The ethics of ‘pay to pray’

The Wild Hunt is exclusively supported by readers like you. No advertising. No corporate sponsors. Your support helps us pay our writers and editors, as well as cover the bills the keep the lights on. We cover the community because of your generosity. Consider making a one-time donation - or become a monthly sustainer. Every amount helps. Thank you for reading The Wild Hunt!

The debate may be as old as the concept as money itself. Is it ethical to require payment for spiritual services? The question has emerged again in Pagan communities, thanks to a widely-shared article on the subject. Those who support payment for services such as divination, spell-casting, crafting and consecration of magical and/or sacred objects and the like often frame their arguments in terms of energy exchange. However, the underlying message appears to be, “I cannot afford to do this for free.” Opposed to the idea of accepting money for such services are people who believe these talents come from divine sources, and are intended to be shared freely; a common subtext to this position is, “Desire for money attracts greed, and greed attracts con artists.”

Public Domain

Public Domain

Jaya Saxena, a contributing writer to The Daily Dot, discovered this schism when she chronicled hiring a witch to cast a sex spell for her marriage. “Commenters called me an idiot for thinking it’d work, friends asked if I’d recommend the process, and at least one person told me I should find Jesus. But one angry response really caught my attention: the bubbling anger at capitalist witches,” she wrote.

While it’s not difficult to find people with esoteric businesses who are willing to defend the practice of charging money, it’s in the comments of articles like Saxena’s that the opposition tends to manifest. The Daily Dot piece inspired other sites to write about the subject, and when one of those articles was shared on the Facebook page of The Witches’ Voice, a lively debate ensued. One commenter remarked:

“Charging someone asking for our help negates what I stand for. I have never charged anyone in need of help ( especially when it comes to prayer) and never will. Of course I limit what I will do for them. . . . However, I would consider bartering in exchange. I helped a lady once and she gave me eggs from her own chickens.”

Another observed, “If I can pass on knowledge to some one who is sincere,and willing to learn, then that is payment.” A third suggested that money could dilute the motivation of the spiritual worker: “[I]t’s not unethical, however, it’s not powerful, either. Casting spells require[s] strong desire and [a] hired witch might lack the same!”

There was also an attempt at compromise present in some comments, such as this one: “If you charge, you should charge for the materials, we all know a lot of our stuff is hard to find and not easy to get depending on where you live. However, I myself would never charge for the actual spell or charm.”

Caterina Lejeune O’Sullivan crafts magical items and works spells for clients as part of her business, La Buona Vita. She sees things differently.

“Time, energy, and whatever ritual items that are used in a spell certainly have value. An exchange, be it a barter or some sort or money, creates a balance. You pay a lawyer for his knowledge and words. Advice based on knowledge is not a tangible item. Sometimes lawyers don’t win a case but you still have to pay them for their time spent counseling you. People pay for life coaching, therapists, counselors, all people with skill sets who encourage you and point you in the right direction to achieve your goals and keep you on track. Again, this not something you can hold in your hand and it doesn’t always work, but is at the very least minimally helpful, and more often than not quite successful.”

O’Sullivan said that she sometimes chooses not to charge for an item or service, but that a gift freely given fulfills the idea of an exchange quite nicely. That concept — that magic must have an exchange of energy in order to work — was echoed by Lisa and Anton Stewart, proprietors of the Awareness Shop. Anton put it in more mundane terms: “Should food stores be banned?” he asked. “Everything donated? Socialism is a wonderful ideal.”

“There has always been an exchange of energy, whether food or clothing or something else, for magical working,” said Lisa Stewart. “The universe is an abundant place, with plenty for everyone, and it doesn’t mean you’re taking from someone else. Believe and you shall receive. If there was no exchange, that would be bad karma. Don’t get hung up on the money thing.”

Like O’Sullivan, the Stewarts provide both completely intangible services — such as divination sessions — alongside physical products like the spell kits that they craft for each full moon and Wiccan sabbat throughout the year. In their case, the spell kits include all of the material components as well as detailed instructions on how to use them. They also recorded an album, Circle In A Box, which is a series of songs structured as a Wiccan ritual for groups and solitary practitioners who wish to work magic of that type without a facilitating priest or priestess.

Along a similar vein is the recently-unveiled Sabbat Box, a magic-in-the-mail subscription service. Where the spell kits from the Awareness Shop have a specific magical focus, a Sabbat Box will contain an assortment of items related to the next Wiccan sabbat, each crafted by artisans who participate in the program. Certainly a service like this would be supported by those Pagans who believe it’s okay to charge for physical materials, unless the expectation is that the product should be sold for cost only. Purely intangible services, such as removing curses and oracular work, tend to be more controversial in this regard.

The concern that intangible services and hard-to-quantify qualities are fraught with fraud results in laws and rules designed to protect consumers. Attorneys have bar associations which enforce codes of ethics; car dealers must operate in “lemon laws” in many states; and fortune-telling is either regulated or outright licensed in many jurisdictions.

One example of the latter is Salem, Massachusetts, where one local psychic is being investigated for possibly operating outside of that licensing by charging $16,800 “to have a shield placed over him to protect him,” according to published reports. While it will probably be easy to determine if a law has been broken, this extreme example simply raises questions about how magic works: was this bald-faced fleecing, or did the customer feel that a particularly strong spell required a great deal of energy in exchange, in the form of a high price?

While the current debate centers around Witches and Wicca, these questions manifest in all corners of Paganism and related faiths. No matter one’s personal religious practices, Saxena’s conclusion seems to frame the ongoing disagreement succinctly:

“. . . where you stand on charging for spells depends on whether or not you think it’s a scam. If you don’t believe in Witchcraft, you’re unlikely to seek out any magical services, whether you pay for them or not. If you do, you’re either convinced that you’ll get what you pay for . . . or that ‘energy is free’ and these services should be too. And if you’re in-between? Well, $25 on Etsy is a small price to pay to satisfy your curiosity.”