The style of magic I’m known for, western Renaissance Hermetic magic which is sometimes known generally as ceremonial magic, is often called complex, flashy, glamorous, and outright gaudy at times. You don’t have to look hard to see why; between the magic circles, planetary hours, intricate talismans, hard-to-obtain tools, and the like, Hermetic magic can often seem dauntingly hard. Looking back at the literature, though, it’s plain to see that this was a matter of intentional design. It’s true that, a few hundred years ago, most people who did magic were wealthy and had copious spare time, a luxury in and of itself, and could afford the square footage in their homes to allow for massive conjuration chambers and gilded wands and shit. Renaissance and medieval grimoire magic was, by and large, not intended for the masses. Even the study of astrology itself was considered something akin to receiving a four-year academic undergraduate degree, right down to the costs involved (which is one of the reasons that geomancy was considered to be the “poor man’s astrology”, given that it was considerably easier to learn and apply). Heck, looking at some of my colleague’s tools and works, even I pale at the thought of the cost and labor involved to make some of these things.
It doesn’t have to be like this, though. Yes, if you go by the book and are a strict traditionalist or grimoire fundamentalist, you’re going to be paying more than a few pretty pennies for all the supplies and tools you need. That said, I claim that none of that is strictly necessary, and that you can get as good results in a similar way without breaking your bank, if you’re even rich enough to have a savings account. Considering the recession we find our world plunged into, and considering the more than likely chance that we’re permanently on our way out of an era of prosperity, it might be a good idea to visit the topic of how to do magic with as little cost as we can manage, and free whenever possible. The first thing I want to talk about is on the material goods, tools, and supplies that we use in magic, and although I’m writing this from a Hermeticist’s point of view, you can likely apply this to most other styles of magic, as well.
Now, I will say that I speak from a place of privilege here. I have a good, stable job with a decent income that is more than the US average household income, even after considering the debts I have for student loans and a car payment. I come from a middle-class family that has never had to really tighten their belts in order to make ends meet. As a whole, we haven’t had extreme medical issues or other problems that have caused us extreme financial duress (though, as we get older, that may change). Although I wouldn’t consider us “rich”, we’re certainly not poor. I have never been homeless nor required financial aid to get food or bills paid. I have never been imprisoned or otherwise cut off from supplies and tools generally that would prevent me from operating in the way I choose to operate as a magician. That said, I know the value of minimalism in magic, having done some work myself, and I’ve been able to cut through a lot of the crap and see what’s really necessary, what can be substituted, and the like.
Be aware that magic has always been the means of last resort for many people across many cultures and eras. Yes, there have always been the priests and the shamans and the medicine men who make this their first and foremost vocation, but most people who do magic don’t do it for the spiritual benefits or for the calling of some god or another; they usually resort to magic because they’ve tried everything else and nothing else seems to work. They use whatever they have on hand, scavenge, or find in their nearby environment to get stuff done through occult means when material means fall short. They resort to symbolic links, puns on brand names, personal history, superstition, and their grandparents’ stories to guide their magic. Over time, what these people have found that works is typically codified and standardized into a “system of magic” or a “tradition”, though replete with regional or personal variations. At its core, yes, magic is the art and science of causing changes in accordance with will, but let’s face it, most people have used magic for getting laid and getting paid. We typically use magic for ends in this world because we need to make ends meet and often need that extra push to do so, whether our ends involve survival or gratification.
To that end, there are three places I’d recommend you get your supplies from:
- Go outside. No matter where you live, there are going to be stones, plants, and dirts available to you that not only ties you to the land around you and gives you a place to lay down roots and a foundation, but there are also things of power that you can obtain for use in your own work. Large or unusual stones, rock crystal, solid branches or wooden sticks, medicinal herbs, aromatic leaves, and the like can all be obtained literally for free from harvesting them yourself. It helps if you have a guide to plants and herbs and do a bit of research on what kinds of trees or stones your area contains. Graveyards, crossroads, judicial buildings, schools, jails, train stations, and other specialized locations can provide you with dirt that is a powerful instrument and supply in its own right. If you know where to look and if you know how to use something, you may never have to actually buy a damn thing. Just be aware that it’s always polite to give something back to the land, be it a bit of your drink or a few pennies, so that the spirits around you don’t consider yourself stealing from them.
- Most places in the US, where I live, have dollar stores where every item in there is sold for US$1.00. These places are veritable gold mines for magicians on a budget, and they typically have such a wide selection of tools, supplies, and wares that you may not need to shop elsewhere very often. Bags of tealights, decorations, offering glasses, candleholders, salt, spices, paint, and most common household supplies you’d need should probably be bought here. Yeah, the quality isn’t great, but we’re not going for quality here when the alternative is doing without entirely.
- Thrift stores or charity stores are places where people get rid of their old items and stuff which are then resold at a low price. Not only can you get good deals on high-quality stuff (I got a large polished granite circle for a Table of Practice for $5 once), but given that these are things that people have already owned, used, and loved, you can often find trinkets, jewelry, and charms that have already been enchanted, blessed, or otherwise bespookened if you have eyes to see them. Add to it, you can often find rare and other unusual stuff at thrift stores, like funerary urns (not all of which have been properly cleaned out), silk scarves, authentic African statuary, and so forth, which can really be valuable in practice.
If you have a bit more money to spend, you’d do well to shop at two other places:
- A craft store, like a Michaels or AC Moore, can provide you with lots of supplies that, on their own, don’t necessarily seem magical but can be of great use in magic, especially when you get around to making your own tools. Wooden plaques, clay, sinew and thread, semiprecious stones, and the like are easily available from here, though depending on price you may want to forego some of the fancier stuff and just resort to simple crafts you fashion yourself.
- A hardware store, like a Home Depot or Ace Hardware, can provide you with more industrial-strength stuff as well as some of the harder-to-find household goods, like beeswax or copper piping. You can often find some things in bulk as well as rare brands that aren’t usually sold commonly anymore.
So much for places to procure your parcels. However, there is something on the topic of magical supplies and tools that I want to bring up, and this is more fully explained by the House of Orpheus in one of their blog posts. Although he talks about the use of spiritual perfumes and the use of perfumes generally in spiritual works, I think this is something that can be applied to pretty much anything. The gist of the post is that there’s a fairly recent trend in magic where we say that oil/perfume/powder X does magical thing Y, and this isn’t exactly a historical thing. Rather, people used certain things because of the associations they could make with it:
…Royal Crown hair pomade for example was used to anoint ones hair in such a way that they carried the influence of a king about them. Like equals like… Even house hold items like red devil lye drain cleaner was used to protect the home from evil and the “devils” out there in their many forms. Red devil lye cleaner was not made for magic, it was made for cleaning drains! However the most fascinating thing is… It became and still is used today for magic.
…What made these perfumes magic wasn’t the pharmacist or large factory making them today… It was the imagination and magical sensibility. As well as traditional knowledge of the practitioners of folk magic. A sweet smell might sweeten someone to you. A dominating odor may help you dominate someone, the shape of the plant going into the perfume and its qualities all shaping and being shaped by the magical symbolic systems of understanding of many cultures. This is what helped them make these perfumes magical and what placed them in a magical context of use today.
So, to that end, don’t despair if you can’t get your botanica’s expensive line of Fiery Wall of Protection Oil or Flying Oil, because in all likelihood those oils are, for lack of a better term, snake oil, a little bit of glycol with some artificial scent and color applied to them. You can do that much on your own for a lot cheaper, and you can make it a lot better with not a lot of effort. Always ask yourself “what can I use this thing for” rather than “what does this do”: what a stick “does” is grow leaves from itself, but it can be used as a wand; what Kölnisch Wasser “does” is smell nice, but it can be used for purification; what salt “does” is make food taste more like itself, but it can be used for protection as well as absorption of energies. Of course, if you ask five different magicians what a particular thing can be used for, don’t be surprised if you get fifty different answers. What one person sees as protective, another person sees as offensive and another as sweetening. Let your own associations, stories, imagination, and education guide you in determining the best use for a particular thing or stuff in a given working.
Looking around my house and temple, I note that I have a few pricey things, namely statues and a singular stick of ebony that I did a bit of working on, which themselves form the bulk of the cost of my temple (not counting the furniture). However, more than 80% of the stuff I have and use accounts for maybe 20% of the cost I’ve put into it all. Offering vessels for gods were gotten at thrift stores for $1 to $3 each; cloth for decorating shrines were from thrift stores and stores going out of business for 50¢ to $2 each. Most of the wooden plaques and boards I’ve used for making pentacles, talismans, and magic squares cost maybe $3 to $10 each, and a pack of paint markers and polyurethane finish cost another $10 total. The candleholders I have are a combination of brass fixtures from thrift stores ($2 each), IKEA glass holders (50¢ each), and seashells and flat stones (free from outside). The pile of railroad spikes I use for Hephaistos as well as for several workings were all free, obtained by literally going to my local railway and picking them up by the bagful. In lieu of statues, several of the spirits I work with are enshrined within stones, some of which were obtained from outside and some I got for cheap from a rock-dealing friend of mine. The decorations I use for some of my shrines are a combination of seasonal goods from the dollar store and things on discount from the craft store.
Besides, none of this touches on the notion of just stealing things you’d otherwise have to buy. That’s all I have to say about that (just be smart about it, don’t get caught, and don’t piss people off).
Now that we’ve gone over where to get stuff and an idea of what it costs for this stuff, let’s talk about the difference between making stuff to use and buying stuff to use as-is. As a rule, what you can’t buy, make it yourself, and you should always try making something yourself before going about buying it. This goes for everything, from wands and Tables of Practice to anointing oil and talismans. Always try making something yourself before having someone else do it, because in the process of making it yourself you get the Idea of it cemented in your sphere. This is something Fr. Rufus Opus calls “kinetic meditation”, but which I like to call “contemplative exercise”. It’s one thing to just look at and intellectually understand the layout of the Circle of Art from the Lemegeton Goetia, but it’s quite another to have actually gotten your paint and canvas, painstakingly drawn out every line, and painted on every letter of every divine name onto it. This sort of activity is beyond price and value, since it instills into your own being something that cannot be obtained from just buying it from someone else.
To that end, always attempt to make a tool yourself first. Consider the Table of Practice from the Trithemian conjuration ritual, the summoning circle I use in my own work. Yes, I do make them for others, but if someone asks first, I always tell them that they should make it themselves first, even if it’s just printing out a copy and tracing it with pencil on paper, with sharpie on cardstock, or with chalk on concrete. The mere act of drawing the Table out is the essential act of bringing it into existence. Yes, the quality may not be as good, and the quality of magical operations done with something like that may or may not take a hit, but the fact is that you have done it and you have made yourself a tool you can use more cheaply and much faster than you would have otherwise. Need a wand? Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on an appropriately-sized ebony dowel engraved and gilded and capped with silver, get a stick you like the feel of from a park and scratch holy names onto it with a fork, or just use your index finger. Need a Circle of Art? Instead of shopping around for a heavy-duty canvas sheet with enchanted paint, get an old bedsheet and some ballpoint pens or permanent markers. Need a scrying medium? Instead of buying “good clear pellucid crystal of the bigness of a small orange” or an obsidian mirror, get a clear glass of clean water. Need incense? Instead of trying to scrounge pocket change together for the finest quality olibanum, get a scented candle or a free perfume sample from your department store cosmetics counter. Need a magical oil? Instead of going to your botanica and shelling out for what usually isn’t worth the cost, heat up some olive oil or Crisco in a pot with some herbs, spices, and dirt available to you. Need candles? Instead of going to the Yankee Candle Co. shop or even your local dollar store, make yourself a cheap oil lamp (and learn how to use it).
If your need is great enough, whatever you have on hand will work.
There is no tool you need that you cannot make or obtain for free.
Everything and anything can be used for a magical end if you know how to use it.
There is nothing so specialized or specific that it can only be used for magic.
Now, I know that I have a lot of friends and colleagues who have done magic for the cost of a few pennies, if even that, and who have lived through hard times on their own. By all means, please leave your own comments and fill in the gaps I know I’ve left in this post; I have never been under the duress that some of my own contacts have, and I welcome people to poke holes in what assumptions I’ve made or to give their own advice for getting supplies, tools, and the like when money is something they can’t afford to spend. Try to keep it limited to the topic of this post, though; I’ll be writing a few more posts on how to apply tools and supplies in shrines, works, and the like in the near future.