I have lived in Nebraska all my life. These rolling hills, wide rivers, and endless horizons have shaped me, made me who I am. When I first became interested in Paganism, I learned about Danu, Sequana, Sulis. River Goddesses from all over Europe are honored by Pagans in America.
This never clicked with me. I hadn’t been to those rivers, swam in their waters, or explored the land around them. I had no idea what their personalities would be, or gifts they might like or dislike. I didn’t know what kind of frogs laid eggs in their waters, what plants grew on their sandbars, or when they reached their lowest levels because of dry weather.
Finding my Goddess
I know these things about the Platte River, at least the little section that I’m familiar with. I’ve been visiting multiple times a year since before I can remember. There’s pictures of me as a tiny toddler building castles on the sandbars. Long before I discovered modern Paganism, my grandmother who loved Thoreau and Whitman talked to me about the river as if She was alive, with a personality all Her own. I’ve spent years getting to know Her.
Now I worship Her as a Goddess. She is a big spirit, flowing over 1,000 miles across the plains. I believe She is as mighty as any European river Goddess, though She has fewer worshipers. Of course, many of the people who honor Her are people like my grandmother. They may not recognize the river as a Goddess, but they know Her well. They’ve spent the time to get to know Her.
How to Get Started
This is what regional cultus is all about. Building a local religion is, more than anything, about putting in the time to form those relationships. And like any relationship, the energy you put into it is often what you’ll get put of it. Spend time to learn about your local ecosystem. When do the first flowers bloom? What birds overwinter, and which birds fly south? What does the shoreline of your local river look like? Is the bed of the nearby creek mud, pebbles, or river rock?
Dedicate an altar space to your local spirits. Feel free to build an outdoor shrine, but bring your veneration indoors as well. Remind yourself that those spirits are always around you. Take pictures of your favorite sites, plants, and animals. Collect a fallen leaf or two, a small jar of water from the river, a little bowl of sand or soil. Invite these spirits and energy into your life in the same way you would any deities you work with.
A note of caution: not all spirits of the land will be friendly. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to take any extravagant precautions. In my experience, local spirits tied to a place or a particular plant or animal will give you some warning if they’d rather not interact. Treat them with caution, but don’t be afraid unless you are given cause.
I work with the spirit of the Ogallala Aquifer, a huge body of water beneath the plains where I live. It is ancient, almost an ocean of freshwater flowing in the dark, trapped between layers of sediment. It is being drained at an unprecedented rate now, losing water at a rate scientists say will not be replaced for 6,000 years. It is an angry spirit, a frightened wight steadily losing more and more of its physical presence to humanity.
Rivers, in my experience, understand that living beings will take from them to sustain themselves. They enjoy this role, feeding the land. Much of the aquifer, however, has been down there since the last ice age. Some of it has been resting in the darkness far longer. Its role has not been to nourish plants or animals for thousands of years. Now it is being tapped to wet what should be dry grassland, to run our showers and clean our cars. It has reason to be angry.
I approached our relationship with caution, even hesitancy. I came with an open heart, wanting to learn, without assumptions. I didn’t push, but showed up consistently, and did research to learn on my own. Approached in this way, even the frustrated and fearful spirit has opened up enough to teach me a thing or two.
I find regional cultus, the building of a spirituality centered on the beings immediately surrounding me, to be incredibly powerful and rewarding. There are few things more beautiful to me than lying in a familiar field soaking up the sun. Or climbing up into a tree I’ve climbed a hundred times to ride the waves of the wind. These incredible gifts deserve to be acknowledged, and the spirits that give them to us deserve to be gifted in return.