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Traditionally, within the spiritualist churches, spirit guides were often stereotyped ethnically, with Native Americans/First Nations, Chinese or Egyptians being popular for their perceived ancient wisdom. Other popular types of guides were saints or other enlightened individuals. Such guides can also be totems, angels, guardian angels or nature spirits.
According to theosophical doctrine, spirit guides are not always of human descent. Some spirit guides live as energy, in the cosmic realm, or as light beings, which are very high level spirit guides. Some spirit guides are persons who have lived many former lifetimes, paid their karmic debts, and advanced beyond a need to reincarnate. Many devotees believe that spirit guides are chosen on "the other side" by human beings who are about to incarnate and wish assistance.
Some early modern Spiritualists did not favor the idea of spirit guides. Spiritualist author and medium E.W. Wallis, writing in A Guide to Mediumship and Psychic Unfoldment, expressed an opinion that the notion of spirit guides is disempowering and disrespectful to both spirits and living people. He does not deny that seeking people may be helped by spirits here and there, but decries the idea that said spirits are appointed or assigned to do nothing but help the living. He advises would-be mediums to steer clear of the notion that they are being "guided" unless they have demonstrable proof that such is the case.
Many well-known psychics have publicly described their guides. Helena Blavatsky talked about being advised by "Mahatmas", discarnate personages from India and especially Tibet, who dressed and behaved according to the dictates of their respective cultures. Alice Bailey also described having contact with a spirit teacher whom she called "The Tibetan". Sylvia Browne identified hers as "Francine". Theresa Caputo, The Long Island Medium, simply calls her guide "Spirit" and has described it as a "high level spirit" who has never incarnated. In addition, she had said that others have spirit guides as well.
American Spiritualists of the 19th and 20th centuries often described their guides as resembling Native Americans. One popular spirit guide of this type, encountered by many Anglo-American Spiritualists, was named White Hawk. Among African-American Spiritualists, especially those in churches that were founded by or influenced by Mother Leafy Anderson, the Native American guide was named Black Hawk, and was presumed to be the spirit of the Sac tribe warrior of the same name.
- Wallis, E.W. and M.H., A Guide to Mediumship and Psychic Unfoldment. Originally published 1901. Reprint edition by Health Research 1996, p. 162-3, 193.
- "The Spirit of Blackhawk: A Mystery of Africans and Indians" by Jason Berry