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Everything You Need to Know About Animism

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Folk Magic, Spirit Work | 23 Comments

“There is no environment ‘out there’ separate from us. The environment is embedded in us. We are as much a part of our surroundings as as the trees and birds and fish, the sky, water and rocks.” ~ David Suzuki

What is Animism?

The Latin animus means “the rational soul, intelligence, consciousness, and mental powers” and the feminine anima means “soul, living being, mind, and breath”. If you collect all the words for soul from all the languages around the world, almost all of their roots simply mean “breath”, insinuating that the soul and spirits in general are invisible and intangible. In the 1670s, the term anima mundi, meaning “soul of the world”, was used to describe the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato who believed the world and the universe itself was infused with an animate soul. In 1866, English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor popularized the already existing term animism from the Latin anima combined with the suffix -ism (attached to words associated with practices, beliefs, doctrines, worship, etc).  He defined animism as the “theory of the universal animation of nature.” Animism became the go-to term for anthropologists to describe and define the beliefs of non-Christian and prehistoric indigenous peoples.

Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness, a soul, from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the great planets in the heavens to the whole of the universe itself. Animistic faiths usually contain a belief in rebirth & reincarnation either as another human, or an animal, tree, or star. Anything or one can be an ancestor and in a way this is true as even scientists will tell you every single thing in the universe is created from the same space dust — all matter gets recycled and reused. Spirits of place (genus loci) are thought to be either the actual soul of the land or a soul who has come to reside in a hill, stream, or grove as its guardian and benefactor.  Animism is usually viewed as more primitive with polytheism being seen as more advanced (think Stone Age vs. the Roman Empire), but as many modern religious scholars have discovered there is more natural harmony and more earthly wisdom within animism than almost any world religion.

You can try to have one without the other, however, in most cultures the two go hand in hand. The Norse had their pantheon of deities as well as strong beliefs in nature spirits, ancestors, elves, giants, and trolls. The ancient Greeks had a strong underlying current of animism from personifying everything in existence as a spirit or deity and worshipping spirits of springs, rivers, hills, and forests at the same level of devotion if not moreso than their pantheon of deities with sacrifices, offerings and festivals. Anthropologists call these divisions the “low cult” (animism) and the “high cult” (polytheism), but in truth they were not divided at all. You’d be hard pressed to find a pre-Christian religion without a fully integrated combination of deities, fairy-like beings, and an ancestor cult. You’d also find it hard to find a major world religion today without traces of animism still clinging to it. Animism was never wiped out or replaced, it has been here the whole time within the persisting belief in fairies and the otherworld, the Catholic worship of saints, the reverence and superstition surrounding trees, and our cultural folk songs and folk tales. The initial instinct of early folklorists and modern Pagans was to label it all as Paganism, but it was the survival of animism all along.

The synonym for animism we’ve been looking for within the Pagan worldview is the fairy-faith and the explanation for the fairy-faith the academic world has been seeking can be found in the animistic cults of ancestor worship and nature spirit worship throughout the world and human history.

If a religion has an ancestor cult within it or a belief in fairy-like beings, it’s a strong sign it evolved from an earlier animistic version of itself. Gods are often apotheosized celestial bodies, land spirits, animal spirits, forces of nature, and ancestors (kings, heroes, healers, and miracle workers). Deities are not separate from animism, they are born from it. The documented remnants of the fairy-faith in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe reveal the presence of ancient-rooted animism which was still practiced after the conversion to Christianity as is evidenced by all the many laws forbidding any practices or rites involving fairies, land spirits, and the worship of sacred stones, water, and trees. Animism is still very prevalent in African, South American, and Asiatic belief systems and folk religions today. For example, Buddhists worship the Buddha and the many bodhisattvas alongside a strong familial ancestor cult. Though the population of those practicing the recognized animistic Ainu religion is very small today, the Japanese still heavily practice Shintoism and have a seemingly irremovable belief in the yokai, or supernatural spirits, demons, and ghosts. Find an indigenous tribe in South America or Africa not yet converted to Christianity and they may not have heard of the term animism, but you can be sure their spiritual practices are intrinsically animistic with an ancestor cult.

“No religion lies in utter isolation from the rest, and the thoughts and principles of modern Christianity are attached to intellectual clues which run back through far pre-Christian ages to the very origin of human civilization, perhaps even human existence.”

E.B. Taylor, Primitive Culture

Animism is not a separate faith standing on its own, it is not a capitalized “Tradition” as defined within the Pagan and witchcraft communities, and it is not a clearly defined spiritual path. Instead, animism is the seed of all religion and infiltrates all religions even in present day. Animism doesn’t exist outside of individual practice and the collective beliefs and practices of an indigenous community. Trying to define it and grasp it in a physical form (like the big name religions or smaller pagan traditions), is like trying to catch moonlight with your bare hands. I will try the best I can to attempt it, but it will only ever be my own definition, experience, and research. Animism will always shape-shift person to person, tribe to tribe, region to region.

Animism is a philosophy backed up by practice, it is a way of life and a way of thought. Animism is your personal relationship with nature and with the inhuman spirits who inhabit and compose nature. It is a relationship of respect and value for all things and all beings, visible and invisible. All life is sacred and sentient, even those outside of your current definition of life and even those regarded as malevolent. Within a balanced ecosystem, all life serves a purpose– even those who may seem like the villain at first glance. Animism is the hands-on spirit work of building an awareness of and relationship with the spirits of plants, trees, fungi, animals, insects, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and the spirits of the dead buried under your feet. When you live within nature you realize you are a part of it, not separate from it. It becomes important to know as much about your surroundings as possible because your survival depends on your knowledge of and respectful treatment of the land, plants, and animals around you.

The Beliefs of Animism

Within the philosophy of animism there is no distinction between magic and mundane– all is magical and all is mundane simultaneously. Consider this for a minute: every act is an act of magic. Animism lacks pretentiousness and superfluousness – if an action or item serves no real purpose then it is disregarded. In my opinion, based in research and experience, this is why the same set of rituals are found in animistic practice throughout the world. Animism is made up of shared beliefs, but moreso it is a series of practices and rituals based on these beliefs.

Common beliefs found within animism include fetishism, totemism, the belief in the soul (or multi-faceted soul) and life force, the belief in the existence of noncorporeal or supernatural spirits who can affect human lives, the belief in a spirit realm or multiple other worlds, the reverence and worship of the dead, the existence and practice of ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’ (magic used by the layperson to gain influence over or protection from spirits), and the existence of some form of shaman (witch doctor, medicine man, fairy doctor, etc) with supernatural powers and the ability to travel between realms who acts as healer and mediator between humans and spirits.

Fetishism in the anthropological sense means the belief that something seemingly inanimate can be the embodiment of a powerful supernatural spirit (anything from a statue to a tree or a mountain), or that an object can be intentionally inhabited by a spirit (a fetish like a small stone, a pocket carving, a ritual tool, a skull). Some fetishes can be very personal and never shown to another person, where only the owner or family members can look upon it and seek help or powers from the spirit within it (such as root alrauns). Other fetishes belong to the community with standing stones, Slavic god-poles, and ancient Greek crossroad herms being fitting examples.

Totemism is an ancient belief and evidence for it is most easily found in cultural folk tales of creation. Totemism is the belief in an animal, tree, river, supernatural spirit, or other animate being as the original ancestor, creator god, or teacher/benefactor of a clan or tribe and used as its symbol. This belief may be most familiar within North American Native tribes who identify as various clans or houses of the raven, eagle, wolf, etc. The indigenous Ainu in Japan and Siberia were largely a bear cult. For the animistic Hmong people of China, it is an ancient warrior ancestor named Chiyou who is revered as the founder of their tribe, but their creator god Nplooj Lwg is a frog. Each tribe has its own history, stories, songs, symbolism, and physical representations of their totem (i.e. idols, masks, and ceremonial costumes). The belief in totemism is spread further than we may realize. For example, one of my familial Scottish clans once believed they were children of the Yew tree and it has been used as their totem and symbol for longer than there is written record of. You won’t find it on the coat of arms (a modern invention), but the curious belief persisted into modern day.

Shamanism is not animism. Shamanism is a practice found within cultures with animistic belief systems. Shamans are the leaders, healers, and spirit intermediaries of their animist tribe. They have supernatural abilities that allow them to work with spirits, work against spirits, heal relationships with spirits, heal physical damage or illness caused by spirits, and the ability to travel between our physical world and the dream world, the spirit world, the world of the dead and safely back again.

Ancestor worship is another universal commonality between animistic peoples and involves the belief in the existence of the soul after death which leads to an entire cult of ancestor reverence and worship within each culture. Where ancestor veneration is found, there is also a heavy importance and reverence placed on family, tribe, and elders. Ancestor worship is tenacious and survives conversion to other religions. Catholics still have an active ancestor cult through the worship of saints and the celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Buddhism and Shintoism both have a heavy focus on ancestor reverence and Japanese and Chinese Christians still actively practice ancestor veneration and maintain family ancestor shrines. It fascinates me that animism seems to always be bedfellows with ancestor worship. It makes sense to honour the spirits of the dead when following a practice so deeply rooted in working with spirits. It isn’t even debated in indigenous cultures, the ancestor cult is simply there alongside the people’s animism. The perfect example from Europe being the fairy-faith prevalent throughout many localities which is the combined belief in inhuman nature spirits and the spirits of the dead. Where you find the fairy-faith you find animism, and where you find animism you find ancestor worship.

The Rituals of Animism

The belief in a world full of spirits within animism leads to very specific sets of rituals with similar formulas followed across cultures. There will always be cultural differences in details and etiquette, but the ritual formulas usually contain similar steps. Before anything is done within an animist community, a ceremony is performed to ask permission of a specific set of spirits and to see if the results of the action will be favourable.

Whether you want to go hunting and foraging in the forest, fishing in a river, cut down a tree, build a new house, or ask approval of the ancestors to marry, you would first perform these steps:

  • Go to where the spirit(s) live (they can’t hear you if you’re not nearby).
  • Declare your intent aloud and request permission from the ruling spirit(s) of said place.
  • Submit a suitable and respectful offering to said spirit(s) and hope it is accepted.
  • Flatter the hell out of the spirit(s) with sweet words and songs (this can be the offering).
  • Ask for a specific and realistic sign of approval (the calls of animals, rain, or perform divination).
  • If you don’t receive the sign or something goes wrong, don’t do the thing.
  • If you receive the sign and everything seems sunshine and roses, go do the thing.
  • When you return from doing the thing successfully, thank the spirit(s) and leave a bigger offering.

Another step sometimes included is to threaten the spirit(s) which is mostly unheard of in modern Pagan and magical traditions, but very common in folk religions and animistic indigenous cultures. It has to be a good threat though and you have to know which spirits you can get away with threatening and which ones it would be incredibly disrespectful to threaten. Common threats include the withholding of offerings until a petition is granted or that you will tattle on the spirit to a fearsome boogeyman or the equivalent of the spirit’s mom or boss.

Purification & Blessing

Other common ceremonies are of purification and blessing and they will often go hand in hand with the formula above. Purification of the body and soul being performed before approaching spirits so one goes to them physically and spiritually clean as a sign of respect and also to remove any negative influences that may interfere with the petitioner’s intent. A ceremony of blessing is performed before any action is taken to help influence the best possible outcome whether the action is a journey, a marriage, a new baby, building a new house, or as simple as weaving cloth, going fishing, or cooking a meal. The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of oral incantations from Scotland from the late 1800s, is full of such rites of blessing covering everything from churning butter and blessing new livestock to waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Despite some Catholic imagery and wording, most of the incantations are sung or recited in the hope that fairies will stay away and not mess up people’s work or daily life.

Alignment

There is no real technical term for this belief and its rites. Alignment is the practice of attempting to more closely align yourself with a spirit whether it is an animal, plant, or ancestor. This can be achieved by ingesting or smoking a plant (or rubbing on a flying ointment) during ceremony to better connect to that plant or to a greater forest spirit, crafting a fetish from an animal claw or tooth to wear to imbue oneself with the powers of said animal, or even the ancient practice of cannibalizing the dead to re-absorb their soul and power into the community. Traditional indigenous ceremonies involving costumes and masks depicting sacred animals and supernatural spirits which involve dancing and mimicking the animals and spirits are also a form of alignment which a modern Wiccan would recognize as being similar in intent to drawing down the Moon.

The philosophy is simply: the closer you are to the intended spirit and the more you work with it, the more you take on attributes and powers associated with it. The more you work with the dead and are around death, the easier it will be to commune with the dead. The more you actively work with an animal spirit, the more you will take on its positive attributes and be able to call it to your aid. Alignment also shows respect as you are consciously seeking out a relationship with spirit through actions and offerings which will likely result in reciprocation from the spirit until it becomes a familiar, ally, or helper.

The Evil Eye

Rituals that involve deflecting or counteracting the evil eye also stem from animism and its belief in the existence of intentional and unintentional sorcery by both common people or supernatural means. The belief in the evil eye is found world wide and across cultures and it can be inflicted by humans, the dead, spirits, and deities. It can be an envious neighbour sending you hateful vibes over how awesome your milking cow is or a case of elfshot caused by an angry svartálfr. The belief in the evil eye can be so prevalent and strong that an entire community will base its ethics and etiquette around avoiding the evil eye by practicing humility and the deflection of praise. It was once very common in Ireland and Scotland to shout a warning and an apology simultaneously whenever emptying the dirty washing bucket or chamber pot outside so any nearby spirits had a chance to get out of the way rather than getting splashed with filth and cursing you for being disrespectful.

Protection

It is not a common belief of animistic peoples that spirits are generally benevolent and mean us well, it is in fact the opposite. Spirits are to be appeased to prevent harm, spirits are to be kept at a safe distance, and spirits are to be protected against by any means necessary. Spirits are considered benevolent, malevolent, chaotic, or neutral with the benevolent being the rarest and usually birthed from beneficial long-term relationships between humans and spirits. The pervasiveness and endless variety of protective charms and talismans found throughout time and different cultures demonstrates how much emphasis humankind has put on the need to be protected from harm, illness, spirits, demons, ghosts, and fairies.

Protection can be in the form of a ceremony or in the form of a consecrated talisman one is meant to wear or hang in one’s home. It is painting your face white before travelling to the underworld, wrapping yourself in an animal hide before visiting the spirit world, wearing a mask or making loud, offensive noises to scare away evil spirits, the burning of bonfires on dark liminal nights, the creation of spirit traps, the burning of special herbs, or the wearing of multi-coloured clothing or mirrored clothing to deflect spirits. Animistic rites of protection can be anything from a holy person blessing someone with powers of protection in a ceremony, a talisman being crafted and consecrated to protect a person, a family or a home, to an entire community dressing up as demons and processing through the town to scare away spirits and monsters for the coming year (yes, the seasonal Krampus parades in Europe!).

A big part of protection is prevention. Animistic cultures tend to try to keep spirits away from human homes, human settlements, agricultural areas, livestock, holy places, and roads and paths. Protections are put up to keep spirits out, spirits are verbally told they are not welcome, and more respectfully, places are designated for unwanted spirits to have for themselves and have offerings left to appease them (much like how outdwellers are treated in modern Druidry). I think we can all learn about having firm boundaries from animistic practices. You don’t invite the dark fairy to Sleeping Beauty’s baby blessing, but you better make sure to send her a nice gift basket for your rudeness! Only the spirits that you trust and are known to mean you well are invited into one’s home and to a community’s ceremonies. These welcome spirits are usually restricted to the family or tribe’s totems and ancestors and even then they have very specific names they are called by to make sure the right spirits show up an no harm is caused and specific etiquette is followed so these spirits feel respected and willing to be present and bestow blessings to the people.

Comparing Animism Within Paganism & Mainstream Cultures

“Animism is a monist metaphysical stance, based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality, rooted in nature.”

Emma Restall Orr

Is animism Paganism? Considering that members of the Pagan community can barely agree on a definition of Pagan/ism for themselves this is not a simple question to tackle. So, instead of looking at the Pagan definition of Pagan, let’s look at the world’s definition of Pagan, which, across most dictionaries and encyclopedias, is “a follower or community practicing a polytheistic religion”. Under this definition, no, animism is not synonymous with Paganism because animism is not polytheism. It does, however, include the belief in many worlds and many spirits, but not necessarily the prescribed worship of them. Sometimes the spirits may be organized into categories (such as water, earth, sky, as well as mundane and supernatural spirits), but there are no set pantheons as a Pagan would recognize. Every cult of animism is different as one tribe would most highly revere the bear as it’s main “deity” and another may most intensely focus their beliefs and rituals around one type of tree. In all honesty, a lot of traditional animistic practices involve avoiding and appeasing spirits rather than seeking them out or worshipping them. Animism is more about respect for spirits and the appeasement of spirits to prevent harm or their involvement in human affairs.

The better questions to ask are: “does Paganism stem from animism?” and “does Paganism contain elements of animism?”. The answer is yes to both. The issue we come across in attempting to cross-compare religions with animism is that most cultures in history who practiced animism had no name for it and no definition for it. It is simply the original and enduring spirituality of humankind. It’s something you do, not something you write down. Despite how ancient its beliefs and practices are, animism is a modern term derived from Latin and coming from academia. People within the Pagan and witchcraft communities have only recently started to adopt it and discuss it. Sometimes it takes us a while to find the right word to describe what we believe and do. The traditional witches and new agers all swarmed to shamanism before many figured out that it’s a hard and not so common thing to be a shaman and what they were actually doing was animism. Many contemporary or ‘core’ shamans use the term shamanism as well when many of them really mean animism. Animism is an ideal word. It is an inoffensive term, it isn’t appropriated from another culture, it doesn’t have specific dogma behind it, and anyone can use it whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Heathen, Shintoist, Wiccan, or even atheist.

Animism is not a religion. Animism is the primal foundation of all religion.

Why is there no set definition of animism in the Pagan community and why does animism feel like a newcomer when, in fact, it contains the most ancient spiritual beliefs of humankind? Because animism is not a religion and does not sit at the same table as the big theisms of monotheism, polytheism, panentheism and their kin. There are no holy books, no churches, no doctrines or dogma, and only a handful of books and articles directed to would-be practitioners coming only from a subculture niche-market within the Pagan community. The entire bulk of information on animistic belief comes from the academic study of indigenous cultures (anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and ethnobotany), academic studies of plants and animals (botany and zoology), and mainstream culture. A good chunk of these studies pre-2000 comes from the outdated boy’s club of anthropology who did not paint indigenous cultures in a flattering light, often drawing the conclusion that animism is for the primitive, savage, less intelligent, and less knowledgeable people. They were so very wrong and animism is currently undergoing a massive mainstream resurgence with the potential to render eco-centered NeoPaganism obsolete. Modern science it leading us as a whole back to animism. The irony is perfectly glorious.

It is the tendency of the Pagan community to denigrate the mainstream and separate themselves from it. We should stop doing that. We are a part of the whole too. Whether you like it or not, you are part of the mainstream (the dictionary definition, not the negative Urban Dictionary definition). Animism is currently taking a much bigger foothold in the mind of the ordinary person than it ever has to Pagans. Somewhere along the line, Pagans became sidetracked and self-absorbed with the aesthetic trappings of our community and its practices and forgot about why we ended up in Paganism in the first place. Wasn’t it to find an alternative spiritual belief? One that honours the earth, nature, and our connection to spirit? When did the eco-centredness of the Paganism of the 60s and 70s dissipate? Probably at the same time the mainstream became tired with hearing the same messages about saving the earth over and over again in media and film. Why does every day Joe and every non-Pagan herbalist I’ve ever met have a better grasp of animism than the Pagan community (many of whom are unconsciously animists)? Well, when did we stop looking up from our own fantasy world to see what was going on around us? Animistic belief and philosophy is currently being fed through mainstream media to every Dick and Jane. It’s time for us to pay attention too. Animism is here, spilling over and soaking into everything and everyone like the massive spring floods inundating my county right now.

It is a good thing. This could be so important to our survival and the preservation of the earth! It’s time to stop looking solely within our tiny niche subculture and step out to look at the big picture. Never forget history is being made as we live and breathe. The changes in spiritual movements and philosophical beliefs happening right now will affect our long-term future. This is potentially a very big deal.

Animism in the Media

If you don’t believe that animism is becoming household philosophy and infiltrating mass media with absolutely no direct relation to the Pagan movement, let’s take a brief look at the news shall we? This is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to animism in the news. Seriously, I can’t even count how many articles I found on the sentience and intelligence of plants, trees, fungi, insects, and animals, the belief in spirits, as well as the practice of ancestor worship.

BBC News: Do we underestimate the power of plants and trees?

“We are convinced that plants are cognitive and intelligent, so we use techniques and methods normally used to study cognitive animals.”

Business Insider: Researchers Have Found Plants Know They Are Being Eaten

“A new study from the University of Missouri shows plants can sense when they are being eaten and send out defense mechanisms to try to stop it from happening.”

Orion Magazine: The Axis and the Sycamore

“This is what we do, we humans. We came down from the trees and now we destroy them. The older I get, the harder it is to take this; the harder it is even to look at it. It is long overdue that we start the restitution.”

Psychology Today: Are Plants Entering the Realm of the Sentient?

“When plants seem to be behaving like animals, we must reconsider whether intelligence truly is an exclusively animal trait.”

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Are Trees Sentient Beings?

“Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are ‘wonderful beings’ with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.”

New York Magazine: Our Behavior Toward Animals Hasn’t Caught Up to the Science

“Not only must we seriously address sources of human-induced suffering, but we must also work to create a world in which animals are free to live their own lives and make their own choices. After all, humans aren’t the only intelligent beings on Earth.”

Quartz: People who talk to pets, plants, and cars are actually totally normal according to science

“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown. I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.”

Quartz: Insects may be able to feel fear, anger, and empathy after all

“To be strictly honest, we still can’t say to what degree insects experience emotions yet, although these early experiments are certainly setting the foundations for a future where we recognize that all animals have emotions of some sort.”

The Independent: Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience positive emotions

“What this study shows is certainly they change the way they perceive their environment when others are present, which suggests they might be cognitively more complex than we originally thought. Maybe because of that people will become more aware of their needs and welfare issues. I think if it helps, it’s great.”

Huffington Post: Law of Mother Earth: A Vision from Bolivia

“Mother Earth has the following rights: to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living. And it further outlines the obligations of the State and the people to these principles and rights as a binding societal duty.”

Mother Nature Network: Can human rights save Mother Nature?

“Our current legal system is anthropocentric, extremely human-centered, believing that all of nature exists purely to serve human needs. Contrast this with a holistic framework of law that puts our existence on this planet within its ecological context. Ecosystems and other species would have legal personality, like corporations, with the right to exist, to thrive, to regenerate, and to play their role in the web of life.”

The Guardian: Now rivers have the same legal status as humans, we must uphold their rights

“What does it mean for a river to have the rights of a person? If the most fundamental human right is the right to life, does it mean the river should be able to flow free, unfettered by obstructions such as dams? Does the right extend to all creatures in the river system?”

Time Magazine: Tribes appease spirits after tourists strip naked on Malaysia’s sacred mountain

“Did a group of foreigners who took their clothes off at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu cause an earthquake? It’s up to the spirits to decide, according to the Lotud tribe of Sabah state.”

Resonate: Why Thailand Shrines Offer Strawberry Fanta to Ghosts

“The dark spirits won’t go so far as to kill you but if Thai people have accidents, people say it’s because they didn’t give offerings to the spirits. You don’t take care of them? They won’t take care of you. You’ll start arguing with your family. Stuff will go missing. You’ll fall ill…”

Sixth Tone: Why Bans on Paper Money Will Anger China’s Ghosts

“Several provinces have proposed eliminating the practice of burning paper money during ancestor worship. Some local governments have even banned its burning and manufacture outright, while also taking steps to discourage feudal superstitions such as burning paper idols made to resemble people, horses, or cattle. This is a foolish move, in my opinion, as it strikes a heavy blow to the roots of deep-seated traditional belief systems.”

Morocco World News: Timeless Belief in Saints and Spirits in Morocco

“Despite Morocco’s increasing modernization and industrialization, saints are still celebrated, and spirits continue to be an influence in everyday cultural practices. The Moroccan people continue to celebrate saints and spirits by preserving holy places, holding festivals, and observing practices to avoid the wrath of spirits.”

BBC Magazine: Living with the Dead

“To outsiders, the idea of keeping a dead man’s body on show at home feels quite alien. Yet for more than a million people from this part of the world – the Toraja region of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – it’s a tradition dating back centuries. Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.”

Animism in Mainstream Publishing

Now let’s take a look at some mainstream and best-selling books with heavy themes of animism and its role in anthropology and ecology. The titles may not always include the term animism, but the contents are specifically animistic. I left out non-Pagan books on ancestor worship as that would require a whole post on its own just to list them! I also left out academic anthropology books as again that would require it’s own reading list.

Academic

Animals

Okay, there were a lot more than this, but let’s keep it to these three well-recommended ones.

Plants, Trees & Fungi

Animism, Rewilding & Ecology

Animism in Pagan Publishing

Lastly, let’s take a look at books published by the Pagan community intended to focus on animism:

Glennie Kindred (who I love) almost gets us there, almost. There are also the works of Lupa Greenwolf, a main proponent and organizer of the Otherkin movement which she’s since distanced herself from (think Pagan furries but with dragons and fairies too). She mainly focuses on writing about totemism and animal familiars.

I’ve obviously left out the truly terrible books on communing with angels, fairies, and nature spirits (I just couldn’t give them free advertising). Notice only one of these books actually has “animism” in the title… well, subtitle. If you want more than that, then you have to get into fairy territory which can get very woo woo and away from the reality of animism very fast if you aren’t careful. Or, you need to look at books written by the druidic and contemporary shamanic communities — which again do not directly mention or describe animism, but do talk about working with nature and spirits in a very animistic way. I didn’t have much luck finding serious Pagan books on the actual practice of ancestor veneration, but instead have found a lot of goth-esque books on necromancy, sigh. You guys are stuck with The Pagan Book of Living & Dying for now.

Pretty sad when you compare the list of mainstream books to Pagan ones, hey?  It’s like the Pagan community dances around animism because many of us have never heard the term and none of us are exactly sure what it even is or if we’re doing it… If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to define animism to a member of the Pagan, witchcraft, and shamanic communities, I would be significantly richer. It’s just another “ism” under the umbrella of Paganism, isn’t it? It’s just another word for shamanism, isn’t it? Alas, no. It is the “ism” all religions were birthed from. We Pagans have a tendency to label anything with magical potency that is outside of the Judeo-Christian realm as “pagan” whether it is or not. It’s just not the right term though, especially coming from academic or mainstream standpoints.

It’s time to open ourselves up to the fact that a lot of spiritual practitioners we really want to define as pagan aren’t actually pagan, don’t want to be ‘capital P’ Pagans, don’t want or need to be considered under the umbrella term of Paganism, and don’t want to be a part of the modern Pagan community (this includes many cultural traditions such as rootwork and Vodou along with non-Pagan polytheistic religions like Hinduism). More and more people want their spirituality without the velvet robes, festival garb, mystical accessories, foreign lexicons, magical names, and woo-woo-ness in general. Animism is the simple path away from this to a place of common ground. It requires nothing but yourself and what already exists in a traditional culture, in nature, and in the ethereal realms.

Animism doesn’t require proselytization, it appeals to a mass audience without lifting a finger or even being directly named.

Once upon a time I introduced a group of my friends from the Pagan/Wiccan community to local shamanic community who were very animistic in nature and, lo and behold, many of them converted within a year with more following in consecutive years. Why? They had never known those alternate beliefs and practices were even an option. No one had told them, they didn’t come across other options from their teachers and elders, and none of the Pagan literature really talked about alternatives. The living practice of animism filled a void they didn’t even know existed in their Pagan practice. Some members of the local Pagan community were not happy. In trying to build a bridge between the two communities I had lessened their numbers. We can too often be crabs in the bucket desperately trying to pull each other back in, but instead we should let people be free to open their minds to new ways of thought and different ways of defining their spirituality and how it relates to the everyday world. Stop trying to collect every spiritual belief under the umbrella of Paganism to increase our numbers and fall into the trap of validating that ours is the one true way. Allow a massive diversity to flourish. Beauty is found in diversity. Maybe it’s time to apply some principles of permaculture to our views of spiritual beliefs and see faiths as ecosystems with each one playing an important role to a community and the whole of humanity.

Let’s have another example. Remember that time I was forcibly removed as keynote speaker for a polytheism conference because I said I was an animist in a podcast interview… even though beforehand I had told the conference board members (who requested me to be the speaker in the first place) that I was not a polytheist but an animist just like my website said and “were they sure they wanted me to be the keynote?” There was no opportunity for me to speak for myself, I was simply informed I was removed and didn’t get a chance to explain that one could believe in the existence of deities without feeling the need to worship them and, alternately, one could be an animist and work with deity simultaneously. It was a fun PR disaster and a learning opportunity.

Animism and polytheism are seldom found separated in history. Our lack of understanding and ability to define animism and its relation to polytheism is going to continually get us into trouble. We are already at the point where the ‘layperson’ gets it and we don’t. It is time to educate ourselves and each other to prevent future misunderstandings and to prevent us from getting left behind in animism’s wake across the world.

On that note, here is my personal Pagan-friendly recommended reading list in alphabetical order by title. As always, I also encourage you to seek out books on the animism and fairy and folk tales of your own cultural heritage too. Go forth, read, and share!

The Animism Reader

Related Articles by Sarah Anne Lawless

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On Serendipity and Iron

By | Charms and Talismans, Folk Magic | 12 Comments

The other day I had a serendipitous morning of finding datura and brugmansia plants at a local nursery and the ladies who work there gave me all the seeds they’d collected after hearing about the pain ointments I make with them. Shortly after, I had another “hmm this can’t be coincidence” encounter. I went to a local farmers’ market to get some of my favourite pig’s lard and lye soap from a local blacksmith and went home with the recipe and a traditional Irish “nine irons” amulet instead. He learned how to make them online, but after bringing them to a farmers’ market last year, a local little old Irish lady made a happy fuss over them and gushed out lore form her childhood. She told him the farmers and farm hands would put the amulet on their belts before going to work the farm or go into the woods and at the end of the day would hang it up by the door or over the bed. It was for luck and protection and was used in folk magic charms of healing, curse breaking, and keeping away evil spirits and fairies. The amulet seemed to have the biggest popularity in the 1800s, but the old woman told him no one was really making them anymore. He sent me home with a homemade pamphlet of its folk uses.

The nine amulets from right to left: Skillet, saw, plow coulter, spade, plowshare, cross, axe, horseshoe nail, and shovel. The skillet was heated to red to ward off enemies, the saw and axe ward off evil spirits, the plow coulter and plowshare were used to soothe children who had trouble sleeping, the shovel and spade were used to find lost or stolen property, the cross to bless holy water and protect from spirits, and a horseshoe nail was worn for good luck.

Nine Irons Amulet compared with Viking Amulets

This is a farmer’s charm, crafted and consecrated by a local blacksmith who is also a farmer, made with re-used iron from antique farm tools. What blew me away even more about its magical potency is how much it resembles early Scandinavian tool amulets from archaeological digs. The one on the left is an 8th century piece found in Hesselbjerg, Denmark and the axe head amulet on the right is from the same time period. I saw many such amulets with different every day tools on them at the touring Vikings exhibit at a museum when it was in Victoria; some for the gods, some just for luck and protection like the nine irons amulet. The possibility of a connection between Ireland and Scandinavia fascinates me as my father’s father is Black Irish and the Lawless name supposedly originated from the southeast coast of Ireland where Vikings raided mercilessly…

I love seeing folk practices with early modern and ancient roots still in use here in the Ottawa Valley. I told the blacksmith if he were alive a couple centuries ago he’d be as good as the village priest: blessing babies, consecrating tools and amulets, and protecting people from curses and evil fairies. “And don’t forget the old practice of marrying people over the anvil,” he added. I told him my friends found a dried cat purposely sealed into the wall of their home when they were renovating. He told me when he was renovating an old house in the Glebe in Ottawa he pulled up the lintel of the front door, which hadn’t been moved since the house was built, and found a corked witch bottle with hair in it and an old leather shoe.  The blacksmith isn’t even Pagan, he is just a local farmer. Magic is bizarrely normal out here and my rural area is full of ghosts, vampires, fairies, witches, folk magic, and epic crossroads superstitions that the Irish, Scottish, Polish, and German settlers brought with them. My curiosity is only just wetted, now to hone the blade with more research on local folk magic and folk belief.

Blacksmithing images by Steve Ford Elliot and Jorge Royan.

Related Post:

The Shrine at the Crossroad

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Six Herbs for Spirit Work

By | Folk Magic, Herbalism, Spirit Work | 13 Comments

These herbs are easy to find for most and can be bought, foraged, or grown. Maybe you are trying to learn ways to work with spirits or maybe you are looking to incorporate plants into the spirit work you’re already a badass at. We all have our own favourite go-to herbs for specific purposes, here is my top six list of botanicals to aid in spirit work– not including ones specifically for working with the ancestors (which would need another list!). There are other herbs that work just as well, but with these lovelies I can just walk outside my front door and harvest, minus the tobacco which I can get from a local farmer or from the nearby Pikwakanagan reserve.

Dandelion roots

1. Dandelion

Taraxacum officinale

The forager’s friend, but also the witch’s friend, dandelion is used in folk magic to summon spirits. Although most would use it to summon the spirits of the dead, I believe it can be used to call all number of spirits. Use the root to summon chthonic spirits, the leaves to summon nature spirits and spirits of the middle realm, and the flowers and seeds to summon gods, spirits of the sky, and the heavens. Make a wish out loud and blow the seed fluff off a dandelion head. Maybe the spirits will hear you and answer your prayers, each seed that grows furthering the chance your wish will come true.

Dandelion is used to enhance psychic ability– especially divinatory prowess. Use dandelion before you read tarot cards, cast runes, practice seidr, seership, or wrap yourself in a bear hide to have prophetic dreams. Ingest dandelion concoctions or burn dried dandelion before you speak with your familiar spirits whether they be animal, plant, or ancestral. Sunny dandelion, beloved by bees, can aid us in connecting with nature, the earth, and her denizens. Dandelion is bitter, digestive, blood-cleansing, detoxifying the liver, and acting as a tonic for your whole system. Besides being good for you and full of vitamins, nutrients, and medicine, it can help bring us closer to our gods and our familiar spirits.

Ideas: add the powdered root or dried flowers and leaves to smoking blends or teas, infuse the petals in honey to eat by the spoonful, batter and fry whole flowers as fritters, make a tincture from the whole plant when it’s not flowering, use the roasted root as a coffee substitute with cream and brown sugar, stuff fetiches and poppets with dandelion fluff, or lastly, ritually consecrate a dandelion root into an fetiche used to act as a go-between for you and spirits.

Dandelion Root Elixir Recipe

This is pretty much medicinal chocolate-tasting booze that gets better with age. You’ll want to make a lot of it! If you feel fancy try adding spices too, like a cinnamon stick, 3-5 cardamom pods, or a vanilla bean.

125 ml roasted dandelion root
750 ml good brandy
250 ml dandelion honey

Place all ingredients in a 1 litre canning jar, put on the lid, and then shake it up. Give it a shake every day for 2 weeks. Strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter and pour into a clean canning jar. Allow to settle for three days to a month and then rack the clear liquid off of any bottom sludge (I use a turkey baster to slowly remove the elixir without disturbing the sludge). Bottle and take 1-3 droppers full as needed. This recipe makes for excellent digestive bitters when taken before meals. It’s also good in coffee, black tea, dandelion coffee, or in cocktails involving whisky, bourbon, brandy, coffee and cream.

Common Mallow

2. Mallow

Althaea officinalis – Malva Neglecta

Mallows are fairly common in the wild. We often step on them or pull them out of walkways and gardens as a weed without even realizing it. Common mallow grows all over my parents’ farm and they never noticed until I pointed out how prevalent it is. To me, mallow is THE herb for attracting benevolent spirits and grounding them to our realm for better communication. Having a random jar of marshmallow root on your altar or shine is always a good idea. It’s a great herb to tuck into spirit houses, spirit vessels, skulls, and medicine bundles. Within the practice of folk magic the humble mallow is considered a potent exorcism herb and is used to banish spirits, prevent possession, and protect a person from curses. The best ways to use mallow is to make a cold infusion steeped overnight with the fresh roots, or to make an ointment from the dried leaves.

Ideas: crown yourself in mallow like a flower crown when performing outdoor rituals invoking the genius loci, cook with mallow leaves for your sacred feasts, smoke the dried leaves, make a syrup or cordial with the roots, add one large dried root to your medicine bag or ritual kit, or use the flowers to decorate spirit food offerings.

Althea Ointment Recipe

mallow leaves
vegetable oil
beeswax
rosemary essential oil

Pick a big fluffy bundle of mallow leaves and hang to dry for a week to remove moisture. Pack the dried leaves into a 500ml canning jar and pour enough oil over top to completely cover the plant material– olive, sunflower, grapeseed, almond, and jojoba oil are all great choices. Allow to infuse in a dark cupboard for 1-3 months. Strain and measure the oil infusion. Pour into a double boiler (a stainless steel bowl over a pot of water on low heat) and add 30 g (1 oz) of beeswax per 250 ml of the oil infusion. Right before you pour it into jars add 15 drops of rosemary essential oil as a natural preservative and for its protective properties.

Anoint yourself for protection and to summon spirits before performing trancework, soul-flight, shape-shifting, necromancy, and other rites involving spirit work. In your mundane life it can be used to help heal wounds, sores, inflammation, bruising, and angry-hot-itchy skin issues.

Poplar or Aspen buds

3. Poplar Buds

Populus – Populus balsamifera – Populus trichocarpa – Populus tremuloides

Not everyone loves the smell of the sticky sweet buds from trees in the poplar family, sometimes called balm of gilead, but I think it is the most divine perfume; the distilled essence of spring. The essential oil is worth more than gold, and its medicinal properties are priceless. When dried, ground, and burned the buds make a very good substitute for myrrh resin which can be used for smudging, purification, blessing, and consecration. The uses of poplar buds in folk magic are many, and usually centered around love magic, but the applications that matter the most to me are their uses for achieving soul flight and their ability to aid in the physical manifestation of spirits. Poplar is one of the many plants in the magical gardens of Hekate and Artemis according to myth. It was considered a funerary tree by the ancient Greeks meaning they likely used it as wood to burn offerings for the dead, to cremate the dead, and the branches in ceremonies to honour the dead.

Ideas: use the branches to decorate your altar or ritual space, make a crown from a thin branch to wear during ritual, infuse freshly harvested poplar buds in oil for a powerfully perfumed anointing oil, carry the buds in your medicine bundle, perform a steam inhalation to soothe the throat and lungs and absorb its magical powers before ritual, or add it to flying ointment recipes, fairy ointment recipes, and spirit summoning incense blends.

Incense Recipe

dried poplar buds
pine or fir resin
dried rosemary

Using equal parts of these three herbs, grind together with a mortar and pestle or in a coffee grinder (clean afterward with rubbing alcohol and salt). Allow to age for 1-3 weeks before use so the fragrances have time to mingle. Burn on self lighting charcoal disks, a coal from a fire, tin foil on a wood stove, or in an electic incense burner. Use when invoking/evoking spirits for any reason: communion, offering, soul flight, shapeshifting, divination… This incense is also very protective and will keep malevolent spirits from ruining your best magical plans.

Rowan - Mountain Ash

4. Rowan

Sorbus aucuparia

I am definitely one of the many people on the rowan bandwagon. It has been used for magic and held very sacred for so many hundreds if not thousands of years that I believe it is extra powerful just for how long it has been used by humans for the same magical purposes over and over again. Instead of looking for largely non existent unbroken magical traditions, it’s much better to use your time seeking out the unbroken living traditions of the magical uses of sacred plants. Rowan adds power to any magic or rites, it turns the amp up to 11 (yes, I’m making a Spinal Tap reference). It protects from possession and attachment, it gives control over possession making it useful for hedgecrossing and shapeshifting. In folklore and old stories Rowan protects from spirits and allows one to have sway over spirits. In an old Irish tale a woman stands at a grave with a rowan distaff and summons a spirit. With the staff she compels the spirit not to lie to her and then compels it back into the grave where it belongs when she is done her questioning.

If you have troublesome pixies, unwanted ghosts, or find yourself dealing with dishonest or dangerous spirits, rowan will have your back. The two most traditional charms are the cross of rowan wood and unknotted red wool, hung in the house or stitched into one’s clothing, and the necklace of strung rowan berries. Wearable rowan is the best charm when you are trying to avoid pixies and ghosties in the wild wood. Did you know many of the Icelandic magical staves from the Middle Ages were carved out of rowan wood? The Norse were known for making endless magical tailsmans and runestaves out of rowan, considering it incredibly sacred, powerful, and protective.

Ideas: Carve yourself a rowan wand, a rowan staff, rowan crosses, a rowan berry necklace, make yourself a rowan flower crown in the spring or a berry crown in the fall, bake the berries into bread and apple pie, and brew cider or mead with them. If ingesting rowan berries note that they must be fermented or cooked to be safe for eating.

Rowanberry Jelly Recipe

ripe rowan berries
sugar
water

I can’t give better or more thorough instruction than this recipe by The Homemade Company. Rowan berries are bitter so don’t expect the jelly to be sweet. It’s best served with meats and cheeses. I need to try it with venison. If you harvest the berries after a few frosts they are supposedly sweeter or you can freeze them before processing into jelly. Let the jelly age a month to mellow the bitterness before eating – don’t give it to guests right away!

Hypericum perforatum

5. St John’s Wort

Hypericum perforatum

If you have some serious boundary issues with unwelcome spirits in your home or on your property, St. John’s Wort is your rescuer. Simple talismans of red cloth stuffed with st john’s wort can be hung above the front door and tucked under your mattress to protect from dark fairies, ghosts, malevolent spirits, and a witch’s curse. It is a great house cleansing herb. Make your own holy water with spring water, st. john’s wort and salt and sprinkle the water in every room of your house, every doorway, window, mirror, water pipe, ventilation duct (stove hood, dryer vent, stove pipe)… while you whisper or shout Valiente’s “around and around, throughout and about, the good come in and the ill keep out.” I make an equal armed cross too and recite a charm of exorcism, protection, and the sealing of doorways. You are essentially kicking all the unwanted spirits out of your house and then locking all the “doors” with the holy water and the st. john’s wort sachets act as the locks.

For super duper protection from spirits: hang by your front door a red sachet of st. john’s wort on a rowan cross woven with red thread with no knots tied in the weaving. Sprinkle holy water on the talisman every dark moon to keep it cleansed and it its best working order.

Ideas: st. john’s wort can be used in sachets, herbal holy waters, burnt as a non fragrant smudge, made into an oil for medicine or magical anointing, blended with mint and honey for a tea.

St. John’s Wort Oil Recipe

St. John’s Wort flowers
oil (olive, grapeseed, sunflower, jojoba)

Harvest st. john’s wort flowers in the early morning, spreading them out, dehydrate or dry them. Stuff as many as you can into a canning jar and top it up with oil so that all the plant material is covered. Put on the lid and leave in a south facing window for 3 weeks until the oil turns red. Strain and bottle the oil. Use for anointing or for medicine to help heal cuts, burns, bruises, and muscle pain. It is a great multi-purpose addition to your home’s first aid kit and its always good to have some of the oil on hand to make a quick ointment from.

tobacco

6. Tobacco

Nicotiana tabacum – Nicotiana rustica

Tobacco is not just cigarettes, smoke, and carcinogens. Tobacco is a beautiful plant with beautifully scented flowers which has been held very sacred by the Native peoples of North and South America for longer than we likely have written record of. In my mind, the abuse and disrespect of this sacred herb is the source of its harm.  Tobacco is spirit food, it is god food. The ichor that fuels the gods but kills the mortals. It is why we are so easily addicted to it; we eat smoke instead of food and think we are full, but it is the invisible spirits circled around us who are feasting. You smoke it for the spirits to feed on, not for yourself. Good tobacco, the good stuff, is like a kick in the head, it can hurt and you may vomit if you inhale too much.

It is left as an offering at altars, shrines, in earth-dug offering pits, and is given by many cultures as a gift of respect to elders, leaders, healers, shamans, and wise men and women. Tobacco is a potent tool for working with the dead. A ritual supply of cigars, wormwood, and yew would serve you well. It is smoked during ceremonies to attract spirits, to nourish them, to ground them in our realm that we may speak with them and that they may be present for our rites. The nourishment of the thick smoke gives them power. Do not feed spirits if you do not know their intent, do not give power to those who would do you harm. After you have created your sacred space and set up your protections, then burn or smoke tobacco in offering to the spirits and to each other in hospitality and kinship.

Tobacco Reversal Smudge

tobacco
dried wild fern leaf

Like its sister Datura, Tobacco is a potent herb for breaking curses. Mix equal parts of dried tobacco leaf and fern leaf together. Burn it on a fire or charcoal and smudge yourself to break a curse and reverse any spells back to the sender.

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Mysteries of Beast, Blood and Bone

By | Bones & Blood, Featured, Folk Magic, Necromancy, Witchcraft & Magic | 8 Comments

Crow skulls, bones, and foot

© 2013  Sarah Anne Lawless – Originally printed in Serpent Songs: An Anthology of Traditional Craft curated by Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold and published by Scarlet Imprint. Do not copy or use any portion of this text or its images without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.


skulls line the windowsills. Skulls float in jars on top of cupboards. Bones boil in pots on the stove, the flesh melting away. Hidden among the drying herbs and roots there are hearts and tongues and eyes. It is not Baba Yaga’s hut I describe, but my kitchen. Bone collector, bone washer, animal necromancer, deathwalker, shapeshifter, poisoner, witch… these are the words people whisper of me and my practices. Some whisper with fear and others with desire. I am an animist, a folk magician, and a rootworker. It is not just herbs I work with in my folk magic, but also skulls and bones, hearts and tongues. I practice the lost art of working with beast, blood, and bone in order to rebirth the ancient nature of Witch as a wild and primal creature; surrounded by spirits, anointed with blood, dressed in hides, and adorned with talismans of bone, tooth, and claw.

The magic of beasts is sympathetic magic, fetiche magic, and death magic, but it is also sensual magic. It is the feel of the Saturn finger dipped in warm blood, of softest fur on barest skin, of sharpest tooth and talon biting in, of a raw heart on the tongue, and the scent of decay deep in the lungs. It is the rendered fat of a flying ointment like smooth silk across the brow, and it is the tactile, dirty, grounding sorcery of the here and now. It is an amoral, carnal, fleshly, and sensory feast of visceral magic combining the sacred and the profane. The magic of beasts belongs to the wild sorcerers who are part human, part spirit, and part animal; the ones who dance the knife’s edge between the worlds of life and death, the incarnate and disincarnate.

It is only practical to work with the animals and spirits who share the land where I live, for they have a closer relationship with me than any romanticized exotic animals across the sea. On my altar you will find the spirits of the Pacific Northwest: Orca, Salmon, Black Bear, Black Wolf, Mountain Lion, Mountain Goat, White-Tailed Deer, and wings of the birds who haunt our skies and the tree tops of Hemlock and Red Cedar. Old Woman and Old Man of the Woods whispered to me their names in dreams and one by one the beasts came to me. On my altar are their antlers, horns, bones, skulls, teeth, hides and feathers. The ones I did not find myself ended up in my care through bone collectors, shamans, and hunters.

It is important to state that I do not kill the creatures who come to me; instead, they are brought to me after death by conservation officers, hunters, taxidermists, and from friends as road kill. This is my choice and yet in the future I hope to go with my animist friends who hunt in a sacred manner and help them skin and butcher and then take of the bones and flesh they will not eat or use. When I receive dead beasts, plastic is rolled across the table, knives laid out, and gloves and a mask are worn. The still bodies are smudged with fragrant herbs, anointed with holy water, and blessings of cleansing and release are whispered over them. The bodies may be still but their spirits are not. Sometimes it isn’t enough and the animal’s spirit must be bargained with; some demanding to be buried whole with nothing taken, some who will only give up a few parts for sacred work and no more, and some who demand an offering or a working before you may proceed. It is best to respect their remains and their demands for they can curse you better than any witch if you anger them. Folly alone will lead you to curse yourself: butchery and preservation require training as dead animals carry disease, bacteria, parasites, and legal issues –it is not something to walk into blindly.

Crow Claw TalismansThis path is not for everyone; it is not for the weak of stomach or for those who think it is immoral. I grew up with hunters and fishers. I’ve lived by the sea, I’ve lived on a farm raising livestock, and I’ve lived deep in the wildest forests. I was once a professional butcher and cook. It is how I can do what I do. Why follow this path? It should compel you and feed your soul in some way. What is the reward of such bloody work? It is simple, if you want to be a shape-shifter and a walker between worlds, if you want to learn the tongues of beasts, if you want to align yourself more closely than you could ever believe with your animal familiars and the genius loci, then you will also need to work closely with death, blood, and bone. Our ancestors were not soft or squeamish and we must not white-wash their memory by imagining they didn’t kill the deer used to make their ceremonial costume, the raven for their feathered headdress and cloak, or the bear for its hide to craft their drums and rattles. We must approach our Mighty Dead in full knowledge they killed the swans buried in their sacrificial pits, they killed the mare buried beneath the feasting hall, and they killed the hornless bull for its hide to wrap around their seer so he may dream of invaders’ ships. Long have we as the human race worked with animals, their deaths, and their spirits in our rites and ceremonies. Long will our descendants do so after we are dead.

Death will show you a side of your character as yet unknown and your reaction will either gladden you or horrify you. We are so far removed from death in our modern, sterile, clinical world that it is more important than ever as spirit workers to reconnect ourselves and others with death, blood, and bone. I work with death so I can be close to it. Being close to death reminds me I too am a spirit, walking around in a suit of flesh which I may come and go from as I please. When you are close to death you are close to spirits and more easily able to see and commune with them. When you are close to spirits, you are closer to the other worlds where they reside and therefore more easily able to transverse them.

FORMULARY OF THE BEAST

I share my ancestors’ belief in sympathetic magic and, when I wish to work more closely with an animal spirit, I need to also work with its remains whether it is a claw, its hide, or its whole skeleton. To practice this magic one must be able to seek out death; for bone collectors and necromancers can sense bones and remains when they pass nearby, be it in the forest or the flea market.

You are what you eat. Sympathetic magic takes this common phrase to a deeper level. To acquire the keen hearing, quick reflexes, and agility of a deer, one would eat venison. To acquire keen eyesight or the ability to fly like a bird, crossing between the other worlds, one would eat poultry. Our ancestor believed to eat a thing is to absorb its powers, spirit, and knowledge into yourself to making you more powerful or wise. To kill a thing is to take its spirit. Hunters of old would usually let the spirit go and return the bones of a fish to the river it was caught and the bones of a deer to the forest of its death as a sign of respect so the creature could be reborn again and eaten again.

Not every animal was let go. Some animals were hunted solely for their spirits: for their hides, their bones, for their claws and teeth, for their power, and for their help as an ally, totem, or familiar. Such spirits are asked to willingly offer themselves and stay with you until it is your turn to die. Our ancestors asked permission, not merely of the animal spirits themselves, but of the ruling genius loci, before they hunted or harvested as is evidenced in the hunter’s invocations in the Kalevala, ancient Latin spells petitioning Artemis, and oral Scottish tales of disrespectful hunters being found dead, killed by a wild shape-shifting crone.

When you bring home any part of an animal with the intention of enlivening it as a fetiche, keep in mind that like any living creature you would have be your pet, you must also be responsible for any spirit you take home – you must accept its wildness and instincts, sate its hunger and thirst, clean it when it becomes soiled, and give it of your love, your energy and your time. The respect, reverence, and care you give a familiar spirit and the fetiche it inhabits is what you will gain in return.

Each part of an animal can be used as a fetiche, a spirit house, a ritual tool, and as a spell ingredient. As a bone collector I save the bones, but as a witch I save the blood, eyes, fats, feet, hearts, skins, teeth, and tongues as well.

He layeth corpses at my feet;
not dead slain by warrior’s hand
or creatures fit to eat,
but brings me tongue and heart,
skull and bone, tooth and eye
– all to work my grisly witch’s art.

Owl Skull

BONES

Fresh bones wet and greasy with fat and blood, smooth white bones stained with earth, dry rough bones eroded by wind and water… no matter their condition the bones and skulls of a dead animal connect us directly with the creature’s spirit and the spirits of all their kind, living and dead. Collect the bones and skulls of animal familiars to ease communion and interaction with them. Gather the bones of animals each from the realms of land, sea, and sky if you wish to better transverse between the worlds and shift between shapes. Become an osteomancer by throwing the bones to divine secrets, foreknowledge, and the keys to your questions. Carve and paint the bones with runes and sigils. Become a charmer and wear a baculum for fertility, virility, sexual prowess, and protection.

The empty eye sockets of skulls watch and guard, apotropaic and undead they never tire of their duty. Hang the skulls of sharp-toothed predators over garden gates and chicken coops to keep out unwanted beasts. Hang them over your own door to keep out unwanted spirits and energies and let them be your fanged bouncers, your hunting hounds. Hang the skulls of horned beasts above a stable, outbuilding, or gate for protection and also to ensure the health and fertility of any livestock or wild game on your land.

The skull is where awareness and the senses dwell. Skulls are the most suited part of a skeleton for a spirit house. Magically cleanse your skull in a ceremony and ask if its spirit wants to continue to dwell in it or if another beast of its kind wishes to volunteer. I prefer the spirit the skull once housed as the connection between the two is much stronger. Consecrate the skull to its purpose as spirit vessel and a tie for that spirit to our middle world. To summon and work with the spirit you can chant:

Black is the colour of womb and tomb;
we meet at night on the dark of the moon.
White is the colour of bone and ash;
to speak to the dead we bathe and fast.
Red is the colour of blood and death;
we rub the bones and give them breath.

Clean the fetiche and leave its spirit offerings on a regular basis for the rest of your life until you pass it on to another or you die. If you must, you can desecrate a spirit vessel in ceremony and release the spirit from the bone.

BLOOD

Blood is a sacrifice that feeds the hungry spirits and the insatiable earth. Blood ties us to life and death for we are born in blood and we die when our blood flows through the earth instead of our veins. Blood is holy water, life force, heat, and metal. The spirit dwells in the blood and when you drink of it you are possessed by it, bound to it, and it to you. The earth hungers for blood; the ancient battlefields long to be soaked in red, the mountains cry out for human sacrifice, and the herb garden hungers for dead crows. How they flourish when painted red, how green and juicy the plants grow when fed off of the blood of mortals and beasts alike. The whole of nature feeds off of death and decay. Leave out offerings of blood or raw meat to the genius loci, to the plants, to the black earth, and see how greedily the spirits claw and bite and devour it. The hungry earth is the easiest way to clean bones. Bone collectors learn to feed their gardens the unwanted flesh of their work so only pure osseous matter is left.

Blood will tie you to living beasts, it will cleanse you like holy water, protect you like an amulet, and lend you increased power and life force for your ceremonies. Blood can heal – trading a life for a life, sickliness for health. Blood can bring you closer to death and your ancestors. Blood can curse too; spilled and spat upon, a life taken in an enemy’s name.

“Fee fi fo fum, I smell the blood of a Christian man,” says the giant. “I smell Russian blood,” says Baba Yaga. The spirits can smell our blood and by it know that we are human. They will want to drink your blood like the hungry earth for not all spirits are amicable towards us mortals. Animal blood will distract them from your scent and feed their hunger… for the moment. Blood spilled on feather down seems to be a favourite. Is it not why we bathe in cold spring waters, rub and smudge ourselves with fragrant herbs, and adorn ourselves in animal hides? We disguise ourselves as forest creatures to safely travel in and out of the territories of dangerous spirits..

CLAWS AND FEET

Claws click, dig, and bite deep, shedding blood. Sharp claws and talons have long been worn as protective amulets – wear them about your neck to prevent attacks from the familiar spirits of other magicians and to chase away the evil eye like an owl hunts down a mouse with its eyes upon a corn field. In a trance straddling the worlds shamans use a sharp-clawed bird foot to tear illnesses or elf darts out of a patient’s body, to chase away the evil eye, to shield and protect, or to send forth biting curses to rend apart a rival or enemy. Keep the feet, toes, and nails to walk in a beast’s footsteps and wear them about your neck for rites of shape-shifting.

Arthritic Crow Foot

EYES

Save the eyes to see the unseen, to have visions, and dream dreams. Preserve them and keep them to see like the animal and better shift your shape into feather, fur, or silver skin. Eyes to spy: wear them around your neck or place them under you head to see through the eyes of their living kind far away.

Eyes to send the evil eye. Eyes to bind and blind. Eyes to stab and curse. An eye to repel the evil eye. Add to a protection talisman to carry or hide in your car or home. Eyes to watch and warn of dangers. Hang over your door for the worries of this world and place on your altar for dangers from the otherworld. Eyes as offerings to seer spirits and deities of the divinatory arts. Burn them and bury them, the eyes to see the future.

FAT

Creamy, luscious, succulent fat – it makes such a good and pleasing offering to the gods and spirits. The rendered fats of beasts can be transformed via alchemy into flying ointments, tallow candles, protective ritual grease paints, and potent medicines. Hallucinogenic plant poisons insidiously infuse more thoroughly into animal fats and into your bloodstream than through a vegetable medium. My ointment of bear fat and henbane seed serves me well in my rites of shape-shifting and seership. When I use it I anoint my bear skull as well as myself. I do the same for my crow and owl skulls with my ointment of bird fats infused with feather ashes, the dust of bird bones, solanceae and artemisias – it aids me in spirit flight and travelling through the worlds in the form of a bird.

Burn down a tallow candle of bear to invoke its spirit or to give offering to a deity or nature spirit whom bear is sacred to. Fat is the food of the gods; burn the fat of pig, goat, deer, bear, cow, and bird as a grand offering. Bury it raw in the woods for the spirits of the wild. Rub fat on a statue to feed its inhabiting spirit.

Mix rendered fats with potent magical herbs, charcoals, and natural pigments to create grease paints to protect your body and soul for your rites of spirit work – especially those of possession and shape-shifting. Rub sacred fats into your untreated wooden ritual tools to feed them, darken them, and strengthen them.

FEATHERS

Feathers lend us wings to fly out of body and between the worlds, tucked in the hair or stitched onto the collars and sleeves of cloaks. Feathers connect us to the world of the spirits and can deliver messages between them. Feathers tied to staffs, stangs, wands, ritual pipes, drums, and rattles used in spirit work. Feathers to slice and cut or feathers to caress and heal. Feathers hung for protection when travelling and feathers tucked under the mattress to receive true dreams. Wings to sweep away what doesn’t suit us and wings cleanse our bodies and souls. Wings wash away emotions and parasitic spirits like a fierce wind. Smudge with a tail fan to help redirect energies so things flow smoothly once more.

Rook and Crow Fetish

HEARTS

The heart is one of the seats of the soul. A poet would say a soul is not free from the body until the heart rots, eaten by the earth. To keep a heart is to collect a soul and its power. To hide one’s heart like a sorcerer in an ancient tale is to cheat death. To wrap a poultice around a heart is to heal a heart that still beats. To stab a heart is to tear into a soul and let darkness in.

Bake a heart into a salt dough poppet. It is your choice whether the dough contains healing or baneful herbs and whether you cover it in healing poultices or stab it with ill intent. Give a heart the name of your enemy and feed it to your pet or eat it yourself to gain power over them. Prick a fresh heart with pins, needles, or thorns to curse another or to reverse a curse laid upon you. Burn a heart on a fire or bury it in a pit as an offering to your gods or spirits whose currency is souls. Hearts can be dried and saved for later use like any herb in an apothecary. Reanimate a dried heart with red wine and red ochre until it is swollen and bloody once more.

HIDES

Our ancestors wrapped themselves in fur hides to bring on prophetic dreams, to shape-shift into an animal, to journey into the other world, and to call upon their familiar spirits for their power and aid. Bear hides for dreaming, deer hides for transvection, wolf hides for hunting and battle, and seal hides for navigating the mysterious ocean. Furs are tools of magic and can be used as altar cloths, ritual costumes, and sacred blankets.
The rawhide of beasts is the body of our ritual drums and our rattles. We transform skin into musical instruments so the spirits will hear the song of their own flesh and come to us in our time of need. Any creature with skin can become a drum. The hide of each beast sings a different song in a different tune: deer and elk are high and resonant, bear is a deep and thundering roar, and cow and buffalo are soft and deep like their dark liquid eyes.

Save the leather for ritual costumes, for binding your book of arte, and for the crafting of amulets, fetiches, and sacred medicine bundles. Save the skin of a bird to craft from it a crane bag where you will store all your tools, fetiches, and talismans you wish to take with you into other worlds and other forms.

TEETH

Teeth to bite and gnaw and scare. Teeth to devour curses, attacking spirits, and meddlesome folk. Teeth to chew and spit back out. Teeth to warn an unruly cub and teeth to put a trickster back in line. Teeth to rip and rend and bloody an enemy. Teeth to give bite to those who lack it and need it. My what big teeth you have, bigger than mine, predator to my prey. A fool stands against one armed to the teeth, but a wiser beast runs away. A tooth carved with a sigil and sung with a rune, carried to protect one from harm. A tooth dipped in venomous herbs to energetically stab and dig in like a serpent’s fang – the tooth of a bear, lion, whale, shark, or wolf.

Fox and Bat skulls

TONGUES

Tongues to speak benevolence or malevolence, tongues to bind or cut out, tongues to sweeten others to your cause or to ruin another’s. Are there tongues in the crane bag on your altar that you may speak and understand the languages of beasts of land and sea and sky? Do you possess tongues to exchange for your own in the otherworld so the animal spirits will understand you when you speak? I collect the tongues of birds, messengers between the worlds and ferriers of souls, that my own tongue may speak prophecy and knowledge from the other side and that the spirits may hear me when I call out.

CONCLUSION

I offer this knowledge to those students of the mysteries who truly wish to deepen their relationship with the animal world. Animals have a lot to teach us about magic and wisdom. Long have they been viewed by the human race as guardians, protectors, and teachers proficient in magic, shape-shifting, and communication with the supernatural world. Animals are our familiars, our messengers and intermediaries, our dream companions, our omens, the skulls and feathers on our altars, the skin of our drums and rattles, the antler and bone of our tool handles, the tooth and claw of our fetishes, the tallow in our candles, and the leather of our crane bags. They are furred and feathered gods in the trees, on our dinner plates, and in our homes deserving of our respect, reverence, and a change in our attitudes towards them.

Further Reading:


RESOURCES

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1992. Princeton University Press.

Ellis Davidson, Hilda. Roles of the Northern Goddess. 1998. Routledge.

Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. 2006. Grey House in the Woods.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts: Ancient Images of the Goddess and Her Sacred Animals. 1990. HarperCollins.

McIntyre Jorgensen, Grace Miri. A Comparative Examination of Northwest Coast Shamanism. 1970. University of British Columbia Department of Anthropology and Sociology.

Healing Through Spiritual Cleansing

Healing Through Spiritual Cleansing

By | Folk Magic, Folk Medicine | 10 Comments

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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

italk 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.

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feetTo 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.

water-4When 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”.

watersSpiritual 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.

smoke-1The 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.

smoke-2The 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.

legsSpiritual 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.

waters-2Sometimes, 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.

altar-2Whatever 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.

Further Reading: