A Typology of Spirits

This is just something that came to me the other night when I was pondering the nature of spirits, and the different types of spirits one might encounter. I ended up with the following breakdown, based on my experiences and reading. I would love to hear what other spirit-workers and animists think of this – types I may have missed, how you would organize it differently, etc.

1. Spirits of Animals, Plants, Fungi and Minerals
a. so-called “Grandfather” spirits of an entire species, e.g., Little Red Man (fly agaric)
b. spirits of individual specimens

2. Spirits of Place (both in nature and man-made)
a. overall genius loci, e.g., “The Presence” on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire
b. wights who live in a specific place and do not leave, such as nymphs

3. The Dead
a. biological ancestors
b. spiritual ancestors – individuals not related by blood but who are treated as ancestors
c. heroes – dead people who have become elevated by a group or culture
d. collective dead – died due to same event or cause (e.g., veterans, victims of tragedy), buried in same place, etc.

4. Faeries (includes alfar, dwarves, goblins, gentry, banshees, brownies, etc.)
a. solitary wights – domestic and wild, tend to stick to same area
b. trooping – always experienced collectively, and move from place to place

Of course, there are lots of spirits who are crossovers between types. For instance, the Slavic rusalki are women who died young, haunt a particular body of water, and are generally treated like faeries, so they would fall into categories 2(b), 3(d) and 4(a). An old oak tree with a powerful spirit would be 1(b) and 2(b). The inhabitants of a cemetery would be 2(b) and 3(d). And so on.

~ by Dver on July 24, 2014.

25 Responses to “A Typology of Spirits”

  1. I’d place 4) Faeries in with 2) spirits of place or probably a more accurate view would be view those two has having a rather big overlap!

    • There’s definitely a lot of overlap in those two categories. However, I’ve personally met enough fairy-type entities (especially 4b) who are not bound to place that I feel they belong in a separate category to some degree.

      • There is, additionally, a huge crossover with the Dead, so they really do seem to be their own category.

        • Indeed. In many places, faeries were entirely conflated with the dead, and there’s often at least some overlap, so that makes it even more complex and is one of the reasons I think they just belong in their own category.

  2. Dver, this is AWESOME!

  3. Reblogged this on Weaving Among The Stars and commented:

  4. I’ve always wondered why one doesn’t see this sort of thing, and I’d always hoped to find such a typology. And…there you go! Thank you!

    • Yeah, I don’t see nearly enough talk of spirits in general (it’s always GODS and hey, I love gods but the bulk of my practice revolves around spirits), so I thought I’d contribute something.

  5. I’m not a spirit-worker or an animist unfortunately, but thank you just the same! The list is concise and informative.

  6. I don’t ask this to be contentious as it’s a question that genuinely puzzles me. Also it may not fit your world view, in which case please ignore. How would you classify spirits such as High John the Conqeror, or Jesus Malverde, for example, who may never have been living people at all but who nevertheless seem able to exert great power? Thanks.

    • That’s a good question, which I should have addressed. Due to my background in Hellenic religion, I would consider these to be “heroes” in the ancient sense – people who have been elevated in power after death – because it wasn’t really a prerequisite that there be solid proof of heroes actually having lived. Take Trophonios, who I worked with for many years. He supposedly built one of the first temples at Delphi, died, and was revealed as a powerful spirit by an oracle later on. His cultus was – like most ancient heroes – entirely located around one specific spot… so in a way, he also would qualify as a spirit of place, so again there’s some crossover. So in other words, the ancient Greek concept of “hero” encompassed both dead people and sort of legendary figures that were said to have lived and died, but probably did not. Now, outside of that tradition, I’m not sure how you’d classify them. Maybe as “legendary spirits” or “folkloric spirits”?

  7. I’m really glad to see more of this. I’ve had some rather nasty run-ins with folks who seem to consider that if it’s not a God, it’s not worthwhile paying attention to. The most common response I get is “Why would you ever bother? They were never worshiped.” I enjoy this classification system.

    • That’s really too bad, because spirits were a crucial part of every ancient polytheistic religion I can think of. Some emphasized the ancestors more, or faeries, or what have you, but there was an important place for spirits in every cosmology, and they were indeed worshipped in the sense of having offerings left for them, prayers addressed to them, etc. But it’s definitely lacking in many modern reconstructions. When I was more a part of the Hellenic community, I tried hard to get people to pay more attention to the nymphs, who were very important in ancient Greece but rather overlooked in modern Hellenismos.

      • It’s always astounded me. But then, I collect works on folklore and have always loved it. I was raised in a household that, despite being areligious, still kept some traditions regarding spirits (less so regarding spirits of place, but faeries, the dead, and spirits of animals were all important to my childhood). It’s depressing to me, really. I’ve learned a lot from many of the spirits I’ve worked with. All I can figure is: those who work with the spirits just need to keep talking and working with them.

  8. Some of this is pretty similar to what I’ve speculated – I keep wondering about overlap between 2b and 4, and how one discerns the differences, if/when there are.

    I also wonder whether some Spirits of Place cross into the “deity” classification, too, and what determines that. What distinguishes the “local deity” from other kinds of deities, or from spirits of place? (And how much does it matter if you know if a spirit is a deity or not?)

    As I’m getting to know more of the local spirits, I feel more and more uneasy not knowing where to slot them, but I think I’m largely just going to have to live with that uncertainty and lack of tidy little boxes. >.>

    I also wonder if there should be an additional category for the Dead, for the lone spirits that don’t seem to fit into other categories? Wandering Dead; lone haunts of a single location.

    • There’s definitely a lot of overlap between 2b and 4, and in many cases they’re just the same thing. I guess I would say, 2b is for all those individual spirits one might run into that are tied to place, but do not fall into any otherwise recognized category of fairy-type which the culture has a name for and set of characteristics established. So actually, on further consideration, nymphs should probably be moved to the Faeries category (the modern Greek naiads should definitely be there), and 2b left for just unnamed, solitary individuals.

      It’s definitely a gray area as to when a spirit of place becomes a deity – I would say that the larger the feature, the more likely it is (the Greeks considered rivers to be gods, for instance, and many cultures would say a mountain spirit was a god), maybe just having so much physical presence gives it more power. However, I don’t personally feel it matters that much – the cultus isn’t necessarily different for a mountain spirit than a mountain god. And while all these categories help us sort and conceptualize things in our own minds, we must remember that they are for US, not for the spirits – just like our constantly changing ideas of taxonomy do not actually change or matter to animals, plants, fungi, etc.

      I think you should live with the uncertainty.🙂 Remember that regardless of how you organize things in your head, you still have to deal with every spirit or group of spirits on their own terms. Just knowing something is a “land spirit” or even as specific as a “rusalka” doesn’t mean you know that particular spirit until you make the effort. It only gives you a small part of the picture, just like knowing I am female, American, tattooed, bisexual, or any other category only gives you a cursory understanding of me.

      I had actually thought about adding a sort of “ghosts” category to the Dead section, I think you’re probably right about that.

      • Yeah, it is hard for me to think of some of the spirits of larger places (the river, large areas of forest, the mountains around here!) as “just” land spirits. The places are so /old/ and so literally massive, that even if the spirits of those places are also land spirits, as opposed to deities Whose homes are some “other” realm (Asgard, Olympus, etc.), I feel like they should be treated with more reverence than, say, the spirits of the trees in my neighborhood (who I also respect, but it’s the difference between your neighbors and the mayor/governor/etc.). Some of them haven’t asked for much in terms of worship, but others do seem to be falling into the same level of altar tending as the Norse deities want.

        The other category question I have run into from time to time is whether the spirit of place is actually -from- that place, or is from Elsewhere, but for whatever reason is now the local spirit of place in some fashion. I’ve met one who seemed to fall into that category of “not from around here originally, but doing the job now.” I don’t know how much that distinction would matter, either, since interaction/worship is still going to vary and be dependent on the individuals, but I end up wondering about what overall patterns can be learned that are consistent across different classes of beings.

        I also want more accurate ways to describe who/what I am dealing with when I talk to other people, than “some spirit I ran into out in the woods,” “some other spirit out in the woods,” etc.

        • I like your analogy of neighbors versus mayors, and I agree. It’s probably best to just take it on a case by case basis, and do what your gut tells you is right.

          Interesting question about land spirits coming from elsewhere, I’m sure that can happen, but I doubt it really matters. I guess I just default to a low-theology, high-practicality approach in my practice. Though, I do agree it would be nice to have more diverse terminology, that perhaps wasn’t so tradition specific (e.g., in Slavic folklore for instance there are tons of spirit-types with names, defined characteristics, etc., but that won’t necessarily translate to other traditions or approaches).

  9. I would even go so far to say that some Gods are actually ‘heroes’ 3b&c. Excellent classification list! I know others have commented the same, but it really is GOOD!

  10. Reblogged this on weald and wold and commented:
    A useful categorization from A Forest Door!

  11. Wonderful musings, and as you state, of benefit to clarify perceptions in sympathy with the way OUR minds tend to organise information. Strict deliniation within one category is often not possible or even desirable.

    I am interested in your take on the ZEITGEIST, or spirit of a particular era or time, as opposed to loci or genus.
    I have found certain energies, perhaps long dissociated from our realm through a protracted period of suspended communion or practice, to become receptive or even instructive through an apprehension of the arc of TIME.
    Does this resonate with any of the categories or archetypes already listed, or is there perhaps a seperate force attendant on periods of time in and of themselves, eg, the Teutonic period, the Bronze Age, or even the 1960s for that matter.
    I live in Australia and have had some involvement in learning the Song lines and Creation Stories of the Dreamtime, as practiced in varied ways by the Indigenous nations of this country. Many of the songs detailing the Creation stories tell of ancestors as Creator Beings who travelled the land creating the various sites, rock formations, water holes and places of power before themselves becoming features within the landscape. The singing of the song cycles reinforces a custodianship that maintains the physical and psychic health of both place and practitioner. There is a perception of negative impact caused by the suspension of ceremony and banning of traditional language as enforced by Christian Missionaries and colonial law.
    This may be slightly off-topic, but illustrates a perception of the Dreamtime itself as unfurling in parallel with the ‘waking-world’. The continued interaction with spirit in ceremony and song ensures the ongoing well being of each.

    • That’s an interesting idea, I don’t think I’d ever considered there might be spirits of certain eras/times…. OTOH, how does one define an era? By human standards alone? Things like the Bronze Age, the 60’s, these are really about human culture rather than the rest of the natural world, so I would suppose that any spirit tied to such a concept would be one particularly involved with humankind.

      • Eras of time can be classified around human pursuits, and could perhaps be grouped alongside Ancestral spirits, heroes or the collective dead in group 3.
        Ofcourse there have also been enormous spans of time before the genesis of our species. Spirits of place, plant, animal and even wight I believe, have existed throughout time, independent from humanity and our changing culture, but I would be interested to hear your take on the genesis of the Gods.
        I feel as though their existance is not tied up with ours in that their wellbeing does not rely on our invocation or whims. But I am curious about their source, (as I am about our own).
        I know they are all different, but in your opinion, do the Gods have a history beyond that of man and women kind? Just asking.

        • Yes, I believe the gods have a history beyond that of humans – since I believe they exist independently of us, and are only more-or-less involved with us by choice and affinity.

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