I am going to be on vacation by the time this column goes live so, for the next couple of weeks, I'll be taking a break from my Elemental series (we'll return to that when I get back). Instead, I'm going to share with you a couple of pieces that I have had tucked away for just such an occasion. Actually, talking about the spirits of place, the genus loci, this week and next isn't too far off the mark from discussing Elemental Powers. They are, after all, spirits of the land.
The land remembers. I know that within modern Paganism and, to a lesser degree, Heathenry, city life is often viewed as somehow less sacred, less connected to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature than rural life. In my travels within our various communities, this subtle and sometimes not so subtle attitude has cropped up again and again. And in some cases, that may be true; our ancestors, living as they did so much more in tune with the land just by virtue of their inter-dependence on it, understood the cyclical natural cycles far better than we do. Nevertheless, I have found over the years that there is powerful magic inherent in cities too, just as much as may be found in the most deserted of country dwellings.
It took traveling to Europe to teach me that, first to Belgium and then later to Switzerland, France, and Germany. Not only does each country have its own unique energy signature, but so does each individual city. Brussels does not feel (energy-wise) at all like Zürich, nor does Zürich feel at all like Berlin. The city spirits themselves are different. It wasn't long before I began examining American cities and while I personally find it far easier to connect to the land in Europe, American cities have their own unique charm and personality too, and powerful relationships can be developed and nurtured if one takes the time to do so. We may just have to search and work a little harder.
I learned this from a city spirit. It was Paris who taught me to consciously honor and ally with city spirits, though I first became aware of cities as sacred landscapes when I was doing a semester of school in Berlin. I shall attempt to avoid singing the praises of this city. Suffice it to say, I fell in love with Germany's capital. The first time I prayed to Thor and blessed my apartment there and felt such an immense connection with the land and with my ancestors (who, on my maternal side, are German and Swiss), I knew I had something to learn here. It was as though the land itself rose up to meet me.
When I visited the small town in Switzerland, Bubendorf, from which some of my ancestors originally came, I had the distinct impression that the land itself recognized and remembered my bloodline. Then, when my adopted mom took me to Paris the first time, that city spirit quite directly took me in hand. For most of us getting our start in this work, we ignore the most accessible land spirits of all: the ones of the city or town in which we live. Yet, they are worthy of honor too and do a tremendous amount to sustain us, something I'll go into in more detail next week.
I've found that land spirits and certain ancestors (for those of us who have European ancestors) are much more immediately accessible in Europe, and while I'm not sure exactly why that is (I have my suspicions) it made ritual and devotional work much easier there. I suspect this may be due to the continuity of culture, language, and blood lines sustained by and sustaining each individual place. Perhaps I was just more open to it because I was somewhere different. Regardless, it was an amazing experience, and having had that experience once on foreign soil, I believe it is possible to bring that awareness of the power of the land, of the way in which the land itself can awaken one to the Gods and ancestors and to the myriad ways in which the land energy can change and grow, back to my work in the United States.
Each city is an ecosystem, an energetic community of sorts. Because there is so much recorded folklore and history for the land, the people, and the cities themselves, I found Europe to be a treasure trove of magical places. My favorite place in Berlin, for instance, was a secluded pond in Tempelhof, a sub-district of Berlin. It has extensive folklore connecting it to the Goddess Hela and is in fact called Hella's Pond. Ironically (and fittingly for this Goddess of Death), it is bordered by a cemetery and a craftsman's shop selling headstones. Hela's presence is quite palpable.
Going there, which I did several times to make offerings, made me wonder why I had never bothered to find such special places in New York City. I realize that New York doesn't have the Germanic folklore going back hundreds and hundreds of years, but it does have its places of power. There is folklore here too. There may also be debt and obligation over how this land was acquired and unlawful damage done during colonization. All of this is something that can come up when first building one's relationship with one's place of residence. Those engaged in actively honoring the elemental spirits of a place don't have the luxury of putting their heads in the sand. We must acknowledge the history of a place and pay what debts we can. I know that connecting with Hela at the pond in Berlin made me look at New York in a completely new way: regardless of the city in which you live, there are sacred places, places of power, places redolent with the presence of the Gods. All one has to do is mindfully look for them.