Theories on the Nature of Household Spirits

Image courtesy of Steinar Engeland at Unsplash.

Once upon a time that I cannot at present recall, there were many more gods and goddesses than there are now. The internet and I are quite certain of this. For whatever reason, those deities didn’t stick around in the public conscience ⸺ maybe their worshipers were all killed in a horrific outbreak of some unpronounceable disease or another and there was nobody left to remember them. Maybe people outgrew the need for a God of Backscratch Posts. Possibly their god-kin were possessed of unusually large appetites one morning, and simply devoured them and annexed their spheres of influence like immortal Napoleons (who did not, for the record, eat his rivals in any instance that we are aware of).

Over time, the pool of deities we were told we had to choose from dwindled and shrank, and I’m not a little convinced it wasn’t due to our own short memories and easily distracted natures. We’re rather like magpies in that regard ⸺ sprinkling the blood of sacrificial bulls on the altars of our ancestors one day, and building a temple to the shiny new god of our neighbors the next, leaving the altars cold and shamefully barren of bull-juice. We’re always lusting after the new, shiny things others have.

Deities, of course, don’t die like mortals do. Oh, you can cut their heads off and feed them to giant wolves and even, if you’re very clever, convince them to do the deed themselves, but as long as someone remembers them and loves them (even a tiny bit, much like you do your overbearing parents or your ex-lovers), they have a way of coming back. No, if you want to do the thing right, you need to do something that we humans are very good at ⸺ you need to forget. Put up the old story books, break the statues, and convert the sacred worship sites into Taco Bells and strip malls, anything it takes. Just utterly erase any indication you can that an immortal with unusual powers or habits was ever there at all. Even then, of course, people have a curious habit of talking about the “good old days”…of recalling past monsters, gods and heroes either in the form of fairy tales, bawdy drinking songs, or even in the names of days and places.

What does a god become when the worship has ended and the only sustenance it receives are tiny tidbits of memory and rituals nobody remembers the meaning of anymore? Where did the god spring from to begin with?

I have my theories on this, and I hope you’ll indulge me in them. It seems almost certain, if we are to believe our history scholars, that most religions and their gods originated either with ancestor worship (such as Isis may have) or the deification of nature spirits (as with Pan). Each of these spirits were “fed” the energy of their worshipers (and make no mistake ⸺ when you worship, you are feeding your deity your time and energy), and with this energy behind them they were able to perform great works, thus inspiring more followers to give more energy.

When the gods fell out of favor, for whatever reason, they drew their energy in and went “dormant”. A resurgence in interest would awaken some of them, but most of them either continued to sleep, or, if they were very old and very resilient, became something more “primal”. It would not shock me at all if some of the gods returned to their origins, and continued on as nature spirits and other minor deities. Some of these, I think, probably clung to the people that they had once loved, and lived on as hobgoblins, brownies, and other household spirits. The spirits of the deceased ancestors, or manes, as the Romans called them, could also continue on in this way. Even if the people who had originally “fed” them moved away, the presence of new people building dwellings in those locations was considered enough to rouse their interest.

Recognizing that even these “minor” spirits had power, many homes once had shrines and made regular libations of milk, incense, and food to their “household gods”. Romans called these spirits “Lares”, and would appeal to them for help in household areas or for inspiration, or any other area of their life which they felt to be too unimportant to trouble their main deities for. Since the Lares were attached to individual families, they often had very close, personal relationships with the people under their care, as with the brownies and kobolds said to help out with the chores around the house in England, or the banshees that mourned the approaching death of Irish family members.

While most witches are familiar with stories originating from European countries, some of which made it “across the pond” with immigrants, it is important to remember that North America has rich Native American traditions of spirits and gods as well. We brought the spirits with us, but spirits were already here long before most of our ancestors were. So often we are concerned with getting along on good terms with our physical next door neighbors, feeding the birds and tending our gardens, that often we forget to reach out to our spirit neighbors as well. Before you try to reach out to them, however, be aware that Native peoples across all generations and places have often been persecuted and their sacred sites desecrated. Many Native peoples (and the spirits who love them) may not be willing to share their existence and faith with you, and as with anyone else who does not wish to work with you, you must respect that and offer them their space.

If you’re interested in attracting a brownie, kobold, or Lare of your own, why not start out by trying to make your home hospitable to them? Here are a few suggestions I’ve found that have worked for others:

* Put out a bit of milk, honey, or bread for the spirits. This is also favored by faeries.

* Find a human-ish statue that seems to speak to you and set aside a special place for it, with some incense and perhaps a few coins to make the spirit feel welcome. Very likely the spirit won’t have a definite form of its own in a way that we can understand, but will become attached to one that you identify with it.

* Music is one of the best ways of communing with spirits and gods. Try playing music that has an uplifting beat to it to welcome the spirits.

* If you notice that things have moved from where you once placed them, or you find little “gifts” in the form of pretty baubles that seemingly appear from nowhere, remember that traditionally spirits are unimpressed with words of thanks and often prefer actions, so perhaps offer a small gift of your own at the spirit’s shrine.

* Most household spirits like to feel included in the family. Consider placing their statue on the table during meals, saying hello or goodbye as you enter and leave the home, and speaking to the spirit’s statue about what’s been going on in your life.

People report that there are very definite benefits to establishing a good relationship with your household or ancestral spirits. You may be given inspiration in your work, energy to help with spells, help with chores, or a bit of home protection. Personally, I simply like the idea of having one more being to call “friend”.

[Ashley Nicole Hunter ….]