Storymaking, Artmaking, and the Work of the Soul

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Last week I posted a story, suggesting that we can understand our interior spiritual landscapes through the telling of a tale. Story acts as map—at least some of the time, was my idea.


I’ve been thinking about how to expand on this idea. I pieced that story together from experiences in my own life. It took some years to write, because it took some years to live. When I read it over now, in its purposeful abstraction, its folk tale feel, it feels to me like a supple fabric that flows through my hands, able (I hope) to be fit and shaped to different forms, depending on the reader’s own experience and requirement.

But the point I want to make today is: it is a pieced together thing.


Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photo by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

One of my childhood friends just moved a lot closer to me, here in Wisconsin. She’s a visual artist, a photographer. It’s her images that grace this brief essay today.

Some photographers take their cameras out into the world and try to frame what they see, catching a moment for the viewer. (John Beckett has some good things to say about that here.)

That is not my friend’s way. She composes her pictures in her studio or on location, artfully placing the various pieces and props to make the image she wants.

To use my own trope: she pieces together her images.


I’m taking a class on soul work right now and we’re encouraged in these first weeks to read widely what others say and begin to define “soul” for ourselves. It’s common for people to use the image of a candle’s flame, or a small interior voice, when talking about soul…but today I’m wondering if maybe soul something we piece together for ourselves, through our lives. If it’s a lifework, this business, to (choose your verb) stitch/cobble/paste/weld the soul from the scraps and bits. We all go down, again and again, to what Yeats names “the foul rag-and-bone shop” and we use what we find there, because it is all we have to work with.

We don’t control how life rips us apart or subtly erodes us down over time…but we do make choices about what to do in response, and how to live. It could be that art, and story, and the process of art and story making, point us in the direction of the important interior work we have to do, as well.

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission

Photograph by Heather Atkinson, published by permission


Thanks to Heather Atkinson for the glorious art. You can find more of her work at

The Multiple Soul (Seeking the Mystery, Chp. 4 Excerpt)

As promised, an excerpt from Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologiesnow available in both e-book and paperback editions.

Excerpt from Chapter Four: Life, Death, and the Human Body

The Multiple Soul

Pagans have a range of beliefs about the human soul that parallels their beliefs about divinity. Some Pagans see the soul and the body as being completely identified—the soul is the body and the body is the soul, in the same way that pantheists believe that God/dess is the world and the world is God/dess. Others share the common Western belief that the soul is influenced by the body, but is more than the body, and will continue on in altered form after the body’s death (similar to panentheists’ belief that God/dess is in the world, and the world is in God/dess, but God/dess is more than the world). A third view is that personhood exists only in the body, and that there is no spiritual substance we can meaningfully call a “soul” (similar to the nontheist position).

The theology of multiple souls is gaining prevalence in the Pagan community, however. In this model, human beings have multiple spiritual essences that serve different functions. This notion is found in a number of religious traditions. Scholar Claude Lecouteux describes its appearance in ancient and medieval Northern European religion, where people were thought to have three spirits. The fylgja was an individual’s double that also served as a protective guardian spirit; the hugr was the active force of the individual that carried his or her personality out into the world; and the hamr was an inner spiritual form that determined a person’s outward appearance, but was also capable of traveling outside the body.[i] In ancient Egyptian religion, a person was thought to have three souls (the ka, the ba, and the akh), as well as other spiritual components such as the heart and the name, each of which had different functions in life and in the afterlife.[ii] In the charming book The Traveller’s Guide to the Duat, Kemetic reconstructionist Kiya Nicoll details the preparation the parts of the human being must undergo for being separated at death, transformed, and reintegrated in the land of the dead. The body is carefully preserved and left behind in the living world, where its persistence supports the stable and happy existence of the deceased’s transformed and reassembled self.

A somewhat less complex multiple soul model can also be found in the Western ceremonial magick practiced by some contemporary Pagans. Many forms of ceremonial magick borrow from Jewish mysticism, where the three parts of the soul are known as nefesh, ruach, and neshamah. Simply put, the nefesh is the animal self, the ruach is the human self, and the neshamah is the divine self that survives death. Craft teachers Victor and Cora Anderson derived a similar three-soul model from Hawaiian Huna, in which the animal self is Unihipili, the human self Uhane, and the divine self Aumakua. Their writings on the subject were published in a volume entitled Etheric Anatomy, and were also spread by Starhawk in The Spiral Dance, where she names the selves Younger Self, Talking Self, and Deep Self. In the Andersons’ model, the body is thought to be of the same substance as the selves, only made of denser matter. Fostering communication and cooperation between the selves (including the body) is necessary for spiritual health, as well as for the effective practice of magick.

In multiple-soul models, the souls have different fates after death. Pagans who also believe in reincarnation tend to identify the “divine” self as the part that reincarnates, not the “human” self (which holds the personality of a single lifetime) or the “animal” self, both of which may return to the earth after the death of the body. In some traditions, it is believed a traumatic death may cause the separation of the souls from the body to go awry, and the animal or human selves may remain stranded on the material plane as ghosts. These stranded souls are merely echoes of a person, however, as the divine part of the self has already moved on. This belief is similar to that in Chinese religion, where the p’o soul can become angered and transform into a demon if not properly treated after the body’s death.[iii] Some Pagans also embrace the spiritualist belief that after death, one or more parts of the soul travel in the spiritual realms for a time before incarnating into a new human body. Reincarnation beliefs influenced by Spiritualism, Buddhism, and Hinduism are common in the Pagan community, and they are often combined with images of the underworld or afterlife realms from ancient religions. For many contemporary Pagans, these realms are temporary resting places where the soul or souls review the life just lived and choose whether to return to earth.[iv]

[i] Claude Lecouteux, The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind, trans. Jon E. Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2009), 162-180.

[ii] William J. Murnane, “Taking It With You: The Problem of Death and Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 35-48; see also Jeremy Naydler, Temple of the Cosmos: The Ancient Egyptian Experience of the Sacred (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1996).

[iii] Judith A. Berling, “Death and Afterlife in Chinese Religions,” Death and Afterlife: Perspectives of World Religions, ed. Hiroshi Obayashi (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992), 182.

[iv] See Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ Bible (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, 1981, 1984), II.115-134.