Magical oils have a long, long history. Long ago, oils were a precious source of food and fuel, and the finest were reserved for sacred applications. Oils were offered to the Gods and used to anoint the newly born and dying. Mages scoured the globe for rare flowers, spices, and resins to create special oils for magic, some of which are still in use today.
The popularity of oils in contemporary witchcraft is due to the legacy of medieval magic, the influence of New Orleans-style Voodoo, and the works of the late, great green witch Scott Cunningham—among other sources. The result is a bewildering selection of oils to choose from. There’s simply no way to cover them all in this short article. Instead, we’ll look at some of the different types
There are three main types of oils that you can buy: Essential oils, synthetic fragrance oils, and blended oils (which may also be called anointing oils).
Essential oils are made by extracting the fragrant volatile compounds from fresh plant material, usually by distillation. Lots and lots of raw materials are required, and they have to be processed quickly before the volatile oils evaporate. Not surprisingly, true essential oils are expensive. They are in high demand for aromatherapy and other natural health remedies.
Many magicians favor pure essential oils because they contain the concentrated essence, or “soul” of the plant. The price of each oil is directly related to how much raw material is required to produce it: Leafy, fragrant Eucalyptus produces much more oil per pound than dry, resinous Myrrh, so Myrrh is the pricier essential oil.
Synthetic fragrance oils are engineered to mimic the fragrances found in nature. They are generally much less expensive than true essential oils. Synthetics are what usually goes in scented products such as candles, potpourris, and perfumes. They are generally longer-lasting fragrances that are less affected by heat and light. Sometimes they are combined with essential oils to bring down the cost. For example, a lavender oil product may contain both lavender essential oil and its synthetic cousin, linalool.
Synthetic fragrances get a bad rap for being “unnatural.” However, some of them are quite close to their plant-derived cousins and are only distinguishable to a chemist or trained nose. Also, some plant-based fragrances (like Jasmine) are so costly that the market for them is all but dominated by synthetics. As a magician, you’ll have to decide if synthetic fragrances are suitable for use in your rituals.
Blended oils are composed of one or more fragrances diluted with an unscented base or carrier oil. Unlike essential oils, they may be applied directly to the skin. (Assuming you’re not allergic.) Blended oils may contain genuine essential oils, synthetics, or both.
Most of the ready-to-use oils in metaphysical stores fall into this category. There are anointing oil versions of popular plant-based fragrances, of course--but it doesn’t stop there. There are also oils for the saints, the angels, the planets, the zodiac signs, the chakras, deities, and every magical objective that can be imagined!
Purpose-blended oils are presently enjoying a renaissance, and there are many independent producers offering their own elixirs. But the grandmother of them all is Dorothy Spencer, better known as Anna Riva. She began selling blended oils in the 1960s. At the time of her death in 2003, there were hundreds of oils in her catalog, each emblazoned with the familiar gold-foiled, terribly typeset label.
Anna Riva pioneered the marketing of “condition oils” (also called “fixing oils” or “conjure oils”). Used in Hoodoo and folk magic, they’re meant to fix a bad condition and/or bring about a better one. They generally have a mineral oil base, colorful contents, and even more colorful names. You can dominate someone with Bend Over Oil, send your enemies trotting with Hot Foot Oil, or trip up evil with Devil’s Shoestring Oil.
I sell some of these concoctions in my store, but if someone asks me what’s in them, the answer is always, “Goddess knows!” Blended oils use traditional recipes which are often secret.
Blended oils come in different sizes, ranging from 2 dram (1/8 oz) up to 16 oz. (Though I pity the person who needs a pint of Fix My Luck Oil!) The smell is usually perfume-y and nondescript, but some classic oils (like Black Cat Oil and Oil of Abramelin) have become recognizable over time through their extensive use in the Craft. At one time, it was said that you couldn't walk through the streets of New Orleans without catching a whiff of Van Van oil!
Shopping for Magical Oils
Essential oils and fragrance oils vary widely in price and quality. When selecting them, it’s best to go with your nose. If you can’t sample the oils, buy from a reputable supplier or favorite brand. And use common sense. It takes a couple hundred pounds of roses to make an ounce of true essential oil. At $7.99 a bottle, that “pure natural rose oil” probably isn’t what it claims to be.
It’s also worth mentioning that scented oils are neither a food nor a drug, and are totally unregulated by the FDA. So claims like “certified organic,” “100% pure,” and “Grade A” are just so much noise. A well-staffed health food store or apothecary may be able to answer some of your questions about the ingredients and origins of their oils. But most often, it’s a case of “buyer beware”.
Both essential oils and undiluted fragrance oils are highly concentrated and should never be applied directly to the skin. Doing so can cause irritation, rashes, liver damage—even permanent sensitivity to the product. However, if safely diluted, they are a wonderful addition to your ritual baths and other preparations.
Anointing oils are pre-diluted, but do a skin test before applying in large quantities. Also use caution when buying oils at vendor's fairs and markets. There are some wonderful small-batch ritual oils and fragrances, but not everyone who offers these products knows what they're doing.
All fragrances will diminish over time, and especially if exposed to light and heat. Buy only what you plan to use in a reasonable amount of time (a year or two), and keep it in a cool, dark place.
Making Your Own
At some point, you may want to try your hand at mixing your own oils for ritual use. To do this, you'll need just a few basic supplies: A base (carrier) oil, concentrated oils, droppers, labels and containers for the finished product.
A book or website on fragrance-making can tell you more about the advantages and disadvantages of different carrier oils, and suggested ratios for dilution. At first, you may want to follow an existing recipe and then modify it as you please. I recommend keeping a log of every blend you experiment with, so you'll always be able to re-create that "just right" formulation.
Making your own ritual oils allows you to create exactly what you need for a specific working. You can also incorporate factors (like astrological timing) that are hard to control in oils made by others. On the other hand, pre-made oils are convenient, inexpensive, and may meet your needs just fine.
May your magic smell delicious!
Read more by Michelle Gruben here.