I felt spurred to start writing this post after reflecting on the unwillingness of many folks I know to actually assert any kind of authority with spirits. I’ve been guilty of this trait myself. I think in some ways that I didn’t want to be a jerk. I didn’t want to reproduce forms of nominally authoritarian behavior I’m aware of from my human social world with my relations in the spirit world. As I’ve considered this tendency, this avoidance, I felt that the thread of devotionalism came together with a desire to adopt progressive human social dynamics for those spiritual praxes.
The Devotional + The Progressive
As I have expanded my practice over the last couple of years, I have found myself confronting the intersection of my progressive perspectives and my magical practices. I observe that many pagans, neo-pagans, polytheists, and so on have adopted practices that have sought to extend their personal politics into the spiritual domain. In many cases, and partly because I’m aware of how I’ve done so myself, this seems to be partly a response to being raised in American Protestant culture with its emphases on heteronormativity and submission to various kinds of authority. In trying to defy that culture and its version of religiosity, I traded American Protestant devotionalism for a progressive take on some kind of non-Christian, polytheist devotionalism.
I’m going to pause here to explicitly make this point: I’m not trying to call out any particular group or religious practice, but I am going to talk about my experience and about my observations—or, at least, how I find meaning in what I do by how it seems to relate to what I see other people doing. I’m not telling you what to do, but I’ll tell you what I do and what I am thinking about it. If your practice is creating or discovering meaning and uplift for your life, then carry on.
I also think that, in responding to that original religious context and the ways in which I perceived it as authoritarian, conservative, and oppressive, I sought out an analogous religious context through which I could impose a counter-political mode of behavior. I call the originating religious practice “American Protestant devotionalism” in that, in theory, it focuses upon submission and devotional prayer to Christ. In practice, there seems to be a blurring of Christ-the-being and the institution of the Church. To be fair, you can find this kind of blending in the New Testament, though often yoked with assertions of authority on the Church’s part (whether the Roman Catholic Church or one’s preferred denomination). The Church as institution, and its pastoral authorities/mediators/gatekeepers, lay claim to authority of interpretation and more, and I found that it felt like I was being asked to offer devotional piety to Jesus through the pastor and, well, the church egregore as immediate recipient. Or that’s how I would describe it now.
Now, devotionalism has many forms, and I’m considering my own experience thereof. It seems to me that devotionalism includes two threads that I immediately notice. The first thread is that of the devotion and submission of a child to its parent, which is how Christianity has often framed its devotional character. It has also framed this devotionalism in terms of a subject to their monarch (with Christianity, specifically the King of Kings, the Lord, etc.). More rarely—and more controversially—that devotionalism can take on erotic or sublimated but erotic dimensions, where Christ is husband or an otherwise intimate partner.
I think for many former Christians who become pagan or polytheist devotionalists, this thread takes on the qualities of an abusive relationship, whether the abuses of a parent, leader, or lover, so they seek out parents, leaders, and lovers elsewhere. And as those of us who have progressive views seek out something more aligned with our sensibilities, we can end up trying to engineer relationships of a similarly progressive kind.
The second thread is more complex. In the pursuit of devotion with the divine, one can also seek union with them or to somehow become like the deity in question. The intimate or erotic version of the first thread can interweave with this one, and I’m reminded of how husband and wife can be conceived of as “one flesh”—consider nuns and Christ at that point—or Eucharist mysteries where one takes Christ into oneself. Sometimes, I think this relationship becomes one of elevation—one “marries” or “partners” upward—or one in which intimacy awakens that which is like the deity within the devotionalist or in which exposure to the deity “rubs off” onto them.
In my experience, polytheist devotionalism also often includes a component where, as one tries to bring one’s progressive beliefs into all areas of one’s life—we want to treat all these (generally non-Christian or non-Abrahamic) spiritual beings as previously maligned and oppressed “minorities” or otherwise “marginalized” persons. And while I’m down with treating most everyone as a person these days, I have come to feel that there’s a liberalizing, very much colonizing move involved with this perspective.
It’s a bit like the “White man’s burden,” but it’s perhaps more the “polytheist devotionalist’s burden.”
The spirit world never went away. Most non-western cultures continue working with, living beside ancestors, demons, spirits, ghosts, and so on. The West may notice it less often—work more often to write-off encounters and experiences and work to shame folks into ignoring or not talking about those encounters. And, especially when dealing with many classes of spirits, I don’t think treating them as if they’re “marginalized” or “oppressed”—or giving even the downright adversarial spirits attention because they were oh so “demonized” by the bad Christian people—well, just because we talked ourselves into ignoring the spirit world doesn’t mean it’s not always there and hasn’t been continuing on. Nor does it mean that you want to talk to most of them, let alone talking to most people.
I want to pull these devotionalist and progressive threads together because I feel as if there’s something very much connecting them. I have noted a tendency to want to start doing devotional work with any entity that gives you the time of day. I have noted a disdain—or pronounced reluctance—to relate to spirits in any kind of assertive manner. Many folks seem reluctant to exercise any kind of authority unless, perhaps, it’s obviously something “demonic,” or to take someone else to task for impolitic thinking.
I have found myself relating to many beings over the years as if they were surrogate or lost parents. Sometimes, I would relate to them as sexual partners found on the moonbeam paths, but the cosmos is in some ways a cosmic club to seek out hook-ups. So many “spiritual” “parents,” though. I have profound disaffection with my parents, so I can reflect on these tendencies with a certain self-awareness, at least at this point. I can also see how that paternalizing impulse is in some ways a starting point.
After all, when your mortal experience of close relationships—and spirit contact is very often close, for better or worse—typically come out of parental authority and our dreams of better parents, then I suspect we can easily slide into that when we come across someone we perceive as bigger and older than us, especially if they seem at all sympathetic. I’ve noted before that as time has passed, and as I’ve done more practical enchantment, many of those relationships that I had perceived in parent-child terms have become more that of siblings or at least family rather than parental.
And, well, we don’t want to be bad children, bad brothers or sisters—let alone needy siblings. So, like many people, I have done a lot of imploring. A lot of asking and pleading—a lot of bargaining. And, well, a lot of that did very little. “Hey—um, here’s this offering—can I have something in return?”
So, what does this mean when it comes to practice? Folks assert themselves to spirits of all kinds all the time. They will bury statues of St. Joseph upside down to sell a house faster. People have been haranguing spirits for ever.
Like most folks, I don’t want to be an ass. But like most folks, I also want to get shit done. And while human psi effects can account for a fair number of results, humans have also been gathering intelligence on those beings who can do specific tasks with far more efficacy than we can.
Let me point to the planetary prayer for Mercury from the Hygromanteia:
In the name of the Omni-benevolent God, Amen; O Lord, who dwells on high and beholds the humble, who guides the reins and the hearts, the Lord of spirits, the King of heaven and earth, grant your grace to me, the sinner, O Lord, in order to subdue the powers of the planet Mercury.
This prayer begins by invoking an authority who exists beyond all other beings and forces and who, indeed, would have authority over Mercury himself.
O Mercury, the most skilled in logical arguments, the effective and most excellent in wisdom and in every science; who divides and distributes the art and craft of each person; the experienced and skilled soldier, since without you all things, mobile or immobile, cannot be known; O Mercury, creator, philosopher and greatest among orators, who rules over minds;
Here, the prayer continues in an almost Orphic hymn vein, calling attention to the essential qualities of Mercury and his influences in the human world. I think of these kinds of passages as fulfilling several purposes: (1) aligning the practitioner to the being in question—getting the right frequency, as it were; (2) acknowledging the power and authority the being has, especially important given the assertion of a higher authority in the opening section; and (3) pointing to those qualities and influences of Mercury’s of which the practitioner is interested in manipulating.
I conjure you by God who created you and placed you in the heavens. I conjure you by your heaven, by your sphere, by the treasure and by the secret wisdom of God, by his strong and immeasurable hand and by all the myriads of angels, do not disobey me.
It’s important to keep in mind that conjure can mean something like summoning but also compelling. But here’s where the higher authority is invoked specifically to compel Mercury to do what the practitioner wants, while also pointing to Mercury’s place within the cosmos and Mercury’s role as a way through which those desired traits mentioned earlier can come into the world and, more specifically, into the practitioner’s life. From there, the prayer moves onto conjuring Mercury via the magical names associated with Mercury and the ultimate command for Mercury: Turn back your foul fortune from me. Bring me only good fortune.
You see, while we can debate whether it’s right to boss Mercury around—and we can debate whether we can boss Mercury around—there’s something fundamentally important to keep in mind. Mercury isn’t our mortal neighbor, neither is Bune, nor Saint Stephen, nor Oberion. For as much as Mercury can be a “cool guy,” and for as much as some folks develop a good devotional (or working) relationship with him, Mercury can help or harm in ways that one absolutely should work to constrain. We can be blessed by Mercury, or we can be cursed. We can direct him to curse others, or to bless them—to help and hinder.
Of course, it is important to recognize how different spirits or classes of spirits respond to different kinds of conjurations. The conjurations of angels tend to be far more stern but polite reminders of God’s and others’ authority over the angels and of the angels’ offices/roles, and of the speaker’s position within that cosmological hierarchy. In other instances, some spirits have far more specific and stringent protocols, or may respond appropriately (or safely) to forms of authority they recognize.
It’s also probably important to consider what one’s even conjuring here. One is not going to compel the physical planet of Mercury to come down and help one. One is not going to compel the primordial structure or force that one’s culture has come to term Mercury. But one can probably try to compel the expression of that Mercurial force in one’s life.
In a way, I suppose what I’m saying is that I can try to shape and influence how my daimon of Mercury manifests within my life here on Earth—an intermediary “between” me and Merucry-ness, which is already shaped by how Mercury is expressed in my natal chart.
That said, it’s perhaps tempting to treat this “expression” as not-a-person: “It’s not the real Mercury.” However, that expression is real Mercury. It may not be ultimate, primordial Mercury-ness, but it can certainly be Mercury, Mercurial, or of Mercury-ness. We might consider “Mercury” as a container for those expressions and intermediaries of Mercury-ness.
It’s also tempting to psychologize this daimonic expression: “It’s just my expression of Mercury—it’s that which is Mercury ‘in me.’” Maybe. Partly. But the Hygromanteia’s magical names for conjuring Mercury—“I conjure you in the following names”—well, those names are names for a reason. You have a name for a reason. And in a way, you can also be seen as an expression of Mercury-ness (along with a bunch of other -ness’es)—you are the myth of Mercury trying to come to life in a very particular instantiation. (You are also Venuses and Jupiters and Saturns and Suns, etc.) At that point, why deny similar personhood to daimonic intermediaries?
Otherwise, conjuring and compelling also establishes boundaries and rules for behavior. The constraint or binding on conjured spirits from the Ars Goetia in the Lesser Key very specifically constrains how the spirit can interact with the magician. For as much as some practitioners like to look down on the grimoires as “nonsense” or including a bunch of stuff that’s “not necessary” or of being questionable efficacy in the first place, practitioners have conserved the techniques within the grimoires—with various UPG mutations, of course—with remarkable consistency for a reason. In addition to the compulsion for obedience—including, presumably, obedience to the other demands on the spirit’s behavior—the fact that the magician needs to demand “rationell answers” and for the spirit to speak “affably…with a voice Intellegible to my understanding” suggests that, in many instances, spirits may not do so otherwise. The threat posed by spirits—well attested throughout human myth and legend—makes these constraints and compulsions a well-conserved part of spirit contact practice. Of course, the practitioner needs to negotiate some kind of pact, but the apparatus of ritual represents a technology for trying to keep things from blowing up in the practitioner’s physical or “etheric” face.
These conjurations are perhaps something you wouldn’t use with your ancestors (perhaps with your family’s ghosts), but presumably your ancestors who have transitioned into death in a healthy manner will have your interests in mind—you are literally the skin they have in the game. Even then, recalcitrant ancestors can probably be constrained by appeal to more amenable ancestors, or ancestors and spirits whose authority the upset ancestor would respect or obey.
Ultimately, conjuration is at least in part about establishing and controlling boundaries in such a way that you can best mitigate problems, get results that look more like what you want, and keep things civil on both ends. So, well, much like how we like to establish and enforce boundaries elsewhere in our lives. Of course, in many instances, conjuration establishes the bounds of the initial relationship, which can—if both parties are open to doing so—go beyond what the initial protocols allow for.
I also reflect on what I recently wrote in “Neighborly,” but in that context, I am literally dealing with my neighbors—the spirits of land and place nearby. Leaving “offerings” for them as a neighborly practice, even as a bit of informal favor trading, is distinct from devotionalism or conjuration. I wonder if part of the taboo on “payment” and explicit gift giving in some traditions has to do with the spirits avoiding getting caught up in a putative pact or conjuration: just as folks usually try to avoid “faerie gifts” and food, they probably want to avoid accepting similar kinds of gifts, at least without an explicit bargain or arrangement made already. At that point, you’re likely into the territory of exchange, pacts, and conjuration. If nothing else, I think that’s an interesting way to think about that kind of lore and practice and what it may tell us about other covenants and agreements.
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