Tag Archives: spirits of place

Spirits of Place

When Dr Abbey first arrived with us, he did a great deal of drawing at high speed. There were many pieces, and it was a really interesting process to observe. He hadn’t done much art in a long time and was drawing his way back into a more creative headspace. This image leapt out at me as he was working on it.

 

Last week I sat down with it and attempted my own version. I used pens –  I haven’t gone straight  in with coloured pens since childhood. That was a challenge. It also raised issues of how much to try and do my own thing and how much to emulate the loose style Abbey has when working unconsciously. I ended up with a mix.

My main aim in doing this was to engage with the image, and the energy of the being depicted in the image. I spent more than an hour on this, while the original took a couple of minutes. I will go back and have another go – most likely using materials I’m more used to. It’s harder doing ambiguity with pens, and this is a figure who I think needs more ambiguity in the mix.

One of the things that has struck me this summer, in my process of inviting magic in, is that drawing is something to explore. Not everything is best handled with words. I could not have had this experience by writing it, but finding this presence on the paper and making room for it opens something up and creates possibility. Drawing can, I realise, be a way of knowing, encountering, experiencing, connecting and honouring.  I will make more time for this, and share any interesting results as I go.


Animism and urban landscapes

I live in a small town, and I’m conscious that much of my writing is nature-focused and I don’t talk much about urban Druidry. The majority of us are to some degree urban, and I think it’s important to explore the realities of being a Pagan in an urban context, and it’s something I’ll try to write about more often.

Yesterday I went from my home on the outskirts of town, to the centre. I used to be something I did a few times a week, or more.  Since the impact of the virus, I’ve not been into the town centre very often at all, and when I have, it has been very quiet. Stroud has a distinct character – an energy of its own and during lockdown the absence of that felt strange.  There is a land-energy to the town centre, but Stroud is most itself where the interactions occur between people and place. The mood on quiet days and at night has more in common with the busy days than it has with the atmosphere during lockdown.

Yesterday I passed by Lansdown Hall. It’s a building that looms large in my life. We did a Hopeless Maine exhibition in the gallery there a few years ago. I’ve performed on the stage during the book festival. My fortieth birthday party was there.  The Tai Chi class I went to was there. I’ve danced there many times. I also worked in the office for a while and have worked there in evenings on many occasions. I’ve been there for films and all kinds of community events. It is a beautiful building, and one I feel a deep connection with.

Lansdown Hall is still closed. I’ve never wanted to hug a building before. I’ve never previously felt the urge to press my cheek to the stone and tell a place how much I love it and how deeply I have missed it. I settled for putting my hand on the building and drawing less attention. It is a place that is distinctly itself and that I experience as an individual.

I have feelings about many of the buildings in town, but mostly that has to do with what I’ve done there or who I’ve spent time with. Lansdown Hall is different. It is a friend in its own right, and someone I miss spending time with as much as I’ve missed human friends in recent months. Someone I would like to hug. Hopefully there will be some future opportunity to be back in the hall on my own, able to talk to it, and to be with it.

As with human relationships, it’s not being able to do the things that define the relationship that is hardest. I have found out whose hugs I needed most and who I most need to sit down with at the same table.  I have learned things about where I need to be. The embrace of a building was not something I’d recognised before, but I know now. Perhaps I’ll go back at a quieter time and press my cheek to the door.


Being a spirit of place

Standard Druid ritual has us, somewhere near the beginning, saying things like ‘hail spirits of this place, spirits of land and sky and whatever else lives here. Hail and welcome.” We make our circles, and we welcome the spirits of place into the space. This is something I’ve felt uneasy about for a while.

Recently, I had an experience of being cast in a similar role. I came into a space I have a longstanding relationship with, and where I work. Someone I have never seen in that space before but who happened to have got there first, thanked me for being there and welcomed me in. The whole approach gave them the appearance of owning the space, and cast me as the outsider.  It was not a happy or comfortable experience. It was the exact opposite of feeling honoured or respected.

Respect for spirits of place begins with the recognition that they are intrinsic to the space while you have come into their space. It also depends on recognition that they are part of the space, and you are probably not. Or you are less so.

If you are doing ritual in your own home, think about how you would welcome a person who also shares your home to share ritual space with you. It may make sense to acknowledge that you are the one making ritual space, in your shared space and to asking them to join in.

If you were in someone else’s home holding a ritual space, you wouldn’t thank them for being there. You’d thank them for hosting the ritual space. You’d thank them for letting you run a ritual space in their home.

It is all too easy to rock up to a place you want to use for ritual and act like you own it. Even when you have legal possession of a place, it is important to remember that any spirits of place you may call on won’t see it that way. If you want to honour them as the spirits of place, your recognition of their relationship with the place will be a key part of that.

I can say with some confidence that being in a place where you feel you belong and having someone who is not of that place welcome you as though you were an outsider and the place was theirs, is not a good way to start. It does not create feelings of warmth and delight. It may create feelings of annoyance, resentment, and worse.

I’ve stood in too many circles that have said ‘we bid you hail, and welcome.’ I don’t think this is the right language for creating meaningful relationships.


Druidry and Spirits of Place

As my contribution to Pagan Pride in Nottingham, I talked about Druidry and spirits of place. It’s not the first time I’ve talked about this at a Pagan gathering. Spirits of place are pretty much at the heart of my sense of what Druidry is and how to approach it. I tend not to label it as such when I’m blogging because I tend to be focused on something specific – bats this summer, trees, foxes and so forth.

Over the last few years, what I think of as my Druidry has been increasingly about the spiritual aspect of connecting with what’s directly around me. I’ve become less interested in the eight main festivals than I was before. For me, they are purely about community and human tradition, and that’s fine and I can make room for it, but they aren’t where my Druidry lives. Formal ritual doesn’t do it for me in terms of personal practice. I’m more interested in contemplation and communion and the process of being a body in a landscape. I’m interesting in encountering and being encountered.

What flows from this is a growing number of relationships at various stages of development. There’s no feeling of a need to do anything with this – it does not call for rituals, or dramatic action, or big declarations. It is small scale, day to day stuff and it is the fabric of my life. There is nothing in this I can use as a power base – it does not give me magical power, or uncanny insight, or the backing of Gods. It does not give me anything to call upon for my own ends. What it does give me is a keen sense of the numinous in the familiar, and a lot of encounters with wild beings.

This is not a path. This is a relationship with a place, in which there are many paths that I walk in the most literal sense of the words. I walk the paths of the place where I live. I walk, and I encounter and I experience. I do not transcend, or progress, or ascend, or become enlightened. I’m just another mammal moving through the trees. I’ve been exploring Druidry for about sixteen years now. I’ve done the OBOD course, I’ve stood in big public rituals, I’ve hung out with The Druid Network, I’ve read a lot of books. What I want from Druidry is my own intimate relationship with the world, and increasingly, that’s what I’ve got.

On Sunday, one of the people who came to my talk asked if I’d got a book on the subject. I don’t, but I’m seriously considering writing one. It will likely be a slow process, and if I do it, it will take a year or more, most likely. I’m not sure how attractive a book it would be – I can’t offer power, or conventional magic, or progress or status with this kind of work. I know at the same time that this whole way of being and doing is working really well for me and that there could be a few other people who would be interested to know what I’ve done and how I’ve gone about it.

So I’m just floating it out there to see if this is something I should try and write.


Hail Spirits of Place

“Hail spirits of this place” is a popular Druid line for ritual, in that brief bit at the beginning where we normally honour whatever is around us. It’s something I do outside of ritual situations, and something I like to invest more time in during rituals.

Saturday found me in Wolverhampton, talking about sacred places. Much of the venue was lovely – the hall the market was in had beautiful light, a lot of wood, lovely acoustics and would have been a great place to do ritual. The area for talks had a stage, microphone and lighting, making it a good place for talks, but it didn’t have much atmosphere, it was a bit dead acoustically. In the right space, if I’m talking about ritual or sacred places, I’ll have a play with the room acoustics because that can be magical. I got off the microphone briefly, and went straight back because the room wasn’t going to give me anything.

All the same, I got to talking about spirits of place in ritual, and offered my ‘hail spirits of place’ and something shifted. I felt hairs rising, and gooseflesh breaking out on my shoulders and arms. A keen sense of something with me and behind me that hadn’t been there before. Something friendly and supportive, and glad to be noticed.

I’ve greeted spirits of place in all kinds of places. I’ve done it when I didn’t feel safe, and it has always helped. I do it before talks even when the talks aren’t Pagan. Sometimes the effects are more dramatic than others. Saying it out loud is important – although sometimes that’s a whisper in a toilet cubicle. It’s enough.

Spirits of place do not belong only to distant wild places and iconic ancient sites. They are in your living room, your garden, your workplace. They’re on the school run, the commute, in the car park. Acknowledge the possibility of them and they may acknowledge you in return.


Stepping into ritual space

How do we enter ritual space, let go of the cares of daily life and become open to magic, divinity and that which is sacred to us? When I wrote about Glamour in Paganism a few days ago, one person in the comments picked up on the issue that kit and setting are important in how people transition into ritual space. It’s a valid point, and one that stands looking at. How do we enter ritual space?

Dedicated clothes and objects can help create a sense of specialness, of time out of time. Many people find this really helps them, and I don’t want to invalidate that experience, but I think there’s an alternative that is worth exploring. The trouble with depending on ritual kit is that you can only respond in a Pagan way when you’ve set out to do so, and it makes it that bit harder to express your spirituality in the heat of the moment. Without robes, cloak, wand, crystal, or whatever else you normally need, how are you going to handle it if you get an unexpected experience, or have a sudden personal crisis where a bit of Druidry in self defence would not go amiss?

For me the key thing is spirits of place. Other traditions call them land wights, genius loci, faeries, elementals, and a host of other things. However you understand the idea of that which is spirit and present in the land, is what you need to work with here. Atheist pagans can just take this literally and work with whatever is present – trees, rocks, grass, soil, it’s all good.

For me, the transition into ritual is a transition into awareness of the spirits of place. I do this primarily by taking the time to go in and be with the place. Sitting, strolling, standing as the weather and ground conditions dictate. I look and listen. I feel the air on my skin and I taste it. I think about who and what came here before me, and I open myself to the place. I listen to the songs of its birds, or if it’s what I’ve got, to the hum of the traffic. I look at the sky, because no matter where you are there is sky. If you insist on doing ritual in a cave or a cellar, there’s still sky outside before you enter that space. Sun or moon, rain or shine, the sky brings nature to the most urban of spaces. It can permeate into our indoor rituals, even.

I breathe slowly. I notice what it’s like to be in my body, in this place. I feel out my body reactions to the space. I look for beauty and inspiration, for hope, but I do not ignore anything that is tough for me – the cutting down of trees, the dead things, the absences and the silences. Often at this point I become aware of the absence of great hooves, and recognise that I will not see aurochs.

This kind of transition can be developed by working with a single object, holding it, meditating on it and connecting with it. Improvised altars made from found objects, including human detritus, can be part of the engagement process. Making mandalas, or sculptures out of found items, or just gathering twigs for the fire all help us to be present and part of the place. In recognising the sacredness of the smallest things, the magic of the living, breathing world, we transition. We step out of the ordinary mindset that sees nature as something to use and place as backdrop, and we step into the world of life and detail, and from there, ritual is a lot easier and flows more readily.


Welcome to our circle

In Druid rituals, and other Pagan gatherings, we tend to start by inviting other beings in. The powers of the four directions, the three worlds, the spirits of place, ancestors, perhaps our gods. “Hail and welcome” we call out in cheerful unison. I gather other traditions will summon the guardians of the watchtowers and call to other things, welcoming them in or demanding their presence.
I am increasingly uneasy about this.

The elements exist. Earth, air, fire and water are present in this world in any habitable place where you might realistically try and have a ritual. Spirits of place, by their very nature are that which exists in a place. Our ancestors we bring with us, in our DNA. None of these things are absent when we start a ritual. Maybe the gods are absent, but that’s a whole other conversation about the nature of deity that I’d like to skip over for now.

When we walk into a space to do ritual, everything else is already there. We are the incomers. We are the oblivious ones who need to open our awareness, to actually think about the earth beneath our feet and the sky above our heads. What we do when we call to the spirits of place is not, in any real sense, invite them to join us. They were there already. It is their place. What we actually need to be doing, is opening ourselves to being more aware of everything that is not us, and that is not part of our more mundane concerns.

Nature is always with us, in the air we breathe, the materials we use. No matter how deeply we go into human constructs, every last thing humans make, has been constructed from the natural world. We are never away from nature. What we frequently are, is oblivious to it. Therefore when we enter a ritual space, asking nature to show up is utterly ridiculous. What we need to be doing is shifting our own perceptions, and to do that, we need a completely different ritual language.

Modern Paganism has, to a large extent, grown out of magical organisations where the point was very much to try and conjure and control. We’re inherited habits of language and speech from those traditions, and we use them without really looking at what they mean, how they position us in relation to the natural world, and whether they are of much use.

You do not need to summon the spirits of the earth. The earth is there, underneath you, every step of the way. All you need to do is become aware of it. The air is with you, in every breath drawn. The fire of the sun drives all life upon this earth. There is water in your own body, and usually in everything around you, too. These things exist, they do not need summoning. If you postulate ‘spirits of the earth’ as something not universally present in the earth but coming from ‘away’ and needing raising up, make sure at least that you understand how your cosmology works, and why you think the important bits of nature are somewhere else and not immediately available to you. I am suspicious of that thought form, too, it encourages us not to see this world as inherently magical, inherently sacred, but to imagine all spiritual stuff is ‘away’.

Not recognising what is here, in this earth, this air, underpins a lot of human abuses. We need to take the land beneath our feet a lot more seriously as a species, and we would benefit from doing that in our rituals, too.


Acoustic spirits of place

Being a singer and musician, I’ve always had a consciousness of acoustics, and it slowly dawned on me that this is not universal. Apparently not everyone automatically does this or grasps it as an idea, so I thought I should share… Every space has its own sound quality. As a Druid, in ritual or just connecting with a place, the sound of a place is easily tapped into and, I feel, really enables you to engage with its spirit. Using the sound resonance of a space really adds to ritual work and performance.

If you listen to a space, you can start to get a sense of how the sounds work. Are there echoes? Is sound bouncing about? Or travelling to you from afar? What makes sound here? If there’s anything vertical, be that a slope, a tree, a standing stone, you can bounce sound off it a bit. The big stones at Stonehenge are amazing for this. Messing about with your voice and listening to what comes back will tell you what’s going on.

In buildings, the height of walls, length of room, shape of ceiling will inform how the sound behaves. Often, some spots turn out to be better than others. If you can stand in the right place, throw your sound the right way, you get to tap into that resonance. The space takes your sound and embellishes it. Sometimes certain notes or pitches work better than others, and if you can hear that, you can play with it, pitching your voice accordingly. It works as well for speech as for song, and puts you into the most magical kind of interaction with your space.

If you can tap into the echoes, into the pitches that suit the space and find the right place to stand to get the best audio effect (that might simply be upwind of everyone else so the wind takes your words to them, and not away) you are in harmony with the space. The space is working for you, you do not need amplifying, your words fly out as if by magic.

I’ve been doing this for lot of years, and I know when I’ve understood the space and worked with it, because not only do I hear the soft echoes supporting my voice, but I notice how much quieter people are. Get this right and an audience that might otherwise have been restless will stand still, silent, spellbound.

Druid magic… bard magic… there’s some science in this, although you have to work intuitively and with your senses to use it. This is the simplest way of adding a magical quality to your words or music, and it works anywhere. Even the deadest room will have places that work better acoustically than others. So, if you see me ambling about a place, staring and the ceiling and humming quietly to myself, this is why. I’m listening to the spirit of the place.


Spirits of an unfamiliar place

I’m travelling again, this weekend finds us at The Asylum, the UK’s biggest Steampunk event. And we’re not the only Druid attraction in town, John and Caitlin Matthews are here, talking about their new Steampunk tarot!

I’ve not been to Lincoln before. It’s an old city, certainly dating back to the Romans (and I assume, before them), and with plenty of medieval architecture. We’ve done a lot of wandering around this evening, admiring the buildings, getting used to the incredibly steep hill, gazing at the vast and wonderful views. I love travelling and encountering new places, it fires my imagination and feeds my soul.

I always seek out what I can in a new place, looking for a sense of the land, the ancestors, waterways… I don’t like to feel that I’m just passing through, taking without showing respect in some way. But of course really speaking I am exactly a tourist, even though I’m working, and I am just passing through. In a few days I will get what sense I can of the place, its history, its character, and whatever I can connect with, and I will do with that whatever makes sense. But whatever I think of my own impressions, I’m careful not to lose sight of the fact that I am just passing through.

Some aspects of a place can be grasped in very little time, are taken in with the first impressions and prove true if tested in more depth or at a later date. That’s true anywhere. It takes time to build the deeper knowing, exploring a place through seasons, times of day, seeing its flows and how its mood shifts over time.

I used to go to Bromyard Folk Festival a lot – also happening this weekend. I fell in love with the vibrant energy of the place. Then I went back one time when the festival wasn’t on, and realised this was a whole different town, and a place I did not know at all. As a traveller, I can only hope to see flashes and fragments.

I’m not good at staying in one place all the time. I like knowing places deeply and forming deep bonds with the spirits of a place, but at the same time, I’m a nomad at heart. I have a huge wanderlust in me, and it is good to be out, in a landscape I have never seen before, trying to get a feel for the soil and the wind.


Sitting with the spirits of place

One of the few reliable themes in my otherwise chaotic ritual tendencies, is honouring the spirits of place. With the weather mayhem this year, seasonal celebrations have felt a bit odd. I was out more than a week ago seeing hay and grain being harvested. If we’d been celebrating formally, that would have been more the time to do Lammas, I think. And while some fields were ripe, plenty others weren’t. Some of the cygnets are nearly adult, others look to be fairly recent hatchlings. I heard nightingales in early July when they should have given up weeks before. I can’t engage at all with the seasons, but the locality makes sense.

Today, the locality was a cathedral. Usually there are rows of seats in the main body of the cathedral, but today they were absent, leaving a huge, empty space. We were early, there were few people about, someone running a vacuum cleaner. While everyone around us was either working or being a tourist, we went and sat in the middle of the floor, and contemplated.

A cathedral is full of history. I thought about the ancestors who had worshipped there, all those centuries of Christenings, marriages and funerals. The dead buried on site. Many hands went to quarry, shape and place the stone. The stone itself has its own history too, and the earth beneath the stone. I thought about the music that had happened here, the worship, contemplated spirits of hope and dreams of better worlds. It is easy, as a pagan, to be tremendously negative about Christianity, focusing on all the worst bits. But, these are our ancestors, we are part of their story, and there is plenty there that we can think well of and celebrate.

As I listened to the building, I became aware of how sounds were interacting with each other. All the muted sounds of conversation around the space, coupled with the sounds of motion the low thrum of closing doors, combined. At times they suggested additional notes, far below the sounds being made. Sometimes there was a hint of music to it, a song being made out of the building and the quiet human presences within it. And then, a wonder. A high, soaring voice that rose right to the roof, perfectly resonant in the space, wild and unearthly. I was transfixed. A small pixie child in a pushchair, head raised, vocalising into the space and clearly aware of something happening. Echoes and resonances. It was beautiful.

There were a few of us having spiritual experiences in the cathedral this morning. Three contemplative druids and one wide eyed toddler. I can’t comment on anyone else, but they all seemed busy, or touristy. We must have seemed a tad odd to them.