Confessions of a Snake Oil Salesman

Confessions of a Snake Oil Salesman July 20, 2017

For a long time now I’ve been a merchant of metaphysical goods, energy healing and psychic services. For the most part, I think we do good, honest work.  Then there are days when I feel like a snake oil salesman.  I confess my disenchantment with the metaphysical industry, which I know to be just as exploitative as any other business, despite its “self-help” facade.

Snake Oil Salesman - Public Domain
Public Domain – “Snake oil is an expression that originally referred to fraudulent health products or unproven medicine but has come to refer to any product with questionable or unverifiable quality or benefit. By extension, a snake oil salesman is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods or who is themselves a fraud, quack, charlatan, or the like.” ~wikipedia

Corporate Witchcraft and the Bottom Line

I am a Witch who holds dear the Wiccan Rede, having sworn to harm none.  “Harm” is a tricky and complex idea, and I work within an industry that does not necessarily share my ethical standards.  I am also the president of a corporation, and sometimes that feels like a conflict of interests.

Note the use of the word industry. Metaphysics is lofty and philosophical, the arrow to point you in the direction of enlightenment. However, once you tack on the word industry it becomes a business that requires profit to continue. Being in business implies that great investments of time and money were laid down by people who want very desperately to continue to feed their families.

Hint: Opening a metaphysical store so that you can devote your life to priest/essing is tantamount to taking a vow of poverty, but we still expect to eat and sleep indoors in exchange for our service.

I confess that personal ego is also a big part of my choice to remain open; I cannot throw in the towel on my investments and let everyone down, so I will not give up. I’ve put everything I have into this shop because it finances the Spiritual work I’ve vowed to do. That makes for a compelling motive. The last thing society needs is another religious hypocrite; however, just like any other business, we need people to buy what we are selling with a reasonable profit margin. Demand drives supply; that is the truthful ass-slap on the bottom line.

Supply and Demand

My shop has a “general store” model.  We are in the bible belt where an overwhelming majority of our neighbors are conservative Christians. The only way we can survive is if we try to cobble together under one roof everyone else that has an alternative culture, religion or lifestyle, we call them the “less-traveled paths” and this is a seriously under-served demographic here in Eastern North Carolina – that ranges from yoga-chakra-Ganesha-crystal-natural soap customers, all the way to occult-athame-Hekate-Dragonsblood Resin customers, with every stop in between.

I serve diverse people with diverse backgrounds and spiritual practices, and it is our job to make sure they have what they need, without interference or judgement. However, here is the rub: while all these paths may have an esoteric, mystical, magickal thread that connects them, and I consider them all my first cousins, the *things* they demand that we supply are not all equally beneficial in my eyes.

various altar tools including a knife, crystal, cauldron, candle, etc.
Witches Tools / Heron Michelle

The Dirty Little Secret: Fear Sells

The dirty little secret of the metaphysical industry, and all profit-based industry everywhere, is that fear sells.  Specifically, fear of a lack of love, can sell just about anything, when tweaked just right within the subconscious. The common folk are terrified of social rejection, of powerlessness, of lovelessness, and when they’ve suffered some difficult lack, they’ll go to desperate measures to get back what they need. Talk about a vulnerable market ripe for exploitation!

“When you have and hold a need, hearken not to others greed.” The Wiccan Rede

I serve a huge variety of people, from a wide range of spiritual paths, and different levels of understanding. In other words, I can assume nothing, nor should I impose my own judgement about the relative benefit of what a customer is doing with the products they are there to buy. As a salesperson, I can offer information about their options, and the quality/value of the products they are demanding, but ultimately their choice is their choice and that has nothing to do with me. If I attempt to impose a Wiccan ethos, or even a pagan ethos onto my esoteric cousins, I’m being the asshole, and that breaks my second rule of witchcraft, Don’t be the Asshole.

That being said, I’m also a priestess and our mission is to help educate and empower our community to be as successful and effective, happy and fulfilled, as possible. There is a part of me that feels their distress, and wants to gather them all up in a big hug, infuse them with the Divine Love of the Universe until their wounds are healed, their eyes opened to possibility, and their fears all conquered. I would much rather teach them all about their own self-worth, rather than to validate their fears.  But if they aren’t ready for that lesson, and don’t want it, again…that is none of my business.

Three-Modes; Three Prices

The metaphysical industry covers a range of options to deal with this fear. The New Age industry sells you an expensive mode of transcendence and forgiveness for this fear that is Spirit-Based – all upper strata Divine, mental, angel, higher-vibration, ascended master, cosmic stuff. This end of the spectrum is often mocked by the folks on the other end as being the “fluffy bunnies or the “love and lighters” because it seems so passive and benign. Perhaps it offers transcendence of this earthly strife, but that will seriously cost you. There is a big profit margin to be made from folks seeking to transcend their suffering, if you can live with yourself after the sale. Why is it that something marketed in New Age-y parlance is three times as expensive as the occult idea from which it is derived? There is cult-like danger-zone that forms around the gurus and branding that promotes their trademarked “golden ticket.” I find most of it to be dubious, and so – alas – I just don’t go there.

Mid-range, there are many Pagan, Earth-Based options that teach personal responsibility, harmonious connection with nature, and long-term healing through re-empowerment.  This is the middle-world, dig in the dirt, herbal tea, seek-within-yourself, gritty, messy, sexy stuff.  They are based on radical personal sovereignty that is difficult and demanding. While there is a minefield of taboo that cult-proofs it with limits to how money changes hands, and a distrust of organized religion and dogma, paganism make no promises that life will be any easier or safer, just more manageable. Its hard to sell that, but for the people who choose this middle, crooked path, they will know what raw materials they actually need, where to find them growing wild, how to prepare spell components for themselves, and aren’t likely to fall for flashy, pre-packaged sales gimmicks. Again, not a huge profit margin in the very valuable curative of going out into the woods to hug a tree.

On the other extreme end of the magickal range, there are various Fear-based forms of what I’ve come to think of as Thug-Magick. They tend to have ties to the Abrahamic paradigm of “good vs. evil.”  This is bully magick, hustler magick, command-mode magick that wants to be quick, easy, and disregard the greater consequences beyond what they get out of it.  Here is where the market for spoon-fed, “just add fire” gimmicks flourishes; quick fixes to seduce, get revenge, smite, coerce, exploit, win at gambling, or to tilt the tables of justice in their favor, whether they are deserving of that advantage or not.  Generally speaking, they don’t know the occult mechanics behind why these things work, but they put their faith in the placebo of a recognizable package, rather than their own power. I know this because they will not hear any suggestion otherwise.

Don't Insult the Witch sign, Bergen, Norway / Tony Culbertson (used with permission)
Don’t Insult the Witch sign, Bergen, Norway / Tony Culbertson (used with permission)

Healing or Enabling

If a wounded person can conceive of a “magic bullet” fix, I promise that there is a brightly packaged “curio” out there made by an enterprising manufacturer, insinuating their name brand product will help them win the lottery, get laid, entrap the object of their desire, smite their enemies, and protect them from the boogymen, while legally promising nothing but “entertainment.”  All this for the low, low price of…good gods, y’all! HOW MUCH ?!?! The majority of our customers will not only demand these products, but line up and fork over their last dime for them, even as we suggest more beneficial options.

Hint: You don’t need expensive stuff to lead a beneficial and happy life, not really. That can help, if you understand how they actually work, but YOU are the source of this power. Start with you. Going direct to Spirit costs next to nothing. <—this is why I’m a lousy retailer.

As time goes on, I find that I just can’t stand participating in this racket, and I’ve been known to be blatantly honest about my skepticism about their value, when I’m asked. There are times when I know that I’m enabling baneful behaviors, but there is the shop rent to pay, and so week after week I sell them another Lucky Gambler candle, Fast Money oil, another High John the Conqueror Root.

When I see how powerless and victimized a customer feels, I know they purchase these defensive things as a way to try and protect themselves, but that is like a band-aid on a mortal gash. They remain the victim. If they are convinced someone put a curse on them, it is as good as being true. Maybe they are right, but if they continually blame forces outside themselves for all their problems and take no responsibility for their own lives–they will never change their luck.

But I have kids to feed, and payroll to pay, so week after week, I ring up another sale, and offer them my blessings for success. In psychology parlance, they are projecting the locus of their control outside of themselves. The fastest way to “burn the witch” is to attempt to work magick before you have internalized that control. Yet, out they go, purchase in hand, and I sold them the matches. In psychology parlance, I am suffering from cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

I think metaphysical retailers need to show discretion on what they make easily accessible to the untrained. There are some legit ingredients for magick that we simply won’t carry, because we honestly don’t think enough people in this area would use them responsibly.  Some magick should be hidden from the the average, raging muggle on the street.

Beyond the spiritual effects,  I think we have an ethical obligation to provide goods that have as sustainable a lifespan from cradle to grave as we can possibly find. That would mean no more cheap stick incense of chemical-dipped-sawdust made in the sweatshops of India. That would mean no more cheap paraffin wax candles colored with coal-tar dyes, or synthetic “fragrance” anointing oils that are no more powerful than “sacred Febreze (1).” Basically, I’d have to just stop stocking a majority of our staple sales that keep our rent paid – no matter how many safer alternatives are sitting right there getting dusty.

At some point we’re all going to have to make a choice about what kind of magick we aim to make….cheap, easy and fake? or valuable, worthwhile and genuine?  What sorts of stewards of the Earth are we going to be? I know that I have to get my own choices in better alignment with my values.

A time is coming when I will be forced to make hard decisions about my participation in this industry. How can I align my life with the sacred mission of service without harm? What sacrifices will we all be willing to make so we may walk more lightly upon this web we all share?


  1. Matthew Venus, maker of fine occult products at Spiritus Arcanum, originally coined this term.
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