Spirit guides are nonhuman or human entities that reside in the spiritual realm and make their wisdom available to the living. They take a variety of forms, including guardian angels, animal or nature spirits, elves and fairies, saints or ascended masters, and ancestors or descendants who have crossed over to the spiritual realm. Spirit guides assist humans in their daily lives even though they are not aware of the guides' presence, according to believers. Those who are interested are encouraged to seek out their guides to gain practical and mystical information, healing abilities, and protection from harm.
The contemporary concept of spirit guides is derived from the nineteenth-century spiritualist movement, which emerged from Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, and theosophy. Suffice it to say that the leading figures in these groups—Emanuel Swedenborg, Andrew Jackson Davis, and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky—were very deeply involved in mediumistic activities. These leaders all believed they made contact with spirits of the dead (either angels or highly evolved beings that imparted great wisdom), and in so doing, they acquired information that was useful to the world of the living. Their experiences and the religious movements they awakened contributed to a growing belief that spirits could speak to and assist humans. Spiritualism spread quickly in America during the mid-1800s, with mediums popping up everywhere, offering a variety of séances. Even with the discovery of fraudulent communication by some famous mediums, spiritualism retained its hold. But it kept a fairly low profile on the American scene until the 1970s, when spiritualism clearly resonated with the New Age movement. This movement contained a wide variety of groups that encouraged spiritual development, held a holistic view of the cosmos, and had a therapeutic orientation. In the early 1970s Jane Roberts began channeling a spirit entity called Seth and published several volumes of his teachings. In the 1980s J. Z. Knight further popularized channeling through her public dialogues with Ramtha, a thirty-five-thousand-year-old warrior deity. These figures—and others that followed in the 1990s—stimulated interest in spirit communication. New Agers were drawn to holistic health conferences, divination workshops, and classes on spiritual development, and the concept of spirit guide became part of the common parlance.
In the early 1980s Michael Harner introduced modern methods of shamanic journeying, based on his prior experience with the Brazilian Jivaro Indians. With the aid of a steady drumbeat and guided visualization, seekers are taught to travel to the spirit world to discover their "power animal" guardians. It must be noted that Harner has been criticized by academics for offering pop shamanism to the masses. Even so, his method has enjoyed a great deal of success, offering those who can afford a tape or a workshop the opportunity to seek a guardian spirit without hallucinogenic substances.
Spirit guides have always been a part of Native American spirituality. The Tenino Indians, for instance, sent their children into the wilderness at night to find their helper guardian spirits. Among the Oglala Sioux, lifelong personal spirit guides are sought through strenuous vision quests requiring lengthy periods of fasting and movement deprivation designed to put them in touch with the spirit world. Nature spirits, animal spirits, and revered ancestors, all endowed with powerful qualities, are called upon for assistance in daily life as well as in the sacred sweat lodge. The medicine people, or shamans, are thought to be especially powerful, as they attract many spirit guides that help them fulfill their charge of healing in their communities.
Modern-day pagan groups, such as druids and witches, also use shamanic techniques to reach ecstasy and inner wisdom and to become closer to goddesses or gods. And though some may talk to elves in the forest or comment on grandmother spirit while walking by a stream, they do not generally speak of spirit guides. A great many people are currently captivated with a particular spirit guide, the guardian angel. This spirit frequently appears in jewelry, figurines, cards, books, and the popular television show Touched by an Angel. Unlike nature spirits, fairies, or dead ancestors, guardian angels do not seem to pose a problem for those who adhere to certain mainstream religions, such as Christianity. Clearly, angel fascination does not imply a wholesale acceptance of spirit guides. However, as more people become involved in Native American and other nature spiritualities, there may be a corresponding attraction to spirit guides. Regardless, judging by the plethora of Internet web sites and the volumes of trade books on this subject, interest in spirit guides may be expected to increase in the third millennium.
Andrews, Ted. How to Meet and Work with SpiritGuides. 1997.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman: AGuidetoPower and Healing. 1980.
Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement. 1996.
McGaa, Ed. Rainbow Tribe: Ordinary PeopleJourneyingon the Red Road. 1992.
Murdock, George Peter. "The Tenino Indians." Ethnology 19, no. 2 (April 1980): 129–149.
Tanice G. Foltz