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.

New Incarnation of Altars

Thank you again for joining us for a brand new episode of “This Old Altar,” with your host, Bob Vila! Er wait, that’s not quite right…let’s try this again:

When I moved into my neighbor’s house last year, it was probably one of the best decisions I could have made during the divorce process. I loved living with B. and she gave me a safe place to begin healing. However, I was only renting a room, and that did not leave me much space for altars. I used an old nightstand as my spiritual focus area, and switched out statues depending on whom I was moved to honor in the moment.

Now that I’m in a place of my own, I have the luxury of being able to set up several smaller altar spaces. Each one serves a different function, and has different layers of public and private meaning. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that each alter combines a primary element with a secondary in order to give it a unified aesthetic.

The altar I use most frequently is the one next to my stove, what I call my hearth altar (auto-correct said “heart sculpture” and that’s an apt description, too). It’s predominantly rooted in the Earth element of the North, but with a strong overtone of Fire. The statues represent Gwydion and Aranrhod, though that is not what the artists originally intended. (Yes, these two are sharing space; no this has not caused issues.)  Gwydion is my wild magician, and often appears to me as having features of the boar, wolf and/or deer that he was changed into as punishment for Goewin’s rape. Aranrhod (“a fun ride”: WTF auto-correct?) is not only a celestial goddess, but the goddess of the waters. And since I’ve always had trouble giving Don a face (which according to Kristoffer Hughes is actually appropriate as this goddess was in fact faceless), I rededicated her statue in Aranrhod’s name.  The little fellow playing the flute is a wight from my father’s garden.  The sprig of lavender represents peace and beauty, and the turkey feather represents family; the spiral plate is carved Welsh slate that I brought back from the 2002 National Eisteddfod. This is where I perform morning prayers and my work with the Sun Mirror; it is also the altar that my son likes to help light to thank the Ancestors when we begin cooking a meal.

Right next to the back door in the South is my working altar, the one I use for daily divination or more involved magical workings. It serves to anchor my work in the cunning arts and with the Strategic Sorcery system, which is why Hekate presides over it. In addition there are representations for spirit allies that I work with on a regular basis. Both the sword and spear are ritual as well as martial tools, and at the moment I have wands of Poplar and Willow drying and waiting to be carved.  This altar is the polar opposite of the hearth altar, being a manifestation of the Fire of will, grounded in the Earth.

To the West I have an altar space dedicated to the Makers: Bridget, Cerridwen, and Wayland. This is an altar to creative inspiration, and where I give thanks for the gods’ aid in music, poetry, and assorted crafting endevors. Hufflespawn particularly likes the Wayland statue, and even made him a little helper at school which he insisted on placing right next to the Master Smith. Cerridwen is accompanied by tokens from pig and chicken, which refer back to her animal shapes in her pursuit of Gwion Bach. Bridget has bone weaving tools dedicated to her, and a harp tuner. In front of Wayland sits a chunk of iron slag that I found on the beach in Salem Massachusetts, a gift that seemed most appropriate.  Air is the ruling element here, with a secondary infusion of Water (and Fire, too, if I’m honest, even though it messes up my nice, neat classifications).

The next two altars are a bit more “work-in-progress.” First is a home for various local spirits and wights. Thus far Turkey, Crow, Datura, Boar and Snail are represented. I will also likely include guardians from my OBOD work here as well. On top of the shelf is a ceramic Dragon my soul’s sister made for me, which eerily matches a spirit guide of mine. Water rules here, not least because one of my allies from this land is a river wight, but also because this is an area which very much requires dreams and intuitions to access fully. Air is the breath which stirs the surface of the Water.

Finally we have this very much WIP altar, which seems to be shaping into a repository for images of Divine Queens. It may end up being more of a display for statuary that I like than an actual working altar, but I think there’s a place for both in one’s home. This sort of feminine strength and inspiration is something I’ve needed greatly over the past two years, and I’ll be interested to see whether this altar remains dedicated to that casue, or whether I will eventually repurpose it for something else.

So, after only having had a single altar space for year, I may have gone a little crazy with all these! Still, it feels good to be able to move from altar to altar, and to have specific foci for various parts of my life.  More likely than not things will get pared down after a little while, but for now, this suits my needs quite well.

Process

16043315844_201ba67481_nIt’s always something of a question as to whether to let someone look behind the curtain at your creative process.  It’s messy back there–blobs of ink, half-formed words, trailing threads, and heavens forfend those dangling participles.  Words themselves have been slippery fishes of late, and I find myself turning to solid crafts that satisfy my hands, like knitting, drawing, and beading.

Still, take for example the sigil crafted for Crow this month.  You can get a pretty good idea of it from the picture at the head of this post.  Yes, it’s still rough, but it’s showable, particularly for an article dealing with artistic process.  Sigil work, at least as I see it, isn’t just the tracing of lines over a witch’s wheel.  Sure, you can start there, but if there is to be any spark, any soul in the magical anchor, there has to be more than that.

To paraphrase Jason Miller, the most powerful sigils are the ones wrested directly from that Beyond space and brought into being on this plane.  That jujitsu match is ugly. There are many false starts, no little dismay, and often a feeling that this sigil is always going to look like crap and there’s nothing you can do to tell it otherwise.

This is where a child comes in handy. Inner, outer, literal or metaphorical–let the kiddies out to romp.

Stop wrangling and start playing.  Tussle, cross things out, let colors cohabit that would make Andy Warhol wince. Sigil crafting is a protean art.  Hold onto it too tightly and Awen slows to a trickle, left with nothing more than a madwoman’s scrawl across a restaurant napkin. Let go and see the lines swell with color and form, twisting around your mind until you know there is no other way for them to be.

It sure as hell ain’t pretty, but it’s process.

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Danger: New Thought Processes Ahead

Here's what a real live book of Ovate field notes looks like--messy huh?

Here’s what a real live book of Ovate field notes looks like–messy huh?

I’ve been undecided about what to do on the New and Full Moons each month for 2015. Last year was spent courting Cerridwen and cultivating Awen through the Cauldron Born ritual.  As I’ve said before was an absolutely invaluable experience. Now I find myself asking, “What comes next?”

One of the things that came out of my final ritual for Cerridwen was working with the 12 winds of Irish tradition. Despite my Sun sign being the ever earthy Capricorn, the most predominant element in my natal chart is in fact Air. It seems like a logical extension to incorporate that nature as much as possible into my practice. The Irish winds, which I first read about in the OBOD bardic course, provide a non-Golden Dawn derived structure for laying out ritual space. I want to try shaking up my paradigms a bit, I feel like I’ve gotten a bit too comfortable to be ritually creative in some ways.  This would also be incorporating some more Irish flavor in my work, which has not been a culture I found myself particularly drawn to beyond Lugh (ALLTHETHINGS!) and possibly Macha. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about poking about the Irish lore, partly because I have little to no known heritage from that land, and partly because I’ve been trying to stick to a Welsh-focused practice of late (despite some academic dabbling in Powwow). But it’s also true that gods and spirits seem to come and go as they please with little regard for maintaining the purity of their culture of origin (hello, Hekate!). So, in the long run, is incorporating a bit of obscure Irish color correspondence a grievous offense? I don’t think so, and I’ll have to count on the Winds letting me know if it’s otherwise.

I’ve also been trying to work more with the animals that actually live on my land. I spent quite a while working with what I term the Ancestral Tribal Spirits, but now it’s time to sink myself more deeply into the ecology of the Assabet River bioregion. Because I was trying to make a triple set of correspondences with the Irish winds, colors, and local animals I settled on 12 beasties that can be found if not in my backyard then within my town. These are: bobcat, fisher, crow, bluejay, sheep, snake, coyote, skunk, swan, toad, pig, and turkey. I’ve slowly been gathering skulls or other bones from all of these creatures, in order to deepen my connection and eventually create focus bottles/boxes for them.  During the last dark moon, I worked heavily with a fisher skull, painting it and devising a sigil to capture its essence. This month will be crow.

But now I’m wondering if I shouldn’t break apart these two tasks–the task of meditating on and learning the nature of the winds, and also then reaffirming my relationships with the local nature spirits.  Initially I was going to paint the bones in the color of the corresponding wind, but in some cases this just doesn’t seem to gel properly–for instance, bluejay definitely resides in the Spring/East, but the Wind Corcair (translated as crimson or purple) really doesn’t seem to suit.  So having talked all this through with you, dear readers, I will likely be focusing on the winds for the full moons, and doing the bone work for the dark moons.  I have a bit of catching up to do with the Winds, namely Temen (NNE) and Alad (ENE), but I think it’s doable.

And with any luck, there will also be some degree of blogging for your reading pleasure.  These may just be pictures, as many of the Cauldron Born posts were, but I hope it proves interesting nonetheless.