[NB Phase I or IV-ish speculation] Hauntings and the Modalities of Spirit Contact

This is a post that has been floating around in my drafts for almost a year. I come back to it, consider posting it, consider revising it, and never quite do either. I don’t quite like the tone here, it is a little too abstract, a little too analytical, but there is something useful going on in inside it, which might provide some fodder for the summation. So, with these caveats, enjoy.


We have been talking about hauntings around the house a bit and Stacey mentioned that she had recently seen a book note that most hauntings seem to be the response of land spirits having their land disturbed. That can be obvious disruptions, like plopping a house down on a sacred bit of land, but it can also be more subtle violations, the sort of taboos you might not know about until you thoughtlessly break them.

That came together in my mind with something Julio Ody said in his Runesoup interview, that one of the major elements in doing magic from within the grimoire tradition was the practitioner actively disrupting a spirit’s routine. Shake it out of the routine well enough, and you can start engaging it in new routines, the routines that will come to constitute the practice itself. This forms something of the basic modality of the tradition; while there are other modalities in play, the fundamental one is this structured disruption of the spirit world by the ritualist.

Though Ody has made fun of comparisons between grimoiric evocation and fracking, the metaphor isn’t inapt to the process he describes. The operations disrupt spirit intelligences out of their regular channels, mostly on the ritualist’s terms. Protective circles make good sense here; startled and disrupted intelligences move quickly to re-establish order, potentially lashing out at what disordered them. The challenges that come with that modality, too, also make sense in terms of fracking. Once disrupted, everything may not go quite back to normal, leading to knock-on effects which amount to spiritual pollution.

Thinking in this way, it makes sense to ask after what other sorts of modalities might come into play in spirit work. We can wonder after how to characterize a practice according to its preferred and fundamental modalities of interacting with the spiritual world. I am going to take a shot at thinking about that, because if it ends up making sense, it provides a phenomenological model of spirit contact which is ritually useful.

Consider, for example, the hallucinogen-infused initiations that circulate along the Amazon River. In many cases, those center along more or less extreme forms of fasting joined to an intense and extended use of a potent hallucinogen. In this profoundly suppressed state, they first encounter the spirits upon which their work depends. Rather than creating a powerful disruption that forces spirits to manifest, the individual puts themselves into close proximity with the spirits, puts themselves into the subtle world so that spirits in their ‘normal’ routine begin to notice and engage with them.

There are also so-called ‘drums of affliction’ rites examined by Victor Turner, Terence Ranger, and a long line of ethnographers of the Congo. There the disruption of an individual by some form of ill health (broadly construed to include social and cultural health) is used as an opportunity to bring them into alignment with a spiritual force that is understood to either have initiated the distress in order to enter into a relationship with them or to provide especial succor for individuals undergoing certain forms of distress.

Because labels are useful for getting a quick handle on things, we can name these broad modalities according to their preferred form of first contact. There are rites of authority (Ody’s grimoiric modality), rites of proximity (Amazonian ‘vegetelismo’ practices), and rites of mediumship (Congolese drums of affliction). We can also talk about the modalities of integration they deploy after the fact and wonder if they are, perhaps, particularly well-suited to the modality that initiates them.

Possession, for example, may be particularly well-suited to a practice that begins under the auspices of affliction, following out as it does the trajectory of the spirit’s form of contact. By contrast, possession is in most cases a failure of the ‘grimoiric*’ disruption, constituting the reversal of its trajectory (though perhaps introducing the opportunity for a re-engagement with the forces released under the auspices of affliction). Similarly, in the face of affliction, the attitude of disruption may be taken with an eye toward exorcism.

Mediums may exorcise, disrupters make use of mediums, and so on down the line.

If this model does have legs, it also opens the door to questions about the particular character of spirits and those who interact with them. Does the same potency manifest quite differently in reaction to different modalities? Do certain modalities better suit to specific people or spirits? Do certain presences only manifest in quite specific circumstances defined by these concerns?

So, telescope a discussion something like this:

  1. Identify modality
  2. Identify concrete means through which modality occurs
  3. Place those means within the context of a community that makes use of multiple modalities and means

Maybe? Just noodling, but it seems less likely to get us into tired comparative reductionism if these sorts of things are differentiated and analyzed and a more substantive foundation for asking after the sense of a specific means of spirit practice.

* Most European cases that actively make use of possession seem to do so with the implicit assumption that there will be a controller in play, who is not possessed and who will provide the magical discipline necessary to keep the possessed spirit in line. Not that this doesn’t show up in non-European traditions, too.

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