Oct 28, 2011

One censer is not enough?

 Acording to the Ritual prescribed by the Key of Solomon... nope!

 My own ritual censer, which I find most satisfiyng for perfuming the circle, myself and other people in ritual, is made of brass, comes from Syria and is destined for use in the sevice of Eastern Orthodox Churches. Alas, it's only one.

After realising that a dagger, a wand, a pentacle and  a cup are not enough to perform a full magical evocation, we come to study the true implements required by our Art.

In Book Two:

[...]Without these circles shalt thou circumscribe a square, and beyond that another square, so that the angles of the former may touch the centres of the sides of the latter, and that the angles of the latter may stretch towards the four quarters of the Universe, East, West, North, and South; and at the four angles of each square, and touching them, thou shalt describe lesser circles wherein let there be placed standing censers with lighted7 charcoal and sweet odours.

In Book One, we also find:

After this the master should quit the circle, light the fuel in the earthen pots, and place upon them the censers, in the four quarters of the Earth; 

We have every reason to believe this is not a modern modification of Mathers, since these details are also found in the oldest English manuscript of the Key, The Clavicle of Solomon, revealed by Ptolomy the Grecian:

[...] beyond that circle, make a square circle as all thinges appeareth heare one the other side [i.e. on the following page], in the circle made to the eye, In the summyte of every corner let a litle roundle be made, wherein the pott with good coles, and spices shall be put, and let one sword be fastned in the ground by a foote behinde the pott as it followeth.

Very interesting detail, there must be one sword planted behind each pot, in an operation which requires one Master and four apprentices. 

Let each one of the other[s] have a cleane sworde in his hand, soe that the remnante have a sworde they hold in there handes by the pomell, soe that they moove (?) them not that be fastned by the potts, & the swordes that they hold in there handes, be forbiti like other. And let the mr goe out of the circle, and kindle the fyer of ye potts and put in the spice coniured, as it followeth, of fumigations.

The images of the circles invariably have these censers in place, labelled OLLA, according to the location of the four cardinal points.

As you see above, I already have one brass censer for all purposes, which works very  good. So I had to find a solution.

First I looked everywhere for simple, clean, earthen pots. In America they can be hard to find, but in Romania, I still had some chanses. Unfortunatelly, the traditional Romanian crafts like woodcarving and pottery are slowly dying, and folk art fairs see more and more kitsch products. In the rural parts of Romania there are still skilled potters, but they glaze and decorate their bowls. The most common bowl is for eating soups and stues, called "strachina" (pronounced strah-kee-noh)  but almost always glazed and painted attractively. I could have looked for a master potter, but I don't have a car to go around the rural parts. 

What I had was a friend in art school who had a friend in the pottery section. I ordered him four simple pots, with a leg stand. After a year or so of asking him every week if the guy did them, I gave up.

I found a simple white ceramic bowl in the local hypermarket, which looked  promising.  The only thing I did not know was how heat resistant it truely was. 

The natural thing to do (challenge accepted!) is to test every possible way of burning coals in it:

1. Put four coals in the bare vessel.
2. Put sand in vessel, then put coals in.
3.Put stones in vessel, then put coals in.

I bought a few bowls for practice and began.  The coals I use differ from the usual ones. In smaller workings I use self-lighting coals, with salpeter. I burn them outside my ritual area to get the salpeter smoke out, blow on them to make them burn and only then put them to work. 

In my evocations I use non-salpeter ones. I have very good bamboo coals for my shisha, and they burn very well. They take about half an hour to an hour to extinguish when used on a shisha, so I figured they can last even longer when nobody is sucking the air from underneath in their naughty yet chilling oriental smoke session. I usually light a few on my stove, blow on them to get an eaven burn and place them with some metal tongs in the censer.

1. Put four coals in the bare vessel.

I lit six pieces of coal and put them in, arranging them nicely. You have to make a small pit from coles so the beads of incense don't roll off them, but stay in the center where the heat is greater.

Also, I added a simple ceramic plate. My brass censer gets very hot after a while, so handling it is very hard or impossible. Since this was a fixed censing pot, the only problem was overheating and burning though my cloth circle, catching fire. They burned consistently for about two hours, which is great, having time to do all necessary preparations, invocations, conjurations, questioning the spirit, giving license to depart, and so forth.

  Final result: FAIL. Why? The heat cracked the poor bowl right in half. The plate was also very hot, but not dangerously so.
2. Put sand in vessel, then put coals in.

Because I tried this before, I will not duplicate it with this bowl.
The shortcomings of this method are:

-you cannot use your breath, bellows, a blow pipe or a fan to vent the coals, because the sand will get everywhere.

-the coal being set atop the sand, there is very little ventilation from beneath. No oxygen can mean no burning, and the coals can die out mid evocation.

-I like to collect the ash from rituals for other magical works. I consider it sacred ash. You cannot gather ash from sand.

-if a dog peed in the sandpile you took it from, it's desecrated. And ickyyy!

3.Put stones in vessel, then put coals in.
Now this, my friends, is the way to go. Practicle reasons:
-the bowl does not crack, as the stones insulate it.
-the spaces between the stones vent oxygen from beneath, letting  the coald 'breathe'. Not too much, burning the coals too fast, and not too little, extinguishing them.
-the coals can make the pit shape I talked about, so even if you toss in the incense in a hurry, most of it will be rolled down in this pit, and not fall off the coals. A small mountain of coals is a very bad idea, a lot of incense can go unburnt.
But even here there can be hick-ups...

My first trial involved the only rocks I had, a few stones from my mineral collection. I had plenty of those and I decided a little heat and frankincense wont't kill them. 
I arranged the stones and lit the coals, aaand... FAIL. Bad idea. Among my minerals and rocks I had a few pieces of pyrite. That's fools gold, or iron sulfide. Besides the frankincense smoke, my home began smelling like burnt sulfur. Yeah... you put heat on sulfides, like pyrite, antimony or blende, you get sulphurous fumes. 

This is a magical hazard as well as a health hazard. Sulfur drives most spirits away, even demons, and calls saturnine influences. Also, sulfur smoke is hazardous to breathe. 
Do not use any minerals that are shady to you. The next thing I did was to collect white  pebbles and stones. They look great and they are smooth, so I can collect my ashes easily. And they do not burn.
Also, they are related to fire, because these stones when hit together produce sparks. 

I cannot caution our practitioners that ventilation is vital to the ritual space. If the space is too small, not only the smoke becomes unbearable, but the coals can smolder away some nasty carbon monoxide.
If your room is small, and you use a few candles, plus five censers with four coals each, there's a lot of burning going down. If the candles go out, it's not the spirit, it's the carbon  monoxide. If this happens, give the license to depart and close the rite, opening a window as soon as possible. 
Bottom line with this method: SUCCESS! 
I'll buy two more bowls and collect clean white stones, and I'll be set.


  1. Terra cotta flower pots are unglazed earthen pots. You should be able to get them at a garden shop. They do have a hole in the bottom, but that would not matter for what you are doing. They would also crack if you put the charcoals right on them, but the stone thing is a cool idea. You can get saucers to go with them.

    You are right about the sand not providing enough ventilation. I will try your stone idea myself.

  2. honored that you read my blog, Harold! I m a big fan of your work at Alchemy works and I cannot recommend this enough to people.

    Yes, terracota flower pots are great. When the market is not overflown with plastic ones...

    Have a great day!

  3. Thanks for the compliments. I found your blog a little while ago and have been really impressed by your commitment to your work.

  4. I use kitty litter in my censers, not he recycled type, but the little absorbant stones, and they work really well.

  5. Look for wire mesh on ebay, cut it into a circle smaller than your bowl so that it sits within it at a depth. Add lit coals and smile. They ventilate perfectly and the bowl can be cleaned and ash reused very easily ;-)