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The Realm Of Spirits

For complex reasons rooted in an equally complex history, the entities are all but unknown outside the still rather secretive community where Western magical traditions are taught and practiced. These entities are traditionally called spirits, and they have played a long and curious role in the intellectual history of the Western world, especially during the last two thousand years. To a remarkable degree, indeed, the track of spirits through the historical record is made of attempts to deny that they exist at all, or to lump them together with some other type of monstrous being.

The absence of spirits as such - distinct from ghosts demons, angels, and so on - from today's Halloween decorations an horror movies is simply the latest chapter in the history of their exclusion. There are reasons for that exclusion. Yet there are also reasons, stronger and far more relevant ones, why these particular inhabitants of the realm of monstrous beings deserve a name and a category of their own.

It's worth mentioning in advance that the realm of spirits is extraordinarily diverse and complicated - more so, in fact, than any other type of monster. The comment in "Concerning the Microcosms of Macrocosm," one of the classic knowledge lectures in the Golden Dawn magical tradition, is relevant: Besides these classes of life [the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms] there be multitudinous existences representing Forces of the Macrocosm, each with its own microcosm. Such are Elemental Spirits, Planetary Spirits, Olympic Spirits, Fays, Arch-Fays, Genii, and many other potencies which cannot be classed under these forms. Thus the Macrocosmic Universe is one vast and infinite sphere containing so many and diverse infinite microcosmic forms, of which the perfect knowledge is only known to the advanced Adept (reprinted in Regardie 1971, pp. 109-110). It may be worth commenting that adepts of this level of advancement are few and far between!

Certainly most works of magical lore have contented themselves with a few broad classifications, and this is probably wise, since finer details have an uncomfortable habit of varying sharply between different accounts, and there's reason to think that the realm of spirits itself may change radically over time. Some of the better magical handbooks of the Renaissance, in fact, state that any account of the world of spirits more than forty years old is no longer valid.

Like fays, spirits have a presence that stretches back into prehistory, but just as with fays, the major difficulty in tracking that presence is one of drawing distinctions between spirits and the other denizens of the Unseen. Ancient cultures, like many modern non-Western ones, drew their lines of division at different points, and it's often hard to tell whether a particular entity should best be called a fay, a spirit, a demon, or a god. Still, it's clear that from a very early period, beings similar to those we now call spirits were known and named in the lore of all the ancient civilizations.

The spirit lore of ancient Greece is particularly useful here. When Greek civilization emerged from its own Dark Ages around 600 B.C.E., the worship of the great Olympian gods and goddesses - Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and other figures familiar to us from modern retellings - overlaid a complex religious and magical scene crowded with other entities. Among these were a class of beings known as daimones. Disembodied presences that brought good or evil to human beings, daimones were regarded with a mixture of veneration and fear, and sacrifices were made to them, less to win their cooperation than to encourage them to leave the human world alone. They were not, however, considered evil - simply unpredictable, like the weather.

As Greek culture absorbed influences from Egypt and Babylon, these vague but powerful entities took on more precise outlines. This was especially true in the magical traditions that coalesced in Egypt, in the five or six centuries after Alexander the Great's conquests brought that ancient land into the Greek cultural sphere. There, the term daimon came to be used generally for the wide range of bodiless entities that were neither gods, nature spirits, nor the ghosts of the human dead. When these magical traditions migrated west into lands where Latin was the common tongue, the Latin word spiritus (originally a term for wind or breath, like so many spirit words around the world) was borrowed for the same purpose.

This habit of language was standard all through the Western world in the last centuries of the classical era, as the Roman Empire crumbled and Christianity rose to dominance. Followers of the new religion had deep doubts about any entity that was not part and parcel of their own theological structure, and treated the busy spiritual world of late classical paganism accordingly. It's from this period, therefore, that the term "daimon" lost its flavor of moral neutrality and took on the connotations of its English descendant "demon."

Many of the classical world's magical traditions made the transition to the new religious environment with ease. The transition was greatly helped out by attitudes, common even within the Christian church itself, that saw magic as harmless so long as it called on the right divine names and powers, stayed clear of dealings with evil spirits, and avoided doing harm to people. Magic involving spirits of any kind, however, remained highly suspect; the dualistic streak within Christianity encouraged many people to believe that any bodiless entity that was not a saint or an angel had to be a demon.

As a result, for more than a thousand years, the existence of morally neutral spirits was a subject of constant debate. Some theologians made room in their discussions of "spiritual creatures" for beings who were neither angel nor demon, while others insisted that there could be no middle ground. Magicians generally fell into the first camp, but not always - and there were always some who were interested in demons as such, further confusing an already confused issue.

The long debate finally came to an end around the time of the Reformation. For a galaxy of reasons, the thinkers of that age were far more interested in drawing distinctions than in building bridges. More than ever before, the universe was seen as a cosmic battlefield in which there could be no middle ground. The warring fragments of the Christian church agreed on very little, but the nonexistence of morally neutral spirits was one point that nearly every side accepted.

During this same time, scholarly magicians such as Theophrastus von Hohenheim (better known by his pen name Paracelsus) and Jerome Cardan wrote important works on the nature and activities of spirits, laying the foundations for most current magical theory on the subject. Outside of the magical community of the time, though, no one was listening. When modern scientific thought emerged a little later, those who disagreed with its flat dismissal of everything beyond the physical level argued on many different grounds, but the existence of spirits was rarely brought up by anyone.

By about 1700, therefore, the only people who paid any attention to the traditional lore about spirits were magicians of one sort or another, who continued their work in the face of nearly constant contempt and rejection from the society around them. A great deal of work went into the magical study of spirits in the years that followed; lore from the classical era, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance was collected and compared, and the modern magical terminology of spirits was gradually developed.

Since then, very little has actually changed. The revival of popular interest in "mythical" creatures in the 1980s and 1990s, which spawned a flood of illustrated books and a plethora of would-be elves and vampires, missed the traditional lore of spirits entirely; somehow we managed to get by without a coffee-table book entitled Elementals. Even in the modern magical community itself, a good deal of confusion still exists about beings that were clearly understood by magicians of past centuries. Still, the texts and traditions remain, and many of them can be consulted by those who are willing to look.

Four general terms have been used for these entities in magical circles: intelligences, spirits, elementals, and larvae. These form a descending scale of consciousness and power, and in older magical literature, much attention is given to the relation between certain members of the first two types.

Intelligences, as the word suggests, are centers of consciousness with broad powers of understanding, knowledge, and insight. They can be difficult to describe, since they are primary beings of the mental level of reality. They are creatures of mind, and insofar as they can be said to have bodies at all, those "bodies" are made of patterns of consciousness, which we experience as ideas. In certain kinds of magical meditation, it's not uncommon to be contemplating some abstruse concept, and then to suddenly realize that there is an awareness within the "concept" that is looking back at you! When this happens, an intelligence has been contacted.

According to traditional lore and the experience of magicians alike, we are surrounded by intelligences at every moment. Many of the unexpected ideas, sudden hunches, and notions from "out of the blue" that occur throughout our lives are brought about by contact - unconscious, for the most part, but still real - with entities of this type.

Intelligences vary widely; some are minor entities, others vast and potent. A good many of the gods and goddesses worshipped in pagan religious traditions in the past seem to be powerful intelligences - although human beings are remarkably undiscriminating in their choice of things to worship, and angels, spirits, ghosts, elementals, living human beings, and demons have all been worshipped at different times and in different cultures. Whether or not it's appropriate to worship intelligences is a subject on which different people have widely different opinions, and it is not particularly relevant to the present book; it may be worth mentioning, though, that intelligences - even great ones - are far from the mightiest or the wisest of beings in the universe.

Spirits are to energy roughly what intelligences are to mind. Creatures of the astral realm, they are in some sense subordinate to intelligences. In magical lore, spirits are held to be "blind forces" - that is to say, patterns of energy with little connection to the spiritual levels of being.

As a result, they tend to act in unbalanced ways, especially when misdirected by ignorant or greedy human beings. Spirits as such have no sense of balance or proportion, and will typically do exactly what they are told to do, to the letter, whether or not what they have been told to do is what the magician who summoned them actually has in mind!

Some magical traditions, responding to this, have claimed that spirits are in some sense evil, while intelligences are good. Still, this is an oversimplification. Spirits are vessels of power, and any source of power can be lethally dangerous to the foolish; as a traditional magical saying puts it, "Power without wisdom is the name of death." Treated intelligently, honestly, and fairly, though, spirits can play an important part in magical work.

The manifestations of spirits are easier to recognize than to define. While they have bodies in a magical sense - astral, mental, and spiritual bodies, to be precise-they are not material beings, and have no fixed forms. Since their consciousness and actions are focused on the astral, they tend to appear most clearly to our minds and imaginations rather than to our senses.

The techniques of magical evocation - a ritual process by which human beings interact with nonhuman beings, including spirits - were thoroughly developed during the Middle Ages, when they represented the most important item in the magician's toolkit. They are still being practiced today, and detailed descriptions of the process can be looked up in any reasonably complete manual of ritual magic. Other branches of magical practice, including the consecration of talismans and certain kinds of divination, also involve interacting with spirits in various ways. Most places and objects associated with magical practice, as a result, have a fairly strong connection to the realm of spirits; in such places, even individuals with no particular magical training may suddenly find themselves face to face with entities of this sort.

Elementals are the inhabitants of the four magical elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. These "elements" are not quite the same as the four substances that give them their names. Think of them as solid matter, liquid matter, gaseous matter, and energy, and you're most of the way to a clear understanding of the elements; remember that all of them are present in everything, all the time, and you know enough to make sense of most discussions of the elements in magical lore.

Each element has its own class of elementals. Gnomes are the elementals of Earth; undines, the elementals of Water; sylphs, the elementals of Air; and salamanders, the elementals of Fire. These terms can cause a certain amount of confusion. The word "gnome," of course, has been borrowed in several European languages for certain kinds of small earth-dwelling fay, and as such became the title of one of the coffee-table books, the account of "gnomes" in that book, it should probably be pointed out, has nothing whatever to do with gnomes in the magical sense. The word "salamander," in turn, is also used for small lizardlike animals related to frogs; they got the name centuries ago, because they live in decaying logs and have moist skins and so sometimes crawl unhurt out of a blazing fire.

The creatures of the elements, according to magical lore, are not so individualized as we are. They blend into one another both physically and at subtler levels, and form collective bodies from what most modern people call "inanimate" matter. They are present in greatest numbers and power where the forces of the elements are strongest - gnomes in mountains and caverns, undines in the ocean, sylphs in wind and storm, and salamanders in flames - but they surround us everywhere and at all times.

Individual elementals are said to have minds on roughly the same level as the more intelligent animals, but those of each type also share a much higher collective consciousness and intelligence, which is usually described in magical lore as the "king" of each elemental kingdom. These elemental kings are to elementals what intelligences are to spirits, and their roles in magical practice are similar.

This may seem reminiscent of fays, who are also said to have kings, and in fact there is a good deal of confusion between fays and elementals in the traditional lore. There seem to be definite similarities between elementals, on the one hand, and certain kinds of fays on the other - although how much of this is a product of faery glamour is anybody's guess. Some magical writings draw a useful distinction between elementals, who are creatures of a single element, and elementaries, who are composed of two or three elements (humans and other physical life forms are composed of four). As described in the old lore, elementaries have much in common with fays, and may be the same thing.

Handbooks of ritual magic relate that Ghob is the king of the gnomes, Nichsa the king of the undines, Paralda the king of the sylphs, and Djinn the king of the salamanders, and the collective minds of the elementals do seem to respond to these names in practice. The elemental kings, in turn, are overshadowed by the angels and archangels of the four elements.

Larvae represent the lower end of the scale of spirits. Larvae are etheric beings, living entirely on the level of subtle energy. Just as the physical world has scavengers - worms, crows, fungi, and so on - that break down dead physical bodies and return their components to the ecosystem, so the etheric world has larvae, who serve the same function. The cast-off etheric shells of dead human beings and animals, the etheric patterns in feces and other waste products, and other stray bits of etheric substance serve as food to these entities. Slow, mindless, and persistent, larvae will occasionally seize on a damaged human etheric body, and in such cases can cause weakness, poor health, and wasting illnesses.

In the squalid etheric environments of modern cities, larvae are relatively common, and they can also be found in large numbers wherever deaths frequently happen - one of the reasons why hospitals and nursing homes can be very unhealthy places for the ill! They have been described as looking like pale, half-transparent bubbles or baglike shapes drifting through the air, or hovering around a food source. Fortunately, it's relatively easy to drive them away by magical means.

John Michael Greer. Monsters: An Investigator's Guide to Magical Beings. Llewellyn Publications. 2006.

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