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Yasmine Galenorn


Magickal Improvisation:
A Necessary Skill For The Eclectic
by Yasmine Galenorn

In most good magickal texts, you'll often run across a detailed list of spell ingredients and instructions for any particular spell. The problem is, (and I admit this is true with my own books as well as with others), sometimes it can be difficult to find specific components and in some cases, the instructions have a way of getting lost at the wrong time during your ritual/spell work.

Perhaps your town has a total population of two thousand people, half of whom are fundamentalists, and five out of the six book/gift shops are Christian-oriented. Or maybe you already know that you can buy what you need on-line but you don't own a credit card so that option isn't viable. Or you started a spell and you need an ingredient now, you don't have time to wait for your mail-order package to arrive. Or perhaps you have access to good magickal shops but you just don't have the cash or the time to run out to pick up some Lilac Oil and Wormwood. Or you get to the Circle and realize you left your entire portable Witch-Kit some twenty miles back at home and you have nothing but a hastily cut willow branch with which to lead the ritual.

So what do you do? Well, if the texts really are good, somewhere in the book, they will advise you to substitute and/or improvise when you need to. Very few spells can only be worked with a select few ingredients and while certain rituals are meant to be done only in a certain manner, there is no real reason why you shouldn't improvise when necessary.

It's up to you, however, to familiarize yourself enough with the deities, herbs, oils and other elements we call upon and use so that you can substitute when necessary. After all, if you are willing to take the responsibility for casting the spell, you should be prepared for the unexpected chaos that always seems to filter into our magickal Circles.

We are human-and all humans make mistakes and forget and lose things. I've been to Circles before where we forgot the matches, where the "Spirits of the West" inexplicably decided that they wanted to become the "Spirits of the East" during the invocation, where we suddenly realized that the wonderful sachets we were going to make weren't going to happen without the material to make the pouches, where incense refused to light and so on. Friends have reported such wonderful happenings as scripts catching on fire, the sacred mead tasted like vinegar, and the Priestess ending up hobbling in with a cast and needing to lead the ritual from a chair.

One of the problems most ritualists seem to face is that of self confidence-for some reason it seems hard for many budding Witches to accept the idea that they can change a spell or ritual to suit their needs without destroying the energy. This shaky self-esteem can be seen in similar beliefs such as: someone else's spell will work better than your own; that you can't learn on your own but must be "taught" by a guru; that if you don't perform the spell or ritual exactly as it is written, it either won't work or will backfire.

In a sense, this is similar to the concept of changing a recipe. I cook without instructions 99% of the time-I create my own recipes. Seldom will I try something out without altering at least one or two points. Partly this comes about because I almost never have exactly what the recipe calls for. Another reason comes into play when I look at it and think, hmmm, I could use a whisk on that instead of a mixer, and if I bake it in two smaller pans, I can put one in the freezer for later...that sort of thing. I don't remember the last time I made something exactly as called for in a recipe I was trying out.

Now, I know some people who cringe when I tell them this. They have so little confidence in their culinary abilities that they're afraid if they alter so much as one teaspoon of broth, the whole casserole will fall apart. In some cases, they might be right. But if they learn how to deconstruct a recipe down to its essential core, they can reconstruct it using the ingredients and resources they have on hand without having to go to the store. The same applies to magickal work and rituals.

Improvisation During Ritual

Rituals are easier to re-create because they are seldom, (unless they are ceremonial magick or some other form of traditional rite), fixed into a one-size fits all format. For example: say you want to perform a ritual in honor of the Blue Moon. You've got a written script by one of your favorite authors and she calls for, among other things, heather oil, periwinkle-colored candles, moon water, Artemis incense and you are supposed to wear a white robe with pearls beaded onto it. I'm not kidding-I've read rituals which are this specific and I've written some which are this specific. The Blue Moon is this evening, and you didn't have time to run to the store.

You look through your candle stash-no periwinkle colored candles at all, but you have blue, green, red and white. Since it's a Blue Moon ritual, which is a full moon, either white or blue seem like appropriate choices, so pick your favorite. Ask your instinct what color would most fit your needs tonight.

When you search out your moon water bottle, you find a bare few drops-you forgot to charge some last month. So you might take your moonstone out of the jar and put it in the dish you are using to hold the water, and then cover it with spring water. Not, perhaps, as effective as actual moon water, but it will still bring with it the energy of the moon.

Next you look through your incenses-nope-no Artemis incense. Pull out that copy of The Witches' Goddess by the Farrars and check under magickal correspondences in her listing. You may not have an incense directly related to her, but you have-yes! You do have jasmine incense and jasmine is a scent over which she rules. So you now have your incense.

Lastly, you have nothing remotely resembling a white robe with pearls beaded on it. However, you have a pale blue nightgown and you have a pearl necklace. There's no reason why this outfit won't work as a ritual gown and jewelry. The pale blue will mirror the color of the moon, and the pearl necklace takes care of the beaded aspects of the robe. You are now prepared for your Blue Moon Ritual and you can be proud that you didn't let any of these obstacles prevent you from enjoying the energy of the evening.

This same premise applies to invocations and incantations. Perhaps the words just don't quite apply to you-you might be asked to invoke Artemis to bring you game when you have no interest in hunting; you can always alter this to make it apply to something you are seeking. Perhaps you aren't hunting elk, but you are hunting a job-you might ask for Her help in ferreting out the right place for you to be working. And true-your own words and poetry might not be as eloquent as the original writer's work-but the best invocations come from the heart and if your intent and meaning are sincere, your invocation will have strength and energy behind it.

Substitution In Spell Work

When you are substituting ingredients in a spell, you have to keep several things in mind. One is the energy of the ingredient you are seeking a substitute for. Another, is the nature of the ingredient. If you are blending an oil, you will need to find a substitute oil. If you are blending herbs, then you will need to find another herb that will do the trick.

If you have passed beyond the Wicca 101 stage of the Craft, you should have a working knowledge of a number of basic herbs and their properties by now. If you don't, then you might want to set aside a few weeks for study time (remember, learning the Craft is as much of an education as any other avenue of study). Not everyone needs to be proficient as an herbalist, but you should be able to name a few herbs to match most of the basic energies we work with. Love, prosperity, spiritual energy, protection, purification-these are all basic aspects of life with which we work as Witches and to know corresponding herbs, oils and gemstones is to increase your autonomy as both Witch and ritualist.

It helps to have some basic reference texts and some of the best that I can recommend are thus: Magickal Herbalism and The Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs-both by Scott Cunningham. His book The Complete Book of Incenses, Oils and Brews is also an invaluable reference tool. There are also good correspondences for gemstones in Marina Medicini's book Good Magic. The Herb Book by John Lust is one of the best herbals (though not specifically magickal) that I've ever owned. Most magickal texts include tables of correspondences in the Appendices.

Again, if we look at the cooking metaphor-once you know the flavors of the different wines, herbs and spices, you can pretty much guess how a dish will turn out. If you remember that a dash of port is a full-bodied addition to a roast but it is usually too heavy for chicken, that sherry works well with poultry and fish, that cinnamon and raisins are a wonderful combination, that tarragon goes well with poultry but is usually too light for red meat...that one cup of flour to one teaspoon of baking powder is the usual proportion for creating a cake base...then you will usually be able to substitute and create as you need to.

Magick works the same way. If you want to cast a prosperity spell but you are out of "Money Drawing Oil" and you used the last of your Prosperity Powder dusting your destitute sister's purse, then you can easily substitute for yourself without going to debt.

First, look at the spell. It calls for parsley, cinnamon sticks, dragon's blood, oats, and cloves, along with Money Drawing Oil. When you look in your cupboard, you find the parsley and dragon's blood, but you don't have any cinnamon sticks, no oatmeal, no cloves and you're fresh out of Money Drawing Oil. Do you have to go without Prosperity Powder? Not at all.

Dig a little deeper into those cupboards. You find a box of Cheerios sitting in the back-taking care of the oats dilemma. You have ground cinnamon and basil-both of which you know fall under the "prosperity" category. You don't have Money Drawing Oil, but you do have Dill Oil and Earth Oil. Because you know your correspondences, you know that dill is supposed to draw prosperity, and Earth Oil is good for manifestation. So you powder a few of the oat rings, toss in some parsley, basil, ground cinnamon and dragon's blood, add a few drops of both dill and earth oils, and there you go-charge with energy and your Prosperity Powder is ready.

Will it work? Of course it will-just because you altered the basic spell components doesn't mean your spells won't work. What it does mean is that you have invoked the primary rule the Gods seem to work by: they help those who help themselves. Instead of whining or worrying, you have forged ahead, done your research and strengthened your own abilities within the Craft.

Of course, sometimes you will actually realize that your cupboards are bare and that you really do need to stock up on supplies. But you can still find ways around having to buy ingredients that you can't find. If you live near a park or wooded area, or even if you have a back yard, you can usually find some plant that corresponds to what you need. If you have chamomile growing, you have an herb for prosperity. Gather a clipping of that...or perhaps you need cedar for smudging. Ask the tree if you can have a few of its needles, take only what you need, and never more than 25% of the plant, or a select bough/branch of the tree. If the plant is on someone else's property, ask them first.

No quartz crystals? Almost every place seems to have rocks with little flakes of quartz crystals in them-these will work in a pinch, even if it's not quite as strong as a clear crystal point. Need green ink but don't have any? How about food coloring and a quill?

My point here is not to tell you where to find these things, but to reassure you that yes-you can, with a little self confidence and creativity, find workable solutions to your magickal needs. Perhaps it may seem a little funny to some people, and if you suddenly haul out the Cheerios during a prosperity ritual with others you are bound to get a few strange looks, but who cares? You are doing what you know works for you. If you are working with people who are so uptight that they can only go by the book, then perhaps it's time someone showed them there are others avenues to explore. Or perhaps they are not the people you, as an eclectic, need to be working with. Never impose your views on someone else, but gently encourage them to branch out, to experiment, to stretch their magickal muscles.

This way, on a night when you find yourself on the beach with no tools or herbs or ritual gowns in sight...when the moon is rising full in the sky and the lonely call of the gulls begs you to open your arms, run laughing across the sand, to drape yourself in kelp and join the Undines for a romp in the bay...if you are open to magickal improvisation, you will most likely have one of the most memorable rituals of your life. I know-it's happened for me, and I'll never forget those moments, or turn away from them as they continue to present themselves.

Copyright 2000 by Yasmine Galenorn unauthorized use prohibited.