As a shopkeeper, I have a problem with some aspects of this metaphysical industry within which I find myself working. I gave my “Confessions of a Snake Oil Salesman,” here. For the most part, the products being wholesaled to retailers like me are the real McCoy: conscientious, all-natural or culturally authentic wares. However, there are also products offered in those same catalogues that I know damn well are “snake oil.”
Discernment between Woo and Power
I try not to impose my religious bias of what materials we stock – this is a “general store” so I carry the widest variety I can based on what people ask for, across cultures and folk practices. You want to clear your home of baneful energy with a smoke? Sure, I might prefer burning a lavender bundle, but I also carry the palo santo sticks favored in south/central American traditions, and the white sage, cedar and sweetgrass favored by Native American tribes, and a Jerusalem blend of Frankincense and Myrrh resins. The perceived outcome of burning these things in your house may be a subjective opinion, but the botanicals themselves are all objectively the “real” plant material they claim to be.
Our skeptics criticize every blessèd thing in a new-age or witchy shop like as being no more than over-priced, wishful-thinking-woo. With some of these prepared, packaged and trademarked products, I agree with them. If a customer asks my opinion, I share what I know. At this point in my considerably long witching career, I can discern the difference between woo and power just by touching them, smelling them, connecting to the material through consciousness and asking it – Hello friend, tell me about yourself… If its a synthetic, toxic, petroleum-based piece of garbage, the feeling I get in my guts is sickening…it has a dead, silent, poisonous feeling.
Unfortunately, retail is a two-way street of supply and demand, and there are big segments of our clientele that DEMAND that we carry some highly questionable products. They will hear no argument against their favorite brand, despite any proof that what they are using is a fake, chemical cocktail without a single jot of energetic authenticity, beyond whatever placebo effect they are bringing to it. That is some blind and stubborn faith, that is steeped in exploitation.
Exploitation is the ugliest word in the English language.
What quality products are you demanding of your suppliers? Your dollars are like votes. You can continue to cast a vote for cheap, fake, petroleum-based, artificially colored and scented, spiritually dead garbage made in sweat shops by starving children. OR you can use your dollars to vote for authentic materials made sustainably, by legit magickal practitioners, who create their products as a sacred act of devotion. These are your choices.
From whom do you purchase your materials? Do you support the local priest/ess–so they can continue to teach, heal, and counsel–or do you buy that incense a little bit cheaper on-line? Your local shop provides so much more than mere merchandise. They are publicly available havens here in the real world. If you don’t purposefully shop there with the intent to support your local temple, no one will have access to one, and wouldn’t that be a sad world?
Hint: Do not report to the local small business person how much cheaper you can find something they sell on Amazon.com. It makes us grouchy.
Magickal Supplies are Spiritual Allies
I don’t have to tell you these things. You are intelligent, thoughtful practitioners, who understand the co-creative alliance with the Powers that Be. The ingredients from the realms of flora, fauna, and mineral in your spells are chosen for their inherent Spiritual attributes and only the real deal will do, yes?
A Few Examples:
Flora: Spirit of Rose is present, because that drop of essential oil is the “blood” of real roses, and is exorbitantly expensive because it is rare and difficult to obtain. Its preciousness is part of the magick. Rose “fragrance oil” may be cheap, but it is synthetic, and no replacement. If your spellwork requires you ally yourself to the Spirit of Roses, go buy an actual rose, and include the petals in a different way. Adding a dried rose petal to an oil blend is another way to bring that power to the working.
Another issue is sustainable harvesting of our plan allies – for example sandalwood powder. Courtney Varnadoe manages the apothecary at our shop, The Sojourner, and she recently posted a poignant “Pagan PSA” on this very subject:
I’m particularly tired of pagan folk being disgruntled, disappointed, or otherwise “inconvenienced” when I explain why I do not order endangered or over-harvested magical plants for sale. What the hell is so hard to understand about the fact that I would prefer for the species to live than slowly peter out because a bunch of mystical motherfuckers wanted to cleanse their auras? Seriously, y’all. (Spoken as a self-proclaimed mystical motherfucker, by the way.) – Courtney Varnadoe
Mineral: Spirit of turquoise is present because it is real turquoise, with it’s specific molecular structure, it is rare and becoming more difficult to obtain, so it’ll cost you. An artificially-dyed howlite is so much cheaper and too often is sold labeled as turquoise, but it has the spirit of howlite. That is lovely, but is not the same thing. The same goes for “African Turquoise” which is a deceptive marketing tactic, because it is actually a Jasper. Here are some handy resources on how to tell the difference. Gemrock Auctions, and Turquoise Sky
Hint: If something that looks like turquoise has a low price, its unlikely to be the real deal.
Fauna: Parchment is often used for the writing of petition spells, and is made of skins, likely goat, sheep, or calf. This is one way we work with animal spirits in our spells. Parchment is precious, and witchy as all get-out. I don’t care what the catalog says, tan-colored card stock paper is not a replacement. If you can’t afford, or do not have access to real parchment, any paper will suffice. Another traditional petition paper is the brown craft paper that grocery store bags are made of. For a great source of parchment scraps by the pound, check out Pergamena.
Water: This is the one that really gets my knickers in a twist. Right this minute a well-regarded metaphysical wholesale catalogue company sells…get this…rain water IN A CHEAP PLASTIC BOTTLE. The only claim the company makes is that it is rain water, and that using naturally collected waters can enhance your spell work. <Well, DUH>
Let’s just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the product is exactly as advertised. The point to using “naturally collected waters” is that YOU COLLECT THE WATERS. Even if you live smack-dab in the middle of the Sahara desert and want to whip up some rain magick, that is a tall order to fill, so you better put some effort into it– travel to where it rains, or wait until that miraculous moment that it DOES rain where you live and the waters you collect will be exactly the precious magickal ally you need for the job. Besides, any water stored in plastic likely has BPA and Dioxins from the bottle now leached into the water; that matters to me. If you give these snake-water salesman your money, consider your witching license revoked. By the power vested in me by the Gods of Good Sense, you are fired.
Candles: Candle burning is a witches’ magickal sweet spot. Paraffin candles colored with chemical dyes bring their own energies to the team, but I doubt its what you have in mind. I use them, too, when I must, but paraffin is a by-product of the petroleum industry which does systematic harm to our mother earth, from cradle to grave. Burning a paraffin candle inside is carcinogenic and harmful to all within the breathing space. Beeswax, soy and other vegetable-derived candles remain a far better choice. The hard work of the bees are systematically beneficial and sacred to mother earth. They even improve the indoor air quality when burned. Yes, they cost a bit more, but I feel that it is a necessary part of a worthwhile sacrifice required of devotional practice.
Courtney’s Pagan Community PSA: Willful Ignorance
Willful Ignorance: This is a term that is defined by purposefully ignoring a fact in order to avoid change or difficulty. As pagan folks, we generally agree on a few key issues:
- That the environment is important, and should be respected.
- That living beings (of all types) are important, and should be respected.
- That spiritual energy exists, in some way or another, within all that is.
With this information, you should then understand why I get particularly impassioned when I see pagan folks willfully ignoring factual knowledge they possess that aligns with these values. One small example? I can’t imagine how I am still seeing local pagan folk buying candles that are not beeswax. I don’t know how many times I have stood on that particular soapbox, but it should be clear to the majority of local pagans that paraffin wax = byproduct of the oil industry, with all of the energy that goes along with that process.
Beeswax candles are available, and a sustainable option that supports the preservation of bee populations. In fact, they are as easily available here as paraffin, and sometimes even in a greater variety. The excuses I hear from the mouths of people who know better? “Beeswax is sooo expensive!” “I really wanted my candle to be a brighter blue.” “This one comes with a printed jar.” Willful ignorance.
If you cannot afford to hold a ritual with materials that are in line with your spiritual values, or if you find minor visual detail to be an inconvenience, then maybe the true magic is in not participating in that indirect harm. Maybe if it’s not worth the cost, you aren’t truly making the sacrifice that authentic magic requires. This isn’t just a candle problem. It’s synthetic oils, it’s over-harvested and endangered plants, it’s exploited labor in far-off lands… What intentions are we enacting if we take part in this harm? Willful ignorance. Food for thought.
I’m going to also be clear that I use the candles as an example because it is not life-impeding to either go without or make the choice that costs half as much more. Life is a grey area; in order to function in our society there is a certain amount of willful harm that we are more or less required to take part in until society reaches a new consensus. This is not one of those areas. – Courtney Varnadoe
Believe me, we know the struggle is real. We also struggle as shopkeepers balancing the line between supply and demand, ethical standards and financial survival. Let’s all just keep bending this arc toward authentic, sustainable, beneficial lifestyles – one purchase, one spell and one ritual, at a time.