Glendower: I can raise spirits from the vasty deep!
Hotspur: Why, so can I, and so can any man. But will they come when you do call them?
Shakespeare, 1 Henry IV
Summoning Spirits: Why?
Artist Meinrad Craighead says that we are “embodied spirits.” I see it the other way round. Body has evolved to the point where it exudes spirit, as flowers exude scent. “Spirit” happens when living beings evolve a characteristic way of being, behaving– solitary or social, mated for life or temporarily, predatory or plant-eating, drawn to trees or water or land. Human spirit has, in addition, self-consciousness, self-reflection, and the ability to articulate and follow guiding principles, loves, and loyalties.
The different sorts of “spirits” we have grow out of our biological capacities, and our experiences. We can do our best to nurture the good (or oppose the harm) we’ve been given, but it comes to us. We’re “given” a whole universe of conditions, a time and place, a culture, a family, and the kindness, cruelty, or indifference of others, and these foster different sorts of spirit.
In the Greek of the Christian Gospels, the same word — “pneuma” — means wind, breath, and spirit. It’s fun to play with this multiple meaning, as in John 3, where Jesus’ words are often translated as “The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. That is how it is with those who are born of the spirit.” What if we try it this way: “That’s how it is with those who are born from the wind.” Or this: “The spirit blows where it pleases.” Or “the breath blows where it pleases … that’s how it is with those who are born of the breath.”
However you cut it, in Christianity, the spirit we are “made of” is derived, from God, or from the “enemy.” In the Christian gospels there is a story in which Jesus and his disciples pass through a Samaritan town. The Samaritans are not especially welcoming, and James and John– aptly nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder,” suggest to Jesus that he call down fire from heaven to burn up the village. Jesus “rebukes” them (i.e., tells them to knock it off)– and in some manuscripts adds, “You do not know what spirit you are made of.” By contrast, Mary, who is “full of grace,” receives the Spirit of God.
When I was Catholic, I could rest in the Holy Spirit, I could let it fill me and know that I would be transformed, in time. As an atheist witch, I don’t see spirit as derived from anything except the chemical processes that make us up into beings that– astoundingly– can think about themselves, what they want, where they’re headed; and can then decide to change course a bit. We certainly don’t have limitless options, or what existentialists would call “radical freedom,” but it seems to me we can steer the craft just a little, and that means we have some power to change ourselves, to change our world.
It’s clear enough why a Christian would call on the Holy Spirit; and also why a polytheistic or theistic witch would call on spirits, plural, but why would an atheist witch bother?
I do it because I know I don’t “own” all my potential, all that can arise and come to fruition in me. I can take advantage of a fair wind (or breath, or spirit)– that is, dispose myself to good influences– but the deepest surges in the waters are beyond me. What’s unconscious is always greater than what I can see. Sometimes the “spirit I’m made of” is destructive, and then it is best exposed, and dissolved. Sometimes, though, the spirit below the surface holds wisdom that my thoughts can’t reach. That wisdom can unfold in dreams, images, and meditation. So as an atheist witch, I summon the “holy” spirit that is latent in me– the potential I can never wholly grasp– and invite it to live in and possess me.
Summoning Spirits: How?
First, a word on “when.” I don’t summon spirits any old time. Even if the spirits are latent abilities in myself, it feels a bit rude to be constantly banging on the door to my depths when there’s no real need. I summon the spirits when I’ve got something in particular on my mind, something that I can’t resolve by every day thinking. It is, of course, not a substitute for thinking– or for research, good advice, therapy, and so on. If I found that the practices I describe took me away from common sense, evidence, and reason, and encouraged mere wishful thinking, be assured I’d drop it.
As with any deep tradition of prayer or meditation, no ritual practice matters like a sincere intention. But since ritual sometimes helps us gather the scattered bits of our mind into a full and deep intention, I do use the staff. Mine is wood, taller than me, and possesses a rather spooky face at the top– some lumpy features with sunken red eyes. I bought it during a weekend trip, when I found I absolutely could not manage a walk in the woods on my rickety knees without some help. Its having been of real use to me in a real wood gives it an emotional “charge” that beats any fancy Gandalf-staff from the local witch store.
After casting a circle, I stand at the north point, facing out, and rap the ground three times with the staff, calling on the spirits of the north (earth)– the spirits of patience, strength, endurance. Then on to the east– three more raps– and I call the spirits of the air, the spirits of intelligence, wisdom, humor. Then south (fire)– energy, drive, commitment. Then west (water)– feeling, compassion, openness to change.
At this point, apart from waking myself up with all that rapping (and this really does wake something deep inside), I have reminded myself of all the qualities I want to bring to whatever situation has led me to summon the spirits. I remind myself of their existence and meaning beyond myself– that any positive spirit I have comes to me from countless others who have nurtured these qualities in themselves and the world. Every spiritual guide; my parents and teachers, and the good parents and teachers who guided them; every artist who opened my world up; everyone who ever challenged me to grow.
Surrounded by these spirits, I usually undertake a “shamanic journey”– that is, I visualize myself walking on a path I have set aside in my mind, a place I go in imagination to consult guides. More on that in another post. The guides may or may not use words; we may just meditate together, or walk together. When I feel as though I’ve gotten what I needed, I journey back. Then I open my eyes, thank the spirits and release them, and open the circle.