Categories are dangerous things. The separation of one kind of thing from another at the conceptual level leads us toward deeper knowledge and deeper ignorance simultaneously. Once we separate one kind from another at the level of concept, we prepare the way for forms of action that treat them as separate in actuality.
The funny thing, of course, is that forms of action carve out forms of actuality through their repeated interactions with the world. The kinds of differentiations produced under scientific investigation shape the form modern cities took, creating an environment that introduced differentiations in the world that were initially more conceptual than not.
The trouble is that these practiced realities are embedded in the original ones. Some of these practiced realities become the basis for other practiced realities, such that we have layers and layers of intersecting worlds that depend upon each other in ways difficult to fully fathom. This is true of the ‘modern’ human world, with its layers of intermediation and its internet of things, but it is also true of the broader world in which that one rests. Natural ecosystems are themselves networks of almost-concepts realized in networks of practice, except these ‘practices’ are complex evolutionary developments embedded in the behavior of organisms.
Some will balk at calling the behavior of organic life ‘practices’ like human ones, thinking it anthropomorphic. I tend to think of it in exactly the opposite fashion; emphasizing the practical dimensions of organic life (and the practical dimension of anorganic life with which it interacts) allows us to see how very natural our practical behavior is. Rather than anthropomorphize animals and the world, I think of it as faunalizing, floralizing, materializing human life. It breaks down the conceptual boundaries to realize jagged and zig-zagging forms of unity with the beings of the world.
Our humanity doesn’t stop with the human world.
When I was younger, I made a big deal of categories of spirits. The distinctions between the dead, the ancestors, the faerie, the gods, the angels, and all of that. I favored forms of theology that made clear distinctions, favoring especially those that seemed to posit exceptionally durable forms (often called gods) over others that seemed much more human, bound up with temporary historical reality.
So, when I went reading about the rich Caribbean world of spirits, I favored those accounts which organized spirits into fairly strict categories and pantheons and averting my eyes from the uncomfortable horizon of those pantheons characterized by ambiguous spirits like ‘moonboy’ and ‘five feather.’ As I spent more time with Caribbean history, more time exploring my own spiritual lifeworld, those pantheons became less and less solid. They seemed to have their foundations more in concept than in actuality.
Which isn’t to say that they were unreal, only that their reality was of a different sort than I had imagined in my youth. Those strong pantheons sat in the midst of a rich sea of spiritual diversity, benefiting from it, but sometimes also at odds with it. There were processes of conceptual standardization that could take hold along the pantheons, mostly at the level of the communities working with them.
Members would push to the margins practices rooted in other forms of spiritual encounter, or usurp them into their pantheon’s frame. The outsiders, too, would want to participate in the broader and seemingly more real community embodied by the pantheon, providing justifications for how the practices and spirits they were working with could be mapped onto the systematic pantheons they encountered. Those tensions lay the groundwork for struggles to define an orthodoxy out of what was originally a quite disparate body of practices.
The pattern repeats well beyond the Caribbean. The trajectory of Wicca, Golden Dawn ceremonial magic, paganism and polytheism, and the grimoiric turn follow a similar pattern. The jagged polymorphous spiritual landscape finds itself ordered, disordered, fractured, and reformed according to the dynamics of human sociality.
It’s probably an inescapable thing, part of the being embodied in a monkeysuit, but it’s worth underlining that it is a human-scale issue. The sorts of categories that develop out of these struggles are often also more about the human-scale struggles than the broader network of spiritual realities they (hopefully still) open toward.
At their best, they are the sorts of things we can hold between ourselves and sense subtle vibrations through which we can coordinate with each other; friction oracles. They will work only if we communicate slowly through them.
At their worst, though, they are forms of bondage, preventing us from attaining a fuller experience of the spiritual worlds through which we circulate. This sort of situation makes for a more fragile spiritual community, too, because the inflexibility of the concepts are ill-suited to dealing with the variety of forms a personal relationship to spirit can take. While some infighting may be necessary, an overly conceptual practice fights too often than is healthy.
More often than not, most forms of conceptual typologies fall somewhere in between, a necessary but clumsy means of taking flight.
If we can’t resolve the danger, we can moderate it. The advantage of having a typology of spirits comes in having a sensibility for working with them. It matters less whether a spirit ‘is’ a god or a faerie or a muerto than that you have a sense of how this or that spirit might be approached. It matters less whether it is a faerie than that the forms of ritual action you have come to associate with ‘faerie’ do or do not provide a means for engaging and disengaging with a given spirit.
Moreover, having a typology of practices provides you with the lineaments of a sensibility for adjusting your ritual behavior toward a specific situation and/or spirit. Understanding the typology as a starting point rather than an end point is key, because if you understand it to be a rough, almost statistical, portrait, then you will be prepared for the need to adjust and even abandon it when you find yourself in a situation not accounted for by the (stereo)type.
So, rather than ask whether a spirit is a faerie, a god, an ancestor, a boddhisattva, an orisha, etc., it makes more sense to ask after the best medium, conceptual and practical, through which to relate to it, understanding that the medium is largely constructed, and may need to be reconstructed to deal with specific spiritual situations and spirits.
While I emphasize experimentation here, I should also note that this sort of attitude can be a perfectly good justification for being conservative. If a given typology and its attendant map for spiritual interaction well-suits your spiritual experience, then you have every reason to hold tightly to it. That doesn’t mean that your model will hold for someone else and it should inspire some spiritual humility in dealing with others.
These are subtle and often difficult distinctions to draw, I know. But they are no less profound for that.