Spirits of Land and Place

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Take some time to learn about the land spirits around you. Photo Credit: Jed Share - Kaoru/Blend Images/Getty Images

Many Pagans work with spirits – often, this is focused on ancestral spirits, or even spirit guides. Typically, these types of spirits are rooted in our belief that each human being has a soul or spirit that lives on long after their physical body has left. However, another type of spirit that many of us in the Pagan community work with is that associated with the land itself, or even a specific place.

The concept of a spirit of place is not something that’s unique to modern Neopagans. In fact, many cultures throughout time have honored and worked with such beings. Let’s take a look at some of the best known, as well as how you can interact with spirits of land and place in your daily practice.

Ancient Rome: Genius Loci

The ancient Romans were no strangers to the metaphysical world, and believed in ghosts, hauntings, and spirits as a matter of course. In addition, they also accepted the existence of genius loci, which were protective spirits associated with specific locations. The word genius was used to describe spirits that were external to the human body, and loci indicates that they were associated with a place, rather than transient objects.

It wasn’t uncommon to find Roman altars dedicated to specific genius loci, and often these altars contained tabular inscriptions, or artwork depicting the spirit holding a cornucopia or vessel of wine, as a symbol of fruitfulness and abundance.

Interestingly, the term has also been adapted to the principles of landscape architecture, which suggests that any landscaping at all should be designed with the intention of honoring the context of the environment in which is it being created.

Norse Mythology: The Landvættir

In Norse mythology the Landvættir are spirits, or wights, directly associated with the land itself.

Scholars appear to be divided on whether or not these spirits, which act as guardians, are the souls of people who once inhabited the space, or whether they’re directly connected to the land. It’s likely that the latter is the case, because Landvættir appear in places that have never been occupied. Today, Landvættir are still recognized in parts of Iceland and other countries.

Animism

In some cultures, a form of animism is practiced in which all things have a soul or spirit – this includes not only living entities like trees and flowers, but also natural formations such as rocks, mountains, and streams. Archaeological records hint that many ancient societies, including the Celts, didn’t see a division between the sacred and the profane. Certain ritualized behaviors formed a bond between the material world and the supernatural, which benefited both the individual and the community as a whole.

In many places, there was an emphasis placed on spirits of place that was assimilated into later worship. Often, locations such as holy wells and sacred springs are associated with spirits, or even deities, of specific places.

Honoring Spirits of Place Today

If you’d like to honor the spirits of the land as part of your regular practice, it’s important to keep a couple of things in mind.

One of the first is the concept of appropriate worship. Take some time to get to know the spirits of place around you – just because you think the way you’re honoring them is nice, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what they actually want from you.

A second thing to remember is that sometimes a little acknowledgment goes a long way. Want the spirits of place to protect you and your family? Tell them that, and then be sure to thank them periodically. Thanks can be given in the form of offerings, prayers, song, or even just saying thank you.

Finally, be sure not to make assumptions. Just because you inhabit a particular place doesn’t make it spiritually yours. Make the effort to form a connection and bond with the land, and whatever else may be populating it. If you do this, you may find that the spirits that are there already will reach out to develop a relationship with you on their own.

John Beckett of Under the Ancient Oaks at Patheos says, “For a long time I avoided approaching the Nature spirits who live near me. Aside from general skepticism (I am an engineer, after all) I was concerned about how I’d be received. Just because you’re a Nature-loving, tree-hugging, Goddess-worshiping Pagan doesn’t mean Nature spirits are going to see you as anything other than another greedy land-despoiling human. Stereotyping sucks, especially when you’re on the receiving end. But when you’re around someone for a long time, you get to know them. And when you live in one place for a while, the Nature spirits get to know you. Over time, either your actions line up with your words or they don’t.”