Substitution is a far-ranging and necessary part of witchcraft. After all, we each live in unique environments with access to different materials and different needs from our spellwork. Being able to substitute spell ingredients or materials is an irreplaceable skill in the craft and one that every witch should cultivate as they enter the more intermediate and advanced levels of their craft.
There’s a fine line between substitution and cutting corners, though. All too often I see recommendations for substitutions that are plain lazy and worse, would be completely ineffective. Some people will tell you that you can substitute rosemary for any other herb and quartz for any crystal. This kind of broad strokes substitution is asinine! These people may as well admit that they don’t think their spell ingredients do anything at all. Beyond this, even some common substitutions don’t work out very well. Replacing a love herb like lavender with rose is asking for trouble since lavender is a very peaceful, calming love herb and rose is a very sensual, secretive love herb. These are two very different plants and the magics they hold will produce remarkably different results!
While it’s good to have flexibility in your craft, it’s necessary to be careful how you apply that flexibility to your spellwork. Replacing herbs left and right without putting much thought into it will, at best, land you with subpar results and at worst, with results that you really don’t want. Today, we’re going to discuss how to make substitutions in your craft safely and effectively.
What’s The Difference Between Substitution & Cutting Corners?
First, let’s define what we mean when talking about substitution and cutting corners.
Substitution is replacing one spell constituent with another of similar intent and compatibility within the spell. This could be anything from replacing an herb or stone to replacing actions that you can’t or won’t perform to replacing things that symbolically don’t work for you. An example of a good substitution might be replacing ginger in a spell for cinnamon. Both herbs are heating and quickening, and their effects have a large area of overlap.
Cutting corners is replacing a spell constituent with one that is ill-matched to the desired intent and incompatible with the spell. Often this sort of replacement is done with little care, as in the case of replacing any herb with rosemary. The intention is simply to lessen the difficulty for the spell caster, relieving them of the burden of hunting down spell ingredients or putting more thought into the crafting of the spell.
The Danger In Cutting Corners
This haphazard replacing of spell constituents is bad for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that it will ruin your spells and they won’t work at all. Spells are not held together by intention alone, there is far more going on energetically within a spell than only the intention of the spell caster. If you remove a vital piece of the spell and replace it with something incompatible, the spell might simply have no chance of working because you’ve imbalanced the energies you’re harnessing.
That’s the best-case scenario. Just as likely, you will get results that you really did not want. Replace the wrong ingredient in a spell and you can turn a quick money spell into a spell that simply protects the money you already have and leaves you high and dry when you need more cash flow. Binding and banishing spells can become curses, love spells can become coercive, overly heated, or tumultuous. After all, there are many ways to have a “passionate” relationship! With the wrong substitution, you could easily end up with the “fighting constantly” sort of passion rather than the hot and heavy sort.
Spells are designed the way they are for a reason, if you replace things without understanding them well then you’re going to suffer the consequences.
How To Avoid Cutting Corners
The primary cause of poor substitutions and cutting corners is a lack of care and knowledge. This is usually done by a spell caster who values quick results and easy execution over effective spells and knowledge gained. This is a mindset that you must combat in yourself if you want to be effective in your craft. While witchcraft does not need to be laborious and difficult, it is also not an effortless endeavor. Change requires a movement of energy, and no movement occurs without the expression of some force upon it.
It all boils down to what you want. Do you want results from your spells? Do you want to be an effective witch who’s spells get real results? If so, then you cannot be making haphazard substitutions without understanding your spells and their constituents thoroughly.
Your spells are not simply ritual actions that you take in order to solidify your intention and nothing else. Every herb, every crystal, every symbol, and action, and word has a purpose. There’s a reason animism is such a common and useful belief to witches, treating our spell constituents as inert, dead things leaves us high and dry more often than not.
The plants and stones you work with have spiritual and energetic substance to them, and the way that they interact with each other is highly individual. You must know your spell ingredients as you would know a person or a spirit in order to know whether it will mingle well with the other parts of your spell or not.
How To Substitute Properly
There are two primary ways to combat this corner-cutting laziness in your own craft. The first is to avoid substitution and if you’re still new to the craft, then this is the route you should stick to while you are learning more necessary skills. Avoiding substitution does mean at times facing difficulty in acquiring spell ingredients, spending more time collecting your materials, and losing some flexibility in personalizing your spells, but this is not without benefits. By working spells by the book, you solidify the fundamentals, expose yourself to more plants, stones, and methods than you might otherwise, and broaden the scope of your knowledge. These are nothing if not a benefit to newer witches!
If you’re a bit more advanced and wish to use substitution in your craft, then you will expend your effort in another way, primarily through research. Gaining an in-depth knowledge of your preferred ingredients and tools will open the door to understanding how these beings interact and how they affect magic.
Learning everything you can about the plant, from as many angles as you can, will be a great help in coming to understand the plant more fully. For those of you who don’t have an easy time psychically connecting to the spirits of plants, this is going to be your best friend. You can learn just about everything you need to about a plant spirit simply by observing it and researching its lore.
Plant lore isn’t some sacred tale about the plant or a tome of knowledge handed down by the highest of priests. It’s simply the body of collected knowledge that exists about a plant. This includes the plants’ medicinal uses, its chemical properties, the physical aspect of the plant itself, folklore about how the plant is used or grown, etc.
One of the best ways to take all of this information and turn it into a functioning magical premise is to place all the information you gather into the perspective of planetary rulership. For example, a rose is a plant with wicked thorns. This marks it as a Martial plant (i.e. ruled by Mars) which would make its magic one of conflict, battle, and power dynamics. At the same time, the roses fragrant, large flowers are deeply Venusian, a figure of love, relationship, harmony/disharmony, jealousy, etc. When you consider these two aspects, even without further information, the uses of the plant become far more apparent. The rose is a flower of love but not of calm, peaceful love. Its love is one of secrecy, of forbidden desires, of hidden things, of power dynamics, of sexual frisson.
Planetary rulership is not the only way to work with plant spirits, but it is, in my opinion, one of the more straightforward ways to begin. The seven classical planets give you a framework within which to learn, categorize, and experiment with your plant allies.
Below are some of my favorite resources for researching plant lore:
Alchemy Works – This is by far my favorite website for plant lore. The author does an excellent job of categorizing plants by planetary rulership and this is a great way to get familiar with that concept.
Begin your research slowly, don’t feel as though you need to dive into every plant you can immediately. These kinds of study binges may work for passing an exam, but if you’ve ever tried it you’ve realized that this form of learning is incredibly short-lived. After you’ve regurgitated the knowledge and passed the exam, the information seems to evaporate as though it were never there. Learning witchcraft works the same. If you power through an entire book about the magical uses of plants in a week, you will have taken in so much information that the mind will not be able to sort out the useful bits from the rest.
Instead, research your plants a little at a time. Read your books but do so with an eye to picking out what is currently useful to you. Try recipes offered, craft potions, tinctures, incense, and tea to learn about the plant (if it’s safe, of course). Grow the plants yourself and dedicate yourself to learning everything there is to know about only one or two plants at a time.
When we learn in this way, the knowledge sinks in and transforms from a textbook understanding of the ingredients that we work with into an innate wisdom about the beings that we collaborate with and how we can work magic most effectively with them. Substitution transforms from a stab in the dark based mostly on some correspondence list to a conscious and informed interaction with your own spellcraft.