Metaphysical Assets: Seeking Fortune in the Supernatural
On a Sunday afternoon in the East Village, New York City’s oldest occult shop is bustling. With incense in the air and two black cats lounging amid herbs and candles, Enchantments feels like a bygone era of downtown Manhattan, before fancy brunch spots and well-heeled professionals overtook the neighborhood’s scruffy, bohemian vibe. Maybe unsurprisingly, shop owner Stacy Rapp credits at least some of Enchantments’ longevity to magic.
“We are a business, but we're a spiritual business,” says Rapp. She and her staff regularly employ candles, incense, and spells to attract money and bring in a steady stream of customers. She tells me the store’s commitment to “positive magic”—which doesn’t seek to inflict harm—is a key element in its success. Some of her now-defunct competitors “would do anything for money, and there's a reason why we're still here and they're not,” she says. Rapp offers an example of where she draws the line: “I had a woman come in that wanted a candle to kill a coworker who was getting more customers than her. This was in a hair salon. My response was, 'Get the hell out.'”
Help with money and business is the number two request Rapp and her staff get, only outpaced by inquiries related to matters of the heart. But you don’t have to be selling magic to rely on the supernatural for financial help. Beneath its veneer of logic, numbers, and hard-nosed realism, the world of money has always been home to lucky charms and rituals intended to tip the scales in favor of success. Even those uninterested in the occult or superstition may turn to a higher power for prosperity, through prayers, blessings, and community traditions.
Carmin Pouerie, an employee at Enchantments, leads me through the offerings available to customers who want to bring more money into their lives: A ritual called “uncrossing” to remove negative energy or blockages that might impede success; small pouches of herbs for good financial fortune; and baths with spices, oils, or coins. Pouerie tells me certain scents are associated with procuring money, like cinnamon and peppermint. Success-seekers can also appeal to goddesses like Oshun, a deity associated with pleasure and luxury in the African Ifá and Yoruba faiths, or Venus, Roman goddess of fertility and prosperity.
Rapp says that customers who want to dive a little deeper into their prospects, financial and otherwise, can book a reading, which she says reveal “a potential future based on where things are now. Or based on decisions you may make in the near future.” She also offers clients plenty of practical, common-sense counseling, about jobs, relationships, and money. “You know, I'm the daughter of a PhD economist. He's my partner in this store. He does macroeconomics, specifically forecasting, long-term planning—which is in some ways maybe not that different from what I do.”
Corporate finance titan J.P. Morgan is said to have quipped that “millionaires don’t use astrology; billionaires do.” Legend has it that advice from Morgan’s astrologer prevented him from buying a ticket aboard the Titanic. There are executives who depend on talismans like lucky shoes, or a “bad-energy blocking stone,” according to the Harvard Business Review. And a paper published in 2009 by the Copenhagen Business School says supernatural beliefs flourish in situations with “uncertainty, high stakes, and perceived lack of control over the outcomes.” Based on these findings, writes paper author Gabriele M. Lepori, “we suggest that the stock market represents an ideal breeding ground for superstition.” Lepori goes on to correlate solar eclipses with small, but significantly regular dips in the stock market, as the astral phenomena are seen in many cultures as bad omens.
Of course, uncertainty and high stakes aren’t just hallmarks of the stock market. These conditions also apply to the financial situations of people in communities all over the world. For every broker, CEO, or small business owner wearing lucky underwear, there are thousands more burning candles in hope of making rent, getting money advice from their daily horoscope, or just praying for the basic means to support their families.
Bless Us, Every One
Those who aren’t reading horoscopes and burning incense still often have a metaphysical component to their financial decisions. It's quite common for the wealthy and the poor alike to credit more mainstream spiritual practices for economic blessings. Even with the promise of a heavenly afterlife, a faith that captures the devotion of the masses must speak to followers’ daily struggle to put bread on the table. In 2009, for example, during the worldwide economic recession, Catholic authorities urged the faithful to seek the help of Saint Matthew the Apostle, patron saint of bankers, financial matters, and investors. And there are a several festivities throughout the year celebrating Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of money and prosperity.
Rabbi Ari Lamm, special adviser to the president of Yeshiva University, says while there are many esoteric and symbolic traditions that deal with money in Judaism, to him the faith’s most central prosperity ritual is the daily recitation of the Amidah prayers, also called the Shemoneh Esrei. “The prayers for the Amidah include prayers for prosperity,” he says in a phone call. “One of the benedictions, for example, is a prayer for sustenance and wealth.”
Like all the benedictions, recited three or four times a day by religious Jews, the one dealing with prosperity, “is phrased in the plural so it's not a prayer for personal prosperity,” says Lamm. “It's a prayer for collective prosperity. Every individual says the prayer to themselves silently, but you're also phrasing everything in the plural. … It imposes a habit of thinking, a sense of responsibility—even when you're expressing your own heart's desire, you also have to think about others around you.”
Other cultures, too, offer community-wide blessings for good financial fortune. Justin Charles Hoover, curator of the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles says in an email that every year the museum hosts a lucky lion dance at its Lantern Festival, which caps off annual Lunar New Year celebrations. “The lion eats a cabbage head and sprays the torn up shreds of cabbage into the crowd, symbolizing giving money away and an act of generosity and auspicious luck,” says Hoover. “In Chinese cǎi (採, pluck) also sounds like cài (菜, meaning vegetable) and cái (财, meaning fortune), so there is a relationship there linguistically, which is auspicious.”
At the festival, Hoover says, “we give the traditional hong bao or red envelope 紅包. This is usually given as an act of generosity and gift giving at the new year to the younger generation and those who are unmarried and not working full time.” In the envelope, he says, “You usually give a crisp new single bill.”
Back in the East Village magic shop, Rapp tells me Enchantments holds open community rituals as well. The store’s employee team also has group strategies—Pouerie shows me where they’ve marked the tip jar with the Seal of Solomon and other magic imagery, meant to bring in the gratuities. “We have an oil called Jezebel that is specific for that; it's basically for women who work for tips,” says Rapp.
Rapp’s tailored money-woe remedies offer customers a chance to drill down into the particulars of their own life and work situations. “What kind of money do you want?” asks Rapp. “Do you want luck in the stock market? That's gambling. We'll give you some gambling luck oil; have fun with that.” She offers another example: “we deal with a lot of people in performance, like actors, actresses looking to get a role. And they have to shine, which means you have to feel good about yourself,” says Rapp. “You can't just fake it.”
The growing gig economy also gets its own money magic. “There's a higher number of self-employed people now,” says Rapp. “We make an oil and a candle for freelancers, which essentially attracts more customers and a steady flow of work.” The freelancer formula is about “maximizing multiple areas,” she says. “It's partly about attracting money, but it's also about attracting recognition, positive opinion.”
Plenty of industries and regions have developed their own success rituals over the years. In New York, for example, it’s common to find dollar bills, or one bill of each denomination, taped to the walls of small businesses, particularly Chinese and Korean restaurants. “You can put it any way, but always near the register,” Robin Mui, president of the Chinese Journalists Association in Chinatown told The New York Times in 1996. “It's for good luck, but it's also to tell the money to keep on coming.”
As Lepori’s 2009 eclipse research demonstrates, you don’t have to believe that eclipses are bad omens, or in prayer, or that any of these money rituals actually “work” in a supernatural sense to see their power. Faith and the supernatural move people, and those people move markets. These practices might get repackaged or updated or replaced, as the times demand, but they aren’t going away anytime soon—especially when, for those that believe in them at least, they seem to work.
A study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2010 found that: “Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.” Test subjects given “lucky charms” subsequently showed greater prowess in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. “It is the belief in the power of superstition that provides the differentiating element,” wrote the Harvard Business Review about the 2010 study. (Though, the Harvard Business Review assures its more staid, number-crunching readers, the effect is subjective, and “self-belief vanishes upon the realization that mystical powers don’t influence performance.”)
Rabbi Lamm says that while, of course, he believes his own faith to be the truth, he can’t disdain those who seek out the supernatural through practices like astrology or magic. “On the one hand, I'm certainly wary of hucksters,” says Lamm. “But as someone who finds religion meaningful and feels commanded by it, I certainly wish that people were more attuned to the fact that the universe is a very strange place. And I think the more open you are to it being weird, the more all religion and theology start to make sense.”
At Enchantments, Rapp explains, “Obviously there is no spell that will automatically generate a million dollars,” though “if you're trying to maximize your potential, magic is a way of directing and focusing your will.” Still, she says, magic is no replacement for practicality. Before you start any kind of ritual for money, says Rapp, “you might want to learn how to budget.”