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What is “Spirit Work”?

In the theme of writing Spirit Work 101 essays, I figured I should probably back the truck up a bit and do my level best to explain what spirit work is, exactly.

The issue I face is that people use the term in a variety of ways, and there really isn’t a good definition out there that sums up the vast experiences, relationships, and devotional work that one might define as such. The first time I heard it applied to the kind of spiritual stuff I had been doing was by Raven Kaldera, a controversial person in his own right. The term sometimes gets sullied or maligned by his association with it – as though if you define your spiritual vocational work as “spirit work”, somehow you are in lockstep with him on his beliefs and practices. This is not the case.

Again, as always, I want to clarify that I am only going on my own experiences and discussions with others who call themselves spirit workers or who use the term spirit work to define their devotional practices. I invite those with alternate points of view or experiences to leave comments so as to expose readers to an array of ideas on the subject.

In the vaguest of ways, spirit work is a kind of spiritual practice that deals mainly with interactions between humankind and the world of spirits and Gods. It is different from other kinds of devotional work in that there is some form of communication between spirit workers and the spirits/Gods they work with or for. Usually, it also incorporates actions and practices that Spirits/Gods ask the spirit worker to do – as mundane as “carry this brick for two blocks and then put it down again” (an actual example), or as metaphysical as “spend nine days in a trance state exploring a specific place on the astral realm” (another actual example).

It does seem to require the ability to have, at least, one-way communication between the Holy Ones and the practitioner. One must be able to discern what the spirits may want, or want us to do. For more information about hearing the Gods and other spirits, I point you towards a different post of mine that addresses that subject. It is possible to do spirit work without this, but it usually requires having someone else in your life who has this ability, so they can help you figure out what the Gods want you to do. It is not uncommon for spirit workers to go through periods of feeling blocked, or having bad signal clarity, or in some other way find their “Godphone” or “Godradio” broken in some fashion. I’ve been there from time to time, and it didn’t stop me from being a spirit worker or doing the work of my Gods – it just made me rely harder on my own faith and the work that had been outlined in the past. I have another post on the way that addresses this subject in more depth.

The way that spirit work manifests in a person’s spiritual practices varies, depending on several factors. Usually, a person is chosen to do this sort of work based on the skills and talents they already possess – a spirit might choose a seamstress to create sacred costumes, or choose an artist to create devotional works of art for a spirit’s followers/devotees. It also happens that sometimes a God or spirit will embue a person with the ability to do the work they require; many people gifted with oracular or possessory abilities tell tales of being “rewired” so they can do these things reliably and with more ease.

Spouses or consorts of Gods sometimes consider their relationship a form of spirit work, since it usually comes with some sort of public devotional work. Some find themselves writing publicly about their spouse (books, blogs, essays, etc), while others become priests and help others who have a devotional relationship with their Consort. Some relay messages to those who cannot hear the voice of Gods, and others do social justice or other charity work in the name of their Deity. However, some Godspouses/consorts keep their relationship private, and this may play into whether or not they identify as a spirit worker.

At the core of the defintion is work. Although praying, writing, keeping shrines/altars, and other spiritual pursuits can be a part of a spirit worker’s life, the filter between “devotee” and “spirit worker” is when you take on tasks specifically at the request of the Holy Ones. It may be hard to discern whether you erected that altar to Kali Ma because you felt a deep connection with Her and Her mysteries/mythology, or because She herself asked you to. I know that when I began, I knew I had crossed over from devotional work to spirit work when the things the Gods asked me to do were things I would not have done of my own choosing, or things that changed my every day life and routine.

Some spirit workers work solely with the spirits, which can muddy the definition I gave above. These people find themselves in deep communication with the Holy Ones, and even though their work may not be in the public eye, it may still be defined as spirit work. I usually link this to those who work as a bridge because sometimes their private work benefits others in an indirect way. For example, a spirit may ask you to erect an altar in the middle of the woods, far off the beaten path. The person does it in solitude, not telling anyone about the altar or its location. However, two years later, that spirit leads another person to the altar, to give them some assurance that what they’re feeling and hearing isn’t madness.

Others find themselves working primarily with people, but for a spiritual cause. Like I mentioned earlier, sometimes the spirits ask their devotees to work in social justice or other charitable places in order to help the spirit’s “people”. A devotee of Baphomet, for example, might volunteer at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen because Baphomet has a warm heart for “the forgotten”. Dishing out stew may not look all spooky-foo, but the fact that Baphomet requested the person do it makes it so.

One of the struggles of some spirit workers is that Gods ask different things of different devotees. This can create everything from jealousy to downright derision. There are those who state that the Odin they know would never ask someone to do Ordeal Work in His name, while there are others who do exactly that. Once again, Gods are bigger than our brainmeats can comprehend, and the reason They take vastly different kinds of “workers” is because They are in need of a wide array of services offered in their name. Personally, when I “came out” as a child of Loki, many of his spouses derided me for not being chosen for that sort of relationship, and I felt discouraged and jealous. However, as time as gone on and I have gone deeper into the work that He and the Others I work for, I know securely that it is the right place for me to be, and to be anything else would distract me from my Purpose.

Now, for me, the differentiation between a “shaman” (essay forthcoming, co-authored by Wintersong Tashlin) and a “spirit worker” is that “shamans” have undergone some form of traumatic transformation in which they surrender their wyrd, or destiny, to the control of the Gods. In exchange for this surrender, the Gods bring the person back from their traumatic experience a radically different person, now focused on making the Work their primary focus. So although there may be full-time spirit workers, unless they’ve physically died, gone completely insane, or in some other way lost touch with our consensual reality, and as their solution accepted a Spirit’s dominion over the rest of their days, they’re not a “shaman”. Some people confuse the taking of clients as being a difference between spirit workers and shamans, but that’s not the distinction for me or those I know who identify as either shamans and spirit workers. Now, like me, there are some that identify as both; there are others who shy away from the word “shaman” because it has a complicated history (I promise, essay soon!) and so they use the less contentious “spirit worker”.

In a similar way, the word “priest”, in my lexicon, is someone who leads others in the worship of a Deity or Deities. If someone identifies themselves as a “priestess of Aphrodite”, then I expect them to be working directly with other seekers and devotees of Aphrodite in creating and participating in worship and work for that Deity. One need not be a spirit worker to be a priest, but one may be both a priest and a spirit worker. Have I lost you yet?

The word “devotee” is what I use for someone who has taken to worshipping a particular Spirit or Deity. They may have cultivated a feeling of close relationship, with or without the ability to discern the voice of that Spirit for themselves. They may have a shrine or altar to said Deity, do good works in their name, and witness to others about their particular Spirit. However, usually the word undertaken by a devotee is of their own volition, or a product of researching what devotees of a certain Deity did when the culture of that Deity was more alive/active, instead of being at the direct behest of that Deity. It could be that a devotee was told via a third party as to how to go about doing said devotional work, but unless the devotee is offering that sort of counsel/communication to others, I would not call them a spirit worker, per se.

But then, I am not one to go around investigating people’s claims to whatever word they feel defines their Work. I may ask questions if I am planning on doing work for them or with them, but in the end, I believe that if you take on the label of “spirit worker”, at the very least you should be able to speak to, and understand in some way, the Holy Ones. You should also be doing some form of actual Work on their behalf, in whatever way that particular spirit or God asks of you. You may work for one specific Deity, or a pantheon, or for any inhabitant of the Other Words, as your personal practice and relationships develop.

I hope I’ve given you some insight into how I define “spirit work”, and what a “spirit worker” does. Again, I encourage those who disagree, or who define these terms in another way, to add their conversation to the comments. Please be respectful and engage in polite discourse; I know this can be a touchy subject for some.

About Del

A shaman who writes about spiritual things, but not in that namby-pamby "everything is light and fluffy" sort of way.

12 responses to “What is “Spirit Work”?

  1. Larch ⋅

    Thank you for this very informative post – it is very helpful to have some basic outlines for what defines a spirit worker vs. a shaman, a priest, or a devotee.

  2. EVCelt

    Very interesting and informative… I think the central definition of “spirit worker/spirit work” is very lucid and makes sense to me.

    I tend to think of “priest/ess” as dealing with the “vertical” axis of clergy- the connection/communication between the Powers (and/or a specific Power) and humanity (as opposed to “minister”, which deals with the horizontal axis of connection between humans in a religious/spiritual context); I think that syncs in pretty well with your definition…

    Other than that… I suspect that the definition of “shaman” will kick up some dust, but I’m not going to weigh in on that, as I’m not a shaman by anyone’s definition. 😉

  3. I don’t think it would neccesarily be a bad thing if the non-Siberian use of “shaman” were gradually retired. “Spirit-work” seems a lovely alternative.

    • Del

      There is a post coming, I promise, about that word. In short, I believe it has become one more in a collection of words from other cultures/languages that English has stolen and incorporated into it’s motley vocabulary. No one accuses me of appropriation when I send my godchildren off to “kindergarten” or if I enjoy a “pastrami” sandwich, but both of those words have very specific meanings to the cultures they come from, too.

      I also think neoclassical shamanism is a subsection of “spirit work”. It’s like an occupational specialty. It comes with a lifelong commitment to working with the communities one belongs to that “spirit workers” don’t always have. It also describes very real, potent experiences that a practitioner has undergone, and to rob them of some way to claim some sort of title that clients will immediately recognize when they’re looking for someone to provide those kinds of services does *everyone* a disservice.

      I will politely ask that further discussion of this wait until the post is finished. I am co-authoring it with Wintersong Tashlin from Notes from a Barking Shaman, and it should be done soon.

  4. Dver

    Solid post on a difficult subject to define. When you talk about spirit-workers who work solely with the spirits, but whose actions can indirectly end up benefiting other people… that pretty much describes what I do, but I would add that while such indirect benefit to other humans CAN be an important element, I don’t think it NEEDS to be in order for it to be spirit-work. In other words, I personally feel that serving the spirits directly and not involving humans at all is a potentially acceptable path, if that’s what the spirits want. It’s not always about humans. Many spirits care more about land, plants, animals, rocks, or intangibles like art, beauty, pain, power, etc.

  5. I’ll be waiting for this promising essay.

    “Now, for me, the differentiation between a “shaman” (essay forthcoming, co-authored by Wintersong Tashlin) and a “spirit worker” is that “shamans” have undergone some form of traumatic transformation in which they surrender their wyrd, or destiny, to the control of the Gods. In exchange for this surrender, the Gods bring the person back from their traumatic experience a radically different person, now focused on making the Work their primary focus. So although there may be full-time spirit workers, unless they’ve physically died, gone completely insane, or in some other way lost touch with our consensual reality, and as their solution accepted a Spirit’s dominion over the rest of their days, they’re not a “shaman”.”

    I’ve already read a lot of stuff about the distinctions about spirit-work, spirit-workers vs shamans, but you put it the most clearly to me. It matches exactly my experiences…

  6. odeliaivy

    This makes sense but I keep wondering where those who work with human spirits fall into this mix. No Holy Ones but maybe some like us. Flawed up the wazoo and figuring out ways to get through. To get through just being a spirit. But also to get through to people, things, whatever. And even ways to get through to other spaces. The gamut. No ownership, not much holy at that level maybe, but it can still be work. And annoying.

    Is there such a thing as a mundane spirit worker? “Medium” just isn’t good for me. It’s a size for crying out loud.

  7. odeliaivy

    Ghosts is what I used to call them but that seems a bit disrespectful and I am not sure why. Perhaps all of those are holy? I can see them being divine in the way that all can be seen that way, but I have trouble seeing them as deities. Also, I am not wholly certain that all human spirits who wander are actually dead people, but may be the spirits (or parts of spirits) of living humans who, for any number of reasons, seek help of some kind (or are just hanging out).

    And come to think of it, I shouldn’t be limiting that to humans. Perhaps anything formerly alive on this plane who still has enough connection to this plane to seem to embody its previous form to in some fashion are the kind of spirits I’m talking about.

    • You know, spirit-worker is the broadest term of all. 🙂 It means all type of entity, spirits and deities. I don’t classify the Dead as “holy”, like the Gods are, but it doesn’t matter, they are Spirits. So working with the Dead (who were humans before in your case) is spirit-work 🙂

      PS : there are indeed other dead spirits, like dead gods, titans, dead nymphs…

      • odeliaivy

        Hey thanks for response! I guess there *are* dead other entities. Well, that could be potentially confusing. It is considering things like this that I am a bit glad I can be a brick. I would have no idea how to be a good host to a dead Titan!

  8. Pingback: What is Spirit Work? « WiccanWeb

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