Friday, 14 December 2012

Discs, Coins, and Pentacles: A Look at Money and Esoteric Traditions

There's an interesting dance among the the modern esoteric, occult, and pagan communities when it comes to money that is a bit contradictory. On one hand, many in the communities believe a practitioner should never charge for their services, and a teacher should never charge their students. On the other hand, many in the community are adamant that any unauthorised reproduction of books or other material of a magic, pagan, or occult nature is the worst sin ever, that an author deserves money for every copy of their book. Often, these authors that should get money for their books are also teachers who shouldn't charge to teach, or practitioners who shouldn't charge for their services. But this seems a bit schizophrenia  Why are written teachings supposed to be paid for but charging for oral teachings anathema? Why are writings okay to charge for, but workings not? Is writing a profession but teaching or workings hobbies? I'd like to consider these things a bit.

In thinking about money, the suits of the Tarot comes to mind. While most modern decks contain wands, swords, cups, and pentacles, older decks commonly had rods or staves instead of wands and discs of coins instead of pentacles. The modern names tie heavily to ceremonial magic, of course. A pentacle for protection, a wand for directing energy and power, a sword for the masculine, a cup for the feminine. The sword is often tied to Excalibur, and cup with the Graal. Ceremonial magic then ties them to elements and understands them based on ceremonial usage of the tools, and on the understanding of the corresponding element. The pentacle becomes earth, the cup water, and the sword and wand becomes fire and air, though which is which can vary. Talking in generalities of course, as each tradition varies. But the Tarot are usually seen through these eyes.

Other modern readers use Jung's ideas and work with them as archetypes psychological constructs. Pentacles become material concerns, employment or financial. Cups become emotion and romance. Wands become intellectual and thought. Swords become action and will.

But it must be remembered that the Tarot didn't appear in Europe in a ceremonial magic context, and psychology and archetype theory developed later.

To understand the suits, a good place to look is the Three Estates of the Middle Ages, those who pray, those who fight, and those who labour. Basically, clergy, nobles, and peasants. But as the Middle Ages drew to a close, classes changed. The nobles drew further and further away from fighting, and the bourgeoisie developed. The Tarot was more a court and merchant thing than a peasant thing, and appeared in the days of bourgeoisie, so this seems a likely context to understand the it.

Looking at the suits, we can see some clear connections. A rod is probably a sceptre, the symbol of rulership, so the wands, the staves and rods, become those who rule, symbolising the governmental influence on life. A cup is the sacramental chalice, the symbol of the Church, so cups become those who pray, symbolising the spiritual and religious influence on life. A sword in the symbol of the military, those who fight, symbolising the influence of war and conflict on life. And a coin is the symbol of merchants, those who buy and sell, the middle class, the bourgeoisie, symbolising the influence of money and goods on life.

Interestingly, during that period, Mercury is used to designate trade and merchants and goods and money. Mercury/Hermes is the crosser between places, just as merchants cross between cities, between nations and kingdoms. But Mercury is never associated with earth, as Pentacles are now. Both god and planet is air, and the metal mercury. The goddess referenced for commerce was Minerva (Athena of the Greeks).

Mars was of course the god associated with fighting and wars. He is fire to most modern ideas, but he is iron, and while fire shapes iron, iron itself is a thing of earth. Iron comes from earth, and when used as a weapon, sends people back to the earth. War brings fallow fields, it's impact is on the earth itself.

Modern interpretation of cups as romance would put Venus (Aphrodite) and Cupid (Eros) there, but the cups as the Church brings a more chaste perspective. The classical image isn't that of Aphrodite and Eros bringing love and sex, but of the Vestal Virgins changed to male priests with vows. The chalice of the Church isn't a chalice of water but one in which wine becomes blood. Alcohol and blood are both more often linked to fire than water, but by their red colour (red wine is used in sacrament), and by their heat. The chalice of blood easily can be seen as the Vestial fires and the fires of Hestia.

Last we have wands, rods, staves, sceptres. We have secular authority which is rulership and royalty, government and kingship. This becomes Zeus quit easily, king of the gods. And Zeus' sceptre is a bolt of lightning, and Zeus is a storm god, and the very storm, the bringer of rain. This links wands nicely with water.

But, back to money and esoteric, occult, and pagan services. As far as I can tell, the idea that a magic practitioner's magic will only work if they don't take money for it is a very new concept, maybe originating in the Golden Dawn proviso against the use of magic to bring material wealth, as this is often associated with the pleasures of the earth, and the Golden Dawn, much like the gnostics, focuses on rising out of the physical onto the spiritual. Most records, myths, legends, and folktales concerning magic users, however, seem to describe it being a profession, their main source of income or provision, their main contribution to their communities. As far as teaching goes, apprenticeships to magic workers seems to have worked the same as other apprenticeships, in what I've read. The parents of the prospective apprenticeship bought the apprenticeship, paying the master. Definitely money for teaching.

In societies without currency, of course, payment was in goods or services, but this was true for any profession. If there's no physical money, goods and services are the only possible payment, and goods are the only wealth, as services can't be stored. Currency developed as a means to set rates and values of diverse things. The old metaphor, comparing apples and oranges is literal if you are trading them. How many apples is orange worth? How many oranges is an apple worth? You can barter, work out a deal, but what if you need 100 apples and live half a day's travel from where you will trade your oranges for the apples? How many oranges do you need to bring? Currency solves this, as it's easier to bring enough coins. Bartering was still the norm, but you bartered to sell what you could bring, then battered to buy what you needed. You didn't need to worry about exchanging between the types of goods. But the real reason for currency is governmental and religious. Taxes and offerings are easier in currency. As a temple or church or government gets large, what are they going to do with the large amount of grain or animals or whatever? Currency makes this easier, both for storing and for accounting.

Exchange of goods and services could work in our society, if those using the services of the magic user gave toward a need in response. "I'll pay your rent in exchange for delivering our baby." "In exchange for that charm for love, I'll bring groceries and come over and cook you dinner." Same for teaching, it's entirely possible to exchange. "I'll mow your lawn every week if you'll teach me every week." "I'll update your website in exchange for being taught." "I'll buy you dinner once a week and you can teach me while we eat."

In societies that didn't have a concept of trade, all things were held in common by definition, regardless of what role you served. In this case, the magic user tended to be in a role like a medicine man, or a shaman, or a priest, sometimes a governmental or military type leader as well. Basically the village doctor and preacher in one, or those plus the chief or warband leader. They provided a need, and the village provided for their needs. If the magic worker or teacher was completely taken care of by the pagan or occult community, there would be much less need to charge for services. The community would care for their physical needs, and they would care for the community's religious, spiritual, magical, and healing needs. They would teach others' their skills as the need grows and to carry on the service. The students wouldn't pay per se, the training would be part of the service in exchange for being provided for.

So there are options going back to older ideas, but why should the magic user or teacher function differently than the rest of the community? Do those in the same community that have "mundane" jobs, the programmers, the system administrators, the plumbers, the mechanics, the school teachers, the college professors, the nurses, the doctors, the lawyers, the architects, the engineers, the construction workers, the editors, the writers, and all the other professions, do all these work only for goods and services, or do they work for free, with the needs outside their profession met by the community?

Not to say it's wrong for magic users or teachers to serve for free if they choose, but why is it okay to require them to, while not requiring it of other professions? It's something to think about.

Back to the original comparison, what about writing? There's a strong reaction in the community against pirating, though a lot of it goes on. The statement made, which is legitimate, is that when a book is pirated, and distributed, the author gets no money for these, and that a writer can't survive without the income from their books, that they should be paid for their work.

Three points seem to be ignored.

The first is that resold copies at high prices on the Internet of out of print books is considered horrible, while buying them in used bookstores are trumpeted. However, neither of these, nor loaning or giving copies legally bought, give anything to author. The author only makes money from the initial sell. If one copy is sold, then passed around to a thousand people, the author makes the same thing as if one copy is bought, scanned, then passed out on the Internet to a thousand people. The first is legal and not critisized, and the second is illegal, piracy, and copyright infringement. Yet both hurt the author just as much. Not to say the second is good and should be done, but the finances of the author is obviously not relevant to what is right or wrong or good or bad.

Second, the initial question of this article, if piracy is wrong because the author deserves pay for her work, why doesn't she deserve pay for magical work or teacher-student training? Why is the same information portrayed in a book worth money, but not presented orally or privately? Esoteric, occult, and pagan traditions tend to talk a lot about oral tradition being better than writing, yet at the same time belie this by saying you should get paid for your writing but not your oral teaching.

Third, what is the purpose of publishing esoteric or occult books? Is it to provide the material to larger audiences than you can in person? Is it to cast it out into the world so a few that are meant to have it will find it? Is it for the purpose of funding your magic work and teaching? Is it to make as much money as you can?

Piracy helps the first two but hurts the second two. Same with selling copies used, loaning them out, or passing them on. So if either of the first two are your main goal, piracy should be seen as a good thing to the author, as it widens distribution beyond what traditional sales can do.

If your main goal is funding your magic work and teaching, how is that different from charging for those services? It's not as direct, true, but presumably your book is consistent with your teaching and informed by your practice. How can it be seen as a separate entity from either?

And if your main purpose is purely bringing in money, it's hard not to fall into the trap of mass production and following the latest trend. This would of course diminish quality, and doesn't seem to be something anyone serious in the esoteric or occult community would laud and encourage.

Ultimately, the question becomes, do you reject the physical world and wealth and money with it, or do you consider the physical, along with money and wealth, to be equal to the spiritual? If the first, it seems consistent to not charge for magic work or teaching, but also to provide books and writing for free, not charging for these either. This would make sense for gnostic oriented traditions, like many ceremonial traditions, mystery schools, and mystery-based witchcraft traditions. But for those that consider themselves earth-based religions or traditions that don't reject the physical, charging for magic work or teaching doesn't seem like something to fight or criticize any more than charging for books.

~Muninn's Kiss


  1. Even in non cash societies, It isn't all "exchange" there is a fair amount of 'pay it forwards'.
    Have been exposed to the concept of 'the Gift'?

    --Have you every watched kinfolk squabbling over who Gets to pay the tab?
    --Imagine offering money to your lover,next morning..

    Often money and gift economies co-exist.

    Some things just are Not for sale, (at least to members of the community, though they Might be sold to outsiders.)

    when witchcraft was a kinship thing, you did not charge 'family'---
    a book goes to unknown people, outsiders--
    but you do not charge you your kin to share the same information

    Lewis Hyde has a book (the gift...) with some of this written

  2. Makes a lot of sense. I was thinking along about four different lines writing this post, and that was one I missed. I've definitely seen what you're describing in action, among my bio family. And the point about a lover is definitely a good point.

    Though it hasn't been cut and dry either. My grandma, after my dad said we was paying, would go to the restroom, but secretly pay while she was gone. She was living on social security and had almost no money, so couldn't afford to pay for all of us but did anyway. But there were other times, with things she also couldn't afford, that when my dad tried to help her out, she was very hurt saying she didn't need charity. I never understood why being helped out with a need by kin was charity in the bad sense, yet her giving me money for gas or paying for a meal wasn't. Similarly, if I went over and repaired my other grandma's fence, she'd insist on paying me, and I'd give in with not much argument because it would be rude otherwise, yet if she came over and helped me out with something similar, if I tried to pay her it would be rude to even suggest it. Maybe it's a matter of elders, that you don't charge your children or grandchildren and you help them out, but they shouldn't help you out financially and you should pay them? I'm unsure. A different example is that whenever my wife helps her parents or brother with something involving their house (her parents moved to Memphis but still own the house here) with things like stacking wood or cleaning or just checking on the house, they always tell her they will pay her X amount because they know we're short on money. Maybe it's more a matter of she helps them out and they thank her with a gift, not in payment, but in thanks? I'm not sure.

    I've seen the book my Lewis Hyde, but haven't ever read it.

    On the last point on kinship, am I getting it write that you're saying training those in the community shouldn't be charged, as they are family, but going somewhere and doing a seminar for whoever decides to come would be different? Not sure what I think of seminars like that in general, better a long term commitment than a one time shot in most cases, but for example's sake. What you're saying about a book verses what you share with kin makes perfect sense to me.

    This post originally spawned from thinking about an attitude I see in much of modern paganism that money and wealth in general is bad, in fact that the material world in general is bad, very much the gnostic view, and more in line with Catholic friars with vows of poverty than anything I see in general in cultures that could be called pagan, yet at the same time using the term nature-based religion, which implies direct connection to the material world.

    While writing it, the subject came up with people I know about what do you do when you spend most of your time teaching witchcraft, funding your personal expenses with physical work you do, then have health problems that make that work impossible. If you can't afford to teach anymore, because you need an alternative form of income that will take away the time for teaching, do you dismiss your students and leave them where they are, or start charging some, either for new students, for current students who are willing, or by supplementation it with charging for seminars or weekly teaching for those outside kith and kin? Ideally, the community would come together to help the teacher out, but that doesn't seem to always happen. So most of my post was thinking on that problem.

    I need to take what you said and process it a bit and run it through my previous thoughts and find where my questions about how things should be ends up.


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