Environment, Plants and Herbs

Aloeswood Folklore and Magical Properties

I always have a tough time writing this time of year — there’s just not much going on. This is especially true this year, for reasons I probably don’t have to elaborate on.

So, I did what I often do. Before I went to sleep, I asked for inspiration. Something to write about. Anything.

I had a dream of holding a piece of wood that wept golden tears. I held a flame to the raw, jagged edge of the wood, and it released a fragrance that I have trouble describing — woody, of course, but indescribably sweet, floral, and fruity. A mélange of beautiful scents that seemed to come together and complement each other in a way that even the most expert perfumer couldn’t hope to achieve. The dream was so vivid, I could almost feel the textures and scents still lingering in my senses when I woke up.

So today I’m gonna write a thing about aloeswood.

First, Aloeswood vs. Aloe

Aloeswood, also called agarwood, wood aloes, gharuwood, oud, or any number of other names, is not related to aloe vera. Aloe vera is a succulent in the Aloe genus. Aloeswood comes from trees of the Aquilaria genus. It also doesn’t have anything to do with agar, despite the name agarwood. Agar is the jelly stuff used in petri dishes, and is extracted from algae. (It might have sheep or horse’s blood added depending on what microorganisms are being cultured, but no Aquilaria.) Their similar names are just one of those quirks of etymology.

Aquilaria wood does not automatically equate to aloeswood. For the wood of an Aquilaria tree to become aloeswood, it needs to be injured somehow — usually by a boring beetle that digs into its roots or trunk. This injury allows the tree to become infected by Phialophora parasitica, a parasitic fungus. In response, the tree produces a fragrant resin and darker, denser wood. This dark, dense, resin-saturated wood is aloeswood.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of dominoes that have to fall perfectly in place for wood to become aloeswood. First, you need the right kind of tree. Then it needs to get all bit up by a beetle. Then it has to get infected. Then the infection has to be serious enough to warrant a large-scale immune response by the tree. Trees can’t produce aloeswood on a continuous basis, either — it comes from plants that are infected and dying.

It’s probably not hugely surprising that aloeswood is extremely rare. It’s also incredibly expensive. Part of this rarity is due to overharvesting (which is also not surprising), but habitat loss is also a contributing factor. Some varieties of aloeswood are illegal to sell because they come from endangered trees, which has increased the rarity — and therefore desirability — of the stuff that does make it to market.

Sometimes, you can find less expensive aloeswood. This is usually a product of deliberately injuring and infecting trees with fungus. It is also generally not as fragrant or desirable as the naturally-formed variety, and is given a different grade. Natural aloeswood is designated with a #1. Cultures aloeswood is designated with a #2.

Aloeswood Magical Uses and Folklore

Aloeswood is so precious, particular specimens have actually achieved fame. The Ranjatai is the most notable. Its full history is a bit long to get into here, but this particular piece of aloeswood has even shown up in popular culture. Two episodes of the anime series Mononoke (which is visually gorgeous and definitely worth watching) focus on it.

This incense is referred to in ancient Vedic texts for its physical and mental healing properties. Some Ayurvedic medicine for cough and difficulty breathing calls for blending agar powder with honey. When the wood is distilled into oil, the resulting hydrosol is an antacid. A tea made from the leaves — not the wood itself — is said to be very nutritious, relaxing, and helpful for managing blood sugar.

Aloeswood’s scent is said to be an aphrodisiac, and it is included in traditional sexual tonics. Burning a tiny bit on charcoal during sex is believed to improve performance for everyone involved.

In Islam, oud is traditional. It has also been used in Buddhist practices, Christian meditation, and Zoroastrian rituals. It is a spiritually uplifting aroma that releases negativity, soothes stress, raises vibrations, and brings healing.

In ancient Egyptian and Semitic practices, it was used to prepare bodies for burial.

Aloeswood is considered to be ruled by Mars or Jupiter, depending on whom you ask. In western magic practice, it’s generally held to be akin to a “power herb” (like many herbs of Jupiter) and used for boosting the power of any working in which it is used. In the Key of Solomon, is it used to summon good spirits.

Using Aloeswood

Considering its history and primary virtues, using aloeswood in any way that doesn’t allow the practitioner to experience its scent would be a waste. High-grade aloeswood can even release its fragrance through indirect heating, and doesn’t need to be burned completely.

If I were in possession of aloeswood, I wouldn’t add it to anything. As part of an incense burning ritual, I would place a small amount on charcoal, by itself, prior to burning any other incense. Only when the scent has dissipated would I burn anything else. This allows the aloeswood’s full potential to be released, and lets you take advantage of its space-clearing and energy-enhancing powers.

Some modern perfumes contain aloeswood, like Tom Ford’s Oud Wood. These could make a suitable scent for anointing during ritual or meditation.

Aloeswood is a rare, treasured thing, more valuable than gold. It has been regarded as sacred by virtually every civilization that experienced its fragrance — out of a sick, dying tree comes a precious, fragrant wood.

Like sandalwood, this sacred wood is in danger. Ethically-harvested, regulated sources of aloeswood command high prices, but they’re worth it. It would be wrong to obtain a sacred scent through environmentally harmful means. Just like crystals, bones, sandalwood, or any other magical ingredient, make sure your aloeswood comes from ethical sources.


The Second Birthday

My partner and I listen to a lot of podcasts. He’s into audiobooks, I’m not, but we can generally compromise on podcasts. Besides, over the past year, they’ve been a nice way to have other voices in the house. (Even when some of those voices are telling me about the Ant Hill Kids.)

One of our favorites is Hey Riddle Riddle (seriously, it’s adorable and hilarious). On one of their recent episodes, Erin Keif mentioned the idea of the Second Birthday.

To paraphrase, it’s something like this. You ask people if they’re okay giving up eight months or so to save lives, and most of them will say yes. They’ll endure it without much complaint. Sure, celebrating a birthday in lockdown isn’t much fun, but what’re you gonna do?

Then the Second Birthday happens. That’s when it starts to feel less and less like there’s an end in sight.

I’m lucky enough that it isn’t that likely that I’ll have to spend an actual second birthday in lockdown, but the Second Birthday isn’t so much about actual cake and presents as it is a feeling. To be honest, I’ve had a weird amount of ups and downs for a year where every day has been pretty much the same. Some lows, I can blame on The Ennui. I’ve also had my share of “I’m learning another skill!” “Let’s know languages!” and “CLEAN. EVERYTHING.” highs. Lately it’s different, though.

Part of it might be February in DC. Things have wound down from the doorknob-humpingly ludicrous events of January 6th, but there’s still tension. Tension, and cold, gray weather. As I write this, there’s an abundance of snow on the ground (well, an abundance for here), but the knowledge that it’ll be slimy gray slush by tomorrow still pulls at my mind like a fish hook.

Imbolc was earlier this week for many Neopagans, signaling the start of the lambing season. We’re about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, in a kind of spiritual Wednesday. Still, while this time might be a drag for people, the turning Earth goes about its business. Daylight hours keep getting longer, snowdrops poke their heads through the chilly ground, and the new lambs come when they will.

Here’s hoping for a happy and peaceful Second Birthday for everyone.

art, life, Neodruidry

Double it.

We’re at the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, when things often paradoxically feel even colder and grayer than they did in the middle of winter. So why not have a holiday?

Celebrating Imbolc in a city doesn’t really have much of a resemblance to how it’s done traditionally, especially now. There is no lambing season here, and nobody’s gathering. There’s no well here to pray around, nowhere to offer coins or clooties.

I had a small ADF-style ritual, with a glass prep bowl for the well, a small cauldron for a hearth, and my cypress knee for a tree. I offered a bit of blackberry cobbler, fresh from the oven. to Brigid. I put on some Ani DiFranco and read aloud from Jarod K. Anderson’s Field Guide to the Haunted Forest.

When you were born, your enthusiasm was a red flame atop a mountain of fuel. As you age, the fuel burns low. No one warns you. Yet, with intention, you can learn to feed that warming fire long after the fuel you were born with is ash on the wind. Be kind to yourself. Learn this.

They say cut all the wood you think you will need for the night, then double it. Cut it during the daylight when fuel seems irrelevant. Dead limbs hanging low, sun-dried, hungry for fire. The night can be longer than we expect. The wind can be colder than we predict. The dark beneath the trees is absolute. Gather the fuel. Double it.

“The Wood,” Jarod K. Anderson

I’ve never been much for poetry — writing it, I mean. I recently read an article on creativity whose title I forget. (I was one of the ones that calls everything a “hack” and measures it in terms of boosting productivity.) It was mostly forgettable, but there was one bit that stood out: the idea of creating within limits.

Humans build at right angles. We have a sense of geometry, of corners, walls, inside, and outside. If we have rules to play within, we can create amazing things. Strangely, this gets harder when those limits are removed.

I know poetry has rules, I remember spending days on iambic pentameter, sonnets, and rhyming couplets in school. I remember cutting pieces of construction paper into diamonds, to enforce the structure of a diamante poem, lines meant to swell and taper from top, to middle, to bottom. I think I have a harder time with it, though.

Visual art is easy. I can grasp the limits of color mixing, knowing how to blend things so they don’t become muddy, to work wet-on-dry or wet-on-wet, to layer fat and lean. I can see the underpinning geometric shapes. It’s simpler to perceive. I don’t really get poetry the same way.

So, I offered my baking, played someone else’s songs, and read someone else’s poems.

My offerings were accepted. In exchange, the spirits of nature offered me the things symbolized by The Magician (confidence, creativity, manifestation). My ancestors offered my the things symbolized by Justice (cause and effect, balance, fairness). The Shining Ones offered me… also Justice. It looks like I need a lot of it.

Sometimes, they know me better than I know myself. I know my life hasn’t been balanced lately. I let this lack of balance serve as an excuse for not creating things, largely because I find the prospect intimidating. I haven’t been writing as much. I haven’t been painting as much. I haven’t even been taking as many pictures.

I cracked open a root beer and hallowed the waters of life. I asked the Kindred to bless and imbue it with their blessings and advice, so I might be able to internalize and benefit from it as much as possible.

It’s hard to really find the impetus to kick myself in the ass. To tip the scales and rebalance things. To tap into the confidence to keep from making excuses for myself. Hopefully this helps.

Gather fuel. Double it.


Is energy manipulation necessary for magic?

Funnily enough, I got the idea for this post a long time ago — when I was reading up on reasons why cognitive behavioral therapy might fail. That, coupled with a lot of books and papers on traditional and folk magic, raised an interesting question in my mind:

Is energy manipulation requisite for magic?

I’ve seen some experienced witches who poke fun at the spells created and posted by younger ones. I’ve even written about raising and directing power myself. Here’s the thing though — none of that shows up in the really old stuff.

Seriously. I can point you to a hundred different old bits of magical folklore and formulae, and not a one will mention anything about raising, directing, or releasing power. Nonetheless, these spells were important enough for the practitioners to pass them down.

If you look at modern spells and rituals, though, some manner of energy manipulation is considered absolutely requisite. If you skip it, or somehow do it wrong, you won’t achieve your goal. You could argue that the old wise women and cunning men raised and directed power without doing so in so many words, or even worked old magic without realizing that that’s what they were doing. If that’s the case, then who’s to say that this power-raising has to be done on a conscious level?

I have a theory that I find pretty interesting. It’s similar to one posed by Phil Hine in Condensed Chaos, when he talks about Spirit, versus Energy, versus Cybernetic models.
I don’t think magic changed. I think we did.

The Guardian posted an article a couple of years ago on the apparent decline in effectiveness of CBT. Oddly enough, this decline might be due to nothing more than CBT’s reputation. When it was first developed, it was lauded as a marvel of modern psychology. This perception may have influenced how effective it was for people who tried it — believing they were learning a miracle cure for their problems, they experienced one. As more and more people went through CBT with less than stellar results, this perception shifted. It’s declining in effectiveness because it no longer benefits from a reputation as a miracle.

This isn’t to say that all magic is a product of the placebo effect (though there are certainly branches of mental magic that rely on it to a degree). I’ve had experiences I definitely can’t attribute solely to that. But, as the article above mentions, a 1958 book by psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis stated that Freudian psychology no longer worked because people had changed. Modern humans were better at self-understanding. They now needed different tools.

The old techniques weren’t completely wrong; they’d just outlived their usefulness.

Oliver Burkeman

Modern humans are better at understanding the physical underpinnings of the world (arguably at the expense of our metaphysical understanding and psychic sensitivity). We have knowledge that would’ve been unthinkable to our ancestors. Learning changes us. We interact with energy — and therefore magic — differently. One of my ex-partners’ grandmothers cured people of worms by snapping a handful of straw over their stomachs. My ancestors did things that, if I posted them to an online grimoire, would have experienced witches laughing and poking fun at them for being ineffective “baby witch” spells.

The act of observing changes the observer as well as the observed, and we’ve done a lot of observing.

Does this mean that one way is better, more legitimate, more powerful? I really don’t think so. As Burkeman says, old tools outlive their usefulness. We’ve changed. Ten thousand years ago, nobody could digest milk in adulthood. (And don’t even get me started on what we’ve done to our jaws.) We occupy and interact with our environment differently — including the unseen world. It’s entirely possible we need to consciously manipulate energy because that’s what we’ve adapted to.

I’m curious to see what shape the future takes.