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.

Witchcraft

4 Great Alternatives to Incense

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Incense is pretty magical. Not only does it give a place that certain mystical je ne sais quoi, it works for sympathetic magic, carries prayers and petitions away on its smoke, and clears away stagnant energy. It’s pretty awesome stuff.

… Unless you’re asthmatic. Or have migraines triggered by smells. Or live in a dorm. Or aren’t yet “out” as a witch. Or are one of any of the millions of other people who, for various reasons, can’t light up.

What do you do then?

Burning incense.

I can get away with using incense sometimes. For other occasions, I’ve found a bunch of very effective incense alternatives that work in both a magical and a mundane sense.

1. Hydrosols

Hydrosols are a “byproduct” of essential oil distillation. I put “byproduct” in quotes because, while they are certainly considered a byproduct if the oil is what you’re after (in much the same way that a rosebush would be considered a weed in a wheat field), they’re very useful on their own. I originally started using them as part of my skincare regimen — putting a couple of sprays on a cotton ball and using it as toner, or stashing a bottle in my bag to cool and freshen my skin throughout the day. After that, I began expanding my use to more metaphysical purposes.

Since hydrosols are derived from the same herbs used to make incense and essential oil, they carry the same properties. The only difference here is that they are closer to water, rather than the airy qualities of incense smoke. So, if you’re using incense to represent the air element on an altar or in a ritual, you may want to choose a hydrosol made of an air-aligned herb (like yarrow or peppermint), or add a feather or other airy representation to your work.

To use them, treat the spray like incense smoke. If you’d use incense to fume an object, space, or person, for example, give a spray of the hydrosol instead. I’m a big fan of those  produced by Wildroot Botanicals.

2. Essential Oil Sprays

These are very similar to hydrosols, but a bit different in composition. While hydrosols are made up of the water-soluble portions of a plant, essential oil sprays are made up of water, a blend of oils, and something to keep the oils in solution (usually witch hazel or ethanol). Hydrosols are usually sold as the product of a single herb, while essential oil sprays are often a proprietary mix of oils, sometimes with crystals, gem elixirs, or flower essences added.

This makes essential oil sprays great for ritual purposes, because you can easily customize them to meet your needs. Need a fire elemental spray? Use oils from fire-aligned herbs, and add some water-safe red or orange crystals. Since a lot of the ready-made sprays have proprietary oil blends, however, they may not be the best choice for skincare applications like beauty magic.

To use them in a spell, treat them just like you would a hydrosol. Enchanted Botanicals has some really nice sprays — their Clearing spray is powerful stuff! I’ve used it for everything from cleansing spaces and tools, to helping to lift a bad mood.

Fresh herbs.

3. Loose Herbs

You don’t always have to burn herbs to get the benefit of them. Burning has its place, but you can also add a dish of loose herbs to your spell, then release them to the wind when you’re done. Rather than waft incense smoke over an object, lay it on or cover it with the herbs. (If you add a few drops of essential oil, you can also pass the herbs off as potpourri.)

Harmony Hills Boutique has a very good selection of hard-to-find herbs at reasonable prices, and they ship quickly.

4. Tincture Paper

Tincture paper is fun if you absolutely need to be able to burn something, but incense still isn’t an option. It’s made by creating or taking a tincture of the herbs you’re working with, and adding a few drops to a piece of blotting paper. The paper will readily absorb the tincture, the alcohol will evaporate, and, once the paper’s dry, it’s ready for use.

These papers are nice because you can write petitions on them, create your own blend of tinctures to add to them, and they’ll burn quite a bit faster than incense. So, if you can handle limited amounts of smoke, or just don’t want to wait for incense to finish burning, try them.

 

Incense is treated as de rigueur in a lot of spells, but isn’t always an option for everyone. If you’re one of the many people who can’t use incense, try hydrosols, essential oil sprays, loose herbs, or tincture paper instead — you may find that you actually prefer them to dealing with smoke!