A few years back at Templefest I was taking a workshop on folk magick by Matthew Venus, and he made a comment that stuck with me. Someone asked his opinion regarding artificial incense and fragrance oil as a substitute and he said that you might as well be using sacred Febreze air freshener in your magick. While I thought that was really funny, I wondered whether or not artificial ingredients can work in magick successfully. My own personal results have shown me both yes and no.
Using artificial scents in magick can work in two ways. First of all scents of any kind are powerful psychological triggers, which can help us alter our state of consciousness through our memory and power of association. For example, the scent of roses often reminds us of love – whether they’re real roses or not. This can get us into a great state of consciousness for a love spell. Secondly, it harnesses the power of intention and it can be argued (though I’m not sure I agree) that charging any item is working with the power of intention – and you definitely can charge man-made items as well as chemicals. As such, through sympathetic magick an artificial ingredient may become a symbol of the actual ingredient.
While intention is a large component of magick, it is not all there is to magick. The idea that “intention is everything” promoted strongly by New Age ideology (such as The Secret) which waters down hermetic principles often falls short. You can intend strongly to manifest money for example and it may work, but not as powerfully as incorporating other mechanics and definitely not as strongly as directing your willpower. Any witch who keeps a magickal journal of some sort for their spells and practices will make this observation over time.
Magick is a “science” as much as it is an “art”. Along with intention and harnessing willpower, we as witches tap into the use of correspondences and tend to work with spirits. Working with the planetary energies of an herb and the spirit of that herb will greatly increase your results. Correspondences aren’t just mental associations, they’re energetic similarities based on a specific “signature” of that planetary energy. While you can use your intention and willpower to use artificial ingredients in an act of sympathetic magick (magick where one item represents another), I do not believe that the planetary correspondences are sympathetic magick, though the identification of how a plant is ruled by each planet does seem to be utilizing sympathetic ideology. It’d be much easier to use a Mercury plant for a Mercurial working than to use a Saturn plant and use sympathetic magick so that it represents a Mercury plant.
Also, it’s easier to work with the spirits of the plants to gain even better results through their cooperation when you’re actually working with the plant. In the workshops I teach I often explain how when casting a spell, we try to plug into as many currents that are in alignment with our intention as possible to enhance the magick and sent it on its way as strongly as possible.
Artificial scents are usually made of ingredients either unrelated to the scent they’re trying to recreate or only have a trace, with other ingredients. This doesn’t mean that chemistry is bad, but it doesn’t mean that you’re using very different energies with different ingredients in your working then the original plant’s energy. Binders such as glues being burned alongside other harsh chemicals, dyes and perfumes in incense and oils have been known to induce headaches and irritate the eyes in people when the original plants that they are trying to recreate often do not when burned.
For example, if doing a love spell one could simply light some artificial rose scented incense and do our magick plugging into the current of intention. However, one could also use real rose which is ruled by both venus and water, call upon the spirit of rose and ask for assistance in love, call upon a deity like Eros to assist in the work, perform it on the full moon or waxing moon and perform the working in the hour of Venus. Instead of plugging into one current we’ve now plugged into many currents of energy in alignment with our intention and willpower giving an extra boost of strength.
While I believe that investing in your magickal ingredients is investing in the quality of your magick, I do understand that natural ingredients are definitely more expensive than their artificial counterparts and not all of us may have the financial privilege of being able to buy completely natural ingredients and I definitely understand that. You may also want to consider simplifying your practice and working with more common herbs than the rarer ones. You don’t need a ton of ingredients to make a spell work. While I’m a big advocate of growing your own plants from seed, growing a relationship with the physical plant and the spirit of the plant, not everyone can do this. You can also buy plenty of natural ingredients at your local grocery stores for very cheap and I strongly recommend investing in Michael Furie’s book Supermarket Magic: Creating Spells, Brews, Potions & Powders from Everyday Ingredients for the witch on a budget. If you currently work with artificial ingredients, I challenge you to try working with more natural ingredients and record the differences in results.
2020 EDIT: I’ve also written in my book Psychic Witch, a technique I use to tap into the energy of an ingredient that you may not actually have and show how to harness that to add to your spells or concoctions.