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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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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.

Catching and Binding Spirits

Catching and Binding Spirits

By | Spirit Work, Witchcraft & Magic | 14 Comments

Rowan and Red Thread crosses

“Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey, come ye and come ye, come ye that may! Around and around, throughout and about, the good come in and the ill keep out.”

~ Doreen Valiente (based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

t2here are many ways to catch a spirit and many different styles of traps to do it with. What is a spirit trap? It is a device used to trick a spirit into ensnaring itself much like a mouse trap baited with cheese or peanut butter. The idea behind a basic spirit trap is fascination. The trap is meant to distract the spirit from its mischievous or malevolent purpose by tempting them with something they cannot resist.

In the folklore of many cultures, it is believed spirits cannot resist or are compelled to follow a thread from one end to the other with some believing that spirits have to travel in a straight line. This belief results in spirit traps intricately woven with colourful thread such as the ojos de dios or “God’s eyes” of Central America, the elaborate ghost and demon traps of Tibet incorporating ram skulls, the cross charms of Rowan and red thread from Scotland, the spirit traps mimicking spider webs used by hunters in some regions of Africa, and even the dream catchers of North America (before they became items to sell to tourists). The most common colours used are red, blue, and yellow as they each have a very long history of being used for protection across cultural boundaries. The creation of them can be a highly meditative and spiritual act with the intent being protection and blessing –especially when they are made for children. A main rule of such spirit traps is there must be no knots in the thread. These traps are hung on the roof of a house, in trees, or over the bed. The spirit is extracted from the thread by burning it, putting it in a place where the sun’s rays will touch it to symbolically burn away the spirit, or by carefully removing the thread and placing it in a well-sealed bottle, jar, or box which is then either burned, buried, or hidden somewhere safe.

Ghost Protection CharmSome spirit traps are made from hollowed out wood, usually two matching pieces that are placed together (or a box), sealed with wax or resin, and then bound with string or a leather cord like the shamans’ spirit trap of Burma/Myanmar. The bottle trees or “haint” trees of the American South were originally spirit traps based on the belief that the spirit, much like a wasp, could not resist going into the bottle but would not be able to come out again. Blue bottles are the most commonly used which makes sense as blue has been a powerful colour of protection for millennia. Some people place items in the bottles to lure spirits – binding herbs, string or thorns for them to become entangled in, or seeds for them to get distracted counting (in folklore witches and spirits are compelled to count seeds, beans, or grains when laid before them). Bottle spirit traps are believed to have their origins from slaves who came from Northern Africa and the Middle East where blue is a prevalent sacred colour. Bottle trees or bottle spirit traps can be found in Europe as well.

Tsimshian soul catcher, 1879

Tsimshian soul catcher, 1879

Some Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest once used carved hollow bones called “soul catchers” to trap spirits by sucking them into the bone and then sealing the two ends with moss or lichen. These, however, were mainly used to trap human souls stolen by supernatural spirits so they could be returned to their owners in healing ceremonies. The medicine man or woman would blow the soul into the ailing person’s mouth to put it back in their body. Some were made of wood, but bone seems to have been much more common. I am quite enamoured with the idea of using a hollow bone due to a similar tool found in Scotland, but there it is used for cursing by pouring the blood of a sacrificed animal through it (not really the same, but cool).

Another spirit trap is the well known witch bottle of Europe which is used as a decoy and a spiritual alarm system on top of catching spirits. A witch bottle is first filled with the decoy which can be a combination of hair, nail clippings, blood, saliva, or urine. This fools a spirit into thinking it has found its target (you). Then nails and/or bent pins are added to bind the spirit and keep it in the bottle. Lastly, broken glass or broken mirror pieces are added for protection, to reflect away the evil intent. Then the bottle is corked, sealed, and buried under the front step of one’s house. If you live in an apartment it can be hidden in a wall or a forgotten cupboard, or buried in the soil of a potted plant. It is better for the witch bottle to be outside though to keep the spirit from crossing your threshold. If the bottle breaks, it means it has worked, and caught a spirit with the intent of harming the maker. It should then be burned, the ashes buried or released into running water, and then replaced with a new one. Witch bottles were not originally made by witches, but were used by ordinary people to protect from a witch’s magical attack. The spirit caught is often a witch’s familiar.

If you are using a spirit trap not just for protection but to capture a specific spirit or soul, the trap must be consecrated to that purpose and used in a ritual with that intent. If your intent is bind and keep a spirit it must be transferred from the trap to a spirit vessel. If it is a thread trap the thread must carefully be unwoven and placed into a jar, bottle, box, poppet, stone, or skull. If it is inside a bottle, bone, or wood trap it can be sucked out of the trap and blown into the intended spirit vessel. Once in a vessel, a ritual is performed to consecrate the vessel to bind the spirit to it (a basic, customizable consecration ritual for objects is a must have in your magician’s bag of tricks). The spirit vessel can then be well sealed with wax and bound with more thread or covered in sigils or symbols of binding and protection.

Once, I turned an entire hallway into one big spirit trap. It was the entry to my apartment with every doorway coming off of it. I put a mirror on each end along with protective amulets and woven spirit traps above each door. I knew it was time to empty the trap when the talismans or the pictures on the walls fell. Or if the trapped spirits decided to slam someone around in the hallway. The same oak picture frame fell and was broken half a dozen times due to this and scared my friends. I learned if you’re going to turn a hallway or a mudroom into a spirit trap, don’t hang anything of value in the space and clean it more regularly than you think you need to.

Spirit traps hanging from a hazel treeThis practice is often a last ditch effort to get rid of a troublesome spirit for which banishing did not work or for a spirit that is too powerful to handle and too nasty to leave running free. If it is a malignant spirit it is usually buried by running water or a crossroad where it won’t be disturbed. If the spirit vessel is to be buried, it should only ever be done with a container that won’t decay easily or quickly. Glass and ceramic are best, then metal. Wood is not a good idea. If the vessel decays or is destroyed or broken, the spirit is set free. Sometimes bound spirits are kept safe by the magician who trapped it, who don’t trust nature or other people and want to keep a close eye on it. If you are going to keep a particularly nasty spirit I recommend some seriously potent sigils and a ring of salt around the vessel wherever you store it. There have been many instances of family and students going through a dead magician’s house and finding bound boxes and bottles sealed with wax and string – never open them! They should be left as they are and given to another magician to look after or to properly dispose of it they have the knowledge and skill to do so.

Rowan berries, rowan cross, bird foot, and blackthornsAs with most magical practices, trapping and binding spirits is neither good nor evil. It is dependent upon the intent of the magician. They can be used as a preventive measure, as protection, or for healing in the case of PNW medicine men. It can also be dark magic used to bind spirits to steal their collective power to add to one’s own. Other times a dark sorcerer will use this magic to steal and bind the souls of their human enemies to both steal their power and stop the enemies from working against them. There are a very large number of folk tales all over the world where a hero defeats an evil sorcerer or spirit and sets free all the souls they have trapped over years, decades, centuries, or even millennia. If this theme sounds familiar it is because this has carried forward today into horror movies and fantasy TV shows.

Any time you desire to bind a spirit make sure it is the right decision over banishing as if it ever manages to get free you are the first person the evil spirit will attack afterward. Good intent is not enough for this to work. You have to have knowledge, skill, and experience behind it to be certain it is done properly. If you cannot see spirits or tell they are in your traps, it is also unlikely to work. Always think carefully before trapping and binding a spirit and, if you yourself are not an advanced practitioner, it is recommended to have one present when doing so in case anything goes wrong.

If you are new to this, I recommended starting with a witch bottle, rowan cross, or a god’s eye style spirit trap as they can simply be burned. As you burn the thread or the trap, you can ask your familiar spirits or a deity to carry the spirit away back to where it belongs. I also like to burn a purification incense afterward like pine or frankincense resins mixed with cedar or juniper tips. As a maker of rowan crosses and god’s eyes I’ve found they simply and mysteriously start to fall apart when they’ve been overburdened trapping spirits. If your protective trap falls down or breaks, it is time to burn it and make a new one. I recommend checking your traps every dark moon. If they are full, it is the perfect time to get rid of the spirits.


Text and images © 2015 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.

crow-claws

Banishing, Depossessing, and Devouring

By | Spirit Work, Witchcraft & Magic | 16 Comments

"The Witch of Endor" by Kunz Meyer-Waldeck, 1902

“Raise no more devils than you can lay down.” – German Proverb

Let us be honest. There are endless ways, spells, and rituals to summon spirits, gods, and demons but when it comes to safeguards or banishing one when things go sour, our collective knowledge as modern witches and pagans is quite lacking. What do you do when a haunting, an escaped spirit, or a possession is out of your ability to handle? When so many of us barely believe any of this is real, it leaves us poorly equipped to help ourselves let alone other people when something wicked this way comes.

Let’s get serious. Let’s assume the supernatural is natural, real, palpable. Let’s admit to ourselves that most spirits, aside from our familiars, do not have our best interest in mind and the intent of most is to deceive or harm us. You’d better believe I’m including deities in there too. “Yes puny human, give me all the offerings and do my bidding without question.” Not such a good idea. You read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, didn’t you? No? Time to head to the library. Pick up some Russian and German fairy tales while you’re there too – they’ll help.

If you are summoning anything, whether it be a god, a spirit, or a shade, do so within protected space. This includes ouija boards. It is the true point of our magic circles, to make sure that when we open the door between worlds, nothing escapes into our world that does not belong there. That nothing comes through the door without being invited. Cast a “real” circle. Make it tight, make it true. Have a weapon on hand whether it is a steel knife or a rowan staff. Have banishing herbs or incense on hand and ready to use (rosemary and salt from the kitchen will do in a pinch). Have offerings at the ready, but never feed a spirit before you first confirm its true identity, for offerings give spirits power –power to hurt you and power to escape. Make sure all you may need is inside your sacred space before you cast the circle.

Keep Out – Only Humans Allowed

Have a closed door policy when it comes to spirits. Nothing comes in or out of your home without your say so. Is the Night Hag bothering you? Is a spirit torturing you in your dreams? Is a pervy ghost spying on you in the shower? Lock them out. Burn a banishing herb or incense first and walk counter clockwise around your entire house getting every nook and cranny, every shelf and closet. Shout: “get out unwanted spirits, you are not welcome here, get out, get out, GET OUT!”

Make some holy water and sprinkle it on every “entry” to your home. This includes mirrors, faucets, drains, laundry vents, bathroom fans, windows, doors, stove hoods… get it all. Dip your finger in the holy water and mark your windows and doors with an equal armed cross. Consecrate everything you have touched with the water as locked. State out loud, loudly and with confidence, that all the entryways are sealed and that nothing may come through without your express permission. If you have any boundaries you would like to set with the spirits or even your familiar spirits, state them now. Think long and hard on them and word them VERY carefully before you speak them.

Make yourself a charm to hang in the house that acts as the lock. This can be an old key strung to a holey stone, a red charm bag with st. john’s wort and rowan in it, protective runes or symbols over your front door, a carved Icelandic runestave nailed over the door, and so on. There are endless ideas for apotropaic devices from history. It is the consecration of the item for its purpose that gives it power. Consecrate it on your altar. Sprinkle it with holy water to cleanse it, cover it with a dark cloth to mimic a womb, lift the cloth and birth it into its new life by naming it to its sole purpose. Anoint it with oil. It is done. Hang it or hide it. Five minutes of magical work for a year or more of protection is more than worth it. Resetting your wards at least once or twice a year is recommended.

Ask For Help From Someone Bigger Than You

Start with common sense. As the proverb says, do not summon anything if you do not first have the knowledge and ability to cast it out, send it home, or trap it. This includes deities, but you won’t have much luck trying to banish them or trap them. They are too old, too big and too powerful for you. Don’t get cocky. They’ll just laugh at you while they suck on the bones of your corpse. However, the deity who acts as bouncer to the realm of the gods can give them a boot back through the door to where they belong and keep them there. Every pantheon usually has one. I call them gatekeepers. If you are going to practice spirit work the first thing you should do is make friends with one, preferably one from the cultural context you already practice within. Some of them include Papa Legba, Hekate, Hermes, and Heimdal. They are usually tricksters themselves; no one’s getting by them. They are also usually the ones other gods are scared of or defer to. And using their names to threaten spirits with often works better than just shouting unpleasantries and waving garlic around. “Baba Yaga’s going to eat you!” sounds so much scarier than “I’m going to burn this incense if you don’t leave.”

Gatekeepers can also do your dirty work for you and send back troublesome spirits to where they belong. They can aid in depossession if a benevolent deity or ancestor won’t leave a ritualist’s body. They can also make sure you summon the correct spirit and send the right one through and then back again.  Gatekeepers don’t fuck up, we do by using the wrong words in our invocations. Be incredibly specific. Choose a gatekeeper to the right realm. If it is a spirit of the dead, call upon one who guards the entrance of the underworld. Is it an unseelie nature spirit? Call upon the King or Queen of Fairy. You will need to drag the spirit to their door and you will need to pay them handsomely for their services. Each one has their own preferences, you will need to do the research if you are going to build a relationship with a cosmic bouncer.

Summon the gatekeeper, out loud with a strong voice. Give them an offering. Ask them to open the door between worlds. Ask them to take the spirit or other being back to where it belongs and shut the door locked behind them. Leave them another offering and clearly state your thanks for their help. Clearly say your farewell after so they know you no longer need them.

"An Incantation" by John Hamilton Mortimer, 1773

Hold Your Own (aka Stab and Devour)

There will be occasions when a unwanted spirit is “small” enough for you to handle. These you can banish, bind, trap, enslave, or eat. Yes eat. Bigger spirits do it, why not you? Just grab it tight and shove it in your mouth and swallow. Mmm souls are delicious. Not only have you dealt with it, but you’ve absorbed its power as well. Eat a few spirits and it becomes more likely you’ll get left alone when traversing the otherworld, like a man who has shanked a few fellow prisoners and now eats his lunch in peace. Sure, you could bind and enslave those spirits harassing you to do your bidding, but if they ever got free they’d call for backup and gleefully play with your intestines. It’s always better to have willing and happy familiar spirits.

There may be a time when you need to kill a spirit. Yes kill. You can indeed kill something noncorporeal. How? Fairy and folk tales are rife with instructions. If it is too big for you to eat or banish and you are in its own realm rendering a gatekeeper useless, you can try to destroy a spirit. You must find the source of its power –often the trapped souls of its victims or their “heart” (read that as “soul”) hidden somewhere you must find and destroy. What, you thought J.K. Rowling made up the idea of a horcrux? No, she got it from old European folk tales of evil sorcerers and heartless giants. Get your familiars to help you find the evil spirit’s secret stash and destroy it with your magic and your tools. Yes, you can bring your knives, wands, staffs, etc with you to the otherworld –attach them to your body, hold on to them, or put them by you.

Basic Banishing Steps for Hauntings or Possession

To prevent involuntary possession be very specific in your evocations making sure you are requesting the presence of a deity or spirit and not to be ridden by them. In ritual, be very exacting about who you are calling. The ancient Celts and Norse would give a deity or ancestor’s entire lineage using very specific names and titles for them in their evocations. Also, do not attend or perform a ritual where there will be invocations or evocations when you are ill, drunk, high, or emotionally exhausted unless you have taken precautions to protect yourself from possession.

Some precautions one can take from the lore of cultures worldwide include wearing multicoloured clothing consisting of seven colours or more, wearing mirrors sewn into clothing, dusting your bare skin with powdered white eggshell, carry a rowan cross in your pocket or wear a string of the berries around your neck, wear bold red clothing, or wear an amulet consecrated to protect you from possession. If you are someone who frequents graveyards, make yourself a spray or a hand rub you can apply as soon as you leave the gates so no ghosts try to follow you home. Lazy? Just buy some lavender water or Florida water.

Find a banishing or exorcism incantation that works for you. One you like and, more importantly, one you will actually use. If you feel silly saying it, it’s not going to work. You need to come off as confident and scary as fuck. Look in Aradia, in Mastering Witchcraft, in the Carmina Gadelica, or in grimoires old and new. Look through your book collection and those of your occulty friends.

To extract or exorcise a spirit unwilling to leave a person, place, or object different steps may be taken. If incantations, exorcising incenses, or a purification baths do not work then attempt to extract the spirit in the following order:

  • Ask the spirit to leave, tell it that it is time to go and remove itself from the person/object/place. If it refuses move on to the second step.
  • With utmost confidence, threaten the spirit with exorcism and banishment and throw around a scary deity’s name or two. If they still refuse to leave move on to the next step.
  • Make good on your threat and attempt to exorcise the spirit by repeating an incantation firmly and willfully over and over until they leave. If this is not enough also cleanse the person/object/place with holy water, salt, and/or herbs, or fumigate them by burning exorcism herbs or incense while continuing to recite the incantation. Once the spirit has left, do not forget to banish it so it doesn’t return to the person/object/place once you’ve left. This is the mistake many exorcists make.
  • Banish the spirit. Banishing is the act of sending spirits back though the gate to the underworld and then closing it behind them – do so with force and strength of will. If you do not know how or do not have the ability ask a gatekeeper of the underworld to do so.
  • If you are unable to banish the spirit you can resort to trapping and binding it – but always keep in mind this is an absolute last resort. Always try banishing first, but if it keeps returning after and causing harm, then it’s time for trapping and binding it.

Okay, now you’re thinking “but how do I trap and bind spirits?” Good thing you asked, the next blog article will be all about spirit traps. How to make them, use them, and destroy them properly. Stay tuned. Same witch-time, same witch-channel.


Text and images © 2015 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use without the express permission of the author, but sharing the link is very welcome.

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The Girl Who Found a Feather

By | Animism, Bones & Blood, Charms and Talismans, Spirit Work, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 8 Comments

A Journey into the Magic of Birds and Feathers

Originally published in issue 25 of Witches & Pagans Magazine, September 2012.

The story of Raven stealing the sun was always my favourite as a child. The idea of that great black bird creating humans and stealing fire and light for us humans made perfect sense to my little head stuck in a book of Native folktales from the Pacific Northwest. There’s no proof, but I would highly suspect my early love of fairy and folk tales may be what led to me becoming an animist, worshipping nature and all its creatures with awe and wonder. That and my earthy backwoods parents who like to live away from cities and talk to plants and animals I’m sure.  Along with folktales, I fell in love with birds at a young age and quickly claimed my mother’s field guide to North American birds as my own. I remember memorizing their names and the colours and patterns of their feathers. I loved to watch them from my window and out in nature and listen to all their songs from the beautiful ones of robins to the cacophonous croaking of crows and ravens.

Birds are deeply magical creatures. They are reptiles who, instead of dying with the rest of the long-dead dinosaurs, transformed themselves by growing feathers, taking flight, and surviving to become an entirely new creature made of air itself with their feathers, hollow bones, and reversed lungs. Feathers are essentially the fur or hair of reptiles, reptiles who have been around millions of years longer than we humans with their sharp, ancient, reptilian brains which we are only just beginning to comprehend the intricacy and intelligence of today (although I think our ancestors knew better). There’s very ancient and powerful spirits flying above our heads in the form of these winged creatures of the sky. In some Pagan pantheons it can be difficult to separate a god from an animal such as Bran and Raven, Perun and Eagle, Thoth and Ibis. I like to think the worship of gods may have started out as animal worship and over time our wild shape-shifting animal deities evolved to be more human in appearance as we left the wilds and animism behind for cities and agriculture. If such a thing were true than birds would be the oldest of our ancestor’s gods.

The Feather Bearer by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Feather Collector

I don’t dare admit the size of my feather collection as it has become a large beast of all colours, stripes, and spots with long flight feathers, soft breast feathers, and beautiful wings. It all started innocently enough with a large feather I had found in the wilds of the North while hunting along riverbanks for bones and stones as a child. I didn’t know anything of feathers’ history of sacred use, but I knew they were special and treated feathers I found with much care over many moves across province and country collecting more along the way. It seems I am always collecting feathers; feathers of light, feathers of dark, feathers of song, feathers to carry prayers, feathers to banish, feathers to bless and heal, and feathers to fly between all three realms of earth, sea, and sky. Some feathers I found along my walks in the wild forests of impossible tall cedars and hemlocks along the Pacific Northwest coast; little hints of movement and colour against brown earth and dead leaves turning out to be feathers of tail, wing, or down shed from the many different birds haunting the woods. Other feathers and wings I sought myself from hunters and taxidermists.

The majority of my feathers came to me as gifts for, you see, once you tell people you collect feathers they tell everyone they know and suddenly feathers are slipped into cards for you or handed to you in bundles – the proud collectors beaming with smiles and saying “I found these for you”. My mother, who lives on an 83 acre homestead, sends me feathers from her chickens, from ducks that swim in the marsh, from wild turkeys and grouse in the forest, and from the birds that come daily to devour seed and suet at her bird feeders. My sister sends me feathers from her African Grey parrot tucked in birthday cards and now are tucked in one of my hats. My Pagan friends, who also collect feathers, trade and gift feathers and wings to me. People started requesting specific feathers from me for use in their own spiritual practices – which I usually just happened to have. Soon, what started as an innocent collection turned into a role and, before I knew it, I had become the feather collector.

The Bone Collector

Of course it’s only natural for people finding feathers for you to escalate into people calling you to say they found a dead bird and do you want it and if not what they should do with it. Shortly after this you end up as the very eccentric witch whose freezer becomes a temporary morgue for panicking dead-bird-finding members of your local Pagan community. I was already looking quite strange enough leaving chicken guts on my roof for the crows of my neighbourhood alongside the usual feeders of sunflower seeds and beef suet. Without looking or intending too, I started to find dead birds as well – apparently the gods and spirits heard I was collecting feathers and wanted to give me more of a challenge to see what I would do. When life gives you lemons, or dead birds, you make something of it. I decided I would honour these sacred creatures, who I had held in awe as powerful spirits for so long, and do right by them. I became a bone collector: not one who kills things for bones, but one who collects the bones of creatures already dead (whether naturally or killed by another animal or a vehicle), and reverences them through burial or the crafting of sacred ritual tools. I had lived on a farm and was used to burying animals who didn’t make it and I had grown up in the North with fishing and hunting. I was a cook for many years and trained in butchery and preservation. I made the possibly controversial decision to delve into death work and taxidermy as part of my spiritual practice.

Owl Fetish by Sarah Anne Lawless

The birds that had been dead too long and were a danger to health were reverentially buried whole in the woods or in planters if their bones would be kept and cleaned.  Protected and threatened species were also buried whole to return to the wild forest they belong to; their bones left alone to turn to dust  and then to forest earth. Birds that had been dead only a day or two I processed like I would a chicken or turkey on the farm after first being frozen to kill any mites and other pests. After performing a ritual of release of the soul and smudging the little creatures with smoke, wearing gloves, a mask, and an apron, I kept the wings, tail fans, and some feathers from the body and put them between layers of borax, cornmeal, salt, or a mixture thereof to dry. If the skull wasn’t damaged I buried it with the rest of the body, in a ritual with offerings of the bird’s preferred foods, to be dug up months later for the bones which would then be whitened and sterilized in hydrogen peroxide for a couple of days before they were ready for ceremonial use. I met other collectors of bones and feathers and together we shared our rites and different practices of cleaning, preservation, and crafting. I felt a little less creepy and eccentric knowing there were others out there with a love and passion for birds who had also become bone collectors and ritual tool makers thanks to what was at first an innocent collection of feathers. Spending time with them was, and still is, dear to me and working together we found more birds and I amassed even more feathers.

The Ritual Tool Maker

What was I to do with all these feathers I had collected from childhood into adulthood? Some of you may be asking that very same question about your own feathers. Ever the practical witch, I knew I had to discover their sacred uses, their magico-religious history, and put them to work – for it is in the doing and the practice of magical things that I truly learn my art. I read every book and article I could get my hands on about ancient and modern ritual tools and ritual costumes. I looked at endless images of the sacred art of Animistic and Pagan cultures. And I found feathers everywhere: feathers buried as offerings to gods and spirits by the Native tribes where I live and by my ancestors across the pond in Scotland; feathers painted onto frame drums and cave walls; ancient art and sculptures of winged supernatural beings called psychopomps; feathers stitched onto the ritual robes, headdresses, and masks of shamans from the British Isles across to the Far East and from the Pacific Northwest down to the jungles of South America; feathers tied to shamans’ staffs, wands, drum beaters, and ritual pipes; and feathers crafted into fetiches and charms like dream catchers, spirit traps, and the handspun witches’ ladder curses of English and Italian witches. Wherever I looked I saw that I was not alone in holding birds as sacred and having strong desires to incorporate their feathers into ceremonial tools to be used in my magic and ritual. I was only doing what every other animistic magician across cultures and times  had done: surrounded themselves with feathers.

I took up charm making and ritual tool making becoming a skilled carver of wood and bone. I hung feathers from spirit traps, rowan crosses, and other charms of protection. I tied feathers to wooden staffs and wands I carved from sacred woods which I had ritually harvested in the forest. I started crafting fetiches of bird skulls, bones, and feathers for other magicians to tie to their staffs and beloved ritual tools. I hung feathers from ritual masks or painstakingly covered their faces in layers of feathers. I designed smudge fans of feathers and wings attached to handles of bone and wood. Most importantly, I began using feathers as tools in my own magic and ritual.

The Feather

Wood and Wing Smudge Fan by Sarah Anne LawlessI use a feather in my ceremonies to invoke the element of air in place of the usual athame, sword, or wand. The long and razor-tipped flight feathers are the best-suited to be used in ritual in place of an athame or sword for casting a circle and cutting it down again as well as to protect from and banish spirits and to cut energy as with a ritual blade.  Along with the feather, I use earth collected from the forest to invoke the earth element, local spring or sea water to invoke the water element, and a candle flame for the fire element. I find having all the elements themselves present in ritual over symbols of them leads to powerful experiences full of spirits, especially when I perform rituals outdoors.

For a simple prayer, breathe on a feather to activate and charge it and then whisper your petition or blessing across its surface. Set the feather free into the wind to carry it to the spirits like you would blow the down of a dandelion wish into a breeze.

A traditional offering to nature spirits is the feather down of a bird covered with red ochre or a red juice like pomegranate or beet, to mimic the blood that would’ve once been used, and left in a shallow pit in the earth. It is also an excellent offering to ancestral spirits and underworld deities.

The Smudge Fan

The smudge fan can be just a simple but beautiful wing or feather up to an elaborate tool with a wood, leather, bone or stone handle and sometimes carvings or gemstones. They aren’t just used for fanning the smoke of incense and smudging herbs – wing or feather smudge fans can be used to cleanse and bless sacred space for ritual in place of sweeping with a besom. Feathers and smudge fans can be used to energetically cleanse and heal people by running feathers over their body to sweep away what needs to be released or by using the feathers to control the flow of smudge smoke around their body so it touches and fumigates every part of them and their spirit, not overlooking the soles of the feet. Smudging with feathers can also be used to cleanse objects (talismans, ritual tools, statuary, etc), altars, temple rooms, an entire house, an outdoor ritual space, and even your car to cleanse and purify to remove any past or present negative influences, and, of course, to chase away any evil spirits.

The Staff

Magician's Staff by Sarah Anne LawlessThe staff is a symbol of the World Tree the bridge or axis between the worlds found in man cultures’ mythologies. It is used to aid in travelling between worlds acting as a shaman or spirit-worker’s horse to the Otherworld granting them the ability to travel anywhere between the upper world, middle world, and underworld. Not a literal horse, but a horse as in a symbol of transportation, in this case to the spirit world. Think of the staff as having your own personal World Tree or, at least, a key to the real one. Feathers are tied to the staff to symbolize wings and flight – the spirit-worker’s soul taking flight and leaving the body. Birds and the air element rule travel and communication and the staff is used to aid in communion with the spirit world and for one’s soul to fly there. Feathers and bells also just happen to look gorgeous streaming from a wooden stave on leather or ribbons maybe with your main animal guide’s head carved at the top or a fetiche of a bird skull with feathers tied to it… but I digress. Hold on to your staff when you invoke your gods and spirits, when you pray, and when you wish to stand between worlds and see and hear spirits. Tap your staff on earth, stone, or water to open doors to the Otherworld.

The Headdress

The shamans of many animistic cultures wear headdresses of feathers to symbolize their mind’s connection to their soul, the higher level of awareness and intelligence that comes with it, the attainment of divine wisdom, and to aid in their communication with the supernatural beings of the spirit world (2). To mimic this practice tuck a feather in your hair when meditating at your altar, when invoking spirits and gods during ritual, and when travelling between worlds. If you have short hair or no hair, hold a feather to your forehead over your third eye after charging it with breath instead. Another option is to craft a bird mask with feathers to use in your rituals of spirit work and shape-shifting. Or, to kill two birds with one stone, you could make a hooded feathered cloak for yourself.

The Feather Cloak

In my chasing down of animistic ritual tools I found feathered ritual costumes are common in shamanism around the world. The feathers are sewn or tied to clothing still symbolizing the shaman’s connection to the spirit world and ability to travel there. There are ancient Irish legends describing the feathered cloaks of shaman-like magicians, layer upon layer of white and black feathers covering hood and shoulders, and their spotted bird masks which they together used to leave their bodies and shape-shift into birds to travel far distances quickly, to spy on their enemies, and to travel to the Otherworld (3). Make your own feathered cloak by sewing feathers onto a wool cloak or ritual robe.

The Witches’ Ladder

A witch’s ladder, or witches garland, is a fetiche charm from folk magic and examples of its use have been found in England and Italy by folklorists in the late 1800s (5). This charm is thought to be traditionally used for cursing, but can be applied to blessing and other spell work too. It’s name gives away its purpose which is to allow the intent of the witch’s spell to “climb” to the spirit world via the feathers so it may be heard and manifest in our world. The process of creating one involves spinning a thick cord with feathers twisted into it during the act of hand spinning on a drop spindle. If you have no idea how to hand spin it is a common practice today to braid a witch’s ladder instead. In your magical working you can use any colour of thread and feathers to correspond to the purpose of your spell, such as peacock feathers with blue wool to protect from the evil eye or black chicken feathers with black wool for a curse. To stop the charm’s effectiveness you must unravel your spinning or braiding or throw the charm into running water.

Witch's Ladder by Sarah Anne Lawless

The Dream Walker

Now that I had my feathered ritual tools and knowledge of the sacred meanings and uses of feathers, it was time to work with them.  For me magic and ritual are mainly an internal thing. I do most of both in the Otherworld so the most natural next step for me was dreams. I am a dreamer. I dream of messages and the future for myself and others. I also practice dream walking: using dreams as a bridge to travel between worlds when one is between the states of consciousness and unconsciousness.  I go dream walking to speak to spirits but also to shape-shift and to fly. Feathers aid in all these things; feathers hanging from the dream catchers over my bed and feathers tucked under my pillow. I started dreaming of birds and feathers, of finding impossible large and soft Raven feathers, of grooming a family of thrushes, and of being surrounded by a council of owls. One of my most memorable dreams was when three birds native to the forest where I lived visited me. The messengers came to me together and gave me of their feathers; the softest silence of Screech Owl feathers, the jewelled blackness of Crow feathers, and the camouflage cloak of Red-Tailed Hawk feathers.

Screech Owl left its feathers on the stone wall of a cave for me. Owl is the messenger of the underworld. Owl belongs to Old Woman as the White Bone Mother, guardian of the gate and crossroads of the underworld. Owl serves her as messenger of death and psychopomp for the spirits of the dead. Owl is silent as a ghost; revelling in the darkness of night and its mysteries. Owl brings messages from her mistress and from the dead. Owl helps you to travel to and from the underworld safely and its ability to see in the dark can light your way in the blackest depths.

Crow Stang by Sarah Anne LawlessCrow shed its feathers for me on the green grass beneath the trees. Crow is messenger of the middle world. Crow belongs to Old Woman as the trickster witch-hag lost in the ancient woods. Crows are creatures of the daytime and scavengers eating the leftovers of hunters and warriors. Crows are not of death and darkness (though they follow it closely for scraps), but are tricksters, humour, curiosity, family, and fellowship. Crows are reflections and shadows of we humans. They are territorial guardians and watchers for the other creatures of the earth warning of dangers, predators, bad weather, outsiders, bad luck, and misfortunes. This is where their bad reputation comes from, but they’re just trying to help. Crow is messenger of the creatures and spirits of the middle world; of the animals, plants, wights, and elemental forces all around us every day.

Red-Tailed Hawk dropped its feathers for me from high in the sunny blue sky and they slowly floated down to my feet. Hawk, flying ever so high, is messenger of the upperworld and of is deities and spirits. Hawk belongs to the Sun and Mercurial spirits. Hawks deliver messages pertaining to the bigger picture, ones that will affect your life and your spiritual path. When hawk brings you a message it is time to borrow its sharp all-seeing eyes and fly high enough with its strong wings to view a situation or path from above and understand the full picture – the past, present, and future. Other times Hawk delivers messages to and from the gods and spirits of the upperworld. Belonging to the upperworld doesn’t mean sweetness and light though; Hawk is a predator and a warrior after all.

All three messengers belong to the crossroad and World Tree. Winged mercurial beings are they. Now, thanks to this dream, when one of the three come to me with news of the three realms I will know what kind of message they bring and from where and whom it comes. Now when one of the three comes for me I will know for whence we ride.

When you dream of finding a feather, or of a bird gifting you of its feathers, it can mean many things: that you need that magic or medicine of that bird in your life right now (or alternately that you’ve mastered their particular medicine), that the bird is offering to be a spirit guide, or that the bird has a message for you from gods or spirits. When you have such dreams pay attention to what specific species of bird the feather is from, where you found the feather, and what you do, if anything, with the feather in your dream whether it be actions, rituals, or the crafting of magical tools. To receive messages in dreams from your spirits or to have prophetic dreams, put a bundle of your spirit guide’s feathers under you pillow or mattress at night when you go to sleep. The feathers of underworld and water birds are the most-suited to this for their connections to the subconscious and the emotions which are linked to the dream world.

The Psychopomp

The psychopomp is a bird shape-shifting magician who acts as a guide or transporter of the souls of the dead. In my magical work with birds I had become a psychopomp of their dead with my rites aiding in the release of their souls to their underworld journey by treating them with love and reverence in death and by using their feathers to aid in the underworld journey of other spirits.

Psychopomps are a very ancient idea found in many different mythologies as magicians and supernatural beings. In myths, folktales, and legends around the world birds most commonly enact the role of messenger between our world and the spirit world, mortals and deities, the living and the dead. Many culture’s folklore describes birds as being the spirits of the dead visiting this world or travelling on their way to the underworld and so were held sacred because any bird could possibly be housing the spirit of one’s ancestor. Their role as psychopomps gives our feathered friends an association with the ancestors as well as deities – the underworld and the upperworld – death and rebirth. Further associations with this death-role can be found in myths of bird women harvesting the souls of the dead as the Valkyrie of the Norse, the Russian Rusalka, the Slavic Vila, the Greek Harpies and Sirens, all often associated with ravens and swans, who also share similarities with the Baobhan Sith, Badbh, and The Morrigan of the Gaels who are female crow and raven spirits associated with death and soul-harvesting. These supernatural psychopomps can often be found serving chthonic goddesses like the Norns, Persephone, and Baba Yaga.

I swear when I collect the small light bodies of dead birds, and carry out my funerary rites for them, that I can hear the flapping of wings following me and sometimes I wonder if they are the swan and raven wings of these psychopomp spirits or the deities they serve.

The Bird Woman

And so here I am still on my journey with birds surrounded by feathers, still ever learning from them of their languages, their behaviours, their omens and messages; still working with them to strengthen my practices of bone collecting, spirit-flight, dream walking, shape-shifting, psychopompery, and the creation of sacred ritual tools. My feather collection will never dwindle as, even though some I gift and some I turn into tools for other magical practitioners, my friends the birds will always lay more feathers across my path. Next time you pick up a feather on your journey through this life, I wonder, where will it take you?

References

  1. Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak. Llewellyn Publications: St. Paul, MN, 1994.
  2. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2004.
  3. Harris-Logan, Stuart A. Singing With Blackbirds: The Survival of Primal Celtic Shamanism in Later Folk Traditions. Grey House in the Woods: United Kingdom, 2005.
  4. Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits. HarperCollins: New York, 2009.
  5. Valiente, Doreen. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. St Martin’s Press: New York, 1973.

Appendixes

I. Disclaimer and Legal Note

Do not attempt to handle dead wildlife with your bare hands, especially if you do not know how long the animal has been dead. Animals can carry diseases and parasites that may be harmful to us if touched or breathed in and much care should be taken. Educate yourself and children about how to handle dead wildlife to avoid illness and legal issues.

Many migratory songbirds, raptors, and endangered species are protected and the possession of their feathers can be regulated or prohibited with penalties of fines and jail time. Permits for legally scavenging and possessing dead bird parts are given by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. In Canada  permits are dispensed by the Provinces’ individual ministries of wildlife and natural resources.


II. Caring for Feathers

Feathers found in the wilds, farms, and cities should be cleaned before being put to sacred use. I put feathers and wings new to my collection in the freezer first for 2-3 days to kill any mites or other unwanted pests. Some feathers may need a bit of washing to remove dirt and bird droppings. Gently wipe them with a soft, warm, damp cloth until clean and then carefully brush them back into place if disarrayed before leaving to dry. After being frozen and cleaned, put your feathers into a mix of borax and salt to sterilize and completely dry them; start with a layer then lay down the feathers on top and gently add another layer of the mixture so as not to harm the feathers to keep their shape. The feathers of wings should be fanned out before drying so the wings remain open. Some people pin the wings open on a wooden board and others weigh them down once spread open with borax, salt, or cornmeal or a mixture thereof. After a couple of weeks for individual feathers or a 1-2 months for wings, remove them from the mixture and carefully shake out and brush off all remaining particulates. Now your feathers are ready to use for magic and ritual.

Feathers can be stored in a vase or lidless jar of a suitable height. When your most sacred feathered tools wrap them in a cloth of a natural fibre such as linen, silk, cotton, or wool, and place them in a wooden box or drawer laying down. Cedar is an excellent wood for feather storage as it naturally repels insect pests, but you can also craft a sachet of cedar wood chips as well as other insect repellent herbs like mugwort and yarrow to store with your feathers and protect them. With proper care and storage your feathers might even outlast you.


III. Birds & Deities

  • Crow/Raven – Apollo, Athena, Baba Yaga, Badbh Catha, Baobhan Sith, Bran, Branwen, Lugh/Llew, Macha, Morrigan, Nephthys, Odin, and the Valkyrie
  • Crane/Heron/Egret/Ibis – Aoife, Ariadne, Esus, Frigg, Hekate, Manannan mac Lir, and Thoth
  • Dove – Aphrodite, Hera, and Yemaya
  • Eagle – Lugh/Llew and Zeus
  • Goose – Aphrodite, Hathor, Holle/Hulda, and Nicnevin
  • Hawk – Freyja and Horus
  • Owl – Ares, Athena, Baba Yaga, Blodeuwedd, Ereshkigal, Lakshmi, Lilith, and Santa Muerta
  • Peacock – Hera and Yemaya
  • Robin – Green Man, Puck, Robin Goodfellow
  • Swallow – Aphrodite and Freyja
  • Swan – Aphrodite, Brighid, Caer Ibormeith, Norns, Rusalka/Vila, and the Valkyrie
  • Vulture – Ares, Athena, Brighid, and Nephthys

Article and illustrations © 2012 Sarah Anne Lawless. Do not copy or use this article or its artwork without the express permission of the author.