As a spirit-worker, shaman, hedgewitch, etc., you will meet and engage with many different types of spirits through your Work. Most plentiful, perhaps, will be the broad category of wights who populate the land, cities, houses, holy places, all around us, some of which you will only sense in passing, some of which you may meet just once or twice for some specific reason, some of which you will develop more consistent relationships with over time due to proximity or affinity, but you may never know their individual names or even personalities. Most will be straightforward relationships of devotion, stewardship, prayer and offerings, and perhaps assistance in your magical work. You may be called to work with the dead in general, with the departed spirits in your local cemeteries for instance. Depending on your focus, you may also work with individual plant, animal or mineral spirits, especially if you use entheogens, herbalism, animal remains, or stones in your practice. If you do this, you may also encounter the larger, almost archetypal spirits of plants and animals, what are often referred to as Grandmother or Grandfather spirits, and/or totems – not this specific fly agaric mushroom you picked and ingested, for instance, but the Little Red Man; not this coyote pelt you wear in ritual, but Coyote. There are also entities who are more broadly known, but are more properly considered spirits rather than gods, that might find a place in your practice – ancient heroes or daimones, prominent local spirits, figures found in grimoires, etc.
There are, I’m sure, plenty of other categories one could mention here, but these are the most obvious that spring to mind. While each situation must be approached in its own context, there are at least some guides to dealing with the types of spirits mentioned above – traditional practices that can be gleaned from history and folklore books, and are beginning to be discussed more commonly in contemporary paganism (of course, that can present its own problem, see for example the plethora of awful find-your-totem books).
But another category is much more difficult to discuss – personal spirits. Those spirits one meets and becomes entangled with, who are specific, named individuals with clear personalities and independent existence, but who are only known to the spirit-worker herself (and perhaps a few close intimates, over time). They may also fall into one of the above categories – having been met originally on a special patch of land, or via work with a totem animal, or the dead, etc. And there is a wide range of possibilities as to the type of relationship one might establish with them – “spirit helper” or familiar, guide, lover, spouse, teacher, companion, parental… you may work for them or with them, serve their interests or solicit their assistance in yours, interact with them daily or only during ritual work and trance journeys.
“Spirit helpers and totem animals can help with a lot of different things. They can be the energies that take you apart during an initiation, they can be the ones to tell you to ‘get your act together!’ and the ones to give you a metaphysical kick up the backside to get you back on track, they can be the ones to offer advice in a difficult situation, or offer silence to remind you that you really can figure it out on your own; honest. They can be the creatures we are terrified of, or the ones we adore and admire, and they can be animal energies we didn’t know we could appreciate until they came into our lives. But they can also be the energies that simply love us for who we are, and soothe us when things are hard. Who offer comfort without us ‘working’ for it. Who take us in when we are broken and overhwelmed and give succour in exchange.” – Ravenari, shamanist, owner of Wildspeak.com
While you can go searching for a spirit helper, I never have. The spirits in my life have all come to me, in one way or another, but the crucial thing is that I recognized, acknowledged and reciprocated that initial contact. That process sometimes took years, though – my first spirits, the large-ish but finite group I now serve intensively – first came to me at the age of 13. My spirit lover emerged from that group many years later, closely followed by my primary spirit helper. I have spent years working on developing these relationships, and trying to keep up with them as they naturally evolved (as I, too, changed during this time).
One of the most difficult things is the lack of an operating manual. Not only is each relationship unique, with its own set of rules and requirements that won’t necessarily follow the same patterns as other people’s spirit relationships, but there aren’t many other people sharing their experiences, to begin with. Which is often an understandable necessity, as I am the first to be reluctant to divulge any specific details regarding my spirits. Still, I try now and then to speak of Them, at least in generalities, in a way that might at least give a few crumbs on the path to someone else who is even more lost than I.
I wonder sometimes how many modern practitioners have such individual, personal spirits, and simply never speak of them. Certainly, I would expect most of them to, especially those that call themselves shamans (who traditionally rely heavily on such spirit helpers), or spirit-workers (it was the primacy of these relationships in my own life that caused me to latch quickly onto that latter term for my own practice, since it so neatly and literally describes what I do). I also wonder if there is a way to usefully discuss the topic more deeply without speaking of details that aren’t suitable for public display. (Some people may not have this taboo laid upon them, but I feel it distinctly – most aspects of my life with my spirits are extremely private.)
But I suppose, like I did with my Spirit Lovers post, I just wanted to at least broach the subject, even if I must speak mostly in generalities. I feel very strongly that, as Ravenari said in another excellent journal entry, “without the spirits in my life, I have very little life at all.” For twenty years They have shaped who and what I am, and more so every day. I have basically given over everything to Them, made my choices based on Their preferences and guidance, given up whatever They asked and received in return a life I could never have imagined.
My gods are, of course, extremely important to me, and I consider it an honor to serve Them, and to receive Their blessings – and I can more easily speak of those things, to a degree, as I have over the years in essays, websites, forums and blogs. It helps that my gods are obviously well-known to other people, so we have a common basis for discussion (although, I have found increasingly over time, the faces my gods show me aren’t always in line with what most other people see, especially when it comes to Apollon and lately Dionysos). I can also more freely discuss my broader work with nymphs and other land spirits (though perhaps, not really, – what the nymphs whispered to me by the riverside, or the gift I received from the wights in my heartwoods, are secrets). In fact, maybe the difficulty in sharing one’s work with personal spirits isn’t really much different from the difficulty in sharing the private interactions with more well-known gods and spirits, just exacerbated by the highly private nature of the very existence of the relationship itself.
There are, however, occasionally moments of affirmation. Some of those come by way of other shamans/spirit-workers/witches who talk about their Work (many of whom can be found in my blogroll here). I was also pleasantly surprised to find quite a lot of correlation with my own experiences in the historical accounts of some cunning folk, as described by Emma Wilby (perhaps in part because my spirits tend to fit into the category of “fairy” in the same sense as some of the entities described). There may not be a guidebook, but there are signs along the way, and help to be found, if you look hard enough.