Spirits of Place

My husband and I are moving house.  We have found a beautiful cottage in a very old Warwickshire village. It is a village that has many local legends attached to it, an old tump which has (supposedly) been a Norman castle, Saxon settlement and ancient British mound. It has a 13th century church, and several very old pubs and orchards. The place is bound together by the thousand layers of human story that have created it, the many, many ancestors who have lived and died there; the candle maker from the old factory that was dismantled in the 1980’s and the shoemaker listed in the 1841 census, are all ingredients in the glue that holds the place together. A village is a mingling of folk, from the spirits of the deep landscape, the bedrock and underground water systems, to the rivers, hedges and field boundaries; the ancient badger set in the field, the people, dead and alive, human and non, the colour of the sky and the taste of the rain are what make it what it is.

I know that the house is old. Maps from 1837 show a building plan that is identical to today’s googlemaps, so I suspect it has been a residence for nigh on 200 years. We like each other, the house and I, although my husband and I discounted it initially. It has a number of things that I wouldn’t have chosen, compromises we will have to make and there is work to be done. But there are wonderful things I would never have hoped for too: idyllic, in a quiet courtyard, a studio in the loft, a farmhouse kitchen and an old, old, apple tree. It feels to be the right house, a place we could be happy, after a good few years of hard house-hunting and upheaval, it is a place worth compromising for. Falling into the category of ‘things I wouldn’t have chosen’ are, I suspect, a number of ‘former residents’ and some slightly ‘sludgy’ energy from the previous couple, who separated whilst living there. Most of us are prepared to put in some DIY when we move house, but how many of us are prepared to put in the energy work too? Making sure that not only do we feel comfortable in our new home, but also that our home feels comfortable with us, is perhaps even more important.

Having been sensitive to the dead all my life, I have always been wary of living somewhere that I am directly required to share my space with them. I grew up somewhat afraid of the dead, no one else saw or felt what I did, which meant that people either thought I was strange, deluded, or more probably, that we just didn’t talk about these things. I certainly frightened my mother on a number of occasions and soon realised that talking about the old woman in the corner of the room wouldn’t go down too well. Either way, I quickly came to understand that the dead were to be feared. Consequently, despite the work I do as priest and teacher, the dead still frighten me at times which means I have never learned how to work with them with much skill and I am aware that I need to learn how. The idea of sharing a house with some of them makes me apprehensive. It feels to be different to much of the ancestor work that defines my craft, because rightly or wrongly, I feel like I have more control of the situation and more importantly, I know them and feel comfortable with them.

Consideration of this situation has led me to think long and hard about the best and most ethical way to work with the spirits of this new place. I wonder, what it will be ok to clear out and what I have no right to ask to leave? After all, any person living there may have been resident for 200 years, what right do I have to ask them to go and more importantly, are they integral to the place, literally holding it together in some way, part of the building itself? What door might drop off, wall start crumbling or pipe burst as a consequence of their leaving? On the other hand, helping blocked and stagnant energy to move through, energetic house cleaning, would seem perfectly acceptable when done with good relationship and consent, healing for all concerned. Ultimately, I think that is a discussion to be had amongst everyone after we move in; what and who wants and needs to stay, what and who can be released. There is also a balance too, just as with all things in life, what do we disturb and rearrange that we might exist with any degree of comfort, because it will have to become comfortable or we won’t stay.

All of this prompted me to ask these questions, both on the practicalities and the ethics of working with the spirits of place in this way, in an online, broadly Druid, discussion group. I was surprised by some of the responses I got. Everything from stories of folk who had been in a similar situation and found a way to create relationship with the place that was harmonious, to those who recommended a spiritual ‘butt kicking’ and a sense that the world is for the living, that the dead don’t belong here. The second school of thought led me to wonder how common it is that even within the Druid community we still carry so many assumptions left over from a broadly Christian and dualistic mindset. Firstly the assumption that the world is for us – the living, to be used as we see fit, regardless of what other persons we might share it with, and secondly, that the dead do not belong here; that they live somewhere else, another supernatural, unknowable dimension in another time and place. That somewhere might be Heaven, the Summerlands, Valhalla, Hel, Annwn or the many other places that our mythologies sing to us of. Wherever they are, we cross our fingers and hope against hope that they are anywhere other than here. The dead make us uncomfortable and so we comfort ourselves with the idea that they are somewhere else, in a collective hall, singing and feasting away eternity. If they are here, then (we assume), nature has obviously gone wrong, and the process has failed for some reason, they are somehow stuck and require help to be moved on. Is it really that they shouldn’t be here though, or just that we’d rather they weren’t?

Whilst I certainly do not discount the existence of any, all and many more of these ‘Otherworld’ places, the world is vast, multi-veiled and complex, I do not understand there to be only one ending place where we all ultimately end up. The soul too is multifaceted, rarely sticking together in any wholly coherent form after death. To the Animist, body and soul are not separate, with the animating force leaving the cold corpse behind at death. Consciousness fizzes through fingers and toes, heart and hair as an integrated whole. When we die, memories, personality, layers of thought, emotion, blood, bone, fluid, atoms, carbon and oxygen start to disperse and with it our human solidity and coherency. We become memories in mud, thoughts that remain with our living friends and family, songs in the wind, particles in carrots and piss in the water, wandering the places that we loved or were attached to in life. Parts may dream on in our concepts and memories of Summerland or Hel, spend a while held in the arms of our gods, whatever we conceive that to mean, or exploring the stars and becoming a hundred other lives and a myriad other existences. Reincarnation becomes so much more exciting! To me, there is no sense that there is only one option, that the same is true for each individual or that there are rules about where we go or where we should or shouldn’t be. Rather, I would suggest that here is a perfectly legitimate place for many of these ancestral folk and shards of memory in their varying degrees of consciousness and coherency, as a part of the collective of the tribe and community, the richness of place and within the humming wholeness of landscape, integral and essential to it as we understand it.  We should think very carefully before we make decisions about where these folks belong and what is best for them. Just maybe they have made a decision or know something we don’t? Perhaps the first thing we should deal with is our own sense of discomfort and unease?

We talk a lot in our tradition about the spirits of place and I wonder what each of us imagines we are speaking to when we call to them? Is it just the nice things, the trees, the sky, the wind? Or is it all of nature, present in its blood and bone, mess, difficulty, memory and emotion. All the things that actually make a place what it is?


13 thoughts on “Spirits of Place

  1. Nimue Brown says:

    how about, a little spirit house, or an altar, and give hem that and ask them to live there and let you live in the rest of the house, that might help and it wouldn’t be like booting them out.

  2. I love your description of animist reincarnation

  3. Gwion says:

    I’ve often felt that the houses that I’ve lived in have chosen me as much as I’ve chosen them. Once in them, it seems the relationships have been symbiotic ones and I feel lucky that I can’t think of a single house I’ve lived in where I’ve regretted the relationship; even when it’s been in a part of the country that I would not have chosen had it not been for my job.

    Presumably when you chose this house you considered the relationship you would have with it and decided that it was one you wanted. I’m sure that, as that relationship develops, it will become apparent what things need to change in you and what things need to change in the house. There must be a danger, for those who rush to make changes without first developing a relationship, that they may destroy the very thing that led them to want to move into the house in the first place. This must apply to the anima loci as much as to the walls and doors. I wouldn’t be so much worried about crumbling walls and burst pipes myself as losing the “feeling” of a home created by those anima loci (have I got that plural right?). On the point of “sludgy energy” and unhappy past events, perhaps the answer is to try to rebalance those energies rather than simply banish them, unresolved.

    P.S. If your village is Brinklow, as shown, I used to enjoy the occasional visit to the White Lion there (and the Bell in nearby Monks Kirby). I love some of the quieter stretches of the Fosse Way and the feeling of history as you travel along it). I hope you’ll be happy in your new home.

  4. This is a fascinating subject that I have not seen a lot of other people discuss. Thanks for taking the time to share it, Red, and giving us both an insight into your own thinking as well as something that many of us may have to consider in various ways throughout our lives. All the best with coming to terms with those spirits.

  5. JJ says:

    Hello Red. I’m also on the contemplative Druid thread, which is how I come to be here.
    I followed the discussion with interest.
    The main points I pick up on and observe: You detect a “sludgy” energy and a need for some sort of ‘clearance’, yet are hesitant to take action for concern at disturbing the genuine spirit of place. ( I’m summarising in my own words so may not have this quite right).
    I have experience, in a broadly Druidic way, of a few ‘house cleansings’ of this sort and my sense is that it is important to take a balanced approach which honours spirit of place and the genuine and beneficent spirits of your space, whilst at the same time cleansing and getting rid of less welcome ‘dead energy’ and any possible malevolent spirits.
    There is, in my experience, a benefit to working a cleansing ritual which makes clear your intent.
    Taking no action when you have intuited a need for it, is unlikely to allow you to peacefully settle.
    Honouring that which appropriately needs to be there with you, will respect the spirits of the ancestors and bring you into harmony with them
    I’m happy to talk or offer help if it is of any use to you. Good luck and enjoy your new home whatever.
    Love and blessings JJ

    • Brian Taylor says:

      I’m not sure you can generalise about how animists feel about what happens at the point of death. I do have a sense of something, call it soul, spirit, being, leaving the body. I think this also happens in at least some dreaming, and that it can be ‘seen’. A friend who recently died saw things more as you describe. We can’t know, of course, and that’s the beauty of it. I hope you’ll report back on how things went in due course.

  6. Hi Brian, Thanks for your thoughts. I should have the caveat on all my posts that states that I am only speaking for myself! I too know many animists who have a the more dualist outlook that you describe. I guess it just goes to show the variation within any religion when you get down to the metaphysics of things. In terms of the house, it was obviously not the right decision for us. The sale fell through shortly after I posted this. The value for me in writing is so much that it crystallizes my own thought processes. I write as much to understand as I do to inspire and provoke discussion and in this case, this blog post helped me to understand this was not where I wanted to be.

  7. Hi Red, I’ve seen your comments on The Druid Network, we met briefly at the conference. I’ve only just discovered your blog. I enjoyed reading this article. In a similar way I traced the development of the valley where I live from the Tithe map onward. Most of the area was farmland until 1979 when 300 houses were built, on either side of the brook as part of the Central New Towns project and I’ve spent alot of time considering the huge impact on the ‘spirit of the place’ from the perspectives of nature, wildlife to shifts in the water tables and changes to the brook’s course.
    For me the ‘spirit of the place’ is composed of the mud and water, brick and concrete, shaped by nature and man, and all the living beings- from plants, animals and people, nature spirits too, who manifest in varying forms. I have close relationships with a couple of these- I make offerings to my house spirit, with whom I communicate daily and visit regularly with others who abide in the valley.
    It’s rare that I’m approached by / communicate with the dead. My house is fairly new- 1920’s- so I haven’t faced by these issues.

  8. joannavdh says:

    A lovely blog post, and lovely blog! And I agree – that writing it all down helps us to understand ourselves better – after a year of blogging, I’ve come to know a lot of things about myself that I wasn’t aware of! I’ve heard that you’ve moved into a new place – I hope we’ll get a blog post about that soon hun! xox

  9. Heather Awen says:

    I want to do an animist blog carnival. If like me (until recently) you do know yet what a blog carnival is (maybe because you were outdoors/in your body, not living online) here it is:

    Each month a blog that has something to do with animism (the blog can be about many things as long as it has animism part of it) picks a topic. A nice broad one like Food, Health, Science, Education, Art, Conflict, Water, Summer, Traditions, etc.

    Other animist bloggers write a post about animism and that topic.

    The host blogger posts the title and first few lines of each other bloggers’ essays with links to their blogs.

    It rotates to a new host the next month with a new topic.

    I’d create a schedule of who gets what month and what they chose as the topic and share with all the animist bloggers I know and ask that they all share with the animist bloggers they know so they can send essays too.

    Why? One it shows the diversity of animism. Two it promotes all the blogs. Readers are exposed to many ideas.

    I’d really like it if you wanted to join. You can email me at lifthrasirsuccess(a) gmail.com.

    Please share with friends who have animism blogs! We are a very diverse group with no central focus. This way the focus can move about from blog to blog, each writer interpreting the key word subject their own way and in their context of animism.

    Thanks! Heather

  10. Heather Awen says:

    Lovely! Could you send me an email so i have your address in my contacts? So far we have 4 blogs, mine, PostPagan, Pray to the Moon and yours. if you know anyone else, please send them my way! Blessings galore, we all love your blog in the tiny american animism scene. And you summed up how i feel about the death stuff well, and lead me to link others to this post and added my own thing: I decided at age 10 that due to all the afterlives I had heard about, there must be many things can happen. personal experience i have seen traumatized people who do not know they are dead. I talk to my grandmothers who are dead. And my cat. A Tarot client trying to conceive has attracted a Cambodian baby who does know he is dead so she gets pregnant and he aborts himself over and over,. as he wants her as a mom, but he is not ready to be dead first. i recently learned she’s not even that into having a kid, her husband is, and saw that the lack of commitment on her part and the kid’s are perfect. yet my personal opinion is i am reincarnated all the time, every 7 years I am made of all new people I ate, breathed, rubbed on skin, etc. Having MCS severely means i am very aware of who is in me. I consider myself at my highest functioning an apartment building for bacteria and microbes. i mean, what is heather? the people she ate the air she breathed the colonies in her. A new test showed i am a lot of copper which the body thinks is estrogen. when i die I will be reincarnated into those who eat me. Worms, fungi, etc. Yay! I cannot imagine reincarnation because i am not sure where i would “go.” being nondualistic, I think there is one world, with More to it than we know, the MoreWorld, be that the inside of a black hole or inside a quark or
    spirits, etc. Some of us are wired to contact with some of these aspects of the More World. It is not somewhere else, it is here, but we have to expand our concept of here. Plus so many cultures believe in more than one soul, all of whom go someplace/do someplace elsewhere. In most cultures reincarnation happens in the tribe/family.

  11. Heather Awen says:

    That all said, it then hit me, all that is is alive. So what is death?

    Well, all that has been still is. Ancient stars live in our bodies. When i die I will be be eaten by the DeComposers of the Universe One Song, who will keep me alive in many ways and places. My writing and deeds will live, i will live in memories. Since separation is an illusion maybe I will be a “spirit guide” for friends. As life is not very linear, maybe I will become something in the past.

    because so many psychics can see so many past lives, i have a theory that humans share one giant soul and due to this we can access anyone who lived, is alive and will be alive. We’re like lumps of clay who at death get shmooshed back into the big lump and pieces get ripped off to make new humans.

    But I am not sure about limiting it to humans. I think it is life Hirself. The celtic reincarnation thing, for example, sounds like whether dead or alive, a person can “be” anything that is, was, will be. Not a linear human goal setting event like in HInduism and Neopaganism.

    Considering we cannot know what happens after life ends til it happens,. it amazes me that anyone would debate it. The fascination with death and the afterlife is such a good way to keep people from being fascinated with the mysteries of living, with this world, which as far as i know, is all there is, no matter how many visions I have and astral travel and etc, it all is centered in the body, the land, the embodiment.

    If in much modern animism, matter and spirit are the same, soul and body are the same, then when the body or matter changes, the spirit or soul does to. How i am not sure. Being rewired by CO poisoning my soul was changed as much as my body. I don’t think I can feel my soul without feeling my body.

    I keep wishing we had Whole-istic healing that took into account the land, the history of the land, your parents’ exposures to chemicals, ecopsychology, the Gods, the dead, the whole shebang. it’s not body mind medicine i need. It is world medicine.

    Anyway your blog always sparks intelligent thought. And when social services left me to die in a car in a field for 6 weeks with a bear and my feces all around me no phone no water no food no doctor (I also have cerebral palsy and could not walk) while my Mom tried to get me to kill myself and it is below freezing at night, I knew then how very impersonal Nature is about me. How my Gods are not that Heathercentric. When the bear would shake the car at night I would pray to the Gaullish bear Goddess in terror. How long since someone’s done that?

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