The Ancient Worship of Land Spirits or Genius Loci
What Are Land Spirits?
Before the spread of Christianity over the whole of Europe, the ancient peoples believed in the Genius Loci, also known as land spirits. Rivers, wells, and springs were often guarded by powerful water spirits. Mountains and caves were also believed to be the residence of land spirits. Whether the ancient people believed these were the actual spirits of the mountains or rivers or merely spirits that lived and guarded these sacred places is left for debate amongst folklorists and scholars. One thing is for sure - there are too many legends, folktales, and sagas that support the fact that the ancient people of Europe not only believed in these land spirits, but they also worshiped them.
The genius loci might have been gods to the ancient European people. In fact, many of the gods and goddesses of Celtic lore were associated with certain sacred places. Were these gods separate from these sacred places or were they actually the land spirits deified? We will examine the ancient cults of land spirits and delve into a world where everything in nature was once alive, and nature itself was honored and worshiped.
Ancient Land Spirit Cults of Europe
Perhaps one of the most well-known of the old pagan cults were the Druids of ancient Britain. Druids were the priesthood of the Celtic tribes prior to the Christianization of Europe. They were known to have gathered and worshiped the old gods in groves of trees. Often people assume this was simply because they used nature as their temple, and while this is true this would be denying a large part of the full truth. Druids also worshiped the trees themselves. They believed the trees had spirits, and this is why there are known to have been at least seven sacred Celtic trees. These included the Oak, Ash, Elder, Yew, Alder, Hazel, and Apple. Oak, in particular, was a well-loved tree by the Druids and Celts. It is surmised by some scholars that the word Druid actually stems from the Greek work for tree-spirit dryad. For ancient pagan holy-days, trees would be decorated with ribbons (which is believed to have been wishes made by the people) and also offerings left at the foot of the trees. All of these traditions show us that trees were thought to be alive and sacred in and of themselves...gods, themselves.
The Celts named places after gods, or so it has been said time and time again. But the folklorist Claude Lecouteux believes it was the other way around. The Celts named the gods after the sacred places. This is because each sacred river, spring, mountain, or tree grove was thought to be occupied by spirits that protected these places. The spirits of the trees, rivers, and mountains themselves. And therefore these land spirits were deified and called gods. For instance, the Irish Goddess named Danu is associated with the River Danube. They say the river is named after her, as a Celtic Goddess. This is true, but we might be safe to also assume that the river's spirit might have been called Danu from which sprang an ancient Celtic cult based on this land spirit. The naming of places after land spirits/gods can be seen in places throughout Europe. This is just one example.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were not short of land spirit cults. One example of the worship of land spirits in ancient Greece and Rome can be seen in depictions all over their household walls (see the picture to the right). These household spirits were thought to originally be land spirits that were adopted into a home after a home is built on their space. These spirits were called Lares by the Romans and were said to be guardians of sacred places. The Lares familiares were said to be guardians of the hearth and home and were often depicted in the form of a serpent or lizard. The ancient Romans also held festivals to celebrate and honor the various Lares (land spirits), including the Compitalia festival that honored the Lares compitalicii (guardian spirits of communities). There were lares for rivers, pigs, for the city of Rome, for crossroads, seafarers, roads, and fields (among others). All of these were thought to be guardians of these places and people who live there. Venus,the well-known Goddess of Love, was originally a nymph (a water spirit) born of the waves.
The Norse people of Northern Europe were also known to have worshiped spirits of place (land spirits). These land spirits were spoken and written of in their sagas, including the Poetic Edda, in the form of dwarves, giants, elves, and other "supernatural" creatures. It is thought that the dwarves and giants were often guardians of the mountains, crags, and hills, while elves guarded the sacred places in the forests. Were they separate beings or were they the actual spirits of the mountains and trees? The distinction may never be made for sure. The Norse people felt very strongly for their land spirits, so much so that a law was written in the Dark Ages that stated any boat coming to port would have to remove any dragon-head carvings (etc) before coming to shore for fear that this would anger or frighten their guardian land spirits.
Appeasing the Genius Loci
In the times of the land spirit cults, before a house could be built, the spirits of the land had to be either appeased, driven out, or adapted into the spirit of the house itself. In Northern Europe, often the area was purified by fire. A person would have to take a torch and walk the perimeter, thereby letting the fire cleanse the air and prepare the way for a house to be built. Perhaps the fire worked to remove any negative entities present upon the land.
In Sweden, the land spirits had to be asked and appeased first before anyone would build a house. They feared if they didn't ask permission, the guardian spirit of the place would wreak havoc on their household in one way or another. In Russia, people would often spend a few nights on the land where they wanted to build, just to ensure no malevolent spirits were guarding the place. In Finland, the foundation and walls of the house would be erected, but before anything else was done the home-owner would have to spend the night there, again to ensure no malevolent forces would be angered at their construction.
The ancient people of Europe not only had to worry about appeasing the land spirits before erecting a building, they also had to worry about appeasing the land spirits when traveling and before any major holy-day. The act of tossing a coin into a well or fountain is reminiscent of the ancient act of tossing gold or other precious objects into bodies of water in order to appease the guardian spirits of the water. Archaeologists are still finding objects at the bottoms of lakes and bogs that could potentially have once been offerings to land spirits centuries before.
There are many stories of people who venture too far off the beaten path and end up angering a land spirit. Sometimes its merely the person's presence that angers the land spirit, but most of the time it has to do with the individual hunting or fishing without permission from the land spirit first. At this point, the land spirit rises up from the depths of the water or from a cave or mountain and typically takes the form of a monster of some kind. This brings us to the next section on dragons, dwarves, and giants.
Dwarves, Dragons, and Giants, Oh My!
Our mythology from all over the world is rife with monsters, great hideous beasts, and fairy-tale creatures of all kinds. It is a theory and belief of the folklorist Claude Lecouteux that these beasts might have once been land spirits, guardians of sacred places in nature, before the spread of Christianity.
Beginning in the Medieval Era, we see an insurgence of stories involving dragons. Yes, there were stories of dragons before this era, but they really took hold during the Dark Ages and the overall spread of the Christian Age. This could be due to the fact that land spirits were demonized by the Church, and so we read stories of saints and christian knights defeating the great dragons (demons) all over Europe. Think of it this way - dragons were monsters who breathed fire (hellfire) and guarded sacred sites or places with treasure (gold mines and caves with precious gems). We can see the remnants of land spirits in these Christian tales. In China, the great rivers are named after dragons, as the Chinese often associated dragons with the winding, flooding rivers, as guardians of these waters. Not European, I realize, but it backs up the idea of dragons being land spirits.
In the Poetic Edda of Norse origin, dwarves and giants are mentioned time and time again. Also in Norse mythology, trolls are usually the guardians of bridges and force the traveler to solve a riddle before they can pass. Think of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. They are thought to also be guardians of certain mountains and caves and after the spread of Christianity were thought of as dangerous beings. In the Prose Edda, a skald comes in contact with a female troll and she mentions she is a "beloved follower of the seeress and guardian of the nafjord". This indicates that she has allegiance to a powerful sorceress/witch and also is a guardian of a sacred place. Two obvious references to old heathen customs and beliefs in land spirits.
If we travel across the water to Britain and Ireland, we see numerous types of mythological creatures that seem to be definitive demonized land spirits. This includes the various water spirits like the kelpie, selkie, puca, and mer-people. It is also possible the "wee folk" or the "sidhe" were also once land spirits that became the fairies of modern lore after the Church's rise. In fact, the sidhe were also called the Tuatha de Dannan, which means the people of the Goddess Danu. So again, we see the correlation between land spirits and pagan gods. There were ballybogs, small creatures who lived in the peat bogs. The banshee (bean-sidhe) was a female ghost-like fairy that was heard wailing before the death of members of the oldest Irish families (possibly guardians of those families from pagan times). They were often seen washing warriors' clothing in the water, and so they were also called the "Washer at the Ford". Let's not forget the Leprechaun, who in modern times is thought to be found at the "end of the rainbow" (again protector of sacred place), but the first mention of him tells a story in which he tries to pull a man into the depths of the water and when caught grants him three wishes instead.
It is surmised that mer-people from all over the world might be water spirits or guardians of the water instead of actual physical beings like some want to believe. There are stories in modern times about a group of workers in Africa who have to stop construction near a body of water because the mer-people scared them so badly with screams and pranks. Or how about the stories of old of the sirens and mermaids who sing to sailors who then end up wrecking their ships on the rocks before coming too close to an island? All of these tales point to the idea that these spirits are guardians of places in nature. Be it an island, body of water, river, spring, etc.
Before Christianity, these land spirits were not only revered, many of them were deified.— Nicole Canfield
The Suppression of the Genius Loci
In most of the tales from the Medieval to modern times, the land spirits seem to be not friendly with humans...at best territorial of the sacred places they protect. Before Christianity, these land spirits were not only revered, many of them were deified. So when the Church rose in Europe as the main religion and power, the land spirits were demonized and most of the people became afraid of them. Stories of the land spirits stealing people, killing people, and eating people became abundant. This is still present in Fairy Tales today (think of Little Red Riding Hood).
Is it possible that the land spirits, the genius loci, were once appeased and worked with humans in regard to sacred places, but now have been angered or driven back into the remaining wild places of the earth? There are theories that many of the hauntings that occur today may result from an angered land spirits rather than the "ghost" of a dead human being. If you read WB Yeats' work on Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, there are numerous stories of people building on land guarded by fairies only to find themselves tormented by invisible hands. There are also tales of people cutting down sacred fairy trees only to find themselves tormented or ill thereafter.
This leaves us to wonder if the land spirits did exist, are they now hiding in the wildest places on the planet, far away from human society? Is this why there are less sightings in modern times as opposed to the thousands of sightings during our ancestors' times? Or are they hiding among us in plain sight?
The genius loci might have been suppressed by Christianity and by modern technology and urban expansion, but they might still be surviving in other ways. What do you think? Have you seen a fairy in your garden lately?
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Nicole Canfield