Tag Archives: spirits of place

Stories in the Land

There’s a strong relationship between land and story, or at least, there should be. For one, stories happen somewhere, even long, long ago and far, far away is somewhere. Knowing the stories of a landscape you are in enriches the experience of being there, and knowing the landscape enriches the story. From a bardic perspective, this is definitely something to bear in mind. Crafting stories, exploring place and history, and seeking inspiration should all include a sense of land. Everything happens somewhere.

There are stories that exist purely to explain a feature of the land – often supernatural creation stories for notable features. Silbury hill was made by a man who lugged a bag of shoes there as part of a ruse to keep the devil out of Salisbuy. Some stories are born of place names – making Bromsgrove the grave of the giant Brom. Others focus on a feature – as in the story that sitting and Caedr Idris all night will make you into a poet, or a madman. It’s a way of making sense of the world as we find it.

Some land stories come from actual history – battles, heroic ventures, and events that changed things. Bosworth field and Hastings have their stories, and people visit them because of the history. Sometimes those true tales blur into myth. Tintagel becomes part of the Arthur myth, Joseph of Aremathea gets tied up with Glastonbury. We place stories in the land, and in so doing own the myths for our own part of the country. King Arthur crops up just about everywhere in the UK. By placing a story ‘here’ we make it our own. Local history gives colour to where you live, a sense of connection with the past, a way of relating to ancestors of place.

Some tales grow out of misconceptions. There’s a hill near where I am just now, called ‘Smallpox Hill’ because there was an isolation hospital on it. On the side, you can see several distinctive raised mounds. Local legend has it that these are mass graves for all the people who died. More likely these are the remains of early Norman rabbit warrens. People fit features together to make coherent tales.

We make up stories about what we see – I’ve just shown my son how to interpret some of the hills as a pair of sleeping dragons. We’ve done that other places too, improvising our own myths. Where such things catch on, they become part of the narrative of a place.

Modern writers add to the richness of the stories. Kevan Manwaring’s The Long Woman works with the Long Man of Willmington. Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen works with and adds to older myths. Dr Who has a habit of using iconic UK landmarks as settings, adding in an alien twist, making new legends. There are many more such examples. It’s fun. It adds to the story, helps to draw the audience in.

Some places are richer in stories than others. Folklore can be hunted for. If there’s a shortage, new tales can be made to fill in the gaps. I think, in fact, that new tales should be made. If a land is impoverished, storywise, we ought to create new ones. We can also add in our own stories, taken from our families or our own time in a place. Sharing those tales with others is a sweet thing to do. These days people move round a lot, but it is good to go back, to remember, and to tell the tales.

Telling the stories is an honouring of place, and of ancestors, it connects us with the land and lends extra beauty and resonance to our tales.

Spirits of Hearth and Home

Houses have spirits. If your faith is something you live full time then recognising spirit within your home is part of that. As discussed with regards to other places, look for the ways in which nature manifests in and around your home – you may have all kinds of wildlife in the garden, the attic, and even inside the house (spiders etc).

Wherever your house is, the odds are you have land beneath it, and that land was once wild. Those land spirits may still be felt, although they may not be an immediately obvious influence. Honour them by leaving some wild space in your garden, by encouraging birds and by meditating on what occupied the land before your house.

As with ritual spaces, houses often come with ancestors of place – those who occupied a house before us leave their own echoes and ghosts. As do builders and designers, and anyone else who has lived on the land back through time. You might want to research your house a little and learn its history as a way of honouring and better understanding these spirits.

Then there are the entities that come to dwell in houses. I’ve heard them called brownies, in my house they are pookas, for some they are poltergeist. Beings who are not ghosts, nor part of the land, but very much belong to and in the house. Invisibles who startle animal companions, move car keys, randomly creak floorboards in the middle of the night and otherwise make their presence felt.

I won’t try and claim to understand them, but I’ve been living with them for years and currently my little crowd of pookas spend a lot of time being extra cats. I’ve felt them on the bed at night and seen them out of the corner of my eye. Modern houses seem less likely to have such inhabitants. They turn up over time, moving into empty bedrooms, making off with small items. They can be a blessing or a curse, and that depends a lot on how you treat them.

Being afraid of the thing under the bed turns it into a fearful thing. Children are unhelpfully adept at this, but an adult alone in a house at night, remembering too many horror films can feed fear to a spirit in just the same way. If a space is treated carelessly, the pookas will very likely do the same, thriving on the chaos, and playing as they please, throwing books about late at night and terrorising the cat. An overly tidy, sterile house tends to discourage them. They inhabit the dusty corners, and the muddles. Very tidy houses offer them no spaces.

They like attention – candles and incense lit for them, flowers brought in, little offerings of food and cake. They like to be talked to (or at least mine do.) If something goes missing, I ask the pookas if they can help me find it. When high winds are tearing tiles off roofs, or the ice is threatening to freeze water pipes, I talk to the pookas then, too. They might be playful and capricious, but it’s their home too, and they’ve not let it come to any significant harm so far.

Taking your home seriously as a spiritual place where other entities may be present does radically change how you relate to it, and how it feels to live there. Every space becomes an altar, every act of care for the house an offering. Listening to the house and finding out what it needs is an interesting activity. Rooms know if they aren’t laid out right. Energy flows, or does not, depending on how we shape our spaces, and a home that is cared for on more than a material level is a far better place to live.

Spirits and ritual

As I mentioned in my first post about spirits of place honouring spirits in druid ritual is tremendously important. To be in a place for ritual is to be surrounded by the spirits who dwell there. Without their blessing, consent and support, how can a ritual hope to work?

Finding an appropriate place for ritual is something to undertake before you mean to carry it out – especially group rituals. Take the time to find somewhere with a welcoming atmosphere, and speak to it of your intentions. Then before you actually commence the ritual, take time to tune into the place, and listen to the spirit there. Do not expect to hear words or voices, but be open, and you may find some awareness of what is around you and how it relates to your presence.

The first British Druid Order rituals at Avebury, highly influential in the development of current ritual forms for many groups, included acknowledgement of spirits of place, but it happened a fair way into the process. My own Gorsedd, Bards of the Lost Forest, honour spirits of place first, and time I’ve spent with other groups suggests this is a way of working that is gaining popularity. Not least because it makes a lot of sense.

Once the human participants are organised into a circle and the ritual has been opened with a few words, it makes absolute sense to then communicate with what is around us. You’d hardly do a ritual in someone’s house without talking to them early in the process! A grove of trees, a field, or garden is no different. Here’s a sample of what I might say in such a moment of ritual:

Hail spirits of this place, spirits of soil and wood, you who have watched over us so many times before. We thank you for the blessings and protection you give us, for the inspiration of your presence. Hail spirits of forest, with your dancing leaves and rising sap energy. Hail and welcome.

We do not command, demand, or invite. We recognise that the spirits were there first, and we honour them.

Sometimes in ritual people make offerings. It’s important that these be biodegradable, or taken away. I personally can’t see much sense in picking a flower one place in order to leave it in another. These too are spirits, and are not ours to give. Ritual offerings to spirits of place should (I think) either be useful – water in dry times, removing of litter, or should be gifts of personal creativity where energy has been invested.

We best honour the spirits of place when we engage with them. Sitting quietly, listening, fingers against the soil, leaves in hair… relinquishing everyday conversation, becoming quiet and opening to the voice of spirit. In ritual, I’ve made temporary altars out of whatever was to hand, created patterns with leaves and twigs, an offering of inspiration. Beach pebbles arranged in ways that will be destroyed by the next tide. Ephemeral offerings, moments of connection. Music is a gorgeous thing to offer to the spirits, especially when it is improvised in the moment. I’ve had some amazing experiences that way, when music has flowed and I’ve felt like the vessel through which it poured.

At the end of rituals, we give thanks to the spirits of place, with reference to things that have happened in the ritual, and with intention to return (if relevant). We leave nothing that is out of place, and if we can we take away things others should not have left. We treat the land, and its inhabitants with respect.

 Relating to the spirits of place in ritual, and letting their presence permeate a circle and inform the shape of what we do, is incredibly powerful, and brings a depth and resonance to all that happens in circle.

Spirits of Place

The modern druid tradition I am part of honours spirits of place. It is a priority in ritual, and we also do it on other occasions – at meetings, in talks, over food. I gather there are parallels with Heathen recognition of land wights, house spirits and the like, with Roman honouring of genius loci, and no doubt there are other traditions too. What I’ve seen of Wicca doesn’t appear to include this – but if you know otherwise please do post a comment and let me know.

I’m planning to do a few articles talking about spirits of place, how we encounter them, and work with them in different scenarios. I’ll drop these in amongst the other posts as and when inspiration strikes.

What is a spirit of place? There are a number of levels to think about. Firstly, what else lives in the space? Everywhere has something – nature has a habit of getting in, especially insects, there will be plant life nearby. There may be birds on the roof, or inside even – like the pigeons I saw in New York’s airport. Rodents get everywhere as well. It’s important to recognise the other living things, and to take a moment to figure out what and where they are. Nature is all around us, not just ‘out there’ somewhere in the wild places.

The next consideration might be the human activity associated with a place, and any resonances that has made over time. A place that has been used repeatedly for a given activity – be that shopping, prayer, or study for example, gains a spirit that derives from that. This is also an issue of ancestors of place – a form of ancestry recognised by many druids.

Then we might consider the unseen entities that occupy the place as well. For those whose paganism is entirely pragmatic and includes no room for ‘supernatural’ elements, this isn’t needed. However, for the majority who see spirit as pervasive there is some sense that more exists than we can readily sense. So, whether or not we ‘know’ that other beings are present, we honour those who are invisible to us.

Some places may also be said to have a unique spirit of their own that is more than just the things living in it. My own feeling is that for all kinds of reasons, some places develop a distinct identity, which becomes a form of awareness, a permeation of the numinous into the every day. Perhaps it is the case that the spirit of some places is just easier to see. Places have moods and atmosphere, they welcome some people and reject others. You might understand the spirit of a place as being a small god, a local deity. You might have a faerie interpretation, or something more based on patterns of energy and focal nodes. Recognition of the spirit is more important than how you make sense of it.

 Every place has spirits of place. The side of a busy road is no different from an ancient stone circle in that regard. Spirits are there, although they may be very different in character. Becoming aware of spirits of place is an important part of druidry, because from that recognition comes relationship, which is central to all that we do.

Nature in the City

Birmingham's fake beach

Connecting to nature is a core concept in paganism. Cities, seem a lousy place to do this. Nature is, surely, somewhere else? Not so. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look. Cities create heat islands, there’s always noise and light, plants and wildlife aren’t so obvious. But nature is all around you. Here’s some tips for connecting.

 Make sure you stop outside every day. ‘Outside’ should not just be the dash between car and office, car and shop, car and front door. Or bus, or whatever you use. Stop. Stand still for just a few moments. Look up at whatever sky you can see. Feel the air on your face. This is nature.

There might be light all the time, but if you pay attention to when the streetlights come on and go off, you can become more aware of the patterns of natural light level.

Mummers in an urban green space

 

Find some urban trees. Once you start looking, cities are surprisingly green places. Parks, gardens, canals, and urban tree planting all result in green spaces. Urban decay leads to plants moving in. Where there are plants, there are often insects and birds as well. Find out what kinds of trees are growing around you, and keep an eye on them. See when they come into leaf, whether they fruit, what they do in autumn. An urban tree has just as much tree spirit as one in a forest. You can still talk to them, sit under them, or meditate with them.

Find out about urban wildlife. You may be surprised. Foxes and rats are normal, but Birmingham has peregrine falcons, and there have been sightings of wild otters in the canals. Bats thrive in urban environments.

 Think about the tarmac. In reality, it’s only a few inches thick. Under the tarmac there is soil, and the energies of earth are still there, even if we have put a lid on them. You can still connect, it just takes a bit more effort.

Spirits of place exist in urban environments just as they do in wilder ones. Spirits seen and unseen, known and unknown. If you believe that every living thing is imbued with spirit, then it surrounds you. Cities teem with life.

Cities are also an excellent place to commune with the spirits of our ancestors. Find out more about the human history of your city. Who founded it? In the UK, cities may date back to the Roman occupation – Gloucester does (along with any other place-name ending ‘cester’) and there are remnants from many centuries of human society. The past is very much with us in cities. We can see it, touch it, be part of it and connect with our ancestors of blood, place and tradition.

 Cities feel very much like big human constructions in which we have taken control of every aspect. They seem remote from nature. They aren’t. Nature sneaks in, and works its roots into the cracks. The rain still falls, the sun still bakes us. We still depend on water to drink, and food grown on the land to nourish us.

 Take some time out in an urban space, and imagine what it’s like to be a bird, or a plant there. To be a rat, a seed, a tree. Wild things do not perceive cities as we do. To a sparrow or a butterfly, this is just another environment. The cliffs may be weirdly regular, but that’s about it. To a non-human, it’s just another landscape offering potential and risk. Another place to adapt to and seek a niche in. Experiencing nature in the city is very different from encountering it in a more overtly wild place, but no less important. But then, encountering nature on a beach is different from the top of a mountain, or the depths of a forest. This is the environment we have made, but it is still an environment and we are not the only ones living in it.