I bathe thy palms
In showers of wine,
In the lustral fire,
In the seven elements,
In the juice of rasps,
In the milk of honey
— The Invocation of the Graces, Carmina Gadelica
talk a lot about the spookier sides of witchcraft because those things to me are witchcraft and I am one among others trying to paint a full-bodied picture of an old word we too often use as a catch-all for anything smacking of magic. Dark moons, poisons, bones, and talking to shades are not the only sides to me and my practice, however. I am also an animist, a practitioner of divinatory arts, a folk herbalist, and a folk magician. These things to me are separate from my witchcraft but I do admit to occasional overlap. The roles of herbalist and folk magician have often put me in the role of healer as well. Those who have stuck with me through the years may remember my troubles of not desiring to follow the path of a healer. Well, life had other plans (as it often does). I keep being reminded of the saying “a witch who cannot hex cannot heal” which is really about the need for balance. Yes, I make spooky flying ointments and know a lot about poisonous and entheogenic plants, but I also have a wealth of knowledge about medicinal herbs and native plants and their preparations. In making flying ointments to cater to the arts of witchcraft, the byproduct was the creation of some of the most potent and effective medicines I have ever made. Most of my patrons, even if their intent was to use the ointments for flying, instead end up using them to treat migraines, insomnia, arthritis, and damaged muscles (including myself). I discovered when you combine the arts of folk herbalism with folk magic, they very often naturally lead to folk healing whether it was your intent or not. This, of course, led me down the road to healing via spiritual cleansing —for myself and for others.
Spiritual Cleansing is a practice not restricted by culture, because so many cultures share belief in the evil eye. The concept behind the eyil eye is not just one of intentional cursing stemming from anger and envy, but a belief that our environment, the people around us, and our own attitudes can affect us negatively —emotionally and spiritually. This drains us of energy, luck, health, confidence, self-esteem, happiness, and faith –everything that can make life so wonderful. If you do not actively cleanse yourself in some way, everything you see and do every day that affects you negatively will build up inside you. Think of it like needing to take your car to the car wash after too much dirt and grime has built up on it.
Sounds a bit new agey until you think about it; do you have to be around people every day who make you feel anxious and stressed? Do you take public transit? How many people are on the same bus every day that you come into contact with, how crowded is it, are people rude or shoving all the time? How crowded was the mall for Christmas shopping last year? Was it stressful? Has it been a hard year? Did you lose loved ones? Divorce? Family fights? Did you do anything to relieve the stress from any of these experiences you’ve had? From any of the feelings and emotions others are putting into you? Do you often feel stressed, anxious, nervous, nauseated? Do you suffer from an upset stomach, cramping, bloating, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, or constipation and the doctor can’t really tell you what’s wrong? For many people the build up of stress and heartache can lead to digestive problems, for others it can lead to migraines, and for others yet it can lead to incapacitating anxiety where the mind and body simply shut down.
To reverse and prevent this psychic grime and its physical symptoms, spiritual cleansing is practiced. Spiritual cleansing is an act of folk healing that can involve bathing, smudging or burning incense, or anointing/sprinkling/asperging. I also include jumping over bonfires and diving into freezing cold streams and oceans. This action is usually accompanied by some form of meditation or chant to relax and soothe the mind. Bathing involves making a warm bath and adding either spring water or sea water and a magical water such as Florida Water. The bather then submerges themselves completely in the water while praying, chanting, or being full of intention. The submersion is usually repeated in sets of sacred numbers such as 3, 7, 9 and the bath can be repeated for days as well for a more lasting effect on the bather. Some instructions for such baths often involve performing them at sunrise, sunset, or a specific hour. It’s always practical to clean your bathroom first and give it a good blessing before performing any spiritual work within it. Sweat lodges are another example of spiritual cleansing with water, in this case steam is used and for those who aren’t weak due to illness, a dip in a cool lake or river right after is incredibly purifying.
I have performed skyclad ceremonies which involve jumping in a cool lake at the end and I have often cleansed myself by making pilgrimages to mountain springs, glacier fed lakes, and the ocean and bathing in the very cold, but purifying waters. I try to do this at least once a year as a form of renewal and cleansing of the self. The shock of the cold water seems punishing at first, but it is also thrilling and exhilarating —a way to test and challenge myself. If I’m willing to jump in the freezing cold ocean, then I know I am also willing to do the work needed to keep my life and my health on track.
When I was studying with my teacher, who put a big focus on spiritual cleansing, I was reading a lot of Draja Mickaharic whose writings I fell madly in love with. His books of folk magic and folk healing are nondenominational and can be used by Christian, Catholic, Pagan, and rootworker alike. It was he along with my teacher who led me to be fluent in the practices of spiritual cleansing which fused so easily and beautifully with the Scottish methods of folk healing I already knew. Scottish scholar and folk healer Stuart A. Harris-Logan was also a big influence on me at the time and still is. I skilled myself in making my own holy water. I magically cleaned my house, I took spiritual baths, I made floor washes, incenses and floral waters, and I collected rain water and spring water from the mountain and blessed it under different full moons. Friends started knocking at my door asking for spiritual cleansings, a very involved practice of folk healing that requires trust between the healer and recipient and the recipient to be fully committed to healing themselves without the expectation that the ritual itself was a magical “fix-all”.
Spiritual cleansing is an important technique to protect yourself from external harm as well. I had another friend with a shamanic background who confided in me about his constant and brutal nightmares. Of the night hag, of spirits trying to steal his soul or feed off his fear. Of spirits getting into his home, haunting and trying to hurt him. He had a good teacher, but had not yet been taught what to do when spirits seek you out with ill intent. He’d only ever gone to benevolent spirits himself in protected space. I showed him how to cleanse his home, chase out all the uninvited spirits, seal off all the entrances and exits, and protect his bedroom and his body with a charm and a consecration. I had him set boundaries with his spirits. Who was welcome inside and who was to be classed as an outdweller and locked out but still given offerings of propitiation. He consecrated a key charm with these boundaries that the welcome spirits may use the key to come in. He slept much better after that.
One friend wanted aid in healing their broken heart from a messy divorce, one was having health issues which refused to go away, and another wanted help letting go of trauma from their past. I helped each person individually on different days by performing a tarot reading to better see the heart of the problem and see if a spiritual cleansing would actually help. I would meditate and ask my spirit helpers what herbs and waters would be best to use for each person and received very straight-forward replies. Then I would draw a bath blessed with spring water, sea water, sea salt, oils, flowers, fragrant herbs, and light a candle at either end of the tub for the person to pass through. They would meditate and focus on their intent and on what they needed to let go. I got them to take three deep breaths, the last time sending out their intent with all their will, and then submerging themselves completely in the water. While under the water, they kept the focus of their will sharp in their mind for 9-30 seconds before coming back up for air. They were to imagine that which they wanted to let go of as being absorbed by the water and leeched out of the mind, body, and soul. With three being the most sacred number in Scots lore, I would get them to repeat this action three times. When they were submerged, sometimes I would see smoke coming up off the water even though the bath water wasn’t hot enough to produce steam. I took this as a good sign, that it was working. The last time they submerged themselves I would recite a purification prayer from the Carmina Gadelica over them:
Power of moon I have over it,
Power of sun I have over it,
Power of rain I have over it,
Power of dew I have over it,
Power of sea I have over it,
Power of land I have over it,
Power of stars I have over it,
Power of planets I have over it,
Power of universe I have over it,
Power of skies I have over it,
Power of ancestors I have over it,
Power of heaven I have over it,
Power of heaven and God I have over it,
Power of heaven and God I have over it.
When they resurfaced, I would have them pull the plug to let the water drain and to stay seated in the tub watching the water swirl down into the darkness, asking them to picture all the psychic waste being sucked down the drain as well. As the water drained I recited another prayer from the Carmina Gadelica, this time one of banishing:
A portion of it on the grey stones,
A portion of it on the steep mountains,
A portion of it on the swift cascades,
A portion of it on the gleaming clouds,
A portion of it on the ocean whales,
A portion of it on the meadow beasts,
A portion of it on the fenny swamps,
A portion of it on the cotton-grass moors,
A portion of it on the great pouring sea–
She’s the best one to carry it,
Oh the great pouring sea,
And she’s the best one to carry it.
When the water was gone, they would gently pat themselves dry so the herbs and oils were still on their skin. Then I would take them to the kitchen to give them a full body smudging with smoke as the final act of the cleansing ritual. Using Mickaharic’s instructions I would wrap a bed sheet around the person to be cleansed, leaving their head free, while they were sitting in a chair and allow the smoke to blow up under the sheet to smudge their entire body for about 10 minutes. If the person wanted to, they could duck their head under the sheet so the smudge could touch it as well. For this part I most often used local wild sagebrush. To smudge a person with herbs or incense, light the smudge stick or add a loose purification incense and fan the smoke around the body of the person to be cleansed with your hand, a feather, or a smudge fan. Make sure to get under the feet, between the legs, and under the arm pits too. It doesn’t always look so graceful, but it’s effective.
After all this I’d sometimes send the person home with a protective charm or a talisman customized to help them achieve their goal. Sometimes I’d send them home with herbs and medicines instead if healing needed to continue. Heartsease, bleeding heart root, hawthorn, and rose are my go-to herbs for healing emotional and spiritual hurts. For physical pain I’d share a cup of vervain tea with a friend. It is so very bitter, but it works fast to make you forget your aches and anxiety. Tea can be seen as an ancient and beautiful way to perform an internal spiritual cleanse due to its proven soothing and calming properties.
The cleansing worked for my friend going through the divorce. Shortly after her mind game ex-husband finally signed the papers, she cut all ties to him, her negative reactions to her ex stopped, her depression lessened, and happiness beamed from her like sunlight. Years later she is still doing well and is in a much healthier relationship. A loved one who I performed a prayer drinking ritual with needed help because they had let themselves be ruled by depression, defeatism, and suicidal thoughts after a lifetime of terrible experiences. Their life had suddenly changed for the better and was full of happiness, but they couldn’t believe in it, couldn’t let themselves be happy, and couldn’t let their dark thought patterns go. But they did that night, with tears falling into a glass of water and banishing their old dark self who was no longer wanted or needed. They stopped sabotaging their happiness and embraced it.
I wasn’t always successful, for myself or for others. I learned the hard way to make sure to cleanse myself after the rite was over and the person or I went home so none of their psychic grime stuck to me. There were a lot of tears, emergency midnight prayer drinking rituals when emotions exploded, hands held, hugs given, and sadly, failures leading to broken friendships. I tried to help a woman who though her home was haunted and wanted a house cleansing ritual. My two friends came with me, one a shamanic practitioner and the other a healer of alternative medicine. We performed the ritual despite the lack of any ghosts, if just to soothe her. She called the next day, worse than before thinking the imaginary ghost was possessing her young children. They were just teething. The woman was beyond our help. She was a war survivor likely suffering from severe PTSD due to the trauma she went through and who was alone all day with her children in a foreign country with no friends or family. She needed a therapist, not a ghost buster. She wouldn’t listen to us, paranoid and convinced her problems were external and paranormal. We walked away when another would have taken advantage of her circumstance and taken her for all her money.
The friend with health issues did not do well either. My card reading and my chat with spirits revealed the health issues were due to them overextending themselves by taking on too many obligations. If they didn’t simplify their life, the spirits warned the body’s reaction would be severe. I shared this insight with them and they agreed, they had been feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. The spiritual cleansing rite helped to refresh them, but they didn’t heed the warning and only cut out obligations that took up an hour of their time a week. It wasn’t nearly enough. Shortly after, their life came to a complete halt due to a severe back injury resulting in them not being able to do anything but lie down and stay still for months on end. It was brutal and frustrating. But they learned from it and years later they have incredibly simplified their life, followed some dreams, and seem happier than ever. I understood what this friend was going through as similar situations have happened to me. I didn’t listen to my soul or body more than once and I suffered for it. It was a hard lesson on both occasions. I’ve stayed in unhealthy relationships much longer than I should have even though I knew I was wrong to. I overstayed my welcome at jobs that were hurting my body or sucking away my soul. I promised myself to not fall into those traps again, but of course it happens when we are so busy we do not pay attention.
I learned spiritual cleansing is about listening carefully to our bodies and our hearts to seek the source of our suffering, whether it be physical or emotional, and then to take action to remove the cause and the environmental factors that surround it. This is not often easy. What we truly need to heal ourselves can lead to breaking up a marriage, quitting a job, giving up passions, moving to a different town or country, leaving a coven or pagan community, losing friendships, conquering addiction, confronting an abuser, or taking other actions that scare you to death. Being frozen in fear is often how we make ourselves ill and prevent any form of healing from working. This is why it is so important to truly be aware of what is wrong and have full intent to do whatever is necessary to overcome it before you undergo a spiritual cleansing. It is why the healer may repeatedly ask you if you are sure and if you are ready before they will perform the cleansing. A cleansing can seem a simple thing, but its effects can run deep and cause profound change in us and our lives.
Spiritual cleansing is not always so heavy and serious. It can also be used for when you just feel gross or tired. Maybe you feel icky after interacting with someone skeevy in your pagan community and you just want to give yourself a quick cleanse or smudge before you see them and when you get home. Maybe your mother-in-law is a psychic vampire whose drama sucks the life out of you every time you talk to her and you find yourself taking a shower after a phone call or a visit. Or, alternately, maybe a purification bath is something you do every full or new moon or before you perform a major ritual. Some people aren’t bathers and prefer to shower. If you don’t need the serious, healing spiritual cleansing I like to recommend filling a muslin drawstring bag with a mixture of purifying herbs, olive oil, and sea salt and then hanging it over your shower head. The water coming out of the shower will contain the blessing mixture and coat you in holy water. Gently pat dry, smudge yourself with smoke, and you’re ready to take on the world… or that sabbat ritual tonight.
Sprinkling waters or oils can work great for a quick cleansing method or if a bath isn’t viable. Uplifting scents with purifying herbs, oils, and resins are usually used. This comes from an ancient practice of blessing called asperging which involves dipping branches of sacred herbs or trees in spring water and flicking it at people, livestock, objects, or a home to bless them. This act stems from the ancient pagan practice of flicking blood from an animal sacrifice at the ritual participants to purify and bless them. Florida water or rose water are much sweeter smelling alternatives to that ancient practice! I put rosewater in a spray bottle and spritz myself before I go out, when I feel run down, or before people come over to visit. I also love to give rosewater or Florida water to people at group rituals to rub on their hands, faces, and necks to cleanse themselves before we start. I’ve noticed people are pretty fond of this —even the manly men like to smell nice.
Sometimes, holy waters are spat upon the person to be cleansed. I know it sounds gross, but stay with me. In Scotland and South America, the folk healer’s saliva is considered sacred and as having the ability to purify any substance. A Scottish folk healer would often put water in their mouth and then spit it out into a bowl before using it for blessing if they were in a pinch or weren’t someone to use sacred stones or silver to consecrate the water. Scottish, South American, and Haitian folk healers would put holy water or alcohol in their mouths and then spit it in a fine spray over the body of their client who asked for a cleansing. Whenever I attend the local shamanic conference, I usually end up covered in a fine spray of rosewater and mead with a layer of tobacco smoke and sacred herb dusts on top.
In my folk magic practice I don’t just use these spiritual cleansing techniques on people, but also on animal skulls and bones, on the plants in my garden, new furniture or used objects brought into the home, my house itself, my altar, my ritual tools, talismans I create… whether by smoke or water, I cleanse them all. Why not cleanse your car, your office, your new computer, or any used or antique furniture you bring home? Cleanse them of past influences, past owners, negativity, the evil eye, and then bless them with protection. In rural Scotland any new cow brought home was always sprinkled with holy water or made to drink holy water before it was allowed to join the rest of the herd. Why not do the same with our skull collections or ritual tools? You never know what happened to an object before it came into your possession.
Whatever form of spiritual cleansing works best for your needs, I hope it helps you heal your body, your mind, your soul, and your life. May the waters bless you and carry you, may fire cleanse you, may the wind blow away your worries, and may the earth support you and caress your feet upon the sacred path.
- Complete Book of Baths by Robert Laremy
- Protection & Reversal Magic: A Witch’s Defense Manual by Jason Miller
- Psychic Self-Defense: Protecting Yourself Against Paranormal Attack by Dion Fortune
- Spiritual Cleansing: A Handbook of Psychic Protection by Draja Mickaharic