Tag Archives: spirits of place

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.

Of Druidry and time

One of the things I’ve become really conscious of this week, is that engaging with nature has a time element to it. Different parts of the day belong to different entities. The same place has a very different character, set of inhabitants and, arguably, spirit, depending on time of day. While the sun is up, I have birds and butterflies. At twilight the fish are jumping, the bats and owls come out, the toads are more active. Into the night there are foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, and at least rumours of otters. I’ve seen glow bugs lately as well.

We all have to sleep. When we’re asleep, we’re not out there encountering the wildlife or engaging with the spirits of place. I find that I can’t go messing about with my sleep patterns without consequences, so while the odd all nighter, random early morning and the such is ok, mostly for my own wellbeing I need a fairly stable sleep/wake pattern.

One of the consequences of needing to engage with the rest of the world, is that I can’t have the summer sleep pattern I really want. I’m a creature of twilight by preference, but to do dawn and dusk when the nights are so short here, I would need to sleep for a few hours in the middle of the day. One of my longstanding ambitions is to have the time and space for experimenting with how this affects me.

No matter how deep a spiritual bond we have with a space, there will always be things we do not know about it. If I’m watching the fish, I will not see what the birds are doing. The more attention I give to one aspect of what is around me, the more likely I am to miss something in the bigger picture. There are balances to strike, between focus and wider awareness. We need that bigger picture – without context, and a sense of how it all fits together impressions readily distort. We also need the deeper, more involved relationships. And thus we come back to the issue of time. There’s only a finite number of hours at our disposal. I cannot forage with the badgers, and dive with the terns, and sing with the dawn chorus and the evening blackbirds and have time to work and eat and fulfil other duties and needs.

Therefore there are always going to be times when what happens around me remains a mystery.  I may get odd glimpses. When I say ‘hello spirits of place’ even though I know the place well, I hold an awareness that I am also speaking to the mysteries, the unknown, the things that come out to play when I am asleep.

There were eleven badgers last night, one rabbit who I watched for ages, one fleeting visit from a fox cub, and a great number of glow bugs, several bats, and no doubt far more small things that I didn’t see. Hello mysteries.

Offerings and Dedications

Moving on from No Sacrifice, what does a modern Druid do? I’m going to wave a couple of concepts here today. Offerings are something I have strong opinions about, and where my take does not match what I’ve seen Druids and Pagans generally doing. So, this is not authority, it’s my banging on about personal preference. Obviously, if I convince you all of my superior argument, that would be lovely, but I’m not expecting anything of the sort!

Offerings and dedications are things that we might do for gods, or spirits, that are also things we do for ourselves. Not unlike giving a gift or making a vow to a human companion, we do it for the joy of doing it, and for the subsequent strengthening of bonds, and knowing it will encourage them to feel benevolent towards us. It’s a friendly exchange, it’s not supposed to hurt.

I have an animist world view. I think everything has spirit. Not all pagans are animist and that’s probably key for how you think about offerings. It confuses the hell out of me when people turn up at rituals with offerings that basically consist of having uprooted a bit of spirit from where it was living and plonking it down in front of another spirit with a ‘there you go’.  Wildflowers from the hedgerow, feathers and other gleanings are popular. What makes this ours to give? When some of your own creativity has gone in the mix, it makes a degree more sense. What does the spirit of a tree need with a few fragments of sea shell offered to its roots? (seen that done). Why do all the dark places need offerings of tea lights? Often, the offerings become litter, or there’s a pile of stuff for the celebrant to take away and sort out at the end. Think about what happens to your offerings, after you leave them behind. Also think about what the spirits you were offering to might have a use for. I’d rather take water to plants in times of need, or, more usually, take in a dustbin bag and clear up the litter. Making a temporary altar out of what is in the space, an improvised art working with what lives there, seems a far more fitting offering than a thing bought in a shop or uprooted from where it was happily being a spirit of place in its own right.

Dedications, especially those made in ritual with human witnesses too, are ways of offering ourselves to the gods. They also serve to reinforce community bonds and help us develop in shared intentions together. Pledges to greener living are good. If one person says ‘from now on I shall grow all my own herbs’ other people may be inspired to have a go too. If the newbie dares to say ‘I’m going to recycle, diligently’ recognising that they are just starting out on a path, we can cheer them along. We dedicate to reducing consumption, to better sourcing, to making more of our own. We dedicate to living in more creative ways, giving more, being compassionate, upholding the values of a specific deity. During rites of passage, we dedicate to each other, as partners, parents, welcoming life in, waving it goodbye. We may dedicate as teachers, celebrants, bards – these human roles can be put before the gods too. These are things we can offer to the gods, to ourselves, to our communities and our planet. By formalising that intent into a ritual statement, we strengthen it.

Such efforts as these are not simple, one sided things. We are not giving something away for nothing, and it is not simply an activity which costs us. We are interacting with other things – divine, human, aspects of place, of our own lives. In this kind of undertaking we may be recognising all kinds of relationships. We make them conscious, choose how to conduct them, offer our intentions. By offering we affirm, we inspire others, we share the journey we are making. By offering, we nourish those around us, and when we hear their offerings and dedications, we can be inspired in turn. This is about how we craft our own lives, how we understand ourselves in relation to all things. It creates a focus.

When I make an offering or a dedication, the goodness of that action for me is something I am always conscious of. This undertaking will make my life feel cleaner and more honourable. This will strengthen me, give me purpose, focus me on the work my hands need to be doing. This will invite my community to support me in a new venture, to see me in a new way. This will keep me straight, I’ve pledged in public and will not lose face by then failing to follow through. But equally, if we just did it for personal reasons, it wouldn’t be worth much, and so these dedications are also for the good of the land and its other inhabitants, to honour the ancestors, to guard the future generations and so forth. The reality that everything we do is connected to everything else becomes clear, and that’s essential Druidry in itself.