by Jesper Toad
I believe that the practice of Witchcraft includes initiating, fostering, and maintaining reciprocal relationships with the invisible spirits. Ritual transactions that include offerings, oblations, and sacrifices—the gifts crossing the divide from the visible to the invisible realms—act as foundational communications that open currents of power between us and the multitudinous spirits with which we share the world.
Although traditionally thought of as a transaction or communication between superior spirits (gods and such) and inferior spirits (lowly mankind), I tend to interact with the spirit world not in terms of power-over, but in a praxis of power-with. Starhawk defines power-over in terms of domination and control, as opposed to power-with, which is based in influence and social power (Simos, 1999, p. 269). The spirits of the land, the spirits of the dead, the good people, and all the other spirits one might meet, are different from me: as far as I can ascertain, I have both a physical and a spiritual substance, move around in a concrete body in a manifest word subject to time and space; the invisibles have an insubstantial, eternal quality, and are not subject to the same temporal linearity. As an incarnate entity, I can do things though the medium of my concrete, physical body that invisible and discarnate entities cannot. Conversely, the spirits can influence the world in beneficial or malicious ways that are not within my immediate abilities. For the Witch, the shaman, the magical practitioner, the important relationships between the visible and invisible are reciprocal: we work together toward shared goals, as well as co-inhabit the world. Additionally, I work from a place of equal-but-different, and think of these invisible spirit entities in the same terms I would incarnate individuals. How would I treat the neighbors in the next house over? How do I interact with my co-workers, family members, and friends? I treat them with respect, and hope that they treat me in the same manner. With those that I share work, goals, and aspirations, I strive to foster and sustain reciprocal relationships.
Although one may disagree to my leveling everything from the soul of men to the mighty gods under the umbrella term of spirit, one will agree that they are all spirit on some level, and we must foster and sustain right relationships with them so that we may further our spiritual work in the world. One tenet of the Anderson Feri Tradition that I happen to hold dear is that that one does not submit their life for to anyone or anything (Coyle, 2004, p. 239). This submission would include turning life force over to any entity, flesh or spirit, man or god. My use of the word spirit for all such discarnate entities is a linguistic attempt to level a playing field, avoid having my energies co-opted by entities and efforts that do not serve me, and to enter into relationships characterized by power-with rather than power over. These respectful and reciprocal relationships between the visible and invisible worlds are created and sustained through three related modalities of offering, oblation, and sacrifice.
Offerings tend to be spontaneous, an act of sharing rooted in affection, celebration, or gratitude. Such informal offerings are given freely, an act of generosity. Earnest offerings to newly encountered spirits often herald the beginning of relationships. Generally, where offerings and libations are concerned, spirits appear to prefer gifts that have been enhanced by the work of human hands. The cream and butter churned from the milk of domesticated stock, oatcakes or bread baked by the lady of the house, and fermented beverages are all traditional offerings found in European folklore.
Often modern people will observe that offerings of cream, oatcakes, or whisky appear to be left untouched. Obviously, it is not the physical substance of an offering, but the vital etheric energies that are consumed by the invisible. Consequently it is unwise to eat food that was left as an offering, not only because the offense it may cause to the spirits involved, but also because such food has no goodness in it, and stories are told that eating of it can cause sickness (Wentz, 1911).
Some offerings are performed on a regular basis to ensure the continuation of reciprocal relationships between the quick and the dead, the human and the fairy, the seen and the unseen. For me, the term for these exchanges is oblation—from the Latin oblatio, meaning ‘to offer’—and occur predictably, maybe daily, perhaps at the turning of the moon, or on the commencement or peak of certain tides of the year. These gifts are a manifestation of a tacit contract, an obligation intended either as a compensation of services, or a paying forward of offerings from the unseen yet to be delivered.
According to Lecouteux, domestic spirits traditionally receive a portion of the food prepared within the household as a daily offering, usually left upon the heath, which was considered the center of the household (I wonder, now that we rarely have hearths in our dwellings, does this suggest our homes lack a center point?). Such sprits are considered members of the family, and are treated with the respect that is accorded them (2013, p. 146). If established oblations are neglected disaster of some sort is sure to follow: cows are taken, crops fail to thrive, objects disappear, and other maladies and accidents occur (Briggs, 1978; Lenihan & Green, 2003; Wentz, 1911).
Oblations performed to honor the spirits of the land are similar to those of domestic spirits—Lecouteux suggests the land spirits often were installed as house spirits—with the exception of where offerings are presented (2015, p. 30). The spirits of the land receive offerings at crossroads, boundary markers, and borders: all places where the fields of men meet the wild, liminal, in-between places.
The spirits that are honored with less frequent regular oblations are sometimes those that visit from elsewhere. At All Hallows’ Eve food and drink are prepared for the beloved ancestors as they pass through the thinning veils to visit the living.
I refer to the third exchange between the visible and invisible realms with the word sacrifice: this practice digs deeper into the human side of the equation, and is aimed at transformation. Sacrifice, as most will tell you, has its origin in the Latin sacrare, meaning to make holy. The accepted definition of sacrifice suggests that it is used as an act of propitiation or homage. While propitiation carries the idea of either assuaging or appeasing another, making them favorable or gracious in their attitude and actions toward you, homage refers to, in its original usage, a ceremonial pledging of one person to another. The aspects of propitiation and homage in relationship to the act of sacrifice appear to be more personal, specific, and deliberate than acts of offering and oblation.
To confuse matters, the word “sacrifice” has been used broadly to describe what I am here dividing more finely into casual offerings and obligatory oblations. Sacrifice, in my opinion, demands a change in the person committing the sacrifice, which further suggests to me that what is sacrificed is given away irrevocably. What has been sacrificed is no longer available for use, and those energies belong specifically to that which the sacrifice was dedicated. Ninian Smart observes that those things that are sacrificed are destroyed or otherwise obscured—often by fire or casting them into water—removing the sacrificed object from the perceptual world and transferring the essence to the invisible realm (Smart, 1996, p. 79).
Lecouteux views the act of sacrifice as primordial, recalling cosmogonic myths involving dismemberment of supernatural beings, resulting in the creation or recreation of the cosmos as the result (2013, p. 22). In this I tend to agree: the act of sacrifice reroutes the life force of an individual (or of a substitute living being) toward change in the way of being in the world of that individual, or for a larger community. In my illustration of the sacrifice, the red thread of the life force has been deliberately cut. The light of consciousness and the innocent heart, represented by the candle flame and the cardiotaph, bear witness to the act: the heart and head must be united in the commitment to the act of sacrifice, and one with the hand that wields the blade that cuts away what is to be gifted and transformed. Following this notion of sacrifice, any such serious offering of life force must be dedicated toward change, and there can be no looking back.
Briggs, K. (1978). The vanishing people: Fairy lore and legends. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Coyle, T. T. (2014). Evolutionary witchcraft. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Lecouteux, C. (2015). Demons and spirits of the land: Ancestral lore and practices ( J. E. Graham, Trans.). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. (Original work published 1995).
Lecouteux, C. (2013). The tradition of household spirits: Ancestral lore and practices ( J. E. Graham, Trans.). Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. (original work published 2000).
Lenihan, E. & Green, C. E. (2003). Meeting the other crowd: the fairy stories of hidden Ireland. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Simos, M. (1999). The spiral dance: A rebirth of he ancient religion of the great goddess, special 20th anniversary edition. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco. (Original work published 1979).
Smart, N. (1996). Dimensions of the sacred: An anatomy of the world’s beliefs. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
Wentz, W. Y. E. (1911). The fairy-faith in Celtic countries. London, UK: Oxford University Press.
Jesper Toad is a Georgian and a Gardnerian initiate, and studied the Feri Tradition with T. Thorn Coyle for nearly three years. His personal practice of three decades blends elements of all these traditions, as well incorporating spiritualist, shamanic and depth psychological perspectives. These seasonal writings and images are excerpts from The Enchiridion Magistellus, A Visual Handbook of the Witches’ Art. Jesper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.