Cleansing in Modern Paganism and Witchcraft

Cleansing in Modern Paganism and Witchcraft February 5, 2023

I occasionally see the false and unhelpful idea that you shouldn’t buy used Tarot decks. In the first module of the online class I’m teaching at the moment, I labeled that as misinformation and said “buy used stuff wherever you can. Cleanse it. Make it yours. Go with it.”

And that led to a series of questions on cleansing. Why do I need to cleanse my cards? How do I cleanse them? What happens if I don’t?

I wrote about house cleansings in 2019 but I don’t seem to have written about cleansing in general. So I think it’s time to do that. I want to talk about cleansing things like Tarot decks and houses, but also about cleansing ourselves.

photo by John Beckett

What is cleansing?

Cleansing is cleaning. According to Merriam-Webster, the words are virtually identical. In a spiritual context, cleansing means removing impurities.

Many Pagans have bad feelings about the topic of purity – I’m one of them. Conservative Christianity uses the idea of sexual purity in manipulative and abusive ways. Too many people allow ideological purity to keep them from making society better. They refuse to vote for a lesser evil and in doing so, they help a greater evil get elected and do great damage (“Hillary is too close to Wall Street!”).

This isn’t what we’re talking about.

In a spiritual or religious context, cleansing is like washing your hands after you’ve been working in the garden. Dirt isn’t evil or bad or anything of the sort. Dirt is sacred – without good rich dirt nothing would grow and we’d all starve to death. But we don’t want to get dirt on the floors and we certainly don’t want to get dirt in our food. An impurity isn’t something that’s bad. It’s something that’s unhelpful where it is, even though it may be very helpful in other places and in other contexts.

Cleansing removes discordant, inappropriate, and otherwise unhelpful residue and energies from ourselves and our tools.

Cleanse for respect and honor

There are some traditions – including some modern Pagan traditions – who teach that since their Gods are holy and pure, we must be as holy and pure as we can be when we approach them. We should be physically and spiritually clean in our rituals and rites.

I respect those traditions, but I’m not part of one. Still, some of the Gods I worship have let me know They want me to be clean when I come to Them in ritual – think washing your hands and face, not a major cleansing. I think it’s more of a “make this an intentional thing” than any tangible need for cleanliness, but that’s just a guess.

Cernunnos does not care. He’s a God of the Wild, and cleanliness isn’t very important to Him. He just wants me there.

Follow the instructions of the Gods and the traditions you follow.

I want to be clean and neat when I’m leading public ritual. People should recognize I’m a priest by my actions, but I want my appearance to reinforce that idea. At the least, I want people to see that this is important to me.

Part of being clean is showing respect and honor to your tradition, to your spiritual guests, and to your human guests. We cleanse for respect and honor.

photo by John Beckett

Cleanse for maximum effectiveness

Use an object for very long and it becomes connected to you. Your fingerprints are on it – quite literally. Like you, an object retains “memories” of what it’s done before – psychic residue that remains after the event is over.

Sometimes this is a good thing. It helps tools become not just your property, but an extension of yourself. This is especially helpful with tools used for projection, like wands and athames.

If you buy or are given something that someone else used, it’s likely to have their energies connected to it. Unless that person did horrible things, that residual energy isn’t likely to be harmful. But it’s not yours. The energies of a used Tarot deck resonate with its previous owner. You need them to resonate with you.

So the first step is to remove the energies that aren’t yours.

So how do we do that?

Cleansing with smoke

Mention cleansing with smoke and some people assume you’re talking about sage. To be clear: cleansing with sage is not cultural appropriation. Cleansing with sage in a Native American ceremony when you’re not Native American is cultural appropriation, and shouldn’t be done.

Is white sage overharvested? Maybe – I’ve seen arguments both ways.

White sage is very good for cleansing, but it only grows in a small section of the western United States and Mexico – there are plenty of other options. People around the world have done successful cleansings for centuries and they never knew white sage existed. Find what works well that grows in your area.

Find an herb or wood that produces astringent smoke. Get a small bit burning, then waft the smoke over the items – or the people – you want to cleanse. The smoke breaks up discordant residue and energies so they can be blown away.

Cleansing with energy

Considering that most of what we want to get rid of in cleansing is energetic in nature, it makes sense that energy cleansing methods would be especially effective.

This is how I cleansed a used Tarot deck I bought. I spread the cards out, projected energy into them and over them, and directed it out and away. Then I said a brief prayer, asking the Gods I follow to help enable the cards to help me see what I need to see.

Quick, easy, and effective… though I’ve found this works better with objects than with people. Not sure why – that would make for a interesting conversation over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.

photo by John Beckett

Cleansing with water

There’s nothing like water – and a little soap – to do a physical cleaning. Water also works well for spiritual cleansing. This works best with blessed water – water that has been energetically cleansed (usually with energy), charged (also with energy), and blessed (with prayers).

There are many recipes for making blessed water – holy water. My favorite is to charge a container of water under the full moon. That works best when you can leave it open outside all night. If you can’t do that, put it in a window that will catch at least some of the moonlight.

Then sprinkle the water over the person/thing you want to cleanse. I like to use a sprig of rosemary as an asperging branch.

Obviously (I hope it’s obvious!) you can’t do this with Tarot cards. Even if your cards are coated with something that’s water-resistant, it’s likely to leave spots – especially if you put salt in your cleansing water. But it works very well for cleansing people.

photo by John Beckett
Full moon water. It’s about time to make some more.

How often do you need to cleanse?

How often do you clean your kitchen? I clean up after every meal, but I only do a serious cleaning when I start to notice things aren’t so clean anymore. And I think that’s a good approach to spiritual cleansing. Do things feel a bit off? Did you just have a run-in with someone who was hard to deal with? Are you not getting the results you need from your tools? Then it’s probably time to cleanse them – especially if it’s been so long you can’t remember the last time you did.

On the other hand, some cooking utensils – especially cast iron skillets – need to be “seasoned.” They need to be used and used and used again with minimal cleaning. I cleansed and consecrated my wand when I first made it. I cleansed my Awen pendant when I first got it. I haven’t cleansed either since, and I don’t plan on doing it. They’re filled with my energy and the energies of the rites and workings I’ve done with them. They’re seasoned – and they’re powerful.

Cleansing isn’t something to obsess about. Taken to extremes it can become unhelpful. Done right, though, it can make our tools and ourselves more focused and more effective.

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