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.

Putting the “P” Back In UPG

druidcraft_minor_swords_10Amongst some circles of polytheists, the term UPG (Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis, for those just joining the party) has long been a dirty word, particularly for those with a more reconstructionist bent.  UPG is “fluffy bunny” or “just so Wiccan” or “unscientific”. (Yup.  That’s because we’re practicing a spirituality, not conducting an empirical experiment.)

Anyway, for much of the past 10 years or so, in an effort to legitimize UPG in the face of the lore-thumpers, there was a move towards PCPG (Peer Corroborated Personal Gnosis) or SPG (Substantiated Personal Gnosis) as a solution.  The premise is that if a bunch of people are experiencing similar things when interacting with the gods, then maybe those experiences can be used to build modern lore around these beings.

To be blunt, this led to a lot of oversharing.

Remember the old chestnut of “to know, to will, to dare, to keep silence“?  There are some very good reasons why keeping one’s own council is important, and why it is rarely, if ever, appropriate to make any sort of UPG the basis for group policy.

Spirits Lie
Unfortunately, humans aren’t the only ones with agendas. Not every spirit is going to be benevolent, nor is every spirit going to have the same goals as you.  Plus, spirit communication–true spirit communication, not just mental masturbation–is often very unclear.  Even when talking to another human we can have trouble understanding each other.  When the other person doesn’t have a body and may have a completely different ethical structure, things can get sticky.  What we would call a lie, a fae may simply see as stretching the truth. This isn’t the spirit’s fault, it’s ours for not understanding what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

When dealing with spirits, it takes patience to sort out what they’re trying to tell us.  They often have a very different time-scale from humans, and what we perceive as something that has to be acted upon RIGHT NOW may in fact benefit from taking a step back and sitting with the information for weeks, or even months.  Getting independent confirmation from a diviner outside your group or a priest in the service of that entity can help, but ultimately, you have to use your own discernment as to the veracity of what the spirit or god is telling you.

And until you’ve figured that out, keep it to yourself.

People Lie
The next layer of complication occurs when the person sharing the UPG lies, whether knowingly or not.  Let’s start off with the old glass/light analogy for communicating with the gods and spirits. Ideally, when we listen to the gods, we are as if a clear, flat piece of glass which flawlessly (ha!) lets the light of the spirits pass through us.

In reality, however, we are imperfect. We all have things we carry with us that change the color and shape of that glass. As those imperfections or lies-to-self creep in, instead of us being that piece of clear glass through which the light of the gods and spirits can pass, those fibs and half-truths warp and silver the glass. We end up experiencing a reflection of our own psyches rather than the messages of the spirits–or worse, some mix of the two.

I experienced this first hand when I was part of an online pagan echo-chamber (I refuse to give it the dignity of calling it a “community”) in the late 2000s. It screwed up my spirituality big time because I listened to what my peers were saying instead of heeding my own heart; the influence was insidious.  What started out as a genuine desire to share information and experience of the gods slowly became a fap-circle of delusion and fantasy.  People would subconsciously begin ever so slightly changing their stories so that they lined up with the larger narrative of the group-think–it wasn’t so much outright lying as it was fibbing to ourselves about our experiences in order to fit in.  Before we knew it, there was one “gatekeeper” of the official narrative and anyone who stepped out of line with the PCPG was slandered and shunned.

Now, that is an extreme example.  The kicker is, most people really don’t mean to lie to themselves,  but even these small untruths can have a huge impact on others when they are shared in the context of being divine messages. What we expect to happen in our journeys and meditations warps to fit the expectations of the established gnosis. If the line between personal visions and public revelation becomes blurred, it is shockingly easy for good folks to get sucked into a maelstrom of drama.  Which brings us to…

Power Over
Someone may start out thinking they’re doing the right thing by passing along messages that they believe have been given to them by their gods or landwights or whatever. However, our experience of any spirit will always be tinted by the state of our own minds and hearts. The temptation to manipulate social situations to our advantage is strong and often driven by a subconscious fear for survival. Four times out of five when someone has shared UPG with me about our past lives together it’s been an attempt to place themselves into a position of power on the basis of the past–it’s not done maliciously, but out of insecurity and a desire to define the current relationship.

This is the crux of the problem with PCPG. You take that same insecurity about one’s place in the group and then multiply it by the number of people involved in the shared gnosis.  Inevitably, one or two people will share their UPG to make themselves look more important or to gain status in their community.  If they are the ones with the only true connection to the land or the gods, you’re swiftly moving into cult territory (ask me how I know).

It comes down to this: PCPG can feel wonderful, and even bolster a group’s cohesion for a time.  Nevertheless, “spirit” drama is intoxicating in its excitement.  Increasingly, people feel a false sense of importance, aka ego inflation, rather than focusing on their own growth and healing. Anyone who won’t tow the party line, well, they usually either try to slip quietly away or are actively cast out of the ever-dwindling inner circle.  It’s heartbreaking and it’s entirely avoidable if it’s caught early enough.

If there’s one thing you take away from this article, it’s this: don’t cede your power to someone who claims to speak for the gods, the land, or the spirits. Forge your own connections. Listen. Breathe. Trust the land itself, trust your ancestors, trust your gods. And question every. single. thing. they tell you.

 

12 Days of Yule: Children’s Night

Three dot, a trinity, a way to map the universe: three dot.
—”Growing Up” by Peter Gabriel

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Last night was the tale of how One became Two, and the joy they found in recognizing and joining with each other. From that union came a Third.  And once Three was present, the universe as we know it shuddered into being.

Three was not an only child.  Endless young sprang from the love of One and Two.  Those children loved one another as their parents did, finding completion in their divine opposite. Their infinite dances create what will become our sun-star, and later our home, every act of love bringing a new plume of magma to the surface, sending a fresh storm racing across the skies of this planet. Their play, their joyful work, made a home in turn for their own children.

These children, born into the oceans of a cooling world, returned to the way of One, loving themselves into legion. But then some followed in the manner of One and Two, joining with each other to create offspring with the qualities of both sires. And these children continued the dance, changing, growing, until the little blue-green world was covered with all manner of life.

Light a candle for the infinite progeny that defines our universe.  Acknowledge the differences between all beings, and how that diversity makes us stronger.  There will always be a connection, no matter how tenuous as all have arisen from the One, though that was long ago.

Blessings to all children, who continue the Great Dances of Life and Joy.

Fur and feather, scale and skin
Different without, but the same within
Many a body, but one of soul
Through all creatures are the Gods made whole.

Gestation

8310812Tales are funny things, single moments drawn out into paragraphs and nine months glossed over in a handful of words.

They tell of my rage at the child-thief, the one who–however unwittingly–stole the Awen for his own. They tell of my fury as I hunted him through land, sea, and sky. Of my crow of triumph as I swallowed him whole.

“And, as the story says, she bore him nine months…”

Nine months. So much can happen in nine months. A child can be born. Or, a woman can be turned out of her home to wander the forest in madness as her body swells.

The wheat kernel was poison. As surely as I had once devoured the thief, I retched in vain to purge him from my womb as insanity crept through my mind. No herb or decoction would dislodge him. Better I had left him to sprout in the broad earth and reap my vengeance at harvest, than to let him take root in my own body.

Three, four, five times the moon passed from light to dark. My husband had indulged my assignations with the Pheryllt, with the promise the resulting brew would heal our son.  My burgeoning belly belied a different sort of rendezvous.  Tegid would brook no cuckoldry, real or imagined.

So I wandered. I wandered without the comfort of my children. I wandered past the stink of my broken cauldron and rotting horse flesh. I wandered from the first blasts of Gwynn’s horn through the first snows and darkest night. And as I wandered, so too did my soul become lost.

The cursed fires of Awen, locked away within my own body, those flames would not let me die, no matter how many times cold and hunger overwhelmed me. Against nature, the babe within ensured his vessel’s survival.  Repeatedly I sought death to escape the unceasing burning in my head and the torturous visions–ghosts of the future, shades of the past, far-off phantoms of the present.

Again and again I begged Gwynn for the mercy of the teeth of his red-eared pack. Each time he shook his head, turning the host to ride down other, sanctioned prey.

As the ground thawed and the winds warmed, my feet brought me to the edge of the ocean. The first labor pangs cut through the stupor of visions as I stumbled to the water. No warm chambers or soft beds for Cerridwen. No midwife to help me in my pacing, or hand to hold as I moaned though washes of agony. Just the pounding of the surf as it brought me slowly back to myself, and eased the weight of the trespasser in my body.

And so, as the first of the bonfires were lit on the hills, I birthed the wretched creature.

They say I could not murder the babe so wondrous was his beauty. In truth I could not bear to even look at him. I did not take time or care to sew a leather bag. The baby was born with the caul intact and no sooner had it left my body then I flung it away from me into the devouring ocean. Elffin has ever been a fool.

Nine waves passed over me and I felt the madness recede. I let the chill spring tide carry me higher and higher onto the shore, the polished rocks soothing my body. I dragged myself over to the dark mirror of a tidal pool. The moon rose, and she revealed a woman, once beloved and fair, now bent and white.

Now they say the thief reborn has become a bard, the greatest bard the land has ever known. They say he has sung at the courts of at least three kings, and has performed magic and miracles beyond those of the wisest druids. And they say I am the mother of inspiration.

I can no longer bring myself to care.

I returned home. Winter had cleansed the land of much of the poison from the brew. Bones were all that remained of Gwyddno’s horses, picked clean by crow and wolf and frost. My husband’s ire had likewise cooled, between the storm-whipped winds and lack of someone to run the household.

My own vengeance had been purged at the side of the ocean. My children still need me, and my son is still cursed. Perhaps my mistake was to trust another with work that should have been his. It matters not. It will take time, and it will take care, but my son will have at least one blessing in his life.

What? Did you think I would give up so easily?