Land Spirits

In the comments to a previous post, in which I advised pagans to become well acquainted with their local spirits, someone brought up the concern: How does one distinguish between the local gods/spirits and the very well adapted foreign ones? I suggested that it didn’t really matter if you identified the precise kind of spirit, and I’d like to elaborate on that.

To me, the most important thing is that we respect, and actively honor, the spirits and wights that inhabit our landscape. Whether we live in the arid desert of the Southwest or the lush rainforests of Cascadia, in isolated wilderness or the middle of an urban environment, these spirits surround us, and directly impact our lives (as well as being impacted in turn by us, too often detrimentally). As polytheists and animists, even if we are primarily focused on a pantheon and tradition that originated in another place, we should also be incorporating an acute awareness of, and engagement with, the spiritual forces at work in our present location.

In North America, those may very well include both “native” spirits (those recognized by the various indigenous tribes here, although there must be some that pre-date even those peoples) and spirits that came over with immigrants – most notably from Europe, but also from other regions all over the world. How can you tell which kind you might be dealing with, in order to properly honor them?

It’s true that identification can be helpful. If you know that they are spirits within a native tradition, you can research the tribes that lived in your area and their customs (the goal being to give the spirits the offerings and rites they expect and prefer, not to “play Indian”). If you know they are spirits from your home pantheon, you’ll be more familiar with the appropriate approaches. But remember that there’s no accounting for the tastes of individual spirits, regardless of category, and that some may fall outside of any recognized categories anyway. In other words, identification does not guarantee sufficient knowledge.

My impression, gained from my own personal experience, is that there are some broad, basic types of land spirits, and then myriad expressions within each type. You might have the broad category of water spirits, then localized to Slavic water spirits, then further broken down into rusalki, bereginya and vodianoi, and then within those there will be differences between groups and regions (the rusalki of this lake versus those of that river), and  individual personalities to take into consideration. You’ll see patterns repeating that indicate certain strong tendencies among some types, but that doesn’t mean they are the same thing. For instance, female river spirits who drown men are found in many places, but may still have different preferences, customs, etc., so you can’t just assume that what pleases one would please the other. (There are also, by the way, some land wights who are very unique because they are part of a unique landscape. The spirits of Yellowstone, for instance, are not like anything else I’ve encountered elsewhere.)

The way I see it, land spirits are both less and more tied to culture than gods. Less, because they are part of the land itself, regardless of who lives there. More, because I believe they had a significant role in shaping the cultures that developed on their lands, and so the cultures reflected them (rather than the other way around, as most scholars would assert). However as culture has become more globalized, this is less apparent.

So how does all of the above affect actual practice, especially for those living in North America? Well, you can make some broad assumptions about the spirits you encounter in your area based on a knowledge of cross-cultural types. You may be able to ascertain which exact type they are due to instinct upon meeting them, the nature of the location or their behavior, etc., which will give you a head start. But no matter what, it will still come down to good manners and awareness. Approach gently, acknowledge them, make tentative offerings and gauge the response; adjust as needed. Be prepared to be rejected and leave if clearly directed to. If not, return and begin to establish a long-term relationship. Pay attention to the physical properties of the area as well as the spiritual entities you are sensing there. Go slowly and carefully and respectfully, say please and thank you. Rejoice in the beauty you find.

Alternatively, you can try inviting a particular kind of spirit – for instance, I do some nymph festivals where I go to an appropriate location (say, the wetlands for the Limnades festival), and lay out the traditional nymph offerings and recite hymns in Greek, welcoming the nymphs that may be present. Perhaps some of those spirits who show up are not “nymphs” per se – it doesn’t really make a difference, so long as they enjoy the devotional acts and a connection is made.

So, like all spirit-work and worship, it’s a process. But I think the theological distinctions and details are not so important when you actually deal with the spirits themselves.

~ by Dver on April 11, 2012.

28 Responses to “Land Spirits”

  1. Your post comes at a time of wonderful synchronicity for me. As I am preparing a ritual to work with the Rusalki and other slavic elementals. I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to introduce myself to them with them or even if I should or if they will be present near A. house that barely acknowledges its slavic roots, B. in an area far away from the place where they are normally honored. C. On a holdiay that they are only associated with them because of Christian Influence (orthodox Easter which is thought to be a day of power for them).

    While I am still going to focus on thorough research in crafting this ritual, I feel a little less worried about getting things wrong. Whether or not I actually am honoring Rusalki or Domavoi or their American kin, I will at least be making a connection and if I am open and listening carefully, can learn how to address them better in the future.

    • I have been doing a yearly ritual for the rusalki since my early pagan years – I never had any trouble at the rivers I’ve chosen in Maine and Oregon, which have absolutely no Slavic connections, but are both very powerful rivers (and each tend to take at least one life by drowning each year, which helps). I can’t be sure it’s rusalki per se showing up, but I definitely get noticed. So I think you have a good chance.

      My understanding is that traditionally the rusalki are honored at Whitsun/Pentecost, which is 7 weeks after Easter (making it June 3 in the Orthodox calendar this year, for instance), rather than Easter itself. Personally, I honor them at the summer solstice along with the naiads (which is also close to St. John Baptist day on June 24, another traditional day for fairy-type spirits around Europe). But that’s just because I have so many different elements going on at once.

      For me, the big thing is making a doll of a rusalka and drowning it in the river. What are you planning to do?

      • I have read that bread and salt are tradtional offerings, as well as red dyed eggs. I was going to find places around my home to leave offerings to the Domovoi (probubly behind my chimney) the Rusalki (the lake across the street) The vela (in a birch or oak tree) and the lyshe (in the forest behind my house. I’ve really been inspired by what you have said about getting in touch with the nature spirits of your locality.

        • Sounds great – the Slavic land spirits were one of my very first interests when getting into paganism, and they’re not very well-known, so I’m glad to see someone honoring them!

    • Also, not sure if you’ve come across this yet, but here’s a PDF I saved from an old Geocities site about a trance ritual done on Rusalka’s Week. Interesting stuff. http://www.winterscapes.com/rusallias.pdf

  2. I also believe in the adaptation of spirits, synchronization into the land, or clans, or other things, as well as spiritual apotheosis of sorts. This is very well thought out, and can be a great boon, but I find many spirits will let you know when you tow the line of taste or appropriateness, or if they dislike your methods from the get-go. Figuring these things out, culture, preference, tastes, among people is a process of acquaintence, and should be the same for spirits in my less than humble opinion. I do think this was very well thought out, though. There you go again, being far more succinct than I could ever dream of being!

  3. Has part of your practice and journey ever involved trying to divine the name of an entity that shows up consistently and enthusiastically and unmistakably but who’s name is unknown to you? For example, if you regularly made offerings in a stream, felt amazingly at home at that stream, loved that stream, had someone claiming those offerings and making their presence known, but you did not know how to call or address them?

    And honestly, this should have been first, but the question was burning – thank you. Your writings, the experiences you’ve shared with us online folk over the years have been some of the more thought provoking and, truth be told, sanity affirming ones I’ve taken in. Thank you for the work you do.

    • Yes, actually, I have had that experience. For instance, back in Montana there was a tiny stream next to my apartment building – not big enough to have a name, otherwise I would have just used the common name for it as the spirit’s name – and I felt it as very much alive and responsive. I did a bibliomancy in my ancient Greek dictionary and alighted on a word for “city” which seemed appropriate since it was a city stream, and a very pretty word – Asteia, I believe. In another case, in the early days of knowing my daimon I wanted more than the use-name I had for Him, so as part of an elaborate ritual I went into trance and basically just used glossolalia until something coherent came forth. Later of course I discovered all kinds of interesting meanings and associations behind the name that emerged.

      And, you’re very welcome, that is high praise indeed and much appreciated!

  4. I think my question might not have been so much about the nature of the spirits after all, but more on discernment, a topic you have written about before. How do I know whether it is truly Persephone I have before me, or whether my own wishful thinking projects her spirit onto a local land wight.?

    • Well, there are a number of ways, and maybe a combination of all is most appropriate if you’re unsure of yourself. One is to (if you haven’t done so already) study Persephone’s lore thoroughly, so you can compare what you read with what you’ve experienced where you are. Not just the myths, which are nice, but preferably records of ancient cultus, which will give you a better sense of how the ancient worshippers actually experienced Her (myth and cult being quite different sometimes in Hellenic religion). You may, for instance, find that something you’d been personally associating with Her is actually part of Her ancient cultus, which would be a nice confirmation.

      Secondly, divination. Don’t just ask a yes or no question, but maybe ask Who it is you’ve been encountering, and see what the cards/runes/etc. show you, and if that jives with Persephone.

      Thirdly, you could use the services of an oracle, who might be able to get a more direct, and unbiased, view of things.

      And fourth, if you approach Her as Persephone, and give Her the offerings and rites that Persephone would enjoy, and the reaction is positive, then that’s a good (if not definitive) sign.

  5. Thank you for an excellent post! This resonates deeply with my own experiences as a predominantly Hellenic pagan/polytheist who has also become very interested in local mythology and folklore as a means to become more knowledgeable about honoring the nymphs and other spirits of the land. In my case, this began with a series of powerful spiritual experiences in the forest behind our (relatively) new home. My intention was to honor the local nymphs (I was expecting Oreads, since we live on a mountain), but when my intuition sensed something completely different instead, I felt the need to leave my comfort zone (primarily ancient Greek and Latin texts) and begin researching the myths of the Coast Salish peoples, as well as the pioneer folklore traditions I found in our tiny local library. This research, combined with many more experiences outdoors interacting with the land itself, has greatly broadened and deepened by spiritual practice in many amazing ways. And yet I was initially very hesitant about all this. On the one hand, I didn’t want to be yet another tiresome white person appropriating/colonizing a Native American culture that wasn’t my own. On the other hand, as a longtime Hellenist, I could actually hear an invisible chorus of “strict recons” (whatever those are) in my head criticizing my practice as somehow “inauthentic” or “not Hellenic enough” (which is of course ridiculous, especially since I left all the Hellenic email lists long ago, and I honestly don’t care what anyone else thinks about my own devotional work). But fortunately I am also a devout reader of Pausanias, and I strongly feel that everything I am doing is in complete harmony with the various forms of local worship Pausanias describes in detail. Clearly the ancient Greeks paid reverence to their local rivers, mountains, and other spirits of the land. And because of the work that people like you and Sannion (and many others!) are doing and writing about, I was finally inspired to try it out for myself. For that, and for everything else you do on this wonderful blog, I must say thank you.

    • Pausanias is definitely a better guide than a bunch of uptight (and often non-practicing) Recons! Really glad I helped inspire you to explore this further. I think it will open up a whole new aspect of your spiritual practice. (Btw, Coast Salish – you must live vaguely nearby in the PNW somewhere – I’m in Oregon).

      • Yes, I’m in Washington state, living on an island up north near Bellingham. You can count me in as a fellow Pacific Northwest polytheist!

        • Cool! After living in Oregon for almost six years, I’m finally going to visit Washington state next month, on a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts. The Olympic rain forest and the islands have been calling to me for awhile now.

          • Your spiritual pilgrimage sounds great! I love both Washington and Oregon (I was born in Portland), and Washington will likely be gorgeous in May. If you make it all the way north up to Bellingham, let me know (you’re welcome to email me at delphic78@yahoo.com). My partner/husband and I will be in France at the end of May (after May 20th), but if it’s before then I’d love to meet up for coffee or a glass of wine (however, I also realize and completely respect that spiritual pilgrimages are often a solitary thing).

            Also, and this is just a random idea here . . . but have you and/or Sannion (or, for that matter, any of the other pagan/polytheist writers you know in the Pacific Northwest area, like, say, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus?) thought about doing a mini-book tour up here, say from Eugene up to Bellingham (or Vancouver, B.C.) and back? I know there are a lot of bookstores and even libraries that would be receptive to your work (I’m in charge of organizing book readings and events for our local library, and I have a great contact at a bookstore in Bellingham). I realize you all really don’t know me from Adam Ant (Sannion and I corresponded awhile back when I was in L.A., but I’ve been undergoing my own spiritual transformation the last year or so and am only now resurfacing again), but I own all of your books and definitely think both of your work deserves a wider audience. The month of May is a bit soon, but it’s something I could easily see happening in the near future if both or either of you were interested. Like I said, just a random idea . . . feel free to discard . . . in the meantime, just keep up what you’re doing and I will look forward to the new book when it comes out!

            • As of now we don’t plan to go up that far north, but there’s a slight chance we will, so I’ll let you know if that happens.

              That’s an interesting idea, about the book tour – not for May, but possibly some other time. I’ll definitely bring it up with Sannion. Honestly, I’m not much for self-promotion or giving lectures/readings, which is one reason I’ll never be a big-name pagan, but OTOH it could be a lot of fun to do it regionally like that, and would help fund the trip. Thanks for the idea!

              • You’re very welcome! Over on the Aedicula Antinoi blog, I explained in the comments how the mini-book tour could work under this post: (http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/what-is-the-educators-role/). I would love to help set up some readings for you here in Bellingham at any point in the future.

                And if you do make it up here before May 20th and want to check out the Bellingham area and beautiful Lummi Island (http://www.lummi-island.com/ – that’s where I live), definitely let me know. The forest landscape, the mountain, and the beaches are exquisitely beautiful and incredibly numinous here on the island (as are the nearby Nooksack River and Mount Baker), and you are definitely welcome to stay with us or one of our fellow pagans for the night. My husband is both an excellent cook and a wine connossieur, so I can promise that the DIonysian libations will be an excellent vintage! No pressure either way – I just wanted to formally extend the invitation to you both.

                • Just read your comments at PSVL’s blog. You really have some good ideas about how to do such a thing. Sannion and I will think about it. Perhaps if I can overcome my intense aversion to all that social interaction (even with interesting, like-minded people it can be a huge drain on me). Maybe something we could do over just a long weekend in the fall? At least Portland, Seattle & Bellingham (with your help). And maybe PSVL could join us in the latter two at least. I doubt we’d make even close to the money we’d have to spend (renting a car at least will cost a bit), but it would be an opportunity to meet some other polytheists, get our books out there, etc. so could be worth it.

                  Lummi Island looks lovely. I wish I could find a way to make a living without being in a city so that I could live in a less populated, more beautiful area like that.

  6. This is a fascinating and important post…

    I’m sort of wondering about one particular local goddess (I’m going to call her that, even though that term may not be appropriate to the culture concerned…she certainly has that status, in many respects) who is very definitely the “Maiden of Deception Pass,” who is also known to drown males. There are a number of accidents and suicides out there, and often in rather regular intervals–seven year intervals happened several times over the last two decades, for example (and in one case, took someone I knew, and they only ever found his shoes). I had some experiences back during ’95/’96, when I was in New York, that seemed to be related to her, visiting me in my dreams, etc., though I didn’t know it at the time, and only realized that in the last four years or so. However, the one time I’ve been out there “on-foot” (rather than in a car going over the bridge), it was a rather terrifying experience for a variety of reasons. I don’t know if it was just all the weight of death that is attached to the location because of my own knowledge of it, or if it is because I’ve not honored her as much as I should, or (and this is an odd theory, but perhaps viable…?!?) that because I am as heavily devoted to a deity who drowned, that the “Come closer, my pretty adolescent boy…” energies of the one just didn’t jive with the “Yes, I’m pretty and I’m adolescent, but I didn’t enjoy drowning!” energies of the other are simply at too much crossed purposes to make the place tolerable any longer.

    I don’t know…but, I’d be interested in your own theories and thoughts on the matter. 😉

    • Very interesting! Especially as we’ll be going over Deception Pass next month, and it was something I was particularly looking forward to. I wouldn’t discount your theory about the connection to your own drowned boy, it’s possible. I’ll certainly let you know what I think after experiencing Her myself.

      • Definitely…it’s a beautiful place, but also a numinous one, for so many reasons…and, the statue (I like to think of it as a shrine) to the Maiden of Deception Pass out at Rosario Beach bears checking out as well…

        I recently found out that 11 people died in the building of Deception Pass bridge in the early to mid-1930s: ten in a single scaffolding accident, and one just had a random heart attack while working. While I’m sure there are many buildings, bridges, and other monuments and constructions that have had many more deaths in the course of their construction, the bridge only took about two or three years to build, so that was probably a pretty high death-toll for this area at the time. And yet, entirely in-line, to an extent, with the spirit of the place from long before…

        • Wow! I had never heard of the Maiden of Deception Pass before! Thanks for bring her to my attention . . . I’ve really become quite fascinated by and reverent of these various local powers. There’s a a petroglyph here on the beach of a figure known as She-Who-Watches (aka Tsagaglalal), who we feel protects and watches over the island, and there’s a also an old pioneer folktale about The Old Man of the Mountain, with whom I’ve had some powerful spiritual encounters. And of course there’s Mount Baker (aka the White Sentinel, the Wounded One, or the Wounded Sentinel), and many others, including quite a few animal trickster figures (Raven, Bluejay, Coyote, The Changer) and a Basket Ogress who reminds me of the Lamiae, Baba Yaga, or La Llorona. Finding, recognizing, and honoring such local powers has added so much to my personal practice!

        • I have put that statue on my list of potential things to see while there. Definitely interested.

  7. […] https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/land-spirits/ getting to know land spirits […]

  8. […] Land Spirits […]

  9. […] Land Spirits by Dver. […]

  10. I really liked this bit of your article,”because I believe they had a significant role in shaping the cultures that developed on their lands, and so the cultures reflected them (rather than the other way around, as most scholars would assert).” I certainly think this is very true.
    I should start honoring the Tylwyth Teg,been sort of neglecting the spirits of land lately.

  11. […] getting to know land spirits […]

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