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?

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