In my last post, I talked about different types of spirits that witches may work with. Today, we’re going to discuss how to approach spirits and establish a working relationship.
Keep in mind that these are general guidelines, and every spirit is different. I encourage you to do your own research beyond this post, especially if you plan to work with powerful entities like deities, angels, or fairies.
Remember the Four R’s
It’s important to keep these things in mind when working with spirits:
Respect. The spirits are powerful, and you need to have a healthy respect for that power when working with them. It’s also important to respect them as individual, autonomous beings.
I’m not saying that every interaction you have with the spirits needs to be a full blown ritual with incense and chanting. (In fact, some spirits don’t care for those types of rituals.) But every interaction you have with them should be conducted with an air of respect and reverence.
What this mostly boils down to is good manners. Being polite will get you better results — and it will also keep you from being on the receiving end of spirit mischief. Proper etiquette depends on the type of spirit you’re working with, which is one reason it’s important to do your research. In general, it’s polite to make an offering, use respectful language, and thank the spirits before you leave (unless you’re dealing with fairies — some traditions say you should never thank the fae).
Respecting spirits also means respecting their desires — even if that means respecting their wish not to work with you. Not every spirit you reach out to will want to form a relationship with you, just like not every person you meet in your life will want to be your friend. When a spirit turns you down, respect their decision, politely bid them farewell, and move on.
Reciprocity. The goal of spirit work is to establish a mutually-beneficial partnership — not for one partner to serve the other. On one hand, this means that you can’t just command spirits to do your bidding without giving anything in return. On the other hand, it also means that you won’t be worshiping/honoring them without receiving some kind of boon.
This is why it’s important to make offerings to the spirits you work with. These offerings “feed” the spirits by giving them power, and a good offering will likely make a spirit more willing to work with you. Offerings are not payment for favors from spirits (it’s not quite that simple), but they are a sign that you intent to practice reciprocity in your relationship.
In general, it’s important to make an offering when you first introduce yourself to a spirit and again before you ask them for anything. But you shouldn’t only make offerings when you’re about to ask for something! How would you feel if you had a friend who only did nice things for you when they were about to ask for a favor? You’d probably start avoiding them, right? You might even get angry. To avoid this kind of dynamic in your spirit work, make regular offerings to the spirits you work with. If you’re especially close with a spirit, you may want to offer to them every day.
Relationship. The spirits are not vending machines where you put offerings in and blessings fall out. They are living, sentient beings with feelings, and deserve to be treated as such. Your relationship with the spirits you choose to work with is just that: a relationship. And like any relationship, it requires time, energy, and emotional labor.
If that sounds like more effort than you want to make, there are plenty of ways to do magic without ever working with spirits. You don’t need to do spirit work to be a witch. It may not be your thing, and that’s okay!
But if you choose to work with spirits, it’s important to remember that you are working with them as an equal partner — you’re not their boss, and they are not obligated to like you, help you, or even tolerate you. Relationships with spirits are built over time, through mutual respect and trust.
You wouldn’t drive up to your friend’s house, throw a fast-food burger at them, and then demand a special favor. Likewise, you shouldn’t just dump an offering on your altar and demand something of the spirits. Take the time to sit down with them. Talk to them. Get to know them. Put some thought into your offerings, instead of just offering the same thing every time. Spirit work is, at its core, about building an authentic relationship with the spirits we choose to include in our practice. Enjoy it.
Research. When it comes to spirits, it’s important to know exactly who (and what) you’re dealing with. As previously mentioned, the etiquette for dealing with fairies is very different from other land spirits. Different deities have different standards for their worshipers, which vary from one pantheon to the next. The way you interact with your ancestors will probably be shaped by their personalities, cultures, and values. All this is to say it’s important to know who you’re reaching out to, preferably before you reach out to them.
With deities, this is easy. Most witches who choose to work with deities will feel drawn to a certain pantheon, or even a specific god or goddess. There’s a lot of information out there about most historical pantheons, so researching them is easy. The same goes for angels, saints, demons, and even fairies.
It can be a little more difficult to do your research when you’re dealing with land spirits, spirits of place, or other less well-known figures. In these cases, it’s best to take three steps: 1.) figure out what type of spirit you’re dealing with (land spirit, animal spirit, ancestor, etc.), 2.) find out what this type of spirit is like generally, and 3.) find out how that applies to your specific spirit.
For example: you want to connect with your local land spirits. You do some research to find out how land spirits have been treated in various cultures — you find out that they’re typically benevolent, are closely tied to the natural landscape, and were often given food offerings. Then, you do some research into your local plants and animals — what form might a nature spirit take in your local environment? Would it be a huge moose with snow-covered antlers, or a magnolia tree in full bloom? Is there any local folklore in your area that could be describing a land spirit? Once you have answers to these questions, you’ll have a much better idea of how to approach the spirits and start up a relationship.
Initiating a Relationship with a Spirit
Begin by identifying who this spirit is. For example, let’s say you choose to reach out to a specific ancestor spirit — maybe a deceased grandparent. Make sure you’re familiar with the etiquette for interacting with this type of spirit so you don’t accidentally do something disrespectful. (If your Grandma hated cussing, try not to drop any f-bombs while communing with her.)
Create a special space to communicate with the spirit. This can be as simple as lighting a candle or as elaborate as setting up a special altar. If you’re reaching out to a grandparent, you might set up a small ritual space with a photo of them, any of their belongings that you have access to, and some things that they enjoyed while they were alive. These items may make the connection easier, but you don’t need them to communicate. What matters is that you’ve taken the time to create a special space for this moment. (Like all ritual spaces, it should be clean and tidy, and it’s a good idea to do an energetic cleanse beforehand.)
Make an offering. Make sure your offering is appropriate for the spirit you’re connecting to. Offerings should be made with an air of reverence — don’t just toss a bag of Doritos on your altar and expect it to be well-received.
Introduce yourself. Speak out loud. State your intention and who you are hoping to connect with.
Wait and listen. You may feel a presence or receive some kind of sign — or you may not. Just because you didn’t get a sign doesn’t mean that your offering wasn’t noticed or that you’re being ignored. You may also receive a sign several hours, days, or weeks after you first reach out. Be patient.
Say your farewells. Express your gratitude for the spirit’s presence, and let them know that you are ending your little ritual. It’s up to you whether to invite them to stick around or politely tell them to leave, but if you’re going to give a spirit permission to linger in your home you better be 1000% sure you know who they are and what their intentions with you are.
As you work with this spirit, it is important to establish clear boundaries for the relationship. Be clear about what you want to accomplish by working with them, and make sure you understand what they expect from you in return.
You might want to establish a time limit: for example, maybe you’re choosing to work closely with the goddess Brigid from Imbolc to Samhain, at which point you can choose to continue the relationship or to take a step back. Or, you may choose to work with a spirit on a specific task — for example, working with the goddess Aphrodite to get back on your feet and rebuild your self esteem after a breakup. Once this task is accomplished, you may choose to form a more long-term relationship or to take a step back.
Forming a permanent or long-term working relationship with a spirit is a very big, very serious commitment, and should not be taken lightly. This goes double for anything involving a ritual commitment, such as dedication to a deity. When you make these commitments, you are choosing to make a spirit and their energy a permanent part of your life. This decision requires some very serious introspection and consideration, and should not be made impulsively.
- Southern Cunning: Folkloric Witchcraft in the American South by Aaron Oberon
- A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru by Patricia M. Lafayllve
- Where the Hawthorn Grows and The Morrigan: Meeting the Great Queens by Morgan Daimler
- Wicca for Beginners by Thea Sabin
- Azrael Loves Chocolate, Michael’s A Jock: An Insider’s Guide to What Your Angels Are Really Like by Chantel Lysette
- New World Witchery podcast (several episodes, including “Episode 164 — Irish Folklore and Magic,” “Episode 161 — Practicing Safe Hex,” and “Episode 152 — Honoring Ancestors”)
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