Magical Ingredients – At What Cost?

Recently on Facebook, someone posted a story and the headline read that the black rhino was now extinct.  The story must have been hyperbolized, because my reading revealed that the black rhino is extinct in certain regions but not entirely (thank the Gods!).  They are critically endangered and some still exist in captivity or in sanctuaries.  So there’s still time, but something needs to change fast.  The frequency of news stories and environmental blog updates about illegal ivory poaching is absolutely alarming.  It all goes back to greed, a desire for status, and traditional Asian medicine.  The last is what is most troublesome to me in a spiritual sense.

To me, this is such a difficult topic to wade into because, despite my desire to do what is best for the environment and preserve our biodiversity, this is wrapped up in culture.  Normally, I can maintain a sense of cultural relativism, but some things raise hackles because they no longer seem correct in the given context.  And yet how do you stop a culture from wanting something that has been part of their traditional medicinal practices for centuries?

Vu Quoc Trung, a traditional medicine doctor who works out of a Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, thinks [ivory] has some limited value.

“According to ancient medicine books, there are only three uses for rhino horn,” says Vu. “The first is to decrease temperature, the second is to detoxify and the third is to improve blood quality.”

(From NPR)

Think of the many correspondences that exist within Western practices – whether for magic or traditional healing (and yes, I know there is a crossover).  Once upon a time, it was customary to wall cats into buildings to protect the homes against evil spirits, for example.  I doubt most modern Pagans would do that (perhaps some would if the cat were already dead…).  Now that’s not the best analogy because cats aren’t endangered, but it suggests that people are able to change their practices despite what tradition tells us.

And yet we aren’t perfect here in the West.  For example, we know how damaging mining for gems and metals can be, and yet we constantly buy them for our magical workings.  Many vendors I speak to don’t actually know where their gems came from or, if they do, how they were mined.  Who knows what ecosystem the mining is devastating?  Who knows how the workers were treated as it was extracted from the Earth Mama?  When you live in the US and import, you don’t really know the conditions unless you go there yourself. Perhaps access is the biggest problem – East and West.  We feel that everyone who wants to practice magic (or traditional Chinese medicine) should have access to the materials.  Therefore, they should be affordable.  To keep things affordable, greedy people are willing to engage in unscrupulous practices to obtain and sell what we consumers demand.  Often, the consumers ignorantly or willfully look the other way just so they can have their shiny crystals or ivory.

Unless our ancestors were wealthy, those who used natural resources in their magic and healing used what was readily available. Local herbs, local wood, local bones, river rocks, and the odd crystal or rough gem revealed beneath an upturned tree or boulder.  Really rare and precious materials would be expensive.  If an ancestor felt the need to utilize one in some sort of working, and if he or she could afford it, I bet it would have been purchased only for the most important workings or sacrifices.  (I don’t have anything to cite for this, but if it was true for cloth and spice, I assume it was true for gems, ivory, and rare resins.)

So I don’t have any answer to the ivory problem.  I’m hopeful the efforts to educate people in Asian countries about the plight of the elephants and rhinos will change their practices.  Yet we also need to be more aware of where we get our own magical ingredients.  We need to be conscious consumers and weigh our priorities. Personally, I find the best magical ingredients to be those grown and/or harvested by your own hands.  It’s not always possible, but at least you know how they were obtained.  When you work with the spirits of Nature and the Earth Mother, when you find them to be sacred, you simply must make these considerations.

Published by M. A. Phillips

An author and Druid living in Northern NY.

13 thoughts on “Magical Ingredients – At What Cost?

  1. For a long time, over at The Magical Druid, we didn’t carry stones that weren’t found for many of these reasons. What we learned, though, is that customers demand them of their shops, so we now carry a small selection.

    But here’s where we decided to make a difference: every time we get stones in, we check their origin, and we know what it is. If a customer wants to know where a stone came from, we can let them know at least the country of origin so that they can make an informed choice. How they are mined is a more difficult question to answer, but by knowing the country of origin, you can usually determine what that might be (for example, if it comes from India, even if you don’t know where exactly or who mined it, you can guess that it’s not at all friendly to the earth or to people).

    Competition obviously makes it difficult to order from “sustainable” sources (and let’s be honest, there’s no such thing as “sustainable mining,” but that’s another argument entirely), so when we order from such sources, we have to improve the item in order to justify a higher cost: we have to bless them, engrave on them, or color them after receiving them to make them markedly different than the shop down the street.

    I’d mention, though, that most of our ancestors appear to have owned some precious metals that they couldn’t find, and that even in the ancient world we know that people of all incomes had access to things like gold (Hindu wedding traditions demand great amounts, and have since well before colonial times, and there’s plenty of evidence in Mesoamerica regarding the mining and production of obsidian for tools and blades).

    But, of course, this is why we like to make our own stuff: it’s much easier to ensure you’re not raping the earth when you talk to the guy at the sawmill about where he gets his wood, or consign stones from a person who walks along Lake Erie and picks them up.

    1. Thanks for your reply, Michael! I’m glad to see that The Magical Druid takes these things into consideration! I know it’s not easy to meet demand and ensure where these materials come from, but it sounds like you’re doing all you can. The baby steps we all need to take! I don’t expect any less from you guys. You do wonderful work.

      The miner I know (we got my engagement stone from him) works closely with the local Herkimer diamond mines. He uses hand tools and carefully chisels away at the rock. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best method. Costly, yes, but I felt really good about getting my Herk from him. And I use gems so infrequently that the purchase made sense. For someone who feels a strong pull to use stones frequently, that might not be an economical option … And so we do the best we can.

      I honestly don’t know much about the mining practices of ancient people. Thank you for pointing out the access to gold. Perhaps I will learn more about that when I eventually delve into “The Celtic World” I recently received! One thing I didn’t get into was population change. The demand of ancient folk was probably less detrimental. But yes, I need to read more about it.

      1. I think that it was less detrimental only because it was less efficient 🙂 It’s also worth considering the salt mining that the Celts did was very deep into the earth and pretty ugly on the labor side. It remained ugly until the Industrial Revolution, at which point it got a minor facelift. . . but a face that starts out ugly is still ugly after a facelift 🙂

      2. And you do bring up an excellent point – just because our ancestors did something, doesn’t mean it was perfect. For all the faults our modern technology has, we have made some pretty significant innovations for the better!

    2. Very good stuff to think about here. Ethics can sometimes be so difficult and we sometimes get our heads wrapped around so many concepts, leaving us asking, “Well, what do we do about it then?”

      About the ancients and mining, from one of my DVD/book sets by Ancient Civilizations, entitled “The Celts – How the Barbarians Tamed Europe ”, it states: “The early Iron Age Celts were the first to mine the salt in Germany’s Salzburg Mountains. Slaves dug tunnels reaching 980 feet underground, and the remains of their pine twig torches can still be seen in the mines today. Salt gave the local rulers great wealth, but life underground was unpleasant and dangerous. In 1734, the preserved body of one of the ancient Celtic miners was found; it had been well preserved by the surrounding salt.

      Collecting and working iron to make tools and weapons defines the Iron Age in Europe. Iron is strong, much more easily found than the materials needed to make bronze, and easier to work. It was often collected as lumps from bogs, for instance, and towns like Manching probably grew rich from collecting and working the local bog iron.

      Bronze, made from copper and tin, was used throughout the Iron Age. Copper was often found in extraordinarily hard rocks. To extract the ore, the Celts used fire-setting: a fire was lit against the ore-bearing rock and, when the rock was hot, they threw water at it – the sudden change in temperature cracked the rock, making it break up.

      The mountains above Hallstatt, were rich in salt, which the Celts exploited. In addition to mining, they mastered the art of bronze and iron metalworking. A typical item was the spear tip often used by both men and women.

      A very precious metal, tin, was essential for bronze making, is very rare in Europe. It was thought to be so precious that it was even used to make beads for jewelry.

      Tin from Cornwall, in southwest England, was probably already being traded across Europe in the Bronze Age, and the Celts continued to sail there to collect tin until the 1st century BCE. Later, the Romans also mined tin in Cornwall” (p. 1-9).

      1. I vaguely knew about the tin mines in Cornwall because I watched a documentary about life in Edwardian times and they were still mining then. They brought pasties for lunch and it was traditional to give a piece to the spirits of the mine. It’s amazing to think of our ancestors from so long ago mining in the Earth… And considering how dangerous it is for modern miners with our technology… wow.

        Thanks for the information, RavynStar! It’s very much appreciated. I never really thought of salt as a commodity in Europe until later periods, but I was very wrong in assuming that! Just goes to show we shouldn’t make assumptions!

  2. I have one stone ( a large quartz) and i’m actually going to give that to a friend. I never uses gemstones I just think they are pretty. If anything I use rocks I find when I go on hikes and my daughter and I paint them and use them for a lot of different things and when we are don we can leave them back outside or gifts to the fae. I actually barely have any witchy items anymore because I don’t need all that stuff. I use what is near me, what is in season and easily attainable. I don’t do it for eco reasons I do it because I find it silly to search for an herb or gem that isn’t near me, did my ancestors do that? Besides I don’t need all that stuff I just consider it props really. But then again that is just my view on it all.

    1. I’m very similar to you, Otaku, except that I’m very driven by environmental concerns as well. Perhaps a big part of that is my draw to the rivers. Stones that have been smoothed by the rivers feel so sacred to me… Not that other stones aren’t, but I’m just not called to work with them! I have my Herkimer diamond engagement ring because it came from my homeland and felt better to me than a diamond. I also have a quartz crystal ball that I use as an energy battery and a couple other things I obtained from friends. Otherwise, it’s just not part of my practice! I’m more of a wood, bones, herbs, and river stones gal.

  3. I ‘ m of the opinion if I can’t grow it, I don’t use it. I got there when things like real sandalwood got hard to find but I can get oakwood locally and because I live in California I can grow almost any herb necessary and it isn’t going to hurt the environment somewhere else.

    1. And I bet you save a ton of money in the process! I love making my own smudge sticks and I know exactly how they were grown and harvested!

  4. Ignorance and superstition has little connection to magic, no different to the witch burning that went on in my town of Colchester in the past era. The use of magic to convince the mind to speed up the healing and proper medical plants is the sort of wisdom that should be in play.

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