When spellcasting, creating the right atmosphere is important. It can create that suspended sense of disbelief necessary for believing in what you’re doing—and for setting your intent. Often practitioners do this by turning down the lights, burning herbs or incense and lighting candles. In the flicker of a candle, the world suddenly looks different. In all cultures, rituals involve repeating a series of gestures, words or actions in a particular sequence, in order to achieve a certain outcome. Research has shown that even simple rituals can be effective at influencing people’s behaviours, thoughts or feelings, even for those who claim that rituals don’t work. This can be helpful if preparing for an anxiety-inducing interview or public speech, coming to terms with grief, alleviating stress, trying to rid oneself of a habit or for gaining closure.
If you pick up a grimoire, it presents very specific things you must have in a ritual to make the spell work. In modern spellbooks, common magical aids include coloured candles, white sage, and palo santo. Often it’s recommended you cast a circle or draw a pentagram before initiating the ritual. It is important to remember that The Western occult tradition, like language and culture in general, is a mishmash of cultural traditions—some native, others borrowed from other cultures. Recently there’s been growing awareness about the issue of re-appropriation, which is also an issue in magic and the occult. Re-appropriation can be an issue if we take ideas or practices from oppressed communities without acknowledging or learning about the cultural source.
The magic-curious community is on the whole progressive, open to learning about the damaging effects of cultural re-appropriation, and moderating consumption in order to lessen our carbon footprint. In the wake of the climate crisis, it’s good to be cautious about where we source whatever we consume. “I know we need a system change rather than an individual change,” said Greta Thonberg at a conference in Stockholm earlier this year, “but you can’t have one without the other.”
There’s often the belief that exotic equates to more potent. This recurs in all areas of life. There’s a reason many health conscious consumers opt for Tibetan goji berries, Korean ginseng and Peruvian maca powder over nutritionally similar local alternatives. In the UK, we have a wealth of local herbs and practices inherited from cunning folk and other cultures that came before. Going local is an easy solution for avoiding re-appropriation and reducing our impact on the environment.
The beauty of knowing the history of the Western occult is seeing it as a creative arena for change and storytelling. We can find and create new sacred objects, rituals, spells and stories that better reflect our convictions and it will still be in keeping with a tradition that is constantly evolving to suit the needs of the modern day.
We have compiled a list of ethical trades for common magical aids.
1. Paraffin candles
There’s little more relaxing than a bath surrounded by candles. But look at the ingredient list for most shop-bought candles, and they will likely contain paraffin. While paraffin-based candles look pretty and often smell great (due to added fragrances), you are essentially burning fossil fuel in your house. These candles release toxic compounds when lit, including known carcinogens benzene and toluene, meaning they harm both the environment and your health. They have been identified as a problem by the government’s Clean Air Strategy report.
Instead use: Soy candles.
Soy candles are natural and relatively clean, producing an estimated tenth of the soot created by a paraffin candle. They are also vegan and last for a long time. It’s little wonder they’re becoming more popular. Look for soy candles with cotton wicks to further reduce your impact. We love the scented candles at London Fields shop East of Earl, which also offers candle-making workshops. In case you’d rather make your own, here’s a super easy recipe.
2. White sage and “smudging”
White sage, otherwise known as sacred sage, is a scrub native to the Southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It is used by some Native American cultures in smudge sticks to cleanse sacred spaces. White sage and smudging is popular, though controversial as it entails re-appropriating Native American culture. Naturally, cultures do borrow from other cultures. But cultural re-appropriation is an issue because it involves re-appropriating cultural customs from an oppressed community; to communities that have been ignored, segregated and abused, it can seem offensive to see their oppressors flaunting their cultural traditions. White sage is not listed on the Endangered Species List, though conservationists are still concerned about its future. Since the boom in spiritual practices, unsustainable harvesting practices are depleting it from the wild. There are some farms which ethically harvest this herb.
Instead use: Local herbs
Wherever you live (unless you happen to live in the arctic or antarctic…), there are herbs which can be burnt in rituals. Rosemary has been used since ancient times. Sprigs of rosemary often feature in Greek art works featuring the goddess Aphrodite. Roman priests used rosemary as incense in religious ceremonies; in England, this herb was burnt in homes to protect the living from evil spirits and witches. Of rosemary, Roger Hacket said in 1607: “Speaking of the powers of rosemary, it overtoppeth all the flowers in the garden, boasting man’s rule. It helpers the brain, strengteneth the memorie, and is very medicinable for the head. Another property of rosemary is, it affect the heart.” The use of chamomile has also been documented as far back as the ancient Egyptians. Yarrow, which is common to Britain and Ireland, has a long history in many different cultures; it was even found in a Neanderthal burial ground. We could go on listing local herbs and their medicinal and folk uses.
3. Palo santo
Palo santo is a wild tree native to Central and South America. Like white sage, it is used for cleansing spaces, particularly of “mala energía,” bad energy. It is also used as folk medicine for stomach ache and rheumatism. The tree belongs to the same family as frankincense and myrhh. Anyone who has burned it will know it smells incredible. Many spiritual practitioners burn it as incense, or use the essential oil extracted from it. Palo santo is currently endangered in some of the regions where it is grown, particularly in Peru, though it can be sustainably sourced. Its usage, like that of white sage, often raises concerns about cultural re-appropriation.
Instead use: Local herbs, frankincense or myrrh
Francincense and myrrh have been used for thousands of years by different cultures to purefy spaces. We can also return to aforementioned herbs like rosemary and yarrow, both common and found locally in the UK.
Crystals and precious stones are beautiful. As children, we are attracted to them. I remember picking up shiny pebbles I found on the beach and carrying them as good luck charms. In China, jade is thought to have purifying properties, and was as a consequence used to make dinner plates and utensils by Imperial courts. Crystals are often celebrated for their ability to re-connect us with the earth, but as Eve Wiseman pointed out in The Guardian recently, crystal mining might be harming the earth rather than re-connecting us to it.
Instead use: Ethically sourced crystals or local stones
You can still use crystals, but it pays to be mindful about their source, and to not go crazy with the crystal-hoarding. Look for fairtrade crystals from sustainable sources. Even better, did you find the crystal yourself while walking on a beach? (But don’t take too many; having grown up near the seaside, I know that if everyone were to take home a pebble there would be no beach.) Thankfully, a crystal, if looked after, can be with you for life—it will likely outlive you.
To be honest, I don’t know anyone who uses entrails for ritual magic, but these are mentioned in a few spell books. They were used in haruspicy, a form of divination in Ancient Rome. If you’re vegan, this won’t appeal. Nor will it appeal if you’re reducing your meat content or simply don’t like the idea of working with entrails...
Instead use: Scrying, Tarot, or other forms of divination
Humankind has found many ways of divining the future, from Ancient Chinese oracle bones to tarot cards, reading tea leaves and scrying. If you’re determined to use entrails, Lucya Starza ran a cabbage entrail workshop recently for vegans. Cabbage sounds like a good substitute.
I think this list begs the question: do we really need magical aids? Does it always matter what we use?
Of course, some herbs have properties which lend themselves to medicine and thus might be useful in a specific ritual e.g. the ant-inflammatory properties of turmeric. Research has also found that the aroma of frankincense might help regulate emotions such as anxiety and depression. Beyond the empirical, it’s more a matter of what is meaningful or sacred for you. Burning herbs, lighting candles and carrying crystals can all create atmosphere and encourage that sense of wonder; they can make a sequence of words or gestures feel more like a meaningful ritual. But there comes a point when you realise you have all the tools you need in yourself and in nature. You don’t necessarily need to consume anything. Sometimes a walk alone by yourself through the meadows, woods or mountains or an early morning spent watching the sunrise can be quite magical.
Images: Unsplash (unless otherwise specified)