As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Jason Miller’s Strategic Sorcery course. He has some great techniques and a sensible, straightforward syllabus that is an effective crash-course in magick and conjuration. The lesson on spirit bottles is one of the most respectful approaches that I’ve seen, considering that many traditions have long and tangled histories around the practice.
One of the best things Miller does is get into the differences between local and non-local spirits, i.e., beings like the archangel Uriel vs. the nymph of a particular pine tree. When making a spirit bottle or house for someone like Uriel, he’s so big there is absolutely no way that you’re actually going to cram all of him into that little bottle–no matter how good a mage you think you are. What you can do is make a connection and give that non-local entity a foothold in your space so that you can develop a much deeper relationship.
Unfortunately, there is a very strong association with the term “spirit bottle” or “spirit house” and the practice of binding a spirit against its will to work for the sorceress. However, as Miller wisely points out, you really don’t want to trap a spirit in a bottle. If you’re good enough to actually pull that off, you’d have one extremely pissed off spirit on your hands. You’d be far better off performing a solid banishing ritual and pushing it out of your life completely. Why keep an enraged entity (who will eventually more than likely escape and wreak havoc on its jailor) in your space where it has a direct line to carry out its vengeance?
Not really smart when you think about it.
Then, there’s the simple matter of manners. Speaking from my own limited experience, spirits do in fact have agency; they don’t necessarily want to sit around on your altar all day waiting for your requests. Treating a bottle or house as a place for an honored guest to visit is a much more hospitable approach; to say that the beings with whom I work are big on hospitality would be an understatement. When I use a spirit bottle, I’m seeking a contemplative relationship with the entity, rather than a power-over relationship.
Unsurprisingly, the baggage surrounding spirit bottle terminology has left me searching for another term. Dipping back into my early exposure to European Catholicism, I began to think of reliquaries. As a kid, I loved looking at the pretty boxes with the bones that were supposed to perform miracles. Looking at this practice now, from a polytheistic/animistic perspective, it’s a clear instance of ancestor veneration. (I’ve spoken with a couple of American Catholics who were frankly weirded out by the reliquary collections they’d seen in Europe, but I’d always found them rather comforting. In fact, I still far prefer seeing a saint’s bones in a box to having to walk over their tomb markers on a cathedral floor. The latter has always felt disrespectful to me, and led to much hopping about trying to avoid stepping on various medieval cardinals interred beneath the pavers.)
Reliquaries do, in fact, serve a very similar function to spirit bottles, but with a very different set of expectations. Often elaborate and opulent, reliquaries are at their simplest boxes with an object (relic) closely associated to a particular saint or miracle worker. That object is often a bone, but can also be a piece of clothing or hair. In short, it’s very similar magickal tech to a spirit house, which often includes items closely associated with the spirit’s nature, as well as tools for the spirit to carry out its work. Now, there is a difference in that certain types of spirits do not leave physical traces to include in a reliquary, but when working with plant and animal spirits, physical material is readily available.
Thus far I have created one spirit bottle/reliquary (pictured above) for a non-Midgard being, A., from Miller’s personal grimoire. There are tools and symbols inside the jar, as well as a map of where to extend his influence. On the outside of the container is a necklace with still more symbols of this being, which I wear when working with him in ritual. The jar sits on my altar and once a week or so (more often if there’s other work to be done), I pour him out a libation. He is fairly low-maintenance, and we both find the current arrangement satisfactory.
For spirits grounded in this world, I have materia for Turkey, Crow, Frog, Rabbit, Mugwort, and Datura. I have not as yet designed the spirit boxes, but this may be a good Yuletide project–to reaffirm my connections with the genius locii of our land. (The other questions, of course, are of storage and display, and offering frequency. Making sure everyone is fed and happy can turn into a full time job if expectations are not made explicit at the outset of the relationship. It’s also an argument in favor of not acquiring more allies than one can properly honor.) Making the reliquaries is a slow process, both in terms of physical assembly and putting the whammie on the final product. Still, it’s one of the most worth-while magickal processes I’ve engaged in.
To conclude, one the the main reasons I consider myself a Druid is because of the emphasis on being in right relationship–with our ancestors, our landwights, our gods, our bodies, and our communities. Druid magick, in my opinion, needs to reflect this fundamental principle. Wyrd runs thickly throughout our lives, connecting us in ways that may remain hidden for years or even lifetimes. Reliquaries offer a way to emphasize major nexuses in the web where our threads cross those of other beings, points that we can reinforce through right action and ritual. Eventually, with enough time and work, each nexus brightens until it illuminates other surrounding threads in our wyrd–ones which would otherwise be beyond our sight.