Magical Efficacy: The Economic Problem (Or: Why Can't I Sell This Sh*t?)

Now that Pagans have had a number of years to be out of the broom closet and begin weighing things like magic against science, a conundrum has been brought up by - of all places - a comic strip. XKCD - a totally geektastic webcomic - recently did a piece on how, if various metaphysical phenomenon were real, then big businesses would be using them to either turn a bigger profit or reduce customer cost.

The examples given are:

  • If dowsing or remote viewing were real, then oil companies would use it to find even more oil wells and make a killing in profits.
  • If auras, homeopathy, or remote prayer were real, then health care costs could be reduced.
  • If astrology or tarot were real (assumed to read ‘accurate’), then financial/business planning would be assured.
  • If crystals really had energy, then they could be used as a source of energy akin to batteries or an engine.
  • If curses and hexes were real, then the military would make use of them against our enemies.

Now, I’d like to first off say that I think this list has a very good point. Basically put, if magic is so real and so effective, then why doesn’t everybody use it? Why wouldn’t businesses light a green candle or go dowse for oil or speak in Latin around some ancient books if it meant they would be incalculably wealthier? Well, this speaks to my innate skepticism. These are the same kinds of arguments I used against the Law of Attraction. If it is a ‘law’, then it should work every time. If magic is truly ‘magical,’ then you should be able to ‘Alohomora’ your way out of any locked door. (My apologies to those that are not Harry Potter fans.)

This kind of thinking harkens back to a problem I have with the idea of magic in general: people project too much onto the idea of magic. Pagans and non-Pagans alike. There seems to be this grand idea that magic is a superpower complete with special effects and immediate results. It’s a cure-all, and it can be used for any purpose. Time and again the heated discussion is waged about setting limits on putting rationality in magic and spell-casting.

When non-Pagans or non-witchy folk speak of magic, they speak of it as though it is akin to the wand-waving Harry Potter stuff. I like to call this InstaMagic. You follow steps 1-3 and something goes ‘poof’ and then you have a bunny or a stack of $100 bills or a new ‘this.’ Those in the know of what real magic is and can do roll our eyes at these thoughts and think something along the lines of ‘Silly Muggles. Spells aren’t for kids.’ It’s easy to look down at this way of thinking if you’ve been in deep research and scientific method mode of 1) think of kind of spell, 2) research how to do said spell, 3) perform said spell, and 4) await results and modify spell for next time.

But, let’s look at this from a Pagan perspective. How often do we as the members of the Pagan community jump to magic as the means to an end? Not only that, but how often do we project better or more immediate results on magic than are typical? It’s like those diet pill commercials you see on television. Yes, they probably will help, but you must also include diet and exercise, and even then you will never - barring extensive plastic surgery and unbelievably low self-esteem - look like the folks who took this pill for two weeks, ate whatever they wanted, and still look like Tyra Banks. Ok… Tyra Banks back in her heyday.

There are many types of Pagans that do this, and not all of them are the Newbie Pagan stereotype. There seems to be a misunderstanding, a debate, a miscommunication as to what magic is. This is natural because of the plethora of ways people come into contact with it. We see it on television, read about it in books, and hear about so many success stories from our witchy communities that we have gotten the fact from the fiction muddled. We have a desire to be the success story, to stand proudly on the beach in our itty-bitty-teeny-weeny bikini that we start believing some of the more outrageous uses for magic.

An old adage says that magic always works. More experienced witches sometimes say, “Well, yes, magic always works if done correctly.” But, then, there’s kicker, right? Magic can’t always work if there’s a right way and wrong way. Or, perhaps this highlights the bigger issue of ‘What is magic?’ Even bigger still, once you get some sort of rudimentary definition of magic, the question then evolves into, “Well, if there is such a force as magic, and it can affect [insert whatever it is you think magic affects], then why can’t it effect [insert something magic can’t do or control]?” And then, if you even get to a point where you can answer that question, it then becomes, “Yes, but why are those limitations the limitations? Why can I alter probability through spellcraft to attain a job promotion, but I can’t alter probability to grow pineapples in the arctic north without the aide of a greenhouse?”

The point here is not to answer these questions, though I’m sure attempting to do so would make for a hell of a fun discussion between friends. The point is to acknowledge that there is a misunderstanding, or, at least, a lack of cohesion on the matter of what spells can achieve. Many magical practitioners would call bunk on the ability to perceive, control, or do some of those phenomenon listed above. Some people who practice spells don’t believe in auras or dowsing. Some that claim the title ‘Witch’ don’t think astrology or remote viewing is anything more than New Age hooey. Some do. The debate wages on.

To digress.

The list does seem to have several contentious items on it. To me, the most obvious one would be the bit about crystals and their energies. If crystals really possessed the energy that the magical community claims they do, then we should be able to put them to use powering cars or light bulbs or your old Furby. The hitch here is the misappropriation of the term ‘energy.’ One definition of the term means ‘power derived from substances to provide light, heat, or to power a machine to do work.’ Another definition is ‘to have a feeling of mental or physical vitality.’ Still another applies to physics and the propensity for matter and radiation to perform work.

The energy of stones could more specifically be called ‘spiritual’ or ‘magical’ energy. It’s just like a battery, but the structure that it powers is a person. More specifically, the energy contained within the stone powers that person’s own vitality to perform daily tasks, cast spells related to the respective energy of that stone, or contain specific energy types. It doesn’t really apply to causing a machine to do work. Though, to be fair, I think the creators of the list might have used this bit as humor, but the issue still stands. It’s like a battery, yes, but a battery that doesn’t fit into electrical equipment. It fits into biological or spiritual equipment, if that makes sense.

Another misappropriation has to do with psychic abilities. How many times have you seen the scene in the movie where the person sits down to speak to the psychic and when the psychic asks the person their name the other person says, “Shouldn’t you already know that if you’re a psychic?” It’s difficult, sometimes, to explain why psychic abilities allow practitioners to know some things and not others. However, this is the same problem we discussed earlier about magic and spells. Why can we cause the rain to fall, but we can’t for the life of us look like Brad or Angelina?

There are limits to psychic abilities. That’s a fact. We cannot know everything about every situation every single time we want to. If that were the case, every psychic, tarot reader, diviner, oracle, etc. from here to Timbuktu would never need to work, because they would make winning the lottery their full-time job. And, really, when was the last time you turned over your Tarot card and it was the ‘Trade Google stock next Tuesday, or else you’ll take a big loss” card?

Then there are the actual spells, highlighted in the list by curses, but it could really apply to any spell type. Why stop at curses for military use? The Millionaire Matchmaker would be a heck of a lot more successful if she just whipped out a pink or red candle with the right dressing oil every time she had a new client. Right? Here’s the thing that makes magical practitioners - both new and old - moan and groan and debate about spellcraft: time, reasoning, intent, and method.

Let me be a bit clearer:

  • The time it takes for the spell to come to fruition.
  • The reason you want to cast the spell.
  • The intent of your spell as it lines up with your end-goal intent.
  • The method, or route, that the magic takes to affect your result.

Sure, the military could have some witch on staff to curse their enemies, but does the military have the time to wait on the result? Does the practitioner have a good reason to be cursing that individual? Is he or she personally angry enough at the target to create an effect worthy of employing a witch in the military? What about method? Surely with as much oversight, and with as many regulations there are regarding how and when the military can execute a given action, the route the magic takes would have to be guaranteed to be the same every time.

There are too many unknowns with magic; that’s why we celebrate it as a Mystery. It cannot be regulated, so it cannot be sold at a corporate level. Think about the sheer volume of red tape dowsing would have to go to before a water company could openly employ a dowser. How much of a bureaucratic mess would it create if police or financial businesses or therapists actively sought to employ a psychic for use in their respective offices? Since it cannot be understood, or, rather, scientifically understood and controlled, then it cannot be packaged and sold or utilized by big business.

Even the best minds of our community cannot tell you exactly what it is or why it works. We have pseudo-scientific data that has to do with thought waves and quantum mechanics that are affected by our subconscious, but the modern scientific community has debunked much of that. And, yet, we stand in belief. We believe that it works; we know that it works, and so it does.

But, now let’s ask ourselves: how much of these kind of magical practices are really not being used by businesses? Homeopathic remedies are seeing a huge resurgence. With the growth of the green and naturalist movements, homeopathic remedies are seen as a better, equally viable alternative. Many medical doctors nowadays employ the use of herbs and roots to make healing teas, with the science behind them being quite sound. While you may not find many MDs asking you to place a quartz point on your head to relieve stress, but you will definitely find them making use of acupuncture and acupressure to create healthy changes in your body.

The actress Jenny McCarthy has been a loud voice for change in the way vaccines are created and administered. While it is still an enormous point of contention in the medical community, many researchers believe that the fillers that are used in inoculations are dangerous to our health. Thus, a movement has been spurred calling for green, organic vaccines that are safer for our children. While you may not consider this homeopathic, it is an example of organic medicine.

Even with all of these changes and with the embrace of these alternative medicines, insurance and healthcare companies still want to turn a profit. A huge profit at that. Some of the largest healthcare companies reported profits of hundreds of millions of dollars in 2009, with billions in profits for the full year. This is not the kind of money that companies simply give up with the wave of a wand.
I think the question of driving down healthcare costs isn’t going to be answered by a new form of medicine such as this. If anything, this push towards green healthcare will cost more for the customer than current medications. It’s a trend, right now. A luxury. People will pay more because it’s the latest and greatest, even though it’s the oldest form of medication known to man.

But let’s look at a bigger picture question here: Exactly how many witches or Pagans out there are wanting or willing to bring legitimate magic and metaphysical methods to the mainstream populace? How many are willing to jump through the hoops and the red tape it will take to become acceptable to that same mainstream? Furthermore, how many are willing to present them as a legitimate, valid, alternative method of achieving desired results?

Much of what many practitioners claim that it takes to create effective magic typically fails to be recreated in a laboratory setting. Many psychologists purport that a belief in magic, an adherence to the religion of Wicca, and following astrology, tarot, and other forms of divination are markers of negative psychological traits. And, basically, in a country of mostly Christians that think magic is evil, it is doubtful that American businesses are going to want to openly support such practices if they hope to continue selling to those nearly 80% of Americans that follow Biblical teaching - or, at least, claim to.

From what I hear of the Pagan community, though, none of this matters. If the articles, blogs, and message boards online are to be believed, then Pagans and witches have no desire to go public. We believe we are practicing a mystery tradition, and many members of this community take that quite seriously. Still others simply don’t want to share what they claim to know on elitist grounds. They like the idea of knowing something that the majority of the populace does not. There’s something about being able to dangle mystical knowledge over the collective heads of the masses that makes many folks giddy.

Even if magic could be recreated in a lab. Even if we could save money and reduce costs and win wars. Even if we could solve crimes and know the stock numbers in advance… Would we? Would we provide the service if asked? Some would. Some wouldn’t.

We are not Harry Potter, Doctor Strange, or Gandalf. No matter how much we’d like, we cannot wave a wand or twitch our noses and have instant, Hollywood style InstaMagic results. There are no special effects and there are no guarantees. There’s no right or wrong way to do magic, and that’s why it cannot be marketed. You cannot sell something whose formula - by the very nature of magic - needs to be tweaked to the task at hand. If you cannot perform a spell for a desired result and then have 10 other people repeat the same exact spell and achieve the same results, then you cannot market it.

I know… I know… Each little witch out there says they have THE spell that would work no matter who does it. I want you to think about putting this spell that ‘always works’ in the hands of somebody in a white coat. Somebody who doesn’t necessarily have the beliefs and ideas and faiths that you do. Ahh… That’s the trick, isn’t it? You have to believe in the magic in order to work it. You cannot be actively mentally working against the very idea of spellcraft, while training your mind and will to fall into that trance state where the most effective magic is worked.

This is why the economic argument falls flat. It’s not instant. It’s not guaranteed. It cannot necessarily be replicated. And, you cannot teach it to someone who does not believe in it. Even if you could, many witchy folks would not want to. Given all this, magic doesn’t really look like something to do, does it?

But, it is a vital part of modern Paganism. It is our connection to the infinite, our touching of our own inner divinity and spark. We want to keep it bottled up because it’s sacred, and that’s not quite a bad thing. Though, there are ramifications for that which we must accept. Some of those come in web-comic form. And it means that we probably won’t be going to Wal-Mart to pick up a spell-in-a-bottle anytime soon.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte


  1. Well said & thought out! Bravo!! This is almost the exact same conversation I have with my hubby who doesn't "believe." I just let him know that I don't believe in believing anymore. I simply do & experience, then adjust as necessary.

    As for the psychology of it all - Psychology & magic(k) have been intimately entwined since the birth of psychology (which was thought of as bunk in the beginning). Now that psychology has the stamp of approval from the mainstream [although it doesn't work with much higher success rates than magic(k)], they say we witches & Pagans are a bit "off".

    Oh well...I'd rather be happy & a bit nuts than mainstream & miserable.

    Wild & Bright Blessings!!

  2. How do you know that companies are NOT using magic to increase their profits, etc? Just because they SAY they aren't doing it? Pah. Would they admit it if they were? Not likely.

    There's a rumor that during WWII, part of what won the war for the Allied forces were English witches doing what witches do best. :D

  3. I'm skeptical when it comes to magic. I think it is a powerful ritualistic way to focus your will towards a goal, to keep your mind subconsciously focused on it and therefore increase the chance of it coming to fruition. To point the arrow in the right direction and see the true path before you, etc!

    Is magic at its simplest the steadfast belief in the powerful spirit of human beings to tame their fate?

  4. "The actress Jenny McCarthy has been a loud voice for change in the way vaccines are created and administered. While it is still an enormous point of contention in the medical community, many researchers believe that the fillers that are used in inoculations are dangerous to our health. Thus, a movement has been spurred calling for green, organic vaccines that are safer for our children. While you may not consider this homeopathic, it is an example of organic medicine."

    I fully support research into safer and greener vaccines. BUT the anti-vaccine movement has been responsible for DEATHS of real, living children. Children who need not have died. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE get your children vaccinated. The risks of vaccination issues are very very low.

    FInally, I argue that "many researchers" is a misleading statement. It implies that a significant percentage of researches, with expertise in vaccines, question vaccine safety. I believe that this overstates the actual number and qualifications of vaccine opponents.


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