Tuesday, December 10, 2013

That Shrewd and Knavish Sprite

The Dreamer, Monique Munoz
Lately, I've been doing some work with a secret magical order devoted to Hermes. (I have literally been waiting my entire life to say that sentence!) We've been talking about the various faces of Hermes, and I've decided to do a little bit of work with Puck as an avatar of the Mercurial current. Among my very first conjurations was an evocation Puck, when I was 14 or 15. It's based on a spell from the animated show Gargoyles (don't you judge me! I was a kid!) It requires a large mirror, a silver bell, a gold ring, some candles, a tree, the full moon, and a handful of white feathers.

Here's the spell as written in my first "Book of Shadows", dated 1993.

Around the edges of a large mirror, inscribe the magical characters.[gee, it would be cool if I'd written down WHAT magical characters, huh?  Stupid 14 year old me!] Lean the mirror against a tree at night, under a full moon.

Light a white candle and a black one in front of the mirror.

Say: "Cum ascerat argentum, et aurum involare." [With a gold ring, strike a silver bell.] Tap the bell with the ring three times.

Blow a handful of feathers across the mirror, and say "postea Puck ad speculum Titania penetrare." [and then Puck will penetrate the mirror of Titania.]

On the show, Puck actually steps through the mirror, as if it were a portal. I didn't get that, but I did get a
noticeable image, although fleeting. It was my first dark mirror conjuration (although I didn't know that name yet). Puck appeared as a late teen or early twenties young man, with very pale blond hair.  He wore a neon green Tshirt with a monkey on it, and a long black leather coat. He had small faun horns curled behind his ears. He seemed utterly delighted to have been summoned, although I lost my focus and it shimmered out almost right away.

I'm going to do it again at the full moon, which is next Sunday. I'm using the same mirror, which I inherited from my parents. (Taking pictures of mirrors is surprisingly tricky.) In case you can't tell from the picture, it's about 18 inches across and just over three feet high (not including the frame, which is about 6 inches wide) In order to do that, I need to reconstruct some "magical characters". Let's get to work:

At his root, Puck is a British faerie spirit. While, originally, the name "puck" was for a class of spirits, Shakespeare's characterization of one Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream as
"that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?"

has cemented his identity as a particular, clever faerie, both devious and helpful, mischievous and lucky. This reputation is underlined in "The Mad Merry Pranks of Robyn Goodfellow":
From Oberon in fairyland,
the king of ghosts and shadows there,
Mad Robbin I, at his command,
am sent to view the night sports here:
What revell rout
Is kept about,
In every corner where I goe,
I will o'er see,
And merry be,
And make good sport with ho, ho, ho!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Initiation dreams

4 men, 4 trials, 4 initiations (maybe elemental?)

the first, I don't remember.  something about pain, I think.  maybe emotional pain (grief)
the second, something about time travel.  Waves of deja vu, sliding back and forth between time lines.  I awoke from this, and, although it seemed I'd been asleep all night, it was only 11:30.  I went back to sleep.
Some stuff I don't remember.
much traveling.

Note: in the dream "cousin" was code for faerie.  I don't know how I knew that.

met some british cousin of my father's, a mid 30s tall blond woman (why had I never heard of this person?  "My father had a difficult relationship with his father." I was told)  she ran a movie business (I think a chain of theaters, not movie production).  She was The Mistress of the Movies.

out with the aunts.  No place to sleep.  A cousin I didn't know.  British.  Black.  Male.  Short dreds.  Slightly younger than me (late 20s?)  Smoking a bowl.  Offered me some, I partook.  I had to go, to be tested?

I came back later, and all were asleep.  I was very cold (it was very cold last night, and I had probably kicked the covers off.  All were asleep on the floor.  I found a loose corner of blanket near the black cousin, and curled up next to him to sleep.

He woke me up, and said we had to go.  He transported us to England, somehow.

the third trial, the trial of pleasure.  I was very scared of this trial.
there were 2 men, both british, both "ageless", the black guys, and another, blond, and maybe older.  I don't remember him as well.  I think he was Oberon.  A shallow dish of water; swirling two ways at once, an inner vortex going clockwise, an outer ring counter (or maybe the other way round)
leaning to the dish, wetting my lips
making a circuit, kissed both men.  something was happening, swirling, swaying, the world got all fuzzy, I knew I was supposed to just relax, let it happen,  not have to understand, but I couldn't just Be, couldn't give in to the good feeling.  I was so scared.  Then I woke up, so I guess I failed that test, but it seemed like I'd be given another chance.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vermont Quarter: Sweetening Spell

The Vermont quarter depicts a man tapping maple trees for syrup.  In the background of the coin is Camel Hump Mountain.  In today's spell, we use the coin to create a permanent amulet from an otherwise traditional hoodoo-style sweetening spell.  Although these first two spells are built on hoodoo foundations, I'll have lots of other styles in future posts.  Look for a Celtic-style Oak Tree Protection spell tomorrow using the Connecticut quarter.

Sweetening spells, in general, are used to make someone feel favorably toward you and want to help you.  This "good feeling" isn't necessarily (or even usually) romantic in nature; it's a good spell to work on a boss, a parent, or a as well.  It's also good to mend hurt feelings in existing relationships with family, friends, or lovers.  The version I'm presenting here is all-purpose; you should have no trouble adapting it to your specific situation.

In addition to the quarter, this spell uses maple syrup, a small candle (menorah candles are perfect, but even a birthday candle will work), and a picture of the intended target.  If you have their hair, a business card, their signature, or any other kind of "link" to them, that's great, but not necessary.  You'll also need some paper, scissors, a pen or marker, and small saucer or bowl.

To begin with, cut out a circle slightly smaller than the saucer or bowl you are using.  Next, write your target's full name three times in the middle of the circle.  Turn the paper so that their name is upside down, and write your full name over top of the target's three times.  Now, around the edge of the circle, write your exact wish.  For example, if you want your boss to be impressed by you, you might write: "[boss's name] will be impressed by the quality of my work and give me a promotion and a raise."  You need to write it in script without picking your hand up.  If there is extra space, complete the circle before lifting your hand.  It's really important the script make a complete circle.  If you mess up, throw it out and start over.  After completing the circle, you can go back to cross t's and etc.

Put  the circle of paper, writing side up, in the saucer. If you have hair or etc, put it on the circle of paper. Next, put the picture of the person on top of that.  If you don't have a picture, then get better at facebook stalking.  Pour a small pool of maple syrup on top, and then put the coin, tree side up, in the center.  Light the candle and drip a few drops of melted wax onto the coin.  Use that to stick the candle to the coin.  Tell your wish to the candle three times, out loud, and then wait for the candle to burn out.  It's best to pray over it the whole time, but if you can't, you can't (menorah candles burn for about an hour).

Once the candle is burned out, remove the candle and put the coin in your mouth, with the syrupy side down.  With it in your mouth, say (as well as you can around the coin) "As the coin has been made sweet to me, may I be sweet to NAME."  Finally, contrive to give the coin to the target.  If that is not possible, leave it in their office, or somewhere else associated with them.  This is one big advantage of coin magic; no one is suspicious of loose change!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Coin Magic

I'm writing a book about coins as materia magica.  Here's some rough draft notes; expect many state quarter spells over the next month or two.  All feedback greatly appreciated!

Why use coins?  They’re very cheap, readily available, small metal tokens with beautiful pictures on them.  What could make a better talisman?  Coins have a long history of being used as amulets and spell components, particularly in hoodoo.  Of US coins, the so-called “Mercury dime” (which actually depicts “winged Liberty”) and the Indian Head penny have the most storied use, but neither one is still in circulation.  Particularly with the issuing of the “state quarters” beginning in 1999, there are a wide variety of beautiful US coins in current circulation, many of which make great talismans and spell components.

How do I use the coins?  
There are lots of ways to use coins after they’ve been “blessed”.  The easiest way is to just carry it in your pocket, as a “lucky coin”.  You can also drill a hole in it and wear it as a necklace.  You can put them in mojo bags or put them on an altar.
You can also give them to other people to “target” them with your magic.  Slipping someone magical material in order to “activate” a spell is a traditional technique called “laying a trick”.  Getting someone to put a quarter in their pocket is somewhat easier than slipping most magical talismans onto their person, and no one is suspicious if they find some pennies under their bed.  For an example of this kind of use, see the Mississippi magnolia fidelity spell below.

How do I prepare coins for magical use?  
In the posts that follow, I’ll give specific recommendations for using regular pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and dollar coins, as well as for many of the state quarters.  In the appendix are some “recipes” that use easy to find old and foreign coins. However, you can use the following method to turn any coin (or other small token) into a talisman.  

However, before you enchant a coin, you'll want to clean the coin to remove any “residue” it’s picked up.  We're using coins because small metal objects are particularly prone to picking up and holding “magical energy”.    The downside of this is that coins are often already "dirty" just from being handled by so many people.  To clean them, soak them in salt water overnight.

Mississippi Magnolia "Stay True" spell:

This spell uses the 2002 Mississippi quarter, on which magnolia blossoms are pictured.  In traditional hoodoo, magnolia leaves are placed under the mattress to ensure marital fidelity.  This spell builds on that tradition.  It will help to keep a romantic relationship healthy, equitable, loving, and trusting.

Take your cleaned quarter and hold in in your hand.  If you wear a wedding ring, tap the quarter on the ring audibly, so that the magic of the ring will help to infuse the coin.  Feel your love for your partner well up in your heart, and then "push" that feeling into the coin.  Next, feel your trust for your partner.  Even if you don't trust them now, you must have at one point.  Remember what that felt like, and push it into the coin.

Next, hold the coin up to your lips, and whisper this to it:
"Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
jealousy as unyielding as Sheol.
It's flames are flashes of fire,
the flames of Aish HaShem.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can the floods drown it."
(Song of Songs, 8:6-7)

If you're uncomfortable with using a bible passage, find or write another short passage about love that speaks to you.  One from a text you consider sacred is best.

Kiss the coin, and place it under the bed you and your partner share.  If you do not share a bed, contrive to plant the coin under your partner's bed.  If you don't have access to their bed, this isn't the right spell.  Tomorrow, I'll show you a "sweetening" spell with a Vermont state quarter that might work better.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ask the Witch: Love Spells

Sometimes friends/acquaintances who aren't magicians ask me for magic advice.  Think of this as a magical advice column.  :)

A friend asks (edited for length and privacy), "Sara, Is there such thing as a love spell? How does it work? What is the efficacy of such a spell? How do I do it?"

First off, a disclaimer. I really don't recommend love spells. They often go badly. If for no other reason, it's too easy to wonder "Does she really love me, or is it all just the spell?' That being said, here's some general information.

I'm going to talk about a couple of different kinds of love spells, but I'm only going to teach you how to do one of them. I don't mean to imply these are the only kinds.

The first is the "classic" love spell. It's targeted on a particular person, and designed to make them fall in love with you, "against their will". I really think these are unethical (except in a few particular circumstances, which I'll talk about it a minute.)  Even if your ethics are different, I'm telling you that in my experience (and the experience of everyone I know), they go badly. Really badly. I'm not going to teach you how to do this, but I'm sure google will, if you really want to. I don't think you should, but I'm not in charge of you.

The only case where I think it's ok to do a "targeted" love spell is when the target is someone to whom you're married. They've already consented to be ritually bound to you. This is also a fairly classical form of love spell, and there are lots of good options. Here's an example: Take a piece of your hair and thread it through a needle. Take a stitch through his (her) underpants, and tie a knot. Hold the underpants in your hand, and try to feel your love for him, his love for you, the ties that bind you together, well up in your heart. Pray, out loud, that the sacred covenant between you be renewed and strengthened, that the love between you continue to blossom, etc, etc. If you'd like something a little more formal, google "honey pot spell". UPDATE: Here's a version of a honey pot spell using Vermont quarter and maple syrup.

Another time I think it's ok to do this sort of spell is one when married couples perform it together. SERIOSULY, this isn't a thing to do with someone you don't want to be married to. Ritually sealing a commitment IS CALLED MARRIAGE. I have a friend who did this kind of work with his high school sweetheart when they were 15. They've spent the 20 years since in a VERY high drama, mutually codependent, on-again-off-again thing, with lots of unpleasantness and cheating. 20 years of a teenage relationship.
Here's how I've recommended to married couples before, with good results: Find a melon. I like honeydew for this (because of the color) but I don't think it really matters. Mangoes are also good. Cut it in half, and hollow it out. Eat the melon with your beloved. While eating, each of you should, independently, savor the sweetness of the melon and write a list of 7 things about the other person that made you fall in love with them. Fold it up, and hand it to the other person (who SHOULD NOT read it). Burn each list over a red or pink candle, saving the ashes. Carve both of your names or initials into the inside of the melon, and also carve a depression to hold a candle. Put the candle in the "candle holder", and then take the melon to a body of water (the ocean is ideal), light the candle, and leave the melon offering on the beach. You can add other things to the melon; spices if your relationship needs "a little spice", honey for sweetening, etc, etc.

The next kind of love spell, which is what I generally recommend, isn't really a love spell at all, it's a drawing spell, designed to bring you into contact with the right person. If you arleady know them, it will gnereally just "pount them out" to you in some way, or you might find yourself running into an old acquaintance, or meeting someone new that you have an instant connection with. That's all it does; once they're in "your circle of influence", this spell lets nature take its course (or not, as the case may be).

Spend some time really thinking about what you want in a lover. Make sure to include "logistical" necessities; this REALLY is one of those "careful what you wish for" type deals. I've had these spells work perfectly, bringin me exactly who I asked for, except that I forgot to include something really important on the list...he was married, or lived 3000 miles away, or a junkie, or was too young, or whatever. Think it through, and write your list. It's ok to be super, crazy specific, and don't be embarrassed to include "shallow" things, or even things you're "not supposed" to want. It's even ok to put things that seem to be in comflict with each other. The more specific, the better. Then, set your list aside for a day or two, and read it over again. Make sure it really is what you want. Here's an example list. (Don't you judge me!)

Once you have a list, you'll need a 7 day candle in a clear glass jar. Pink is good, but white is fine if you can't find pink. If you can find a pink rose-scented one, that's even better. Virgin of Guadalupe candles are often pink and rose scented, and can be had in any groery store in a hispanic neighborhood. For this, however, peel the label off; you'll need to write on the candle jar. If it makes you feel weird to pull the label off, buy two, and burn the other for Theotokos, and explain to the her you needed her candle, but didn't mean to desecrate her image. Say a Hail Mary or something.

You'll also need a permenant marker ("magic markers" are probably my favorite magical tool. you can use them to write on ANYTHING.) On a pink candle, a black one is fine, but red, green, or gold would also be great. If you use a white candle, a red or pink marker is probably best. Now, write your list on the candle jar. Be sure to eyeball the length of your list and choose an appropriate size, to make sure it will all fit. If you have extra room, draw some hearts or 7-pointed stars, or Cupid's arrows, or Venus mirrors or other "love spell" looking symbols. After you've written the list on the jar, light it, and then read the Song of Songs chapter 3 to the candle. This is important: don't read the passage AT the candle, read it TO the candle. Treat the candle as if it has a real spirit in it, a personality all it's own, one that loves and cares for you, and wants nothing more than to find you a match. (Level up: dedicate the candle to a spirit whose bailiwick this kind of thing is. Promise more candles, and maybe roses, when it delivers. Make good on your promise when you get what you want.)
If that passage doesn't speak to you, you can pick a different verse about finding love. A text you feel is sacred is best. Sufi poetry works well. It is best to do this spell on a Friday or Monday during the hour of Venus while the moon is waxing, but it doesn't really matter. Read the passage aloud again each night until the candle is gone. In my experience, it takes another week or two for the right person to show up, but it's never taken more than a month for me. Obviously, if you never leave your house it will take longer. Go to a party or a Gnostic Mass or Art Church or something.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Root Souls, Reinventing the Wheel

When I was about 13, I discovered Wicca. A few months later, I became disenchanted, and felt a little betrayed, when I found out that all that "ancient pre-christian pagan religion" stuff was nonsense, and it was just some stuff some people made up. Then, I had a revelation...it was just some stuff some people made up, and they hadn't even done a very good job, but it TOTALLY WORKED! (I guess that's when I became a chaos magician) So, I made up my own religion, which I liked much better than Wicca. There was math, and infinity, and a weird sort of polytheist/monotheist/panentheist thing, and four spirit worlds, and 10 powers, and etc, etc. 

When I was 18 and a freshman at Caltech, I read a book called "Etz Chaim" (the tree of life) and found out that the ARI had already made up my religion! It was a very exciting thing for me, to have my "unverified personal gnosis" "verified" like that. 

Recently, I've been making up a new system, which is based in the idea that, just like our ruach (ego-soul) has ancestors, our neshema (big S soul) does too, and they're not necessarily the same ones. These are sort of like past lives, and those soul-family trees go back to a "root soul", the god (or gods) from which you're descended. Those root-souls (gods) use human generations to breed; the gods reproduce sexually through humans, so there's also a god that you're turning into. A new, strange, alien god. 

Last night, I started reading (parts of) a book called Sha'ar HaGiligulim (the gate of reincarnation) by the same student of Luria, and it turns out he totally invented this theory too! EXCITING!!!!!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Meditation Quick Start Guide

Last weekend, I was hanging out with family, and my cousin said she'd been under a lot of stress.  I recommended meditation, and she asked for instructions.  These instructions are for her, and anyone else who doesn't know anything at all about meditation.  I'm not a very experienced meditator, and I don't even claim that I really know what I'm doing, so take all of this advice (as you should anyone's advice about anything, really) with many grains of salt.  If you already know how to meditate, this post is unlikely to have anything of value for you (but feel free to read it anyway).  Moreover, I don't really know what I'm doing; I'm hardly an expert at this!  I really like this website for more detailed intorductions.

There are many, many kinds of meditation.  I mostly do a kind called "vipassana" or "insight meditation".  I do some other things that are called meditation, but aren't exactly the same kind of "quiet the mind" meditation.  For example, I've recently been doing something called "metta (compassion) meditation", which I also recommend, but it hasn't (yet) been shown to have the same kind of psychological and physiological benefits as "regular" meditation.  When I was about 16, I read a short book called The Way of the Pilgrim, about a Russian monk learning to "pray ceaselessly".  While (especially then) it was too Christian for me, it teaches a really effective form of meditation, which, it turns out, is VERY similar to the methods advocated by Abraham Abulafia.  I'd strongly recommend it to Christians, but it's good for anyone who can choke down the Jesus.  You can read it here (or in Russian).

So, here's how I meditate:  First, find somewhere comfortable to sit.  I meditate sitting straight-backed in a regular chair (because of my bad hip) but most people recommend sitting cross-legged.  Set a timer on to ding twice, once after 5 minutes, and again after 15 more.  If you're somewhere noisy,  use headphones and white noise.  Stretch a little bit, and make sure you're comfortable, then start the timer.

For the first five minutes, don't meditate, rather just let your mind wander.  I find this helps to "shake out" whatever is rattling around in there.  During this time, breathe deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth, with a noticeably pause in between each.  In, hold, out, hold, in...

After the first "ding", begin to focus on your breathing.  While breathing in, focus on the feeling of your chest and abdomen expanding, filling with air.  While breathing out, focus on the feeling of them falling back in. I find it helpful to think the word "expanding" while breathing in and the word "contracting" when breathing out.

Try it right now:  Take a deep breath in, while thinking only the word "rising", wait a moment, and then breathe out, thinking only "contracting".  Imagine you are a spirit, and have only recently come to be in this body.  This is your first breath.  Really pay attention to it, experience what it feels like to breath as if it new.  That's all there is to it.  Do that, over and over.   As you get better and better at staying focused, be sure you're focusing on the actual rising and falling, and not the label.

If you notice yourself thinking something else, just calmly return to thinking about your breath.  You just succeeded at meditation!  The goal (at least in the beginning) isn't to not get distracted, it's to NOTICE that you're distracted.  But, what if you can't "just calmly return to your breathing"?  What if you're really distracted, or the distraction makes you want things or fear things, or feel sad or angry or whatever?

When that happens (and it probably will),  think the verb you are doing "itching", "hurting", "worrying".  You don't need to be precise (in fact, it might be better not to be).  You can just think "knowing" or "feeling" or such.  If the desire to scratch (or move, or whatever) is strong, you might think "wanting".

If you're having an emotional thought, which I find to be the hardest to let go of, remember that the goal is not to suppress or eliminate thoughts, it to let them pass through you without disturbing you.  At first, you're like solid object; when a thought tries to pass through you, it hits you, and can hurt.  Then, you become liquid; the thoughts pass through, but they leave ripples.  Finally, you become completely ephemeral; the thoughts pass through you without any effect at all; they can't "get their hooks into" you.

If you have a severe itch or pain or a strong emotion, I find it helpful to focus my complete attention on that.  Does your hip hurt?  Think the word "hurting" with all of your mind, and you will find the pain start to melt away.  Are you sad?  Think the word "grieving" until that too melts away.  When the pain (or whatever) has melted away, return to thinking only about your breath.  Ideally, you want to get to the point where there is no distinction between "good" and "bad" thoughts or feelings, no distinction between thinking and feeling, where you are just "being".  However, that takes practice.

If you get very distracted, focus on the distraction.  The point is to focus, exclusively and completely, on one thing.  It's not so important what that thing is.


How do I keep my hair so pink?

The dye in this picture is about a month old, and has seen chlorine and/or salt water nearly every day of that month.  If you don't want to read the complete instructions, the highlights are: Special Effects brand dye.  Beach the f**k out of your hair first, don't wash it too often, and use this.

I've been asked this 4 times in the last week how I get and keep my hair so pink, so I thought I'd just write it down.  (There's no magic, mysticism, or Judaism in this post...if you don't want pink hair, you might as well skip it.  My most recent magical adventures haven't been for public consumption, but I think I'll have something for you this weekend.)

Disclaimers:  My hair is short, fine, and light.  If your hair is very dark or course, these instructions might not work for you.  This method does some damage to hair.  Don't bleach the same hair twice, and don't do this to hair that's already damaged.  IMPORTANT: if your skin is dark, the bleach will bleach your skin too.  Be careful with it!  If you're as white as me, you don't need to worry about that.

You will need:

  • the cheapest, nastiest, harshest dollar store shampoo you can find.
  • the very best, richest, thickest conditioner you can find.  (It doesn't have to be expensive.  I like this.)
  • nice, gentle shampoo for color treated hair. (It doesn't have to be expensive; I like this.)
  • bleach powder.  There's a brand called "Splat" you can buy at the drug store, but I like this kind, which you can get at a "beauty supply" store, or, often, at larger discount stores in african american neighborhoods.  Such a store will have everything on this list, except the actual dye.
  • #30 developer; get it wherever you got the bleach powder
  • Special Effects Hair Dye.  This is hard to find in stores; I buy it online.  I've been dying my hair for 20 years, and I've tried pretty much all the brands.  This is the best one.  If you can't get it, Jerome Russell Punky Colors is also ok.  Manic Panic and Jazzy Colors (which is what they use at most salons) are garbage, worse than kool aid (which works surprisingly well if you boil it)  I use "atomic pink".  Historically, I've also had very good luck with "napalm orange", "cherry bomb" and "virgin rose".  My firends swear by "fishbowl (teal)" "limelight (green)" and "bright as f*k yellow". For my short mohawk, I use about a tablespoon of dye, so one bottle lasts me about a year.  The "Splat" brand they sell at the drug store is ok, but too thin, which makes it very messy to apply.
  • a washcloth you don't mind dying
  • a too-big tshirt you've cut the neck off of.   Be sure it will go over your head without touching your hair.  Or, you can just do all this topless, which is easier.
  • a glass bowl or 2 disposable plastic ones.  DO NOT use a metal bowl (it reacts with the bleach
  • a few plastic spoons
  • rubber gloves
  • petroleum jelly
  • thick moisturizer
  • soap for washing up.  bar soap works better than liquid
  • pink nail polish (despite all our efforts, your fingernails are probably going to get dye splotches on them; it will fade in a day or two, but this will cover it up)
  • dark colored pillow cases.  Your hair will rub off on pillow cases for at least a week.
  • dark shirts to wear for a few days; freshly dyed hair can slightly stain white collars if it gets rained on, sweaty, etc.
  • It's not really necessary, but I really like this to keep hair color bright.  It also makes your hair very soft.  You can get it at any drug store.

How to dye hair pink (or any other non-natural color):
There are several steps (bleach, wash, dye, rinse, condition).

  1. Start with dirty hair, the greasier the better. This will help protect your hair, and gives more even results.  Open a window if possible.  The bleach smells very strong.
  2. Mix the bleach powder and developer in the bowl.  The goal is a paste about the thickness of shampoo.  The exact ratio isn't important; if its too drippy, it will get in your eyes, if it's too thick, it is hard to apply.  It's better to start with it thicker, and then dilute it with more developer as you go.  It will smell very bad.  For short hair, I use less than a half a packet of bleach powder.  Since you need to tweak the thickness, reserve some bleach powder and some developer from your initial mix.
  3. Apply the bleach to your hair.  Make sure you don't miss any.  When you think you're done, pour some developer in the dirty bowl with the dregs bowl, and then use the very thin mix that results to fill in any gaps.
  4. Wash your hands very well.  Clean any drips off your face. Wash the bowl
  5. Wait.  My light hair takes about 15 minutes.  Just look at your hair from time to time.  You're waiting for it to be platinum.  If your hair was dyed to start, this will take longer.  
  6. Once your hair is platinum, rinse it very well.  Then, pour some conditioner in and wait 5 minutes, and then rinse again.  Next, wash it with the cheap shampoo and do not condition. 
  7. Run about 3 inches of water into the sink.  That way, if you drip dye in, it won't hit the sink directly.  This dye WILL DYE your sink, bathroom floor, etc.  If that happens, scrub with this.
  8. Put petroleum jelly on your hair line, ears, and anywhere else you don't want dye.  More is better than not enough.  The goal is to make the skin waterproof.
  9. Put a ton of moisturizer on your hands and arms.  (also shoulders, face, neck...anywhere that's exposes and might get dye on it.  Again, the goal is to waterproof the skin so errant dye doesn't sink in.
  10. Put plastic gloves on over the moisturizer.  This feels weird, but will keep your hands not pink.  Bonus: very soft hands when you're done.)
  11. Put some dye in the bowl.  If you're dying your whole head, you can just squeeze the dye directly onto your head.  If the dye is too thick, mix a tiny bit of developer into it.  Put dye on your head until all the hair you want to dye is covered.  You can mix colors, which will give "highlights" and "lowlights".  I like pink + orange.  Use your hands.  Try to keep the dye off your face and neck.
  12. Again, use some very thinned out mix to plug any holes.
  13. Pile the dyed hair on top of your head, so it touches your neck as little as possible.
  14. Use the washcloth to clean up.
  15. Peel the gloves off directly into the trash.
  16. Wipe off any drips.  Wash your hands ALOT.  Clean up.  Remember to keep the sink full of water, so dye doesn't hit the sink bottom until its diluted with water.  Wash the sink.
  17. Wait until your hair is dry.  If you have a lot of hair, you could probably speed this up with a blow dryer.
  18. When hair is dry, remoisturize all your skin.  You should feel noticeable greasy.  Dont' do your feet; you'll slip in the shower! :)  This will help keep you from dying your skin as you rinse.
  19. Fill the bathub with a few inches of water.  Just like the sink, this will keep you from dying your tub.  If you do accidentally dye the rub, fill it with water, pour in a gallon of bleach, and let it set for a while, and then scrub with comet.
  20. Rinse your hair.  A LOT.  Rinse until no more dye comes out.  Condition.  Rinse again until no dye comes out.  Wash your hair with nice gentle shampoo.  Rinse again.  Condition.  Leave the conditioner in while you sing (badly) at least 2 full songs.  Rinse again.
  21. ENJOY!  Remember: DARK PILLOW CASES!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On being a muse

Sometimes, I think that I'm not really a magician at all.  I'm just an initiator; a muse for other people's magic.  I mean, I have a very good track record of turning people onto magic, and teaching it to them.  I get amazing results when I work with other people.  Even if the only way I involve them is just convincing them that I'm doing magic, and then they do the magic for me without even realizing.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Sara tells a story

I mentioned in my post on ancestor altars that I'd been working with Sarah/Sarai as an ancestor, and I got some questions about it. (ps: I'd really rather you asked questions in the comments here instead of emailing/facebooking them to me.) So, here's a little bit about Sarai.

Image by Brian Charles

Here is the story of Sarai, as she told it to me. Obviously, this is heavily informed by the biblical account, and also by various archeological and scholarly works, particularly Sarah the Priestess and The Ancient Near East, which I highly recommend. All that being said, this is a story and I don't claim its a definitive understanding of Sarah (as if there could be such a thing). In particular, it is not intended to be a factual account of ancient Sumerian religious practice (in fact, it most certainly isn't any such thing). It's just a story Sarai is telling me, and so I'm telling it to you. You'll notice it slips from third to first person. That's a thing that happens when I channel stories; I've decided to leave it that way to give you a feel for what it sounds like when I'm inspired (inspire, remember, means "fill with spirit").  I recorded an audio version of the story, if you'd rather listen than read.

There was, in days long ago, in the city of Ur, a girl with a wicked father.  Her mother, a nameless slave, had died in birthing her, and so her father, whose name was Terah, took the baby girl to the market, there to sell her.  This is the story of many women, "There was a girl, and her father sold her."  Women bought and sold, used until they are broken, numberless nameless women rotting unloved in unmarked graves, but that was not this girl's fate.

Although the old goat, her father, was very wicked man, he was powerful magician, at whose command the mightiest spirits were compelled to quake.  Terah was the master sorcerer of the city, and that same power shone in his infant daughter's eyes, glowing like an incandescent coal. The high priest of Inanna-Shadai, the Nurturer, the Bountiful Breast, bought the girl, and called her Yiscah, because of her fiery eyes.  Power calls to power, and Yiscah was raised in the service of the temple, and taught the secrets of the Great Goddess. As she grew, her beauty and power only increased, and when she came of age, she became a daughter of the Goddess, the highest rank a slave could hold, and so she was renamed Sarai.  Although Sarai loved Inanna, loved to dance her dances, loved to sing her rites, loved to make love to great men in the goddess's place, and yet enslavement chafed at me and I longed, in my heart, for freedom.

Now, Terah, the old goat, had also a son named Abram, whose eyes shone with power.  Abram was beloved of El, the Destroyer, the Thundering Cloud.  As a prince of the city, when Abram came of age, he was sent to the temple to be initiated by a daughter of the Goddess.  Unlike the other young men, who came shyly, timorously, Abram threw open the doors and strode in, his head held high, lightning in his eyes, and Sarai knew in my heart that he would set me free. Immediately, I lusted for him as the dusty earth yearns for rain.  I sang to Inanna that her radiance fill me, that he might choose me to initiate him:

My vulva, the horn, The Boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?’

Inanna answered Sarai's prayer, and I taught him Her secrets, ushered him into the garden of paradise. 

At the king's lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side. 

Gardens flourished luxuriantly. 

When he filled me, it was lightning striking the black earth, and it quenched me as nothing else had ever done. I did not, at that time, know that he was my brother, nor did I know he would be my husband, I knew only that there was a power in our union that I had never felt before, though I had served as a daughter of the Goddess for several years.

After we parted, I dreamed powerful dreams for three months.  I dreamt of a Power beyond even that of Inanna, called El-Shaddai.  I dreamed that it was El-Shaddai who grew in my womb like a baby, that he, the father of all the gods, had slumbered there since before the beginning of time.  I dreamed mountains higher than the clouds and a river that rushed like blood.  I dreamed a great journey to a far off place.  I dreamed of children as boundless as the stars of the heavens.  El-Shaddai spoke to me of liberation, of an end to slavery.  He swore that would bring me out of bondage, that I would travel to a new land, a grove of Oaks at the top of a hill, and in their midst I might pitch tent of many colors, open on every side to the blowing wind, where I would sit and prophesy.   In the middle of the tent, I dreamed a deep well, the womb of the earth.  At the bottom of the hill, surrounding it, I dreamed a great market fair, where men and gods walked shoulder to shoulder.

I did not know it then, but El-Shaddai called also to my brother-husband.  What I did know, however, was that Abram was on fire.  The whole city was abuzz with tales of the brash iconoclast. It was said he broke his father's enchantments, smashing the statues that imprisoned the whirlwind spirits, the storm djinn, setting them free.  It was whispered that this army of djinn now followed Abram, not as his slaves but as his brothers, recognizing the Power that had possessed him, recognizing the eternal fire that called out to the smokeless flame of their hearts.

The night Abram came for me, the air was split by booming thunder, although it was not the season for storms. When he flung open the doors, lightning struck all over the city.  Roofs went up in flame; the city burned.  The priest dragged me to the foot of Inanna.  I do not know what he intended.  Just at that moment, Abram flung open the doors, the fury of El-Shaddai burning in his eyes.  Lightning pierced the sky, tore through the roof, electrifying the golden goddess, where she sat on her golden throne, melting her golden crown, so it ran down her face like golden tears.  

Abram knocked the priest to the ground, and we fled, hand in hand, the priest's curses pelting down on us along with the icy rain.  Abram wore the power of El-Shaddai like an electric cloak, and the curses flew from him.   I, however, held the power of El-Shaddai within me, and the curse buried itself within me, tearing at the life in my womb.  Blood ran down my legs, and I fell to the ground, screaming, made barren as the curse of the high priest of Inanna slashed and burned within me.

That's the end of this story.  Another one, I think, is waiting to be told another day.

Altars Intro and Ancestor Altars

I spent much of today rearranging, cleaning, and rededicating altars.  So, I thought I'd do a little bit of writing about altars.  The way I think about it, there are basically three kinds of altars (for which I have made up names).  Obviously, many altars are hybrids of these types.  Doubtless, there are other kinds I haven't thought of.  Please tell me about these in the comments!  I'd love to see pictures and descriptions of other people's altars as well.  Here's some pictures of my ancestor altar, as an example. (sorry for the glare in the mirror)

  • Shrines: These are altars devoted to a particular spirit (or egregore or whatever) whose primary purpose is to be a "gateway" through which to commune (or communicate, or worship, or whatever) a certain spirit or class of spirits.  For most people, these include statues or pictures of the spirit, but mine tend not to (except for my ancestor shrine).  Growing up Jewish left me a little squicked out by idols. 
  • Tables of Practice:  This name derived from "The Art of Drawing Spirits into Crystals" (which I highly recommend).  In that book, it describes a very specific, relatively small table/box used as a location to summon spirits.  I'm corrupting the phrase to mean, more generally, a space permanently set up as a "working space" for doing magic (either in general or a of particular kind).
  • Showpiece: These are altars whose main function is to store/display magic paraphernalia in a decorative way.  Some people knock this kind of altar as "fake", but I think they're a nice if you have space for them, and they can also be slightly useful.  I like to categorize and curate my magical tools and attractive materia into showpiece altars.  By grouping items with similar magical "signature" together, I create a small space invested with that "vibration", so that other things I put there slowly acquire a subtle "flavor" of the "theme" by a kind of magical osmosis.  For example, I have a 4 elements altar/shelves.  Jason, over at Boundary Crosser, has a showpiece altar for the Seven Endless.  If we ask really nicely, maybe he'll write a post about it with some pictures.
Over the next couple of weeks, I'll write about different kinds of altars.  Today, I'll write about ancestor altars.  Before I say anything else, a huge shout-out to Andrieh Vitimus, from whom I first learned how to make an ancestor altar.  Thanks also to Kenaz Filan, who also offered lots of useful advice.  There are lots of kinds of ancestor altars.  Mine is in/on a cabinet I inherited from my parents (which, growing up, we always called "the weird thing") and is sort of voodoo on top, and daoist inside.   I keep photos on top, so they're always visible, but the urn, candle etc I keep inside, because they sometimes creep out guests. (Guests who are not weirded out by the altar right next to the weird thing, with the preserved head of a black bear on it. Americans have a totally fucked up relationship with death, which I did not fully grok until my parents died)   I generally leave the cabinet open, except when I have muggle company or when I want to do something I don't think my ancestors want to see in my "chantry" (like, say, sex magic).  

Setting up an ancestor altar is very easy.  The first thing you need is a place to put it.  A shelf or small table is fine, or the top of a bookcase or dresser.  Mine has an "interior" portion as well, but that's not necessary.  Clean it thoroughly, both physically and magically.  Wipe it down with a nice-smelling perfume or oil.  Florida Water (a citrusy, floral, spicy cologne used a lot in voodoo) is traditional, but I use Jean Nate (a citrusy, floral, spicy cologne my mother wore).  Once it's clean, lay a white cloth on top.  (optional, but traditional).   Some features that nearly all ancestor altars from differing cultures share: 
  • photos or other pictures of the departed.  There is widespread agreement that it is VERY BAD to have pictures of the living on an ancestor altar, I think because it places the living person in the realm of the dead, and that can't possibly be good for them.
  • an empty picture frame  or "generic" statue to represent unknown ancestors.  I don't have one of these.  Right now, I don't feel any call to have one, but maybe I will in the future.  I'm not opposed.
  • mementos like jewelry and such.  Pocket watches seem very popular.  
  • Water.  Nearly everyone seems to agree that water helps smooth the way for the spirits of the dead.  Most people say this should be in a white or clear glass, but I use a cobalt blue one I inherited from my mother.  (My mother collected cobalt glass)
  • dirt from graves or cremated ashes.  I have an urn containing my parents' (mixed) ashes, as well as a jar with dirt from various ancestors' graves.  The jar is behind the urn, so you can't see it in tht pictures.
  • candles and/or incense
  • religious paraphernalia like crosses, buddhas, icons, bibles, etc.  I have the siddur (Jewish prayer book) my grandmother got at her confirmation.  I'm thinking of adding a Michael ikon for my Greek family.
  • small food/drink offerings.  Voodoo practice recommends these be made on Mondays, but I often make mine just before kabbalat shabbat on Friday evenings.  I don't usually offer alcohol, because my parents both (my mother especially) got abused by alcoholics when they were little, and so they were both (my mother especially) very anti-drinking.
  • no salt, and no iron.
In addition to your "close" ancestors, you can also work with "tribal" ancestors at an ancestor altar.  For example, I've recently been working with the matriarchs and patriarchs.  (Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob)  Sarah/Sarai in particular (for obvious reasons) resonates with me.  When I first started working with her, I had a very powerful "vision" of a line of ancestors named stretching back from me, through my mother, through my Nan Sara (my mother's father's mother), back to Sarai, back to Astarte.  If anyone in Israel is reading this, I would very much like a small pebble or pinch of dirt from (near) the Machpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs) to put on my altar.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Little Bit About Djinn

I will begin with a story.  Don't take this too literally.

Image by Greg Staples: http://www.gregstaples.co.uk/
In the beginning of things, after the universe had been created, but before it had been peopled, God (Ein Soph, what my grandma called "big G god") was lonely.  To ease his loneliness, he created the angels out of light without fire, out of pieces of the Ein Soph Ohr.  Think for a second about what that phrase means.  For us, its no big deal, light without fire, but the ancient world, night could be held at bay only with flame.  In that world, "light without fire" was miraculous; clean, pure, light.  Like the sun or the moon, the angels were created out of "light without fire" something only the greatest powers of the heavens provided.

The angels were created each according to its function; an angel IS its name, its function.  It has no real existence outside of that.  Angels are not really possessed of free will in any meaningful sense.  They cannot act against their nature.  At root, angels are messengers; they carry the messages of the divine will to creation. They are, in a very real sense, action without volition, light without fire.

Before long, God realized that the angels were not good companions for him.  They were not like him, they could not imagine, could not create.  They were not possessed of the divine spark in whose heat nothing is forged into something.  And so he created the djinn from flame without smoke.  This too is a radical idea.  While we are accustomed to the clean-burning flames of gas and alcohol fires, this was not the case in times gone by.  Imagine that the only fire you've seen is a dirty, smokey, sooty thing that burns your eyes and stings your throat.  Now, imagine a fire WITHOUT smoke; pure flame, pure passion, pure will, uncomplicated by matter.  That's what the djinn are made of.

So, now that I've told my little story, here are some details about them from myth and lore. Djinn are a kind of non-human, sentient creature very similar (or possible identical to) faeries.  They have individual personalities and names.  Like faeries, they are violently allergic to iron.  They are not, strictly, immortal in the same way that angels are, but they don't really age and they are hard to kill.  They are possessed of free will  the same way humans are.  Again, like faeries, they eat and drink, and can interbreed with humans. They live in wild places, and in ruins.  They fall into three basic "courts": some are pro-human, and generally helpful and beneficent.  Some hate humans, and are eager to fuck you over at every turn.  Some don't really care much, one way or the other, and mostly avoid getting involved with human affairs.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Valley Spirit

I got an email just now from J. who writes: I was looking for websites that discussed the similarities between arete and the dao and came across your blog.  I really enjoyed your renditions and would love to hear your interpretations of all the chapters, but especially chapter 6 as it mystifies me the most.

I think this must be the post he read: http://traifbanquet.blogspot.com/2012/09/aleph-and-transcendental-arithmetic.html

So, as requested, here are some thoughts about chapter six of the Dao De Ching, sometimes called The Valley Spirit.  But first, a series of disclaimers:  

  • I don't really know anything about Daoism (or really anything else), so you shouldn't put any stock at all in anything I say.
  • I don't even remotely read Chinese, so I'm not in any way claiming that my reading is even intended to be an accurate "translation"; it's just my what the passage inspires in me at this moment.  "Inspired" literally means "filled with spirit"; this is just what I feel like, right now, while I'm filled up with the Valley Spirit.. 
  • When I read sacred text, I really like to read a whole bunch of different translations.  I like this website, http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/tao/ch_06.html, which has several.  In particular, I really rely on the "Seal Script with Interlinear English".  I find the ideographs very inspiring.

  • Like all sacred texts, the Dao De Ching has different things to say to each person, and different things to say to me at different times.  Heraclitus is famous for saying, "You can't step into the same river twice; new waters are always flowing over you." but he also said: "The world, created neither by the gods nor by humans, was, is, and every will be a Living Flame, constantly being ignited, constantly dying to embers."  Like this chapter says, it's an inexhaustible gateway of mystery.  

Version 1
The cleft, the slit, the wet rushing river-valley of Spirit is never ending.  
Her name is Woman. Dark. Deep.
A woman's depths are a gateway, the womb of Heaven and Earth.
Eternal and ephemeral; enter her gracefully.

Version 2
The spirit of the river is never ending.
Her name is Mystery. 
Shekhina is liminality, the place where Heaven and Earth diverge.
Moment by moment She flickers into being;
and yet Her strength is inexhaustible.

I find this chapter reminds me very much of a gnostic poem called Thunder, the Perfect Mind.  Although the two texts are not related in form and only vaguely related in theme, they seem to me to be similar in spirit.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Kabbalah for Magicians: Quick Start Guide

I wrote this a long time ago for something else.  I'm putting it here as a placeholder.  I'll come back and edit it soon. 

Kabbalah for Magicians

Kabbalah is an important tool in the arsenal of modern magic, and one that is incontrovertibly Jewish.  We’ll being by discussing mysticism in general, how it differs from magic, and how to two relate.  I’ll offer some brief teaching on Kabbalah.  I am not way claiming that this is a thorough overview; these are simply the pieces I think of as being “prerequisites” for the stuff I'm going to teach you next.
Doubtless, you’ve already worked in a kabbalistic framework.  The YHVH meditation in my last post was explicitly kabbalistic, and so is the song Licha Dodi.  Kabbalah isn’t some sort of secret backdoor Judaism, its just a different way of talking about the same things.  Aristotle teaches that there are three ways to come to knowledge.  
You can know something through faith (pistis).  “Faith” is a heavily charged word in our world, but, in this case, we don’t really mean religious faith.  Quick:  What’s the capitol of Pennsylvania?  How do you know?  Probably, you know that it's Harrisburg because someone told you that it was, and you believed them.  That’s what pistis is.  It's knowledge you believe based on the authority of the source.
The second kind of knowledge is called gnosis.  What color is a lemon?  How do you know?  You have direct, personal experience of it’s yellow-ness.   In modern English, the word “gnosis” is used to indicate a certain kind of religious knowledge; direct personal “revealed” knowledge.  When someone has a mystic vision (or a powerful dream) that tells them something about their life, whatever they learned from it was “gnosis”.  When people say that Jesus is their “personal” savior, I assume that’s what they’re talking about.   The word kabbalah is usually translated as “receiving” or “reception”, but I think “gnosis” is a good translation for it.
The third kind of knowledge is called diagnosis.; as should be clear, the word is closely related to our word for puzzle solving.  Diagnosis is knowledge gained by pure reason.  Mathematical knowledge is a good example of diagnosis.  
For each of us, there is a hierarchy of “truthiness” between the three roads to knowledge.  For the religiously orthodoxly, pistic belief is the most unshakable.  When the scripture appears to be in conflict with reason or experience, it indicates that reason and experience are flawed.  
Most people think that they value most highly value experiential knowledge; “I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” Is good evidence for a thing.  Except, we all discount our sense information much of the time.  It seems to me that when I close my eyes, the whole world disappears, but I know that isn’t true.  
For me (and remember, I’m hardly normal, so feel free to disagree), reason is the real road to truth.  Count three apples in one pile, and then count four into another pile.  Put the two piles together, and you count six.  Wait, what?  Count them again.  Still six.  Split them into piles, and you get one pile of three and one pile of four.  Put them back together and you get six.   No matter how many times you repeat this experiment, you will never convince yourself that 3+4=6.  You may suspect you are going mad.  You may invent some wild hypotheses about disappearing apples, but you will NEVER determine that 3+4=6.  That’s because diagnosis, the fruits of reason, are incorrigible.  They withstand all experimental evidence.


Now, I personally have a weird religious relationship with mathematical knowledge. However, for the remainder of this lesson, we’re going to talk about gnosis; and a particularly Jewish kind of gnosis called kabbalah.  If you read this lesson, and just accept what I’m telling you, you’re doing yourself a disservice.  Everything I’m about to tell you is just pistis; a bunch of crazy hokum that some loony magical teacher from the internet told you.  Its only when you start to investigate it, to work with it, to experience it for yourself that you should even consider starting to believe any of it.  
You can choose to think about kabbalah as a deep, mystical way to interpret scripture.  You can think of it as a blueprint of the act of creation.  You can think of it as a roadmap to the divine.  The sephiroth we’re about to learn about are rest-stops on the highway of creation; they're where the energy of creation pooled and coalesced on its way, settling into the different forms.
One traditional metaphor is to view them as clay vessels that collect and condense the divine will, eventually cracking under the strain of Being and radiating the energy further along its manifestation. Chayyim Vital (a student of Luria's) relates these vessels to wombs, and explains their breakage as a combination of orgasm and childbirth.  However, for the magician, kabbalah is mostly useful as a set of egregores (symbol-spirits) that we can climb like a ladder.  
Let me tell you a story, a creation myth.  Once, long ago, before there was such a thing as time or space or being, God (Ha Makom) was everywhere, always, everything.  He breathed in, contracting himself to a tiny point (tzimtzum), and made a place for the world to be.  

Once that had happened, there was emptiness, without form and void (tohu wa bohu) as they say.  In order to give it form, God created 10 (maybe 11, depends how you count) vessels into which to pour His essence.  Then, He began pouring.  What did He pour?  God contracted Himself all up into a tiny moment, a singularity of Being.  But, even as He became small in space-time (which, as you recall, doesn’t even really exist yet), his Being still took up the whole universe.  From here, where we live in dimensions, looking backwards, it looks like this:  when God shrank himself all up, he became a singularity in 4 dimension space-time, but He still went deep, deep, deep along other dimensions, an infinite vibrating string of Being linking all things (which don’t even exist yet) together.  And, so, God breathed in, creating the Void, and into the void he breathed out this extra-dimensionality, the No-thing-ness (Ain).
From where we live, here in the world of ten thousand things, it seems like Creation brings Something out of Nothing.  But from the inside, looking out, where God is breathing (still, momently, always), Creation also makes Nothing out of Something.
God took another breath, breathing in the Ain, and out he breathed Infinity, Limitlessness, Being coexistent with the universe (which, recall, Dear Reader, wasn’t really there yet).  We call that Ein Soph, Unlimitedness.  
Breathing in the Infinite Being, God breathed out that first Thing-Which-Was-To-Be, and we call that thing Light, Light Without Limit, Ein Soph Aur.  The light expanded, filling up all the Empty with space-time, spilling into the vessels He previously created.  Here are the names of the vessels:
The first sephira (ordinal number), which isn’t really a sephira at all, is called Keter, which means “Crown”.  A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that the first sephira is the King, but that’s absurd.  A crown is a thing the king wears, a signifier of office, they symbol of authority.
The next two sephiroth hang in balance with each other.  They are called Chokmah and Binah, Wisdom and Understanding.  They are the kinds of knowing we talked about earlier.  Chockmah is revelation and faith.  Binah is deduction.
Chokmah is the spark of insight before the idea is fully formed.  Some people will tell you that Chokmah is male, because it is called the Father, but that’s ridiculous.  Chokmah is female.  In gnosticsm she’s called Ennoia, the First Thought, the essence of Woman, Rumi’s Beloved, Simon Zealot’s love.  In Proverbs (8:22-31) Chokmah says:

“The ONE brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be.  When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth.  I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountains of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.  Then I was constantly at his side.  I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.”

Binah means Understanding.  It is the womb of Being, where ideas take shape.  This is the Word, the Idea at the beginning.  As Chockma is called Father, Binah is called Mother, and is deeply associated with the Four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebekkah, Leah, and Rachel).  All that being said, for those of us who grew up in American pop culture, Binah seems male.  Binah is the power of discernment, of discrimination, analysis.  Binah is like a disco ball, reflecting the light of creation in all directions.
There is a “secret” sephira next.  It is secret only in the same way keter was.  People who count Keter as a “real” sephira see this one “Daat” (Knowledge) as “hidden”.  It forms the “triad of intellect” along with Chokmah and Binah.  Proverbs 24 says: “By chokmah a house is built, and through binah it is established; through da'at its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”  Daat is the center of the Tree, where all things are unified.  I think of it as a complete prototype universe, where everything is decided, and named, but not yet come into being.  If you’ve ever read the short story “Murder Mysteries” by Neil Gaiman (and you should), it’s sort of like the prototype universe the angels are working on.  
Below Daat are another matched pair of spheres, Chesed and Gevorah.  Chesed is often translated as “loving kindness”, but I like to translate it as “compassion”.  When the Talmud says that the Torah “begins and ends in Chesed,” I take it to mean that Compassion is the highest Teaching, and, moreover, that the highest form of Compassion is Teaching.  Torah (teaching) is a gift form the Divine, given out of Great Compassion.  This sphere is also called Gedulah, Glory or Greatness.  Chesed is the right hand of God, with which He gives.  Many people associate it with Jupiter, the greater benefic.
Gevorah (Severity) is the left hand, with which God contains.  It is the Letter of the Law, Justice.  If chesed is the sense of ultimate unity of Being, Gevorah is our sense of separation from the world, our Power to act.  Sometimes, people make it seem like gevorah is “bad”, a thing to overcome, but that’s silly.  Gevroah is our ability to overcome things.  In Chesed moments, we feel the call of creation as a perfect unified whole, but in Gevorah, we feel all the work that is left for us to do.  Gevorah is the lust for Chesed.
The next vessel is called Tiphereth, which means Adornment (in the sense of jewelry), although it is often said to mean Beauty.  Tipheret is closely associated with the Sun.  The Sun shines down on everything, making no distinctions, warming everything it comes into contact with.  It is the source of all life, and the mother of the plants.  The experience of Tipherth is overwhelmingly ecstatic.  When God said, “Let there be light,” the light there was is Tiphereth.  Christians see Tipheret as Christ, which makes perfect sense.  
From Keter to Tiphereth, divinity descends into Being. Tipheret is all sarim, all gods, the glowing throne-room of the Elohim.  It is the linchpin that unites above with below.  Tiphereth isn’t the center of the universe, but it is the radiating point around which our world revolves.
The next sephiroth pair is Netzach (Victory) and Hod (Brilliance).  Tiphereth crowns these two in the same way that Keter crowns Chokmah and Binah and Daat crowns Chesed and Gevorah.  Netzach is the victory of patience and long hard work.  Netzach is the work of  creation, netzach is love as patience and forgiveness.  Netzach is where Things take their Form.  For reasons that I do not entirely understand, Netzach has come to be equated with Venus. My boyfriend says I'm "afraid of commitment", so that's probably why I don't get it. ;)
Hod is the match for Netzach.  It means “brilliance” or “splendor”.  In Hebrew, like in English, the word brilliance conveys a sense of dazzling light and well as dazzling intellect.  Abraham Heshel says the experience of hod is that of Radical Amazement.  Hod is associated with Mercury, the quicksilver king.  I have a special relationship with Hod; it’s my favorite sephira, and so its hard for me to be unbiased about it.    Hod the sephira where magic is born, and the place where language begins.  While all living things partake of Malkuth and Yesod, it is our possession of the qualities of Hod that distinguishes humans from other creatures.
Many orthodox religious teachers will tell you that our culture in full of Hod with too little Netzach.  I could not possibly disagree more.  Niether is more valuable than the other, and both loose value with the loss of the other.  Netzach is an elderly couple holding hands, drawing their last breath together.  Hod is the moment before a first kiss, when everything is alive with possibility.  Real love keeps the two in constant tension.
The ninth sphere is called Yesod.  Yesod is related to the moon, because it reflects the light of tipheret (the sun) onto malkuth (the earth).  Yesod means “foundation” and it links and combines the energies of netzach and hod, giving shape to being.  This sort of creative union is (obviously) deeply sexual, and Yesod is associated with the genitals.  I hear tell that in Christian kabbalah, Yesod is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.  Yesod is most accessible Friday nights at midnight.  While the language I’ve been using is very heteronormative, please don’t take that in a judgemental way.  I can only convey these things the way I experience them.  You’ll see that heterosexual male kabbalistic (which is almost all of them) explain their sexual metaphors, and I imagine gay men and women will tell this story their own way. This is just the way I know to tell it.
At the bottom of the tree, the most manifest world, the crust of the Earth, is Malkuth, which means “kingdom” or “rulership”.  It is also called Shekhina, the Sabbath Bride, the Presence of the ONE.  Unlike the other sephiroth, which are direct emanations of Ein Soph, Malkuth is the light of the Divine reflected back from Creation.  Shekhina is the voice of prophecy and the inspiration of psalms.   There is a hand position associated with Shekhinah.  Hold your hands out, palms down or out, thumb tips and index finger tips touching.  Separate your middle and ring fingers on each hand.  This is called the gesture of “Priestly Benediction”.  Your hand should form a pointy pear-shaped hole between finger and thumb.  To me, it quite markedly looks like female genitalia.  The W shape formed by the eight fingers calls to mind the letter shin, which means fire.
Traditionally, this gesture is used by kohanim (a fathers-side hereditary priesthood descended of Aaron) to bless people with the so-called Priestly Benediction.  “May the ONE bless you and keep you.  My the ONE make His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.  May the ONE lift up His face to you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26).  Personally, I’m not a kohen (in fact, my father’s not even Jewish), but I’ve had good results with this blessing.  Try it yourself, or find a kohen to do it for you.  You should remove your shoes and wash your hands before making the blessing.

So, now you’ve got some idea of what the sephiroth are, but what are they for?  How do you use them to do magic?  
When I was about 6 or 7, my parents opened a new office for their business.  At the party, there was a champagne fountain, which I thought was the coolest thing I had ever seen.  I was very excited by it, and probably got lots of adults drunk by pushing them to drink the many glasses of champagne I fetched.  Many years later, I realized that Codovera had the same vision  In Pardes Rimmonim, he writes of the sephiroth this way:
To help you conceive this, imagine water flowing through vessels of different colors: white, red, green and so forth. As the water spreads through those vessels, it appears to change into the colors of the vessels, although the water is devoid of all color. The change in color does not affect the water itself, just our perception of the water. So it is with the sefirot. They are vessels, known, for example, as Hesed, Gevurah and Tiferet, each colored according to its function, white, red, and green, respectively, while the light of the emanator — their essence — is in the water, having no color at all. This essence does not change; it only appears to change as it flows through the vessels.
Better yet, imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot — the variegated stained glass — judgment or compassion prevails.