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An effigy to decay; a promise to protect

One of the reasons why I love Caitlyn Doughty is the way she approaches death. Literally and figuratively. It was serendipitous she happened to post a NYT article today on decomposition. Honestly, it is what I think about when I have been working on my new project, “As above, so below.” With the majority of my pieces or products I’m marrying my practice and interests, these bottles are the result of “spiritual decomposition” and reflection on the relationship to nature to myself as a mortal being.

There has been a flurry of interest in ‘memento mori‘ recently and the science of death. This is a good thing.  I won’t justify and lament on how my work is different than other makers of terrarium or memento mori art work. We all share certain visions and express them in a way that makes sense to us. Frederik Ruysch as other classic anatomists has reinvigorated the study of anatomy,  botany, and vanitas for new makers of oddities and the like. I will say the difference between much of what I do and many other makers is I don’t want to present the work as a static, preserved, and sterile work. It is form and function with a dose of aesthetics, but the materials I use in my work will probably decompose or at least shift in time. I will not use any adhesive or “cleaning” technique when constructing my terrarium or talisman bottles. The downside to this, they don’t travel well, as far as something to be shipped.  I would rather not purchase pre-cleaned animal bones or any other kind of post-mortem material, partially due to ethics and my own approach to this project. These materials are part of an micro-ecosystem within the bottle and holistically are one in the same.  I am gifted with many of the materials from my loved ones from their homes and areas, as I also find the materials myself in nature. The one aspect that is more difficult are the precious stones and rocks I acquire; I generally go through a seller I trust for those.

Another facet to the project is taking flora and geological materials from different bioregions and composing the “weed altars” to create more magical spaces and environments that wouldn’t exist elsewhere in life. There are certain organisms that do not grow cohesively with other in the natural world. One taken out of their natural environments, these plants derived of their hosts are essentially deadened.  How they react after that is up to the environment themselves. One of the reasons why I chose to use ‘dried’ plants and/or sun-bleached bones in the first place. These organisms have already gone through a state of decomposition. As they are derived of oxygen, however, that process is slowed, however, even in the state of ‘death’ microorganisms survive, as they pass through my process of handling.

As with a previous blog, I also work with cemetery dirt and continue to do so with this project, keeping in mind my ethics and the ethics of the dead and the ones that remain. “As above, so below” is a mantra that brings about such a change the magician uses the conception of  “dynamic interconnectedness to describe the physical world as the sort of thing that imagination and desire can effect.” Imagine places co-existing within world above and below, in death and life. I’m trying to depict with intent, that death and life are integrated in nature, rely on each other, and are necessary to understand place. These works are ritual for me and possess much of my intent to exemplify beauty and grief.

-March 2018

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The Grande Dance of Death, for the biblio-mort

Huss, Mathias; David Wolfe [artist]; Eli Kahn [printer]. La grāt danse macabre des hōmes [“Dance of Death at a print shop”]. Portland, ME: Wolfe Editions, 1499; [2017]. Limited Edition. Limited edition print, in fine condition. Original woodcut rendition of 1499 plate in late Medieval early printed book, which not only has spectacular representations of death but also the first illustration of a printing office and a working printing press. Run of 25, signed and numbered by printer, approximately 11×17″ Fine.

The Dance of Death… in a print shop

One of the first representations of publishing’s workflow is the wood engraving published in an edition of the “Grande Danse Macabre”, by Mathias Huss (Lyon, 1499); a book representing all trades of the time, in a “Dance of Death” genre, late-medieval allegory on the universality of death. The wood cut depicts a printing press with a compositor, two printers and a bookseller – from production to distribution – separated by a pillar, a common way at that time to make a time or space ellipsis (later used in comic books). Woodcut designed and created by David Wolfe and printed by Eli Kahn at Wolfe Editions, Portland, Maine.

I commissioned this work because I loved the image and it is the earliest known image of a printing and bookbinding office.  You can find the print for purchase here: Dance of Death at Of Oak and Ash.

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Goofer dust [graveyard dirt] and spell work

I want to say a quick word about my use of graveyard dirt in a recent spell bottle I produced. Again, I am mostly approaching my craft from a very Western perspective, partially of how I grew up, but also because I am very concerned about direct and disrespectful cultural appropriation. Like I have before, many cultures, indigenous and contemporary, have used parallel sources of magick working in their religious evolution. Have colonialist attitudes and efforts taken more from indigenous cultures? Absolutely. There is no disputing much of Wicca and Western European magick was influenced and appropriated from Afro-Caribbean and Eastern spiritual practices. Gerald Gardner himself spent time in the Indies and Asia.  We do live now, in a multi-faceted society where research is important and knowing the roots and root work of magic is extremely important. Allowing the work to speak for itself is not enough sometimes, we need allow the root work to speak louder.

I made spell bottle (a talisman) recently that contained graveyard dirt I gathered from a Chicago cemetery. I have visited this place many times younger, so the experience returning older and wiser is eye-opening.  Talismans have a long history of magical spell work both as worn objects and as objects of admiration and worship. My talismans are meant to venerate the natural and spiritual forces of protection from ill spirits and unwanted spiritual energies in your home or personal spaces.  Graveyard dirt can be used to communicate with souls at rest; I ask for help against malignant souls with the support of realms we can’t see. Not out of malice, but out of veneration. My thoughts are to allow the natural cycle of life be part of our present and protection. I want to be able to pair plant, essence, and element together which is why I know that soil from earth in a cemetery is quite powerful.

Graveyard dirt, also referred to as ‘goofer dust’ is originated in African American conjuration and magic practices. Many contemporary sources including Scott Cunningham also referred to graveyard dirt as a euphemism for mullein and other plants for clandestine reasons. I would say, that the despite the evolution of formula and uses, graveyard dirt will always be and noted to be a vehicle of energy originated by African American Hoodoo and Obeah Rootwork practitioners.  While I do not practice Hoodoo, I want to acknowledge the history of graveyard dirt is directly sourced in Hoodoo.

Alexander, Leslie. Encyclopedia of African American History. “Goofer Dust,” 2010.

The talisman bottles, although created with magick, use herbal healing as a source and healthy communications with entities outside our living realm. It is up to the intended person to use them to their own benefit, much like the black salt. Each bottle contains:

Graveyard (cemetery dirt)* [from Graceland Cemetery, Chicago]
Sea salt [for clearing and confirming spaces]
Eggshells
Mugwort
Irish moss
Silver or pearl bead

Wraiths of the house,
Take heart and live:
To every chamber
This light I give,
To every corner
This breath I say-
Approve and favor
This vessel I display
–modified from Crone’s Book of Words

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Of Oak and Ash year end! Merry Solstice!

As the calendar year comes to a close, I’m often reflective of accomplishments, but this time, rather more that needs to be done. I fear that people’s lives will be compromised, including education, living spaces, environment, civil rights, and very important, the right to wellness and healthcare.  We’ve already seen this happen in one event in recent days at Standing Rock. All in one area. There were many herbalists and healers present at Standing Rock. That action was important. There is more action there and even in your own community to be taken. One of many to do this is by supporting local organizations banding together that provide services for communities. Another is do-it-yourself! Take personal action. Your neighbor, friend or family or the person you *see* everyday on the street, make them a nice cup of herbal tea, if they are sick.

I’ve been treating myself and people around me as best I can within the confines of my income to make medicine and items for personal healing and energy.  I’ve operated on an online platform with little success, but I will continue forward. I do tend to do better with in-person events and appearances. One of those was the Peace Bazaar which Margarat and I have been attending for the past 5 years. Social justices and environmental organizations supporting gift giving from good causes.

It’s hard to maintain and be creative in this world, but keep at it! I know I am!  As a matter of fact, keep an eye out for some new herbal and plant based magical items in the new year at Of Oak and Ash. Only *we* can make things happen!

–Kim, Of Oak and Ash, Winter Solstice 2016

 

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A Brief History of Witch Bottles

prachett_witchThe “witch bottle*” is a counter-magical device dating to the 17th century. (We have an early description of a witch bottle from Suffolk, England, 1681.) Jane Sibley, Ph.D., (specialist in Norse folklore and runes and traditional Norse practitioner) has described these historical artifacts as similar to a reactive or protective amulet.

*It is known that research is slanted toward white, colonialist and Western evidence of witch bottles. In Afro-Caribbean, Afrocentric, and indigenous American cultures, curse bottles and other uses of apotropaic amulets were already established in spiritual and religious ceremony.

[As one example see: A Sorcerer’s Bottle: The Visual Art of Magic in Haiti]

Witch bottles were sealed with a good watertight lid and contained a number of curious items, including sharp objects such as pins, bent nails, broken mirror shards, plus any of the following: knotted threads (often red), ashes, salt, hair, vinegar, botanicals, dirt, sundry other items, and human urine. The sharp objects in the bottle are intended to shred the malicious intent. The vinegar and ashes are supposed to disempower the ill will. Vinegar is a solvent. Knotted threads bind it up. Sounds grounds it, neutralizing the negativity. The botanicals could be any sort of magical herbs or plants, opposing a broad range of ill. If the hair is human, it probably seems the same purpose as the urine.

This bottle was intended to protect a person from malicifica (malicious or ill-intentioned magic) directed at him/her. The containers were often made of glass or pottery. (Bellarmine jugs were popular in England, although made previously before in Germany.)

This magical practice crossed the Atlantic to colonial America. Evidence for the practice was found in excavations at Governor Printz State Park in Essington, Pennsylvania. This American example probably dates to the 18th century–the bottle was manufactured around 1740 and may have been buried about 1748. A description of the “Essington witch bottle” is below:

This squat piece of glasswork with a bright gold patina over its dark olive color had been buried upside down in a small hole. Two objects were deposited under the shoulder of the bottle: a piece of a long thin bone from some medium-sized bird, possibly a partridge, and a redware rim sherd from a small black-glazed bowl. The bottle contained six round-headed pins and had been stoppered tightly with a whittled wooden plug.
—Marshall J. Becker, An American Witch Bottle, “Uncanny Archaeology,” Archaeology Magazine Archive, 2009.

Here is a description from 19th century PA Dutch healing magic:

Another Remedy to be applied when anyone is sick, which has effected many a cure where doctors could not help. –Let the sick person, without having conversed with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight, and put it immediately in some box or chest. lock it and stop up the keyhole; the key must be carried one of the pockets for three days, as nobody dare have it except the person who puts the bottle with water in the chest or box.
–John George Hoffman, Pow-Wows or Long Lost Friend, 1820, pp. 10-11

[http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/halloween/witch_bottle.html]

[another paraphrased “Witch Bottle” website]

addition: really, really wonderful examination of Witch Bottles at Pilgrim’s Way: https://pilgrimswaywitchcraft.wordpress.com/2014/05/13/the-witch-bottle/

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Of Oak and Ash “Witch Bottles” in the 21st century

Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether
Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether
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Winter in California? Beating the sick with Elderberry

So, even though temperatures in Southern California fluctuate ridiculously, we just went through a “cold” spell this last week or so and it seems many of my comrades fell victim to the ick. Without knocking on wood and walking around a broom three times, I have managed to keep my immune system up and not get sick, due to a couple of things: diligent cleaning and just that, boosting my immune system.  One of the ways I do this is through a daily dose (sometimes 3 times a day) of Elderberry Syrup or “Elixir.” I’ll remind you, that is just one of the ways. The immune system is funny because it over compensates, especially when you are stressed. So, even if you are dosing on good herbs, if you aren’t getting good sleep and are super stressed, even elderberry isn’t going to fully fix that.  Keep that in mind. I also take a tincture of Echinacea, Super Lysine, Propolis with some other immune boosters.  Elderberry is an excellent preventive herb that along with conscious efforts can support your system overall.

I have a batch ready to go and can make more! If you would like to order some, please visit my SHOP!

Or contact me: ofoakandashbotanicals@gmail.com

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Samhain…is coming.

As we just passed the Fall equinox and give thanks for the harvest, the moon passes through a time of shadow and reflection.  The calendar year signals a closure and a steady march to symbolic death and renewal. I think about the elements more this time of year than any other time of year. It is a time when the self or at least for me, when I need the most protection. For some reason, our selves become more vulnerable in winter.  Of Oak and Ash is concerned with the cycles of the seasons and how we manifest all unwanted and wanted energies. I created an elemental line of amulets, otherwise in historical terms known as ‘witch bottles’ thinking about how one might use the properties of plant, object, and energy to best uses.

Witch bottles have their roots in folk magic history, particularly in England; the first recorded mention of a witch bottle was in the 17th century. In the US, witch bottles have been found hidden in walls or in archaeological sites, suggesting uses for healing, hexing, protection, and spell craft. The original intent was a measure against harmful witchcraft, but mostly in mystery.

Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether
Elemental Witch bottles: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Ether

The Elemental witch bottles from Of Oak and Ash are individually created bottles each with a distinctive elemental constitution. Each element corresponds with a plant and stone or object. These are not curios, nor do they have the intent to do harm and/or change the will of someone. These witch bottles although created with magick, rather use herbal healing as a source. It is up to the intended person to use them to their own benefit, much like the black salt. Each bottle is unique. All the bottles have absorbed the full moon cycle light. Cork is not sealed. Bottles are about 1oz.

Each bottle contains:

Earth: Comfrey, Eastern Red Cedar, Cleveland Sage, Lichen from Pacific Northwest, Jade, and Lake Michigan lake glass

Air: Rose, Lavender, Mistletoe, Hops flowers, Amethyst, (1) bone, (1) crow feather

Fire: Witch Hazel bark, Hawthorne berries, Dragon’s Blood, Cinnamon, Agate

Water: Passionflower, Sea Moss, Red Raspberry leaf, Honeysuckle, Turquoise, Lapis, Topaz

Ether: Salt, Calamus root, Stinging nettle, Mugwort, Yarrow leaf, Selenite, trinket

I take great care in the process of these items, as a practicing witch for over 30 years, part of the process is in the ritual of making and the good intention for the user. All stones and beads were cleared and the process space cleared. All plants are from organic sources or ethically harvested.

 

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Herbalism and DIY Zines

Just a head’s up for those interested in not only zines, but also herbalism zines, we (Grrrlzines-a-go-go) have a few available for download on our WordPress site.

Download our zines!

From the Ground Up zine
From the Ground Up zine
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Insects, like plants, appear in my regularly scheduled program

So the other day, I’m currently house sitting at a friend’s house (incidentally the half of Grrrlzines-go-go) and I’m about to go into our collective “zine room” and behold, a perfectly splayed Monarch butterfly was on the ground in front of the door.  Now, my mind you, I am not into ‘woo’ at all, but I do believe in prophecy, omens, other weird Nostradamus shit, hard science climate change AND supernatural divine creatures lurking in the ether of the universe. YES, both plants and animals speak to me, sometimes with cute cartoon voices, but other times, in loud like Zeus thunder and lightning bolts audio. Or even Gandalf. So, I did a quick search and found out what Monarch butterfly might mean to me. I was beaming like a seal on a hot rock when I read this entry.

Butterfly giftKeywords:

Life is short. Fleeting moments. Transformation. Internal and external change. Personal change. Looking for sweetness. Herb magic. Flower magic. Celebrating beauty. Travel and migration. Moving to new places. Enjoying the journey. Outside of harmful or negative influence. Rhythm. Reincarnation.

Lessons and Challenges:

The monarch butterfly teaches us that life is short, and that it must be valued. Assuming that we have decades of our lives left (or at the very least, years) is all well and good for things like economic planning, but it is through recognizing the fleetingness of human existence that we come to value every day, even those which get us down or which are hard to appreciate…

You will be helped at this time by the magic possessed in herbs and flowers. It may be through the healing actions of herbs, and consider increasing your use of them in cooking, taking herbal supplements (only if needed and at the direction of a professional) or even just taking the time to enjoy the scent of herbs under your hands. The power of flowers is also present at this time, consider investing in flower essences, or even making your own. Alternatively, look at and enjoy the presence of flowers in your life. Sometimes just taking the time look at and visually enjoy the bounty of the earth is enough to create powerful healing changes.

Communion:

Like all animal helpers, this animal will only appear when right and appropriate, and cannot be forced to visit you, commune with you, or share messages with you. Butterflies, due to their very nature, tend to have quite fleeting energy and are more common as short-term guides. That said, their presence in the short-term remains profound and presents a potential for transformation, joy and growth.

Butterfly is a gentle teacher, and will try to transmit significant lessons simply through its quiet, unassuming presence in gardens, or even if you simply happen to see one while walking somewhere or going about your business. Butterfly is not highly communicative, letting its lifestyle and way of life speak for itself. Offerings of flowers, bundles of herbs and colourful ornaments are appreciated by butterfly, but the best way to honour Monarch butterfly, I feel, is to find and seek out more joyful, perfect moments within your life.

 

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Numen Naturae: The Magician’s Wand – Book review

NNPromoNumen Naturae: The Magician’s Wand – Exploring the relationship between Herb, Image, and Archetype
[ed. Casanda Johns]
House of Hands
2016
houseofhands.net

In Michael Maier’s brilliant work on alchemy, Atalanda Fugiens, we see the figure of “Numen” of divine nature leading the way with her light, while the alchemist follows behind intently in her footsteps. The caption speaks: “To him/who is dealing with chymics,/ let Nature be reason / experience and reading/ like a guide/ staff/ glasses/ and lamp” I find myself constantly cradled by this idea of energetic influence in my own work as an herbal practitioner, but also provoked by the archetypes in my life, the scholar, the clairvoyant, and the empath. While esoteric devotees of such spagyrical influence emoted on their once ‘radical’ Renaissance notions of balancing the ether with medicine, in the contemporary, it seems to be sown on familiar lands. I would say, what is difficult is translating the tongues of old without sounding like a musty and antiquated archaic.

In Numen Naturae: The Magician’s Wand, herbalist Casandra Johns collects a selection of voices from the plant and magick community navigating the conscious divinity of nature. The scope is part of a larger gnosis to be continued to investigate the relationship and cognition between our herbal allies and the established praxis of archetypal imagery. Specifically, the essays explore the correlation of the plant yarrow [achillea millefolium] and the archetype of the Magician from the major arcana tarot. Yet, the text is more than just a dissection of the ceremony of opposites and similarities. I’m reminded of something noted herbalist and naturopath Dr. Jody Noé said during a lecture once, emphasizing plant medicine as an “energetic bridge” between the actual plant and the intuitive discipline of our mind and body. Numen Naturae seeks to ‘activate’ our approach to plant medicine and stimulate the need to resonant a practical, spiritual significance in our own environment.

Coming from a strong zine making background, I also feel personal narrative is so important. The stories and rituals of the book complete for me, the trajectory of the Ouroboros. Many times, we in the herbal community we get sided on certain tracks of either clinical and empirical academia or on the verso, unrelenting spiritualism that spends too much time in the ether to prepare us for actual grounding. I suspect, the magick community also grapples with a similar ego. I found the humor and mention of this notion in Eric Purdue’s interview mentioning academia significant. Furthermore, a discussion on any of these aspects that does not mention privilege and cultural appropriation is troubling; in my opinion, so I was grateful to see Jennifer Stickley mention cultural appropriation, as well as Scott Kloos’ bipartisan connection to yarrow. We enter the space humbly, with absolution, a perception gracefully promoted here.

Along those lines, as Katharyn Waterfield reminds us to literally ‘pay attention’ to consciousness, as archetype links instinct and cognitive patterns, we also need to be aware that “archetypes are more than a direction or goal, they also provide profound motivation or drive” (Waterfield, 62). This for me has always important, as practice of intention with herbalism. While I find strength in my own inner Magician, the individualism that drives me, I also would not exist without the collaborative experience of perception and dialogue. While I agree our culture “has become disconnected from our sensory experiences, from our somatic experiences” (Stickley, 8), I also know that not every one shares the same experiences, as I, to be mindful, is also to be wise, but to recognize individual narrative and personal privilege is crucial.

Yarrow is in my experience is a plant of synchronicity like many of the authors mentioned. I love that. I can remember listening to Matt Wood speak of the specificity and action of yarrow and later in the day, tripping and falling into a patch of yarrow in the high desert of Arizona. Michael Tierra’s “Herbal Tarot” similarly speaks of the illuminations of yarrow, but represents yarrow with the divine hand of the cosmos clutching the Ace of Wands. In this representation, yarrow reveals insight and simplicity, and in harmony. Admittedly, I am neither a Jungian nor cartomancy scholar, but think readers of Numen Naturae will thrive on the layers of analysis spent with the Magician. The beauty of the community is valuing diversity and interpretation of divinity. “The wealth of the world’s cultural heritage includes myriad means for answering precisely these questions, including the rich tapestries of myth, various rite of passage ceremonies, and the kinds of sacred games collectively known as divination” (Edwards, 121). I think Numen Naturae leaves many discussions open for analogy and builds upon a continuum of thought many will invoke throughout their own practices and mysteries.

I cannot stress enough the power of story and the power of listening, the power of participating. I have immersed myself with the stories from many herbalists and magick practitioners, but to plunge yourself into the matrix of direction, is the ultimate extension of action. It lifts your heart and provokes your mind, and importantly, for some puts the self into action. Scott Kloos mentions yarrow, as the arrow of love. This is the perfect example of how the plant is metaphor for all things; we must challenge ourselves with knowing the likeness, the narrative, and the action of the plant.

Like the school of thought set in motion by the Arab and Greek physicians, the action of the herb is critical to balance the system (mind and body) of the physiology, as in magick, “May your speech and your words be aligned with your actions and intention” (Ciacchi, 23). Numen Naturae is much like the beginnings of a wondrous ‘alchemical wedding’ to borrow a phrase from a friend. It is both poetically aware and significantly consistent throughout representing variables of intellectualism and practice. We not only need to have the four (or more) sensory relationship with a plant, we also need to embody the experience rationally, respectfully, and transgressively against oppression and with empathy. I am sated with the words permeating the pages in Numen Naturae to cultivate these ideas.

Kim Schwenk [ofoakandash.com]