According Unto the Art of the Apothecary:
Making the Oil of Abramelin
Moreover the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, and of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil. [Exodus 30: 22-25]
In the Book of Abramelin, a recipe is given for the creation of a powerful holy oil. This oil is used to consecrate the altar, the vestments, the wand and even the aspirant himself before any attempt is made to invoke the Guardian Angel or command the spirits. It is based, nearly exactly, upon the recipe given to Moses by Yahweh for the holy oil used in the Tabernacle (and later, in Solomon’s time, the Temple). It, too, was used to anoint the tools and furnishings, the altars and the priests who would work in the sacred sanctuary.
The original recipe for the holy oil is quoted from Exodus above. The Book of Abramelin, meanwhile, comes in two versions. The most popular has been the French version, translated into English by MacGregor Mathers in 1893. This is actually a recension of a German original, but it was the only version available in English for over one hundred years. Finally, in 2006, the German manuscripts were translated by Steven Guth and used to create a new English edition of the grimoire by Georg Dehn. Both the French and the German manuscripts have different recipes, with the German version providing the closest approximation of the Exodus recipe:
1 pt Myrrh
1 pt Calamus*
1 pt Cassia
1/2 pt Cinnamon
1/4 total weight of the above in Olive Oil
2 pt Cinnamon
1 pt Myrrh
1/2 pt Calamus*
1/2 total weight of the above in Olive Oil
(* – Note: in both Mathers and Dehn’s translations, Calamus is given as Galangal. However, academic opinion seems to be that the original German indicates Calamus. This would make sense, as Calamus is listed in Exodus.)
The primary difference between these recipes is that the French author excluded the cassia and doubled-up on the cinnamon. This is understandable once you know that cassia is a cinnamon substitute. The less expensive “cinnamon” you buy in the store is usually cassia. If you want real cinnamon, you have to pay extra for it. Apparently the French author felt the two spices were similar enough to simply drop the cheaper substitute and use more cinnamon in its place.
I also note the French author halved the amount of calamus – perhaps attempting to mimic the Exodus recipe. He also doubled the amount of olive oil, which does make sense for practical purposes – you get more oil in the final result.
You might think it would be easy to gather the above ingredients and whip up some holy oil. However, once you get started you’ll quickly discover it isn’t so easy. When I made my very first batch, I simply mixed together the powdered plant materials, weighed them, then weighed out half that much olive oil. When I poured the oil into the powder, I found there wasn’t enough to even wet all the dry ingredients! I mixed and mixed and mixed, and finally got a gritty blood-colored mud that smelled heavily of cinnamon and olive oil. It was usable, but definitely not a proper oil.
Apparently, this is an issue that has long been debated. How does one create an herbally-infused oil with more plant material than carrier oil? The answer lies in this cryptic instruction (found in Exodus and both versions of Abramelin):
The which aromatics you shall mix together according unto the art of the apothecary, and shall make thereof a balsam… [Book of the Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, French Recension]
The phrase “art of the apothecary” makes it clear that some kind of process must be run on the plant material before adding it to the olive oil carrier. This would be a fundamentally alchemical process by which the essential oils of the plants are extracted, then finally mixed with the olive oil. The debate has been over exactly which process should be used.
Essential Oil of Abramelin
Let me start with the most common type of Abramelin oil. This is the version you will likely get if you buy it from a store. It was invented by Aleister Crowley, and has therefore been used ever since by Thelemites. From there it spread into Golden Dawn practices, Neopaganism and even Hoodoo folk magick. It has become a well-established tradition by this point in time, though keep in mind it is not proper Abramelin oil.
Crowley used the French recipe, but decided to begin with essential oils rather than using plant material to extract his own. This would not have been a bad idea, actually – except Crowley made two errors:
First, he didn’t increase the measurement of the olive oil. Raw plant materials weigh much more than their extracted oils, and thus half the weight of the plants is heavier than half the weight of the oils. Crowley added the mixed essential oils to half the amount of olive oil, meaning the olive oil became a minor ingredient rather than the carrier.
Second, Crowley appears to have measured the oils (essential and olive) by volume rather than by weight. This, once again, results in much less olive oil in the mix than there should have been. Both of these errors combined produce an oil that is primarily cinnamon extract, and very dangerous to use on the skin! I have heard horror stories about people anointing their foreheads in a ritual, only to have sweat wash it into their eyes as the ritual progresses. Some others find that the oil burns and even blisters their skin upon contact.
Thelemites consider this a spiritual ordeal, and it has become an integral part of their overall system. Meanwhile, the Book of Exodus describes this oil being poured over the heads of Aaron and the other priests until it dripped from their beards. That was obviously not the Crowley version of the oil, or else Yahweh would have been served by a blind and disfigured priesthood.
Following is a recipe that will work with purchased essential oils, and will not be as dangerous as Crowley’s version. Make sure to measure by weight rather than volume!
Essential Oil of Abramelin (non-Thelemic version):
1 pt Myrrh Oil
1 pt Calamus Oil or Galangal Oil
1 pt Cassia Oil
1/2 pt Cinnamon Oil
7 times the total weight of the above in Olive Oil
(Note: Kudos to Denise Alvarado, who gives this exact recipe in her Voodoo Hoodoo Spellbook. It is the first time I’ve seen it in print!)
Cone-Extracted Oil of Abramelin
Of course, the best thing to do is gather the plant material and extract the oils yourself. Some Biblical scholars have suggested that a curious form of decanting was the method used by Moses and the priesthood. It is not my preferred method, though I see no reason why it shouldn’t work. Here it is:
- Gather a large amount of plant material. You can either get them in powder form, or reduce raw plant material to a powder with a mortar and pestle. Combine them and weigh them.
- Form a cone from a material that can withstand contact with oil, such as leather or cellophane. Prop the cone upright so its smaller point is downward, then fill it with the plant material. Make sure it doesn’t pour out from the point of the cone.
- Place a jar beneath the cone. Then pour a small amount of olive oil into the cone on top of the packed plant material. Don’t drown it, just cover the top.
- Wait a while, and you’ll find the powders have absorbed the oil. So now add the same amount again. You might be able to do this two or three times within a day. Continue this every day until:
- Eventually, olive oil infused with the plants’ essence will begin to drip from the point of the cone. Continue adding a little more oil into the cone each day, until enough infused oil collects in the jar. The amount you want should weigh exactly one-half the weight of the original plant material. Once that is achieved, dispose of the cone and its remaining contents.
To be honest, this sounds a bit like cheating, because it uses much more than the required amount of olive oil – not to mention wasting a large amount at the end of the process. Still, the resulting holy oil would be proper for all intents and purposes.
(A great article on this subject is called The Anal-Retentive’s Guide to Oil of Abramelin by Frater RIKB. It was once found at http://horusset.com/RIKB/abramelin.pdf but has since disappeared from that location. Hopefully it will return – keep checking Google.)
Steam-Extracted Oil of Abramelin
Today, professional oil extraction is done via steam distillation. You need specialized equipment for this process, and it is unlikely to have been the method used by Moses. It is less clear if the author of Abramelin might have intended it when he said “art of the apothecary.” I will outline the process in a simple fashion here:
- In a steam distiller, the plant material (not reduced to powder!) is placed on a grate over heated water. The water is transformed to steam and forced through the grate and over the plants, where the heat vaporizes the plants’ essential oils.
- The still condenses and cools the steam and essential oils and collects them in a separator. The separator then separates the oil from the water.
- The essential oil is placed in a jar and sealed. The water, now called hydrosol, can also be saved. This is where we obtain waters infused with plant essences – such as rose water or lavender water.
- Once you have extracted the necessary oils, gently stir them into olive oil weighing 1/2 of what the original plant material weighed.
Though I would love to have access to all of this wonderful equipment, my means are more humble. Therefore, I decided to go with an alchemical process with which I have previously experimented:
Alcohol-Extracted Oil of Abramelin
My preferred method begins with the creation of a tincture. It is a relatively simple process, and you likely already have most of the tools you need in your kitchen. To begin with, let’s take a look at the recipe I use:
1 pt Myrrh
1 pt Calamus
1 pt Cassia
1/2 pt Cinnamon
1/2 total weight of the above in Olive Oil
This is a synthesis of the German recipe for the plant material and the larger amount of olive oil called for in the French version. You can also choose to replace the calamus with galangal if that is the Abramelin tradition you wish to follow.
In the above picture you can see the materials needed for the initial extraction. There is 1/4 oz of calamus, so I will also use 1/4 oz of myrrh and 1/4 oz of cassia. That leaves just 1/8 oz of cinnamon. Also pictured are the grain alcohol (you want the highest proof you can get – Everclear is always a good choice) and the sealable glass jar that will hold everything. (A mason jar would work just as well or better.)
The ingredients are reduced to a powder in a mortar and pestle.
I then combine all four ingredients – which alchemy calls the prima materia – together in the jar. In total, there is about .88 oz of material here. Some have suggested running an extraction on each ingredient separately, but I choose to do them all at once. There may be chemical reactions taking place between the plants that are necessary in the final result. (However, this doesn’t mean you can’t choose to experiment with individual extractions on each plant.)
Pour in enough of the grain alcohol to completely cover the prima materia. The alcohol will immediately take on a red tinge.
Mix the concoction well and set in a warm dark place to macerate. I chose to start this process on the day of the first crescent Moon, and continue for one complete lunar cycle. This phase marks the beginning of the first two weeks.
As you can see above, the prima materia will soon collect in the bottom of the jar as a sediment. This is why you want to agitate the mixture two or three times every day, so every particle is bathed repeatedly in the grain alcohol.
Pictured above is what you’ll need to complete the oil of Abramelin. There is the macerated prima matera, cheese cloth for straining, extra grain alcohol and the necessary amount of olive oil. (Because I began with .88 oz of plant material, I have measured .44 oz – or half the weight – of pure olive oil.) You’ll also notice the old fashioned stove-top tea kettle and glass bowl – also pictured below:
This is my Bath of Mary – which is an alchemical term for a double boiler. I simply removed the handle and lid from the tea kettle and placed a bowl on top. Fill the kettle with water and bring to boil, and it will gently heat whatever you place in the bowl. The spout on the side is quite useful – it not only channels steam out and away from the bowl, but also allows you to easily add water as needed.
After allowing the plant material to macerate in alcohol for two weeks, I strained it through cheese cloth. Above, you can see what is left over in the cloth – the plant matter from which all of the life has been taken. What remains is called the Dead Head in alchemy, and it contains nothing but the essential Salt of the compound.
I was performing a rather “quick and dirty” process in this case, because I wanted to keep the entire process within a lunar month. However, it would not be a bad idea to replace the Dead Head into the sealable jar, cover it with fresh alcohol and repeat the maceration process. Continue to macerate, strain and repeat until the alcohol ceases to take on any color from the plant material – thus ensuring you have extracted every drop of the essential oils. If you do this, you only need to macerate for a week at a time, quite likely for about a month.
Whichever way you decide to go, you will finally end up with a quantity of darkly colored liquid that smells heavily of alcohol and the plant materials (especially the cinnamon):
Above, you can see the resulting liquid – I am squeezing every last drop I can get from the plant material through the cheesecloth. (Notice my bare hands – I never had any burning sensation or negative skin reaction to this substance.) The dark liquid is called a tincture in alchemy. A tincture is a pure alchemical extract held in an alcohol carrier. If these plants were medicinal, this tincture would be a medicine. If you use aromatic plants, you get a perfume. In fact, you could pour this tincture of Abramelin into a bottle and use it “as is” for magickal purposes. Rub it onto an object or your skin and the alcohol will quickly evaporate, leaving a pleasant cinnamon scent behind.
Meanwhile, in order to turn this into actual oil of Abramelin, we will need to employ the Bath of Mary to get rid of the alcohol:
Here is the Bath of Mary up and running – you can make out the steam rising from the spout on the side. The tincture is gently warming in the glass bowl so that the alcohol will evaporate. This is called a reduction.
In the two above pictures, you can see the level of the tincture is lowering as the process continues. You have to babysit this process! Keep adding water to the Bath of Mary, and don’t let the heat get too high – it only needs to be just high enough to keep the water in the kettle gently boiling. You’ll also want to do something about the oils that collect on the sides of the bowl:
I just keep a handful of q-tips on hand. Soak the tip in fresh grain alcohol, then use it to clean off the sides of the bowl. The fresh alcohol will dissolve the oil and carry it back down into the warming tincture.
For this amount of tincture, you can expect the reduction to take a couple of hours. The result is pictured above – a thick, sticky, tar-like substance. Alchemy would refer to this as the Sulfur (or oils), which happens to contain the Mercury (or pure spiritual essence) of the plant. (Remember that the Salt is contained in the Dead Head, and is not used in this process.)
At long last, we have reduced .88 oz of plant material to a volume that will fit into .44 oz of olive oil carrier. There will still be some alcohol content, so:
After vigorously shaking the oils together, I placed the small jar into the Bath of Mary. Notice that I put some warm water into the bowl, so the warming would be even gentler than before. This will allow most of the remaining alcohol to evaporate.
After you are comfortable that you have removed as much of the alcohol as possible, seal the jar, agitate vigorously and put it in the same warm dark place where you macerated the tincture:
You can see in the above two pictures, the plant oils (Sulfur/Mercury) do not immediately like to mix with the olive oil. However, after a day or two of agitation (two or three times a day), it permanently took on the appearance of the second picture. After about a week, I stopped agitating and allowed the mixture to brew for the final week mostly undisturbed.
When you finally open the jar to see the completed product, you will find the thick tar-like Sulfur is still there, but a small quantity of saturated olive oil has collected on the surface. In the above picture, I put some of both substances onto a spoon for illustration. The thick balsam is obvious, and next to it you can see the true oil of Abramelin. (It looks rather brown in the picture, but actually has a somewhat redder tinge.)
To use, dip your finger lightly into the surface of the oil and gently rub off the sticky substance. What remains on your finger is the oil you want. It should not burn your skin at all – however, still use caution when first handling either the oil or the tincture. You may be allergic to one of the ingredients where I am not. You should not, in any case, be burned by the cinnamon content of this oil.
Plans for the Future (See 11-2012 Update below!)
Like any alchemist, I certainly feel I can improve the above process over time. While it is certainly a viable process for producing proper Abramelin oil, it is not yet the substance described in the Torah. The thick tarry plant oils macerating in the olive oil would have made it quite unpleasant if poured into the hair and beards of priests!
Without a doubt, I will explore methods of separating the Sulfur and Mercury of the plant material. This would do away with the tar-like substance (the Sulfur) and leave only the Mercury – that is, pure essential oil like I could buy in the store. This would then be stirred into the olive oil carrier, resulting in much more of the pure reddish holy oil without all the goop beneath it.
Of course, you don’t use this holy oil very fast – so you’ll have to stay tuned for future updates on similar alchemical experiments. I hope this has been informative, or at least entertaining, for all of you.
As many of you know, I was given the honor of attending Florida Pagan Gathering Samhain 2012 this year as a headliner. While there, and between lectures, I had the opportunity to speak with an herbalist with a lot of experience making oils. I described my process to her – and she recognized every bit of it, so I asked if she might be able to help me figure out that missing last step to remove the “sludge” from the final product. She could, and she shared with me an extremely easy method!
In the above post, you’ll note that after I boiled down the tincture I simply poured the resulting sludge into the olive oil carrier and let that sit for a few days. (And, in fact, it remains in that state to this day.) However, to do it properly I only lacked one item: a cloth tea bag. Like these:
I was told to look for one with a fairly loose weave. It should be enough to allow the oil itself through, but should keep the sludge from passing through.
After boiling down the tincture, you just pour the sludge into the tea bag, tie it up and submerge the bag into the olive oil carrier. Seal up the jar and let it sit in a warm dark place for a long while, agitating it frequently. You can even open the jar every now and then and gently press down on the bag to squeeze more of the extract into the olive oil – just be careful not to force out any of the sludge when you do so.
In time, the olive oil will absorb the essential oils of your extract. When you are satisfied with the result, just take out the tea bag and throw it away. You will be left with pure – sludge free - Abramelin Oil. I’ll try this process (likely on a non-Abramelin oil of some type) and update this post with my results.
Also keep an eye on this blog for a future post where I will describe a method of using a simple refluxer to make your oil. It is not as ‘simple’ as the method described here, but it is much faster and efficiant.