The Witch’s Three-Ring Binder

Or, how do cats herd themselves?

Given Pagans’ predilection for individuality and eschewing authority, we often talk about organizing ourselves as “herding cats.” But what do we do when there is no one “riding herd” on us as individuals? Whether or not you participate in a larger group, keeping your own knowledge organized can be an important part in making sure you are actually learning and growing over time, as well as creating a resource for yourself and others to rely on in the future.

Thus, with apologies to the Llewellyn authors of the popular series on the Witch’s Tools, I encourage you to use the magical tool known as the Witch’s Three-Ring Binder.

A three-ring binder is an extremely useful way of organizing your knowledge. No, it’s not nearly as romantic as writing all your studies in a venerable hand-bound book with artisanal paper made from the bark of your own favorite willow tree using a feather quill with ink made from burning rue. If you can manage all of that and also keep up your studies and practices and the rest of your life, more power to you. I can’t. Given the choice between waiting until that magical time accidentally drops in my lap and neglecting the romance in favor of actually learning and improving my work in the time and space available to me, I choose the latter. So a three-ring binder, often made at least in part or whole from material written on a computer and printed out, is a perfectly serviceable tool and one I encourage you to explore.

Creating my notebooks about different areas of study (herbs, minerals, Tarot) gives me a chance to review and revise all the information I can think of on a particular topic. Once the notebook is created, it is a place to collect new notes and ideas, and revising it every few years or so becomes a way to solidify my learning and highlight avenues for new study and practice. Most of this I could keep on a computer just as well – but I am old-fashioned enough to think a little better with a pen and paper on some things, and I find it easier to turn to a shelf to locate an alphabetical page or an index entry when I need to look something up rather than a list of text files. I look forward to the magical creations of wikis and apps and so much more that future generations will dazzle us with, but for now, this hybrid paper-and-computer method works best for me.

It’s solid enough to make it easy to use for reference during ritual, while cooking, or doing readings, but not so permanent that I can’t revise it at need. And honestly, after a while, even a basic binder starts to acquire some romance of its own, when I think of all the things I’ve used it for.

That’s why one of the rewards I offer to my supporters on Patreon – for just three dollars a month – is a page from one of my three-ring notebooks, giving an entry on magical materials such as herbs, trees, minerals, oils, teas, incenses, and more. This month’s example covers the herb chamomile, with its names, cautionary warnings, correspondences, and suggestions for uses in magic. If you’re interested, go check it out. I’ll also be asking for feedback on which topics you want to see the most of, so shout out if there’s an entry you want to see first.

An herbal example – chamomile

Today I’m teaching my intro to herbs class at the Magical Druid, but for those of you who can’t be there in person, I thought I would demonstrate one small aspect of what I’m teaching today. (By the way, I also offer this as a correspondence course, for which I’m currently developing more material; if you’re interested, email me at literatahurley@gmail.com.)

I encourage students to begin their journey into herbalism by creating their own notes on each herb they study; this journal becomes a place to organize research as well as one’s own thoughts and intuitions, and becomes the foundation for future work. I provide an example from my own notebook, which is very much a work in progress, and discuss why I have arranged the parts of each entry the way I have.

My entry on each herb is broken up into the following sections:

  • Names – here I describe any common names and also list the scientific name(s) for the species of plants they describe. Scientific names are an important way to be able to be sure you’re talking about the same plant, since common names are many and varied, and have changed over time and from region to region.
  • Warnings and contraindications – This is an absolute must. Potential allergies, pregnancy warnings, drug interactions, and more should all be noted here. Even things that are regularly used in food can have medically important interactions. Please note that none of my information is a substitute for consulting a trained medical professional!
  • Parts used – I find this a useful way to describe how different parts of the same plant are used in different contexts. This can actually help me come up with new ideas for magical workings by encouraging me to think more broadly about an herb I’m already familiar with.
  • Uses – Here I describe major purposes that the herb is used for, along with its important correspondences and any other magical information, such as what other materials it works well with. This is really the heart of the entry, so I go into more detail here, although I don’t usually include specific spells or recipes (as described below). I tend to note historical uses only when they influence how I tend to use the herb in a present context.

For example, my notes on chamomile read as follows:

Names:
Chamomile
name of multiple plants in the Asteraceae family

German chamomile – most common species used
(Matricaria recutita)

Roman chamomile, noble chamomile, English chamomile
(Chamaemelum nobile)

Warnings, contraindications:

Do not use Roman chamomile during pregnancy
People with ragweed allergy may be allergic to chamomile
May cause drowsiness

Parts used: flowers, dried and used in sachets, infusions

Uses:

Magically associated with the sun, can be used for prosperity.

Main use is for calming, relieving anxiety, and promoting healing. Can cause drowsiness and be used to induce sleep. Infusion is very good for this.

Try combining with peppermint (especially for digestive upset) or valerian for extra anxiety reduction.

Infusion can also be used topically on irritated skin, has mildly anti-inflammatory effects.

Personally, I organize these notes alphabetically by common name, and keep an index that helps me cross-reference plants that I might know by multiple common names.

In a separate space, I keep “recipe cards” for combinations of herbs, oils, incenses, or other nifty concoctions I’m working on or might want to try in the future.

Finally, in my working magical journal I record spells that I’ve actually performed, and reflect on the results of the spell. Then I will update my other two resources with notes if important.

I find it really helps to keep my notes separated this way so that I know where to find what I’m looking for – if it’s information about an herb, I go to my notebook; if it’s a particular recipe, I to go my recipe cards; and if it’s details of how I implemented a particular spell, I go to my magical journal. When I’m coming up with a new spell or recipe, I might use all three in combination, but usually I just need one of them.

What are your favorite resources for studying herbs? How do you organize your information about a broad topic like this? I’d love to know!

Stones for chakras – clear and dark stones

In my first post about using minerals, crystals, and stones in ways that correspond to the chakras, I specifically left out any discussion of clear/white and dark/black stones. In thinking about the expanded chakra system the role of these stones becomes clearer: dark and black stones will draw energy and awareness down into the ancestral chakra and act as grounding stones, while white or clear stones will draw one up into the transpersonal chakra. This makes sense given the general perception that black or dark stones are grounding and clear stones are good for directing energy. [*]

The real question here is whether one chooses to see the crown chakra as white. That means collapsing light blue and dark blue, or blue and indigo, together into the throat chakra and attributing purple to the third eye chakra. (That system – with only one blue – has a lot to recommend it also!) If you see the crown chakra as white, then it could make sense to attribute white but cloudy stones to the crown and truly transparent stones to the transpersonal chakra. As with all correspondences, your practice will vary depending on multitudinous factors.

Regardless of the exact attributions, I have found that selenite, clear quartz, white or clear calcite or fluorite, and similar stones are definitely good for expanding one’s energy and awareness up towards the transcendent. Selenite in particular is a gentle mineral for this type of work and is very good for directing Reiki energy.

On the dark/black end of things, it makes sense that black tourmaline, jet, obsidian, and similar stones are good for grounding. These dark or black stones are also useful for drawing out or off any excesses or negativity that have been picked up, just as it is useful in grounding to let go of such things and let the earth take them in and “recycle” them. Another way to think of this is that these stones’ connection to the ancestral chakra serves as a way to take that energy back into the void or the collective unconscious. (Honestly, I’m still exploring the exact terminology I want to use around these concepts, so I’m interested in how others see this also!) Of course, a stone from one’s own landbase is also an excellent stone for grounding!

With these things in mind, it’s worth noting that tourmalinated quartz combines these qualities, so it is most useful for seeking balance, especially balance between the immanent and transcendent. Smoky quartz can do something similar, although it has plenty of other specific uses of its own, and snowflake obsidian can also work for balance although with an emphasis on grounding.

* Actually, the idea that “energy” must be white or light is an interesting bias in our metaphysical ideas. It shows that we tend to think of this energy as coming from the above, the transcendent, as those are connected with what is traditionally good in the dichotomy of good vs evil. This bias seems inappropriate to me because I worship the divine in everything, both the transcendent and the immanent, and because I think there’s a lot of power in the shadow, the dark, the silence, which we need to work with. But Shadow work is a whole pursuit of its own, so for here I will only note that I think clear/white and black/dark stones are equally capable of working with energy, they just do so differently.

 

Stones for chakras

Much of the way I use stones, minerals, and crystals is based on how their colors correspond to the chakras. In my introduction to the chakras, I described how each one represents an area of life. I use stones corresponding to the chakras to support or stimulate certain qualities within those areas. For example, if I need more self-confidence, I want to use stones that correspond to the solar plexus chakra, so I’ll choose yellow stones.

When working with stones, your mileage may vary significantly, of course, but if you’re trying to get to know a stone, mineral, or crystal that you haven’t worked with before, making an assessment based on its color is a good place to start theorizing what its qualities might be. Experience changes these first guesses, of course. And like all systems of correspondences, the classification by color is only one factor that describes the nature of a stone.

Some stones have specific associations that either contradict or have nothing to do with their color – rose quartz, for example, is a very heart-related stone, even though it’s pink, not green. There are also multi-colored stones and stones that don’t really fall under one of the basic spectrum colors, such as pink and brown stones. I may address some of these specific stones in future posts.

Within a specific color family, different appearances lend themselves to different uses. I have found that stones which are more opaque tend to be more calming and regulating, supporting the functions of a chakra without necessarily overstimulating it. For example, I find calcite to be especially gentle and calming, and it is conveniently available in many colors and pretty affordable. I’ve also found that stones which are physically softer (fluorite, calcite, selenite, etc) tend to have gentler energy.

Conversely, the more transparent and harder a stone is, the more it will be useful for opening and energizing, tending to increase the energy of a particular chakra, whether that’s what is best or not.

There are many, many stones that are frequently used in magic, but here is a list of crystals that correlate with each chakra in my experience:

  • Root chakra: garnet, red calcite
  • Generative (second, sacral) chakra: carnelian, some amber, orange calcite
  • Solar plexus chakra: citrine, sulfur, yellow calcite
  • Heart chakra: emerald, malachite, bloodstone, green fluorite
  • Throat chakra: aquamarine, amazonite, turquoise, kyanite, blue calcite
  • Insight (third eye) chakra: lapis, sapphire, dumortierite
  • Crown chakra: amethyst, lepidolite, purple fluorite

Some people associate clear quartz with the crown chakra, but I’ll get into the subject of clear and dark-colored stones in a future post.

Clearing stones

Clearing or cleansing crystals and minerals for magical purposes is an important part of working with stones. The details of timing and methods depend on the stones being used and your intent.

Personally I try to use the more general term “stones” instead of “crystals” because plenty of the things I work with are not crystals (such as mica-bearing schist from my local land base) and some are not even minerals (notably amber and jet). “Crystal” sounds pretty but leads to confusion; I’d rather be earthy and accurate.

The techniques I use to work with stones are determined by my understanding that everything in the world has spirit. Particular stones have particular spirits, more or less personalities, if you will, and I work with those spirits on a metaphysical level. The unique qualities of a stone, based on both its type and the particulars of this specimen, interact with my intentions for particular purposes.

Timing

Because I work with stones through intent, I think they need to be cleared regularly. Some sources disagree and say that there are certain stones which never need to be cleaned. From my perspective, it’s not necessarily the stone which needs to be cleared, it’s my intention and the way I used the stone the last time.

As a result, I clear stones when I first get them and after every time I use them. Then when I go to use them again, I’ve cleared the last working from my own mind as well, so I’m not still thinking about the last use and getting my intentions muddled up.

The only stones I can think of that I haven’t cleared are the stones which I collected from a particular land base and which I use to connect me to that land base.

Methods

I’m going to discuss multiple ways for cleansing and clearing stones, including which ones should NOT be used for particular stones. Please also do your own research to avoid damaging a specimen about which you care deeply.

Smudging

Probably the easiest and safest way to clear a stone is to waft incense smoke (or fan clean air) over it. Personally, smudging stones just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me; Air and Fire are such mutable, even flighty Elements that it seems hard to put them to work on Earth, especially parts of Earth that are as fixed and stable as minerals and crystals. That said, if this works for you, or you need something to do quickly, or for a particularly fragile item, go for it.

Washing

Washing with water can damage a surprising number of stones, including (but not limited to!) salt crystals (obviously), selenite (including its form as gypsum rose or desert rose), and to a lesser extent calcite, aragonite, and angelite. Even stones that don’t dissolve can be damaged by contaminants in your water or start to have a chemical reaction with the materials of the container you put them in. In particular, if you are going to ‘wash’ stones, do NOT soak them in salt water in a reactive (metal) basin. All three parts of that – soaking, salt, and metal – have their own risks of damaging stones.

Space and time

My preferred method of cleansing stones is to use location and time. I have a designated place where I put things to be cleared for at least 24 hours. For me, this is my windowsill, so it functions as a place away from my usual work spaces and closer to the outside environment, where stones are exposed to at least one sun and moon cycle. I think of this as almost returning them to the the outdoors to ‘rest,’ or at least be separated from the specific intents that I had for them. When I interact with them again, I find that all I sense is the material’s innate qualities.

Exposing stones to direct sunlight does have its own risks. Some stones can fade in the sun, especially colored quartz varieties (such as amethyst and citrine), and also celestite, fluorite, and some topaz, among others. Personally, I don’t worry about this for short periods of time, and I make sure that my long-term storage of stones is out of direct sunlight. It’s also worth mentioning that some high-quality quartz crystals or crystal balls can act as lenses to focus sunlight, and could theoretically create enough heat to start a fire just as a magnifying glass would. Position these crystals out of direct light.

Stones that are exposed to the weather (and my windows are not particularly well insulated) can be damaged by being heated or cooled. Again, this is less of a concern over the short periods I’m talking about, but be mindful not to take a stone from right next to your Yule fire and put it outside in the snow to clear.

Another suggestion I have heard is placing stones on a bed of salt crystals to be cleansed. That makes good sense to me – it’s using Earth to clear Earth – as long as you are gentle enough not to create scratches on your softer minerals, such as selenite. If I had the right space, I might consider making a dedicated place outside where I could put my stones and leave them for a little while. I’d want them to be safe while being symbolically returned to the Earth in this way, so maybe something like a little covered space in the north corner of a yard would work, but it would depend on the details.

Obviously every method has its benefits and risks, and your preferences will depend on your personal understanding of how you work with your stones. These are my methods – what are yours?

Information about handling selenite

Selenite is a mineral form that can be very useful, but it has some different physical properties than the harder stones we work with – like the quartz varieties – and I recently had some experience with it that I thought others might find helpful.

Selenite is named after the moon goddess Selene because the way its structure looks in light creates a white-on-white effect that resembles moonlight on water. It actually contains none of the element selenium. Selenite is a form of gypsum, which is a hydrated calcium sulfate. This means there are water molecules in the crystal lattice itself. If you add more water, gypsum can dissolve, but the process happens very slowly.

Gypsum is also very soft – softer than your fingernails. Selenite is probably the softest mineral that most of us work with on a regular basis. It should always be stored or carried with some cushioning, and not with any other stones rubbing up against it. On the other hand, its softness also means that it can be reshaped and polished fairly easily.

FYI, the mineral form called “desert rose” is (almost always) also a form of gypsum, which means that it is just as soft as selenite, but because of its formation it is less likely to show small scratches. I still wouldn’t carry it in a pouch with other stones.

Now for the practical experience:

I had a piece of selenite go through the washer recently. It was not appreciably smaller in size afterwards. The biggest effect was that the surface was much rougher all over. So even a thorough soaking and agitation does not instantly dissolve it, but it does definitely disturb the polished surface. I was thinking about how to restore the polish, and realized that since selenite has approximately the hardness of fingernails, the same things that I use to shape my fingernails might work on selenite – and they did!

I used a four-sided nail buffer to repolish my selenite. This is NOT your typical metal nail file. (One of those would probably chew through selenite pretty quickly, like a hacksaw.) A buffer is a series of four different grits mounted on a soft foam block. They’re not very common at regular drugstores, but you can find them in beauty supply shops or online. The kind I typically use has a blue surface for filing, a pink surface for smoothing ridges, a white surface for buffing, and a grey surface for polishing. The grey surface feels completely smooth, not like emery at all.

I used the pink, white, and grey surfaces in the same order I would on my nails. Please note that this did wear down the grit on my nail buffer quite a bit more than just doing my nails, so I’m going to need a new one soon, but I thought it was an inexpensive and easy solution! Plus, it was rather satisfying to repolish the piece myself; it’s always good to forge a hands-on relationship with one’s magical tools.

To buff, I found that circular motions were the most effective, and that the process took some time. On the other hand, once a polished surface is achieved, small scratches can be buffed out relatively quickly. If you just want to restore a small scratch, I would start with the white surface and go slowly; you can probably make it almost imperceptible without having to repolish too large of an area.

I hope some of you find this useful!

Calendula and chamomile

With all the stress lately, I’ve developed some irritated skin. Here are two pieces of kitchen witchery I’ve done in the last few days to take care of it.

Calendula and chamomile facial mask

I mixed 1 part calendula powder, 1 part chamomile powder, and 6 parts cosmetic clay. I added enough water to make a texture slightly thicker than yogurt and applied to clean skin fairly thickly. I didn’t let it dry all the way – the goal was to use the mask as a sort of poultice for irritated skin, and I didn’t want to undo the good of the herbs by dehydrating the skin afterwards.

This felt good on my skin; I dried gently and put on a light lotion, and the irritation was decreased.

Calendula and chamomile salve

In the top of a double boiler, I simmered 1 Tbsp each calendula and chamomile powders in 100 g light olive oil for about 20 minutes. Then I added 30 g beeswax and stirred until it was all melted. Poured out into a clean container and let cool with occasional additional stirring – if you don’t stir while cooling, it separates into layers – can anyone advise me about easier ways to prevent this?

This produced a nice consistency, firm enough that it doesn’t feel oily but still very spreadable. It’s grainy from the powders being left in; next time I’ll simmer the whole herb in a cloth bag so I can remove it. This does smell strongly of calendula and chamomile, though, and it has a potentially less than appealing brown color, but neither of those bother me.

Obviously, I’m just beginning to dip my toes into the wider expanses of herbalism and kitchen witchery. I’d be happy to hear advice or suggestions from my readers!

Updated: Sustainable Sandalwood

After further research, I’ve found two sources of sustainable sandalwood oil, but no incense.

Both Aura Cacia and Mountain Rose Herbs carry Australian sandalwood oil. Aura Cacia products are available at Whole Foods stores and other natural-products stores. For larger amounts, I’ve found Mountain Rose Herbs to be a good source of affordable, high-quality ingredients. (Please note that I’m not associated with either company.)

Santalum spicatum is a species in the same genus as “true” sandalwood (Santalum album), but it is native to Australia. The Australian government is working hard to manage harvesting and replant commercial sources of sandalwood while protecting wild populations.

This whole discovery has really opened my eyes to another aspect of my responsibilities as a consumer who also venerates the earth. I’ve been growing more conscious of the issues involved in my food supply, and am trying to make choices that are increasingly consistent with my values, but this is a whole different kettle of fish. Nothing I eat is in the process of being driven to extinction by human overuse. That makes it a relatively clear-cut choice not to perpetuate the problem by buying sandalwood. I can’t simply sit back and burn endangered wood while visualizing myself as a tree in order to ground and center in connection with nature. On the other hand, it’s also nice to find an alternative that allows for some substitution in my practices rather than radical elimination.

Like many other ecological and environmental concerns, this a difficult situation, where we must weigh multiple factors that are incredibly hard to compare. For me, putting my values into practice means navigating these kinds of situations as best I can, in an evolving fashion.

It’s easy to succumb to despair when trying to weigh incommensurate forms of good and harm in a world with so much environmental upheaval. One of the ways I resist despair is by coming together with others to face such questions, both by talking through the issues and supporting each other in our choices, and by sharing resources and assistance. Writing about this issue is not an attempt to scold or shame others; it’s an attempt to contribute to the ongoing conversation and community efforts to live more ethically. It’s not easy, but we can do better together.