Objects of Worship: A comprehensive guide to the trappings of ritual

For the last couple of years, I've been working on a book about ritual and magickal tools. It originally consisted of three sections- The first comparing various items and tools from around the world, the second detailing their care and use, and the third delving into their design and crafting.

After passing the first draft around to a few people whose opinions I deeply respect, I made a decision based on their feedback to split the book into two separate projects.  The first book, "Objects of Worship: A comprehensive guide to the trappings of ritual" is nearly finished, and I have begun shopping around publishers.  It is a catalog of ceremonial tools from dozens of traditions all over the world. 

The book explores in depth:

  • A primer on magick, ritual, and recurrent themes
  • The primary tools of Western magick- the blade, rod, panticle, and cup
  • Tools of various traditions:
    • Catholicism
    • Wicca
    • Native American
    • Maori
    • Judaism
    • Buddhism
    • And dozens more
  • Ritual clothing
  • Divination 
  • Sacred and magickal writing
  • Specialized tools like musical instruments and funeral objects
  • Shrines, altars, and sacred architecture
  • Incense, candles, oils, and other consumables

I will keep this page updated as work progresses.


Excerpt From Chapter II:

    The first tools of interest to most Western magickal paths are the cup, blade, rod, and disc, which each correspond to one of the four classical elements of Water, Air, Fire, and Earth.  

    Each of these has a number of different forms, often with several variants within a single tradition.  The role of the rod, for example, can be filled by a wand, a staff, a torch, or a specialized variant, as we shall see in a moment.

The Magickal Weapons

    The rod is also an excellent opportunity to explore the term magickal weapons. Many early grimoires and their more modern readers prefer this term for their ceremonial objects, while many “earthy” Pagans tend to eschew it. The tools vs. weapons phrasing has confused many neophytes and even experienced practicioners have been known to debate the proper usage of each term.

    In mundane usage, a staff is used to aid in walking across uneven terrain, to lean on as a crutch or cane, and to extend one's reach.  The staff is also a formidable weapon, whose effectiveness, reach, flexibility, and most of all simplicity, have seen it invented by every culture on Earth.  Entire disciplines of martial arts have evolved around the Japanese bo and European quarterstaff.  Another common variant of the rod, the scepter, was used not only as a weapon, but as a symbol of power.  The act of giving or showing someone “the rod” refers to corporal punishment or discipline, and the phrase has been in common usage for thousands of years.  

    There is also the (dare we say Freudian?) nature of using a phallic symbol to convey power or authority.  Without delving further into world history and gender politics than absolutely necessary, we can state the simple fact that authority has most often been held by men, and most often by means of force.  With it's display of masculinity and virility paired also with the impliied threat of rape or sexual humiliation, it is easy to see how the rod becomes a symbol of power across many cultures. (Of course, the true magician understands this history, but as we have previously discussed, also reveres female divinity and the sexual union as sacred.)  

    In Goetic magick, where several rites specifically involve forcing demonic entities into submission or service, the use of a weapon is clearly understandable.  In some travels through other realms, the shaman may bring some means of defending themselves from those there who are less than hospitable. In any form of banishing or protective magick, it can be seen why a weapon would be desirable.

    It is also true that an object's use, rather than it's nature, is what distinguishes it as a weapon.  To further support this, it is interesting to note that something as harmless as Silly Putty was actually first invented as an instrument of war.  While the practice of medicine has always existed to heal and improve upon quality of life, it has also been used to create biological weapons.  The staff is a perfect example of this principle, carried as an aid to walking, yet serving a martial function when needed.  For our purposes, it may be useful to use this distinction, referring to a tool as a weapon only when it is being used as such.  Your own choice of terminology is of course yours to make.

The Rod, Staff, and Wand

    Symbolically, the rod represents elemental fire and the male creative force.  It is the act of creation and impulsive inspiration.  It is no coincidence that it resembles a phallus, for it represents the most masculine element.  

    It should be clarified that some Wiccan sects, most notably the Alexandrian tradition, associate the wand with air, rather than fire (and conversely, the athame with fire, rather than air).  Likely as a result of this, the same correspondency has also been used by a number of tarot decks and Neopagan magicians.  There is some speculation that this correspondency was deliberately reversed to mislead, with the true orientation revealed to higher level initiates.  As mystery schools are secret by nature, this theory is difficult to verify, although each side in the debate has been known to claim this same argument regarding the other.

    Historically, the rod appears in a magickal context throughout many cultures relevant to the development of our Western model of thought.

    Zoroastrian practice uses a bundle of slender twigs known as a barsom, and it's use in ritual can be traced back to at least the 4th century BC.  The barsom was traditionally made from the twigs of the pomegranate or tamarisk tree, although today they are most often made from metal. Among other uses, Zoroastrian writings mention that it is used to “honor the fire” and  held in the hand while blessing a meal.

    The ancient Egyptians used several varieties of wand.  Magicans were known to use wands made from metal and ivory. Decorated wands of curved ivory, in particular, are believed to have been used to draw protective circles and summon spirits or demons. The was scepter, with it's forked foot and an angled head carved into an animal shape, is depicted in many paintings as a symbol of power and nobility.  It was also included in tombs, where it was said to guard the well-being of the dead. The pharaoh and sorcerer Nectanebo was said to have used a wand of ebony to animate wax figures.  

    The rod and staff appear in the Old Testament with some frequency. In Exodus and Numbers, rods are used for a number of magickal feats including parting the sea, causing water to flow from a rock, and calling forth frogs and locusts during the plagues of Egypt. In the book of Judges, an angel burns an offering that had been laid upon a rock by touching it with the end of his staff.  The staff and rod are also likened in the Bible to a scepter, used both as a weapon and a symbol of authority.

    In Numbers, Yahweh commands Moses to bring twelve princes each a rod inscribed with their name.  Aaron's name is written on one rod, and when brought to the temple, it blooms and produces almonds.  During one story in Exodus, Aaron's rod turns into a serpent and back again. Later, In Hebrews, this rod is placed within the Ark of the Covenant.  As there is a strong Judaic influence, and several medieval grimoires recommended almond or nut woods, it is very likely that this was the inspiration for the wand used in Ceremonial Magick.

    Greek rituals sometimes used a thyrsus.  The thyrsus was a staff made of fennel, topped with a pine cone and often wrapped in ivy.  Depictions of Dionyses and his Roman analogue Bacchus show him with a thyrsus which drips honey.  In literature, Homer's Odyssey describes both Circe and Mercury as using wands to do magic.

    In one tale from Norse mythology, the god Thor uses a magic staff given to him by the giantess Grid in his battle with Geirrod.  It is believed that an iron rod found in a 9th century grave was a type of wand used by it's owner. The term for a Norse seer, Vӧlva, actually translates as “one who carries a magic staff or wand”.

    The wand and staff feature prominantly in the classical grimoires such as the Book of Abramelin the Mage and The Lesser Key of Solomon, complete with methods of use and construction.

    While there are many other uses as dictated by particular rites or traditions, the principal use of the rod in modern magick is to direct energy.  We can see this as a metaphor for the phallus, the shaft being used to direct the male creative force, towards somewhere it can be received, and thus be transformed into something new.

Staff

    The staff may be designed for either practical or ceremonial use.  In many martial or warrior paths, the staff is made in such a way as to put it's use as a weapon first.  For many others, the staff is often decorated with symbols relating not just to the element of fire or air, but with those that bind the staff to it's owner or invoke forces the magician wishes to use.  

    In shamanic practices, the staff is sometimes carried into a vision or alternate plane.  While it may be used there as a weapon or an aid to walking, it can also be decorated with symbols, diagrams, or words which help to guide the shaman.  In this application, it fulfills a role similar to that of the panticle.  (It is worth taking a moment to clarify the term shaman in this context, as the word is intended to mean one whose magickal practice centers around travel to alternate realms such as dream states, the otherworld or underworld, faery, etc.  While not a proper use of the word in the strictest literal sense, it is consistent with modern colloquial usage.)

    In Wicca and similar paths, the staff is used in the same manner as the wand, principally for directing energy.  Some may think of these as greater and lesser variants of the same tool, with one used when an operation requires more brute force and another when needing more finesse.  

Stang

    Appearing in medieval woodcuts as a substitute for the witch's flying broom, the stang is a staff topped with two prongs, reintroduced to modern practice by Robert Cochrane.  The prongs may be a natural fork in the wood, although in many cases, horn or antler is used instead, especially that of a deer.  While generally made of ash, oak is common as well.  Some variants may include an entire animal skull at the top, with a crosspiece to hang a banner or flag.

    The stang is different from other staves, in that it represents both male (the shaft) and female (the forks) attributes and therefore the union of the god and goddess.  Some people have asserted that when the bottom end is capped with metal, the stang represents all four elements.

    The stang is often stood upright at one of the four corners of a ritual circle to serve as a marker and to represent a grounding point for the deity(s) invoked during ritual.  It can also serve in place of an altar, stood upright with additional objects or offerings placed at the base.

Scepter

    The scepter is a symbol of power derived from a similarly shaped weapon such as a mace or club. Ancient and classical artwork often depict deities or rulers holding some variation of a scepter, often made or finished with precious metals, jewels, or other rare materials.  In many cases, the shaft is topped with a stylized crown.  

    In ritual, it may be used to convey strength or authority, perhaps during a rite of passage or change of leadership.

    In Masonic practice, a scepter is held by the Master of a lodge and Masons of other higher degrees.  In this context, it serves to remind that Solomon, like God, ruled by authority rather than force.

Talking Stick

    In some modern paths derived from Native American beliefs, the talking stick is used to maintain order during a meeting or discussion.  Simply put, a person must be holding the talking stick in order to speak, after which it is passed to the next who wishes to be heard.  Given a moment's thought, a connection can be seen with the wand in western magick: Not only by virtue of it's shape, but in the connotations of inspiration and action (fire) it brings, and it's value in communication (air).

Was

    The was is a type of scepter common in Egyptian artwork. The ancient Egyptian words for nobleman and official both included the symbol for scepter, and the was is often depicted being carried by authorities of both mortal and divine persuasion.  The was is also shown as a pillar supporting the heavens, a depiction which dates to the first dynasty.

    The was is a rod topped with an angled, T shaped head which tilts forward.  This is often carved into the shape of an animal head, usually some sort of canine.  The bottom is a two pronged fork.

    In funerary custom, a was was included to ensure the well-being of the deceased.  The Was was also a common symbol used on amulets.  The Phoenix Wand of the Golden Dawn takes the form of a Was.

Wand
    One of the primary tools not only of Wicca, but many other Pagan paths, the wand is used primarily to direct energy.  Bardon described the wand as "the most important aid in ritual magic”..  

    The most traditional wand is of wood, although they may be made from a wide variety of other materials.  Crystal wands are used in Reiki, and glass seems to be well suited for those who associate the wand with air, rather than fire.  Metal wands are seen as well, especially in copper, which is a fine conductor, or using magnetic steel

     Pointed or waved, it can be used to send energy towards a target, or used as an amplifier for the same purpose, essentially as an extension of the arm.  In addition to targeting energy, the wand can be used to stir a cauldron, and sometimes takes the place of the athame in casting a circle or during the Great Rite.  In ceremonial magick, the wand is also used to invoke entities.  Some healing practices treat the wand almost as a dowsing tool, using it to amplify vibrations during a diagnosis.

    Some magickal traditions, such as the Golden Dawn, use several different wands for different purposes: The red and yellow Fire Wand represents the element, while the Lotus Wand is used for general purposes, with one end for invoking and one for banishing.