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The Garden Altar  –

A Spring Dawn Ritual to Awaken Potential

Just before dawn, at the darkest hour, when the sounds of frogs and crickets begin to die away, you stand before your altar in your favourite part of the moonlit garden.  In silent meditation, you gaze upon your herbaceous altar.  Flowing, cool air currents stir the candle flames, throwing soft, golden light and shifting shadows upon the surrounding bushes and vegetation.  Beyond the candlelight is darkness, the unknown, the mystery.  It reminds you of those areas in your life, and within you, where some light could be thrown in order to see things a little clearer.

Earth quarter altar in the Magic Garden

The Earth quarter altar in the Magic Garden

Light reveals, light illuminates the way; light is vision and light is foresight.  You imagine the light from your central altar candle radiating within you and you look, without judgment, at what it reveals.  Only silent contemplation for now.  Flickering candlelight shifts light and shadow across the small altar statues of the God and Goddess, animating and changing them ever so subtly, as you watch in trance waiting for guidance.

You toss a little of your specially-made incense into the hanging burner suspended from an overhanging branch above the altar.  A breeze wafts over the altar in response, tinkling the assorted bells and feathers dangling in adornment from the burner.  Fragrant smoke carries on the breeze, as you inhale deeply, remembering in turn, each ingredient and its properties.  There’s vervain to attract only the best spiritual powers and to remove obstacles; witchgrass to dispel depression and attract happiness; sesame seed to open doors within; some sweet woodruff for new beginnings, and some drops of bay oil to bring inspiration and courage.  In silent contemplation, you take their powers within, your gaze once again focused on the flickering candle flame – silence.

Then it begins.  In the darkness, beyond the candle light, a lone honeyeater gives a single call to herald the dawn chorus.  A magpie, with its flute-like warble, responds and is soon joined by some blackbirds and the chattering of tiny wrens.  Soon the air is filled with a symphony of birdcalls, the sound rising and building in the lingering darkness, singing the Sun back into being; just as Rhiannon’s birds sing the dead back to life.

As the moon slowly descends towards the western horizon, the eastern horizon begins to glow, bathing the silhouetted landscape and the cloud-wisped sky in soft pink and golden hues.  As sunrays penetrate and dissipate the fading darkness, everything feels fresh and new.  Within, you feel solutions and potentials rising and coming into being, as enlightenment takes shape and form.  The chalice on the altar is brimming with orange juice, representing the light and life-giving energies of the sun, of abundance and sweet success.  Saluting the rising sun with your chalice, you sip down some of its contents, feeling it wash through your insides, permeating every cell of your body.  As a libation, you pour the remaining contents onto the earth, confident that you will also be pleasing the indigenous spirits (libations of alcohol can be offensive to them – one only needs to remember the blight that alcohol has inflicted on their society).

All around, the golden sunlight bathes the foliage and flowers of the growing garden, as it surges forth, pushing through and around, finding its way, reaching for the sun.  Pure life-force, beauty and potential coming into bloom, and what unfolds around you is now unfolding within you – the world is a mirror.  The ritual is complete, may its magic unfold easily and happily in perfect fulfillment – so mote it be.

The heady scents and vibrant colours of Spring beckon to us to come outside and join in with nature.  It’s an inspiring time to set up a permanent garden altar; a sacred place to commune with nature.

The altar table can be anything from a tree stump, to a flat piece of stone, to a decorative concrete garden seat.  Potted herbs and flowers can be arranged and changed as a living backdrop according to season and celebration.  You may decide to choose herbs and plants which are sacred to a particular deity, or arrange pots according to their elemental correspondences or colours.  The combinations are limitless.  For a special touch, you may try planting a small lawn of fragrant thyme around the front of your altar.  Its scent will be released whenever it is trodden or sat upon.  If your altar is under a tree, the branches can be an excellent place to suspend hanging burners, bells and windchimes to catch the air elements.  Spanish moss draped over the branches of trees looks very magical and witchy too; but you may find yourself replacing it after each Spring, as birds love it as a nest-building material.  Positioning your altar against a fence allows you to use it as a support for everything; from hanging baskets to interchangeable banners, posters and wall plaques of deities.  If you’re feeling really creative, you may wish to paint your own Pagan mural and let your imagination guide you.

The statuary departments of garden centers can prove a treasure trove for Pagans setting up a garden altar.  You’ll be surprised at the number of deities you recognize; particularly from the Greek and Roman pantheons, even if the retailer hasn’t a clue what they are.  I once found a beautiful copper statue labeled ‘Nubian Guard’, but on closer inspection of this armoured person – who looked decidedly female – I noticed Medusa’s head on the shield.  The ‘Nubian Guard’ was, in fact, Athena!  Bird baths and small fish ponds can make a lovely representation of water, whilst concrete urns can be used quite effectively as cauldrons.

Whether your altar be bold and formal, or rustic and natural, most importantly, it should reflect you; your personal needs and practices.

Julie Snodgrass

“Julie Snodgrass owns & runs the Esoteric Bookshop in Victoria.  She holds open seasonal sabbats & workshops on natural magic.”

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RITUAL TOOLS – Altar Cloths – Empowering backgrounds for Ritual, Spellcraft & Divination.

By Julie Snodgrass

Whether it be cotton, satin, velvet, or an old scarf with sentimental value which once belonged to your favourite grandmother, altar cloths can provide a powerful background to the tools and adornments upon your altar.  They are versatile, able to transform even an upturned cardboard box into a pleasing altar.  Hung on the wall, they can provide an evocative backdrop to your altar, or alternatively, cloths can be used to wrap and store your sacred tools when not in use.

Altar cloth

So what sort of altar cloth should you choose?  Many people use a variety of coverings, each conducive to the type of magical work being performed.  Cloths decorated with a magical symbol, such as a pentagram, ankh or triple moon, provide a bold central focus, around which may be arranged your selection of altar tools and embellishments.  Fabrics such as satins and velvets create a sumptuous, regal air, whilst some people prefer fabrics made of a natural fibre, such as cotton or silk.  I must point out that ‘silk’ is a name now applied to a wide range of fabrics, most of which are synthetic, such as rayon.  Silk made from the thread of silkworms is relatively rare outside of China, and carries a hefty price tag to match.

Altar cloths allow us to integrate the power and symbolism of colour into our rituals, workings and readings.  Regarded as both spiritual and powerful, purple is one of the most popular colours for cloths.  Originally, only obtainable from a shellfish, purple was one of the rarest colours, and highly prized, owned mainly by royalty and people of monetary worth.  This accounts for its associations with the planet Jupiter, embodying business, law, royalty and acquisition of knowledge through expansion.  Composed of red and blue, purple embodies both the masculine fire element, and the feminine water element, creating harmony and balance between the two.  Associated with the third eye chakra, it is a popular choice for tarot reading, scrying, and other forms of clairvoyance, divination and psychic readings.

Black is the colour of the Void, of creation from which all things come and to which all things recede.  It absorbs light and energy, so can be used as an altar cloth to draw in energies during ritual, or during dark moon esbats.  At the other end of the spectrum is white, which actually contains every other colour; just as ‘white noise’, such as the sound of breaking waves, contains the whole spectrum of notes. White is all-purpose, reflecting and radiating pure white light and energy from your workings out into the Universe.  White also represents the moon, and a shimmering, white satin altar cloth beautifully evokes lunar energies at full moon esbats.

Green is the colour of the lush vegetation of the Earth, and is associated with fertility and abundance.  Associated with Venus and the heart chakra, it may also be used, instead of pink, when performing rituals and workings involving love and relationships.  I know some people have an aversion to too much pink on the altar, creating for them an overriding evocation of Barbie.  However, if you don’t mind pink, it’s an interesting synchronicity that Barbara Cartland, the world’s most successful and well-known romance writer, used pink extensively in her décor and wardrobe, making her synonymous with the colour.

If lust and passion be the intent of your ritual, then a fiery red altar cloth will get things going.  Associated with Mars and the flames of the Sun, it is used in workings requiring extra energy, power and stamina.  Red is also the colour of life blood, and may be useful to women wishing to honour and celebrate menstruation, gaining an energy boost at a time in the month when energies may be a little depleted.  Rituals involving creativity, drive, ambition and transformation may also benefit from a red altar cloth.  The power of red has been known in theatres and bordellos for centuries.  As the nature of fire is tricky, I suggest caution in using too much red, particularly for those living in bushfire-prone areas of Australia, where the element is more difficult to control.  Use it sparingly, balancing it out with a complimentary colour, such as gold.

A blue altar cloth embodies the cool, flowing, changing element of water, and is ideal for healing rituals.  As another colour associated with Jupiter, it is good for justice and legal matters.

Like most practicing Pagans, my trusty altar cloths display their magical histories with colourful splashings of wax, which for me, gives them power and character.  However, if you regard dripped wax as more of a dirty mark to be removed, it’s easily banished by ironing the marks on your cloth between two pieces of brown paper, which will absorb the wax off the fabric.  A way to protect your altar cloth from drips, spills and burn holes whilst in use, is to place a sheet of glass from a sizeable picture frame over the cloth before arranging your props and tools on the altar.  It doesn’t burn and any mess can simply be wiped off.

At some point your altar cloth is going to need cleaning, both physically and metaphysically – and what is washing, but a cleansing ritual.  Hand washing is aesthetically desirable, and the act of gently squeezing the cleansing water through your cloth becomes a magical ritual.  Add a few drops of an appropriate oil, such as frankincense, rosemary  or sandalwood  oil, to the rinse water for a final cleanse and recharge.

* Julie Snodgrass owns and runs the Esoteric Bookshop and is a qualified seamstress, specializing in ritual regalia.

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To become a witch, one must be as a witch.  One of the fun aspects of magic is how it enables one to engage their creativity with magic, imagination, knowledge, intuition & inspiration interplay, whether creating a ritual, magical problem solving, creating incenses, oils & other magical offerings.

As your magical world expands it begins to permeate the mundane and once boring, meaningless daily tasks are transformed into meaningful, empowering rituals.  Magic is no longer confined to an altar inside a circle – practical altars emerge from the once mundane around the home.

Kitchen window in the Magic Cottage

Once you get into making your own magical concoctions, you may find that your kitchen starts to resemble a mad herbalist’s laboratory, for what is a kitchen workbench but an altar?  And the stacked jars, once labeled ‘rosemary’, ‘thyme’ & ‘basil’ are now sporting labels reading ‘Dragon’s Blood’, ‘Devil’s Claw’, ‘Mugwort’ & ‘Bat’s Wing’.  (You always remember to label everything now; especially after that nasty mix-up with the cayenne pepper and the dragon’s blood power!)  Kitchen shelves carry a growing assortment of potion-filled bottles, trinkets, stones & curios gradually filling the spaces around food canisters and crockery, or amassed in miniature displays along the window sill to catch the sun’s light; between pots of fresh herbs.  You cultivate self heal, dandelions, thistles and clover and plant dock beside stinging nettles to remind you of the cure.  Bunches of freshly picked herbs hang in rows, suspended from the kitchen ceiling, filling air with their aromatic scents.  When Spring blooms, you decide to start making some of your own oils, especially the ones unavailable over the counter.  You begin to experiment.  You stuff jars full of freshly picked, bruised herbs and flowers – heliotrope, honeysuckle, gardenia and jasmine – then top up each jar with long-lasting, high quality jojoba oil, then leave them to steep for a couple of weeks.

It’s then that you discover that your creations have turned into cultures that look like fluffy laboratory specimens.  Lesson:  Only use dried herbs & flowers for steeping in oil.  Alternatively, vodka or tequila act more like preservatives, and are fine for steeping fresh herbs.  However, they have a noticeable odour, so you will have to master one of the greatest abilities in magic – patience.  You will need to squeeze out the herbs and replace them with fresh ones every couple of weeks, repeating this process several times over until the fragrance of the herbal matter eclipses the odour of the alcohol.  In some cases it may take a few seasons to attain this.  But the results are usually pleasing and worth the wait.

The old, manual coffee grinder becomes a herb grinder; it’s winding, grinding action magically satisfying.  But don’t make the mistake of trying to use it to grind up resins such as frankincense.  Your grinding will quickly come to a ‘gummy’, immovable jam, resulting in an afternoon of dismantling and intricate cleansing of said grinder.

Mortars and pestles make the best tools for grinding and crushing, however, you soon discover that it is possible to permanently imbed myrrh gum into your small wooden mortar, with all the incense pounding.  Soon it is replaced with an enormous stone mortar and pestle, which also helps to counter the problem of stray ingredients shooting out of the mortar and ricocheting around the room.  When you’ve finished your grinding and crushing, a concoction of white vinegar, spirits of orange and salt will help to remove the sticky build up on your implements.  For those really tough things to break up, you discover the sacred magical powers of the hammer in the toolshed.

Best performed outside, the lore of the hammer is that all ingredients must firstly be securely wrapped before being pounded – this prevents you from having to fish flying pieces out of the shrubbery, or your eye, for that matter.  This technique can also be applied to breaking up lodestones, and if you do your sacred hammering outside at night, you’ll witness the spectacle of sparks and flashes from the energy generated, which is really quite exciting, magical and empowering to experience.

Once you have pounded things down to a workable size, you can tip them into the kitchen food processor (don’t do this with the lodestone, though).  When you turn it on, it will sound like a hailstorm of rocks (so make sure the cat’s out of the room first), but it will chop things down into smaller pieces, so that you can do the final grinding by hand in your trusty mortar and pestle while you spin some appropriate magical words and chants.

The stove is to the kitchen, what the cauldron of fire is to the magical altar.  You simmer up an earthy love potion in a cooking pot for a male friend in need.  Tossing in a clump of oakmoss, a few cinnamon quills, a liberal dash of patchouli oil, and a splash of musk fragrant oil (the real thing is both illegal, and, in my view, immoral), you simmer and stir your brew in a sunwise motion, imbuing it with magical intent, before leaving it to cool. After straining the fragrant liquid, you mix it into a bowl of powdered soap, kneading it into a sticky dough-like consistency, and then shape it into blocks of soap, pressing into it a sprig of oakmoss for the finishing touch.  Then leave to dry. 

The spell was a great success, but its ingredients and their effects seem to have embedded themselves indelibly into the cooking pot, imparting its ‘flavour’ into just about everything you’ve cooked in it since.  Not only giving the food a decidedly weird taste, but also leaving some interesting residual magic.

Finally, you know that you’re a fully ordained kitchen witch when you have acquired a complete set of cooking implements and pots, deemed specifically for use in the crafting of concoctions of the inedible variety.  Their easily identifiable from the ones for food preparation, as they are often wax-splattered, blackened, sometimes slightly warped and dented and heavily impregnated with curious aromas and magical character.

Julie Snodgrass owns & runs the Esoteric Bookshop in Victoria.  She runs practical workshops on spellcraft & incense making.