Spirits, Spirits, Everywhere

And not a drop to drink? No, sorry, wrong poem.

Sometimes it can be a bit hard for folks to wrap their heads around how a person can have a devotional practice without having a patron, per se, or at least being henotheistic or monist for that matter.

I’m one of those rare, blessed writers in the blog-o-sphere who gets passed around from unseen critter to unseen critter–usually within the same couple of cultures mind you, but I definitely am poly when it comes to my spirits. It’s sad when accusations of “spirit collecting” or “Poké-god” get tossed around. I don’t doubt that there are some people who are always moving onto the next best Being, but that’s not what I see from the majority of my cohort.

The reality (or my operating reality at any rate) is that we are surround by multitudes of spirits.  Here are a few semi-arbitrary categories that I’ve noted over the years, developed for ease of interfacing and where possible, mutual understanding with the non-corporeal. It should be said that these categories are based more on the type of interaction that occurs between spirit and practitioner, rather than specific classes of spirit (such as elemental, angelic, etc.). The boundaries between these categories can be fairly mutable, and relationships may shift over time given the needs of the parties involved.

Gods: These guys have been covered ad nauseam by everyone on the Internet. Moving right along…

Ancestors: Also covered more in-depth and better by others. That being said, it’s wonderful to see Druids and pagans developing rich ancestral practices as for a long time it seemed like the dead only got their due when Samhain rolled around. Now people talk about their beloved dead all year long, and that is a wonderful thing to see.

Four subclasses of dead appear on my ancestor altar, i.e., Blood Dead (father, grandparents), Heart-Tribe Dead (friends, teachers), Mighty Dead (saints, Kung-fu ancestors), and Non-Human Dead (pets, extinct species). These dead I acknowledge daily and share with them a cup of tea. I honor the Restless Dead elsewhere. Like over there. Far over there.

Land wight trio.

Land Spirits: These spirits are known by many names across many cultures, and broadly include the genius loci, landvaettir, land wight, nymph, and kami just to name a few. They are the immediate spirits of the land on which we live, as well as spirits of some larger geographical features in the region. They get daily offerings of tea, smoke and light, and it’s these critters with whom I interact the most. There are a couple of large trees, including some girthy white pines and a 200-year-old white oak. There is the spirit of the Assabet, which has never been far from me since I moved to Massachusetts in 2007. There is Mount Wachusett, sacred to the native peoples of this area, and both a comfort to me and a challenger at different points in my life.

Befriend the genius loci and they will tell you their own tales about your land. Offer to them water at the very least, or the retelling of songs and stories that they have passed on to you. Be very aware that your truth regarding these spirits may vary significantly from what they tell another. And that’s ok. Just as not all people get along, some places and the spirits of those places need to be left alone. Just whisper thank you, pour out some water, and keep on moving.

Grandparent Spirits: Most beings people encounter seem to fall into this category. Whether they be animal, plant, or fungus, a grandparent spirit embodies the archetypical qualities of its species and genus. Much has been written about contacting this class of spirit, so there’s no need to repeat it all here. Needless to say, grandparent spirits are very large, and may not have the kind of consideration for you that a more invested ally might. The lessons they teach are invaluable, however, so pay attention.

Ally Spirits: Somewhat similar to grandparent spirits, but smaller in scope, ability, and knowledge. These individuals, these persons, will have a vested interest in your life and wellbeing, but are not tied either to your ancestral practice or a specific geographic feature. They can act as intermediaries with grandparent spirits or the land, but are more approachable. Generally they stick around for quite a while, developing a profound relationship with a practitioner. All sorts of beings can manifest as allies, be they elementals, angels/demons, animals, or other non-corporeal being. Just remember to negotiate your contracts carefully, so that all parties benefit from the relationship.

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Turkey ally.

Bone Spirits: These are a very specific subclass of ally spirit. The roadkill gods are often more kind to me than I would like. Death brushes up against us all the time if we’re paying attention. Sometime all that’s needed is to move the body to the side of the road, say a few words, pour out an offering. Sometimes that body wants more.

Bone spirits have they own stories to tell, their own demands. These spirits are individuals, not the “grandparent” manifestation that deal with more frequently. Spirits residing in bones, feathers, or horns may rest quietly for a while, waiting until you’re in a place to hear them. They may come screaming through your dreams, so loud you wake finding yourself already halfway to the workshop to sketch out what they showed you. They may eventually concede to act as a gateway to the grandparent spirit of their kind, but that is not necessarily a given. They must be dealt with on their own terms, and in their own time.

Branding Spirits: These are cases of animals (more rarely plants/fungi) behaving oddly, sometimes even physically marking a person through injury or other intense interaction. It’s the skunk that decides to walk beside your for a block at 1am when you’re an angst-riddled teenager; the badger who punches you in the head repeatedly through a tent wall; the sheep that runs you over when a border collie loses control of the herd; the cat or dog who bites you unprovoked.

The question here is what do you learn from these encounters? It’s not necessarily a message for you personally (as the universe doesn’t tend to care much one way or the other what a single person’s minutiae may be), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get something out of it, can’t learn from the animal who has affected your physical form. There’s no sense wasting a potentially transformative experience due to a tendency to over-attribute such things to coincidence. A branding spirit will often only appear once or twice in a person’s lifetime; it would be nice to say these are moments before major initiatory experiences, but often they are important solely to the inner world without much influence on specific material events.

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Elderberry mask.

Dream Guides: As the name indicates, these are spirits who appear in dreams with a lesson or a message. Usually animals or plants, they are not usually something that one transforms into in Dreamspace, but a clearly external being who acts as a guide or advisor in that world. You may be able to ride upon their back, or in the case of some plants, they may decide to appear in a humanoid form to better deliver their message. Dream guides may or may not be recurring characters, but their appearance and subsequent impact is usually significant.

Skin-Changing Spirits: I hesitated to include these “spirits” in this rundown, as they are not identifiable external beings–which would seem to be a necessary attribute to qualify as a “spirit”. These are personifications of the shapes that someone adopts in the Otherworlds. Shape shifting Over There is a fairly common technique in many traditions, and the practice has, for me at any rate, led me to develop a sense of kinship or affinity with the creatures whose shape I borrow. In traditions that utilize the fetch in addition to shapeshifting, the experience can become partially externalized, but still remains a part of the practitioner. Offerings to the grandparent spirit of these forms can lead to a deeper connection and smoother transitions, but there’s still an important distinction to be made between the two. One is generated by the self, the other is part of the greater spiritual ecosystem in which we all dwell.

Tradition-Centered Spirits: Probably the best known example of this class are grimoire spirits, but tradition-centered spirits are certainly not limited to that category. These are spirits (sometimes including gods) who watch over a particular Order, tradition, or path of study. For instance, the Grade patrons or Guardians of the Quarters in OBOD, or the revealed spirits in the strain of modern Hekate arcana that I’ve studied with Jason Miller. These beings are keyed in, so to speak, to a certain set of rituals and initiations, without which a practitioner would have a very different relationship. Not necessarily a bad relationship, but certainly one that would be alien to people practicing within that particular stream.


And here we are, concluding this little safari through the various types of spirits, at least as one Druid interacts with them. I hope this gets you thinking about the nuances of interaction that you experience when dealing with gods, ancestors, and the like. Whom do you interact with the most? Where physically do you encounter certain beings? Where did you first learn about some spirits–is that tradition open to all or a closed mystery school? How does that affect your interactions?

At the risk of atomizing or overanalyzing such categorizations, I think it can still be useful to gain a degree of greater subtly when describing our interactions in the Otherworlds. In the meantime, may you find allies and wisdom wherever you go.

Woodshedding

Y’all just better be just turnin’ back if you want this boy to win
‘Cos practice is the only cure for the predicament he’s in

“Now devil it would be a sin for you to get my bow
You go on back to hell and to the woodshed I will go”

Johnny are you practicing or will your hands grow cold?
The devil walks the land and plays a fiddle made of gold

–The Charlie Daniels Band, “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia”

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Thursdays were lesson days. More often than not, my stomach spent most of the day clenched with dread, knowing that I hadn’t practiced enough. I meant to practice, I truly did. I loved playing and I loved the music. But time after school seemed to fill up with so many other things, like comic books. Or cartoons. Or, ugh, homework.

I would heave a sigh, then heave my instrument case over my shoulder as I began the walk of shame up to a modest suburban NJ ranch. Shoes came off at the door and my toes curled into dense cream carpet. Clenching my toes while playing was one of a multitude of small bad habits that Mrs. E would gently correct each lesson.

Too often, I would be lucky enough to make it through the lessons on raw talent.  Sight reading came fairly easily and I had perfect relative pitch. But this was not one of those squeak-though-Kreutzer days–in fact, I hadn’t had one of those days in several months.  After a rather frustrating 20 minutes, it was painfully obvious this was the first time I had looked at the material since she assigned it the previous week.

Mrs. E never asked, “Did you practice?” Somehow, this always made me feel more guilty.

She set down her violin. She folded her hands and took a breath. My toes grabbed the carpet and I could feel my eyes filling. Here it comes, I thought, she’s going to drop me as a student. Just like the last teacher.

“You know, my husband played the violin before The War. But he was a dentist and he knew how to suture, so they made him a medic. He didn’t play for the entire time he was overseas.

“Like so many young GIs, Les was at loose ends when he returned from Europe.  One day walking through Newark, he heard music. String music. As he got closer, he realized it was a quartet playing Bach.

“He climbed the steps and knocked on the door of the apartment. The music stopped, and a man with a fiddle in his hands opened the door. Les told them how much he enjoyed the music, how he used to play before The War. The man swept him inside and before he knew it the violin was back in his hands. He hasn’t stop playing since.”

She smiled with great certainty. “You will never lose this. The violin is a part of you, now. You may set it aside for a time but if you want it, it will always be there for you.

“Practice isn’t about learning how to play the violin for you anymore. You know how to play the violin. Practice is about making something beautiful.”

Woodshedding. Among musicians, it means “practice.” The musician’s Devil isn’t some supernatural demon. The Devil is your own talent. Itzhak Perlman famously said that a gifted student is lucky if she can survive her own talent.  If you want to beat the Devil, you gotta head out to the woodshed and get crackin’. You beat him every time you play something beautiful.

Mrs. E died this past August at the age of 88. According to her obituary, she was teaching right up until the end.

The Keeper of Palmyra

palmyra-khaled-asaad-gettyThe news of Khaled al-Asaad’s murder shocked me to the core. This man was a scholar, absolutely devoted to the study of his beloved Palmyra.  His torture and beheading at the hands of Daish (ISIL) for refusing to reveal the locations of valuable antiquities is the the most revolting and reprehensible of war crimes.

I did not know Mr. Asaad personally, but his unbridled enthusiasm and curiosity are shared by all archaeologists. I cannot even imagine what his family is going through, the horror of losing a loved one in such a way. I can only pray that in time, they will be proud of the sacrifice he made.  This 82-year-old man protected his life’s work to his last breath.  May we all stand so certain in our convictions in the face of barbarism.

Journey to the Ancestors

This last blogging hiatus was a bit longer than I anticipated, but with good reason: I drove my father out to the family cemetery in Ohio so that he could visit his brother’s grave.  My uncle died last year, but the ashes were shipped out to Ohio in 2014 and as such my father had not been able to pay his respects. In spite of two minor car accidents in one day (neither of which were our fault, and one of which was a hit-and-run), it was a deeply satisfying trip.  I was able to take many picture of the family plots, which will help flesh out the genealogical profiles for each of these people.  I also now have graveyard dirt from the triple crossroad in the center of the cemetery.  Likely there will be an paternal ancestor bottle coming soon.

But for now, some pics from the trip: