Every culture the world over has had traditional tools and objects intended to protect the living from unwanted the spirits. You might think that the dead, once they were finished with their lives, would move on and not bother with the living. However, especially among less modernized cultures, the dead were perceived as being very jealous of the living. Thus, on nights when the wall between the worlds grew thin, such as Samhain, it was believed that the dead would return to their living relatives and attempt to feed on their vitality or to steal them away altogether in order to join them on the otherside. When there was no immediate family for the dead to prey upon, it was believed that any living person would do.
In addition to the dead, there were all manner of other spirits and entities active on the otherside. As an old Scottish prayer specifies: “From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night – good Lord deliver us!” All of these were thought to hover, just beyond our ordinary reality, waiting for a chance to attack, play tricks on, or otherwise annoy human beings. For these reasons, cultures around the world developed many techniques and tools for driving unwanted spirits away.
Gargoyles and Grotesques
Many items functioned on the notion of chasing spirits away by scaring them. For some reason, living people, who find spirits frightening and often depict them as malformed and hideous, seem to think that making things with hideous faces on them will in turn frighten away these unwanted spirits. Tribal masks from the Innuits to the various African peoples demonstrate this notion very nicely, with their distended faces, enlarged mouths, and protuberant eyes. Similar masks used to frighten away evil spirits can also be found among a number of primitive Asian cultures, with quite a few of these recently finding a receptive market here in the West as decorative pieces.
The jack o’ lantern, such a common sight in the United States around Halloween, also functions on this principle. Originally used in Ireland (and made out of a potato or turnip before it was ever carved from a pumpkin), the jack o’lantern was placed outside of a family’s home with the hope that its hideous face, lit by a candle from within, would frighten the spirits away. The gargoyles and grotesques on old churches also served the same purpose, although I have heard it argued that they were actually intended to impress upon the living attendants of those churches just how ugly and frightening the spirits of evil could be.
I have found that a grotesque, be it a gargoyle or other mask, functions very nicely as a guardian over a doorway. You may coax a spirit to inhabit the item, or you may work an energetic construct into the item with the specific intent of using it as a guard. Either way, placing this object just over a door has the effect of scaring lesser entities away. Think of the item as a sort of keeper of the threshold, and remember to charge it with energy and intent fairly regularly to maintain its function.
Another spirit-chasing item that the old churches employed were bells. Like masks and grotesques, the use of bells to clear the air of negative energies and to scare spirits away crosses the boundaries of culture and time. In the Catholic Mass, for example, when the host is solemnly raised for the moment of transubstantiation, a small set of four bells is often rung by one of the altar boys. This ritualistic ringing is only partially meant to draw attention to the mystery unfolding within the priest’s hands. The high chiming tone of the bells, ringing throughout the silent church, was at one time also intended to chase off any unwanted spirits from the place. Furthermore, it was a common belief in the British Isles that the sounding of church bells would drive faeries away.
A lot of folk-beliefs are founded on some grain of truth, although in many cases that truth has become greatly distorted. For example, the ringing of church bells was believed to keep faeries away because it was a sanctified and holy sound. Since the fey weren’t part of the Christian belief system, the Medieval Church automatically identified them as “evil” spirits, in league with Satan. Therefore, anything that was holy or blessed by the Church was believed to repel the fey.
In Eastern countries where bells were employed to ward off spirits, the effectiveness had little to do with what god was in charge and more to do with the actual tone of the bells. The vibrations of the bells were thought to clear negative energies and to disrupt the energy of spirits. From many personal experiences, I am inclined to agree that it is the sound of the bells – very specifically their vibration and resonance — which has the greatest impact on clearing energies and chasing spirits away. To clear energy, a resonant, deep-throated bell seems to work best, while for most spirits, bells with high frequencies or a slightly dissonant tone seem to irritate them and drive them away.
Drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments are also thought to work along the same lines as bells. Typically, the loud and dissonant playing of percussion and other instruments is used to chase spirits from an area. By this reasoning, the claims of some conservative Christians that heavy metal music is used to summon demons might be completely off base. Instead, such ear-splitting tunes blasted at loud decibels is much more likely to disrupt spiritual energies and send entities packing.
Rhythmic drumming is used by shamans to aid them in achieving an altered state for working with spirits and with the dead, so be certain not to get confused. Generally, for the effect of chasing spirits away, the sounds you make on drums and other percussion instruments should be disruptive and unpleasant. As with many other spirit-chasers, this functions on the logic that if it makes your mother-in-law want to flee from the room, it will likely chase away any other nasty entity that’s out there.
Tibetan Ritual Tools
The Tibetans, who had a highly evolved spiritual “science” before the Chinese invaded and drove them out of their land, had developed a number of tools for driving off unwanted spirits. The phurba, a three-edged ritual blade popularized by the late nineties movie “The Shadow”, was used when dealing with spirits. The three edges of the blade are supposed to cut on the physical side, the spiritual side, and the spaces between. Similarly, the three faces of the traditional phurba, their countenances distorted in demonic fury, are supposed to scare spirits away, once again hitting every possible angle between spirit and solid realities.
The phurba is also used to “nail down” spirits so they may be dealt with in other ways. This can be helpful when binding spirits so they do not get away, and it can be helpful when performing a more involved attack intended to weaken a spirit to the point that it will be rendered incapable of doing harm for a very long while.
In addition to the phurba, another ritual blade, known as the dargu, is intended to cut spiritual attachments. This is the sacred blade of the dakinis, the feminine embodiments of the peaceful and wrathful deities. While the dargu is intended to sever the attachments a soul may have for things in this life, I have found that this blade works nicely for severing the links that some entities will forge to attach themselves to people in the here and now.
Another Tibetan tool, the dorje, is a symbolic representation of a lightning bolt. This item, often used in conjunction with a bell, amplifies the energy of the person holding it and can be used to great effect in clearing the energy of a room. Two dorjes forged together make a kind of four-spoked wheel and while this item can be cumbersome to hold, it is a very potent tool for amplifying and spreading out the wielder’s energy. Thus, a double-dorje, when energy is focused through it, can be used to clear out the stagnant and blocked energy over a wide area in a ritual space or other room.
A very popular Native American device, the dream-catcher, has gained widespread usage in recent years. Originally woven of sinew within a circle of wood or vines, the dream-catcher is symbolic of a spider web. Typically, there is a small, polished stone suspended from the web at some point within its design. This stone is said to represent Grandmother Spider, a Native American goddess of wisdom who watchers over any who use her dream-catchers.
The purpose of a dream-catcher is to capture nightmares while allowing good dreams to pass through the spaces between the web. Dream-catchers are traditionally placed on the walls just over the head of the bed, where they are supposed to encourage restful sleep. In recent times, dream-catchers are employed to capture any manner of negative energies, while presumably allowing more positive forces to pass through the web.
Just as the nasty-looking faces of gargoyles and grotesques were thought to drive spirits away, so, too, were nasty-smelling substances thought to repel visitors from the otherside. This is where we get the tradition that garlic can keep vampires away. Garlic has a strong and very pungent odor, and if one is wearing a string of garlic around their neck, it is likely to keep not only vampires, but also friends, family members, and perfect strangers at a safe distance.
Moving beyond garlic, there are a number of incenses that were traditionally burned to dispel spirits and drive them from a place. The ancient practice of fumigation, that is, filling a room up with a thick cloud of pungent smoke, was used to dispel negative energies as well as physical pests and vermin from a home. Fumitory is one incense that was traditionally used for this, as was the herb asafoetida. The word “fetid” is part of the root for “asafoetida” and this is very apt, for the herb has an exceptionally strong and amazingly unpleasant odor. Although it is employed in some forms of Indian cooking, asafoetida, in my book, is best reserved for exorcism, and even then, it should only be employed when a situation calls for the “big guns”.
Other incenses often used to purge energies and to exorcise spirits include frankincense, dragon’s blood, and myrrh. All of these have a more pleasant odor, and will probably not have the effect of driving you from the room along with the spirits.
Nearly every religion and spiritual tradition recognizes the purifying qualities of fire. Returning to Medieval days, peasants would erect huge bonfires, called “need-fires” in times of calamity, especially during outbreaks of plague. The fire was allowed to blaze up, and when it had burned down a little, sheep and cattle were driven through the smoldering coals. This was thought to burn away any harmful magicks or negative forces that were causing the plague.
In a ritual setting, fire can be used to dispel unwanted forces from a person or from a place. If the name or sigil of a spirit is known (especially if it is something you have called up yourself), this spirit can be dispelled by inscribing this on a piece of paper and committing it to the flames. As the name or sigil is burned to ash, the spirit is banished.