It would be a difficult task indeed to find a Pagan and or Heathen who truly does not use either tools or props, who practices entirely without materials and objects and the like. It is perhaps a by product of a collective desire to avoid those approaches to spirituality that, at least stereotypically, come across as nothing more than wishfully thinking as a way of getting things done. Another equally likely possibility is that even the most vague historical records show the use of ‘things’ as part of those practices that Pagans and Heathens feel drawn to. Never the less there is a prevailing sentiment that not all of these things are necessary, that having these objects is just a crutch for our minds and spirits which we come to rely on in our practice. Props and Tools tend to be the two terms that really embody this particular Gordian Knot and often, at least from what I’ve observed, people have had difficulty really explaining the difference between a prop and a tool, which causes issues when trying to argue for why they are necessary.
As someone who works, currently, almost exclusively with runes I regularly find myself preoccupied with the reoccurring idea of whether the accoutrements that Pagans and Heathens use are necessary or not, though it usually just lurks at the back of my mind. Whenever I have encountered this particular issue in a text or a video or conversation, however, it becomes a more conscious concern, which in turn takes the form of a quandary. Although I can meditate without a physical rune, all of the other practices that are a part of taking up the runes require a physical rune in one form or another. This raises certain questions in my mind, the foremost being whether those who champion or promote immaterialism, or near immaterialism, in the Pagan and Heathen community really understand how far reaching the implications of their philosophy are; tarot cards, books, sacred objects, talismans and charms, your favourite cloak – everything must go. A separate issue is whether this philosophy counts as Pagan and or Heathen asceticism.
By dint of my practice I more or less automatically am in the ‘yes, they are necessary’ camp – though I don’t rest within it entirely. The issue for me boils down to, as I said before, the difference between a prop and a tool within a person’s praxis. Although the difference between the words is somewhat obvious in terms of what you can find in a dictionary, there are additional elements to the terms that aren’t likely to be in a dictionary. Props are those things that we have or use to ‘get in to the right head space’. They very likely aren’t magical or energetic etc in any way, they simply things to assist our minds and or spirits in the doing of practices within our praxis – an everyday equivalent would be training wheels; not necessary to actually ride a bike but incredibly helpful when you are learning and done away with when you no longer need them. Tools on the other hand are those things that allow us to either do certain practices of our praxis or otherwise allow us to do them better – two everyday equivalents would be a hammer and a saw. Hammering nails is something that can only be done with something to do the hammering (yes, you could feasibly do with just your hand but that beggars common sense); to perform the task you need a hammer of some kind, even if it’s just a large rock. On the other hand it is entirely possible to break or ‘cut’ wood with just your hands and feet, but a saw allows you to perform the task better.
What makes a dictionary defunct at this stage is that in Pagan and Heathen praxes a prop can become a tool. An athame for example is in many regards little more than a prop – it’s not necessary to have anything other than your finger to do what an athame does. However, there are people for whom their finger simply doesn’t ‘work’. Whether because they can’t achieve the same results with their finger as they do with an athame (or wand or staff etc) or because though constant use the athame has become a part of them the same way runes or tarot cards (as only two examples) do. The prop has become a tool, gone from an unnecessary crutch to having a vital purpose. Runes and Tarot cards are different again. They both start as and stay, tools. Tarot cards may at first appear to be only an aid for divination, however consider how many methods there are to divine. Unless a person is either a bona fide Seer or Prophet or otherwise a prodigy of divination there is simply no way for a person to have any real capacity with a wide range of divinatory methods. Yes, there are people who do use multiple methods, but you don’t really come across a Tarot reader who also practices oneiromancy. Far more likely for someone who practices scrying to also practice oneiromancy and someone who reads Tarot to also divine with runes. Runes are the same, particularly beyond their divinatory functions, in that you do need physical runes for a lot of what you do with runes.
As I opened with, I truly think that it would be difficult bordering on the impossible (or at the very least highly improbable in the extreme) to find a Pagan or Heathen whose praxis is totally immaterial. Even those who work with energy in ways that are way beyond my ken have various ‘bits and pieces’, whether it be crystals or oils or prayer beads etc. There are certainly things that aren’t truly necessary but even then it is possible for those things, those props, to be come tools that serve a vital function in our praxes. Obviously there are other philosophies that come into play, environmentalism, ecologically sustainable materials, profit vs. practice and more – but at the heart of things, some things aren’t necessary and some things are. There is still that question of Pagan and Heathen asceticism however.