Note: This post was originally posted on No Unsacred Place in 2011, and then later Paths Through the Forests. I am moving it over here so I can have more of my writings in one place.
I am not a huge fan of “nature” as being separate from humanity. The perceived divide of “natural” and “artificial” may seem like a way to emphasize the non-human nature that we often seem to ignore, but it still reinforces the idea that we are somehow divorced from natural processes and cycles, especially in cities. I do, however, favor the concept of “wilderness”. It evokes a place where humans have not had nearly as much of a dominant place in the ecosystem, and we can see more of what the rest of nature is like when we are just another critter in the woods (or fields, or desert, etc.).
Like many other Portland residents, while I live in the city proper, I do get out quite a bit to the wilderness areas that surround the metro region. Usually I’m off to hide somewhere in the Columbia River Gorge or spending a couple of days at the coast, but I’ve ranged further at times, depending on the situation.
This is a lifelong habit, this seeking less human-populated places for recharging and respite. When I enter the wilderness, I feel as though I am immersing myself in a rich, lush energy, though the nature of that energy changes from place to place. The treasures of the deserts of Eastern Oregon are of a distinct quality compared to the conifer forests of the Gorge. And the genii loci of these places are their own beings as well, though like the boundaries of the places, large and small, they shift and blend and overlap, less distinct than our linear minds might prefer.
As much as I might like to stay immersed in wilderness forever, I also recognize that I am an urban creature. I have wants and needs and obligations that require more connectivity of a human sort. And, admittedly, I like comfort. Snow hiking is much more fun when I know I have a warm home to go back to.
But I don’t want to forget these places I’ve been, nor the often deep spiritual experiences I have while in their embrace, whether tender or terrifying. And so I collect small, single souvenirs for each place—a small stone, a Douglas fir cone, a piece of driftwood, a pheasant feather. I even got an antique glass jar lid from a local wetland that had been cleaned up after years of garbage being dumped there. And for every thing I take with me, I leave a bit of myself: hair, energy, water for a plant if I’ve enough to share. They come home with me, and I mark them with the date and the place as their number has increased with each place I become acquainted with.
They used to have their own shelf, but eventually they migrated over to one of my two primary altars. You can see them scattered around the top of it here, amid the small stone animals I’ve used to signify directional totems for many years.The relocation of those stones and sticks and such is significant. For years I had a fairly typical generic Wicca-flavored neopagan altar, with the directional markers (animals, of course) plus the tools I used back then (athame, wand, etc.) and my image of Artemis, all from various places around the world and having more abstract than immediate symbolism. Once I began to embrace shamanism–and bioregionalism–more deeply, the tools I no longer used so often ended up on a second altar specifically for ritual implements old and new, and that’s when the gifts from the land spirits made their move.
It’s a beautiful weaving, actually. The centerpiece of the altar is a ceramic wolf-themed jug I made back in high school when I was first getting involved in paganism, and it represents me; it’s decorated with a pair of scrimshaw fossilized ivory necklaces that were instrumental in the processes that brought me to the Pacific Northwest. Immediately surrounding it are the four animal statues—Grey Wolf/North, Brown Bear/West, Red Fox/South, and Red-tailed Hawk/East—that survived the shift from my early neoshamanism and neopaganism, through my chaos magic explorations, and on into my more formal shamanic path. They represent the roots of my practice, like a volcanic core of basalt that has survived the erosion of softer stone surrounding it over time.
Radiating out from them, oriented toward the places they came from, are the reminders of the places I’ve been. They ground my practice more deeply in the place I am at. Not only have the spirits of place taken me in, but their other denizens have as well, and increasingly my altars are covered in gifts from other locals—the mule deer leg bone that is the handle of the beater for my drum, or the portrait that Steller’s Jay requested I get from the artist Ravenari in lieu of illegally possessing molted jay feathers.
Looking over these gifts, I can remember for a few moments—or longer, if I wish—what it was like to climb Dog Mountain in a November storm and nearly be blown off the summit; or the first time I met the Pacific Ocean; or the time I retreated to Bend, Oregon and found solace in the deserts there. I can remember the wildlife, and the plants, and the stones, and all the beings that come together in these places, just with these few small reminders.
And they’re all invitations to come back, to reconnect, whether physically or through journeying spiritually. Even the places that scared me weren’t out to get me; I simply wasn’t observing enough respect for them. Every visit is a chance to try again, to go in deeper, to give more of myself to the land spirits and see what happens next.
Surprise! I have a new book! Well, booklet, anyway. And there’s a nifty handmade divination set with it, too!
Pocket Osteomancy is a bone divination system that I created based loosely on the Minor Arcana of the Tarot of Bones. It’s a bone casting method using a casting cloth divided into four quadrants. I first released it to some of my Patrons on Patreon last year so that they could try it out, but they only had a single instruction sheet to work with. Now I’ve fleshed that out into a 24-page booklet available as a paperback or ebook, and you can purchase the casting cloth and bones as well!
Divination with bones doesn’t have to be complicated! Pocket Osteomancy: A Simple Bone Divination Set is a simple but effective system for using animal bones to focus your intuition and explore possibilities in your present and future. It’s great for both beginners who may feel intimidated by more complex systems, and also provides a basic structure for more experienced practitioners to build on and explore.
Note: This article was first posted over at my now-defunct Patheos blog. Due to contractual disagreements, which included them refusing to remove my posts from their site after repeated requests, I am moving some of my writing over here. Please link to this version of the article rather than the Patheos one. Thank you!
Ah, mid-August, how I love thee. It’s the height of summer here in the U.S., with barbecues and campouts and calling the air conditioning repair company because the HVAC is down again. My garden is overflowing with fresh produce and I have no idea how we’re going to eat all this kale, but I’m going to make it work. And all the kiddies are trying to squeeze the last remnants of summer vacation out before having to go back to school. Even the stores are getting in on the act, with shelves and displays full of backpacks and pencils and all that other stuff on the school supply list that just arrived in the mail.
Of course, the back to school displays have been up since the fifth of July. But soon enough (probably just after Labor Day) it’ll be time shopping for Halloween, or so the chain stores say. (Sure, it’s a little early to be talking about this, but I have to beat the stores to the punch!) You can expect endless lines of green-faced witches, styrofoam tombstones, little plastic cauldrons, and strings of Christmas-style lights with translucent smiling skulls and ghosts. Right on cue, the feeds on my social media profiles–Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter–will be full of squealing pagans all excited about “Look at all this Halloween stuff I got from Michael’s for just twenty bucks! They had a sale!” and “I got this cute gargoyle statue with red LED eyes at Wal-mart!” (In fact, I’ve already seen a few posts–apparently Michael’s already has their Halloween stuff out. Yikes.)
Most of the time I just hold my tongue and cringe. The very same pagans who have been reblogging and sharing calls to action about fracking in Canada and human rights abuses in Gaza are proudly displaying cheap, chintzy tchotchkes that are the products of environmental degradation and slave labor. It’s a peculiar sort of cognitive dissonance driven by materialism and rampant consumerism without reflection. It would be one thing if there were no alternative options, or if it were over something necessary to life like access to food or water, or even something educational like books. No, these cheap, mass-produced items (only slightly different from the ones offered last year) are purely luxuries, and not even luxuries in the traditional sense of actually being worth something.
How else can these big box chain stores sell you their tacky items at low, low prices except through abuses to the environment and our fellow human beings? When you get to pay $5.99 for a packet of paper plates with smiling black cats on them, or get a buy one get one free pair of resin skeleton candle holders, you’re not paying the full price for these things. Other living beings are your coupons, and future generations of humans and other living beings will be paying the price for your purchase for decades, if not centuries, to come.
The sad thing is, there are plenty of alternatives to the crap you’ll find on the big box shelves, and yet millions of people convince themselves they just have to have these useless, toxic items, to include people who claim they venerate nature and believe all people should be treated equally and humanely. It would be one thing if we were talking about something necessary to human existence, like food or water access, or if these were carefully hand-crafted pieces bought directly from the artist. But we’re compromising the environment and each other over things nobody actually needs, and which can be easily replaced by better options.
Want to break the cycle of damaging consumerism? Make your own decorations and costumes using recycled and reclaimed materials, and invite your friends and family to get in on it. Here’s one set of tutorials, and here’s another, and some more over here, and those are just three of the first links that popped up when I Googled “how to make Halloween decorations with recycled materials”. If you want to get really artsy about it, try sculpting your own scary skeletons and witches out of recycled paper mache instead of buying the resin ones from the chain stores.
If you don’t feel you’re artistic enough, consider going through Etsy* or other avenues to patronize artists who make holiday wares. You can ask them about where their materials come from, request custom work, and you’ll be giving money to an individual person, not a nameless corporation. Chances are whatever they make will be better constructed than the cheaply made offerings at the stores, and so will last much longer. It may be more of a financial investment in the beginning, but it pays off in the long run.
Remember, too, that Halloween (Samhain) was originally a harvest festival, and many pagans still celebrate it as such today. This means that edibles like squash, sugar pumpkins and apples all make great decorations. You may also be able to find corn stalks from local farmers, and fall leaves are always abundant wherever deciduous trees grow. Once Halloween is over, you can eat the vegetables and fruit, and compost the rest.
If you absolutely must decorate your home in poor-quality, mass-produced Halloween kitsch, consider checking out Goodwill and other thrift stores in your area. Plenty of people offload their old holiday decorations when they move or clean house, and every year I see aisles full of perfectly serviceable secondhand Halloween items available for cheap. A lot of it will end up thrown out because there’s just too much to go around, and too many people insist on heading to Target to buy brand new costumes and decor (most of which will probably end up tossed, or donated and then tossed, in a few years). If for whatever reason you’d be horrified if your friends knew you went thrift shopping *gasp*, you don’t have to tell them the truth of where that inflatable vampire came from. Just tell them you bought it at the Halloween Superstore a few years ago.
Halloween can still be full of fun decorations and playful costumes, and those of you so inclined can still make your home look like October year-round. But with a little care and consideration, we can make this year’s Halloween better for the entire planet, and take some power away from the truly scary monsters that we face in our world today.
* Please be aware that Etsy now allows mass-produced items. You may have to be a little careful in shopping there. Generally speaking, if it’s cheap, it’s probably mass produced.
I’m taking a bit of a break from working on the last few assemblages for the Tarot of Bones, and I had some thoughts regarding working non-human animals into the very anthropocentric symbolism of the tarot. See, my deck has no humans in it whatsoever; it’s all made from the bones of other species of vertebrate, and draws heavily from natural history in design and meaning. This is very different from the majority of decks out there; most are based in one way or another on the Rider-Waite Smith deck, itself derived from even older decks.
With the exception of the Seven of Wands and the Three of Swords, all of the RWS cards include a human, humanoid figure, the Moon’s human face, or in the case of the Aces a disembodied hand popping out of a cloud. Where there are non-human animals, they are largely symbolic of human interests and biases; the Knights ride horses as is appropriate, the depths of the psyche are symbolized by a crab or lobster in the Moon card, and Strength shows the taming of a lion. Even some animal-themed tarot decks are essentially the RWS in fur, feather and fin. We reign supreme, and the other animals are merely bit players in our archetypal dramas.
This is, of course, to be expected. While tarot readings for pets and other animals certainly exist, for the most part we’re pretty self-centered, wanting to know what’s going to happen with us and our fellow human beings. Unfortunately this anthropocentrism has contributed heavily to our current environmental crisis; whether through necessity, malice or apathy, we have all contributed to one degree or another to the poisoning of the land, water, sky and their inhabitants.
One of my goals as a pagan, author and artist is to help people break out of that self-centered perspective. The Tarot of Bones is one tool I’m using to that end. While I, too, have drawn on the RWS deck for inspiration, I also rely quite a bit on the behaviors and other traits of the animals whose bones I’ve worked into the assemblages for the card art. This is especially true for the Court Cards and Major Arcana, all of which utilize the skulls of species specifically chosen for each card.
But this isn’t just a “this animal means this, that animal means that” deck. I’m trying to show the parallels in our behavior. I want us to internalize the ways of other animals so that we recognize them as kin. We may not want to acknowledge our inner sloth, but my Hanged Man draws on how that animal has used its slower lifestyle to survive and thrive over thousands of years–and how we can learn to do the same. And anyone who thinks we’re the only ones who fall in love have never seen two red foxes playfully courting each other! (Okay, so we’re less likely to run around peeing on our territory in the process, but you get the idea.)
The thing is, a lot of the lessons in the tarot are universal, not just for us alone. Every male ungulate has had to fight to the top of the mountain and hold his place like the Seven of Wands, and eventually even the King of the Mountain must fall, a la the Five of Swords. There is the feasting time of the Three of Cups, and the famine of the Five of Pentacles. Some cards may seem a little too abstract for our non-human kin, like the Magician. Consider that that card’s figure relies on making use of the resources available to him at any time, though, and we quickly see how every other creature survives doing the same.
In the end, there’s really not a whole lot that we humans can claim as our own without exception. Our technological skills are just a result of tool-making instincts coupled with a ridiculously large and complicated brain; our wars are no more than territorial squabbles writ large, and our peace is the baseline sought by every creature (except, perhaps, curmudgeons like the sarcastic fringehead).
So for you tarot enthusiasts out there, the next time you break out a deck for a reading, consider how the outcome might affect a coyote, or a monarch butterfly, or a giant squid. How might you read for the other creatures of the world?
So I wrote a 32-page booklet on a topic I haven’t really talked much about but which has been near and dear to me for a few years now, and you can now order both paperback and ebook copies of Skull Scrying: Animal Skulls in Divinatory Trance directly from me at this link. Animal skulls are much more than passive decorations on an altar; they are potential allies in the ancient divinatory art of scrying. Through skull scrying you can draw forth answers to your questions and gain more insight into situations in your life with the help of the spirit within the bone. This booklet is by no means an exhaustive text on the art of scrying, but is an introduction to a particularly nature-centered version thereof. Suitable for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. The table of contents gives you an idea of what you can look forward to:
A Brief Introduction
Chapter 1: What is Skull Scrying?
Chapter 2: Choosing a Skull for Scrying
Chapter 3: Skull Scrying and Interpreting Results
Afterword: Recommended Suppliers
Please note that I will be receiving my first paperback copies of Skull Scrying on or around November 24; all paperback orders made before then will be fulfilled from that order.
Over the past few months, as I’ve been working on the Tarot of Bones, I’ve had the opportunity to reassess my relationship with this particular divination system. Like many newbie pagans, back in the 1990s I was eager to jump into all sorts of exciting topics of study and practice. I found I had a halfway decent affinity for divination, and so between the Shapeshifter Tarot and a set of elder futhark runes I carved from natural chalk found in a Missouri creek, I began practicing this ancient art. Also like many new diviners, I found myself sticking pretty closely to my books as I parsed out meanings of card and layouts and queries. Then in 1999 I discovered Ted Andrews’ Animal-Wise deck, and thus began a love affair that lasts to this day. I left behind traditional tarot, and delved into a more organic, nature-based form of divination.
When I was preparing last year to start creating the Tarot of Bones, I took the opportunity to revisit my relationship with the more traditional aspects of the tarot. What I found surprised me: even though I hadn’t been actively reading tarot in over fifteen years, I found my personal interpretations of the cards to be deeper and richer, as well as more personal, than they had ever been. All those years doing totem readings with the Animal-Wise deck had vastly improved my pattern recognition and intuition skills, and so I could focus primarily on reacquainting myself with the tarot as a specific system.
Not surprisingly, the Major and Minor Arcana each have distinct personalities and bailiwicks. I think of the Major Arcana as a sort of pageant, with actors in specific archetypal roles, telling the Fool’s Journey through trial and triumph. Death and the Tower bring about massive, sometimes terrifying changes, but these are integral to moving the story along so that the Star and Judgement and others can even things out again. I don’t see the Majors (or the Court Cards) as representing individual people so much, though I know that’s a common way to interpret them in readings. Rather, I see them as the grand mythical forces that run through the lore and cultures of people worldwide. They are the experiences shared among a species, grand and poetic and given a stage through epic tales. They rock us to sleep every night as children, and they see us into our dreams–and our deaths.
The Minor Arcana, on the other hand, are the everyday people watching the pageant as it proceeds through its stages. Once the Fool has greeted the World and all the players bow for applause and roses, the audience goes back to lives as artisans and lawyers, retail workers and cooks, tech professionals and musicians and students. The Minor Arcana includes the cards of the individual and the intimate. We’ve all had sleepless nights full of worry, and we’ve all had joyous moments of celebration with others. We know the small, petty conflicts that can blow up into great drama, and the seemingly enormous accomplishments that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make a lot of difference to anyone but ourselves (and that’s okay.) The Courts, in particular, refer to states of being I can aspire to (or avoid!), rather than telling me to look for a dark-haired man (I only have to go as far as the next room in my apartment to find one of those. Hi, honey!)
So what’s the difference between the Majors and Minors in my readings? The way they’ve been lining up lately is that when a Major comes up, I look outward, into the greater patterns and machinations of humanity. Turn over a Minor Arcana card, and I look inward, or very close to me. Rarely will the reading bring up an individual person; mine tend more toward patterns and situations, often involving other people, sometimes myself alone. Of course, these are generalizations. There are always exceptions. Sometimes a Major will want to get up close and personal, and sometimes a Court or Pip will remind me that those deep moments of isolation or bursts of inspiration speak to much larger social or species-wide currents.
Of course, this is just a discussion of the strictly tarot-flavored elements of my readings. As the Tarot of Bones develops, the animals themselves are speaking up, particularly in the Major and Court cards. But that set isn’t finished yet, and so our conversation is still ongoing.
Chicken of the woods.
Earlier this month I experienced an important milestone: I filled up my hiking journal.
Most hikes I’ve gone on in the past seven and a half years, I’ve toted along an increasingly battered, well-loved spiral-bound blank book that was a gift from my aunt who has always indulged my love of journals. The covers are decorated with art by biologist and artist Heather A. Wallis-Murphy, rendered in lovely watercolors. (I highly recommend her journals, cards and the like on her website; you’ll need to order via snail mail, but it’s totally worth it.) And the pages are nice quality paper, perfect for jotting down notes and sketches.
Old man’s beard.
I first started writing in this journal in September of 2007, a few months after I moved to Portland and began exploring the wilderness areas in the Columbia River Gorge. I was just getting into neoshamanism at the time (that’s about when I started blogging at Therioshamanism, the predecessor to this blog). So my excursions into wild places were punctuated by spiritual impressions and beings and meanings, and my journaling reflected that. There were rituals, and meditations, and other things besides simply hiking. There were reflective essays on how I’d developed since the last hike, complete with “Here’s where I am now, Journal!” walls of text. I did record the animals and plants I recognized; only a few at first, but more over time. Still, those took a backseat to the longer-form writings.
As the years went on, the content of my entries changed. They were less about “me, me, me!”; instead, the focus shifted to more observations on the world around me. In my previous relationship which I’d been embroiled in at the start of the journal, I’d gotten into the bad habit of navel-gazing so hard that I ended up processing in circles. The same problems kept coming up over and over again, but ultimately were never solved (hence the end of that relationship). I began doubting the effectiveness of all these abstract symbols of the wilderness, and thinking maybe–like the constant “internal work”–they were distracting me from what was really important.
It took years to finally get to the point where I felt I could admit that what I really needed wasn’t what I had been striving for–a more structured neoshamanic path. Instead, I yearned for a falling away of abstractions and symbols and other things that distanced me from the purest manifestation of nature. I required nothing less than immediate and direct contact with the physical world, not in myths or superstitions, but in soil and species and the ever-shifting clouds overhead. I wanted only the deepest, least cluttered connection I’d had as a child, when the sacredness of nature first became known to me. And so I lost my religion, and in doing so gained the world.
My journal entries shifted as well. I stopped trying to wax eloquent on theology and the dramas of my everyday life. Instead, I began to do more listing. Animals. Plants. Fungi. Even geological formations. Everything I noticed and could identify, I made note of. Even if I didn’t know the exact species, I took note of field marks and looked it up later when I was home with a reliable internet connection. It didn’t matter that no one else could read my horrible chicken scratch scribbled handwriting. What was on those pages was the blossoming of a curious mind that had been entangled for decades.
So many more.
In the years since that shift, my time in the woods has been better, more productive, more calming. I no longer care whether that bird I saw was really a spiritual messenger and I shouldn’t offend it. It is enough that my path crossed with that of another living being, one I might not get to see in my everyday sphere of existence. I no longer try to map out the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. I content myself with vast, interrelated ecosystems, more full of wonder and magic than I had remembered from childhood.
And in my journal, I could trace that growth. My lists of beings I could identify was no longer a small handful, but dozens, and with many more to be learned and known and understood. Animals were no longer the main focus; I beheld entire systems, of which the wildlife was only one part. I recorded my excitement at seeing a new-to-me species or a behavior I hadn’t witnessed before. And I became hungry for even more.
My new journal is another Wild Tales creation, this time with eagles as the theme. It is pristine, but for the first few pages. These carry the memories and lists of my Oregon desert adventures, transcribed over from temporary paper while the journal arrived in the mail. Already the corners are a little bent from being shoved into my day pack in my subsequent hikes; my name and number adorn the cover, just in case I lose it somewhere. I suspect I’ll fill it up a lot quicker than the last one. I’m hiking more often, and I have a lot more to record. There’s the litany of nature to record, after all.
A handmade (by me!) leather pouch for your Tarot of Bones deck
Copies of my other books on paganism and nature spirituality
Prints of select cards
Original assemblage pieces used in the creation of the Tarot of Bones
A thank you in the Tarot of Bones book and website
Other perks to be revealed if we meet the goal of $5,000 and get into stretch goal territory
Plus you’ll be helping me acquire the rest of the materials I need to complete the card art as well as offset some of the other costs. While this isn’t my only source of funding, the campaign will help me stick to my production schedule for the project.
What is the Tarot of Bones? It is a natural history-themed divination set I am creating. I’m making 78 permanent assemblage pieces, one for each of the cards, featuring animal bones and other natural and reclaimed materials. These assemblages will then be photographed for the card art, and the deck will be released with a full-length companion book (not just the little white booklet). You can find out more about it and see photos of completed assemblage pieces at the official Tarot of Bones website.
For just $5 you can help make the Tarot of Bones a reality! And even if you can’t contribute, please reblog/reweet/share the IndieGoGo campaign so others have the opportunity to be a part of it all! And many, many thanks for your support and help 🙂
Happy New Year, all! For the past several weeks I’ve been dropping hints here and there about a big, super-secret project I have in the works, and now I’m doing the big unveil:
After almost twenty years of practicing nature-based spirituality and creating art with natural materials, I am creating a tarot deck. The Tarot of Bones is an ambitious project combining the nature-inspired symbolism of animal bones with the tarot’s well-loved archetypes to create an unparalleled divination set for the 21st century. As animals exist within vibrant and complex ecosystems, the bones will be ensconced in permanent assemblage artworks using natural and reclaimed materials reflecting both the animal’s habitat and emblems of their respective cards.
The Tarot of Bones will be a complete 78-card tarot deck with both the Major and Minor Arcana, each card featuring a full-color photograph of the assemblage piece I create for it. A full companion book will also be available, detailing the symbolism and potential interpretations of each card, as well as sample layouts and other material of use to the reader. The Tarot of Bones will be self-published to allow me the greatest amount of creative control; I will be organizing a crowdfunding campaign later in 2015. If you would like to support my creative endeavors in the meantime and get access to exclusive work in progress photos of the artwork for the cards, please consider becoming my patron on Patreon.
It’s Earth Day, and while my blog tends to be pretty eco-centric year-round, I wanted to write today about a particular topic that comes up a lot in paganism, particularly among newcomers: ritual tools. Now, it’s been said many times by many people that you don’t actually need tools to be a pagan. I do agree that you can perform rituals open-handed, with nothing but yourself and the spirits/gods/energy you’re working with to make things happen. However, some people just like having the tools themselves; they help heighten the ability to suspend disbelief. And some people feel their tools have spirits of their own, thus making them allies in ritual.
A lot of new pagans, especially young ones, look for inexpensive ritual tools since money’s tight. However, a lot of the suggestions I see made are things that are distinctly not eco-friendly. The most common one is some variant of “Just go to Wal-mart/Dollar Tree/other chain store and get your candles, candle holders, bowls and other tools there!” Sure, you could get a four-pack of taper candles for a buck, but what’s the real cost? Here are the likely reasons your candles are so cheap:
–The wax is probably petroleum-based, which means it benefits from fossil fuel subsidies from federal and state governments. The chemical company that developed the dye might also have gotten subsidies as well. This means that these companies are getting money for free, out of people’s taxes, and therefore can sell their products more cheaply. These companies are also usually not required to pay for the effects of the pollution that’s a byproduct of their processes.
–The candles were likely to have been made by underpaid, sometimes abused workers in a factory in China or another East Asian country, with inadequate protection against the chemicals and machinery being used. There’s a good chance that any chemical byproducts of the process are not properly disposed of, and may just be dumped directly into the nearest river, saving them the cost of paying for safer options.
–They were shipped en masse on a boat from their country of manufacture to wherever you are, again using subsidized fossil fuels. The shipping company doesn’t have to pay for the pollution their boats cause to the ocean and the air, so they can keep their costs down.
We don’t have a solid number on the real cost of pollution from the manufacture of these candles, but suffice it to say you’re getting your candles cheaply in part because the entities who made them and their components are passing some of the cost on to the environment. And we add to that, too, any time we burn candles made with noxious chemicals that add to air pollution in our homes and elsewhere. We speak with our dollars when we buy these cheap things–we say “We don’t care, so long as we save a few bucks in the name of practicing a nature religion*”.
So what’s a pagan to do when money’s thin on the ground? Here are some options.
Use What You’ve Got
You may already have the things you need for your ritual right at home. In generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism, common tools include an athame or other sacred knife, a bowl for salt or water, a wand, an incense burner, and something to put it on. A common kitchen knife may not be the most flashy thing in the world, but it will work, and you can decorate it if you want to dedicate it just to ritual work. If you have a favorite bowl in your kitchen, you can reserve that for your sacred work as well. Any stick or rod will work as a wand–I’ve even heard of using a ruler for one! You can easily make an incense burner out of aluminum foil; just make it into a bowl with a few layers, put some sand or dirt in it, and place the incense on that. Then put the burner on a hotpad or trivet, or even a very flat rock or thick ceramic dish, and you’re good to go. You can decorate the dish/hotpad/etc. if you like, though it’s not necessary (and make sure that anything flammable is kept well away from the burning incense!)
These are just a few ideas based on one particular set of ritual tools; you can get pretty creative depending on your needs, so treat it like a grand scavenger hunt! (Just make sure that you’re using only your stuff, or that you ask permission to use anything that belongs to someone else.)
Yet there’s this unfortunate superstition floating around paganism that somehow you can’t cleanse secondhand items, that the histories they have will linger with them and will always taint them as ritual items–but of course, all a brand-new item needs is a quick cleansing! I call bollocks on that one. If you can purify a new glass bowl that’s been made in a sweatshop soaked in human suffering and death, created from materials that cause great devastation to the natural environment, and conveyed to your town while leaving a trail of fossil fuel pollution behind it, you can damned well purify the energy of a similar, secondhand glass bowl that sat on someone’s grandmother’s dining room table with wax fruit in it for thirty years. Most of my ritual tools over the years were secondhand, to include items that other practitioners used in their own rites, and I never had a problem making them ready for my work.
So get over that superstition, and start thrifting! You never know what kind of cool stuff you may find. (My only caution is that it’s really easy to come home with a cart full of secondhand tchotchkes for cheap, which may put shelf space in your home at a premium.)
Foraging At Its Finest
Many nature pagans like having sticks, stones and other natural items in their homes to remind them of what they feel is sacred. In fact, you can make your entire array of ritual tools from things you found outside. If you work with the four cardinal directions and elements, for example, you might have a stone in the north, a feather or bit of dandelion fluff in the east, dried wood or moss as firestarter in the south, and a vial of rain water in the west. The best part of all this is that, other than some containers for things like water, it’s all free.
Do keep in mind there are certain legal and other restrictions. Federal and state parks in the U.S., for example, prohibit the collection of any natural items found within the park without a permit (some cities do this as well). You’ll need to ask permission when foraging on private property. And some items, such as some animal parts, are illegal to possess regardless of how you got them; most wild bird feathers in the U.S. cannot be possessed, even if they were naturally molted, as one example. (You can access my database of animal parts laws here.)
Grow or Make Your Own
DIY is a wonderful thing. Not only do you get to cut costs, but you get to gain skills, too! For example, some folks like to use herbs in their spells and other magic, and luckily a lot of these herbs can be easily grown, even in a pot by the window. If you worry about having a black thumb, there’s plenty of information on the internet about how best to care for a particular kind of plant; the most common ways to kill your herbs is through too much or too little water and sunlight, the wrong sort of soil or not enough fertilizer, and disease or parasites. If you notice a plant isn’t thriving, you can research online or in books at the library what the possible causes may be, and you can ask garden shops or people on gardening forums for advice.
Other tools can be homemade, too. If you want to have a permanently decorated altar, maybe with a scene depicting your patron deities or symbols of the four cardinal directions, you can paint a secondhand table with acrylic paints**, or carve or burn the designs if the table’s wood. A well-worn broom can be decorated with dried flowers and ribbon, and even re-bristled with straw and other plant materials. A particularly sturdy branch may make a nice wand as-is, or you can choose to decorate it to your preferences.
Support Local Artisans
It’s okay if you don’t want to make your own tools. Maybe you don’t have the time, or you don’t feel your work is quite up to your own standards***. In this case, you may wish to consider supporting a local artisan. Of course, this may not necessarily be the cheapest option; an individual artist has to pay a lot more for their materials per piece than a factory, and puts a lot more time and effort into the creation, too. However, many artists will have items along a wide range of prices. Some may even have some items on sale or clearance, things they’ve had sitting around a good long while. And some artists are open to barter as well.
You’re always welcome to ask an artisan about their materials. I talked earlier about cheap, petroleum-based candles from the dollar store; however, there are candle-makers who specialize in eco-friendly alternatives like beeswax and natural dyes, and who avoid candle wicking with lead in it. And the same goes for everything from ceramics to woodworking to paintings; usually there’s somebody who specializes in greener materials out there.
I hope now that you see that buying ritual tools on a budget doesn’t have to feed into environmentally harmful processes and practices. In fact, taking care in one’s shopping choices can be an act of spiritual devotion in and of itself. If you feel nature is sacred, then let that speak not just through your rituals and special moments, but in your everyday actions as well.
* With the understanding, of course, that not every person who identifies as a pagan focuses their paganism on nature, and there are some pagans for whom the gods, for example, are central.
** While not without their pollutants, acrylic paints are some of the safest paints that are easily obtained commercially. There are more eco-friendly recipes for homemade paints out there, but acrylics are best if you don’t want to go quite that far in your DIY-dom.
*** The effectiveness of a tool, by the way, is not in how pretty it is or how perfectly crafted. Even if you don’t think you’re an artist, it’s the intent behind the creation that matters. So don’t let that get in the way of making your own tools if you’re so inclined.