A discussion came up on a Facebook Forum, Ceremonial Magic School, in which someone asked about options to use in magic different from incense. Sometimes people are in places where candles, or incense might not be options. For some people, incense may be an irritant.
The original poster suggested that incense was a representation for fire, and wondered if you can use a candle for fire, and then oil passed through a humidifier to represent water.
This starts at a good place. The question addresses the purpose of the item being changed and what else would change along with it. Anytime we’re changing things in a ritual, that’s the first step. One of the better things grimoire purists say is that we can’t change what’s in the grimoire because we don’t know why it’s there. They’re partially right. If we don’t know why a ritual says to do a thing, or at least what that thing is accomplishing in the ritual, then we can’t change the thing. If we change things without understanding we might remove components that are needed without creating something else that does what the component was needed for.
We’ve all seen this with the countless bad re-workings of the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram that used to flood the internet, and now still sometimes infect some newer books of Ceremonial Magic. People look at the base thing they think the ritual is for and change things based on that, rather than looking at the specific components and their purpose in context to understand how to tweak those.
So, can we tweak the grimoires? If we know how the thing we want to change works and why it’s there, then yes, sort of.
Can we know why something is there and how it works since the texts don’t explain that?
Well, sometimes the texts kind of do if you really read them. The prayers, the consecrations, the description of how things are used, they can begin to inform us. If we spend years studying a text, studying related texts, studying the texts that led to it and the texts that came from it we should over time develop some understanding. If we study the theology and metaphysical ideas that form the context of the grimoires, the liturgical corollaries, the earlier forms of magic that led to them and later forms of magic that grew from them, we should over time develop some understanding. If we learn other parallel traditions of magic and work earnestly and ardently at the traditions described in the grimoires, over time, we should develop some understanding. If we don’t, what are we even doing?
Now, if we understand how and why something works, we can address whether or not it’s needed or helpful or superfluous.
If it’s needed, we might not be able to change it. If we can change it, we’ll need to change it to something very similar and we definitely can’t omit it.
If it’s helpful, we can probably make a change to something that does something similar. We might be able to make a change to something that helps differently and might be better suited to our goal. We might be able to omit it, but it will probably reduce some element of effectiveness or make the work harder for us if we admit it.
If it’s superfluous we can omit it, we can keep it if we like it, we can change it if the change doesn’t impede what we’re doing. I would be least inclined to interpret something as superfluous, unless it really clearly is demonstrated as such there is a possibility you’re missing an element if you’re finding things you want to get rid of to be superfluous.
While we can analyze things and figure out stuff that can be tweaked and substituted…we need to understand that those tweaks and substitutions will make a change. If you have a chicken tender, you might sweeten and moisten it with barbecue sauce. If the pepper in barbecue sauce irritates you, then you can sweeten and moisten it with honey mustard, or even just honey. All three will do the job, but they’ll all do it differently. They each bring different things to the table. The result will be different, but they’ll each be effective. You might even prefer the changed result.
So, in the example posed in the original question, the incense was being used to represent fire. So, if we’re setting up an altar with representations of the elements, we’re probably not looking at grimoire magic. Something influenced by Golden Dawn magic, or some kind of standard NeoPagan ritual magic would generally have a candle to represent fire, a bowl of water for water, incense for air, and a stone or some physical thing to represent earth. The question is probably being asked in that vein. So, if we’re swapping out incense, we’d need something else to represent air. If we’re looking to just represent air, a fan, or a feather might suffice. It we’re looking for something to bring substance, life, and character to the air, then we need something that more closely mimics incense and provides a scent. If we’re looking to provide a substance for the powers we encounter to use, then incense might need to remain our choice.
Some of the options that came up involved using oil, and one poster mentioned plans to try Luminarium with oil, and so I thought it might make sense to talk about some options for tweaks in Luminarium, since one of the points of the text is to be adaptable.
Incense. In Luminarium, the incense is used partially to tinct the space and bring it into harmony with the nature of the forces being conjured, and in part it is used so that the fire is transmitting substance into the spiritual to give some benefit to the spirit. It harmonizes the nature, pleases the spirit and helps to empower it, and it creates some link between the earthly and the ephemeral.
Three options can help with this. Oil in a diffuser would help tinct the space, although perhaps more slowly and not as potently. It would not have the thick and powerful diffuse presence of smoke, nor would it have the heat to agitate the space. The scent might still be pleasing to the spirit, but the way the incense helps empower the spirit might not be as present here. The link between the earthly and the ephemeral would also be there but maybe not as clearly, you’re not moving something from solid earthy material to smoke by the power of fire.
We can offset some of these missing elements. Maybe add a candle for the elements fire would add to the incense. Maybe a shot of alcohol, or an offering of flour to help feed and empower the spirit.
Maybe instead of an oil diffuser we use an oil warmer with a candle. The scent might be more powerful, and you’d still have tincting the space. You’d have the warmth of the fire to help agitate the space and bring heat to building the space. The scent would still please the spirit. You might have some of the same empowerment, but you’d still use the substantive nature of the incense smoke, so maybe not as much. The movement between the material and the ephemeral would be more present than with the diffuser, in my opinion, but not as clearly indicated as with the incense.
Oil dissolved in alcohol like a cologne might be an option. You could spray some around, but also leave some to evaporate. The alcohol is going to evaporate more readily so the movement between phases of being and the connection to the spirit world that gives might be clearer, alcohol is often used for this purpose in many traditions. The alcohol itself can also be an offering, but something substantive might be good in addition. Adding a candle might still be useful, but obviously, don’t spray alcohol into spaces with flame.
Alternative to adding a candle, instead of spraying the alcohol with the oil dissolved in it, some books on witchcraft used to talk about making a blue fire on the altar with cologne. The blue fire being a representation of sacred presence. The fire carries the scent of the cologne. The various benefits of the oil or incense and the benefits of the fire used with the incense would largely be there, but it would lack the smoke and the substance the smoke brings to the ritual.
An added element of using a sacred flame would be the option to combine this with the lamp. The light from the fire could be used similarly to the light from the lamp with the Guardian Angel invoked through this flame. If choosing this option, you might want to use your temple incense, or an oil matching your temple incense, to scent this alcohol rather than your planetary scent. You’d still need something for the planetary scent if doing this.
We’ve talked previously about using a candle instead of the lamp. This wouldn’t be dissimilar. The only real loss by switching either to the candle or the sacred flame would be the inability to adjust the level of light case by the fire like you can with a hurricane lantern or other adjustable wick lantern.
If using this method, using the sacred flame, you might be able to lean into tweaks to make the ritual more pagan. If you’re looking for ways to reduce the Christian components and increase the Greek ones, or even go with some other pagan tradition, or blend Luminarium with Wicca, the fire would more easily fit that structure than the lamp.
In some forms of pagan rituals, the sacred flame is the presence of the divine. It is often divine in and of itself, for example, Hestia is embodied in the temple flame and the hearth fire. Some view Bride to similarly reside in the flame in Celtic ritual. The flame in those cases can be viewed as a beacon for the gods as well as the portal through which they interact with us. This is pretty similar to how we use the lamp to interact with the Guardian Angel. The light of the lamp becomes a vessel through which the angel can illuminate us and it is then able to help communicate with us and with the spirit so that we may more clearly see and understand the spirit.
I would still advocate working with your Guardian Angel in a pagan context. The sacred flame can be a vessel for your angel, or you can work with the god of the flame along with your angel for additional sanctification and protection. The god of the flame can also help open the space between the spirit world and our world. This is not dissimilar from the use of flame to provide heat so the spirits can break through the sea between worlds and speak with us. But in this instance the divine power within the flame intentionally opens the space rather than the power of the flame being offered to the spirit to use.
Depending upon what spirits you’re attempting to call, this kind of tweak may make a lot of sense. If you’re calling on spirits that remain tied to pagan cultures and beliefs instead of those from Christian, Judaic, and Islamic cultures creating tweaks that lean into the pagan elements present in the ritual may be well suited to your goal. If you’re calling angels it might be less the case.
Again, whatever tweaks you make will change elements of how it works. So the flavor will shift a bit. That can be good, or it can be bad, it depends on what you’re doing and what effects you’re looking for.
Now if you read through this and thought “this is getting really eclectic and is starting to move further outside of the grimoire tradition,” that’s good. These examples are drawing on sources from a few magical strands. It’s good to be aware of that. Depending on what you’re doing you may want to keep things tighter. You might be better off going a bit wider in your influence though. Again, it’s going to depend on the system with which you’re starting and what your end goal is. It’s going to depend on the character of the communication you want, the types of spirits you’re calling, and the type of effect you’re looking to get from working with them. It will also depend upon your needs.
Doing things by rote isn’t understanding or mastering them. Changing things needlessly or willy nilly is also problematic and may not be effective. The balance is developing understanding and negotiating reasonable changes when they make sense. Negotiating can be a matter of exploring your needs and desires and making informed choices suited to those. Negotiating can also be approaching the spirits, working with divination, or working through a diviner with a relationship with the spirits, and grasping what changes and substitutions they are willing to accept…as has been done in traditional cultures with traditional magic throughout the world.
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