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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Do We Need the Word Adorcism?

 I have, on a few occasions, asserted that I don’t like the word adorcism. I clearly like words. I make a lot of posts and comments about word use and the meanings of words. So, it probably isn’t surprising that there are words about which I have strong opinions. I am going to try not to waste a blog post by just writing “ugh, I hate adorcism so much!” My goal is to talk about modes of interacting with spirits while talking about why the word isn’t the best option for discussing spirit interactions. 

So…what is adorcism? It’s a word that developed in the field of religious anthropology. Luc de Heusch was a Belgian filmmaker who moved into the field of anthropology in the 1950s. He coined the word adorcism. It seems his original use of the word was to describe acts to placate a possessing spirit, or to make it happy. This allows for interactions with a possessing spirit, whether in possession of a person or a place, to be a positive relationship instead of only adversarial. The term reflects the fact that many cultures engage spirit relationships which include possession in positive and devotional contexts rather than purely apotropaic ones. 

Eventually, the word came to be used to describe positive possession or voluntary possessions. This seems to be the way the word is most often used, although “most often” is still kind of limited. It’s not a super broadly used term in modern magic and occultism. I have noticed some increase in use, but it mostly comes up amongst practitioners who have a background in Harner’s Core Shamanism. 

The connection with the Core Shamanism community makes sense since that system draws very heavily from anthropological ways of structuring and analyzing spiritual and religious traditions. The idea of voluntary possession would also be more relevant to that community than the broader occult community since positive possession has largely been under explored in most modern occultism. Fortunately, that lack of exploration seems to be shifting. 

As positive or intentional possession becomes more common in modern occult communities we need words to describe it. So, why not adorcism? 

Well, in a very basic sense, it’s a nonsensical neologism. While it has become popular to assert that language is descriptive rather than prescriptive, in order to function descriptively, it still needs to follow basic rules so people can understand it. 

Adorcism breaks the same rule polyamory breaks…although, maybe hypocritically, I’m fine with the word polyamory. Both words combine Greek and Latin elements. Typically, when we use Greek or Latin roots, prefixes, and suffixes, we primarily stick components from one source or another - but not always. 

That’s a pretty minor problem though. The bigger problem is that the word is gobbledygook. Ad means to or towards, and is used as an opposite for ex, which means from. So, if exorcism is forcefully casting out a spirit then adorcism is kindly inviting a spirit, right?

That would work if “orcism” meant something like “cast” or “direct a spirit.” Exorcism would then mean “direct a spirit away from,” and adorcism would mean “direct a spirit into.” It would make a lot of sense. But, “orcism” doesn’t mean anything. It’s derived from “horkizein” meaning “to cause to swear” and horkizein, in turn, comes from “horkos” meaning “oath.” 

Exorcism doesn’t mean driving out a spirit, it means conjuration. Conjuration essentially breaks down to “bound together by oath.”  Both words refer to the application of a source of authority, usually in the form of a name of or relationship with a divine figure. By applying this authority the magician and the spirit are bound together by the power of that authority to each uphold their duties and responsibilities to one another and anything they agree on together. 

From that perspective, while “ad” may be an antonym for “ex,” adorcism is not an antonym for exorcism. Now, I’ve seen some people say that they hadn’t thought of it as an antonym for exorcism, but that seems to clearly be the idea behind the word. That idea is part of the problem. By framing exorcism as the forceful casting out of a spirit and adorcism as a devotional invitation of a spirit it misinforms the populace. The type of relationship and interaction which is described by “adorcism” is in a wholly unrelated category from the relationship described by “exorcism,” and the difference isn’t one of in/out, willful/non-consenting - the whole mechanism and the perspective on the spirits and their role within the community or while interacting with humans is entirely different. 

To start unpacking this, we should first circle back to the idea of exorcism. 

Exorcism is not always or exclusively the casting out of a spirit. Exorcism includes willfully calling upon spirits. Voluntary possession can also occur within the context of exorcism. Magicians are referred to as exorcists in some magical texts. An exorcism is establishing a relationship in which the exorcist can interact with, influence, and possibly direct a spirit through the application of divine authority. There is an inherent component of binding when discussing exorcism, but, again, not just of the spirit, also of the magician. 

The binding element is one of the factors that distinguishes the relationship in exorcism from that of adorcism. Another element that distinguishes them is that exorcism can both be used as a process for calling a spirit in as well as for sending a spirit away…at least, that seems like a distinction at first, but it may not be. 

Exorcism can be a magical act in which we get spirits to do things for us or explain things to us. The Catholic Church recognizes this and actually instructs its exorcists against using the process that way. They understand that the Roman Ritual Exorcism has the same essential elements needed to perform a magical exorcism. Exorcism can also be a curative act in which a vexing spirit is sent away. It is not the drawing out of a spirit, but the commanding and binding of a spirit. When used to send a spirit away, specifically, it is apotropaic exorcism. 

For those unfamiliar, apotropaic magic is magic that protects against something. An apotropaic exorcism is the use of binding and commanding a spirit to prevent it from harming or bothering someone. But, not all exorcism is apotropaic. 

As said above, we can use exorcism to call upon spirits to ask them to do things. Anytime we use the rituals of the Heptameron, The Dannel, the Ars Goetia, or even several PGM texts, along with numerous other rituals from various grimoires and remnants and fragments from other cultures, we are using forms of exorcism. The PGM texts include examples of using secret and magical names to call upon gods and spirits to directly appear. This theurgic or magical experience of a god or spirit showing up in a clear vision for the magician is called an epiphany. There are also a few examples in the PGM where the spirit is called to inhabit the person who is doing the spell, or a vessel who is working with the person casting the spell. This is a form of voluntary possession accomplished through tools of exorcism. In Familiar Unto Me: Witches Sorcerers and Their Spirit Companions I published a ritual and discussion of the use of the ritual in which the tools of exorcism were applied for the purpose of willful voluntary spirit possession. 

What are we talking about when we use the word adorcism?

Heusch described it as actions to placate or accommodate a possessing spirit. Later definitions say that it is voluntary or curative possession. These are very different things. We should explore each of them. 

Accommodating or placating a spirit gives us a lot of direction in thinking about this. When we call upon spirits we often do things to welcome them and in that process we might do things that make them easier to receive or easier to work with. This might include giving them water to soothe them, using soothing music, or giving sweet foods to sweeten or please them. Sometimes this might involve coaxing or complimenting language, although that might also be used in calling them in the first place. 

This is working an entirely different type of relationship from exorcism. In exorcism, even if there is not antagonism between the exorcist and the spirit, there is typically distance between them. The process is not a friendly process, even if we feel friendly and comfortable with the spirits. They are commanded to come, or compelled to come when we work through an exorcistic structure. This other mode of working implores the spirit to come, or requests for the spirit to come by calling upon or asking the spirit itself. We aren’t calling upon the spirit’s superiors; we’re calling to the spirit directly. In many traditions music is involved. Sometimes the spirit is praised. Sometimes gifts are presented to the spirit in the process of calling it. 

The spirit has the power and the ability to make decisions when we invite the spirit by approaching it as a supplicant, an ally, or a friend. This is the big difference between exorcism and techniques we might describe as adorcism. In these more congenial processes there may also be particular rhythms, songs, materials, designs and decorations, or other ritual techniques which might increase the likelihood of success or which might give us a little more leverage in creating the interaction. In many such cases, when multiple people are involved, the spirit might choose who it wants to interact with or through. There is, to some degree, a more open and organic structure in such circumstances. 

When we consider the idea of placating a possessing spirit, that could also involve dealing with a spirit that is possessing someone or inhabiting a place non-consensually, or in a vexing manner. So, apotropaic adorcism is also possible. The easiest example to think of in such a case is a haunting. You can go into a haunted space and call upon more powerful or authoritative spirits to forcibly clear the haunting or to command out the haunting spirit. Or, you can go in and offer gifts and consolation to calm the disturbed spirit, you might need to coax the spirit out, or calm the spirit and offer it a new place to reside. 

Some people might position the difference between these approaches on the basis of animism. Some would claim that one is animistic and the other isn’t. This is kind of an unfair value judgment. Both approaches are animistic. One is friendlier than the other, but just like with humans some situations need a friendly approach, some need a forceful one, and some need you to call in someone with more power and authority. 

This is another issue with the adorcism/exorcism dichotomy. While there isn’t an inherent expression that one is better than the other, by using words which suggest that they are opposites it can easily imply or indicate to people that they are opposing approaches, which for many people would lead to the assumption that one is good and one is bad. In reality, both are tools to have in a toolkit. It is reasonable to assume that cultures with a more animistic awareness will often have both approaches available to apply in the appropriate circumstances. 

So, if we really think about it, most of us are probably familiar with interactions in which we placate or accommodate a spirit. If we keep a shrine and make offerings, if we pleasantly entreat a spirit and give it gifts when it arrives, if a coax and sweet talk a spirit into aiding us, or any manner of thing we do to be pleasing or to seem kind and inviting when dealing with a spirit to get it to show up, help out, or vacate a space falls into this category. 

Framing of the concept of possession might need to be expanded from what most people think of when they think of possession if we want to keep this concept specific to “possessing” spirits. Possession doesn’t always mean a spirit is in the driver’s seat occupying a body, or that it is occupying a space and keeping people out. Possession can refer to a closer interactive proximity between a spirit and a human, or a spirit being present in a space in ways that are noticeable and interactive. 

When we consider these factors, many of us engage in these interactions with spirits. We don’t necessarily think of them as adorcism, even though the original meaning of the word would include these things. Whether we need a word or not to describe these activities is a question that I’m not sure I have an answer to. If we have a shrine and a spirit resides there or routinely occupies that space and we give it cool water, flowers, and sweet incense then we’re making offerings. We’re tending to the shrine. We’re honoring our spirit relationships. We don’t call these things adorcism, and if we did, it would likely create confusion. We have clear ways to describe these interactions even if we don’t have a set word for them. 

Do we need words for cooling or soothing a possessing spirit beyond the words cooling or soothing? Do we need a special term for coaxing out a ghost by resolving its issues or offering gifts and a new place to live? Maybe, but maybe not. 

Either way, while we could technically apply adorcism in those instances, it isn’t how most people use the term. Voluntary, desired, or curative possession is the more common usage. Adorcistic invocation might be used to describe ritual processes for calling a spirit in for a temporary possession, regardless of whether the intention is a partial or a full possession. So, let’s explore that concept. 

First, let’s consider a popular form of intentional possession in European Traditional Magic. The Abramelin working. The Abramelin working is primarily focused on preparing the magician and focusing the magician so that they are ready to receive their Holy Guardian Angel. The Angel doesn’t enter into and control the magician, but the invocation of the angel at the end of the months long preparatory ritual establishes a special relationship with the Angel. We can call upon and interact with the Angel without doing the Abramelin ritual. The point of the Abramelin ritual is to immerse us into such a focused and purified state that we can enter into a closer communion with the Angel and create an on going bond of awareness and interaction. We’re causing the spirit to reside in close and openly interactive proximity. We’re creating a form of possession. Most people would not call the Abramelin ritual adorcism or adorcistic. 

The anthropological origin of the word associates it with cultures outside the white European context. When we think of adorcism we think of North Asian shamans and African religious and magical systems. Those were the sorts of cultures the word was developed to describe. In Pagan and NeoPagan contexts sometimes it is used to talk about supplicating a god in the manner that many NeoPagan books would call invocation, or calling upon a god or spirit with the intention that it enter you. Most NeoPagan books use the term “invocation” for this process, but that word is incorrect. Some writers and teachers have adopted adorcism as an alternate term. In wide use though, we don’t apply it in those more European inspired contexts. 

There is an element to the term which reflects the colonizer’s ethnographic gaze. 

Despite that, is the term describing something which is exclusively different from exorcism, or something which needs its own special word? 

Let’s start off with the idea of curative possession. This could include rituals in which a spirit is called upon and the possessing spirit enters and afflicted person and repairs the underlying spiritual conditions which have allowed, or which maintain the affliction. Curative possession can also involve the religious functionary or magician being possessed or partially possessed by a spirit and the spirit works through that individual to cure an afflicted third party. 

These curative components can be achieved through exorcism as well. The most obvious way in which exorcism is applied as a cure is to bind vexing spirits and direct them to leave the afflicted individual. Rituals which use smokes, clanging instruments, bells, and physical motions meant to drive out a spirit work from a similar perspective of driving out an afflicting spirit. This latter series of approaches would neither be adorcism nor exorcism but we might associate these kinds of practices with the same sorts of functionaries whose approach to spirits would be seen as adorcistic. 

If we’re looking at the functionary as working with a possessing spirit to heal a third party, the possession could be achieved either adorcistically or exorcistically and have the same result. Similarly, if the spirit is being called upon to enter or interact with and heal the afflicted directly, this could be accomplished in either manner. If we are driving the spirit away, it could be removed from vexing the afflicted individual either through command and authority, or through coaxing and pleasing offerings. Both approaches can be applied curatively. The prevailing difference is the nature of how we call upon or interact with the spirits involved. 

Being curative is not in and of itself a distinction, or an element which we can say defines something as adorcistic rather than exorcistic. Both can be curative. Both can be used for essentially the same approaches to being curative. The main distinction is how we interact with the spirit and where the control resides. 

So, then, voluntary or desired possession. This is really the part that stands out because this is how the word is most commonly used. An individual might engage in adorcistic prayer to call a spirit into them to possess them. The nature and quality of the prayer aren’t necessarily the distinguishing factors, but the idea that the possession is a willful voluntary process either initiated by or welcomed by the possessed. 

To understand this, we have to remember that possession can refer to a wide range of things. In most cases in modern occultism and in NeoPagan traditions, we’re talking about partial possession. This could be as minimal as the supplicant receiving the presence and blessing of the spirit with some part of the spirit’s power moving through them. The supplicant remains aware and in control and can direct that power as they need to. A step further from that might include the spirit or god communicating closely with the supplicant while they are in communion with one another. The supplicant might hear the voice of the god or spirit, or have thoughts or knowledge arise that are originated by the possessing spirit, but the supplicant again remains in control. The next step, or perhaps a parallel step, might involve the supplicant speaking or acting in ways which convey the presence of the spirit, or even exuding a presence that other people recognize as that of the spirit. This could happen while the supplicant remains primarily in control, but their tone, manner, or movement show influence from the spirit, or this kind of possession could be a more negotiated control in which the supplicant and the spirit are in control together or each intermittently. The final variety is full possession in which the spirit is primarily in control, and the supplicant is a present observer, or the supplicant may have no or limited awareness of what happened while possessed. 

These various phases may be more or less familiar to people depending upon their background. Even for magicians, Pagans, and NeoPagans who have not worked in a living spirit tradition which utilizes possession, some of these types of partial possession might still have been experienced. 

In the typical vernacular of mass market alternative religion and spirituality the process of calling a god or spirit into you in any capacity is often called invocation. This is then distinguished from evocation, in which a spirit is called to appear or interact with you but not to enter you. Both of these interactions could be forms of possession or partial possession. The use of the terms invocation and evocation here is an incorrect usage. That usage has been popular for quite some time. Ceremonial magic writers made a distinction between invocation and evocation claiming that invocation involved higher spirits who were called into the circle with the magician, and evocation was for lower spirits who were called to appear outside of the circle. Since the circle and the magician are connected as a congruous spiritual space it’s an easy jump to interpret invocation as referring to calling spirits into the magician, particularly if one also adopts a dichotomy of higher and lower spirits, in which case you would be comfortable calling higher spirits into you, but not lower spirits. 

The usage in Ceremonial Magic is not correct either though. It is likely that early writers in modern Ceremonial Magic were familiar with the stages of Solomonic conjuration, as these are outlined in Agrippa. Invocation of God is one stage, while another stage is called evocation and refers to calling upon the spirit. This could easily lead writers to think of higher spirits as invoked and lower spirits as evoked. 

In the case of Solomonic magic, the distinction probably isn’t about who is being invoked or evoked, but simply that different words more clearly convey that these are two different elements of the ritual. The words invoke and evoke are more or less synonymous. Outside of religious language there is some distinction between them in terms of how they are used but the meanings remain similar and they are often defined using each other. To invoke or to evoke, in the context of religion, is more or less to earnestly pray and call upon someone or something. So these words don’t describe what we’re doing when we engage in voluntary possession, but they interchangeably describe the act of praying for such a thing to happen. The prayer could be described as invocation regardless of whether we are using an adorcistic prayer of an exorcistic prayer. 

So, the distinction isn’t one of into us, versus into our space, as both can be possessing relationships. The distinction isn’t one of how deeply possessed the individual is. The distinction is who are we asking and how are we asking. 

If I draw a pontos on the ground and offer cachaca and cigars, red palm oil, and flat bread and sing:

“It was Exu Rey who sent him

It was Exu Rey who sent his Marabo

He will take care of everything I do

If I make a request he will back it up

His Marabo is coming from the crossroads

He comes from afar, he comes from there

There is no arrogance, only wisdom

It is also the strength of the people of the sea…”

We could say I’m working adorcistically.

If I draw a seal surrounded by planetary characters, trace crosses in the air with a sword, and ardently pray:

Most High God, Creator of Heaven and Earth before whom all knees bend, by your Holy Name Adonai Tzaveot I call upon the archangel Michael. Michael of the second heaven, where the angels pray daily Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh, I conjure upon you by the Holy Name Shaddai El Chai, the Most High God, the Lord of Life, come forth by the power of the name you adore, Eheieh Asher Eheieh, and aid me in all tasks put before you, in the name of the Lord of Hosts…

We could say I’m working exorcistically.

In either case, the resulting intention could be myself or another individual being possessed by the spirit being called, and that possession could be pursued to any of the above described levels of possession. 

Willful or voluntary possession itself is not the distinction, nor is the nature or thoroughness of the possession. 

The distinction is whether we are asking or we are commanding. Does that distinction require a difference in terms? Possibly…and if it does, we have an easy pair of terms to use. Exu Rey is being supplicated and Michael is being exorcised or conjured. 

Neither of those words tell us that possession is going to happen though. The original use of adorcism didn’t described causing a possession. It described interacting with a possession. The original use is more useful in giving us an understanding of the distinction because it describes a particular manner rather than a goal. As we have pointed out, the goal can be achieved using the tools of exorcism, or it can be achieved using supplication. 

That said, neither supplication nor exorcism tell us that we’re seeking a possession. More importantly than words to distinguish appealing to the big boss man from pleasantly and sweetly asking modern occultists need words to describe the pursuit of possession and probably also the various gradations of form it takes. 

The Catholic Church has words to address different levels of possession. Infestation describes possession of a place, typically, and often involving more than one spirit. Obsession refers to possession in which the spirit is often present and occupies the attention of the individual and may communicate closely with the individual. Oppression is when the spirit is present more directly within the individual and guides, directs and influences them. Full possession occurs when the spirit is often or primarily in control. 

None of these terms work for discussing magic because they only address unwilling and harmful possession. Awareness of these sorts of categorizations is useful for magicians and for specialists and clergy in Pagan and NeoPagan religions because different levels of spirit vexation can occur, and having a language to address their severity can be useful in assessing them and determining how to deal with them. 

The fact that the European language of possession is largely rooted in Catholicism and presupposes negative, unwilling, or harmful possession is part of why a word like adorcism would come into being. Since exorcism is most clearly associated with the approach rooted in the Catholic outlook it makes sense that a word that seemed opposite to that would be applied for more holistic and positive seeming methods. But, as we have thoroughly discussed, both the structure of the word and the comparison misunderstand what exorcism is in the first place. 

In modern magical literature we do have words that describe some of the types of possession above. Assumption of Godforms, and Drawing Down both generally describe the idea of calling upon a divine or spiritual being so that some piece of them or their power enters into and works through or merges with the magician or cleric. These have relatively specific contexts which might imply that we’re talking about specific rites. Many people also don’t think of these acts as forms of possession even though they are. 

Another popular term in magical and NeoPagan literature is “aspecting.” Aspecting is the phase of possession in which the possessed speaks, acts, moves, or takes on mannerisms that are similar to the possessing spirit, or their presence exudes the energy and presence of that spirit. The possessed is usually still in control in the case of aspecting. Again, people don’t always think of this as possession. I have had some priestesses explain that when “Drawing Down the Moon” there is a theatrical component in which you dress and act to convey the presence of the Goddess to the coven. In the EGC, some priests and priestesses also think of their roles as theatrical. Rather than thinking of it as a spiritual presence inhabiting the cleric and influencing how the cleric moves, speaks, and acts, they think of themselves as reflecting upon, or maybe connecting with a spiritual nature or spiritual being and then actively conducting themselves in a way to convey what that connection feels like or expresses to them. In some cases, this is just a distinction in understanding, in others it’s more of a distinction in fact, but it’s certainly not the case for all clergy in these traditions. Some people recognize that they are engaging real spiritual presences or real spirits or real gods and understand that they are influenced by that engagement and that that engagement expresses itself through them to engage the rest of the people who are also present. 

So aspecting is a good and useful term when it’s framed in a manner that it conveys real interaction with a truly present spirit. 

That still leaves us in need of terms for the overall experience of willful possession. It may also be useful to have terms for the various phases and kinds of possession. I don’t claim to have answers for what all those terms should be or if we have terms for all of them. 

Regarding possession, I personally use “positive possession.” Another good option is “voluntary possession.” If we want to describe the act of seeking possession and specify the manner in which we are pursuing it we might use “I am supplicating Zeus to possess me,” or “I am exorcising Vassago to possess my medium.” There are potentially more poetic terms that could be used. Personally, I think horse and rider, or being ridden are great terms, but they might come across as culturally appropriative or imply particular religious or cultural contexts in which we may not be engaging. 

As far as phases of possession, that probably gets more complicated in terms of determining terminology. We’d need to determine how granular we want to get with phases. I’ve seen some teachers use Phase One, Phase Two, etc.. Amongst magicians working in the grimoire tradition, and some adjacent Ceremonial Magicians, terms like “Crowned” have become popular when describing a relatively permanent possession state, or “Seated” to describe some of the less complete and more temporary states. These words would work well if we had a clear delineation of what we mean by them, but they might also run into issues of appropriation. 

To clarify, these are English words and they’re relatively standard English words, so the words themselves are not a problem. The context and use as specific jargon might potentially feel or be seen as problematic. Horse, horsed, rider, ridden, seated, and crowned as words to describe possession all come out of uses in African Diaspora traditions. When magicians working in European Traditional Magic, the Grimoire Tradition, the Solomonic Tradition, or Ceremonial Magic use these terms it is directly due to influence from or awareness off these African Diaspora traditions. Because of that, it could come across as if we’re saying that our processes or experiences are the same as theirs when each has its own elements. There may be some similarity or a relationship, there may be inspiration, but that doesn’t make them identical. In that regard, the words could create confusion. It is that potential for confusion that could be problematic rather than the words themselves. There is a fair argument that because these words are English words, using them could be ok if it’s done so in a manner that makes it clear that they’re describing similar but not the same phenomena. I’m not sure we can fully make that clear without caveats, which would take away the convenience of using these words. 

Regardless of what words I would propose, they would only be useful if others also wanted to use them. In the end, this is, perhaps, a very long invitation, a supplication, and adorcistic invocation for you, dear reader, to consider the nature, kinds, and phases of possession, and the ways to engage possession and in doing so, ponder over what words we should uncover that might apply to these concepts. 

While I think I have demonstrated why adorcism and adorcistic are maybe not the best or most useful words, I hope it is clear that this post was really about spirit interactions. As we deepen our exploration of how to live and work in a world that we know to be a living and animistic spiritual ecosystem we have to engage and consider many elements of how we interact with that world. We need to consider the manner of our interactions, the purposes of our interactions, and the varied gradations which might give us greater detail in understanding the possibilities for interaction and therefore increase our options for being an engaged part of this world. That is really the main point of this exploration. I hope that was evident and interesting. 

Whether one chooses to continue using, or adopt the use of adorcism as a term, or to avoid it and look for something else, it gave us a really good jumping off point to deepen discussion of positive possession and how we can think about it, how we can approach it, and the tools we have to achieve it. Beyond just this one question of terminology, it also opens the door to considering a broader range of terminology for the various details and permutations of purpose, kind, and manner. Hopefully more of us will weigh in on considering the possibilities, both in terms of how we engage, utilize and more deeply explore these options as well as how we term and discuss them. 

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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A Different Witches’ Ladder

I was involved with a group putting together a system of witchcraft. When one of the people involved was talking about materials and methods the the system would teach early on, one practice that came up was the witches’ ladder. 

I was fairly excited. Witches’ ladders were something I learned as a child but hadn’t seen addressed in NeoPagan books of magic and witchcraft. When I saw what was put together, I found it a bit disappointing. It wasn’t the witches’ ladder I was expecting. It seemed familiar to other people, so I assumed it was the common version of the witches’ ladder in modern witchcraft approaches. Now I’m not so sure. Looking up witches’ ladders turned up many different approaches and ideas. The historical examples line up with what I learned. A couple modern examples fit what others in the aforementioned group spoke of. Then, there were innovations which seemed to be variants of or combinations of, the two approaches I was aware of. 

With the diversity of witches’ ladders, I can’t speak to what is the popular standard or where it came from. So, this post will just talk about a variety of options. 

The version that I took to be the modern sort is an example of basic knot magic. A length of rope or cord is needed for it. Many instructions include that the rope should measure in a multiple of three, so 9 inches, 12 inches, 3 feet, etc. Some instructions recommend braiding three cords. Once you have the cord, tie nine knots into it. There are some variations with different numbers of knots. As you tie the knots, you visualize your intention and put energy into the cord. The spell might be performed by knotting the cord towards you, or away from you, with some instructions saying to begin with each end and alternate working towards the middle. 

A popular incantation is used with the spell. 

“By knot of one, the spell’s begun,

By knot of two, the spell’s come true,

By knot of three, thus shall it be,

By knot of four, it’s strengthened more,

By knot of five, so may it thrive,

By knot of six, the spell we fix,

By knot of seven, the Stars of heaven,

By knot of eight, the hand of fate,

By knot of nine, the thing is mine!”

There are, of course, variations of this incantation. The incantation itself is very common. Apparently, it was used in Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches novels. If I remember correctly, a version of this spell is included in the Cord Magic or Knot Magic section of the BAM; Doreen Valiente also includes a variation of it in Witchcraft for Tomorrow. In Valiente’s inclusion of it in Witchcraft for Tomorrow, again - assuming I remember correctly, she just describes it as an example of knot magic.

To me this is an example of knot magic. It’s one which was kind of exciting to me when I first learned it because lots of people and books mentioned knot magic. Knot magic was often presented as an old and simple form of magic. But, at least in the late nineties and early aughties, not a lot of books talked about it. So, it was cool seeing an example explained - especially an example which could be applied for just about any goal. 

There are, potentially, some issues with this spell. Knots are usually used to bind something, and untying knots looses that something. So, focusing on your goal while binding it up may not be the most obvious symbolism for manifesting it, or at least it might be more applicable to some goals and not others. 

The incantation is nice and catchy, but the words don’t actually follow a structure for building towards manifestation. By the second knot we’re saying we’ve completed the goal, so why are the knots and words continuing? Three and six kind of reiterate this sentiment. That kind of positive claiming it into being is not uncommon. It might just make more sense to place towards the end. The spell references, but doesn’t necessarily clearly call upon, external powers - the stars of heaven, and the hands of fate - but it does that at the end rather than calling on that power at the beginning and winding or weaving it into the spell to build towards the manifestation. 

Still, it’s a popular spell, so it probably works well for people. 

Another modern variation seems to be the idea that a witches’ ladder is a sort of rosary for witches. This version either has thirteen or forty knots. Sometimes it’s made with beads. The knots or beads are touched as a way of counting or keeping track of chants, mantras for meditation, or short incantations and statements of intention. Some people link this to initiation cords as well. In either case, there doesn’t seem to be a link to the historical witches’ ladder. 

According to blogger Nicole Canfield, Doreen Valiente describes the witches’ ladder in her dictionary of witchcraft, ABCs of Witchcraft. There Valiente says the witches’ ladder was a protection against the evil eye. The braided and knotted rope would catch and draw up the ill intentions of curses. These kinds of house protection charms are ubiquitous in folk magic. Those purposes don’t seem to be suggested by the historical examples of witches’ ladders. 

Historical witches’ ladders have a few more physical pieces, but we don’t know anything about the incantations involved. We can guess as to their purposes, and there are some historical examples that have been found, researchers and historians have some ideas about why they might have been used. For the most part, they are similar to the three variations with which I’m familiar. 

Typically, the historical ladders are usually strings with feathers. The Wellington Witch’s Ladder was discovered in a house in 1878. According to Canfield, the men who found it believed witches used it to climb back and forth between houses. This fits with superstitions that witches would flight through the night like the ill wind and enter houses to despoil things. The Wellington example used chicken feathers.   

Canfield also explains that in Etruscan Roman Remains Leland recounts the story of talking with an Italian woman who explained “the witches’ garland” or “the spell of the black hen,” when he showed her a picture of a witches’ ladder which had been presented in a folklore journal in England. Here is what Leland says:

“In the year 1886 there was found in the belfry of a church in England a curious object of which all that could be learned at first was from the authority of an old woman and that it was called a witch's ladder. An engraving of it was published in the Folk-Lore Journal, and several contributors soon explained its use. It consisted of a cord tied in knots at regular intervals, and in every knot the feather of a fowl had been inserted.

I was in Italy when I saw this engraving, and read that the real nature of the object had not been ascertained. I remarked that I would soon find it out, which I did, and that most unexpectedly. For by mere chance, the very first Italian woman with whom I conversed, being asked if she knew any stories about witches, began with the following:--

"Si. There was in Florence four years ago a child which was bewitched. It pined away. The parents took it to all the shrines in vain, and it died.

"Some time after something hard was felt in the bed on which the child had slept. They opened the bed and found what is called a guirlanda delle strege, or witches' garland. It is made by taking a cord and tying knots in it. While doing this pluck feathers one by one from a living hen, and stick them into the knots, uttering a malediction with every one. There was also found in the bed the figure of a hen made of stuff (cotton or the like)."

The next day I showed the woman the engraving of the witch-ladder in the Folk-Lore Journal. She was astonished, and said, "Why that is la guirlanda delle strege which I described yesterday." I did not pay any attention at the time to what was said of the image of a cock or hen being found with the knotted cord, but I have since ascertained that it formed the most important part of the whole incantation.”

Leland goes on to present the spell, which he said was very difficult to procure because it was considered very dangerous and evil. The rest of the spell involves making a stuffed effigy of a hen, which seems to be a key part of the Italian variety in Leland’s description, but is not particularly relevant to our exploration. 

Returning to the Wellington ladder, Chris Wingfield in “Witches’ Ladder: The Hidden History” says that on the museum display label, the purpose of stealing milk from a neighbor’s cow is listed. This is also in keeping with traditional ideas about witchcraft, and is not far off from the ladders we’ll discuss. Wingfield says the purpose for the ladder was included in a note from Anna Tylor when she donated the ladder, but seems to have originally been provided as speculation by James Frazer. Frazer based this assertion on folklore in Scotland and Germany. 

Leland makes note of this ladder, explaining that Edward Tylor had displayed it in an 1891 Folklore Congress. It may have been the same one which Leland showed to his Italian informant. 

Wingfield further explains that the meaning of the ladder was not originally clear to those studying it. He notes that Abraham Colles, who wrote - possibly with Tylor’s help - the article about the artifact that appeared in the Folklore Journal, noted that old women in the area referenced “a rope with feathers,” in conjunction with witchcraft, and that the men who found it immediately recognized it as a witches’ ladder. So, the concept was well known in the folklore of Somerset. 

While those in Wellington seemed familiar with such things, Tylor was uncertain that they had thorough proof that the ladder was actually a magical device. Another folklorist, Sabine Baring-Gould corresponded with Tylor regarding the ladder. According to Wingfield, Baring-Gould of Devon spoke with a local woman, thought to be a witch in the 1890s, about the ladder. This woman was entirely unfamiliar with them and thought it was likely simply a tool for scaring chickens. 

Wikipedia also talks about the historical sources for witches ladders, and notes the Wellington ladder, Baring-Gould’s fictional description of one, and Leland’s account. So it would seem, almost all our historical examples are just the Wellington ladder. That said, a second item of similar appearance was in Tylor’s possession. Additionally, as we noted, Leland claims to have had two in his possession as well. It’s possible that only one ever survived as an historical example, or there may have been as many as four. 

Whether these witches' ladders were real or not, variations of the concept have become part of magic as it exists today. The term has, for some, given its name to basic knot spells as described above. Variations closer to the Wellington ladder have also made their way into modern folklore and magic. 

The Wellington ladder is likely what inspired the versions of the witches ladder with which I was familiar. 

To me, the ladder is a type of fetish used for the transfer of power. It can be built as a way to draw power from natural sources, to draw power from another magician or person, or a way to inflict harmful power on another person. 

In the most basic instance, a cord is knotted with natural items tied into the knots. The knots might hold feathers, bones, shells, animal hairs, or plants. These items connect to the source from which they were drawn, or the overall spirits which oversee them and their kind. The knots bind some of their power into the charm. A link to the witch casting the spell is tied in the final knot. This could be done moving up the cord towards the witch or down the cord towards the witch based on whether you prefer building up or drawing down the power. 

The natural items need to be awakened before tying them into the ladder. This can be done by speaking with them and offering them a sprinkling of water, suffumigating them with incense, consecrating them with candle light or a combination of these actions. Special spells and incantations calling upon divine powers to recognize or bless the life in them can be used as well.

As the items are knotted into the ladder, you can speak with them and their spirits and instruct them to lend their power to the ladder and therefore the one who it is made for. Alternatively you can design an incantation for that purpose. 

The ladder should be placed in a special, safe place, to add power to the witch, or can be held, worn, or carried when working magic to more directly apply its power. 

If the intention is to take power from another, the process is similar. Instead of using natural objects, as much as possible, use objects either belonging to, having been touched or worn by, or symbolizing the person from whom life, vitality, or magical power is to be taken. Similarly to the other form of the ladder, the items need to be awoken and instructed. If the items are “part of” the person from whom you are stealing power, simply instructing them to give over that power might not be something they will readily do. 

You can take one of three approaches. Regardless of the approach, the items need to be woken up, just like awakening the natural materials. A spell of command can be used to force them to give over their life and power and sap it from their source. The items can be sweet-talked and convinced to give the power over, either as if it is what is necessary for their source or because the items have been left by their source and you have rescued them. An incantation could also be used to command the rope to forcibly take the power from, and through the items. The rope should be enchanted as each knot is tied regardless of which method is used. 

This might sound like a very nasty thing to do, but it is a very traditional sort of witchcraft. Historical witches have many features which are similar to “dark shamans” or beings with spirit flight capabilities who feed from the spiritual power and life of other people and animals in their communities. European witches were also frequently known for stealing the potency from dyes and alcoholic beverages, or the milk from cows and the fertility from fields, and even from other people. 

As noted above, James Frazer believed the purpose of the witches’ ladder was stealing milk from cows. Other commenters have noted that witches ladders create pining and wasting sickness. Canfield quotes Montague Summers who described a witches ladder in connection with the “Island-Magee” witch trial. This trial in 1711 was the last, or one of the last, Irish witch trials. A Mrs. Haltridge claimed that Mary Dunbar was showing signs of demonic possession. Dunbar accused eight women of attacking her in spectral form. Some historians have suggested that Dunbar was aware of accounts from Salem Massachusetts and mimicked the behaviors described in stories of Salem. The records of the trial and its results may have been destroyed, and so details don’t survive. Summers claims that during the investigations of the bewitchment, an apron to Mary Dunbar had been discovered. Summers may not be a reliable account as he claims Dunbar was a guest visiting the bewitched, whereas it seems she was the key bewitched individual. According to Summers, Dunbar’s apron had been tied up with string, and the string had been knotted with nine knots. The string was tied into the folds to make it difficult to remove, and when the apron was bewitched it had caused Dunbar to have seizures and fits and was sickened almost to death. 

According to Summers, witches’ ladders were a common means of cursing and were made by tying knots in a cord while reciting “horrid maledictions,” and then hiding it in a secret place. The intention, according to Summers, was to cause the target to “pine and die.”

Prior to Summers, Sabine Baring-Gould included a witches’ ladder in his novel Curgenven. Baring-Gould’s fictional witches ladder was a tool of cursing, and operated by rotting away to release the ill intentions held within the ladder to impact their target. Baring-Gould explained to Tylor that he had no source for his ladder aside from his own imagination and the inspiration from the Wellington ladder. Baring-Gould’s example is interesting though because the ladder is made from three colors of thread, black, brown and white. Otherwise, it was similar to the Wellington ladder, but had a stone tied to the end so that it would sink into a pond to rot as it released its evil magic. 

The last sort I am aware of is for cursing, like Baring-Gould and Summers described. Unlike the previous example, which could be compared to the wasting sickness Summers describes as it saps power, or life, or health, from someone, this one asserts ill intention upon the target to bring about harm. 

Some of the accounts of ladders describe the knots being made and then the feathers being inserted into the knots. That is the method you will use when using a ladder to curse someone. The rope should be baptised as the target. A physical link should be awakened and tied within the rope prior to the baptism. Then knots are tied into the rope with the negative intentions forced into the rope with each knot, and incantations spoken to bind pain, discomfort, and whatever other ill effects are desired into the target. You could use feathers like in Leland’s Black Hen spell, but I would use pins. The pins should be baptised as whatever ill fate, or ill force is intended to pierce the target. The water can be fixed with herbs and incantations beforehand to add to imparting the intended nature to the pins. The pins can be heated in a candle’s flame or a fire, particularly one with candles or incense which has been consecrated and has the nature of the intended outcome of the curse. The pins should then be stuck into each knot with an incantation as one does so. 

Once the cursing ladder is finished, it should be hidden. It could be hidden in a safe place convenient to the magician. Like most curses, it would be more effective to hide it on the property of the cursed, or within their clothing, or on their person. 

To bring things back full circle, I saw a spell meme the other day that is based on the 9-knot spell but intended to build a power source for the witch. That puts it between the modern 9-knot version of the ladder and the more traditional ladder which draws power for the witch. 

“To increase your personal power take a yard of string, ribbon or yarn, and tie a knot in the center while saying ‘I am power, I’m divine, I am Goddess by design, I am all there is to be power is mine, So mote it be.’ Repeat this spell for eight more days, tying knots of equal distance until there are nine. Then put the cord in a safe place and wear it on Sabbaths.” 

The spell is…kind of awful. The idea is good though. 

The incantation doesn’t call upon any source of power or draw power for anything to increase the power the witch has access to. The witch just makes a couple empty statements about how powerful they are. They don’t structure the incantation to build power, draw power, or invoke power from anything. “Divine,” “Goddess,” “All,” these are all things that the witch could draw on and aspect with a more thorough incantation or invocation. Then having called on that power, the power could be bound into the cord to be used in the future. 

Typically though, these kind of knotting something into a cord for future use spells involve untying the knots when you want to use it. A traditional example of this is tying knots to capture the force of the wind and calm it, and then untying the knots to release the force and raise winds. 

Since the knots aren’t holding things to draw power from, and then conducting it into a link to the witch, a spell like the one presented above would make more sense if the power was knotted into the cord and released by untying. Increasing your power would also be easier by drawing power from elsewhere. I won’t get into the aesthetic choice that is that incantation…

Criticisms aside, the idea obviously connects with concepts that we see in folklore and which seem to be part of old witchcraft. Using knots to build a fetish or charm meant to increase power is solid. The approach of the witches ladder might make more sense than the type of approach presented in the meme. But, the witches ladder involves a much more engaged and enspirited use of material than the meme. Similarly, in comparing the nine knot spell as a version of “witches’ ladder” to the historical examples or the versions with which I was familiar, the difference again is the use of enspirited materials. 

Lots of kinds of magic can work, though. You should do the kind that is well suited to you, your situations and your needs. You have to do the magic that is suited to the materials you have access to. Your preferences matter. You might find that the effects are different based on the type of approach used, so it may be worth experimenting with one if you’ve only tried the other.

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