The Balancing Path: Unconventional Tools and Altar Supplies

The Balancing Path: Unconventional Tools and Altar Supplies November 18, 2019

When someone is new to witchcraft and/or p-word practice, it is completely natural to ask, “How do I do this right?”  That’s a respectful question to have when exploring a new tradition, because you hopefully don’t want to bumble around like a fool committing taboos and offending everyone.  The problem comes in the dizzying array of answers to that question, but there is a very good reason for the lack of consensus.  Unless you are joining in on a formalized practice like Wicca, our practices are very much individual, tailored to our specific, unique paths.  However, even in traditions like Wicca, practices can vary greatly from group to group, to best meet the needs of their members.  The exact physical and metaphysical nature of our tools are almost limitless.

The exact physical and metaphysical nature of our tools are almost limitless. Image by Karina Mannott via Pixabay.

Honestly, that’s one of the things I love most about p-word paths, how individual they tend to be.  It’s beautiful.  Embrace diversity in every form it takes.

There are, however, quite a few tools that are fairly consistent across the board in their representation and symbology.  This is because traditional pagan tools and altar supplies have their roots in ceremonial magical practices of Europe, which in turn took inspiration from things like biblical sources, the kabbalah, and Greek and Roman mythology.  Since the most common pagan and witchcraft tools stem from essentially the same source (European ceremonial magic), they bear a lot of similarity across many traditions.

Those similarities are great for giving us shared symbology, but that symbology doesn’t work for everyone, and it tends to omit some wonderfully potent options for your tools.  Just because everyone else is doing it one way, doesn’t mean you can’t do it another.  Your most effective magical tool will always be the one that has the most meaning for you, regardless of how much sense it makes to someone else.

The only essential for magical or p-word practice is yourself.  Everything else is icing on the cake, tools which can be used to aid in achieving focus for your magical or devotional practice.  Are they fun?  Sure.  Inspiring?  Absolutely.  Useful?  Undoubtedly.  Essential?  No.  So, don’t sweat it if you don’t have the funds or the situation to buy and display all the “proper” tools.

The only essential for magical or p-word practice is yourself. Image by Tracy Lundgren via Pixabay.

It very much upsets me when someone tells a newbie that they MUST buy certain things in order to be valid as a practitioner.  It’s classist and exclusionary.  Spiritual paths are not the sole purveyance of those with disposable income to spend on trinkets, nor should they ever exclude those who need to stay in the proverbial broom closet.  Your practice is valid, whether you can spend unlimited amounts of money buying impressive works of art and expensive ingredients, or have no money at all to spend.  You are valid, whether you have pentagrams hung throughout your home and a bold publicly visible altar, or a box tucked in a drawer which protects your small collection of tools and devotional items.

The tools we use and the devotional items we have exist to help us connect with the liminal and reach outside this physical plane to perform works of magic or devotion.  They help us focus to better achieve our intent or reach a trance state.  When you pick up an athame and start to cast a circle, you are telling your mind This is What We Are Doing, that now you will put your all into creating a space and building energy.  The feel of the hilt of the blade in your hand, the smell of incense, specially chosen music or deliberate silence, the words we chant, the motion of walking the circle, these things all bring us into focus by engaging the senses together towards one purpose.

But no one part of that is necessary to successfully cast a circle or conduct a ritual.  A circle can be cast through the sheer will of the caster, with no tools, no motion, no externalized ritual.  The tools just make it easier.  Engaging all the senses makes it easier.  There is nothing inherent in a blade that makes it cast a circle, or all blades would be associated with witchcraft.  If you look critically at why certain tools are used for certain things, and how they work in that role, you can decide for yourself what alternate tools can serve the same function in your practice, and if those alternate tools might even work better for you.

There are two main things to consider when choosing a magical tool or devotional item: symbology and practicality.

Symbolic Meaning

Symbology is important because it gives depth to the item.  For example, an athame isn’t just an athame.  It is a symbol of clarity, knowledge, and action.  Its energetic uses mirror its practical uses, making it ideal for things like cutting ties, setting a defensive barrier, or hailing a deity.  A cup is a literal vessel for liquids and brews, and thus a symbolic vessel for gathered energy, emotion, bounty, and creation.

Symbology is important because it gives depth to the item. Image by Enrique Meseguer via Pixabay.

Everything has symbology and associations that have the potential to be applied to metaphysics, even if it is not something we normally think of as a magical tool.  For example, a pencil is associated with creation, study, work, productivity, writing, and doodling, and thus could be consecrated as a magical tool in those arenas, or used as an ingredient in a spellworking.  An electric lamp has physical electricity in it, and can be turned on or off to help illuminate and make things clear.  A favorite mug will likely have a great many personal associations and symbology, making it potentially more effective for some workings than an ornate chalice.  A walking cane symbolizes mobility, perseverance, and adaptation, as well as disability, pain, and illness.

Sometimes the symbology that comes pre-packaged with a traditional tool doesn’t work for an individual practitioner.  Sometimes that symbology can be ignored, and other times it taints the waters too deeply for the traditional tool to be used.  For example, most tools have been parsed out with male or female gender associations, which never made any sense to me.  Anything proactive or vaguely phallic seems to be associated with male, and anything that is a receptacle or passive is associated with female.  This can be jarring if you are non-binary (and thus erased because you are not represented), or are bothered by the casual misogyny and gender stereotypes that are echoed by traditional gender associations.  If the symbology of your tools is jarring, or otherwise feels forced, instead of helping you to achieve focus, it can easily take you out of the moment, making your working more difficult or impossible.

Sometimes the practitioner has personal associations that make a traditional tool unsuitable to their practice.  If someone overwhelmingly associates all weapons, athames included, with death and violence, and are disinclined to use anything that is vaguely weapon-like, an alternative tool will be needed to fill the role normally reserved for the athame (wands often work fantastically in the same roles).  If a practitioner is phobic of fire, they are probably not going to be using traditional candles. LED candles and small lamps or nightlights are likely to function great as a substitute with some small adjustments due to the fact that the electric light is not a sacrifice like consumable candles.  If you have overwhelmingly bad associations with any object, you are probably not going to want to include it in your practice.

Sometimes the practitioner has personal associations that make a traditional tool unsuitable to their practice. Image by Pedra6_Photos via Pixabay.

Practical Issues

Practicality is important because our situations and resources and goals very much affect our choices of tools and dedicatory items.  If you don’t have a lot of disposable income, you’re not going to be able to go out and spend $200-$2000 on that beautiful hand-forged dagger with ornate decorations, no matter how much you might covet it.  If you do all your working in a kitchen, you probably wouldn’t want it, because it would be useless compared to your trusty chef’s knife.  If you express your path through gardening, a garden knife would be a much more practical choice in an athame.

If you are out and proud, having visible altar spaces and pagan decorations in your home is likely a natural choice.  If you need to be in the broom closet, for whatever reason (all reasons are valid), then all your tools and dedicatory items need to be either easily hidden, or subtle enough a casual observer wouldn’t realize their intended purpose.  Of maybe you are somewhere between the two, not closeted, but also not inclined to use your practice as a decorative motif.

If you live in a very small space, have lots of roommates or other people living in the same space, restrictions due to lease agreements or local laws, allergies, or pets to consider, those things are all going to change what is and is not practical to have and use in your living space.  Someone with a large yard in a rural area may not have any problem lighting up a huge bonfire.  Someone living in a small, inexpensive apartment might be violating their lease just lighting one candle.

If you have pets or allergies, you need to be cautious about what essential oils, incenses, and other ingredients you use and how. Image by Joanna Kosinska via Unsplash.

If you have pets or allergies, you need to be cautious about what essential oils, incenses, and other ingredients you use and how, lest you accidentally hurt or kill someone (seriously – many common essential oils can be toxic to animals).  If you have a cat or small child that can’t resist knocking items off surfaces, you need to place your altar where the little critter can’t reach, or make sure all items are durable enough to survive taking a plunge now and again.  If you have a dog or child that needs to taste everything, anything that is potentially within reach needs to be non-toxic.

Don’t buy into anyone who tells you that you must use specific ingredients to achieve the desired effect.  Be courteous of other people in your working vicinity who might have allergies even if you do not (especially before burning incense or smudge – it travels). There are always other options.

Choose Tools That Have Meaning to You

When choosing your magical tools and altar supplies, take into consideration the traditional tools which are applicable to your practice, their symbology, and their purpose.  Think critically about how well those factors mesh with your personal situation, symbology, and needs.  The traditional tool may work great, or something else might work better.  You might want multiple similar tools with slightly different affinities to use in different situations.  Consider what items you associate with the tasks or intents of the traditional tools.  Is there something atypical or unusual that would have more meaning for you and your practice?

Always go for what is practical for your situation and has the most meaning to you in association with its intended purpose.

I have a folding pocket knife for one of my athames, which I use for utilitarian magical purposes, like gathering herbs or cutting cords.  I consider myself a very accomplished seamstress and fiber worker, so one of my wands is a metal stiletto with a marbled handle, which I purchased at an embroidery shop.  It directs energy in a very precise way, even more so than my dagger athame.  I also very much enjoy baking, even if I haven’t done it much in years due to medical dietary restrictions, so my other wand is a small stone rolling pin.  It directs energy very diffusely and slowly, but with stability and impact.  I have been known to use a hand fan in place of smudge or a broom when cleansing an area.

Always go for what is practical for your situation and has the most meaning to you in association with its intended purpose. Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

Athames: An athame directs energy via the blade(s) and tip, so anything with that kind of a shape is a potential athame, and different materials will change the properties of how your energy moves through the athame.  Potential alternatives are ceramic or stone knives (sharp or dull), wooden or bamboo knives or swords, shinai, kitchen knives or butter knives, or something you mold for yourself using oven bake clay or other craft material.  Or you can usually forgo the athame entirely and instead use a wand or other energy-directing magical tool to achieve your purpose.

Wands: A wand is anything with a long shape that fits nicely in your hand.  It is often tapered, but not always.  Most of the time it is made out of wood, but it can be made out of anything.  It can be an interesting stick that you like the feel of, a pencil, a laser pointer, a pipe (left hollow, or filled with other materials to create a myriad of properties), a walking cane, telescoping pointer, dowel (of any material), awl or stiletto, chopstick, skewer, molded oven bake clay, or even that costume unicorn horn laying around from a couple Halloweens ago (humor can be a powerful tool as well, my friends).

Cups and Chalices: A chalice is at heart drinking vessel, so personal associations will reign supreme in your choice of ritual tool.  If it holds a liquid and is safe to drink out of, it can be used as a chalice.  This includes, but is not limited to, fancy goblets, wine glasses, shot glasses, mugs, teacups, bowls, jars, steins, tankards, drinking horns, flasks, and drinking gourds.  There is a lot of symbolic overlap between chalices and cauldrons, and in the grey area between the two you will find things like large bowls, pitchers, decanters, and coffee and tea pots.

Cauldrons: When we picture cauldrons, we usually see a giant iron pot with multiple witches stirring some strange magical brew.  Any vessel shaped vaguely like a cauldron or in which you can make a brew is a potential cauldron, including mugs and bowls.  This includes kitchen pots, pitchers, sun tea jars, canning jars, buckets, ceramic rice pots, electric rice cookers, dutch ovens, crockpots, and so on.  Laura Tempest Zakroff has a lot of suggestions for non-traditional cauldrons.

Candles: I love candle magic, but it’s not always practical.  Candles, especially fancy ones, can be expensive, and they are consumed and must be replaced, making them a sacrifice as well.  LED candles, night lights, and small lamps are all non-candle alternatives.  If you are buying small white candles in bulk to save money, they can be specialized by carving sigils and symbols into them, anointing them with oils or herbs, or wrapping them in colored ribbons (though be careful it won’t set your altar on fire).  Waterslide decal paper can be used to print images and then transfer them onto the side of the candle.  Also check the home goods section of thrift stores for unused candles.  It’s amazing how many people will buy fancy candles, never use them, and then donate them to charity.  From time to time I even find 100% beeswax candles.  If you are so inclined, you can invest in molds and make your own candles from new wax, or by recycling unburned wax from used candles.

Smudging: My partner has asthma and is severely allergic to sage smoke.  I have other breathing issues courtesy of chronic illness.  Between the two of us, sage is not an option, and it’s best if we avoid the large amount of smoke generated by smudging, no matter the kind of herbs used.  For a direct replacement I will use a stick of incense, and it is just as effective in my practice as billowing smoke.  If the goal is to cleanse and banish, other alternatives are a broom, duster, hand fan, or whatever else feels appropriate that is normally used for cleaning.

Divination: Some of the most common kinds of divination are tarot and oracle decks, pendulums, palmistry, astrology, mirror scrying, rune casting, and reading tea leaves.  However, there is a divination system using just about anything for the mode of reading.  If you find yourself asking the question, “Can ____ thing be used for divination?” the answer is probably, Yes.  Plug “_____ divination” into a search engine, and you’ll probably find a formal term for it which you can use to search for more specific information.  Another option is to build a set of bones, creating your own divination system from small trinkets that have personal meaning or speak to you.

Statuary and Devotional Icons: Beautifully rendered statuary and paintings of deities and spirits are a wonderful thing, but they are often expensive, sometimes are too large or awkward for limited spaces, and can make a devotional altar obvious to casual observers.  For alternatives, look to the symbology and associations of your chosen deity or spirit, and use those symbolic items in place of a statue or direct icon.  For example, Aphrodite can be represented by a sea shell, The Morrigan can be represented by a crow or raven feather or statuette, Freya can be represented by cats or a flashy piece of jewelry, Ganesha can be represented by an elephant figurine, and Thoth can be represented by a pocket thesaurus or academic text.

As your practice evolves, so too will your tools. Photo by Alex Alvarez via Unsplash.

How Can You Be Sure an Unusual Magical Tool is OK to Use?

Education and experience over time will help you accurately evaluate when an unusual tool is OK to use, but here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you make a decision.  As your practice evolves, so too will your tools.  They can and will likely change over time.

  • Are you practicing a formal tradition where the unusual tool would be considered inappropriate? If the answer is yes, do you have solid reasons for wanting to change the tradition in your personal practice?
  • If the unusual tool originates in a culture other than your own, would its use be neutral, cultural appreciation, or cultural appropriation?
  • Is it unsafe to use in the way you intend? If so, are there extra precautions you can take to use it safely?
  • Do the physical properties of the tool mesh with your needs?
  • Do the symbolic properties of the tool mesh with your personal symbolic associations?
  • If the tool is to be used in a group setting, will it make sense to the other people involved?

What are some of the unusual tools you use, have used in the past, or have seen other practitioners use?

 

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About Sidney Eileen
Sidney Eileen is a non-binary, asexual, animistic, polytheist witch and artist. They acknowledge divinity and unique natures in not just the gods, but in all manner of ephemeral and supernatural beings, spirits, living beings, and the souls that embody the physical objects and spaces around us. Their practice is lifelong and of an intuitive nature, seeking fulfillment through mutable asymmetrical balance. You can read more about the author here.
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