Pagan Studies

Focusing on the Arte Magical as a practice and profession, we study various facets of magic through the lens of both classical and modern perspective. From ancient myth to urban legend to fiction and philosophy, all viewed through the eyes of a very practical magician.

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Trade: an Essay on Exchange in the Art Magical

When a person comes into magic, they often do so largely because they're looking for that magical wand for themselves. Either they're looking for a magical cure for their problems, or they're looking for an explanation why things work out the way they do, and so on. They often don't even give themselves a moment to consider the applications for other people. Even the nicer kinds of people often have this blind spot- they're not being selfish, they're being considerate of meddling in other people's affairs.

Still, I have often said that the true mark of a magician of any sort (be it shaman, sorcerer, witch, etc.) is how they use their powers in aid of another. After all, the first focus of any magician is the mastery of one's self and one's own life. Of course, once one has accomplished that (no easy task, to be sure, but it is the first goal), it should stand to reason that a person would naturally turn their gaze outward towards their surroundings.

In the Marvel Universe (yes, I'm referencing comic books in my magical practice), there are three kinds of true magic- Arcanum Ego, or the magic of one's self and one's own personal "energies"; Arcanum Eco, the magic of one's environment and natural power; and Arcanum Exo, the magic of extraplanar forces and beings. For myself and my own experience, this seemed entirely natural as a system of understanding. My own studies of astrology have taught about the modes of Personal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal ideology and wisdom- if you haven't learned this yet, the twelve signs are split into four Personal (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, and Cancer), four Interpersonal (Leo, Virgo, Libra, and Scorpio), and four Transpersonal signs (Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces).

But now I'm rambling- it simply makes sense to me that as one progresses through the lessons of mastering one's personal wisdom, one would then expand outward into interpersonal and interactive, and finally transpersonal and larger-view wisdoms. Indeed, this is reflected in the old guild structure of Apprentice (learn the basics), Journeyman (take your show on the road, so to speak), then Master (good enough now to begin teaching), and Grandmaster (your students have gone off and become Masters of their own now). It's been a part of human practice and profession for centuries now, and it's at the heart of every trade we follow.

And that's where it really gets meaningful, in my opinion- trade. A trade is something one does in order to make one's way in life- a way of offering goods and services in exchange for what one needs in one's life.

I make no mistake, in my study- magic has been an actual profession for far longer than people have looked at it as a hobby or entertainment. Indeed, religion is a trade too- being a priest or priestess was more than merely an emotional thing. The priests lived and worked at their temples, took their sustenance from the shrines and from those they aided in their work. Even the old country people had priests and shamans and witch-folk, and these people were paid for their work, through chickens and yarn all the way to good coin. Magic never would have survived as a practice if it hadn't had something to offer, and offered something to its practitioners beyond "the mysteries of the Sublime."

In Europe, Asia, and Africa, people still pay well for mystical services, and these aren't sham services either. They're genuine, and they're respected as much as medical services, religious rites, and other acts of service to the community. This isn't a "bygone era" thing either, it's modern day.

And yet, I run into many witches who go out of their way not only to eschew any concept of honoring the old arts of trade, but who are actively against such practices. People who say they follow the Old Ways, and yet they almost spit on the same old practices which were the survival of those ancestors they venerate. And they seem to extend the same disgust towards people nowadays who do the same.

Now, I don't get a lot of resentment for what I do these days- it's clear to most people that I offer something of more than fair value when I charge money. I also make a clear distinction between readings and classes, and spell work. I nearly never charge money for any kind of spell-casting, and only allow people to pay me for guidance-based things.

This isn't merely because of worries about fraud and snake oil accusations either- I have complete faith in my work. It's largely because I've learned a hard lesson in the arena of trade, perhaps one that those magical folk who eschew money in the Craft have also learned: magic has a cost to it, and the more one wishes to gain out of a spell, the more one will have to lose out of their own life to balance things out.

I've yet to see anyone pay enough in cash to equal a wish coming true. I mean really, how can you put a price on your health? Or upon true love? Or perhaps upon justice to the monster who has been harming your family for years?

There isn't a number that can equal such an emotional and subjective thing.

But make no mistake- though it cannot be measured in dollars and cents, there is a balance that can and will be paid. From your heart and soul, from your fate, from your life and health... there is always a price. Often, the price is innocence; we've heard it said in many different ways, "be careful what you wish for." Or as Neil Gaiman's character Desire said best- "The price of getting what you want, is getting what once you wanted."

Faery tales, proverbs, and old legends are full of this message- sometimes the problem is not that you don't have what you want. The problem is that you refuse to be happy.

As a magician, it has been my privilege to help folks with their problems. I have helped heal folks of things like cancer, I have assisted couples in getting pregnant (with magic, nothing too skeezy). And I've been fortunate to be able to assist folks see the best options in their situations, in my years as a reader. And two things I've learned is universally true- what a person sacrifices for, they value forever, and the price will always be fair, even if it doesn't seem so at first

I had an angry woman ask me once when discussing money exchange for classes- "Would it be ethically ok to insist upon sexual favors in exchange for classes?" I come from a state where prostitution isn't illegal, and I have had many friends in the sex trade. I believe I surprised her, actually. I told her "No, not for me they would not be." She asked why, as if trying to imply that a whore is a whore, in whatever way one sees it.

My reason was because for me, sex is a communion of equals- as a teacher, the dynamic between me and a student is not equal, and that facilitates the exchange- they gain what wisdom I can give them, and they pay me what I charge them, and as a result, we become equals in areas of education. A good prostitute charges a fair price for what he offers- the best courtesans were lauded not for their bedroom skills, but for their education and skills in all arenas of life.

I believe I surprised her with my answer- I think she expected me to be outraged, I have no idea why.

The early prostitutes were priestesses and priests, and again, I live in an area where this isn't a shocking thing.

In the end, I follow the old adage of witches, which predates the Wiccan Threefold Law: "What is done to me, by my witch's oath, I shall return thrice fold- once for myself, once for the other, and once for all of witchcraft." I learned that little tidbit from my teacher years ago, and have never forgotten it. We are due respect and kindness, and we have the ability not only to advocate for ourselves and our own needs and rights, but also for the rights and the good of others. To me, that is a major part of being a good magician- to find a balanced and fair way to offer that to the world, so that we are not merely taking from it, but also giving to it.

What are your own views about trade in the Art? Feel free to comment below- and please be respectful to others in your comments.

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S. Rune Emerson has been practicing witchcraft and sorcery since the early 90's, and has been teaching since 2004. He is the founder of the Risting Tradition of American Witchcraft, which is a large title for a small local tradition based in Northern Nevada. He also heads a coven tradition called the Cabal of Nocturne, and works as a diviner at Pathways Spirit, a metaphysical shop in Reno. He likes to describe his life as "extraordinarily simple." He is fond of observing that magic as a profession is the somewhat honest alternative to those of the same mindset as criminals- smart, lazy, and prone towards thinking outside the box, often in areas of questionable morality. He believes in a strong standard of accountability in magical practice, and has very strict ethics. He's also very opinionated about nearly everything.


  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Wednesday, 22 May 2013

    As someone who's done barter on occasion for one of my other businesses, I prefer to be paid in money. While it is true that money can't fully represent the actual price in and of itself, what it really represents is what you can do with it in turn. So if you pay me for services rendered, I can then take that money and pay someone else for services, groceries, bills, etc. But what I'm really paying for is my own experiences and again while money can't fully represent that experience, what it does do is provide the means to have the experience without near as much concern or comparison about the value a person is getting as occurs with bartering.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Wednesday, 22 May 2013

    Interesting point, Taylor. I myself have found that a person who facilitates my life through an act of kindness or generosity will find that they have earned a favor from me. It doesn't seem to work quite right if they do so because they're trying to manipulate me. I assume that's because money, like "energy" or blood or breath, is merely a conduit for what we have inside to offer. *chuckles*

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Wednesday, 22 May 2013

    Is getting paid money manipulation? I don't think so. Getting paid is simply setting a price on services rendered. At the same time it is up to the person offering said services to clearly demonstrate not merely the features of the services, but what they will help the client achieve, and how that achievement will be linked to the benefits in order to justify the price that will be paid (indeed if you can't clearly show the justification people won't pay. They need to be clear on the value to decide if it equals the price or better yet exceeds it).

    Additionally there is a relationship component to business, which is significant to continued business. People tend to prefer to do business with other people that they like and trust. Thus if there is a hint of manipulation it can quickly turn into a loss of business as people will spread the word. It is on the business owner to continually prove the value of what s/he offers as well as developing a genuine relationship where s/he shows concern and caring that the customer knows is genuine.

    Like you I do find that people who take care of me are people I want to take care of. Money is one way I can help take care of them, i.e. through choosing to do business with them, though not the only way. And I can see your point of money being a conduit for what we offer inside.

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