When people first begin dabbling in the magical arts, it seems to me that the first thing anyone runs to is defensive spells, banishings, generally forceful, wrathful stuff. Regardless of what initial approach one takes, this always seems to be the first go-to. No matter what one’s approach, the first thing they learn tends to be how to make spirits go away. Beyond this, it’s such a common and pervasive thing that people tend to double down on it long after they have learned that not every spirit in the area is a demon sent to destroy them. “Just in case,” we tell ourselves, “you have to learn to defend yourself first!” I’m not really sure this is the case. It seems to not only be a paranoid mindset but perhaps an actively harmful mindset. I don’t think we should cultivate in the beginning sorcerer a sense of dread from the spirit world.
Shortly after that, for those that tend to self-teach or go on without a skilled instructor, the very next thing we learn is how to summon spirits to us. Invocations, evocations, summonings, and so on are next up after we’ve learned how to banish a spirit back from whence they came. Now, obviously one of these things follows another. “After we’ve learned to banish a spirit, we can summon them without worrying!” Well sure, that’s true to an extent. Certainly you don’t stand to be harmed as much as if you summon a spirit against its will and then can’t banish it. But what if there was an alternative? What if, rather than learning to forcefully banish spirits, or learning to forcefully summon spirits, we took an entirely different approach?
What if we tried being nice to spirits?
For many people I think this is actually a very novel idea. Mostly beginners, as I believe most longtime practitioners come around to this view eventually anyhow. After all, it’s easier, and for ceremonialists it’s not unfamiliar, either; we generally try to summon gods or goddesses by inviting them with offerings, and we send them away by offerings as well. For some reason however our introductory lessons and mindset when it comes to spirits of the less deific sort is to banish them or forcefully invoke them. “Come here to me now!” we say, slamming our wand into the chalice or throwing our reagent into the fire. “Return to whence you came now!” we say, scattering the salt into the invocation field. Not exactly a pleasant call, frankly.
The truth is, spirits are just sentient beings like us or animals or demigods or anything else. They have various degrees of intelligence, though we like to focus on the ones we stand to gain from, which usually means spirits as intelligent, or more intelligent, than we are. We often want to banish lower intelligence spirits that have come around our workings for various reasons, or which serve to offer up obstacles against workings they don’t particularly like. The obstructor spirit that really hates our deity who tries their best to distract, or the wandering ghost like creature attracted to the ritual offerings we’ve laid on the altar, or so on. In the Tibetan tradition, however, we don’t banish these using the power of the elements from the four directions. The gektor or “obstacle offering cake” is used before rituals where the deity will be invited. It’s made of different things than the deities tend to like – radishes and onions and suchlike, and it’s offered to the obstacle spirits with a request that in plain English goes something like, “hey, I know you don’t like what we’re about to do here, so rather than bother us, how about take this cake and enjoy it somewhere else?” And you know what? This approach usually workers really, really well.
After we invite the spirits to please take what we’re giving them, go somewhere else, and maybe consider not being such jerks all the time, the ritual goes on with the standard preparations which, yes, do tend to involve expelling spirits that chose to stick around. But it’s much nicer, generally, to offer them to go away first. Offering a carrot before the stick. In a way, it makes them getting chased off their own faults, anyhow. You told them what was going to happen, you gave them a fair alternative, and even offerings to stay away, and they chose to stick around anyhow. That’s on them. But more importantly, it’s generally a much nicer, more civilized approach – and that kind of reputation tends to precede us. It’s not at all surprising to me that the most aggressive, biggest, baddest mages out there, who banish and summon spirits all the time, who simply aren’t going to let anyone mess with them, are frequently abrasive individuals, and frequently have the most dramatic rituals. It’s not because their power is so great, it’s simply because they need a lot more power to get the results. The carrot works, the stick works too, but the spirit who came by the carrot tends to leave by the carrot just as well.
Mixing the approaches of course sends mixed messages, and tends to be a problem that beginning magicians fall into which Jason Miller recently mentioned in a panel discussion I had the privilege to be part of. That is, the issue of nicely inviting the spirit by offerings of food and drink and light and smoke and all these nice things, then when we’ve finished conducting business, chasing them off violently with slamming doors and swinging swords. It does send a bit of a mixed message, and isn’t ideal for cultivating relationships. And that, ultimately, is what it’s all about: cultivating relationships. If you have a good reputation for being the wizard that makes good offerings, does good supplications, asks reasonable favors, and doesn’t act like a blowhard, that reputation will carry over as the spirits you work with get to know you better. I can hear now the traditional ceremonialists of the banishing and invoking type saying “it’s better to be feared than loved,” but Machiavelli was writing satire, and besides, the spirits and demigods are not your subjects, they’re your business partners. And it’s better to be loved by your colleagues, not feared.