altar tools

Proving Grounds

February, 2012

Finding, Preparing, and Using Magical Tools and Supplies

This is Lesson Three of a year-and-a-day instruction program in becoming a witch.

Finding magical tools and supplies is much less onerous than it once was. The internet is lousy with sites that will eagerly supply herbs, stones, athames, chalices, jewelry and amulets of every description, powders, and potions to the neophyte. How to choose, how to choose?

One way to choose is swiftly. Buy an “altar kit,” which will usually include an athame, a ready-made wand, possibly a chalice, often an altar cloth, some herbs, and usually a candle and holder or two. Drop fifty bucks, often what a chalice or athame can cost to begin with, and off you go.

Another way is slowly. Wait until a particular athame or chalice speaks to you. It need not be labeled that, of course, and will often be cheaper if it is not. Determination and a willingness to haunt pawn and thrift stores can often provide these tools very cheaply. (My chalice happens to be a $2.99 20-oz. iced-tea glass I found at Tuesday Morning. I’ve simply never seen any other cup that reminds me so strongly of what Water is than that chunk of blue and green glass.)

Do be aware that not every “athame” described as such is, in fact, an athame. Technically, an athame has a double-edged blade. Like many (but not, alas, all) traditions, this one has a practical underpinning: a double-edged blade allows energy to flow more easily through it.

Many of us have two athames, or more properly an athame and a boline, usually one black- and one white-hilted. Which of these is kept sharp to use, and which kept only to cut energy, varies by tradition.

Chalices are ideally of silver, a metal associated with the Moon, traditionally the most watery of the planets. This is not to say that a cup of other material which calls you back to pick it up three or four times should not be your chalice, but you will sacrifice that easy association with the element, and the power which comes with it. If your chalice is silver, on the other hand, you will make an ongoing sacrifice of the time and effort needed to keep it polished. If you have sufficient skill to throw or build a ceramic chalice, or create one of wood, while it will lack the association with Water, it will gain a great deal of power through your creation of it, provided you are mindful of its function while you do so.

Most of us cannot craft our own athames or chalices. We can and should, however, craft a wand.

The default wood for witching is willow. However, if you are given wood by having it fall in front of you, by all means accept the gift of the tree. (Be sure to leave a gift in return: a coin, a hair. Also, thank the tree.)

Wand material is as big around as the tip of your little finger, the length of your forearm from funny bone to tip of longest finger, and straight throughout that length. Sycamore wood, for instance, is rarely straight enough to use for a wand.

Fashioning a wand from raw wood will require several months of drying, followed by hours of sanding with increasingly fine grits, as well as much effort put forth to remove knobs, burls, and branch ends. This work is best done by hand as the meditative state entered into will give your wand life. Also, the electricity used for running power tools is enough to overwhelm the personal energy that would otherwise accumulate within the wand.

Once it’s finished, you will have felt it come alive in your hand. Really. It’s an unmistakable experience, and you will know that you are in the presence of the Other. Wand-selves are not human-selves.

At that point you will also become aware whether it is appropriate to carve it with symbols or add decoration: crystals, feathers, windings of silk thread, silver charms. This is not solely your own decision to make, and you should reach agreement on what is to be done with the wand itself, unless you are bound by a tradition. (Wand-wood which consents to come into the possession of a tradition-follower also consents, in my experience, to the constraints of that tradition.)

There is no rule that says a wand has to be wood. My primary wand is a seven-inch quartz crystal which refused to let me leave the shop until I had parted with most of my then-week’s income for her (she has also insisted throughout our decade of working together on remaining skyclad: staying completely undecorated). My first wand is of wood, and I am experimenting with creating a copper wand for use in energy workings, that is, spells which will not have a direct physical manifestation. Although knowing me, I’ll get curious and try him for other things, too, if he consents.

A staff is a very large wand, usually the height of the bearer. Often a staff-bearer will use a branch of the staff as a wand, which is much handier in small spaces and far less likely to take out a fellow-worshiper’s front teeth when gestured with!

My wands are all completely different, energetically. The wood wand is shy, but still unalterably Other; the crystal is of course a her own being, with very strong opinions and a will to match. The copper is reticent, somewhat unwilling as yet to work with me, but I have just begun to craft him (his male-ness is the one fact I know of him). If that does not change, I shall make a Working to send him on to be with the person he needs.

Altar cloths are another tool of which many witches have multiples. They can vary by color, adding that hue’s power to a spell when chosen wisely. Those of Celtic persuasion may use green for all their work; white and black are also often chosen if a single cloth must suffice. My finding has been that either solid color or tie-dye works best. (Tie-dye, being essentially a random manifestation, seems to have some associations with the deep mind. Possibly that’s only true for those of us who lived the sixties, or wish we had.) There is nothing to say against using an ancestor-created cloth, either: great-grandma’s embroidered tablecloth, for instance.

Candleholders, cauldrons, and incense burners are elemental tools: Fire, Water, and Air respectively. A sword, the super-sized athame, is like it a Fire or Air tool, generally owned by a coven rather than the individual witch. (Some traditions view the wand as Fire and the blade as Air, some the reverse.) Many witches have a besom (broom) which they use to sweep energy clean, and a platen engraved with a pentacle for the Earth tool. Safety note: resin candleholders are flammable, and therefore a Bad Idea if your spell requires allowing a candle to burn down and out.

Anything can be made into a magical tool: mezzaluna, stand mixer, computer, pen, Tarot deck, meditation cushion, trowel, lock, set of scales. In general, you will find it more difficult to charge a plastic object than one which is made of wood, glass, plant fiber, stone, or metal. Plastic also does not hold a charge, although as this material becomes an increasingly familiar part of our lives, that may change. My money’s on the stuff becoming an artifact of Earth, eventually.

Ritual clothing is also a tool. Resist the urge you will inevitably feel toward long, flowing sleeves, as they have a magnetic attraction to candle flames and staining liquids. If they pursue you in your dreams, make gathers in the material, or alternatively sew ribbons to the sleeve to tie it close to the wrist. A robe can be consecrated just as other tools are. (And, erm, I’ve gone so far as to have magical underwear and socks.)

Magical tools are of necessity a possession of the Goddess (arguable exception: ritual wear), so they should be cleansed of prior associations, even those of manufacture unless you made the tool yourself, and dedicated to Her. The easiest way to do this is with incense, and salted water or motherwort tea.

A word of caution on the acquisition of used blades: a blade used to shed blood will prove extremely difficult to clean energetically. Think hard about using it at all, because blood, even very old blood, attracts many low-level entities who may not harm you (or at least I’ve never heard of that happening), but crowd around the space and time in which you are working, and may dissipate or use for their own ends the energy you generate.

Incenses bear the energy of three Elements: Earth, from which all incenses come whether they are of plant or animal material; Air, their method of dispersal, and Fire, which gives them life. Frankincense and myrrh, combined, make an excellent cleansing and dedication incense. If you wish to conduct those operations separately, either lavender incense or smudge sticks can perform the cleansing.

Mugwort tea is often used for dedication. Salted water (the salt drives out any energetic impurities) must be wiped from metals quickly, as it is likely to tarnish or pit them.

When to dedicate a tool? The day of the Full Moon is best, but the ceremony should be completed before the Moon begins to wane. Void-of-course Moon is not a good time for the work.

Once you have set a date, write your dedication. In my experience, rhyme and rhythm work very well to lube up the subconscious, and notify it that yes, Work is going to be done.

Sample:

“Mother Great, Mother Divine,

“Lend to me this tool of Thine.

“From this day, from this hour,

“I use this tool to wield Thy power.”

You can probably do better than that. But you get the drift.

Preparations: clean the area and the altar itself. Brew the tea if used. Set the tea or salt and water, the incense, incense burner, lighter or matches, lighting candle in holder if used, on the altar, and tool(s) to be consecrated nearby but not on the altar itself. (Have you thought about consecrating your altar table or surface? Wipe it down before you begin.) Fill your chalice if you will be using it; place the water in a bowl if not. If you are using salted water on a metal tool, you will need an absorbent cloth to wipe the tool clean.

Cast your circle, sweep it clean, call in the elements/quarters, call in the Goddess and God (in whichever order you feel appropriate).

Light the lighting candle if you use one. Fire the incense, and allow the smoke a couple of minutes to build.

Take up a pinch of salt, and cast it into the chalice or bowl, saying, “O thou creature of Earth, Thee I call upon to cast out any impurities from this water.” If you’re using tea, pour it into the chalice or bowl, and say, “O thou creature of Earth and Water, be thou cleansed of any impurities.”

Take up the incense stick or holder in your dominant hand, and the tool to be consecrated in your non-dominant hand. Wave the incense over and around the tool four times, chanting as you do so.

The first time, face East and chant, “O creature of Air, I ask of Thee to cleanse this tool, and consecrate it to magical use.”

The second time, face South and chant, “O creature of Fire, I ask of Thee to cleanse this tool, and consecrate it to magical use.”

The third time, face West and take up the salted water or mugwort tea and sprinkle the tool with it lightly, chanting, “O creature of Water, I ask of Thee to cleanse this tool, and consecrate it to magical use.” If you used salted water on a metal tool, wipe it clean immediately.

The fourth time, face North and chant, “O creature of Earth, I ask of Thee to cleanse this tool, and consecrate it to magical use.”

Place the tool on the altar, in its appropriate quarter according to your tradition’s elemental associations. Bow to the North, the Goddess’ direction, and say, “Great Goddess, to Thee and Thy purposes I dedicate this tool.”

Repeat as desired. End the ritual by taking down the circle and dismissing the Elements and deities.

Have you dedicated your very own self to the Goddess? If not, consider it. Consider it heavily before you do so, though, because if you carry through with it, you will become Her tool. This is not usually a very comfortable function, but believe me, it has its rewards.

Supplies are a bit different from tools, in that they do not require consecration. A “supply” is something that is not merely used but also used up: incense is a supply, the incense burner a tool. Herbs, essential oils, and candles are the commonest supplies. Ready-made oils, potions, and powders also qualify.

Upon purchase, take an herb, oil, potion, or powder into your non-dominant hand, and feel, and appreciate, its power. My very favorite incense in the entire world is nag champa, which feels quite different energetically from my second-favorite, dragon’s blood.

Once you’ve done that, put the supply into your dominant hand, and raise your non-dominant hand. Pull that power down into yourself, and push it out into your supply, “charging” it. Repeat before use.

You can do the same with essential oils. Candles are basically blank slates waiting to be programmed … although you can feel the energetic difference among soy, paraffin, and beeswax candles.

Wrapping a tool or supply in silk will insulate the charge. (I buy old stained silk shirts from thrifts for a dollar or two, and use the pockets for pouches and the sleeves to store wands, candles, and incense.)

Candles of disparate colors should not be stored in contact with one another, as the colors will leach. I use tissue paper a lot in crafting sigils, so that’s available in my home. I wrap figure and reversing candles with it. Other than those specialized types, my candles are all of five colors, and each has its own box inside a drawer.

(Five colors? Yep. Orange attracts, black banishes, shrinks, or negates, green asks for personal growth, gray disperses [not the same as banishing], and white purifies, heals, and increases. Those five functions cover every spell, or at least I’ve seen none yet which fall outside one of those categories. — If I were going to add a sixth color, it would be magenta, which speeds up the work of any spell.)

Once a tool or supply is consecrated, there are opposing opinions on whether it should be used in daily life. “A consecrated tool should be reserved only for spiritual functions!” snaps A, whereupon B puts fists to hips, scowls, and snarls, “A consecrated tool used for mundane purposes sanctifies all parts of life!” Which seems more logical to you? As with so much of life, there is no universally correct answer. Choose one, and live it.

Consecrated tools on my altar: shell-rattle, mini-cauldron, chalice, platen, pentacle, flint and steel, candleholder, essential-oil diffuser, incense holder, feather smudge fan, Book of Shadows, fountain pen and ink, Tarot deck, Goddess and God figurines, offering bowls, lighting candle, black- and white-hilted knives, two wands (the crystal stays at the top of my keyboard), and God and Goddess candles and holders (while supplies, the candles are also consecrated). Of these I created the God figure, the shell-rattle, the feather smudger, the platen, and the wands; I also modified the Goddess figurine.

There’s an ashpot too, for whatever a spell might generate in the way of physical waste. While necessary, it’s not consecrated.

Consecrated tools not on my altar: chef’s knife, breadmaking bowl, yoga props (mat, strap, blocks, practice journal, and meditation wrap), gardening tools.

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Overview: Creativity is a gift from the Goddess. If, while creating any of these tools, you have a Wild Idea, go for it.

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How to Create a Shell Rattle

Needed:

cowrie shell 3+” long

13 dried soy or other small beans or grains

scissors

length of leather or fabric fringe 2-3 times the length of the opening in the cowrie shell; instructions for using braided cord below

glue if necessary

Cut the fringe free of its header. Knot one end of each strand; pull as tight as possible. Cut the fringe to random lengths if you like.

Put the beans into the cowrie.

Thread the knotted end of a fringe into the cowrie through the large opening at one end. Gently tug on the fringe until the knot is seated at the far end of the opening. Repeat until the opening is filled very full indeed. When you cannot insert any more fringe, pull the last one you were able to get in toward the large opening, seating it as securely as possible.

Use glue to seal the opening if you lose any beans upon test-shaking.

It is possible to make a shell rattle of fabric fringe, although most such fringes will be subject to fraying and should not be cut free of their header. Should you prefer fabric to leather, cut carefully, and stabilize the ends of 2-3 cowrie-opening lengths of the fringe (whipstitch or melt. Don’t double). Apply glue to one side, and glue two lengths together. See if that fills the opening. If not, glue on a third length. Fill cowrie with beans. Apply glue to both sides of multi-ply fringe header, and insert into opening.

It is also possible to use a twisted-braid cord instead of fringe. Untwist the braid. Cut braid strands to length desired + 2″ (about 5 cm) – err on the side of “too long.” Do be aware, however, than if the fringe is very long, it will tangle incessantly. Knot one end of each strand, and proceed as for leather fringe. If you wish the fringe to lie straight, and not in the waves resulting from being braided, wet thoroughly after mounting to shell, comb strands straight, and allow to hang down until dry.

My cowrie, made using leather fringe, did not require glue. As I’ve only made one with leather, I can’t say whether this was luck or not; three fabric-fringe rattles did need it.

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How to Create a Feather Smudge Fan

Needed:

Feathers

Thin strong string

Wider material in color of choice, to wrap “handle” of fan

Scissors

Possibly glue

Find out where the crows hang out in your town. In spring and fall, you will have a plethora of shed feathers to choose among, but any time of year you’ll find some. If you don’t want to use crow feathers, which are universally black, you’ll have to choose feather colors, too.

Assemble 10-15 feathers.

Put feathers into one hand. Tap ends gently on a level surface, until they are aligned. Arrange into a “fan.”

Wrap feather quills (the “root end”) with thin strong string and knot securely. (I used 20-lb. nylon fishing line.)

Overwrap with wider material in Air color (yellow, pastels) or color to match the feathers. Tuck the end of the wrap material inside. Glue to secure, if needed.

Alternatively, you can purchase an inexpensive paper fan, and glue feathers to it. You won’t need wrap material, but you will need smaller feathers to cover the quills of the larger at the bottom of the fan. Once you’re finished, the fan will no longer shut.

My crow feathers are wrapped in black and did not require glue. I chose to use it on two smudge fans I made as gifts.

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How to Create a Paten (Altar Plate)

Needed:

Material

Design

Engraving tool

Patience, or bandages and 3AO (Triple Antibiotic Ointment)

Acquire a slab of metal, stone, glass, or other scribable material of the size and shape you wish. If you work in fired ceramics, you have absolutely got this one sacked; you’ll inscribe your paten when it’s either wet or at the leather stage, and after that you don’t need instructions from me!

Draw, print out, or copy design(s) to be inscribed.

Transfer the pattern onto the material using carbon paper; trace with thin-line permanent marker.

Using an engraving tool appropriate to the material of the slab, carve the pattern. Remember that using a lot of force to scribe a line only makes any error big, deep, and hard to get out. Be patient; go gently multiple times.

Keep in mind that bleeding all over the paten because you cut yourself while engraving it is not required. However, be prepared for that eventuality; stock up on bandages and 3AO before you start.

Polish if necessary.

If desired, apply clear protective coating.

My paten is round, of copper, engraved with a pentagram, and was a stern teacher of patience who gave me a scar to remember the lesson by.

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How to Make a God Figure

Acquire the action figure of your choice, and dress as desired, creating the clothes yourself. Make a wig of your own hair clippings if possible. Fingers from gloves make great medieval-or-earlier shoes if leather, and pants or hose if cloth.

TOS Spock is dressed as Otzi the Iceman on my altar, and Elderly Spock is dressed as Odin and keeping watch over my books. Karl Urban’s McCoy is Mercury-in-boots on top of my desktop computer. How did you guess that I’m a Star Trek geek? However, my athames are not bat’leths. One can go too far.

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How to Make or Modify a Goddess Figure

Acquire the Goddess figure of your choice. Thriftshop Barbies work well; their former owner imbued them with great girl-energy. ist’s wooden figure models may also be used. Replace any jewelry She wears with the best you can make or afford, and use paint judiciously to make Her more awesome. Pearlized or silvery transparent wash always works. Consider diluting blush and lipstick color with the wash before applying Her makeup. You can also make a wig for Her of your own hair clippings, or other cordage if that is not feasible. If She is clothed, consider making replacement garments yourself of the best quality fabric you can find – you’ll need, at most, a yard of it.

Bast got a real lapis-lazuli earring and gold leaf on Her collar and base, as well as emerald-green eyes with ebony pupils, and all of Her except Her eyes was washed with pearl. Venus, my other Patron, wears heavyweight embroidered silk paisley sold as a placemat and bought for a buck at a yard sale. She got the pearly-makeup treatment, two coats of pearlization on top of it, and an embroidery-silk wig; She looks much more “Goddess” than “Barbie.”

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Next month: How to move your mind from everyday consciousness into magical consciousness. Blessed be!