Helping-spirits are essential to the practice of shamanism and magic. Belief in them can be traced back to Paleolithic cave paintings depicting men shape-shifting into animals–likely their allies in the spirit-world. In different cultures throughout history helping-spirits have assumed various forms: animals, gods and godessess, angels, faeries, ancestors or others, but their purpose has always been the same—to give otherworldly assistance to their human companions.
The ancient Greeks believed in daimons—intermediary spirits who conveyed the intentions of the gods to mankind and vice-versa. The term embraced a wide range of spirits including deities, muses, nature spirits and ancestors. Socrates, the founder of western philosophy, always followed the advice of his personal daimon, which he experienced as a voice warning him against taking the wrong actions. It became so trusted among Socrates’s friends that they sought its counsel before making important decisions. In our modern world, dominated by left-brained thinking and rationalism, those who hear voices or see visions of spirits are often stigmatized as mentally ill. Psychiatrists until recently labelled the visionary experiences of shamans as “pathological”, associating them with schizophrenia, hysteria, epilepsy or “magical thinking”.
Over the past few decades however, there has been a paradigm shift in the sciences–psychologists and scientists have begun to study shamanism as a means of gaining insight into altered states of consciousness. Transpersonal psychologist Roger Walsh acknowledges that the shaman’s interactions with “spirits” may be beneficial as they provide them with information, guidance, and wisdom. Walsh notes that Jungian and Gestalt schools of psychology use guided imagery to access the inner wisdom of the patient, including techniques such as dialogue with a sage or “inner teacher”. Through this technique insightful information can be accessed—similar in some aspects to the shaman’s use of helping-spirits.
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung had his own personal experience of helping-spirits. Following the traumatic break-up with his mentor Freud, Jung went through a prolonged period of depression and introspection, later describing it as a “confrontation with the unconscious”. During this time he intentionally engaged in experiments of “mythopoetic imagination”, holding dialogues with his unconscious fantasy figures. Remarkably his experiences had similarities to the ordeals of shamans during their initiations. Jung’s fantasies became charged with intense emotions ranging from disgust, shame, nausea, to bliss—making him doubt his sanity. In order to “seize hold” of his fantasies he imagined descending to a great depth, to the edge of a cosmic abyss in an otherworldly “land of the dead”. There he encountered imaginal characters such as a beautiful young blind girl named Salome, a serpent, and a wise old man named “Philemon” described by Jung as his “ghostly guru” in the underworld who acted as his “superior insight”. He perceived Philemon as an old man with the horns of a bull and the colorful wings of a kingfisher, holding four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock. Soon after this vision, Jung was “thunderstruck” by a startling synchronistic event—finding a rare kingfisher bird dead in his garden. He would later walk around his garden holding conversations with Philemon—he was quite “real” to him. These experiences led Jung to conclude: “I came to the realization there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life…”
In indigenous cultures, shamans enter into various alliances with spirit-beings– including marriages with them. These otherworldly wives or husbands become powerful tutelary spirits forming working partnerships with the shaman, without whom they would be unable to heal or shamanize. Historian Mircea Eliade writes that the shamans of the Goldi people of Siberia clearly distinguish between the tutelary spirit—the ayami which chooses the shaman–and the helping spirits which are subordinate to, and given to the shaman by the ayami. A Siberian Nanay shaman discussed such a spirit who lived with him like a wife. He revealed his ayami was a beautiful small woman, with one half her face painted red and the other half black. She could appear in the form of an old woman, a wolf, or a winged tiger. She provided him with three spirit helpers—a leopard, a bear and a tiger. He confided: “When I am shamanizing, the ayami and the assistant spirits…penetrate me, as smoke, or vapour would. When the ayami is within me, it is she who speaks through my mouth, and she does everything herself”.
The Greek Magical Papyri are a collection of magical spells from Graeco-Roman Egypt, containing several rituals for acquiring a divine assistant known as the paredros. In one of these, the magician is instructed to fast and perform an all night blindfolded vigil on his rooftop, then hail the sunrise while reciting a spell. Upon doing this, the text assures him a falcon will fly down and drop an oblong stone which he must pick up and engrave, then bore a hole through it, and wear around his neck. He is then instructed to return to the roof that evening, burn incense and salute the Moon goddess while waving a branch of myrtle—perhaps a version of a magic wand. As a result, the text insists a blazing star will descend, transforming into an angel. The magician is advised to take the angel by the hand, lead it down to his room and provide it with a feast. From this time forward, the paredros accompanies him, helping him perform all sorts of magical tasks including sending dreams, stirring up winds, making him invisible, carrying him through the air, etc.
The 15th century magical text The Book of The Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage, written by Abraham von Worms, a German jewish scholar, focuses on gaining the assistance of the “Holy Guardian Angel”. This is achieved only after a lengthy retreat lasting up to a year and a half. During this time the magician is instructed to live an ascetic lifestyle of devotion, fasting, celibacy and prayer. The ritual culminates with an ecstatic visitation with the guardian angel described as “knowledge and conversation”–also compared to a “divine marriage”. Abraham describes his own encounter with his angel: “I experienced this vision in humility and bliss for three continuous days. I was addressed lovingly and with friendship by my guardian angel. He explained the godly wisdom and Kabbalah and later completely explained the complete truth about this magic”. Having gained the support of his guardian angel, the magician is next instructed to summon a host of demons, binding and enlisting them to his service as magical assistants. The parallels with the tutelary spirit of the shaman, who likewise grants authority over lesser spirits, are remarkable. Modern ritual magicians continue to perform the Abramelin rite–some seeing it the culmination of their magical career–while others insist it lays the foundation for their future magical practice.
In late medieval and early modern Europe, witches as well as folk-magician/healers known as cunning-folk, relied on partnerships with familiar-spirits. Witches in trance journeyed out of their bodies riding on the backs of their familiars in the form of stags, goats, birds or other creatures–or shapeshifted into them, as did shamans. The familiar-spirits of cunning-folk appeared as animals, as well as angels, saints, faeries, sprites, imps, or deceased humans. According to historian Emma Wilby, relationships between cunning-folk and their familiars often involved a very human kind of intimacy, ranging from loving support to quarreling. Similar to the initiation experiences of shamans, spirit-familiars appeared in times of crisis to offer assistance to their human companions, giving them the gifts of healing and divination by which they could earn a living by serving their communities.
Alliances with helping-spirits have not been exclusive to shamans or magicians. Ancient Greek and Norse poets believed they received inspiration from the gods while in ecstatic states—similar to the divine madness of shamans. Artists, musicians, and writers down through the ages have attributed their creative inspiration to otherworldly muses. Followers of monotheistic religions pray to angels, guardian angels and saints, from whom they seek guidance, healing, and protection. Whether one believes in spirits or not, contacts with them by people from all walks of life–kings, prophets, philosophers, politicians, the elite as well as ordinary folks–have been recorded down through the ages.