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.