Spirit Vessels: A Cross-Cultural Phenomena

Image courtesy of Elena Mozhvilo at Unsplash

One of the common elements that we see in researching or observing Spirit work among traditional or folkloric practices is the use of a container, house, or vessel for the Spirit to use as a dwelling place in the physical plane. Let’s look at some examples of where this happens, why we think it is needed on a metaphysical level, and how we can implement it in our own work.

A History of Spirit Vessels

Since the timelines of these sorcerous expressions overlap and have undoubtedly intermingled with each other at various crossroads, I’m presenting them here in no particular order of either chronology or significance. 

Solomonic/Grimoire Tradition:  The classical Grimoires and books of demonolatry (including the Lemegeton, or Ars Goetia, the Lesser Key of Solomon) usually favor and are very explicit about the use of containers for holding and binding a Spirit. The belief in these grimoires was that Spirits would do the Conjurer harm if they were free to operate on their own accord after having been summoned to the physical plane. In order to control the Spirit, and protect the Conjurer, a metal vessel much like a samovar in appearance (without a spout) was employed. The vessel was engraved with binding charms and formulas in magical scripts. 

African Diasporic Tradition: Coming from New Orleans and Haitian Voudon as well as the African Traditional Religions of West Africa (like Dahomey, Congo, and others), we see often elaborately decorated bottles used to house a number of Spirits. These are often glass bottles, with cobalt being the preferred color — through amber, green, rose, and other colored glasses have their own meanings and uses. Spirits who might dwell within such a bottle include ancestors, lwa, animals, and local land Spirits. The bottles are often (but not always) decorated to honor the Spirit inside, using shells, beads, seeds, tassles, braids, ribbons, doll parts (heads/arms), feathers, bones, and more. Some bottles from ADT practices are intended to capture and bind Spirits (against their wills), but others are intended as places of comfort, rest, and offering. 

European Folkloric Tradition: Trial records, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales give us a lot of insight into how Spirits of all sorts were housed within European folk custom. Some (like Beelzebub and Trullibub, who came to Elizabeth Chandler) were content to dwell in a log and a twig, respectively. Others asked for or were given jars, boxes, baskets, and other common household containers. These were often filled with objects for the comfort, entertainment, and work of the Spirit, such as fabric scraps, broken or cast-off tools, spell ingredients, et cetera. The Grimm fairytale “The Spirit in the Bottle” (“Der Geist im Glas”) echoes of the Arabic folkloric tales “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and the “Fisherman and the Jinni,” and remind us how enduring and far-reaching the idea of Spirits trapped in household containers may be.

Southeast Asian Traditions: In Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Indonesia, and the Phillipines, Spirit houses are miniature houses mounted on a pedestal or dais where offerings are made to the Spirits who inhabit the area. These could be animal Spirits, Ancestors, local land Spirits, et cetera. These Spirits are propitated to keep their good favor and prevent them from causing trouble for the people who live nearby. 

Why Do Spirits Need a Vessel?

Strictly speaking, a Spirit doesn’t require a vessel, house, or any type of physical encasement in order to operate in the physical plane. Chances are good for many practitioners that they have interacted positively with Spirits that had no such dwelling. However, when we have evoked Spirits from the realms of the Unseen, which are more aerial and less corporeal than our own, we are asking them to be more present with us in this Seen World, this Green World of life and substance and physical being. It is often easier and more comfortable for them to do so if we give them a physical “thing” to occupy.

I think of it much like offering them a body. Indeed, sometimes the vessels we see in folkloric examples are dolls (which are often fabric, clay, wood, or paper bodies of humans or animals). Even if the vessel is house-shaped (or bottle- or jar- or log- or jewelry-shaped) and not fashioned at all like a body, it still serves much the same purpose. It is a sanctuary that the Spirit can choose to occupy while in the Green World, and it provides them an interface for experiencing sensation and receiving offerings. 

It is to (or within/on top of, et cetera) this vessel that we are going to provide the food, drinks, incense smoke, anointing oils, or other offerings that the Spirit prefers. They will “consume” it in their own way, which will of course look different than when a living human consumes the same. Cakes will dry out and become hard. Liquors will evaporate and form a thick syrup. Smoke will swirl, and we may never see the nose that sniffs the sweetened air, but we can be sure that the Spirit has taken it to themselves in their way.

What I can’t recommend is using these vessels as a way to capture and imprison wandering Spirits, later compelling them to do your bidding. I always advocate building reciprocal relationships with Spirits, so it is best if we forgo the (yes, once traditional) enslavement practices utilized by our forebears. (They felt like this was an acceptable way to treat people, as well. Abandoning such practices in favor of cooperation and partnership is one small part of decolonizing our magick — a topic I covered in the November 2020 issue of ev0ke.)

Spirit Vessels in Your Craft

Some Spirits are very communicative and will tell you right away what they want and need in a vessel. One of my primarily Familiars (“S”), told me she wanted a blue jar. I found an iridescent blue ceramic sugar bowl on my next trip to the local flea market, and I could practically hear her giggling with delight. My daughter’s primary Familiar told her in a talking board session that he wanted her to repurpose a little painted wooden house that she had decorated and adorned for a plush frog that had come with said house as part of a set. He said, “I been lookin’ at you’ frog house,” and with that he claimed the space. She just needed to paint his symbol over the door to make it his.

Other Spirits can either be less particular or less vocal, which means you may have to rely on your own instincts, go with something that speaks to you, or wait longer until you have enough signs and indicators to feel comfortable moving ahead with the project.

As far as what shape that vessel might take, what materials you might use, or what your process might look like — all these things depend on the desires of your Spirit and your own sense of the Arte. For some of us, it just isn’t Witchcraft if we don’t get deeply crafty — collecting clay from a local river bed and sculpting it into a bowl engraved with the sigils of our Familiar. For others, an unadorned colored bottle picked up from Pottery Barn is magickal enough, as long as our Familiar is happy with it.

Some vessel options to consider: birdhouse, dollhouse, colored bottles, canning jars, decorative perfume bottles,  decanters, vases, urns, amphoras, dolls of all sorts, wood carvings, trinket boxes, cigar boxes, clasped chests, lockets, rings, pendants, oil lamps (ancient and contemporary), lanterns, candles. The options here are really endless. 

Whatever you choose, you should add some type of embellishment to mark it as belonging to your Spirit. Even a small change can have a major impact. For this, you might include: engraving or painting the sigil or bindrune of the Spirit, adding flowers, seeds, beads, coins, braids, tassels, feathers, doll head/arms, teeth, claws, bones, fur, wood, stones, et cetera.


“New Orleans Voodoo Spirit Bottle.” http://www.voodoonola.com/hoodoo/spirit%20bottles/

Wilby, Emma. Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. https://amzn.to/3eTPcy9

“The Spirit Houses of Bangkok Keep Watch Over a Frenetic City.” https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-thailand-bangkok-spirit-houses-20190418-story.html

“Thanksgiving, Fakelore, and the Journey to Decolonize My Craft.” https://ev0kepublication.com/thanksgiving-fakelore-and-the-journey-to-decolonize-my-craft/

[Written by Laurelei Black.]

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