Spirit work has popped up on some of the social media sites I frequent. I thought it might be useful to gather together some quotes and ideas, in the hopes of providing examples of this practice.
Doing a bit of asking around, the word seems to have originated about 15 years ago (2004) from a group of polytheists looking to define certain practices they were seeing and participating in. From there it spread out into the wider Pagan, polytheist, and witchcraft communities. Today I have seen a wide variety of people use the term, even those who don’t identify as Pagan. As the term spread it changed and adapted to the different communities.
My Experience with the Term
Here is a definition of spirit work that is common in the groups and communities I personally am part of:
In the vaguest of ways, spirit work is a kind of spiritual practice that deals mainly with interactions between humankind and the world of spirits and Gods. It is different from other kinds of devotional work in that there is some form of communication between spirit workers and the spirits/Gods they work with or for. Usually, it also incorporates actions and practices that Spirits/Gods ask the spirit worker to do – as mundane as “carry this brick for two blocks and then put it down again” (an actual example), or as metaphysical as “spend nine days in a trance state exploring a specific place on the astral realm” (another actual example). – What is “Spirit Work”? on Sex, Gods, and Rockstars
The above link also goes into a bit of how the term was used instead of shaman; nowadays I see more people using ‘spirit work’ in place of the more appropriative ‘shaman’ but concerns of appropriation weren’t really what drove the creation of the term back during its origins.
Often I see discussions and discourse about what constitutes ‘work’. From the same post as above, we can see the author takes the perspective that spirit work can look different dependent on the person:
Some spirit workers work solely with the spirits […] Others find themselves working primarily with people, but for a spiritual cause. – What is “Spirit Work”? on Sex, Gods, and Rockstars
The arguments regarding what counted as spirit work often focused on whether one was including a human community element. Some will argue that a spirit worker who works exclusively with spirits and has no interest in handling human concerns is not a spirit worker. The argument isn’t settled, and it is likely you’ll run into differing opinions to this day. Since the majority of my spirit work (which I do consider somewhat different from my larger devotional practice) is focused almost entirely on the spirits themselves, I come down solidly on the side that a human component is not necessary.
It is likely that discourse on what makes a spirit worker exactly that has been going on since the term’s first usage. Consider this post from a decade ago which remarks on some of the interpersonal/community issues that occur:
Some spirit-workers are deeply and passionately religious people, with their spirit-work, even the more sorcerous, practical elements, being an act of devotion; for others, it’s a solemn and important duty but not a religious one. For a few it is simply a means to serve their own ends, and for an even smaller minority, it is something they are compelled to do to survive.
Very, very rarely you might come across a case resembling something like indentured servitude or thralldom, where the spirit-worker has no choice but to obey instructions from a God or other being, on pain of sickness, madness or death. It’s highly irreguar [sic], but it does happen. Rather unfortunately this rare condition has been seized upon by some as the essence of what a spirit-worker is […]
Unfortunately, this kind of grandstanding creates a false impression of what spirit-work is, leading to spirit-workers who don’t have that kind of collared relationship doubting their own effectiveness; feeling “not good enough” because their relationship with the spirits is of a teacher-pupil, familial, or collegial kind. This is very sad. There is no right way to relate to the spirits. The nature of the spirit-worker’s relationship should be less of an issue than how well things are going in terms of effectiveness in the role.
The comments on the above post note that the heavy focus on spirit workers being forced or coerced into service with the unseen ones has caused problems in the community, with spirit workers that have more relaxed relationships or practices being told they are doing it wrong in some way. Gatekeeping and labeling are always fraught, no matter the specific communities involved, and spiritual groups are no different.
Here, from the same post, is a broad definition of spirit work, one that likely applies to the many diverse groups that use the term:
What defines a spirit-worker is the ability and willingness to engage in work that involves spirits. The role is as broad and diverse in its expression as all of human nature.
For myself, the largest influence of what spirit work is and what it means to be a spirit worker comes from reading Dwelling on the Threshold, which is a collection of essays by the author about their spirit work and spiritual practice.
In the past few days I ran into some different uses of ‘spirit work’ that I hadn’t seen before. These dealt mainly, if not exclusively, with spirit ‘vessels’ and ‘spirit companions’ – people who purchase spirits from shops. Googling ‘spirit work for beginners’ turns up multiple hits to posts and sites talking about buying spirits (as well as some more generic ‘here’s how to start spiritual work’ articles).
Talking with others, it seems that spirit vessels and objects are a well established practice in certain traditions across the globe. There are also certain magicians that will bind spirits in order to perform magic. Not to mention the existence of haunted dolls and other objects. The idea of a spirit being tied, or even trapped, to a physical vessel isn’t new or without precedence.
The shops I was seeing advertised seemed stripped of all cultural context, however. Even while posts and articles warned of cultural appropriation, I couldn’t find information on where this practice had originated or why it had been adapted the way it had. (Again, talking with some friends gave me some ideas on where these online shops may have gotten the spirit-selling concept, but nothing concrete.) Instead, the focus was on adopting spirits and how to buy from reputable shops.
Most concerning to me – well, apart from the ethics of buying spirits – was the scaremongering toward contacting spirits directly. While it is wise to be cautious and research the entities you might encounter, there is a sketchy and unpleasant element of warning people against direct spirit communication and encounters when you are trying to sell them spirits. It is, I think, disempowering. It doesn’t help that very few of the resources I found covered any sort of basic energy work or witchcraft skills that one might need when handling spirits.
How these practices began being called ‘spirit work’ is knowledge I had no luck finding, unfortunately. Both spirit keeping and spirit companionship seemed to be more common terms for the practice. Considering the origins and usage of ‘spirit work’ and ‘spirit worker’, the term doesn’t really feel appropriate.
Spirit work as I was introduced to it – and as it remains within the broader Pagan and polytheist communities – usually places the spirits first. Even with more transactional approaches, the spirits are typically treated with a respect and dignity that really isn’t present if you’re binding a spirit to an object and hawking them online. Especially with how I learned about spirit work and was taught by the spirits themselves, such a practice seems deeply insulting. It places the emphasis on the human, who wants a spirit so bad they will buy it rather than do the foundational work of building relationships with the spirits already around you. And, again, it strips any cultural or traditional context away, leaving people doing things like binding fairies to vessels.
Spirit work should be about the spirits. Just as devotional work is about praising the Gods, even if we do get positive benefits for ourselves from doing so. Spirit work is about the spirits, about balancing the concerns of humans and spirits (if part of that our work involves humans). It shouldn’t be about bossing spirits around or banishing them when they get a little scary.
Conflict of Use
Ultimately, the people calling what they do spirit work are going to keep doing so. I’m sure there are some spirit workers who think my practices don’t count. And I don’t want to force people to stop practicing what they are, even if the framework I’m using means I think it all sounds like a terrible idea. (I do feel a lot of this comes down to framework/paradigm.)
The main reason I wanted to write this post is to show how the term spirit work has been used in our communities in the past. One of the biggest problems with Tumblr and some of the sites grown out of it is a disconnect from the larger Pagan, polytheist, and witchcraft communities. Other bloggers here on Patheos have talked about Instagram witchery, the differences and possible conflicts there: here is a post by Thorn Mooney I think tackles the subject really well.
Then again, spirit work can be broad and encompassing. It won’t be up to one person to decide how the term is used in the future. (Just look at Wicca for how a term can change and morph and be debated still.) The communities that use it, and the conflicts that grow out of its use, will decide.