Witches are, traditionally and historically, spirit workers. It is one of the fundamental, and inescapable, elements of witchcraft and gives credence to the idea that witchcraft, as we know it, is part of the indigenous shamanic practices of pre-Christian Europe and its peoples*. Spirits exist in a wide variety of forms, although most people tend to think only of the dead (i.e. ghosts, spirits of deceased humans and animals.) While necromancy (working and communicating with the dead, specifically dead humans) is a part of witchcraft and does play a significant role in many witches practice, there are other forms of spirit work that are much more benign and, thus, overlooked that do make up every witch's practice. This is due to the nature of those spirits and the fact that they are very often not considered as spirits (which they, very rightfully and truthfully, are.)
Spirits Exist in Numerous Forms
It has already been mentioned that one form of spirit is the deceased: both human and animal. In regards to humans, those that a witch may work with are frequently divided into two groups the Beloved Dead and the Mighty Dead. Both types may be considered ancestors, however, it is the Beloved Dead alone that are connected to the individual witch by blood and family ties: they are biological and familial ancestors, the remnants of the past that live on through that witch. The Mighty Dead, on the other hand, are the spiritual ancestors of the witch. Within witchcraft, figures such as Gerald Gardener, Robert Cochrane, Doreene Valiente, and Marion Weinstein can be approached as the Mighty Dead and beseeched for aid. (The methods of approaching and working with the Dead is outside the scope of this article and may be addressed in a future article.)
The spirits of deceased animals are another common type of spirit that may be worked with. They are approached in either the archetypal form (e.g. coyote is seen as a trickster, turtle as a psychopomp, crows are useful for communicating with other spirits, etc.) or as the specific spirit of a specific dead animal (e.g. you find the remains of a raccoon in the forest, its spirit is still attached to the bones, and it agrees to come home with you and aid you in your Craft.) Working and communicating with animal spirits is surprisingly simple, as many things within witchcraft are once you know how to move the energy without tools and just do it, and can be a very rewarding and effective addition to any witch's practice.
The majority of spirits, however, have never been corporeal, that is, they've never existed in the physical plane in a physical body. They are purely energetic, some existing primarily in the Otherworld yet interacting with (and within) the physical plane, while others flit about between the worlds, existing comfortably in both. These spirits are more complicated and more diverse, existing in as many patterns of forms as physical creatures do. There are some that are unable to communicate, existing more mechanically with one purpose, similarly to created spirits (e.g. thought forms, elementaries, servitors, fetches, etc.) only these are naturally existing. Some of these are regularly encountered, though they are more of an annoyance than anything as they are often parasitic, feeding off particular energies. However, they can be gotten rid of and kept away (i.e. warding is your friend.) There are, also, spirits that exist that bare remarkable similarity to humans, though they may not be humanoid in the slightest. They are fully sentient and have their own agenda, though some may take interest in humans and aim to either help or harm. Just as with humans, they're more likely to help if there's something in it for them, and some are just real assholes.
The Overlooked Spirits
But, the spirits that are worked with the most by witches are the ones whose status of "spirit" is often overlooked. The most obvious is that of Deities. Gods and Goddesses are approached with a high degree of respect and sincerity (as They and all spirits should be) but this doesn't change the fact that, on the spectrum of spirits, They are just another type of spirit with greater complexity to and power behind Them. It helps to consider that many Deities were originally genus loci, that is, local spirits of place, that were important to the people who lived in that area. As that spirit proved helpful to the people, the people responded with more praise, worship, and offerings -this strengthening that spirit and making it not only more likely to help the people, but more able to. As time passed, this spirit would gain more power and reach as the people interacted with other people and shared the knowledge of and way of interaction with that spirit with others. No culture exists within a vacuum and mutual sharing across cultures was and is common place. Gods were shared, various Gods would grow in power, while Others were subsumed in the worship of another God -strengthening that God further. And so, this is how the spirit of a spring in Syracuse grew in power only to be absorbed by the goddess Artemis, for example.
The spirits of plants are also a very common part of witchcraft, so much so that herbalism is another fundamental element. Plants are worked with similarly to animals in that they are approached archetypally (e.g. pine is used for protection, cinquefoil for lucid dreams, etc.) and individually (e.g. a large rose bush growing in your front yard can work to protect your home in exchange for the care you give it.) However, plant spirits are more impermanent than animal spirits. A plant can be approached, beseeched, and a bit of it taken for Work, but the spirit that exists within that plant will be gone once the plant is used. With animals, that spirit can easily exist tied to its bones for years. Look at the life cycle of that type of plant for clues to how long you can expect an individual plant of that type to stick around.
The Elements are another type of spirit often overlooked, although they are so prominent within Modern Witchcraft. They are more archetypal in nature, though some witches do report encountering specific individual spirits of each Element. They are easily approached and worked with as, being archetypal, they are more a type of energy that one can align themself with, pull, and use to their advantage.
As mentioned earlier, some spirits exist within a specific location, often tied to a specific natural feature, such as a river, mountain, spring, rock formation, cave, forest, or even a mesa. These are the genius loci (alternately genii locus) or local spirits, the spirits of place. There really are no hard and fast rules to what a local spirit is specifically tied to, sometimes it is just that general area. These spirits may manifest themselves, allowing humans to witness them, however, they often spend their time in pure energetic form, invisible to us -though not undetectable to the witch. There are numerous reports within folk lore around the world of these such spirits, with the good folk, or fae, being the most commonly acknowledged (though not the only) type within witchcraft. These spirits are, unsurprisingly, very protective of the area in which they live and can be standoffish and difficult to work with initially. They can also be hostile, especially in areas that have been heavily damaged by humans (e.g. deforestation, littering, redevelopment. etc.) However, as a witch, a spirit worker, it only makes sense to approach the spirits of the place in which we live. They are our neighbors, sharing our home with us, with mutual interest in preserving that place as we, too, should have. Once a relationship is established** that spirit may prove to be quite beneficial. Local spirits know the area in which they live better than any living creature ever could, they can help you find particular plants, stones, or naturally occurring gateways to the Otherworld. Local spirits can truly become allies.
The Genius Loci
Tips for Working with the Genius Loci
There is much more than can be said about working with the genius loci, but the best way to learn about them and the best ways to interact with them is to make the attempt. They are an easy type of spirit to work with as, regardless of where you are, they are there, too. Future articles may further discuss offerings, particular methods of communication, ways that they can benefit a witchcraft practice, and working with zoological remains (animal bits and bones.)
*It must be noted that just as the term shamanism comes to us from the specific practice of a specific people, so, too, does witchcraft. But, just as, anthropologically, the term is used to describe a certain type of practice with certain specific elements, the same also holds true with witchcraft, and, thus, both witchcraft and shamanism can be seen as worldwide phenomena and part of our global culture and, more importantly, are intimately tied to what it means to be human. (Click the "witchcraft" link for an article where I finally ramble about this subject.)
**Yes, a relationship: they help you and you help them. There's a reason why the term "spirit ally" exists. Remember that, consider the implications, and act appropriately.
Throwing the Bones