Enchanting The Bedroom
Often overlooked as a site of enchantment, the home is no less inspirited than primordial forest or ancient temple ground. The recognition of this seems particularly important given many of us in the US and abroad have been sheltering in place and pandemic may be in the future for some time to come. Far from being just a place to quarantine or feel trapped during a global plague, the home is the prima materia of community and by working with it magically we can cultivate that relationship and the home can nurture us in return. The magic of the home is as old as the home itself and reconnecting with its enchantment can help transform the domestic landscape into a living, life-affirming ecology of spiritual relationships.
Although the bedroom may not seem a logical place to start when investigating the magic of the home, in close quarters like my own Brooklyn apartment, it’s often the only truly private space available. For me, my bedroom is my safe space, classroom, place of rest, and locus for diverse rituals. While many contemporary taboos advise refraining from performing magic or bringing spirits into the bedroom, this wasn’t always the case. The folklore and magical traditions which inform my practice offer an array of ways, both big and small, the bedroom may be contemplated or worked with as a temple in and of itself.
The astrological landscape of the home gives the bedroom to Venus. Seventeenth-century astrologer William Lilly observed that she rules beds and ‘fair lodgings’, while chambers, an archaic term that often referred to a bedroom, belong to Libra her chief house. Lilly emphasizes attractiveness, fresh air, and cleanliness when discussing places suitable to Venus, and this is reflected in the many operations that call for perfuming, tidying the bedroom, or wearing clean clothes to sleep. Similarly, fifteenth-century occult philosopher Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa gives ‘garnished beds’ to the lesser benefic, placing the focus directly on the bed itself.
The bed is also found as a preferred location for Venusian sorceries of love in early modern grimoires and receipt books. Le Petit Albert, an eighteenth-century collection of magical receipts, offers one such operation which commences during the day and hour of Venus. Making use of materia ruled by her to be deployed under the pillow of a potential lover, this provides a location that repeatedly comes up in the magic of the bedroom:
“You will go on a Friday morning before the sunrise into a fruit orchard, and pluck a fruit from the most beautiful apple tree which you can find; then you write with your blood on a small white piece of paper your first and last names, and upon the next line, the name and surname of the person you want to be loved by, and then you must take three of their hairs and will join them with three of yours that you used to link the little note you have written, one with another, on which there will be the word of SHEVA, also written in your blood. Then, you must cut the apple in half; and you should put the halves along with your hair linked notes, and with two small sharp myrtle twigs, you will join properly the two apple halves around your note, and dry the apple in the oven, such that it becomes hard and dried such as dried apples are on Lent; Then you wrap this in leaves of laurel and myrtle, and place it under the pillow where the loved one lays at night, without her knowledge, and in a short time you will obtain their love.”
Love, sex, and marriage however are not the sole sorceries of our private chambers. The magicians of the early modern period experienced diverse virtues and spirits cohering in and around the bedroom. (Pseudo-)Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, for example, has a chapter dedicated to receiving oracles in dream. In it he offers advice for preparing the bedroom before sleep if the operator wishes to dream true and advises observing the place of the Moon in the zodiac:
“He that is desirous therefore to receive an Oracle… let him also have his bed-chamber fair and clean, exorcised and consecrated if he will; then let him perfume the same with some convenient fumigation; and let him anoint his temples with some unguent efficacious hereunto, and put a ring upon his finger… let him take either some image, or holy table, or holy paper, and place the same under his head: then having made a devout prayer, let him go unto his bed meditating upon that thing which he desireth to know, let him so sleep; for so shall he receive a most certain and undoubted oracle by a dream, when the Moon goeth through that sign which was in the ninth House of his nativity…”
Among admonitions to cleanliness and prayer, (Pseudo-)Agrippa suggests a number of Biblical and saintly dead who may be called upon from the bed to help us dream well:
“To the same effect do conduce holy prayers and imprecations, as well unto God, as to the holy Angels and Heroes: the imprecations of which prayers are to be composed as we have before shown, according to some religious similitude… making mention of those things which we intend to do: as, out of the Old Testament, of the dream of Jacob, Joseph, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar: if out of the New Testament, of the dream of Joseph the husband of the blessed virgin Mary; of the dream of the three Wise-men; of John the Evangelist sleeping upon the breast of our Lord: and whatsoever of the like kind can be found in Religion, Miracles, and Revelations; as the revelation of the Cross to Helen, the revelations of Constantine and Charles the Great, the revelation of Bridget, Cyril, Methodius, Mechtild, Joachim, Merlin, and such-like.”
This beautifully complicates the occult ecology of the bedroom. It isn’t just Venus, her spirits, or virtues that can be found in our chambers, it’s familiar terrain for dreaming spirits too – whether planetary, heroic, or otherwise. Combining both the dreaming and Venusian currents of magic centered on the bed are a plethora of early modern and nineteenth century operations and folk charms to dream of one’s future spouse or lover. Many called on the names of Catholic saints to work this effect, one seventeenth-century example invoked Saint Agnes to receive a kiss from one’s sweetheart-to-be in dream:
“Upon this St. Agnes day you must be sure to keep a true fast, for thou must neither eat nor drink all that day, nor at night, neither let any man, woman, or a child kiss thee that day; and thou must be sure at night when thou goest to bed, to put on a clean shift, and the best thou hast the better thou maist speed, and thou must have clean clothes on thy head, for St. Agnes does love to see clean clothes when she comes; and when thou liest down on thy bed, lie thee down on thy back as straight as thou canst, and lay both thy hands under thy head behind and say these words:
‘Now good St. Agnes play thy part,
And send to me my own sweetheart;
And shew me such an happy bliss,
This night of him to have a kiss.’
And then be sure to fall asleep as soon as thou canst and before thou awake out of thy first sleep, thou shalt see him come and stand before thee… but be sure thou declare not thy dream unto anybody in ten days and by that time thou may come to see thy dream come to pass.”
An entire corpus of magic to protect people while in bed also reveals concerns over vulnerability while sleeping. In 1686, author and antiquarian John Aubrey recorded one such charm, credited to an anonymous woman from Essex over a century earlier. Here too the heroic, Biblical dead are invited into the bedroom alongside one’s guardian angel. Known as the Black Paternoster, and once condemned as ‘popish witchcraft’, the prayer remained popular well into the twentieth century:
“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on.
And blessed Guardian Angel keep
Me safe from danger whilst I sleep.”
Nightmare, envisioned as a monstrous hag, demonic incubus, or a more bestial and inhuman spirit, was another source of significant anxiety in premodern Europe as reflected in the many charms and operations that guarded against it. Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, a classic among English cunning folk, recorded one example that appears to be based on a fifteenth-century predecessor. The older operation called for the charm to be written and hung over the bed along with a flint stone that had a natural hole in it. Scot’s, however, features no further directions than reciting:
“St. George, St. George, our ladies knight,
He walked by day, so did he by night:
Until such time as he her found,
He her beat and he her bound,
Until her troth she to him plight,
She would not come to here that night.”
Other charms were more medicinal in nature, but still situated their action and spiritual activity in the bedroom, as in the following from a Middle English book of remedies:
“If a man may not sleep due to illness, write these words on a laurel leaf ‘+ ysmael + ysmael + I swear to you by the angels this man (insert name) should sleep.’ And put the leaf under his head… And do eat often lettuce and drink poppy seed with ale.”
After The Fourth Book’s manner for receiving oracles in dream, many of these enchantments invite angels and Biblical or saintly dead into the bedroom to act as accomplices in protection, dream, and health. Far from being a room free of spiritual activity, this indicates that a whole ecology of sacred beings are potentially allied unto the altar of the bed and the shrine of the bedroom. The healing charm for disturbed sleep is especially interesting in that it expands its enchantment of the bed beyond religious spirits into plant allies, folk astrology, and somnolent foodways. The laurel leaf, often a tree of the Sun, is placed under the pillow possibly indicating a symbolic ‘setting’ of the Sun and his virtues beneath the sleeper’s head, while poppy seed, beer, and lettuce (whether of the wild, sedative or domestic, salad varieties) are classic Lunary foods.
Yet other, less safe or savory genii are called to the bedside too including the nebulous, tricky, and never to be underestimated fairies. Frequently associated with natural wonder and ancient European burial sites in the popular imagination, early modern operations to conjure fairies often situated themselves in the domestic landscape. One such ritual to obtain a ring of invisibility from three fairy sisters appears in the aforementioned Scot’s Discoverie. The action is specifically located in and around the magician’s bed:
“…First go to a fair Parlor or Chamber, and an even ground, and in no loft, and from people nine days, for it is the better: and let all thy clothing be clean and sweet. Then make a Candle of Virgin Wax, and light it, and make a fair fire of charcoals in a fair place, in the middle of the Parlor or Chamber. Then take fair clean water, that runneth against the East, and set it upon the fire: and if thou washest thyself, say these words, going about the fire three times, holding the Candle in thy right hand…
‘O blessed Virgins + Milia + Achilia + I conjure you in the Name of the Father, in the Name of the Son, and the Name of the Holy Ghost, and by their virtues I charge you to depart from me in peace for a time. And Sibilia I conjure thee, by the virtue of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the virtue of his flesh and precious blood, that he took of our blessed Lady the Virgin, and by all holy company in Heaven, I charge thee Sibylia, by all the virtues aforesaid, that thou be obedient unto me, in the Name of God; that when, and what time and place I shall thee by this foresaid Conjuration written in this Book, look thou be ready to come unto me, at all hours and minutes, and to bring unto me the Ring of Invisibility, whereby I may go invisible at my will and pleasure, and that at all hours and minutes; Fiat, fiat, Amen.’
…and lie thou in thy bed, in the same Parlor or Chamber; And lay thy right hand out of the bed, and look thou have a fair silken Kercher bound about thy head, and be not afraid, they will do thee no harm: For there will come before thee three fair women, and all in white clothing, and one of them will put a Ring upon thy finger, wherewith thou shalt go invisible.”
The bedroom also had many botanical spirits allied to it. Neapolitan folklore holds that rue strewn about the bed will protect new mothers from the evil eye. A parallel practice from Jerusalem features rue and garlic strung over the bed for the same purpose, and in Wigtonshire bog myrtle was turned to rather than rue. Apart from amuletic uses, plants were part of the dream incubation and love magic practices common to the bedroom. As early as Pliny, southernwood was strewn in bedrooms as an aphrodisiac, while a late nineteenth-century book of botanical lore suggested true dreams may be procured by:
“...making a nosegay of various colored flowers, one of a sort, a sprig of rue, and some Yarrow off a grave; these must be sprinkled with a few drops of the oil of Amber, applied with the left hand, and bound round the head under the nightcap, when retiring to bed, which must be supplied with clean linen.”
The same text also included laurel among oneiric plant allies:
“Rise between three and four o’clock in the morning of your birthday, with cautious secrecy, so as to be observed by no one, and pluck a sprig of Laurel; convey it to your chamber, and hold it over some lighted brimstone for five minutes, which you must carefully note by a watch or dial; wrap it in a white linen cloth or napkin, together with your own name written on paper, and that of your lover (or if there is more than one, write all the names down), write also the day of the week, the date of the year, and the age of the moon; then haste and bury it in the ground, where you are sure it will not be disturbed for three days and three nights; then take it up, and place the parcel under your pillow for three nights, and your dreams will be truly prophetic as to your destiny.”
In the US during the early twentieth century, folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt noted that sleeping with a Bible or open pair of scissors under the bed kept nightmares at bay according to sources in Adams County, Illinois while in the Ozarks, Vance Randolph recorded feathers from a black hen smoldered beneath the bed allayed fever. Both folklorists collected many further examples of the bed being the center of magical activity, some more explicitly sorcerous. Among Hyatt’s sources on African-American hoodoo and rootwork in the deep south, for example, a woman reported taking a scrap of sheet from a bed where she’d recently had sex with a man, wiping her vulva with it, and putting the scrap in her shoe to keep him loyal.
The charms, allies, and operations shared above can be worked with in full or provide starting points for developing our own rituals to connect with the community of spirits and virtues that haunt our bedrooms. Examining Agrippa and Lilly, for example, has helped me synthesize new ways of relating to Venus. One of the practices to come from this is that Fridays in her hour, I honor the planet of love and harmony with prayer, music, fragrance, and by cleaning my room. Additionally, I hang roses over my bed or dress the corners of my mattress with Venusian flower essences. I find this makes the bedroom a more receptive environment for her better virtues and positively impacts other work I do that falls under the aegis of Venus.
Tapping into ways the bedroom is alive with enchantment can provide new paths for exploring and relating to place, love, and rest. Our private chambers aren’t just where we store our bodies when not laboring, they’re not just where we’re trapped during plaguey days; they’re a living landscape and fertile ground for establishing our first, most intimate spirit relationships. In this recognition and by strengthening these relationships, I hope we can dream radical new possibilities for creating community, nurturing ourselves, and engaging with the world around us. But safe places to rest are a gift not everyone is privileged to have and in recognition of this I’d like to leave you with a few efforts currently underway to house some of my beloved trans sistren.
House of Tulip is a nonprofit collective creating housing solutions for TGNC people in Louisiana. G.L.I.T.S. Inc currently has an opportunity to sign two leases and buy two buildings to create both temporary and permanent housing for Black trans people in NYC. The Homeless Black Trans Women Fund works to alleviate the chronic homelessness that exists among Black and brown trans women in Atlanta. My Sistah’s House is raising money to provide tiny homes for Black trans women in Memphis. Please consider sharing the work of the amazing women behind these efforts on social media and, if you’re able, donating to their causes. If the home provides a firm foundation for building community, it’s the responsibility of the housed to provide for those who don’t have roofs over their head or beds to sleep in.
Good sleep, happy dreaming, and may all your bed chambers be temples for nurturing body, spirit, and soul.