In a previous post, we talked about gods, goddesses, and the many ways they can be worshiped in a modern pagan practice. However, the gods are not the only group of spiritual beings honored by modern pagans. While building relationships with deities makes up the bulk of practice for many people, a lot of pagans work with other groups of spirits as well, or may even work more closely with these “smaller” spirits than with the gods. One of these groups is the ancestors, the spirits of deceased humans who are part of our lineage — we’ll talk about them in a future post.
The other group of minor spirits commonly honored by modern pagans, and the topic of today’s post, are what I like to call the Spirits of Place. This is a broad category that includes land spirits, spirits of natural objects like trees and rivers, and spirits of man-made locations like a house or office building. Depending on your personal beliefs, it may also include animal guides, spirits of inanimate objects, and/or spirits honored in specific cultures like the fairies or the elves.
The idea that the world around us is spiritually alive and aware is present in some form in almost every culture and religion, and the worship of these Spirits of Place is well-documented in most historic pagan religions. For example, much of Irish folk spirituality revolves around appeasing the fairies, which we can understand as a special type of land spirit — this continued long after the conversion period, even after the worship of the Irish gods had faded into obscurity. Many Norse pagans honor the landvaettir (land spirits) and husvaettir (house spirits), which have survived in more recent Nordic folklore in the form of spirits like the Danish nisse or Swedish tomte, who are still honored at Christmas in some parts of Scandinavia. In Roman paganism, the lares, who are both land spirits and the guardians of man-made homes and are closely connected to the ancestors, are given a place of honor. Eclectic pagans may pull from one or more of these practices, or may honor their local spirits in their own unique way.
Honoring the Spirits of Place is not exclusive to pagan faiths. Practitioners of New Orleans Voodoo honor the ashe, the sacred energy, of the Mississipi River, one of their most prominent local landmarks. In Shinto, places and objects are said to have their own kami, which can be understood as gods or as spirits. Even in Christianity’s strictly monotheist system, God is often understood to be physically present in the world around us, a philosophy known as panentheism. I offer these non-pagan examples not because I think pagans should copy these other religions, but because I want to make a point about how pervasive the belief in Spirits of Place really is.
Connecting with the Spirits of Place can help us to engage more mindfully and in more meaningful ways with the world around us. When we accept that every plant, animal, rock, and building has its own spirit or soul, we interact with those objects in a more intentional way. We learn to think about our home not just as a place where we live, but as a spiritual entity that we have an active relationship with. We learn to think of our gardens not as a plot of dirt filled with plants, but as a community of land spirits and plant spirits all working together to provide us with nourishment. We learn to think of our cities not as concrete jungles, but as huge collections of spirits as diverse and fascinating as their human inhabitants. When we open our eyes to the spiritual world that exists alongside our own, we begin to see how the spiritual permeates every aspect of human life.
Connecting with Spirits of Place also offers a way for us to personalize and localize our practice. The Spirits of Place in Los Angeles will be very different from those of Brooklyn, Berlin, or Mexico City. Your local Spirits of Place are closely related to your local biome, as well as to the cultural groups that have influenced your community.
Because of this, the best way to connect with your own Spirits of Place is to learn about where you live. Research your local flora, fauna, and weather patterns — how is your ecosystem unique? Learn about local history and about the cultures who have influenced your area. All of these influences will give you some ideas for how to honor the spirits in your practice.
For example, I live in a temperate climate with four true seasons, clay-based soil, and lots of rain and humidity. Some of the local plant spirits that I feel closest to are the black locust tree, the magnolia tree, poke weed, and the birch tree. Some of the local animal spirits I feel closest to are the crow, the red-tailed hawk, the coyote, and the white-tailed deer. My local land spirits are as steadfast and strong as the nearby Appalachian mountains.
I live in the South, so our local spirits are also shaped by a history of racial oppression and persecution. They have witnessed the displacement of the Cherokee people, whose stolen land I live on today. They have witnessed the transatlantic slave trade and the continued oppression of Black people with Jim Crow and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. They have witnessed devastating poverty in rural communities, including those of my ancestors. These scars run deep, creating a reverberations that I and other Southern folks still feel today. However, with the trauma of the South comes a rich diversity of influences, creating a unique culture unlike any other in the world. My Irish and Scottish ancestors brought their culture with them when they came to these mountains, where it mingled with the cultural influences of our Black and Latino neighbors, the Cherokee influences of our land, a deeply held Protestant Christian faith, and a special brand of magic that is unique to the South. All of this influences my local Spirits of Place, and I try to keep all of it in mind when interacting with them.
I honor my Spirits of Place by learning to identify local plants, respectfully and ethically foraging from those plants, and using them in my spiritual practice. I honor them by feeding the crows, and by greeting the deer when I encounter them on walks. I honor them by remembering the original inhabitants of this land, by supporting Native rights activists, and by donating to nonprofits that support the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, who originally lived in my area. I honor them by actively working to address the issue of racism in the South, up to and including attending Black Lives Matter protests and campaigning for an end to racialized police violence. I honor them by listening to my Cherokee, Black, and Latino neighbors and following their lead on Cherokee, Black, and Latino issues. I also honor them by practicing sustainable gardening techniques, working to lower my environmental impact, and by giving back to the land whenever I can.
If you don’t live in the same geographic area as me, the way you honor your Spirits of Place may look totally different. Don’t be afraid to make this practice your own — once you connect with your local spirits, they will be your guides.
Types of Spirits of Place
There are many, many types of spirits that fall into this category, and the list in this post is not meant to be exhaustive. My goal here is to give you an idea of some of the forms these spirits can take, so that you can begin to recognize the Spirits of Place that surround you in your own life.
Land spirits: These are spirits of specific geographical locations or features of the land. They may be as big as the Mississippi River or as small as the rosebush in your backyard. As you might imagine, these spirits don’t move around much, as they usually don’t venture far from the location they are tied to. In my experience, land spirits have a very stable, steady, and earthy presence.
Our relationship with the land spirits is a direct reflection of our relationship with the land itself. If we live our lives in a way that hurts the land by polluting it or stripping it of resources, it will be much harder to build a healthy relationship with the spirits of that land. The best way to live in right relationship with the land spirits is to treat the land you are living on with honor and respect.
In my personal practice, I call on the land spirits for help in my garden. I make offerings of food that is safe for local wildlife if they decide to help themselves, such as unsalted peanuts, birdseed, bread, or fresh fruit. When I make offerings, I make sure to thank the land spirits for sharing their home with me and for providing me with abundance. You might honor your local land spirits in a similar way, or you may find that another approach works better for you.
House spirits: It is not only natural places that have spirits — man-made buildings also have a spirit of their own. If you’ve ever stayed in a very old house, you probably felt its unique character while you were there. Every building has its own soul of sorts, which embodies the place, the way it is used, and the different people who have lived there. In my experience, these spirits tend to take on the energy of the people who live in or frequently use their building — the spirits of a happy home may have a kind, friendly presence, while the spirits of a dysfunctional business where employees are mistreated may have a mean streak.
Many of us overlook the spiritual importance of our homes. Our home is where we can be most vulnerable, and in most cases it’s probably where most of our daily spiritual practices take place. Our home is the base of operations we come back to at the end of each day. A home that feels safe, comfortable, and welcoming is important to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health. To maintain a healthy home, we need to maintain good relationships with the other people living there — but we can take this even further by striving to have a good relationship with our home itself.
Spirits of objects: Objects also have their on spirits. This applies not only to naturally occurring objects, but to man-made things as well.
Most people with even a passing interest in witchcraft or New Age spirituality are aware that crystals have unique energies and personalities and can act as spiritual allies. What many people don’t realize is that this is not something that is unique to crystals — all objects have a unique spiritual presence, and all of them can be powerful spiritual allies if you take the time to connect with them. A rock from your backyard can be just a powerful as an expensive crystal. So can a favorite sweater, your grandmother’s antique dishes, and even your cell phone.
The best way to connect with the spirits of objects is to talk to them. Tell them that you appreciate the role they serve in your life, and verbally thank them for their help. I find that these spirits don’t typically require offerings in the traditional sense — instead, you can practice reciprocity by keeping their homes in good condition. For example, if you want to connect with the spirit of a favorite stuffed animal, make sure the toy itself stays clean and in good repair.
Plant and animal spirits: Plant and animal spirits are different from spirits of objects because they are physically alive. Plants and animals live and breathe just as we do, which can make them a little easier to befriend and understand than the spirits of inanimate objects. If you’re not quite ready to start talking to your hairbrush, plant and animal spirits can be a good place to start.
Animal spirits are the easiest by far to connect with. Any pet owner will tell you that animals have souls that often seem just as complex as those of humans. Dogs and cats, for example, clearly feel love, joy, sadness, and pain just as humans do. Pets are an excellent way to begin connecting with animal spirits, because you already have a relationship with them in the physical world.
Next time you have a few minutes alone with your pet, try meditating on their spiritual presence. Can you feel their energy? Can you sense the wisdom they carry in their soul?
If you had a pet that died, you might try reaching out to them to see if they want to be involved in your spiritual practice. Dogs especially are very loyal to their owners, and can be called on for protection even after death. If you have ashes or bones from your pet, or if you have items like a collar or a favorite toy, you can include them on an altar or some other special place and make regular offerings of treats or pet food in exchange for their protection.
Some pagans, especially Wiccans and other neopagans, choose to work with familiars, which are a special kind of animal ally. There is a common misconception that a familiar is any animal you feel especially close to, but that isn’t quite how it works. A familiar is an animal that serves as a spiritual ally — traditionally, by helping witches with their magic. The familiar can be a living animal, but it is more often a purely spiritual being.
These animal spirit allies exist in other forms in other pagan religions. In Norse paganism, the fylgja is a spiritual guide that often appears in the form of an animal. The animal form the fylgja takes is closely related to the personality of the person it is attached to, and they are often tied to that person’s fate. In Irish folklore, the fetch is a spiritual double of a human that often appears as an animal. In Kemetic polytheism, one of the parts of the soul is the ba, which often appears as a bird with a human head and which represents a person’s personality. In all of these cases, the animal guide can be understood as an extension of the practitioner, rather than as a separate being like the familiar.
Plant spirits are a little bit different. In my experience, these spirits are quieter and more reserved than most animal spirits, and they tend to work in more subtle ways. Plant spirits are still, steadfast allies that tend to work behind the scenes, so you may not have as many face-to-face interactions with them as you do with animals or land spirits.
The best way to begin connecting with plant spirits is to start keeping a houseplant. As you care for your plant, talk to it! Tell it how much you appreciate it, and thank it for its contribution to keeping your space beautiful and safe. Appropriate offerings for plant spirits are exactly what you would expect: water, fertilizer, and plant food.
Cryptids and folkloric creatures: In the modern era, folklore has given way to urban legends and created a new kind of mythology. Like traditional folklore, urban legends are spread by word of mouth and change organically as they are told and retold. Many urban legends are tied to specific locations, and many of them feature strange and mysterious creatures who can be understood as modern land spirits.
For example, the Loch Ness Monster can be seen as the spirit of Loch Ness. The Jersey Devil is tied to the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. Mothman is tied to Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Although these are some of the most famous modern cryptids, most towns have their own urban legends — if you ask around, you’ll likely find stories of some kind of spectral guardian tied to your area. My college campus has a handful of its own urban legends, including one of a female spirit who appears to warn students of coming disasters. Find out who your local cryptids are, and look for ways to incorporate them into your practice.
These different types of spirits are sometimes filtered through different cultural lenses, which changes the way they interact with humans. For example, an Irish fairy is very different from a Japanese kami, even though both technically fall into the larger category of land spirits. If you feel drawn to a specific tradition’s approach to working with the Spirits of Place, I advise you to do your own research into that tradition — including making sure that it isn’t part of a closed cultural practice which you are not party to. Look for sources written by members of the living culture of that tradition, rather than books written by outsiders.
Connecting with the Spirits of Place
Here are some activities you can do to strengthen your connection with the Spirits of Place:
- Make offerings. As I mentioned above, you can honor the spirits with offerings. Just make sure that, if you leave offerings outside, you only offer things that are biodegradable and are safe for local wildlife. If you don’t want to leave physical offerings, you can offer acts of service like picking up litter, watering plants, or volunteering at an animal shelter.
- Create an altar. As we’ve already discussed, altars are an excellent way to create space in your life for the spirits. My herb garden doubles as an altar to the land spirits, with a small Green Man statue to represent the spirits and a place where I can leave offerings. I also have a table indoors where I keep most of my houseplants, which is also a sacred space of sorts. The type of altar you create and its location will depend on the spirits you want to connect with — the possibilities are limitless.
- Start a compost pile. Compost piles make excellent offerings to land spirits and plant spirits. While compost isn’t quite as simple as “just throw all your leftover food in a pile,” it’s not difficult if you know what you are doing. When composting, it’s important to maintain a balance between carbon-rich “brown” material (leaves, undyed paper, cardboard, etc.) and nitrogen-rich “greens” (fruit and veggie scraps, coffee grounds, egg shells, etc.) — you want about four times as much brown as green in your compost. There are some things you shouldn’t add to your compost, like meat, dairy products, and greasy foods. Start your compost with a layer of brown material — preferably twigs or straw to allow good airflow. Alternate layers of green and brown materials as you add to the pile. Every time you add to your compost, verbally express your gratitude to the land spirits. Your compost should be moist, but not soggy — you’ll know it’s ready when it’s dark and crumbly and smells like soil. Use it on your garden and in your houseplant pots, or donate it to a local community garden.
- Hold a territory acknowledgement. A territory acknowledgement is a way to insert awareness of indigenous people whose lands were stolen from them. You can acknowledge indigenous territory at the beginning of public religious events, or at the beginning of your private rituals. This practice will help you develop a deeper understanding of the history of your land, which can help deepen your connection to it as well as honoring its original inhabitants. A territory acknowledgement can be as simple as: “I acknowledge and honor this land, which is called [indigenous name of your area] and is home to the people of [indigenous nation].” Make sure you take the time to learn the correct pronunciation for these indigenous words. You can find out who originally lived in your area and what they called it by visiting native-land.ca.
- Donate to conservation efforts. Instead of making physical offerings, make a donation to an environmentalist cause and dedicate it to your Spirits of Place. Look for groups that work in your local area, such as nonprofits dedicated to fighting deforestation and climate change, groups that protect rare and endangered native plants, or wildlife rehabilitation centers. Even volunteering at an animal shelter can be an appropriate offering to animal spirits.
- Start a garden with native plants. Do some research into your local ecosystem — what plants are native to your area? Which of them are edible? Which of them have spiritual uses? Buy or forage seeds from these plants and start a 100% native garden. Growing and eating food that is native to your area can help deepen your connection to the land, the local plant spirits, and the cycle of the seasons.
- Replace mainstream cleansing herbs with native plants. White sage, palo santo, frankincense, and sandalwood, some of the most popular cleansing herbs among modern pagans, are all endangered due to over-harvesting. Instead of buying endangered plants from far off lands, try to find a native plant you can use instead. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where rosemary or lavender is native, you’re in luck! If not, try researching some of the plants in your backyard — you might be surprised what you find. Most plants in the Salvia (sage) family can be burned as incense to cleanse and consecrate a space. This family includes over 1,000 species spread out over Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Many trees also have cleansing properties, especially coniferous trees like pine, cedar, and juniper. Find out what is abundant in your area and find ways to incorporate it into your rituals.
- Go for a hike. While bringing the Spirits of Place into our homes can be deeply meaningful, it’s also important to get out there and meet them on their own terms. Try to make time to get out in nature, and be open to connecting with the spirits you find on these trips. You don’t have to go far — even hanging out in a backyard or city park can allow you to connect with the land.
- Feed the birds. And the squirrels, and the deer, or whatever other critters you have. Now, I am not recommending approaching wild animals and trying to befriend them. I am also not recommending feeding animals people food. Nature often rests in a delicate balance, and directly feeding wild animals can make them dependent on humans, which could be dangerous for them. While feeding local animals can be an excellent offering, it’s important to do it in a way that is safe and non-instrusive. It’s best to leave food in a place you know is frequented by animals, then let them find it after you’ve gone. Bird feeders and squirrel feeders are a great way to do this.
- Clean your house. One of the best ways to honor house spirits? Keep their living space clean! Try to keep your house tidy and be a good roommate to its spirits. Try not to let clutter pile up, and take time to sweep, mop, and dust every once in a while. You can even ask your house spirits to help you keep the house clean — just make sure you’re also doing your fair share of housework, or they may get upset about the unfair arrangement.
These “little gods” of places and objects are often forgotten, but they are an important part of daily pagan practice. While the gods rule over grand concepts and forces of nature, and the ancestors are tied to our family and community, the Spirits of Place make up the ground we stand on, the air we breathe, and the places we call home. Perhaps more than any other group of spirits, they are truly the gods of the everyday.
- Water Magic by Lilith Dorsey
- Southern Cunning by Aaron Oberon
- Simply Living Well by Julia Watkins
- The Way of Fire and Ice by Ryan Smith
- A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru by Patricia M. Lafayllve
- Where the Hawthorn Grows by Morgan Daimler
- Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
- Temple of the Cosmos by Jeremy Naydler
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