Asian Celestial Animals

In a semi-continuation of my last post on amulets, I also wanted to touch on a few of the celestial animals of Asian amulets and sculptures. There are many more celestial animals ingrained in Asian cultures than I will talk about here, such as the Tibetan Snow Lion, the Chinese Dragon Turtle, and the Qilin–and of course, the Eastern dragons would constitute their own article entirely. But I wanted to discuss these figures separately because, in my experience, these protective figures have a notable tendency to house actual spirits appropriate to their respective representation; indeed, there are myths that discuss stone Shisas taking action or coming to life, or declare the Píxiū to be a companion of the gods, suggesting the presence/existence of these spirits. Care for these figures, keeping them clean and maybe occasionally offering them some incense or oils, and they will return the favor.

Píxiū / Piyao
During the leonine-esque Píxiū’s centuries-long history, their uses and appearance have seen some change. Traditionally, they came in male-female pairs; the female had two horns and was the more protective presence, and the male had a single horn and was more financially influential. Nowadays, the single-horned Píxiū has become ubiquitous, usually understood as managing all tasks (but especially wealth-collecting); as well as the continued use of statue pairs outdoors and in the home, jade amulets featuring both pairs and single Píxiū are readily available. Also, while older Píxiū depictions clearly had wings, the wings are sometimes omitted from smaller modern depictions. One of the Píxiū’s other most helpful aspects in modern use is its ability to improve the Fēngshuǐ of those who are on the wrong side of that Chinese lunar year’s Tài Suì, a yearly-changing aspect of Chinese astrology. (For example, the Tài Suì of 2019 is in conflict, direct or indirect, with the Snake, Monkey, and Tiger, so these signs would especially benefit from having Píxiū amulet around, which is sometimes believed to be the Tài Suì’s pet.)
Pixiu
A modern pair of more traditionally-designed Píxiū (from Amazon)

Shī / Guardian Lion
Sometimes called “Fu Dogs” in English, the Shī is actually a stylized lion. In a balance of Yin-Yang energies, the Shī is utilized in female-male pairs, usually with the male depicted with an embroidered ball and the female with a cub. The Shī guards entrances, with the male on the right and the female on the left as you walk towards the entrance. Some say the female protects the inhabitants, while the male protects the structure.
Lions
A traditionally-designed male-female pair of Shī (from Amazon)

Shisa
A variation of the Chinese Shī, or a specific type of Japanese Komainu, the Okinawan Shisa pairs look quite similar and are also utilized in male-female pairs to guard entrances. One Shisa is depicted with an open mouth, the other with a closed mouth; there are varying accounts for which is the male and the female, but the open-mouthed Shisa is on the right and the close-mouthed Shisa is on the left. Some say the close-mouthed male protects the home, and the open-mouthed female shares its goodness; others say the close-mouthed female keeps in the good, and the open-mouthed male scares away the bad.
Shisa
A male-female pair of Shisa (from Amazon)

Amulets

Let’s talk about a universal aspect of personal magic: amulets. These are the magical items we wear or carry to protect us (usually by warding against bad influences). Don’t particularly want things like disease or danger around you? Not a problem, ’cause there’s numerous amulets to choose from. I’m going to take a moment to discuss some of today’s most common amulets; however, I will try to focus on amulets that aren’t overtly tied to one particular form of practice/religion, so that I can discuss options that would be available for use by a variety of people. Amulets are especially helpful tools in that they can do their job with little prompting, having already acquired years of cultural intent behind them; this means that they’re a great help in particular to those who don’t practice magic, or those who are just learning magic and could use a little extra protection as a sure precaution. (Of course, experienced practitioners can also benefit from, and even enhance the boons given by an amulet.)

Nazar
These blue glass beads resembling eyes are often referred to themselves as “evil eyes” in the English-speaking countries of the West. Their design stems from ancient amulets, and their production/use has spread across various cultures around the Middle East and Mediterranean. They are usually believed to protect against the Evil Eye, a malevolent gaze received by a person who is envious or malevolent themselves, which then causes misfortune for the recipient. Today, the readily-available nazar can still commonly be found hanging in houses, offices, or cars, as well as being incorporated into jewelry.

Cornicello
This regional Italian charm has become more accessible over the years, especially as numerous Italian immigrants brought it to places like America with them. (In fact, the first time I saw one, it was a silver necklace charm being worn by an American woman of Italian descent.) Often referred to in English as the “Italian horn”, the origin of this horn- or chili-like shape has been speculated on, but the sure truth seems to have been forgotten. Many cornicellos made of various metals are now on the market as necklace charms and such, as traditionally favored materials (i.e., red coral, horn) would be more expensive. The cornicello is comparable to the nazar in that it is also used to ward off bad luck or the Evil Eye, but it comes with the added bonus of promoting fertility as well and was traditionally favored for use by men.

Black, Red, & Blue Maneki Neko
The Japanese maneki neko, or “beckoning cat”, has very quickly attained widespread usage and developed a complex variety of colors/appearances relating to specific associations. For this discussion on amulets–that is, items which ward off the undesirable–we will consider a few colors of maneki neko in particular. It is the black maneki neko who is employed to ward off evil or evil spirits, even to the point of its recent popular usage by women to ward off stalkers. The use of a red maneki neko will ward off illness. The less-common blue maneki neko is sometimes believed to ward off accidents, offering safety both at home and in traffic, although some have also given completely different associations for the blue. There is also significance to which paw the maneki neko has raised; most say that both paws raised is best for protection (ideally with the paws at different heights, however, so as not to look like a sign of surrender).

Yansheng Coin
Also referred to as “numismatic charms” in English, these coins are common throughout the history of China, as well as in Japan and Vietnam. In other countries, these coin charms can now often be found woven on red cords in metaphysical shops, where they’re sold as feng shui decorations or such. In truth, the history and purposes of these coins is extremely complex and varied, so I will simply make a quick note that common modern variations of these coins–often brass-colored with a hole in the center to be strung onto jewelry or decorations–are inscribed with Chinese writing or Yì Jīng (I Ching) hexagrams that include the purpose of protection.

Horseshoe
A common good luck token, the old horseshoe also offers protection. It is often hung above doorways to ward against anything malicious entering. Many say that a horseshoe that has actually been worn by a horse is ideal. I was always told, as an American of British Isles ancestry, that the horseshoe should have both ends pointing up. However, in some cultures the horseshoe points face downward; I’ve had the idea behind this difference described to me as being a belief in the upward-pointing horseshoe being able to hold luck so that it isn’t lost, versus a belief that the downward-pointing horseshoe will pour luck out onto those who pass underneath. Today, the horseshoe is commonly available as a jewelry charm, making it wearable protection as well.

Herbal Amulets
There are innumerable herbs whose presence is said to offer various protections; some are planted to protect the home, others are dried and can be carried. Among many other magical uses, carrying dried heather on your person is believed to ward against sexual assault or unwanted advances. Along with well-known garlic, angelica root, bay leaves, blessed thistle, and countless other herbs are also reported to repel malicious energies, and can be dried or used in a variety of magical practices. Some say planting live ivy around your house will protect from negative energies or thieves.

Amuletic Colors
For some amulets, or even just warding purposes, color is a crucial component. This is often a matter of the color associations held by that particular culture, as with most other magics. In multiple cultures, red is a color very commonly used in amulet-making; it’s so auspicious in China, that even just red clothing may bring good fortune. In the American South, a light blue color referred to as “haint blue” is used to paint parts of houses to ward off harmful spirits.

Images of Protective Deities
In many ancient cultures, a tiny statuette of a deity with a loop affixed to it would be worn as a pendant to invoke the protection of that deity. For example, this was quite prevalent in Ancient Egypt, and the tombs we discover today are still full of necklaces bearing figurines of various deities. I personally have a modern ceramic pendant from Etsy featuring the full figure of the Egyptian goddess Taweret, allowing me to wear it today to protect myself from malevolent spirits much as the ancient women and children of Egypt did. With affordable materials like pewter being commonly used today, and the advent of niche internet shops, this is a wonderfully personal way for modern devotees to show their devotion to a spirit while asking that spirit’s protection in their everyday lives; even many of the less-common spirits celebrated in paganism can sometimes be found.

Taweret - National Museums Liverpool, World Museum
Ancient Egyptian Faience Amulets of the Goddess Taweret (Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, World Museum)

Cultural Context, and Why It’s Helpful

For many followers of minority religions in America, we are converts who likely didn’t grow up in a similar culture to that from which these religions originated. For this reason, when desiring to have an effective and smooth relationship with a spirit from another part of the world (and often another time), it is going to be very helpful to study the culture they’re originating from and the practices they are accustomed to for communicating with their devotees.

This topic came to my attention again recently when I was looking for a better statue to use for Dà Yé, only to find that many people were confusing him with Tù’er Yé. You see, “Dà Yé” is an endearing title modernly given to the spirit often known as Tù’er Shén, a name that translates as “Rabbit God”. As you can guess, the name Tù’er Yé translates similarly. Now, this is where cultural and historical knowledge would have made the difference between these two spirits glaringly obvious. Tù’er Yé is named such because he is actually a rabbit; he lives on the moon with the goddess Cháng’é and is often depicted as a somewhat anthropomorphic rabbit riding a tiger or other mount. Tù’er Shén is not literally a rabbit god, god of rabbits, or anything like that; “rabbit” was once a slang term in China for a gay man, and this is what Tù’er Shén truly refers to. Because this slang term means that “Tù’er Shén” would be comparable to saying “Fag God” in America, he is often more respectfully addressed as Dà Yé instead. Accordingly, he is also represented as a man.

And this is what cultural context is, and how it’s applied.

Iconography usually cannot be taken at face value; imagery found in Hinduism or Buddhism are great examples, as the representations and items/symbols present often tell a spirit’s entire story or relate their area of focus, if you know how to read it. More importantly, if a potential devotee can be thrown off this easily with just a glance, then reading myths or trying to understand practices is of course going to seem nonsensical without any cultural understanding for all the things written between the lines. For instance, if you come across common hoodoo practices involving using gator paws for luck or holding onto your money, but you personally come from a place where gators are just a foreign danger, you may be wondering what gators have to do with money; part of this is because, in the cultures where these practices (and the gators in question) can commonly be found, a gator is good eating and leather.

In short, do your homework. It’ll come in handy.

On Taking Things One Step at a Time

Want to have all of the fun, with none of the work? Then magic likely isn’t for you. If you do interact with other magical practitioners, you’ve probably seen someone try to do something that left you with many questions–foremost among them often being, probably on multiple levels, “Why?”

Across magical traditions, I’ve watched people attempt feats for which they were ill-prepared. It seems to elude some practitioners, especially newer ones, that magic is a skill like any other and requires practice to progress. I’ve played Operation a few times, but I highly doubt you’d want me rummaging around in your giblets with that as my only practicing qualification. Perhaps the tendency of many modern authors to water down practices or draw rocky cross-culture parallels is partially to blame. After all, you don’t go to a pediatrician for neurosurgery just because it’s “technically all medicine, so it’s close enough”.

My preferred illustration of all-enthusiasm, no-preparation endeavors is many peoples’ use of the spirit board, if only for its sheer frequency and modern infamy. Now ubiquitously recognized as the ouija board (“ouija” originally having been a particularly successful brand of the board), this tool is understood by many modern spiritualists to work by channeling the energy of spirits. (Skeptics insist the spirit board and similar divinatory methods work via the ideomotor phenomenon, but that is irrelevant to our discussion.) Due to their modern notoriety, I doubt I need to list any examples of possible problems that can arise when the uninformed use them, and I’ve met plenty of practitioners who refuse to touch a spirit board out of fear, despite the fact that they can be used just as safely as any other divinatory device, should you take the time to learn how. Yet, while many tools have consequences associated with misuse, it seems that these consequences are overlooked entirely in most cases; for example, almost any method of divination opens spiritual contact, which means that even tarot cards likewise have a small chance of welcoming an undesirable spirit.

There also seems to be a notion that everything should just be available to everyone, all the time. This makes for a dangerous mindset, for what should be obvious reasons; similar reasons for which we wouldn’t want dangerous weapons to be constantly and freely available to all. In some traditions, the serving of certain spirits or participation in certain practices is withheld until necessary or a certain level of training/initiation has been reached, not for the purpose of being exclusionary (as often seems to be the assumption), but for the purpose of protecting people from attempting to handle spirits or practices that they are unprepared for and that could backfire badly on themselves or others. I know a metaphysical shop owner who, when asked by a customer what Goofer Dust even was, simply advised against the woman buying it; this is because, if not used carefully, Goofer Dust can have more severe effects than intended on the target or cross the practitioner using it. (Also, I’ve seen a few people online talk about using Goofer Dust for protection; this is decidedly inadvisable, and not the purpose of it.)

If you find yourself taken with the idea that you should do something for which you’ve lacking or nonexistent training, think carefully about why you’re doing it and the potential ramifications if there’s a problem that you lack the knowledge to remedy. Why do you want to perform this practice? If it’s just to feel cool, then it may not be worth the potential consequences of the practice backfiring. Do you really need to perform this practice, and do you need to perform it now? There are situations for which you might have an urgent need of magical assistance, perhaps in the case of a health crisis, wherein you would simply be left to make a sincere try using your best judgment. Do you need to be the one to perform this practice, rather than seeking a trained professional? I understand that, for many within pagan and other minority faiths, finding a local clergy member or such is simply impossible. However, thanks to the internet, you may be able to find an online contact who could at least advise you on the matter; even finding a good literary source to review will help.

Keep in mind, none of this is in any way an attempt to discourage any particular person or practice, but simply an appeal to practicality. There are many useful magical skills that can be acquired and shared, but they take time to master. Everything in life is a process. There’s no race in magic, or need to compare to others. Take your time. Understand the tools and practices, and understand how they work and how to spot a problem, before diving into the deep end.

In the ever-wise words of Professor Oak, “There’s a time and place for everything.”

Sleep & Its Spirits

Sleep. We all need it, sooner or later. And, like any other shared human experience, it’s subject to its share of myth and magic. There are a few deities across cultures who rule sleep and/or dreams, but there are also spirits who disrupt it; we’ll look at a few examples of both here, starting with the good…

Baku
Though not deities, these helpful Japanese spirits go around devouring peoples’ nightmares. Appearing as a composite creature with an elephant’s head and tiger’s feet, the Baku can be called upon to protect from nightmares before going to sleep or to devour a nightmare after waking up from one so that it won’t return upon falling back asleep. The petition for Baku to eat a nightmare must be repeated three times.

Caer Ibormeith
This Irish goddess ruled dreams and prophecy. Her main myth involves her appearing in the dreams of another god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who sought her out upon waking to marry her. Also according to this myth, she spends most of her time in the guise of a swan. If you’re having trouble with disruptive dreams, try leaving her some food or drink offerings before bed; based on the ancient tradition of Celtic offerings being buried or thrown in bogs, I’d recommend tossing these offerings outdoors the next day.

Hypnos (Roman Equivalent: Somnus)
Probably the best-known god of sleep and powerful enough to put even Zeus to bed, Hypnos is the son of the night goddess Nyx and twin brother to the death god Thanatos (who is his frequent companion). And luckily for us, the ancient Greeks always considered the youthful, winged Hypnos to be gentle and wrote several surviving prayers to him (including one written by an insomniac who lamented apparently having offended the god). So if you’re having trouble falling asleep, try pouring Hypnos some wine, or keeping a bouquet of red poppies for him.

Oneiroi
In some myths, Hypnos and his wife Pasithea are the parents of the Oneiroi; in other versions, they are siblings to Hypnos (as children of Nyx). The Oneiroi collectively refers to the innumerable gods of dreams. In the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the three named Oneiroi are Morpheus (god of dreams), Phantasos (god of surreal dreams), and Phobetor (god of nightmares).

A Nighttime Prayer to Hypnos:
“Beautiful winged Hypnos, I call to You. Gentle Hypnos, son of Nyx, twin brother of Thanatos, I honor you. Youthful theoi who dwells by the river Lethe, surrounded by crimson poppies, I ask for Your assistance. Hypnos Epidotes, grant me a restful night’s sleep, that I may awake renewed; when your dominion falls over the beasts of this land, may I find respite from the day as well. On my behalf, ask that your kin of dreams Morpheus be kind to me, and that your kin of nightmares Phobetor pass me by. Gracious theoi, beloved of the gorgeous Pasithea, I thank you.”

Unfortunately, not every spirit of the night has our best interests at heart. Some spirits will attack in dreams, or strike at a vulnerable sleeping body. These attacks often manifest as recurrent nightmares or sleep paralysis.

Succubus & Incubus
Likely the most recognizable spiritual threat of the night in modern times, the succubus (female) or incubus (male) are known for attacks that tend to be sexual and/or violent in nature, often using the guise of an attractive human in dreams to deceive victims. They feed off the life energy of their victims, causing fatigue. Given their rise in Christian times, such as their description in Demoniality by Sinistrari, religious protection would usually be recommended to dissuade them from targeting a person.

Penanggalan & Manananggal
Its name, meaning to “detach” or “remove”, describes the Malaysian Penanggalan pretty succinctly; this vampiric creature, though appearing as a normal woman during the day, is believed to fly through the air at night as only a head, though with still-attached organs and glowing entrails trailing after, as well as an accompanying odor of vinegar. (In other areas, the Penanggalan is also known as Krasue.) And with both names coming from languages of the Austronesian family, Manananggal can also be translated to refer to removing; this time, it’s the entire upper torso which can detach itself and, sprouting bat-like wings, fly off at night through the Philippines. Both spirits allegedly favor pregnant women as their targets, feeding on their blood, and the Penanggalan especially favors newborns or women who just gave birth. Their attacks are sometimes blamed for things like disease, miscarriage, or deformities at birth. The Penanggalan is deterred from entering a home by the scattering of thorny leaves and wrapping of thorny vines from local plants, which injure the creature’s exposed organs; sleeping with scissors under the pillow also deters attack. The Manananggal, like a typical European-style vampire, can be discouraged with garlic and salt.

Hag/Boo Hag/Witch
Here in North Carolina, the term “witch” didn’t always necessarily refer to a human magical practitioner. There are many older sources, such as the Life of William Grimes (a runaway slave who details his experience with a “witch” around page 29), where a witch is described as a creature that rides and exhausts human victims at night, in some versions leaving their skin behind at home when going out to do so; some old ghost stories even describe a witch transforming victims into horses to literally ride. Also known throughout the American South as a Hag, this ugly and terrifying spirit attacks at night by sneaking into a victim’s bedroom and sitting on their chest. Victims would awake to feel the pressure on their body, or even see the creature atop them; given their tendency for repeated attacks, it’s believed that a hag could eventually cause its victim’s death. Given that a Hag was believed to enter through a door’s keyhole, something like a sieve/colander would be hung on the doorknob so that the Hag would become confused going through all the holes (or that the spirit would compulsively try to go through every single hole); alternatively, the sieve/colander was kept near the bed. Playing off the same belief in the Hag’s compulsions, a broom could also be kept laying by the bed, where the Hag would be driven to count every single straw on the broom. These methods essentially occupy the Hag, wasting time until the would-be victim wakes up in the morning. Sulfur around the bed or an open pair of scissors under the pillow will keep the Hag away.

Specific examples can be a good starting point for focused thinking about the subject, but when it comes down to the practical application, your quality of sleep will likely be improved by the presence of any form of spiritual protection. However you ward your home–be it amulets or tools, or purely energetic barriers–it is likely that it will keep out much of the spiritual nuisances out there. Also, any friendly spirit can provide protection and comfort during the night, if you only ask.

And of course, magical efforts must always be helped along with practical, physical efforts. So if you’re having trouble sleeping, read up on “sleep hygiene” and what you can do to help yourself along. As a lover of teas, let me recommend a blend of chamomile, lavender, catnip, passionflower, linden flower, lemon balm, and/or peppermint. You can mix these with each other as you please (they are among the more palatable herbs), or mix them with other naturally non-caffeinated herbal teas of your choice. All these herbs are sedatives and/or relaxants. These herbs are also among the safer herbs to take regularly and don’t tend to interact with any medications you may be taking. As always, be aware of any herbal allergies you have; I would also note that there is some controversy on taking non-commercial herbal teas while pregnant due mostly to the lack of data on certain herbs in unmeasured/copious amounts, although these specific herbs listed are commonly used commercially and considered safe in reasonable doses. (You can always look through the ingredients list on commercial tea bags to find what you need; most of these companies adhere to FDA-approved herbs in safe quantities.)

Popular Veneration in the West

Popular veneration is the term usually used to denote home-grown cults of spirits that aren’t officially recognized by the organized religions of the area. For the largely-Christian West (here referring to Europe, North America, and South America), this usually comes in the form of either Catholic folk saints and/or elevated human spirits. While spirits such as these are incredibly varied, they have one very important thing in common that has allowed their cults to grow/persist without much need for assistance from major religions: they do good work. In fact, many of these spirits are, or have been, actively persecuted and slandered, but when it comes down to it people are going to continue venerating and asking favors of a spirit who works. Here I’ll explore just a few of these interesting spirits, with a quick discussion of the most well-known, but keep in mind that they each have their own practices and are usually strongly rooted to the culture their veneration originates from (meaning that an understanding of the culture will be needed if you should wish for a better understanding of the spirit). With respect and honor to the innumerable folk spirits who have served their locales over the years, many of whom are forgotten or may never spread beyond their home, let’s look now at some more famous folk spirits of modern times:

Black Hawk
Coming to us from the Spiritualist Churches of the United States–a denomination that began in the mid-1800s and utilizes mediumship (focusing on communication with deceased human spirits)–is the cult of Black Hawk, a Native American war chief of the Sauk tribe. Already boasting his own hymns and services within the Church, his popularity as a spirit guide has spread beyond the Spiritualists and into many American folk practices, such as hoodoo. Some people venerate him as an accessible way to honor any Native heritage they have, though he seems open to respectful veneration from any who need his protection regardless of descent. There is a common household practice of “putting Black Hawk in a bucket”, a method of making a spirit bucket to house his power, and offering him fruits.

La Madama
This spirit, and family of spirits, developed among North American folk practices. Believed to be the spirits of enslaved African conjurewomen, La Madama has become a patron of diviners and conjureworkers. In hoodoo, she has come to grace many a home and professional altar with old-fashioned memorabilia of a black worker dressed in red and white, with her tools nearby for her use (usually including items such as a broom, scissors, chalk, a cross, and a knife). In return for offerings of food and drink, she aids in and teaches conjure of all kinds, as well as assisting card readers and bone throwers in particular. For her devotees, she is a protector and trusted advisor; many devotees develop very personal relationships with their particular Madama.

Marie Laveau
The famous “Voodoo Queen” of New Orleans, Louisiana, Marie Laveau needs little introduction. This magical practitioner of mixed-race descent has, in death, become a spiritual ally for modern American voodoo and hoodoo practitioners, including those who visit her tomb to leave offerings and marks of “XXX” as a sign of petition. Other practitioners work with her on personal home altars, where she assists with practical magic and petitions.

St. Expedite/St. Expeditus/San Expedito
Possibly the most widely venerated saint of the Western world, St. Expedite actually is recognized in the Roman Catholic Church, but at the same time has developed his own unique folk practices and cult. He is the subject of multiple legends, both new and old, with a cult spanning many centuries and countries; Denise Alvarado has written both book and blog posts detailing his practices in the American South. For instance, St. Expedite is offered slices of Sara Lee pound cake with three pennies pushed into the cake–a practice that is unusual in that most official (and some folk) saints require no food offerings in exchange for petitions. However, his favored offering for completed work is the public sharing of his cult and invocations; plenty of testimony can be found from those who’ve received all manner of help from the “saint of speedy solutions”.

Santa Muerte
One can hardly discuss the veneration of non-sanctioned folk spirits without discussing the skeletal Catholic folk saints of Mexico and other Latin American countries below it–spirits such as Doña Sebastiana of Mexico, San La Muerte of South America, and San Pascualito of Guatemala and Chiapas. Though almost unheard of just two decades ago, the now-famous Santa Muerte (or Holy Death) has become likely the most recognizable folk saint in North America, and certainly the most well-known skeletal saint, with a cult that has grown astonishingly quickly. This is doubtless due to her responsiveness in assisting with any type of petition put forth, with no judgment being placed on the devotee; statues are now dressed in a variety of colors denoting the focus of the petition, such as green for legal matters. An all-purpose “rainbow”-robed Santa Muerte has even emerged, featuring seven colors, likely influenced by the Seven African Powers of Santeria as Caribbean practitioners mingle into Mexico. Some believe Santa Muerte to be a modern manifestation of Mictlancihuatl (the Aztec goddess of death), while others another side to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Regardless of her origins, and of official condemnation from the Roman Catholic Church, Santa Muerte’s adherents consider her a Catholic saint (made evident in much of her iconography) and find no contradiction in venerating her as part of their Catholic practice.

Juan Soldado
“Soldier John” in English, Juan Soldado lived in the early 1900s by the name of Juan Castillo Morales. While little is known about his short life and accounts of his death vary, the general story is that, while an army private, he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young girl and executed via shooting. Many believe he was wrongly accused, framed by a superior officer who was the true perpetrator of the crime; this idea was likely only furthered when residents of the town in which he was buried reportedly began witnessing paranormal phenomenon at his gravesite. Buried at his place of death in Tijuana, his story of anonymous figure to framed martyr made him a relatable and approachable folk saint for the people of the large and often-turbulent border city. He has been credited with assisting devotees in petitions ranging from legal and emigration issues to family matters.

Maximón/San Simón
The syncretic cult of Maximón, found primarily in Guatemala, blends both Biblical and Mayan influence with considerable variation from one location to the next, with traditions that seem to go back farther than most Latin American folk “saints”. His devotees, primarily of Mayan descent, present his effigies with cigars and alcohol in exchange for his powerful protection and assistance in any area of life. He has a complex and dualistic personality, and is portrayed with many different appearances and legends.

Santes Dwynwen
Although her once-church on Ynys Llanddwyn, a tidal island named for her that lies off the coast of Anglesey in Wales, is now ruins and her cult had begun to fade into obscurity in recent history (with suppression of it having begun around the 16th century), this Welsh folk saint has made something of a comeback in the last century. Due largely to geological spread and isolation from official Catholic oversight, and developing in a time when the canonization process for official Catholic saints was essentially non-existent, St. Dwynwen’s cult was one of many Welsh folk saint cults that were never officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The subject of a legend with many variations (involving herself, her lover Maelon whom she couldn’t marry, and an angel with a magic potion)–as well as smaller myths, including walking on water–which seem to have been originally passed down orally, are reminiscent of older Celtic myths in theme. Once a known saint as attested in poetry and literature, St. Dwynwen has returned as Wales’ primary patron of lovers with her feast day of January 25th now celebrated in a similar fashion as most other countries celebrate St. Valentine’s Day; today, Welsh lovers give each other cards wishing “Dydd Santes Dwynwen Hapus” or “Happy Saint Dwynwen Day”. This celebration has grown considerably in Wales in recent years, and was one of many aspects of concerted efforts to preserve Welsh culture. Modernization aside, St. Dwynwen’s church was an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, her holy well contained fish whose movements divined lovers’ futures, and she is mentioned in both a surviving Latin 16th century mass and some early genealogies.

St. Guinefort
During the 13th century, the local people of Lyons, France had developed a healing cult around the figure of St. Guinefort that focused on the protection and healing of infants in particular. Upon arrival to the area, a Dominican Order preacher was happy to begin the canonization process for this saint, until he found that St. Guinefort was not a deceased man but a deceased greyhound; despite threats and prohibition from the Roman Catholic Church ever since, this cult persisted into the early 1900s. While the story of St. Guinefort’s unjust death is a variation on the well-traveled tale of The Brahmin and the Mongoose, it is interesting to note that his cult was more than that; the area of his burial was made into a shrine with stones placed and trees planted, and the Dominican official who condemned the rites that had developed there (publicizing it in De Septem Donis Spiritus Sancti, of which an English translation of the portion pertaining to St. Guinefort can be found here) reported digging up the gravesite and indeed finding the bones of a dog. Also, while the report of an official who actively seeks to condemn the practice–as well as it being a man viewing what was apparently a woman’s rite–must be taken with a heavy grain of salt, it seems that the healing rites of this cult were in part influenced by the European belief that faeries could replace human babies with changelings.

These hard-working spirits developed and persisted in their own cults, even amid the power of major religions, and attest to the fact that we aren’t limited to working with the “big names”. Work with the spirits who work with you, even if you’re the only one working with them; any seemingly-small spirit could be a mutually beneficial spiritual relationship waiting for the right person to happen, or maybe even the beginning of another folk cult if a spirit’s hard work creates results worth sharing (even spirits have to start somewhere).

The Death and Beatification of St. Guinefort - Chris MusinaThe Death and Beatification of St. Guinefort by Chris Musina

Magical Items, Physical Properties

A while back, I read two amusing, if simultaneously slightly concerning, posts from a blog called Cajun Conjure: It Ain’t Aromatherapy and And Remember Kids, “Please, Don’t Eat The Hoodoo.”

I am sharing this because–along with inhaling and eating unfamiliar things being a generally bad idea–I realized afterward that it’s apparently a more common problem than I would have thought. For example: while later discussing this blog with a fellow conjurewoman nearby, she shared her own story of a clueless customer involving magical dressing oils. Most practitioners who are familiar with candle work are familiar with the common action of dressing the candle in specialized oils to strengthen their purpose. However, this customer saw a colorful glass bottle of roughly 4 oz. of essential oils and herbs, and approached the conjurewoman with the assumption “This goes on a salad, right?”

Mistletoe is famous for its association with love. Steep it for your intended as a love tea, however, and the only thing they’ll likely be cuddling is the toilet due to gastrointestinal distress. But while mistletoe’s less-ingestible aspects are fairly well-known, consider for a moment the many more obscure herbs we employ for their magical properties. For instance, have you ever worked with rue? It’s also occasionally known as witchbane or herb of grace, due to the power of its purifying associations. Did you know that it, too, can prove toxic in certain amounts? Likewise, while lobelia can be a fun storm-raising herb (not to mention an attractive flower), be sure not to leave your magical ingredients where pets can get into it while you’re working, should it poison them. And of course, ingestion isn’t the only concern with materials, especially when essential oils have become so popular; we must also remember that many substances can cause adverse reactions when absorbed through the skin.

There’s more to working than being able to build a formula based on magical associations; it also pays to be familiar with the physical properties of your tools. Delivery is part of the work, and you need to know what method of delivery is best for each ingredient and intention. Does it burn well, and is it safe to inhale? Is it safe to ingest or leave on the skin, and is it a common allergy that you would want to be in the habit of informing any potential partakers of?

Also make note of your own physical tendencies. Do certain incenses irritate your respiratory system? Perhaps consider the quality and ingredients of the particular incense you’re using, or use a perfume or scented candle if the smoke is what irritates you. Are you one of the many people who find that essential oils irritate your skin? Perhaps try steeping the desired herbs in a gentle carrier such as olive oil. Remember still (as Cajun Conjure’s post mentioned) that many practitioners spend years perfecting their formulas and, as such, don’t wish to throw them out to the world, so if you’re a customer of someone making oils or incenses, take responsibility for yourself to ask if it includes any ingredients you may be sensitive to.

In short–as someone who personally may have sulfur, snake shed, or any number of other things you may want to limit certain forms of contact with in my formulas–I simply wish to offer a friendly (and hopefully obvious) reminder that while we are spiritual beings, we are also physical beings as well.

Do not put my dressing oils on your salads.