European indigenous folk religions were animistic. As discussed in the previous article on the animistic belief in the spirit double, animism is the belief that we live in an animate, ‘ensouled’ world populated by human and other-than-human persons. Personhood is a quality which not only humans, animals and plants possess, but also inanimate objects, places, and natural forces. In the animistic worldview, the material living world is inseparable from the Otherworld, the realm of gods, spirits and the dead. The sacred is everywhere, immanent in everyone and everything.
Defining the Genius Loci
Genius loci is a Latin term which literally translates to “spirit of a place”. They are often depicted as protective or guardian spirits of a particular location. More broadly, a genius loci, or land spirit, refers to some kind of being or force wielding influence over a place and those who dwell there. In his book Demons and Spirits of the Land, Claude Lecouteux states they tend to inhabit wild and uncultivated spaces specifically. This distinguishes them from household or domestic spirits, which may, nevertheless, be a land spirit that takes up residence inside a home or on cultivated land. It also differentiates land spirits from gods, which although may also be local or regional deities immanent within the land, exist on a ‘larger scale’ with may possess a greater scope of power and influence. This is useful for academic study and article writing, but we must bear in mind that in reality, the lines between land spirits, domestic spirits, and gods is considerably blurred.
Land spirits were important to our ancestors, and should be important to us still, because they are our neighbours. Our fates, our lives, are inextricably linked. The vital force which, in the animistic worldview, permeates the universe was considered an important reality of traditional religions. Forging and maintaining relationships with the land and its animating forces kept our ancestors in connection with the sacred. Our ancestors sought to establish a mutual contract between the human community and the world of spirits. A kindly disposed spirit of place could make the land fertile, protect people from drowning, or guard against intruders. Conversely, an offended land spirit could wreak havoc on the landscape and its inhabitants. If anything, the belief in spirits of the land encouraged our ancestors to respect their environment and seek to live in harmony with it.
We owe much of our knowledge of land spirit veneration to the writings of Christian churchmen and scholars in the Middle Ages, which by recording certain pagan beliefs and practices in penitentials and sermons in an effort to eradicate them from popular culture, managed to preserve them instead. The cultic remnants of land spirit worship from pre-Christian times persisted well into the Middle Ages. Thus a fair bit of information on beliefs and practices around land spirits and sacred places is documented in the literature of medieval penitentials, sermons, law codes, hagiographies (lives of the saints), sagas and medieval romances. Unfortunately, while they can be trusted to reflect a certain reality of the times, these works have also obscured some of our knowledge because of the use of Latin or Roman terms instead of the local names of spirits, places, etc. Beyond this, we gain knowledge and insight through the study of place-names, etymology, inscriptions, and folklore.
Places described in the above-mentioned sources as sacred to ‘pagans’ and the objects of idolatrous or sinful worship are always the same: these include wellsprings, stones, trees, crossroads and burial mounds. Claude Lecouteux reminds us that churchmen often misunderstood the nature of this pagan worship - they thought the foolish pagans and heretics worshiped the objects themselves, but it seems more likely they honoured the power the dwells within certain objects and places - it was the numen or spirit which was addressed. Pagans sought out these numinous places and petitioned the spirits there for fertility of crops, healing, fair weather, protection, or to foretell the future.
Reverence for water is a near universal feature of cultures all over the world. Many studies have been made of holy wells and springs in the British Isles and Ireland, and there is evidence for sacred waters being in close proximity to Paleolithic settlements as well as Neolithic and Iron Age monuments, which makes for a very long history of reverence for these sacred sites.
Since antiquity, these holy wells and other bodies of water have been associated with healing and divination. Votive offerings were often deposited into sacred waters in exchange for healing various ailments (especially eye problems, problems affecting the limbs like arthritis or breaks, and fertility issues). There is also a long and well-documented history of wellsprings being used for divination, particularly in the form of ‘dream incubation’. Dream incubation involved an individual falling asleep at a sacred site, where the spirit or deity of the place would visit them to deliver healing or prophetic messages. In the Roman occupation period, temples were built over or at sacred springs especially for this purpose. The healing and divinatory power of the place is attributed to its numinous spirit, whether it be land spirit, nymph, fairy, goddess, or saint.
The mythology and folklore of Europe depicts water spirits in a variety of ways, ranging from the beautiful fairy-like woman associated with a sacred fountain to the murderous water horse or dragon who lured victims into its waters to drown.
Grottos, Stones, Mountains
Many fairies or supernatural ladies connected to springs and other water sources are also associated with grottos or caves (grottos being small caves formed near water sources). The divine or numinous spirit of the grotto survives today under the guise of the Virgin Mary, who is associated with many such places all over the world, some of which still attract millions of pilgrims seeking miraculous healing from its waters, such as the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.
Sacred stones, and stone megaliths, abound in Europe. In Iceland, many people continue to believe in the presence of spirits who live in or near stones and rocks to the present day. There are many rocks in Iceland considered to the homes of land spirits, called landvaettir, or huldufolk (meaning the hidden people, ‘elves’) and these are protected - people treat them with a certain respect and they avoid disturbing them, especially during construction.
In Old Norse sources trolls, a term used interchangeably with giant, are described as beings who dwell in isolated rocks, mountains or caves. Sometimes they also live in hills or burial mounds. Although generally unfriendly toward humans, there are some exceptions. The Landnamabok tells the story of Goat-Bjorn, who was visited in his dreams by a bergbui or rock-dweller who subsequently befriended him and increased the fertility of his livestock as well as assisted his brothers in hunting and fishing. Those with second sight said Goat-Bjorn was followed by land-spirits who helped him.
Claude Lecouteux states that “next to water, the forest is the great refuge of the land spirits”. We have many accounts of sacred trees, as well as woods and groves in mythology and folklore, and there is no shortage of forest spirits. Tacitus said of the Germanic tribes that “they consecrate woods and groves, and the mystery that they see only in their awe they call by the names of the gods…”. Pliny the Elder said “once upon a time the trees were the temples of the deities”.
There are many ‘fairy trees’ or sacred trees among the Celts, as well, and they were also described as gathering in sacred groves by early writers. Joan of Arc, tried for witchcraft in France in 1431, was accused of dancing around a ‘fairy tree’ in her village called the “Ladies’ Tree”. This was supposedly the dwelling of fairy ladies, and young men and women from the village would gather under the tree to dance, sing and feast as well as drink from the fountain or spring that was under it (which, of course, had healing powers).
The “wild man” of medieval art and literature, covered in hair and similar to the Roman god Sylvanus or the Greek satyrs, has deep roots in European mythology. This tutelary spirit of the forest is known by many names in various mythologies, such as the Slavic leshy, the Basque basajaune, or the English woodwose. Similar creatures, except covered in moss rather than hair, are known throughout Europe as well. Female forest spirits, or “forest-wives”, abound also. One of the most interesting of these is the often malicious huldra/skogsfru (Norwegian), or skogsra (Swedish) from Scandinavian folklore. She is described as a seductive, beautiful forest spirit with a hollow back (like a rotting tree trunk) and sometimes an animal tail.
Matres/Matronae and Land Spirits
In the same regions where we find monuments of the Matres/Matronae (Mothers), female collective divinities worshiped in Western Europe from at least the first to the fifth century CE, traces remain from the worship of local land spirits. Many inscriptions associate the goddesses with land spirits and other beings, such as the Genii cucullati or ‘hooded spirits’, and in some cases the Mothers appear to refer to female land spirits. The various names of the Matres/Matronae link them to borderlands, swamps/marshes, rivers, springs, woods, mountains, etc. It recalls to mind the concept of landdisir in Iceland, female protective guardian spirits associated with stones, and the Agdilis Deda, a Georgian pre-Christian female divinity literally meaning “place-mother”. The ancient Georgians believed every location had a “place-mother”, personified as a beautiful lady who ensured the safety and fertility of people and livestock as well as the land itself.
We have only touched the tip of the iceberg of the rich lore associated with land spirits and sacred places. Beliefs and practices were remarkably consistent throughout Europe if the written sources are to be believed. The topic will be explored further, in more detail, in upcoming articles.
References and Further Reading:
Beck, Noemie. Goddesses in Celtic Religion. Cult and Mythology: A Comparative Study of Ancient Ireland, Britain and Gaul. Doctoral Thesis: University College of Dublin, published December 4, 2009.
Dashu, M. (1997). Banishing the spirits. Advance excerpt from Secret History of the Witches. Retrieved on September 8, 2016 from https://www.academia.edu/10586578/Banishing_the_Spirits.
Davidson, H.R. (1988). Myths and symbols in pagan Europe: early Scandinavian and Celtic religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Garman, A.G. (2007). Survivals of the cult of the Matronae into the early Middle Ages and beyond. Anistoriton Journal, 11, Art Section, 1-6.
Hayden, B. (2003). Shamans, sorcerers and saints: a prehistory of religion. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.
Lecouteux, C. (2013). The tradition of household spirits: ancestral lore and practices. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.
Lecouteux, C. (2015). Demons and spirits of the land: ancestral lore and practices. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.