredients and then choose the container.

Traditional ingredients include botanicals, bones, beads and other small amulets, crystals, lodestones, metal and minerals, and dirt, especially crossroads dirt or graveyard dust. Other popular ingredients include magical powders. These ingredients may then be dressed with condition or other oils. (See page 594, Candle Magic.)

Traditional containers include cloth bags, especially those made of felt or silk. Leather bags may also be used. Sometimes a fabric bag is filled with ingredients and then placed inside another sturdier leather bag, particularly when the ingredients include loose powders that might easily spill out. The simplest charm bags consist of ingredients wrapped up in a handkerchief and knotted closed with a ribbon. Elaborate containers are made of precious metals, decorated with priceless jewels. In Latin America, old medical ampoules and vials are recycled and transformed into transparent charm vessels.

Although this tradition literally derives from everywhere on Earth, traditional Africanderived charm bags are especially sophisticated, creative, and powerful.

Mojo refers to the power emanating from the container and its materials. Hoodoo mojo bags are traditionally made from fabric drawstring bags, usually red although they may be colorcoordinated to suit the bag’s purpose, thus someone creating a mojo bag to draw prosperity might choose a green bag.

Because mojo bags can be opened and closed, ingredients may be added or removed. Mojo bags are traditionally “dressed” or “fed” to empower them. This involves either sprinkling with a magical powder or perhaps adding a drop of wine or other alcoholic beverage, or a drop of a carefully chosen condition oil, once a week or on some regular schedule. Because the mojo is ultimately perceived as possessing a living, vibrant spirit (if not literally alive) then this feeding is necessary to maintain optimum power.

Mojo hands have nothing to do with anatomy. The hand refers to the power emanating from the charm, as in the hand of power or glory. Hands are enclosed packets, similar to a European sachet. Ingredients are placed between two pieces of fabric which are then sewn together completely enclosing the ingredients. A mojo hand will not be taken apart, nor will other materials be incorporated. It is complete as it is.

Mojo hands are traditionally made from red felt or other red fabric. They are square or rectangular and resemble a quilt patch. The practice of the closed hand may derive from African roots, such as the Paket Kongo (see below) or it may derive from European influence.

Traditional English charm bags bear tremendous resemblance to African-American mojo hands. They are also traditionally crafted from red fabric, often felt, but they may be cut into creative shapes, especially hearts for romantic magic. The fabric may be embellished with beads, lucky charms, embroidery or other fine needlework. Creating the bag is a spell unto itself; each stitch, each knot is accompanied by a blessing, wish or affirmation.

Gris-gris and mojo bags are sometimes now treated as synonymous, however originally they were not identical. Mojo bags are a simple, if powerful, folk tool. Gris-gris were originally elaborately constructed containers, similar to modern Pakets Kongo to which they are closely related. Many were formed in the shape of dolls and contained herbal or various magical ingredients. Enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere imported their tradition but were forced to create less elaborate gris-gris, and so southern American gris-gris have evolved into the equivalent of mojo bags.

The elaborate style and artistry survives in the Pakets Kongo, which are packets of Congolese origin usually intended for protective purposes and/or healing. Pakets Kongo are more solid and structural than the standard charm bag. Many feature a long-stemmed gourd or onion shape. Many also possess what appear to be arms.

The contents are wrapped in silk, then bound with ribbons, secured with pins, and ornamented with beads, sequins, metallic cloth, and feathers. Many Pakets Kongo are so beautiful people buy them as objets d’art without awareness of their real identity.

They may be topped with a cross, not because of Christian affiliation but because the crossshape is significant to the indigenous Congolese concept of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Pakets Kongo are created under the aegis of the snake magician spirit, Simbi.

See DICTIONARY: Hoodoo, Mojo; DIVINE WITCH: Simbi.

Charms and Incantations

Charms, incantations, and enchantments are technically magic spells created via the power of the human voice. These are among the most ancient spells of all. On one hand, these are simple spells: no other ingredients are required. On the other, charms are among the most challenging, difficult spells of all because they rely entirely on your will, focus, and personal magic power.

Charms consist of two components: the voice and the words.

Charms are carefully crafted spells, not merely spontaneous expressions of desire and passion. Method of delivery is thus consciously chosen. Charms may be cast via the following vocal techniques:

Image Singing: Charming literally means “singing.” Once upon a time (and still in some traditions), spells were intended to be sung. A proficient magician was expected to possess a wide repertoire of magical songs. This was particularly true in Finnish, Saami, and other Finno-Ugric magical traditions. Injunctions against women singing in churches and synagogues derived from fear that this left men vulnerable to women’s spells. In many traditions, the Fates sing one’s destiny. Everyone thus has a personal song that expresses his or her lifeline.

Image Chanting: Incantation and Enchantment refer to the power of the chant. Chanting involves rhythmic verbal expression, somewhere between singing and speaking. Among the dictionary definitions of “chant” is “to recite in a monotonous repetitive tone.” That makes it sound boring but rhythmic chanting is used to induce trance. “Entrance” is sometimes used as a synonym for “bewitch.” Chanting is a method of entrancing.

Image Murmuring and muttering: Sometimes verbal expressions are not meant to be understood by other people. Some spells require that the caster murmur or mutter; the power of the word is transmitted without being directly understood or even clearly heard. This enables a spell-caster to maintain privacy even when casting a spell in public. Murmuring spells are often incorporated into healing; the healer murmurs over a wound, for instance, to hasten healing.

Image Whispering: Whispering is more sibilant than murmuring. One metaphysical theory suggests that the power of the breath transmits magic power. Whispering is particularly incorporated into spells cast in the form of drinks or potions. (See FOOD AND DRINK.) Whispering is also a synonym for witchcraft in Russia.

Image Declaiming: Sometimes a magic spell demands that one boldly state one’s intentions to the universe. Many commanding and compelling spells involve clear, loud articulation and careful pronunciation.

The second component of charming involves choosing your words. Different magical philosophies choose words differently. Some systems suggest that you speak from your heart, carefully, concisely, and clearly. Express your desire in your own words, choosing them carefully to avoid ambiguity. This type of magic teaches you to clarify your desires and to be tremendously aware of the innate power of words.

Other systems suggest that only certain words expressed in certain ways possess optimum magic power. Thus certain words of power transmit magical energy even if no one understands any longer what the word means. These traditions suggest that words must be pronounced a specific way and delivered via specific rhythms.

Traditional charms are also incorporated: certain rhymes or magical poems have been handed down for generations. Others suggest repeating appropriate passages from the Book of Psalms, the Koran or other sacred texts. (See BOOKS: Magical Books of Power.)

Word charms are a particularly primal form of spell-casting. The ancient Egyptians suggested that this was the most primordial of all forms of magic. Heka, the Egyptian word indicating divine creative, magical energy, is often described as “the art of the mouth.” Magic spells are conveyed via incantations, verbal spells, and word charms.

To this day, some people consider that all spells should contain a verbal component; this verbal component is the finishing touch that ultimately turns the trick.

The Egyptians believed that there was a secret rhythm that Thoth, Lord of Magic and inventor of language, had taught the earliest magicians, who then transmitted this magical art to others. Knowledge of this rhythm, together with knowledge of spirits’ true names of power, was considered the crucial key to magical success. (See DIVINE WITCH: Thoth.)

Incantations are heavily incorporated into Commanding and Compelling rituals. Certain magical traditions, particularly Pow-Wow and traditional Russian magic, rely very heavily on word charms.

Commanding and Compelling

Commanding and Compelling is a style of High Ritual or Ceremonial Magic that involves summoning spirits, commanding and compelling them to do your bidding regardless of their own desires, and then sending them off.

This is the type of magic most frequently found in medieval grimoires. Anyone wishing to engage in this practice can obtain a grimoire and merely follow the specific directions. Because the spirits are not necessarily cooperative, nor are they necessarily pleased to work with you, it is crucial to follow all steps of spells and rituals exactly. The term “Commanding and Compelling” derives from the opening words incorporated in many chants, “I command you, I compel you,” and has become synonymous with this type of magic. Commanding and Compelling is the name given to condition oils that promise their users that others will do their bidding.

Commanding and Compelling derives from two related roots: magical systems popular in Alexandria during the first centuries of the Common Era, and Jewish systems of magic that evolved following the establishment of the Jewish monarchy.

The tradition of Commanding and Compelling derives largely from the legend of King Solomon who allegedly commanded a host of spirits. (See HORNED ONE: Asmodeus). Would-be commanders and compellers desire to emulate Solomon’s power and magical feats.

Jewish tradition is ambivalent towards magic. The Bible forbids various types of magic, and coincident with the establishment of the Jewish monarchy, native shamanism and women’s magical traditions were suppressed. (See HALL OF FAME: Witch of Endor.) Magic became a forbidden art, however, whenever magic is forbidden, would-be practitioners who don’t wish to be completely defiant and disobedient try to find loopholes to the ban.

Rabbis discussed the situation and decided that although it was forbidden to practice magic, if an angel, demon or other spirit cast the spell or did the magical work for you, then technically you weren’t engaged in magic. Commanding or interacting with spirits became the acceptable face of Jewish magic. It is also possible that a sophisticated system of demonology was also learned from Zoroastrians during the Babylonian Exile. (See HORNED ONE: The Devil.) This magical art eventually entered the Christian community where it continued to evolve and serve the different needs of new practitioners.

Commanding and Compelling has always been controversial because the system is easily used to disguise veneration of forbidden spirits. Christian Commanding and Compelling had more complex undercurrents than the traditional Jewish variant. Jewish magicians might summon potentially dangerous spirits who might cause harm, but the magician wasn’t in any danger of eternal damnation.

In the Christian perspective, all spirits—with the exception of angels—were evil demons: Satan’s host. Summoning spirits thus involved contact with demonic forces. The emphasis in Commanding and Compelling on abusive, disrespectful behavior toward spirits was intended to emphasize that no worship was going on, that one was neither engaged in Satanism nor in Pagan revivalism.

There is a significant difference between Commanding and Compelling and Spirit Working (see page 620). Spirit Working is ultimately a form of spiritual petition; one requests the spirit’s cooperation, assistance, and blessings. Spirits cooperate or not as they choose. Although it is ideally a mutually beneficial relationship, spirits are perceived as sacred and are the dominant presence. Commanding and Compelling posits an inherently hostile relationship. If the spirits were so eager to do your bidding, then they wouldn’t have to be commanded, would they?

Commanding and Compelling was particularly popular with Christian theologians. Like alchemy, it demands a certain educational background and orientation. One must be literate to read the grimoires, have access to ritual materials, and be familiar with names of angels and demons. Like rabbis centuries before, these theologians discussed and analyzed whether Commanding and Compelling was really forbidden or whether there were loopholes that permitted the practice. It was decided that if the human was clearly in the dominant position and if there wasn’t an ounce of spiritual veneration involved, then Commanding and Compelling might be acceptable.

During the later Middle Ages, further various rationales and justifications of the practice emerged. For instance, the powers of evil must be harnessed in the service of good. Thus it’s necessary to command them: demons won’t voluntarily do any good. Another argument suggested that since the magician was ordering demons to do his bidding, demons were prevented from doing the devil’s work instead.

Based on New Testament legends of the control Jesus exerted over demons, some magicians believed incorporating phrases from the Mass could imbue the magician with some of Christ’s authority. Also, if the Roman Catholic exorcism ceremony forced demons out, perhaps the ritual could be adapted to obtain other results. (This belief is among the roots of the Black Mass.)

The Inquisition didn’t particularly buy any of these rationales, particularly since popular purposes of Commanding magic included murdering enemies and procuring women, rather than forcing demons to deliver food to the poor.

Because demons are perceived as harmful, dangerous, and hostile, various precautions must be taken. Commanding rituals often include elaborate protective measures. Magic circles must be carefully and correctly drawn, in which the magician must stay until the whole ritual is complete. Various Hebrew or Latin chants are incorporated. As crucial as summoning and commanding is banishing: because the spirits are dangerous and unpredictable, they must be sent packing as soon as their task is complete. Until they are gone, the magician cannot safely leave the circle. A famous story involves a demon playing a trick on a magician; it appeared to leave but really didn’t, invisibly hiding in a corner. (And of course, demons can materialize and disappear at will.) When the magician cautiously stepped from the circle, the demon swooped down and killed him.


Divination is the art of discovering the future right now in the present. It is the art of foretelling the unknown, whether in the past, present or future. Hidden secrets to which one is not usually privy are revealed via divination. One can thus understand the past, predict the future, and make better plans for the present.

Divination is ultimately a passive art. The diviner serves as a medium, as opposed to witchcraft, which is an active art that attempts to effect change. Many witches or other magical practitioners incorporate divination techniques; however many diviners do nothing more than examine and analyze events without attempting to cause change.

That said, fortune-tellers, prophets, and diviners have been traditionally lumped in with other practitioners of the magical arts; divination has frequently been forbidden, sometimes on pain of death.

Many psychics such as clairvoyants and clairaudients simply know the future or hidden information. They hear, see or dream the desired information; they may or may not have any control over the process. Divination, by definition, is a conscious attempt to obtain information based on specific techniques.

Countless techniques for divination exist, however most are based on specific systems:

Image Scrying involves gazing. Scrying techniques include reading a crystal ball or candle-gazing. The diviner fixes their gaze on the scrying object and waits patiently until visions appear, often in their peripheral vision. In some ways, this is a very accessible technique: one can scry into a fire, onto bare Earth or in a pan of water, a still lake or even one’s polished thumbnail. No expense is required, no literacy, no materials or books. However, scrying can be difficult to accomplish. One must find just the correct gaze (focused but not too sharp) and state of mind (focused, but sometimes visions are revealed via the mind’s wandering).

Image Synchronicity is the name Jung gave to the theory that any two events that occur at the same moment are related. Methods of divination involving synchronicity usually incorporate tools like cards, dice, runes, coins or other objects. Objects are randomly scattered; the patterns created are interpreted and then related to the question at hand. Techniques using synchronicity are based on systems and rules (each rune has a specific meaning, for instance), however, intuition still plays a big role.

Image Sometimes neither scrying nor synchronicity is required. The future may be revealed by interpretation of signs. Palm reading (chiromancy) for instance reveals the future via the interpretation of one’s hand, particularly the lines but also features like shape, muscle tone, and skin texture. Other similar divination techniques involve interpreting the placement of moles on the body.

Image Psychic visions and prophecies may also be induced via psychoactive substances, lucid dreaming, and various ecstatic techniques including music and dance.

Divination is extremely popular worldwide. Among the most popular modern techniques are the I-Ching, Tarot and other cards, palm reading, and rune-casting.

The Greek suffix -mancy indicates prophecy or divination. Any word ending with that suffix (cartomancy, necromancy, aleuromancy, and so forth) indicates some type of divination technique. Astrology may also be considered a system of divination.

The successful, accomplished diviner often feels an energy surge during the process, similar to shamanic ecstasy. Diviners often describe it as being “plugged into the sacred.” Those who love divination perceive it as a sacred and spiritual art.

Ancient oracles such as that of Delphi might be classified as shamanic divination. (Psychic visions were carefully induced using various substances and techniques.) Many modern games derive from divination techniques including cards and dice.

Many historians believe it was the need to record divination results for posterity that sparked the very birth of writing. Divination results were recorded on tortoise shells and the shoulder bones of sheep and cows.

Divination is an ancient practice, simultaneously perceived as crucial and dangerous. In the ancient world, important decisions were never made without consulting an experienced diviner. Rulers kept diviners on the payroll ready to interpret omens at any moment. Words like auspice, harbinger, augur, and omen all derive from ancient divination techniques. Diviners were crucial to early religion and spiritual practice too. Diviners determined when sacrifices should be offered and to whom. Sacrificial animals (and humans) were often treated as instruments of divination: among the most ancient forms of divination is the analysis and interpretation of the liver.

However, access to hidden or forbidden information has also been perceived as dangerous. Rulers, particularly the autocratic and dictatorial, prefer to keep this information to themselves. Diviners have historically found themselves imprisoned, endangered or expected to provide the prophecy the ruler wishes to hear and have it be accurate!

Divination has frequently been forbidden. Those who practice the art or consult practitioners have been threatened with dire punishment. The Roman jurist Paulus wrote in the early third-century CE, “…if slaves consult about the life expectancy of their masters, they are to be subjected to the extreme penalty, that is, the cross. And any person consulted [by them for this purpose], if they give answers, shall be either condemned to the mines or banished to an island.”

Divination was equated with witchcraft during the witch-hunt era. It was believed that if proved accurate, then the information must have been provided by demons, hence it was a diabolical art. Divination remains outlawed in many places, although in Western regions this is because it is often perceived as fraud.


Some believe the origins of witchcraft lie in healing. Healers prescribed botanical cures, diagnosed causes of illness via divination and shamanic journey, and used various shamanic and magical techniques to safeguard the health of their communities.

Healing still remains an important magical art. Healing and magic are inextricably linked; healing and women are inextricably linked. Evidence suggests that Celtic women in Gaul followed many professions including that of medical doctor and this is true elsewhere. In many traditional communities, the face of the healer is that of a shaman or witch.

Although negative stereotypes suggest that witches are responsible for causing illness, witches are powerfully identified as healers. A Basque spell suggests, for instance, that should illness arise without obvious reason or cause, someone should bring a cauldron to a crossroads, place a comb inside the pot together with some stones, and turn the cauldron upside down. This serves as a signal to witches that healing action is required and allegedly assistance will soon arrive.

Many believe that the close identification of witches and healers sparked the European witch-craze. One theory suggests that witch-hunts resulted as a response to the medical revolution. According to this theory, medical advances contributed to witch-hunts and witchcraft hysteria.

As medicine became more sophisticated, more cures were found; understanding of the physical nature of illness expanded. Pagan traditions tend to view illness from a holistic standpoint: even illnesses derived from physical causes have a spiritual component, thus all cures tend to possess a spiritual component in addition to any other. Ancient healing rituals were thus conducted by shamans and witch doctors. Many of these rituals lingered among midwives and traditional female healers, even post-Christianity.

However with the advent of the new, exclusively male, university-trained physician, this situation changed. These physicians would not conduct traditional spiritual cures. Professional competition existed among traditional female healers and male medical practitioners. Some physicians believed that mysterious illnesses that resisted established cures were actually caused by witches specifically to create hurdles for the new medical doctors. If only a witch can cure an illness, then perhaps she caused it. The new university-trained physician notified the religious and secular authorities who pursued witchcraft charges.

An ancient theory, common around the world, suggests that “disease demons” cause ailments. These ailments were once diagnosed and treated via magical ritual. Post-Christianity, all magical ritual was perceived as diabolical and so people attempting to heal in this fashion were punished as witches.

This scenario inevitably leads to the conception of good witches versus bad witches. Bad witches cause illness; good witches heal them. “Witch” eventually became such a charged, dangerous word that no one wanted to be the “witch.” Thus names like “wise woman” or “cunning man” were substituted, even though the techniques and practices might be identical.

There was a very good reason for the fear of the word “witch.” During the witch-hunt era, healers were specifically targeted as witches. Those believed to cause illness were prosecuted as witches, but so were those who produced cures. The ability to heal, especially when an ailment had stymied a male physician, was considered evidence of witchcraft.

During the witch-hunt era, being requested to heal became a trap. If healing was accomplished, accusations of witchcraft might follow. At the same time, in the desperate face of illness, healers are desired at all cost. It is easy to see how community tension can arise: those who can heal or those believed able to heal refused to do so out of self-preservation, leading to anger, frustration, resentment, and further accusations. Healing was identified with witchcraft; refusal to heal became identified with witchcraft, too. It was a no-win situation.

Traditional healers were accused of causing illness and ailments so that they would then be requested to heal them, thus acquiring financial gain. In 1679, a witness was expressly asked during a Hungarian witch trial, “What do you know of the enchantment and wisdom of Mrs Mihály Csonka, which she used to bewitch the health of others and then remedy again?

A very specific type of healing remains exclusively identified with magic.

In the indigenous traditions of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, malevolent witchcraft is practiced by introducing foreign objects into a victim’s body. Among some indigenous American traditions, these objects are usually sharp things or are somehow associated with death, as the dead and anything associated with them are perceived as toxic, not just spiritually or psychically but physically as well. Any physical contact with the dead potentially leads to extremely debilitating, potentially fatal ailments, commonly called “ghost contamination sickness.”

In the traditions of sub-Saharan Africa, “live things” are introduced into the body.

Hoodoo incorporates both traditions, describing these foreign substances as “live things in the body.” Scientifically, they may not be literally alive, however because they are magically charged they generate malevolent energy.

Practitioners may introduce “live things” into the body by slipping them into food. “Live things” include frog or fungal spawn or similar eggs, as well as dried, powdered frogs, lizards, scorpions, and snakes. The results allegedly manifest as aches and pains, malaise, unnatural swelling, perpetual hunger that never abates regardless how much food is consumed, and gnawing sensations within. A strange tingling is experienced in the legs and arms. Women sometimes have the appearance of being pregnant although they are not.

In addition to introduction via food, in African tradition, harmful magical powders may be laid on the ground. When the target steps on or over the powder, the harmful substance is believed introduced into the body. Again, this may or may not have any scientific reality.

In Native American tradition, the sharp things are usually “shot” at a person, sometimes literally but sometimes only on a magical level. Although there is no exact European parallel tradition, it is similar to the Anglo-Saxon concept of elf-shot.

Malevolent Navajo witches use image magic to introduce sharp things into the target’s body. Sand paintings of the spell’s target are made using ashes. With a ritual bow, the witch shoots the figure with beans, beads or other objects. The essence of the object wings its way through the air, seeking out the correct victim and entering the body.

These are magical illnesses—hence they require magical solutions. Cures are effected by the medicine woman or man, healer or shaman, who usually sucks out or otherwise removes the source of trouble. This concept of extracting foreign substances, often perceived as living, is common to many magical and shamanic traditions, and this type of healing is not uncommon in many parts of the world. In South America, for instance, as in Siberia, “live things” or the equivalent are extracted via sucking, psychic surgery or via special magical tools and instruments.

Sometimes the shaman will display objects that allegedly have been removed from the victim’s body. Sometimes this is literally the case but sometimes there is a performance aspect to the cure. Various shamanic theories suggest that it is crucial that the patient see the removed article even if it did not come directly out of their body, because the object produced by the shaman contains the essence of the harmful object. This is the kind of magical reasoning that frustrates and enrages the literal (rather than magical) minded and led to accusations of shamanism as fraudulent. What can be witnessed are the roots of theatrical conjuring, also originally a shamanic art. Sleight of hand is used as a healing technique.


Herbalism is the magical art of botanicals. Some believe that shamanism and witchcraft first emerged as a “botanical cult.” Individuals studied plants, communicated with them and learned all about them, acquiring knowledge of physical healing, magical, and psychoactive effects. Witches and shamans were able to spiritually interact with plants (or at least with their presiding spirits, depending upon interpretation).

The ancient Greeks did not linguistically distinguish between herbal healers, poisoners, and witches: all three possessed the power of plants. (See DICTIONARY: Pharmakon.) Herbalism remains a beloved magical art. Botanicals are the primary component of magic spells from every tradition around the world.

Each individual plant is believed to radiate a specific magical power in addition to whatever healing or harmful physical effects it might also cause. Thus lavender is believed to sharpen the mind, while calamus root enhances your powers of command. Roses are favored in love spells; chrysanthemums are identified with death.

Different botanicals are identified as under the dominion of various spirits. Working with the botanicals is one way of attempting to contact spirits or avail yourself of their power. Cowslips—wild primroses—are identified with the Nordic goddess Freya. They are her favorite flower and are believed to transmit her grace and power. Washing one’s face with a cowslip infusion is a method of petitioning Freya to share some of her beauty.

The simple act of gardening or tending the Earth becomes a spiritual interaction. A private garden is transformed into an outdoor altar. Magic spells are transmitted via gardens. A desire for personal fertility may be conveyed to the universe by crafting a garden filled with plants associated with fertility such as poppies, figs, and pomegranates.

A desire for protection might be signaled by planting cactuses, nettles, and poisonous plants like oleander or datura. Spirits may be summoned or fairies beckoned by planting inviting gardens filled with their favored botanicals.

Ancient priestesses of Kybele and Hecate were botanical experts. The tradition survives among Santeria’s priestesses and priests, the Santera and Santero. A botanical education is a required part of initiation.

Every magical tradition also has a botanical tradition, some simple, others extremely elaborate and complex. This remains very accessible magic; many fine herbal books are available, as are academies devoted to the botanical arts including aromatherapy and flower essences in addition to traditional herbalism.

Image Magic

Many consider “Voodoo Dolls” to be the height of harmful magic. The Voodoo doll is envisioned as a figure crafted to resemble a specific human target. The target’s fingernail parings or strands of his hair may be imbedded in the doll to further personalize it. Pins are then plunged into the doll, according to this stereotype. The part of the target’s body corresponding to that part of the doll pierced by the pin is subject to sharp pains. A pin through the heart or throat might be fatal. This stereotype is unfortunate as it has served to demonize Voodoo and Vodoun, sophisticated magical and spiritual systems with relatively little to do with what might be better called image magic.

Image magic is an ancient practice, common to every corner of Earth.

The wizard or witch

Sits in the shade of the wall

Sits making spells against me

Fashioning images of me

That poem or charm may sound current but it was composed during the later Babylonian Empire and is featured amongst the Maklu or “Burning” Babylonian magical tablets. The Maklu consists of eight tablets giving directions for protective spells and incantations to be used against malevolent witches and wizards. The chant describes the harmful witch or wizard fashioning images for malicious purposes, but protective instructions also incorporate image magic, instructing the bewitched person to make figures of their enemies, and then to ritually destroy these figures accompanied by prayer and spiritual petition.

Image magic is among the most primordial magical arts. Various creation tales including the one in the Bible suggest that people were first created via image magic. In the Bible, God creates people from Earth. The Egyptians posited a similar scenario: Khnum the ramheaded god created the first people out of clay on his potter’s wheel. His wife, frog-goddess Heket breathed life into the forms he created.

A Chinese myth suggests that a female spirit created people also via image magic. Lonely Nu Kua the Dragon Goddess was playing alone on the beach with wet sand, when she started molding human figures to amuse her and keep her company. She crafted the first people this way, breathing life into them: eventually she grew tired and bored. When Nu Kua realized how much work it would be to fill the entire Earth with individual human beings, she invented sexual intercourse so people could reproduce independently.

Most people are only familiar with the sensational, harmful aspects of witchcraft such as malevolent killing spells. Image magic has traditional been used to cast malevolent spells but it is just as frequently used for beneficial magic, including healing, love, success, and fertility spells.

Figures may be crafted from clay, wax, cloth, wood, or bone—just about any material that exists. Photographs are now also incorporated into modern image spells; paintings and other visual images have been used in similar fashion for centuries.

It is unfair to ascribe harmful image magic to Voodoo or any other modern magical or spiritual tradition for that matter. The concept of causing harm by piercing an image of a specific target dates back at least to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Piercing was not always intended to cause harm, illness or physical pain. In Alexandria, wax figures were pierced with pins to induce the pangs of love. Pierced doll magic was incorporated into a less-than-romantic love spell. The image was personalized as the person the spellcaster wished to seduce. Pins were introduced into various parts of the image along with the appropriate incantation: as the pin pierces an eye, for instance, the spell-caster croons “You see only me” or “Your eyes burn with desire for me” or something similar. Ancient magic wasn’t shy and tends to be sexually graphic, and so the spell-caster would describe in detail exactly what effects those pins were expected to cause.

Image magic was used for all sorts of goals and purposes. An Egyptian story dates back to c.3830 BCE: a man suspects his wife of betraying him so he crafts a small, wax crocodile image. He chants spells over it and commands the crocodile to catch his wife’s lover. The wax crocodile comes to life and proceeds to capture (and punish) the lover. The guilty wife is punished by the king. The story views the magic spell as perfectly appropriate; the wax image is not an object of dread and horror but an avenue toward justice and truth.

According to legend at least, wax images are a favorite tool of those who conspire against royalty: in 968 CE, his enemies allegedly used a wax image to try to kill King Duffus of Scotland. The perpetrators were caught and identified as witches. The king survived the spell; those accused of witchcraft were burned. In 1479, allegedly one dozen Edinburgh witches participated in the burning of a wax image of Scotland’s King James III.

Although harmful image magic exists, many methods of causing magical harm exist. It is not the only one. In sub-Saharan African practices, from whence the roots of Vodoun derive, magical harm is more traditionally caused via direct application, not indirect image magic. Topical poisons or inserting foreign objects into the body are more common. In Africa, image magic is more closely identified with acquisition of fertility than with harmful spells.

Image magic might also be called Doll Magic. The word “doll” derives from the same roots as “idol.” The first dolls were crafted for spiritual and magical use as well as to entertain children. See TOOLS: Dolls.

Image magic for whatever reason is created by first crafting an image that resembles the target of the spell. Love spells involving a couple require two images, one to represent each person. A Chinese spell intended to stimulate family harmony and protection requires an image to represent each member of the family.

Candles, formed from wax, may be understood as the direct descendant or even just another branch of Image Magic.

The Scottish magical image is known in Gaelic as the Corp Creadh. Traditionally, a clay figure is formed in the image of the spell’s target, and then pierced with pins to cause pain. The piercing is not done haphazardly but deliberately; each pin is accompanied by a verbal curse. Similar images were formed in Ireland, too, but the figure was created from twisted sheaf of wheat.

Marie de Medici, widow of France’s King Henry IV, together with her friend Leonora Galigai Concini, was accused of trying to kill Marie’s son Louis XIII using a clay statuette baptized in his name and stabbed with a needle. Marie was exiled; Leonora was burned as a witch in July 1617.

Image magic was particularly feared in Christian Europe; it became exclusively identified in the popular imagination with negative, harmful practices. Because all magic was forbidden, it was impossible to discuss the various beneficial techniques to which image magic may be put—for instance distance healing or protection spells.

Although most images are small, the Golem is a dramatically large magical image, larger than life, so to speak. The golem may be the single most dramatic manifestation of image magic. A golem is an artificial man created from Earth and brought to life by various techniques, including mastery of names of power. In folklore, the golem often acts as a servant who eventually grows more powerful than its master and creator. It can’t be controlled so it must be destroyed. Legends of the Golem inspired Mary Shelley to write her novel Frankenstein.

Eliezer of Worms (now Wûrzburg) recorded a formula for creating a Golem:

1. Craft an image from virgin soil obtained from a mountainous place where no one has ever previously dug.

2. Chant the incantation comprising “the alphabets of the 221 gates” over every single organ individually.

3. Incise either the name of God on the image’s forehead or the Hebrew word EMET or “truth.”

4. The golem may be destroyed by erasing the first letter of EMET, creating the word MET or “death.” Conversely the entire creative combination may be reversed so that it becomes a destructive combination.

Golem is a Hebrew word indicating “formless” or “lifeless matter.” It also means an embryo, something not fully formed or complete. The Latin name for this concept is homunculus. Alchemists like Dr Faust were suspected of trying to create artificial people; herein lie the origins of the archetypal mad scientist and perhaps of modern cloning.

Solomon ibn Gabirol (c.1021—1058) allegedly created a rare female golem from wood. Rabbi Samuel, a twelfth-century French Kabalist, allegedly created a golem that was able to accompany him on his travels and serve him, but was unable to speak.

The most famous golem of all was the one created by Rabbi Judah Löwe ben Bezalel. Its remains are allegedly among the debris in the attic of the Prague synagogue the Altneuschule.


Kabalah (also spelled Kabala or Kabbalah) literally means “that which is received,” implying “tradition,” but also refers to what was originally an oral tradition, transmitted directly from teacher to student and restricted to a small circle of devotees. Among its other definitions is “received love.”

Kabalah is a broad term encompassing various spiritual and magical traditions.

Although it has recently become popular, it was once a secret tradition, open only to initiates and perceived as dangerous to those unprepared for its wisdom. For centuries, in traditional Jewish mysticism, only married men over the age of forty were officially permitted to study Kabalah. Only they were believed stable, grounded, and sensible enough to withstand its profound spiritual dangers.

Kabalah was controversial and somewhat disreputable (and to some extent remains so) in the conventional Jewish community, heavily influenced by rationalist philosophies such as those of Moses Maimonides. In the Christian community, Kabalah was simply synonymous with magic.

Where does Kabalah come from? According to one legend, when Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai he also received additional knowledge that he was instructed to keep secret. (“Occult” is a synonym for “secret” and so this secret knowledge is the basis for occult wisdom.) (See BOOKS: Grimoires: Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Books of Moses, Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.)

Among Kabalah’s most prominent leaders were Moses Cordovero, Isaac Luria, and Chaim Vital who was also a skilled alchemist.

There is not one single book known as the Kabalah. Instead various sacred texts are used, including:

Image Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation): Traditional wisdom suggests that the Sefer Yetzirah was divinely revealed. Another version suggests that it was composed between the third and sixth centuries CE in Palestine. Among its themes is that the Creator formed the universe via the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet and the ten sephirot of the Tree of Life, thus the world has thirty-two secret (occult) paths to wisdom.

Image Sefer Habahir (Book of Brightness): This text emerged in the Jewish community of Provence between 1150 and 1200 CE.

Image The Zohar (Book of Splendor): In approximately 1280, Moses de Leon (1238—1305), a Spanish Jew, began circulating booklets in Aramaic among his fellow Kabalists. De Leon claimed that he had transcribed them from an ancient book composed in the second-century CE in the academy of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai. These booklets gradually formed The Zohar.

According to The Zohar, the Creator initially taught the Kabalah to angels who then shared them with people. They taught Adam, who passed it on to Noah, who passed it on to his descendants. Abraham brought the teachings to Egypt. Moses, King David, and Solomon were all initiated into the Kabalah’s secrets so these male patriarchs and heroes were all simultaneously occult masters and spiritual adepts. The information was transmitted orally. No one wrote it down until Simon Bar Yochai.

Sephirot are the ten paths or rungs of Kabalah’s Tree of Life. The Sephirot may be diagrammed as a tree or in the form of a candelabrum. The ten sephirot are:

1. Keter (Crown)

2. Chochma (Wisdom)

3. Bina (Understanding)

4. Hesed (Love)

5. Geburah/Gvura (Power)

6. Tiferet (Beauty)

7. Netzach (Endurance, Eternity, Victory)

8. Hod (Glory, Splendor)

9. Yesod (Foundation)

10. Malkuth (The World)

In popular terminology Kabalah has become a catch-all name for any kind of Jewish or Jewishderived magic. (There was even once a type of mass-marketed witch board sold under the name Kabalah.) These may have nothing to do with Kabalah in its pure form. Within the Jewish magical and mystical communities, distinctions are drawn between “theoretical Kabalah” (Kabalah in its pure form) and “practical Kabalah,” which includes various and sundry magical practices.

During the Renaissance, Kabalists developed reputations as powerful sorcerers and magicians. The traditional image of the robed, bearded wizard with a peaked hat and big book is based on the stereotype of a Kabalah master.

Christian practitioners also began to adopt Kabalah for their own spiritual purposes and magical purposes. (See below, Cabala.) During a time of tremendous cultural segregation, metaphysicians were the exceptions to the rule. Christian spiritual and magical seekers including the great Cornelius Agrippa ventured into Jewish ghettoes (Jews were often not permitted to leave) to study and trade secrets with the Kabalists.

Since the fifteenth century, Kabalah has exerted a tremendous influence over mainstream European magical practices, especially Ceremonial Magic and High Ritual Magic. In the sixteenth century it began to be associated with witchcraft and took on a disreputable air.

Kabalah has since evolved into a general term for Jewish mysticism: via techniques such as fasting and the recitation of hymns, prayers, and names of power uttered either in a state of trance or of complete, total focus, the devotee attempts to progress up the ten paths, intelligences, or rungs of ladder of the Sephirot or Tree of Life. Among those greatly influenced by Kabalah were Eliphas Levi, Samuel MacGregor Mathers, and Aleister Crowley.


The Christian derivative of Kabalah is spelled with a “c” to distinguish it from its ancestor. Kabalah posed a dilemma for some medieval Christian spiritual seekers. They were fascinated with its traditions and sought to understand and master them; yet for many, its clear and unavoidable associations with Judaism were troubling. In response, Christian Cabala developed based on the teachings of Kabalah but consciously attempting to incorporate a Christian overlay. (This may also have been necessary for practitioners’ safety.) Cabala first developed in Spain during the Golden Age when Christians, Jews, and Muslims mingled in the academies of mysticism in Toledo.


This metaphysical system is based on Kabalah but also incorporates other mystical traditions including Hermeticism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Sufi wisdom.


“Necromancer” is sometimes used as a synonym for “sorcerer” with the added implication of “evil sorcerer.” Necromancy is frequently used as a synonym for malevolent, harmful witchcraft. Often, those who realize that necromancy has something to do with death interpret the word to mean “corpse desecration.” None of these definitions are correct.

Technically, necromancy indicates divination using the dead as a tool in the same manner that cartomancy indicates divination via cards. There are many techniques of divination; most do not involve a trip to the cemetery or any contact with a corpse although a few methods do.

Necromancy is most frequently practiced via various divination techniques included scrying, dream incubation, séances and the use of witchboards. Botanical techniques are also incorporated: in Virgil’s Aeneid, the golden bough (mistletoe) is the passport to the realm of the dead.

Of course, necromancy is not just any form of divination. People have always been fascinated with mysteries of life and death: necromancy is, at its finest expression, a sacred, spiritual art that attempts to bridge the realms of the living and the dead.

Necromancy is rooted in shamanic techniques for journeying between realms. There are several beliefs at the heart of necromancy:

Image Certain secrets can only be discovered in the realm of the dead

Image When the living die, time stops for them and they are able thus to see the past and future equally well

Image Because dead souls were once living people, they can communicate with people more clearly than spirits, who sometimes have difficulty expressing themselves to people in a lucid, understandable fashion. (See HORNED ONE: Faunus, Leshii.)

Image Ancestral spirits are genuinely interested in your welfare: there are no ancestors without descendants. Their well-being depends on yours. Therefore, ancestral spirits in particular may be contacted for assistance and information.

Most necromantic systems believe that dead souls can communicate with the living no matter how long they’ve been dead—hence the practice of attempting to contact historic figures, sometimes long gone, at séances. Ancient Greek shamans, however, disagreed. They perceived that the longer someone was dead, the further away from the living they traveled. The longer a person was dead, the less likely it would be that they could communicate lucidly with the living or even understand the living person’s concerns—hence the need for actual contact with a fresh corpse or a recently buried one. Classical Greek and Roman authors describe witches digging in the cemetery with horror but this was the true spiritual basis of the practice, however by then shamanic traditions had fallen from fashion.

Legendary necromancers include Circe and the Witch of Endor. In Assyria, a special name existed for this type of practitioner: “Raiser of the Departed Spirit.”

In Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, composed in the ninth-century BCE but based on earlier sources, the goddess Circe advises Odysseus that he must obtain council from the dead prophet Tiresias. There is only one way to accomplish this: under Circe’s tutelage, Odysseus engages in necromancy. He enters the realm of the dead via shamanic rituals including a blood sacrifice. Homer indicates no revulsion or sense of wrongdoing. By Plato’s time however, in the fourth-century BCE, necromancy was viewed with revulsion.

Witches have traditionally been accused of defiling gravesites and corpses. However, most necromantic practices do not require either.


Séances remain a popular modern form of necromancy. Séance literally indicates a “session” or “seating.” Traditionally at least one of the participants possesses some mediumistic skill. Professional mediums sometimes hold séances attended by people who are otherwise strangers. The purpose of the séance is generally to establish communication with dead souls for various reasons, however some people also conduct séances for fun, sensationalism or just to see what will transpire. Purposeless séances are to be discouraged as they tend to invite the presence of malevolent or low-level spirits.

Ironically perhaps, those who play with necromancy, treating it as a joke, tend to have worse experiences than those who treat it seriously. Proper magical and spiritual safeguards should be taken to ward off malevolent entities who might attempt to use a séance as a portal. (See CREATIVE ARTS: Comics: Black Widow.) A proper séance takes spiritual precautions to ensure that only invited guests show up.

References to rituals similar to séances have been recorded as far back as the third century. In 1848, however, the Fox Sisters of upstate New York inaugurated the modern phenomenon of spiritualism. It became a craze. Although séances are traditionally conducted to contact the dead, eventually many stopped treating it as necromancy and considered séances as venues for experiencing paranormal phenomena.

Séances became increasingly dramatic. Outsiders or those new to the occult expecting sensational results are frequently disappointed: real psychic phenomena are rarely as physically dramatic as the fantasy magic of television, literature or fairy tales.

Mediums began displaying ectoplasm, a subtle substance that allegedly exudes from the bodies of some mediums. Spectral photographs were produced as well as the sound of trumpets or other discarnate noises. Dramatic expectations led to abuse and fraud. Sensational effects are easier to fake then genuine psychic ability. (And, truth be told, sensation seekers desired dramatic effects often more than they wanted genuine psychic experience.)

The phenomenon known as table turning was apparently first recorded in Europe. When two or more people sat at the séance table, holding their hands and legs in certain ways, the table began to tilt, turn or even levitate. By 1854, the practice of table turning was widespread. This evolved into table tapping. Once the table began to tip, signaling the appearance of the spirit, participants ask the spirit questions. The spirit answers by tapping, one tap indicating “yes” for instance, with two taps for “no.”

Modern séances still exist and are an important feature of the Spiritualist movement. Special effects are no longer as emphasized; spiritual aspects of the séance are considered most crucial. Séances are usually conducted by sitting around a round table. Some traditions initiate the séance by singing hymns or other songs to set the mood.

Witch Boards

Witch boards, also known as Egyptian luckboards, spirit boards and talking boards, are probably the most accessible and popular modern necromantic technique. The most famous of these boards are ouija boards, however the category also includes planchettes and any other similar devices.

Witch boards serve as party games, oracles, and conduits to the realm of ghosts and spirits. They have gone from serious occult tools to teen (or younger) party games, and are currently experiencing something of a renaissance. Artists and/or occultists are creating beautiful new forms based on this ancient concept.

Although these are modern devices, witch boards have ancient roots. Witch boards may derive from devices like Central African oracle boards, such as those used by the Zande nation. These “rubbing boards” consist of a small portable table with a board that covers it. Liquid is poured onto the table and then the board is rubbed over it. Affirmative or negative answers are determined by whether the board sticks to the table or not.

Before there was the ouija board, there was the planchette, which derives from the personal system of spirit writing or automatic writing. A pencil was attached to a small basket. The medium touches the basket; contact is made with the spirit who takes over, using the medium’s hand to write messages. This is similar to ritual possession but using the hand instead of the voice.

Chinese oracles using a sand table and a writing implement to produce spirit writing have existed for centuries.

This evolved into the formalized planchette. Planchette means “little plank” and was first invented in France in 1853. A planchette is a small board or table on rolling wheels with an attached pencil that writes on sheets of paper placed underneath. Messages are produced by moving the planchette over the paper. The planchette may be used by one person but is large enough for two people to rest their fingers on.

The advantage of the planchette over the traditional séance was that it was portable and could be accomplished by one person alone; the planchette introduced the concept that any individual could independently be a medium. However it was unwieldy. Ultimately they were unnecessary and were replaced by automatic writing, which simply utilized a pen and paper to produce messages from other realms.

Witch boards combine the planchette with séance table turning techniques. Instead of the rolling planchette, letters were printed directly onto a board together with words like “yes,” “no,” and “goodbye.” (Sophisticated modern witch boards include messages like “ask again later” or even “no comment.”)

In Europe, early witch boards were improvised using a shot glass or tumbler and individual letters. (Letters were created on small squares of paper or game board pieces such as Scrabble© may be used.) Two people sit with their fingers placed gently on an upside-down drinking glass placed within a circle of letters. Letters touched by the glass’s movement allegedly spell out messages.

By the late nineteenth century, several different witch boards were sold through Sears Roebuck and other catalogs. From approximately 1890 until 1950, dozens of manufacturers created and marketed different witch boards. The most successful of these boards was marketed as “Ouija, the Mystifying Oracle Talking Board.”

The origins of the ouija board are steeped in mystery. It was allegedly patented on July 19, 1892 by a Baltimore customs inspector, William Fuld. However, a patent filed in 1890 and granted in 1891 for the ouija board lists Elijah J. Bond of Baltimore as the inventor and assigns marketing rights to Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin. The Kennard Novelty Company produced the first commercial line of ouija boards. Sales steadily increased; eventually William Fuld took over the helm of the company. He reinvented the history of the board and claimed to have invented the first board together with his brother Isaac in his home workshop.

Despite the spelling, ouija is pronounced “wee-jee.”

Why is it called “ouija” board? Various reasons are given.

Image Fuld claimed that he asked the board what to call it and it spelled out O-U-I-J-A. Fuld suggested that this was an Egyptian word for good luck. Egyptologists remain unfamiliar with it, however this is allegedly the explanation given by the board.

Image The name may derive from the Moroccan city Oujda (also spelled Oujida or Oudjda), or the West African city of Whydah.

Image The board may be named in honor of popular author Maria Louise de Ramée (1839—1908) who signed her novels with the nom de plume Ouidah. Two of her novels, Under Two Flags and Moths were bestsellers in the United States during the Civil War.

Image Ouija may combine the French (oui) and German (ja) words for “yes.”

William Fuld died in February 1927 after falling from the roof of his factory while supervising the replacement of a flagpole. His children took over the business until they retired in 1966. On February 23, 1966, Parker Brothers, the leading American manufacturer of board games, bought out William Fuld’s trademark. They currently own all trademarks and patents.

Early ouija boards were beautiful, evocative, and well constructed. Modern witch boards once again create evocative, handcrafted, often magically themed witch boards. Among these modern witch-board masters are Kipling West and the Brothers Johnson of Portals to the Beyond.

Since the board’s earliest inception, mainstream Christian religions have cautioned against its use, some actually describing ouija boards as diabolical and tools of Satan. At best, they are considered dabbling with Satanism. The very accessibility of these boards (ouija boards are sold in toy stores amongst board games) makes them a threat.

Because many kids perceive ouija boards as a party game, they sometimes invite Satan or demons (by name) as a prank or show of machismo. Occultists caution that spirit summoning is not for the inexperienced or unprepared. Those who are ambivalent about spirits, not sure whether they believe in them but if they do exist, then they must be evil demons, sometimes have unpleasant or frightening experiences.

The reaction of occultists towards ouija boards is more ambivalent: some perceive them as wholly benevolent devices while others caution that they genuinely can serve as a portal and thus are not for the inexperienced.

Further information regarding witch boards may be found at the online Museum of Talking Boards (

Ritual Possession

General occult wisdom suggests that although spirits are incredibly powerful, they often must accomplish their work through people. People are the magical tools belonging to spirits. Ritual possession is a shamanic art where a person is temporarily possessed by a spirit. Spirits are described as “coming down” and entering or “mounting” the person. In Vodoun terminology, the lwa are described as riding the person, who is described as their “horse.”

This is a sophisticated, powerful technique that is usually incorporated into a system of spiritual devotion. It is not for the uninitiated or the inexperienced and is always performed under the supervision of a priestess, shaman or other spiritual leader. Ritual possession is common to shamanism around the world.

Why is this magical art practiced? Via ritual possession, spirits can perform healing and divination. It is also a sacred rite of communion with spirits. Spiritual rituals intended to induce ritual possession include dance, ecstatic music especially drumming, and masquerading.

The crucial difference between ritual possession and what is described as demonic possession is one of cooperation. Demonic possession is involuntary; ritual possession is welcomed and invited. Spirits are beckoned with their favorite foods and offerings and with music specifically believed to serve as an invitation.

Practitioners learn various shamanic techniques for temporarily accepting spirits into their bodies. Spirits do not as a rule possess those who are unprepared, however once in a while this is their way of signaling that they wish this person to become initiated into their tradition. Even in a case like this, however, possession will occur when an experienced person can observe, understand, interpret, and supervise. The spirit intends no harm and will depart.

The person who has been possessed is empowered and blessed by the spirit’s presence. (The person’s own nature is envisioned as being present but pushed down and temporarily suppressed, so that the spirit can ride them like a horse.) In shamanic trance, the person is the spirit. The spirit is present in their body. The person temporarily possesses the personal attributes of the spirit and can thus perform healing, divination, and magical feats. True possession is sometimes demonstrated by plunging one’s hand into a boiling cauldron or walking over glowing coals and displaying no pain or injury—impossible in a normal state.

Of course this vision of ritual possession depends upon whether one believes that temporary, voluntary, beneficial spiritual possession is possible. In traditional Christian belief, all spiritual possession is demonic possession. Voluntary ritual possession is, from this perspective, Satanism: one voluntarily becomes a tool of demons. And although someone from another spiritual perspective wouldn’t perceive these spirits as evil demons, fundamentalist Christians assuredly do.

Most traditional cultures do not perceive voluntary, trained, ritual possession as evil or malevolent but as a natural spiritual technique. According to Acts 16:16, a female slave in Philippi was subject to possession by a prophetic spirit. Her owners put her to work as a prophetess, pocketing the substantial income she earned. When St Paul exorcised her spirit, they sued him for loss of income.

The concept of ritual possession leads to interesting speculation when one considers Europe’s witch-craze and the sabbats witches were accused of attending. If people were indeed secretly worshipping a Pagan horned spirit, were shamans or priests ritually channeling him? Accounts of costumes, music, dance, intoxicating beverages, and food designed to attract the spirit might indicate that ritual possession did occur or was part of the rite.

See also DICTIONARY: Lwa, Vodou, Zar.


Runes are a Nordic magical and spiritual system incorporating what is frequently described as an “alphabet,” although that is not exactly accurate and only begins to suggest the power of the runes.

Runes are a system of sacred symbols. Runic alphabets are known as a futhark. The oldestknown full futhark is the Elder Futhark or the Common Germanic Futhark and consists of 24 runic characters in a specific order, in the manner that an alphabet has letters arranged in specific order.

The Runes of the Elder Futhark

Every rune contains three elements or aspects:

Image An audible, phonetic sound (this aspect of a rune is similar to a letter of an alphabet; runes are used to compose words). In some traditions each rune is also a song.

Image A geometric shape or form (sometimes called a “stave”).

Image A mystical meaning, radiant energy or “mystery”: each rune may be interpreted and has literal, magical and spiritual meanings. Each rune is affiliated with at least one spirit and expresses their power and energy.

The word “alphabet” derives from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta), in turn derived from the ancient Semitic alphabet (aleph, bet). Likewise “futhark” derives by spelling out the first six rune characters.

Runes are used for divination, spell-casting, meditation, and to contact and communicate with spirits. Runes are particularly associated with Odin: according to his myth, Odin hung himself on the World Tree for nine nights in order to acquire knowledge of the runes. Legend also has it that he acquired knowledge of the runes or of the shamanic techniques required to use them from Freya. (See DIVINE WITCH: Freya, Odin.)

“Rune” is also closely associated with words indicating witches and witchcraft. The Old German runa indicates a “whisperer” and is believed to refer to wise women or witches. The word alruna or alraune is also cognate with rune. (See BOTANICALS: Mandrake; DICTIONARY: Alraune.)

In addition to its other meanings rune literally means “lot” and they are used for divination. Runes are placed in a bag and either individually drawn or randomly cast and then interpreted.

The Roman historian Tacitus, writing about the Germani living in what is now modern Copenhagen in the last decade of the first-century CE, describes their system of divination using what are recognizably runes. Sigils were carved onto strips of wood cut from nut-bearing trees. These sigils were randomly distributed over a white cloth and then interpreted.

Runes are almost exclusively identified with Nordic tradition today. However, they may once have been more widespread. Historic events were, for example, recorded by Pagan Hungarian priests in what are described as “runic writings.” During the eleventh century these texts were completely destroyed by the Church.

Runes are also incorporated into magic spells. Each rune is identified with one or more Nordic deities. Each radiates a specific power and may be used for various magical purposes. Runes are considered especially beneficial for protective magic. Runes are often used to empower ritual tools and objects. They are easily incorporated into candle magic spells.

The Elder Futhark is the most popular runic alphabet, however there are also others including the Younger Futhark and Gothic and medieval interpretations. Modern rune systems are sometimes sold with a blank rune, however this does not correspond to traditional systems and remains a controversial practice subject to disapproval by traditional rune scholars.

Bind-runes are two or more runes combined to form a sigil. The last rune drawn is the binding agent.

Wend-runes are runes written from right to left with magical intentions.

Svartrunir (literally black runes) are runes that may be used to communicate with the dead.

Beautiful runes are sold crafted from minerals, glass, and other fine materials, however many believe that one should always handcraft runes. They are traditionally made from strips of bark although small pieces of leather are also used.


Sigils are also known as seals. They are specific geometric or visual designs usually enclosed in a circle and are used for various magical and spiritual purposes.

Commanding and Compelling makes much use of sigils: each spirit, whether angel or demon, is believed to possess a specific sigil. Allegedly if the sigil is created perfectly, the spirit must answer its summons.

Traditions similar to sigils exist round the world. Although the designs are unique, purposes and concepts are closely related.

In Vodou, each lwa possesses a veve, which may be used to beckon (although never command; this is a far more respectful tradition) their presence. Veve designs may be carved onto candles similarly to sigils or used for meditation, however they are most frequently drawn on the ground by sprinkling corn meal or other powder.

Sigils are also used for various magical purposes. Seals are incorporated into candle magic and are used to create protective talismans. Sigils can also be used to create personal defensive shields.

Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs are another form of sigil. Hex signs are often considered nothing more than Pennsylvania Dutch folk art, however they are actually magical signs and sigils. They are most commonly found painted onto building façades or gable ends of barns. Designs have historically also been included on furniture, documents, tombstones, pottery and ceramics, and written amulets.

Hex sign literally means “witch sign.” Hex signs are also known as hexafoos or “witch foot.”

Their origins are mysterious. Jakob Grimm and other scholars recognized the geometric patterns as deriving from pre-Christian spiritual and magical traditions. They were first used in medieval Germany and Switzerland and may be based on runes. Another school of thought, however, insists that hex signs are nothing more than aesthetically pleasing adornment.

Hex signs consist of simple and colorful geometric designs that require relatively little artistry. If you can draw a straight line, you can draw a simple hex sign, although perhaps not the most elaborate ones. Different hex signs have different names, meanings and powers—for instance to keep lightning or hail from striking or to prevent animals from becoming ferhexed (bewitched). Explanations dating back to the 1920s, especially those geared to tourists, suggest that hex signs are decorations intended to ward off malevolent witchcraft or evil influences including the devil—in other words, they are sigils.


Although witches practice many arts, the one most associated with them is spell-casting: the casting of magic spells. Popular fiction, movies, and television programs suggest witches cast spells by wiggling their noses or repeating stock phrases like “Hocus Pocus!” or “Abracadabra!” Real magic is more complex.

The most basic theory of the magic spell depends on the concept of magical energy. This concept suggests that everything that occurs naturally radiates some sort of magic power. Different things radiate different powers of varying potencies. Plants radiate power, as do animals, minerals, metals, people, and you.

A magic spell is a formalized, conscious attempt on the part of the spell-caster to harness and manipulate this power for the purpose of achieving a goal. Every culture on Earth possesses some sort of magical tradition incorporating spells. Magic spells come in an endless variety of styles and forms. The simplest spell may involve nothing more than standing under the light of a full moon and making a silent wish, vow or affirmation; complex spells may take weeks to accomplish and require a battery of priceless ingredients.

Spells may be cast for any purpose. Among the most popular types of spell-casting are candle magic, image magic (see page 607), and spirit working (see below).

Spirit Working/Spirit Summoning

Spirit working is the art of communicating with spirits for spiritual and magical purposes. The difference between spirit working and ritual possession is that no possession is involved. Communication is between the spirit and the person; the person doing the summoning doesn’t become the venue from which the spirit communicates.

Spirit working is often accomplished via construction of altars: tableaux designed to attract the attention of a specific spirit. Thus an altar designed to honor the orisha Yemaya or attract her favor or attention would incorporate her sacred colors (blue and white), her sacred number (seven), and objects identified with her. Yemaya is an ocean spirit. A glass of salt water might be placed on the altar alongside seashells, sea glass or other gifts of the sea. Seven blue and white candles might be lit to call Yemaya, who might be symbolized on the altar by the image of a mermaid. Special foods or drink that the spirit allegedly favors would be placed on the altar as well.

Spirit working is among the most common forms of magic; it is very traditional magic.

The Inquisition regarded “spirit worship” (devotion to spirits) as especially dangerous because it encouraged the rise of “heretical sects.”

According to the Talmud, the reason spirits are usually invisible is that if we saw them all swarming through the air we’d probably die of terror.

There are an innumerable number of spirits. Every thing on Earth, every animal, creature, plant or object has at least one affiliated spirit, and so spirit working may be used to accomplish any purpose.


Tarot are cards used primarily for divination although they may also be used for meditation, spiritual contemplation, and magic spells. They may also be used for card games, particularly the Italian game tarocchi. A complete tarot deck consists of 78 cards, and is actually a fusion of two decks incorporated together:

Image The Major Arcana or Greater Secrets consists of 22 cards

Image The Minor Arcana or Lesser Secrets consists of 56 cards

Although traditionally Major and Minor cards are integrated together some prefer to use only one deck, usually the Major Arcana, which are generally believed to contain greater mysteries and spiritual depth.

The Minor Arcana is recognizable as the ancestor or close relation of modern playing cards. The Minor Arcana is divided into four suits: cups (chalices), pentacles (coins, discs), wands (staves), and swords. These correspond to the Western playing-card suits of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. Playing cards from Spain utilize the same suits as the Tarot.

Each tarot suit consists of cards numbered from one to ten plus four court cards. Regular playing cards have a jack, queen, and king corresponding to the Tarot’s page, queen, and king. However tarot cards also feature a knight. One theory suggests that playing cards no longer contain knights because of the destruction of the Knights Templars; another theory suggests that tarot cards do have knights specifically to indicate that the Knights Templars survive, albeit incognito and underground.

The sole member of the Major Arcana to appear in a regular deck of cards is the one unnumbered card, The Fool, who materializes as The Joker.

Paper playing cards originally came from China, India or Korea where they were also used for divination, spell-casting, and fun. Cartomancy was established in France, Germany, and Italy by the late fourteenth century.

The origins of the tarot cards are mysterious; the images are powerful and evocative and so many theories of their origins exist. The origins of the Tarot have been attributed to the Romany and the Knights Templars.

Others suggest that they are of Egyptian origin and are perhaps remnants of the ancient Book of Thoth, the magic book authored by the god. (See DIVINE WITCH: Thoth.) The book was redesigned as cards, which are portable and easily and discreetly stored for reasons of safety. French theologian Antoine Court de Gebelin, author of one of the earliest works on tarot, published in Paris between 1775 and 1784, suggests that the Major Arcana comes from the Egyptian Book of Thoth saved from the ruins of a burning temple. The book was rescued and brought to Europe by traveling Gypsies.

Other theories suggest:

Image Tarot, especially the Major Arcana, was devised as a secret method of preserving ideologies forbidden by the Church. Tarot was not only a divination system but also a repository for sacred but now forbidden lore and symbols.

Image A convention of occultists met in Morocco c.1200 CE to develop a way to preserve metaphysical wisdom as they foresaw dark times ahead. Among their solutions were Tarot cards.

Image The magus, Eliphas Levi (1810—1875) integrated the Major Arcana with the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Levi, who despite his name was a devout if conflicted French Catholic, suggested that the origins of the tarot lie in ancient Israel. Various ancient divination systems were practiced in the Jerusalem Temple; when it was destroyed, “certain wise Kabalists” preserved and recorded its mysteries, first on ivory, then on parchment, gilt or “silvered leather,” and finally on simple card stock.

Image The Hindu deity Ardhanari holds a cup, scepter, sword, and ring. These four attributes correspond to the four Tarot suits. Some suggest that the origins of tarot lie in India and were carried through the world during the Romany migration.

Image The most mundane origin of the Tarot suggests that it was invented between 1410 and 1424 in Northern Italy and is nothing more than a deck of playing cards!

In 1392, King Charles VI of France paid artist Jacquemin Gringonneur for three decks of cards, although it is unclear whether these were tarot decks, playing cards or something else all together. These cards have not yet been found, if they still exist. The oldest surviving decks seem to be from fifteenth-century Italy. The Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris has seventeen cards in its collection, sixteen of which are recognizable as Tarot cards. These were once thought to have been the Gringonneur cards but are now acknowledged as Venetian and dating from c.1470.

Tarot cards are traditionally read by shuffling them, then drawing individual cards at random. Cards are also arranged in specific patterns, known as “spreads,” some very simple, others extremely sophisticated and utilizing the entire deck. Patterns made by the cards, and the placement of individual cards within the spread, are interpreted.

The simple three-card spread involves laying three cards face down. Cards are read from left to right: the first card represents the past, the second the present, and the third the future.

Literally thousands of decks are now available: some are genuine divination tools; others qualify as works of art. Salvador Dali, for instance, illustrated a tarot deck. The most significant modern decks are the Rider Waite deck, designed by Arthur Waite and executed by Pamela Colman-Smith, and the Crowley Deck (or the Deck of Thoth) designed by Aleister Crowley, with artwork executed by Lady Frieda Harris.