Winter is finally starting to lose its vise grip here in The Chi. Daytime temps have been hovering in the 40s and 50s since Sunday, tolling a death knell for the mounds of snow. It’s actually possible to see patches of grass on peoples’ front lawns and in public parks once again, and the faintest buds are beginning to poke through the tips of tree branches. And so last night, for the first time in months, my Bodacious Beau™ Dan and I went out for a leisurely stroll in our local cemetery. That unmistakable angle of the almost-spring sun receding behind adjacent rooftops in the west just before it plunges into its deep, egg-yolk hue at sunset warmed both of our hearts immensely. Sparrows, robins, and turtle doves warbled and cooed from the neighboring trees. Indeed, all of nature seemed to be ringing out a symphony of joy, and I felt delighted to be unhindered in my ability to leave offerings for the spirits of the land and our Dunning neighborhood’s dead. I clutched my slices of homemade banana nut bread (the Mother Squirrel–I’ve named her Ratatosk as a nod to Norse mythology–residing in the Hel-Tree in the cemetery would surely be pleased!) to my chest and Dan and I grinned at each other as we traipsed our way through the soggy cemetery grounds.
In my own spiritual practice and among the Heathens, Witches, and Pagans I know–especially among my fellow clergy in the Chicago-based Fellowship of Isis Lyceum of Alexandria–cultivating a good relationship with the spirits of place (the genii loci to the Romans, the landvaettir to Icelandic Heathens, or land wights according to modern Heathens I roll with here in Chicago) is very important. Honestly, I just see it as boiling down to good neighborliness, to courtesy writ large. The spirits of a particular place–be it a geographical region or a specific copse of trees, plot of earth, single tree, spring, river, lake, mound, hill, or mountain–more than likely preceded you and they will certainly outlast you, so it’s best to “BE POLITE!” as Dennis Hopper’s character Frank Booth yells in the film Blue Velvet (wildly quoted out of context, but hey, it fits, and my brain is in David Lynch mode this morning). Courtesy and kindness do indeed ripple throughout the Worlds. However, as I detail further on, there are some instances where people (read: gentle Pagan folk), no matter how well-intentioned when approaching the spirits of a place (especially if it’s unfamiliar territory), are going to be driven away by said spirits as not all land spirits are hospitable to humans. If you linger where you’re unwanted, the spirits will let you know that in no uncertain terms, and it could be an invitation to disaster.
Spirits of place carry the vital charge of the land. I got to experience an outstanding vibrational charge from the collective spirits of a particular geographical area when Dan and I visited San Francisco last December, a few days leading up to New Year 2015. Whereas Dan spent a considerable part of his childhood about two hours north, and thus was very familiar with the Bay Area, this was my first visit to the city. I’d been wanting to visit for years, having only ever changed planes at SFO before, and I was eagerly looking forward to experiencing San Francisco’s different neighborhoods (the Castro District, Haight-Ashbury, Fillmore, Union Square, Little Russia, Nob Hill), its sumptuous cuisine (as a vegetarian for 24 years and counting, I’ve never eaten fresher food in my life), its cultural and architectural attractions (my mom’s a retired civil engineer, so going to the Golden Gate Bridge was practically a spiritual pilgrimage for me) and the energies of its hilly, ocean-kissing landscape. Dan said he couldn’t wait to show me Golden Gate Park; he just knew I was going to love it, it exudes an awesome energy.
I’m a well-traveled, cosmopolitan woman who feels very much at home anywhere on the planet. Therefore I normally don’t walk around like a stereotypical tourist when I am visiting a place for the first time, mouth agape and eyes widened, but I had a hard time concealing my child-like senses of wonderment and joy the moment we’d entered Golden Gate Park.
“This place looks like the Moon of Endor!” I shouted gleefully, amazed by the sight of so many towering, stately trees that brought out my appreciative inner Ewok. Dan, a die-hard fan of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, gave me a hearty, loving squeeze.
Where to go? Which tree to hug first? Where to sit and breathe in the energy of the land, make conscious contact with its multitude of spirits? Thank them for all the glorious work they do? My brain went on shamanic overdrive. I quickly dove my hand into my sweater’s right pocket to ensure the little pouch of loose-leaf tobacco was still there. I don’t smoke–it’s my first choice for giving offerings to land wights.
The giving of offerings is a time-honored, cross-cultural sacrosanct practice, one that traditionally expresses the principle of sacred exchange. I found a spot in a semi-circle of trees to sit in silence, breathe deeply in and out, send out the roots and branches of my Divine Self–become the World Tree itself–and speak aloud my greetings and benedictions to the spirits of place. I was “buzzing” beyond belief–almost to the point of experiencing vertigo. I fished for my pouch of tobacco and offered a pinch to the spirits of that locale in gratitude.
Dan was looking forward to his own interaction with the spirits–and not just the ones of the land. He’d brought along a phurpa he’d acquired only a couple of hours prior, when he took me to Haight-Ashbury for the first time. There were a surprising number of stores specializing in Tibetan imports, which delighted us both. I wound up procuring, at a glorious little shop called The Love of Ganesha, a gorgeous rose quartz-carved mini statue of the beloved Hindu god Ganesha (Whom I do revere at my prosperity shrine). Two doors down, Dan found just the right Tibetan phurpa, or ritual dagger used in exorcisms, with a spirit that he felt meshed well with his magickal energies. Not only was Dan looking forward to ritually working with the new phurpa in Chicago–it’s the third in his collection–he wanted to consecrate it immediately. That was one of the reasons why Golden Gate Park was next on our sightseeing agenda that day (it’s also very close to the Haight-Ashbury district).
We meandered a bit until we found a spot that resonated with what we called “Hekate energy”: a beautiful clearing in the woods, surrounded by redwood trees. The very dirt smelled of sanctity. And lo, a unique crossroads of sorts where three tree trunks met; surely this would be suitable ground for Dan to do a ritual of welcoming to the phurpa spirit and to activate its power. We both felt Hekate very strongly there.
I settled in to grok the land wights in this area, announce our greetings and our intentions, and to make an offering to them for their hospitality. I presented them with tobacco. I then went about, laying a large diameter of the compass I wanted to set and ward to ensure that Dan and his phurpa spirit would have the privacy they needed. Dan went into Feri ritual mode and began to cast the sphere:
Although the area of Golden Gate Park where we chose to do our working was, in general, crowded on that gloriously sunny late December day, mercifully, no other humans ventured near us. The air felt very charged with decidedly happy, receptive, and giving spirits. Bountiful spirits.
They aren’t always that way, of course. And they don’t need to be. Land spirits don’t “owe” us anything. We need to be mindful that–as with wild animals–when we’re venturing into their territory, we’re not always welcome.
That lesson was brought painfully home to me during my “Navy wife” days (daze?) on Oahu. When I wasn’t teaching, engaged in literary endeavors (I was fond of Honolulu’s slam poetry scene), or joining with fellow military Pagans at gatherings or social activities, I spent a lot of my free time when my then-husband was away on deployment hiking alone. It’s possible to hike in rain forest territory while still in Honolulu’s city limits, so sometimes I ventured for solitary hikes in the steep terrain of St. Louis Heights, which affords hikers an impressive aerial view of Honolulu’s skyline and the gleaming waters of Waikiki Beach.
Other times, I’d drive up to the island’s North Shore, which, unlike Honolulu, has a very laid-back feel. Good hiking can be found in Waimea Valley, a little ways east from the quaint charm of sleepy Haleiwa Town and considerably up on some steep cliff faces. A major morbid attraction for me in Waimea was the ruins of the Native Hawaiian Puu o Mahuka heiau, or temple complex, that received human sacrifices (i.e., Englishmen associated with Captains Cook and Vancouver’s voyages of discovery) as late as the 1780s! Talk about spirits of place: the lava rock altar bed where the sacrificial victims met their fate seemed to be throbbing with sentience and vitality.
You would think that that’s where I would have received negative/menacing, “Get outta here!” vibes from the land spirits but it actually wasn’t. That happened as I was deeply recessed into the valley, snapping photos like these:
The only way I can describe it is I must have gotten my foot caught in an invisible, spiritual tripwire–crossed some boundary I wasn’t meant to. After about 90 minutes or so of silent hiking in solitude, out of nowhere, a voice began to scream in my head: “GET OUT! IF YOU STAY HERE, YOU DO SO AT YOUR OWN PERIL!” No, this wasn’t my gut instinct talking; this was definitely externally sourced. I looked around, frantic. I saw nothing–no movement in the thick vegetation surrounding me. No birds. No wind. Nothing. My throat instantly began to feel parched, constricted. The voice returned, repeating its message. I grabbed my backpack off the ground and instantly trotted back through the brush the way I came. Full-throttle anxiety gripped me, even though I wasn’t sure what I was afraid of.
I thought of how the Greek god Pan inspires “panic” and I wondered if there was a Hawaiian equivalent, but all the local Hawaiians I knew ever told me about were menehune, the “wee folk” who are generally kindly disposed to human beings, and Night Marchers, the ghosts of Hawaiian chieftains who were said to parade in Waimea Valley after dark. If you were unfortunate enough to be among them as their regal retinue passed, announced by the sound of drums and nose flutes, and they spotted you, their looks of outrage could literally kill you in your tracks, my Native Hawaiian friends told me. But this was broad daylight, mid-afternoon in summer. No Night Marchers. Nor was I anywhere near the heiau and its grisly energy buildup.
So what drove me, panic-stricken, out of that lovely, lush landscape that day? I’m guessing some really pissed-off land spirits. I was a malihini, a foreigner. And a woman at that. (Tribal Hawaiian society was definitely patriarchal.) It just might have been too kapu/taboo for me to have been roaming about, taking pictures.
This example illustrates several important points concerning encounters and relationships with the spirits of any given place (though all will be significantly different). The first point is that land wights will not always necessarily be gentle, welcoming, or caring for human concerns. Even the most spirit-aware and respectful Pagans, Witches, Heathens, or shamans may unintentionally cause offense to the spirits. The second point is to always listen and act accordingly when you feel that the spirits of place have made contact with you. What would have happened to me that afternoon in Waimea if I chose to ignore the booming voice? I would have done so at my own peril, the spirit(s) said. Would I have slipped off a cliff’s edge to my death? Gotten gored to death by a wild Hawaiian boar? Gotten mugged or raped by my fellow humans? (I fended off a would-be rapist when I got separated from friends while hiking in South Dakota’s Custer State Park in 2002.) It’s not worth the risk to stay and find out. Conversely, on a much happier note, if you feel genuinely welcomed and elated by the spiritual communication, as Dan and I did in Golden Gate Park last December, then by all means linger and deepen the relationship with those land spirits.
The third point is it’s a good policy to bless and give offerings–items you value, that are of worth. The ancient Celts, expert metallurgists that they were, were known to toss swords, shields, jewelry, and other items of value in holy places where deities and spirits of water dwelt: lakes, bogs, streams. Either the money spent on your offerings must be reasonable or the appropriate intent imbued into the offerings themselves (will this offering please the spirits? If so, why? How?). I don’t think it’s enough to lazily grab a rock on your way to a gathering or devotional spot and hand it over as a divine offering–unless, of course, the rock struck you there and then as the correct gift to offer. The key is simply that the offering itself should represent the spark of divinity (to you) related to the spirit or god/dess in question, and therefore, the offering of the gift is like a returning of essence to essence. To quote the Havamal, “A gift demands a gift.” In this way, it’s easy to see why our relationships with our spirits and deities are ones of symbiosis: these Old Ones need our help and attention just as much as we need Theirs.
Spirits of place always require our respect, attention, and favor. Here’s one simple ritual activity you can perform to be good neighbors with them:
A Simple Ritual Offering to Spirits of Place
Stand where you feel that the power of place is naturally converging, be it an overt embodiment (a tree or sacred stone) or not. Ground and center yourself in a way that feels natural to you. I like to breathe in deeply to a count of eight, hold for a count of eight, and slowly exhale to a count of eight, totally emptying my diaphragm. I repeat the process four times (get ready for a heady buzz!). Hold your offering and exhale your prana/od/chi/life force into it; when you feel it’s full of your vital energy, lay it down while stating aloud the following:
Spirits of place, I, [NAME], lay this offering for you.
I honor you and give you thanks.
May you welcome me as I welcome you.
Grant me safe passage as I traverse your realm.
May peace and harmony always be between us.
So mote it be!
Now carry out the work or ritual you were meant to do or leave the site–without looking back. Simply walk away with a silent understanding in your heart that you have perpetuated the balance of the cosmos and as such have sustained and celebrated the life force we Witches call magick.
- European traditional witchcraft
- Fellowship of Isis in Chicago
- Feri witchcraft
- genius loci
- land wights
- military Pagans
- Night Marchers
- North Shore
- Puu o Mahuka
- San Francisco
- Waimea Bay
- World Tree