Language is the vehicle through which we transmit culture. It is the manner in which we package and exchange information, ideas and concepts and is the most basic symbolic unit upon which we can progress and grow as individuals, as a society, and ultimately as a species. The oft-quoted statement by Isaac Newton that “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” doesn’t just boast the advancement of science and individual accomplishments, but also speaks to the means by which those ideas are transmitted. Perhaps more accurately -or rather, literally – it is not upon their “shoulders”, but upon their words – words spoken and written to convey the concepts and principles upon which we have built our worldview.
As the beliefs and values of culture change and as new technologies develop and progress, language adapts to express the ideas of the time and place. We need to only look within the last twenty years to see how words like “email”, “browser”, “texting” and others have become part of our daily vocabulary. They simply appeared and stuck around.
If I write “USB stick” or “CD-Rom” or “Floppy Disk” you can instantly picture each and differentiate between them despite knowing that at a base level they are all just forms of memory storage. This is something that we take for granted but the fact that such technical terms are commonplace in our daily spoken languages highlights the importance modern cultures place on material technology. Yet, when it comes to our spiritual practices and experiences – what we my deem our spiritual technologies – we have a lot of trouble describing them with even remotely comparable precision.
The simple truth is that most of us live in areas of the world where the dominant culture is just not that preoccupied with spirits and magic. As a result our vocabulary to discuss these concepts has become extremely limited, atrophied even. With the standardization of modern languages vaguely related concepts and even words from other languages were lumped together as synonyms of one another even if they once were used to refer to very specific and different types of spiritual phenomena. We need only to look at one of the definitions for the word “Spirit” in Merriam-Webster to see the extent of this word syncreticism:
the soul of a dead person thought of especially as appearing to living people <Hamlet’s late father appears to him in the form of a spirit and with the revelation that he was in fact murdered>
Synonyms apparition, bogey (also bogie or bogy), familiar spirit, hant[dialect], haunt [chiefly dialect], materialization, phantasm (also fantasm), phantom, poltergeist, shade, shadow, specter (or spectre), ghost, spook, sprite, vision, visitant, wraith
Related Words angel, daimon, familiar, genie, genius, jinni (or jinn also djinnior djinn), shaitan; double, doppelgänger (or doppelganger), fetch; lemures, manes; incubus, lamia, succubus, vampire, zombie (also zombi); cacodemon, demon (or daemon), devil, fiend, ghoul, imp
Since the need in our modern culture to differentiate between such spiritual phenomena is simply not there, our language has been weaned off the nuances in meaning that would have very been important if we were still living in a culture where spirituality was dominant. Most practitioners will scoff at the idea of “spirit” being synonymous with “ghost”, as we tend to understand these as different types of manifested entities. The same can be said for “phantasm” and “phantom”, that in the grimoire tradition are used to denote lesser or unclean trickster spirits such as in the exorcisms of fire, water and incense from the Greater Key of Solomon (“I exorcise thee, O Spirit impure and unclean, thou who art a hostile Phantom, in the Name of God, that thou quit this Incense”; “…so that every kind of Phantasm may retire from thee, and be unable to harm or deceive in anyway…”). Others may have issues with “shade” and “shadow” and various other descriptions of specific spirit manifestation being lumped together to simply mean “spirit.”
While we might not all agree on the exact definitions of these so-called synonyms, most will agree that they do not all represent the same thing. This is because we have developed our own technical languages to describe our spiritual practices. We have become aware of the need to differentiate between terms due to our experiences with the various levels and forms of spiritual interaction.
We are specialist and like specialist in other fields we have developed our own technical jargon. The problem is that without an overarching tradition and the lessened need for these terms in day-to-day English, the technical terms we use are not normalized even though we speak the same language. So how can we – as a community – even begin to have a meaningful dialogue if there is no base terminology upon which to start?
Let me be clear. The goal of this essay is not to berate English as many other modern languages share this same fate, but rather to spark a conversation among practitioners regarding the words we use to describe our craft. At very least, I hope that we will keep this notion in the back of our minds and be a little more interested in the precision of language when discussing spiritual topics.
Magic and language are inseparable. The fact that words and sounds produce meaning and conjure images in our minds is in itself an act of magic. Our language is ridden with puns that speak to the transformative property of words…when we spell a word, we are literally casting a spell to evoke meaning. There is undoubtedly power in the ability to name and identify something properly.
When we look at the language of cultures with strong living magical traditions we see that they have far more advanced magical vocabularies than we do in our modern languages. Each word has a very specific meaning in the context of the tradition allowing for a common baseline lexicon for discussing, teaching and exchanging concepts and techniques pertaining to ritual and magic…concepts that are otherwise extremely nebulous unless well defined.
In Palo Mayombe we speak Palo-KiKongo as the ‘official’ ritual language of tradition. The language is a mix of creole Spanish with KiKongo and other Bantu-family languages. In most cases the proper names of spirits, ritual tools , plants, animals and other natural features and forces are of Kongo origin in order to convey specific concepts and ideas of Bakongo cosmology. Palo KiKongo doesn’t just have one word for spirit, there are dozens and each pertains to a very specific type of spiritual entity that we would call upon for a particular function and working.
|Some examples of Palo-Kikongo Terms for “Spirit”|
|Bakulu||An elevated ancestral spirit|
|Bunzi||Tutelary spirit attached to a particular clan, house or lineage|
|Ndoki||Dark spirit, spirit with inherent but untapped raw power|
|Ndundu||Spirit of an albino, spirit of mixed-race, ‘phantoms’, also generic sprite-like entity (comparable to Faerie of some UK traditions)|
|Nfuiri||Spirit of the dead|
|Nfumbe||The spirits of the dead who have made a pact with the Tata Nkisi and inhabit the ritualized bones and/or bone powder.|
|Nkisi||Describes both an object or fetish that is housing a spirit and the spirit within the object|
|Nkita||A restless spirit that has died a violent death|
|Nkuyu||A lost soul|
|Musanga||A ghost or wandering spirit of the dead|
|Simbi (Basimbi)||Spirits of place, genus loci, spirits that embody the natural environment.|
While there may be disagreements about the exact use-cases for some Kikongo words across different ramas and nzos, the language nonetheless establishes an accepted baseline for communicating with the spirits and conveying concepts and spiritual experiences. There are countless proper names for the spirits of the natural landscape, and even the words of everyday objects, like the concept of Nkisi itself, describe both the physical item and the spirit within. The entire language is magical and exudes the animism of the tradition.
This inherent relationship between language and magic is expressed by the concept of ndinga which can mean ‘language’ as well as ‘the word’. In the metaphysical context of Palo and traditional Bakongo conjurations and spell-work, however, ndinga is understood as the animating and transformative principle. Similar to the Christian Gnostic concept of logos, ndinga represents the spirit made flesh – it is the inherent power and precision of the word through which things become manifest.
Such importance placed on the power and precision of words is not unique to Palo and is indeed found across countless traditional societies and cultures around the globe (present-day and historical). In “Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic”, Stephen Skinner went to great lengths to examine magic as a technology with its own technical language within the context of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM). Many of my thoughts in this essay were born from his work. He showed how the scribes of the papyri used certain terms such as “phylactery”, “talisman”, and “amulet” to describe distinct empowered objects. The original Greek and Demotic was consistent in the chosen words used to describe these items as there were clear differences in their creation and function. It was the later translators that grouped them and started to use amulet, talisman and phylactery as synonymous words thereby losing the context and precision of the terms.
To some, these distinctions can seem overly pedantic and indeed they may only hold weight within certain traditions that adopt these practices and work with these particular types of spirits. Nonetheless, the same muddying of the language is present in more generic western magical conversations and perhaps nowhere more clearly than in our usage of the terms “angels” and “demons”.
In ancient Greek the term αγγελος – from which we get “angel” described a spirit with the sole function of delivering messages to humans from the gods and the other denizens of the spirit world. These were generally considered subservient spirits. However, the term was also used as a title for a deity that was fulfilling that role such as Apollo or Hermes when delivering a prophecy or message to mankind.
The word “demon” derives from δαιμον, and this too described a specific role and function. A daemon is also a messenger spirit, but with one fundamental difference. They work both ways delivering messages from mankind to the gods as well as from the gods to mankind. Daemons were the operating spirits for magicians and aided as intermediaries in communication with the dead and the gods. They empowered humans with influence and authority and leveled the playing field when it came to interacting with the spirit-world. To speak of someone’s daemon was to reference their “god-like” nature, that divine spark within. These terms did not carry with them any sense of morality, a daemon or an angelos is neither good nor evil, as they simply function according to their nature and are ambivalent and indifferent to our moral codes.
Needless to say, the Abrahamic concepts of “angel” and “demon” that have made their way into our modern language and culture are far cry from the original meaning of these words. Countless other spirits that were neither daemon nor angelos were grouped into these buckets based on how they were deemed to fit within the binary classification of what the Church classified as either a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ spirits. The dominant culture by imposing its ideology effectively redefined the language of spirit interaction.
Our modern terms are a result of this over-simplification of the spiritual landscape and literal ‘dumbing-down’ of the language used to describe it. A magical lexicon that in antiquity was always understood in shades of gray was redefined into black and white in order to reflect the social and moral paradigms of the new religion and to enforce its new laws and taboos.
It is clear as to why the spirits found in the catalogs of Solomonic grimoires and those who have existed in nature for eons are classified as ‘demonic’ in an Judeo-Christian sense. These are spirits who challenge the proposed cosmological and political structure of the Abrahamic faiths. They break the established flow of information and chain of power, a process that according to those in control comes from the Abrahamic god through his angels down to man, a process that is mirrored by the feudal state as edicts flow from king to lord to serf. To gain knowledge or power from terrestrial or chthonic spirits is to invert the system and challenge the very authority and social fabric that upholds the status quo. Witchcraft and magic are therefore acts of rebellion and anarchy – a capital offense in the eyes of a religious state! So why by everything that is sacred in this world do we continue to entertain the words and definitions that have been imposed by others onto our spirits and our practice?
We have reached a point where we need to reclaim the science of spirit-interaction and its technical language. It is time to let go of the banal definitions imposed by the dominant culture and the hegemonic church and re-embrace a more descriptive – a more meaningful – definition of our practice and the beings we work with. As modern day practitioners, the onus is on us to reclaim our language so that we can continue to carry the magical tradition forward.