If you’re like me, you probably have more than a few store-bought magical tools lying around. We all do, despite the fact that there is, embedded deep in the Western esoteric consciousness, the idea that our magical tools should be handmade. In our guts, we believe that there’s something impure about the mass-produced article.
This idea is a relatively new one. After all, by definition it can’t be any older than factories. I suspect that it is founded on, or grows from the same Romantic roots as, the Marxist notion of the alienation of labor. Marx’s theory of alienation rests on idea that the value of an object comes not on its market value, nor solely on its pragmatic use, but on its relationship to person who made it. Thus, for Marx, the factory-made item is always of less “value” than that made by hand.
That being the case, Pagans in particular seem to be attached to this idea of the “impure” coming off the factory line. The reasoning behind this belief is complex, with aspects that are both mundane and spiritual in nature. It is an idea worthy of some attention; it’s a practice that is both illuminating and revealing.
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The Pagan DIY Ethic
We live in a time of immense wealth and diversity. It’s entirely possible to go online and have pretty much whatever magical tool you want delivered to your door.
At least around my neighborhood, we need it. Where I live, we’re more likely to be functionaries than artisans, more often programmers than blacksmiths. Maybe your neighborhood is different, but I’d bet not.
So why don’t we want to just go out and buy tools willy-nilly? The rational aspect of this is that, whatever craziness we’re living through now, Western magical practices are meant to be hidden. Let’s face it, it’s hard to hide your magical practices if you head down to ye olde magic shoppe to pick up your weekly supplies. Buy a grimoire with a credit card, and you’re forever in the records, somewhere.
Yet there’s more to this DIY Pagan tradition than simple social pragmatics. In a world where everything can be cheaply made in factories that supply global needs and desires, things that are handmade, or better yet self-made, take on greater meaning and power.
With the wealth and diversity of the modern era, it’s possible to live in places where we can, as the saying goes, “let our freak flags fly.” Here in the Bay Area, no one cares what I buy or what I believe. Nonetheless, there’s still a value put on either making our own gear, or hiring someone who is a skilled artisan to do so.
We’re willing to pay extra for a handmade, well-constructed item. Personally, I’ll pay even more if I know that the maker is also a practitioner. When it comes to the values of magic and money, the profligate Crowley suggests that one should “buy the egg of a perfectly black hen without haggling” — only settle for perfection, and not worry about the price.
As Pagans, we will often find a need to invest in things that don’t seem to hold much value for the average Westerner. On the other hands, that doesn’t mean we should be spendthrift fools.
On the surface, the DIY ethic of Western Paganism is a rejection of the out-of-control materialism of our culture. But if we scratch the surface, the same ethic is a metaphor for our paganism.
It can be deeply satisfying to make something with your own hands. Maybe it’s instinct, and maybe it’s just the way we spend our lives enjoying the fruits of others’ labors. Who knows?
Whatever it is, things that we make have something to them that store-bought things do not.
In that same way, when we build our tools to touch the mysteries of the universe, we forge those same connections within ourselves. Crafting, and charging, a chalice dedicated to the Lady not only builds that connection between the cup and that god. It also draws you into a closer relationship as well.
Crafting from Blanks
If you ever spend time on crafting websites, or stop by one of the big craft chains, you’ll see plenty of opportunities to find “blanks” – items that are built and complete, but not finished. They’re just waiting for us to put our personal touches on them. Sometimes, those are useful for making magical tools. Personally, I really like the one-inch wooden disks for making talismans.
But there is another kind of blank to talk about. Any magical tools that you buy, unless they’re second-hand, are essentially spiritual blanks. You might buy, for example, a perfectly stained and complete athame designed exactly as required by your working group. But until you awaken that item, it’s no more (or less) magical than a stone you’d find in a river.
You can find, in most beginner books, rituals for charging tools. But for long-term practice, that isn’t something you’ll want to do just once. Reaffirm that connection again and again, and you will find tools that turn from tchotchkes into allies as the years pass.
ProTip: If you buy, inherit, or find a second-hand tool, you might want to be a little careful. If the practitioner knew enough (and was dogged enough) to really awaken your new pentacle, knife, or whatever, you might have just inherited something more akin to a former pet gone feral than a tool. If that’s the case, you’ll want to befriend it and build trust.
There are also cases where you’ll want to simply clean whatever residue is on the item, and possibly even situations where you’ll find it incompatible with your practices and need to get rid of it. I’ve even had items that I simply wasn’t ready for, which sat on a shelf for ten years until they told me it was time.