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Poetry forum for a changing Earth.

earthweal weekly challenge: SPIRITS OF PLACE

The 200-year-old oak tree Split Oak, for which Split Oak Forest in southeast Orlando (FL USA) is named after. The tree split itself in half about 60 years ago due to the weight of its own branches, yet it’s still growing.


In the 10th century Icelandic saga Landnámabók (or “Book of Settlements”) there is a tale of a family who had to move their farm because of a flow of lava on their land and they were left with few animals until one of them had a dream:

One night Bjorn dreamed that a rock-dweller (bergbui) came to him and offered to enter into partnership with him, and it seemed to him that he agreed. Then a he-goat joined his goats, and his livestock increased so rapidly that he was soon prosperous; after that he was called Goat-Bjorn. People with second sight saw how all the land-spirits followed Goat-Bjorn to the Thing, and followed his brothers Thorstein and Thord when they went hunting and fishing.

What of these rock-dwellers? H.R. Ellis Davidson writes in Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe (Syracuse University Press, 1988) the word sometimes translates as “giant,” but not of the sort you’d find in Asgard.

The most detailed account of a rock-dweller is to be found in a strange saga, Bar/Jar Saga Snefellsass, which is included among the ‘Family Sagas’ because it is set in Iceland and not in remote lands of magic and adventure. However it is filled with supernatural characters, and the hero, Bard, is called ‘god of Snafell’.  He was a Norwegian, fathered by a giant, and fostered by another giant, Dofri of Dovrefjeld in Norway. From Dofri Bard learned history and genealogies, feats of arms and knowledge of the future, while the giant’s daughter became his wife. Later Bard avenged his father after a killing, and then left for Iceland. Things did not go well for him there, and after a time he disappeared from among men, moving across a glacier and living in a cave in the mountain beyond it.

The saga states that he was more of a troll than a man, so people called him the god (Ass) of Sruefell. People in that district made vows to him as to a god, and they called on him when they were in trouble. He helped one man in a wrestling match, and another after an attack by a troll-woman, and was always ready to defend men against evil and hostile beings. From time to time he was seen wearing a grey cloak and hood with a belt of walrus hide, carrying a two-pronged stick with a spike for crossing the ice.

Like his foster-father Dofri, he acted as fosterer and teacher to promising young men. A twelve-year-old boy called Odd accepted an invitation to visit him in the mountains, and found himself in terrible conditions of storm and cold: ‘He stumbled on, not knowing where he was going, and at last became aware that a man was walking through the darkness with a great staff, letting the point rattle on the ice … Odd recognized Bard, god of Smefell.’ (Bar/Jar Saga). Odd stayed a winter in Bard’s cave studying law, and was later known as one of the wisest of the lawmen.

He married one of Bard’s daughters, but she died three years later. Bard was said to have nine daughters, and one, Helga, was a strange figure who wandered about the land, ‘usually far from men’, and made secret visits to farms. She would stay up most of the night playing a harp, but resented intrusion, and a Norwegian who tried to discover who she was had his arm and leg broken to punish his curiosity. Bard associated with various super­natural beings and was respected as the strongest among them. Although he gave protection against evil spirits and trolls, he was hostile to Christianity, and after his son Gest became a Christian he deprived him of his sight. (103-4)

As it turns out, land-spirits populate the folklore of Iceland and Norway. Some are mountain dwellers; in one account, and Icelandic settler offered sacrifices of food to a waterfall near his house. His sheep flock increased greatly because he made good decisions as to which should be slaughtered in the autumn and which were worth keeping. Another made offerings to one of the rare trees in Iceland, and a third trusted in the spirit living in a great stone near his house.

This last tale about a spirit in a stone has several interesting variations, Davidson writes.

In one version of this tale the spirit is called ármaôr; ar means harvest or season, and the implication is that the being in the stone could bring about a prosperous harvest. In the second version however he is called spamaôr (seer), the word used for someone with power to foretell the future. These two functions of the land-spirits appear to be linked, for not only did they bring good luck and prosperity to their worshippers, but they also had knowledge of the future and could give advice to those who consulted them. In this case the farmer received counsel by means of dreams: ‘He tells me beforehand many things which will happen in the future; he guards my cattle and gives me warnings of what I must do and what I must avoid, and therefore I have faith in him and I have worshipped him for a long time.’  (104)

In the tales there is no suggestion that these spirits travelled with the Vikings to Iceland; they were there when the settlers arrived, and closely bound to features of the land.

Friendly spirits were distinguished from evil vaettir, who were hostile and destructive, like the Norwegian trolls. The land-spirits could be offended by violence, and it was said that for a long time no one dared settle in southern Iceland where Hjorleif, one of the first settlers, was murdered by his Irish thralls; this was not because the place was thought to be haunted, but ‘because of the land-spirits’.

It was evidently risky to alarm or anger these powers. The early Icelandic laws included a prohibition against ships with dragon-heads on their prows coming into harbor, in case the land-spirits were offended by a threat of hostility.  In the nineteenth century an Icelandic clergyman recorded that certain rocks and stones in north-eastern Iceland were called ‘Stones of the Landdisir’ (land-goddesses). It was said to be unwise to make a loud noise near them, and children were forbidden to play there, for bad luck would come if they were not treated with respect. (104-5)

I am reminded of my patron saint Odhran (his feast day comes later this month on the 28th, three days before All Hallows) who was sacrificed to appease an angry spirit who had been disturbed when St. Columba bid his monks to dig the footers of his abbey at Iona in 563AD. Odhran/Oran may be a tuletary of that land-spirit, as his name is close to both ármaôr and spamaôr and his sacrifice at the October full moon is intricately bound to the legendary second sight of St. Columba. (Indeed, after his sacrifice—Oran is buried standing up in the footers—St. Columba appoints him the tuletary angel of the abbey graveyard, Relieg Odhrain).

These spirits of place—deities intimate with the local landscape—are found in sacred practice around the world. The Romans had their genius loci or protective house-deities worshipped by the household and were portrayed holding a cornucopia (horn of plenty) and a patera or libation bowl. In Asia, these numinous spirits are still honored today in city pillar shrines, spirit houses and household and/or business shrines. Also from Norse mythology are the Landvaettir or “land wight,” a spirit of the land which could be as small as a rock or as large as a region of the land. Shinto has its Kami, holy powers resident in elements of nature (and their qualities) and venerated dead people. In Hindu faith, Dvarapalas are fierce guardians of the gate and Lokapalas, the guardians of the cardinal directions; in Buddhism the Lokapalas are either wisdom protectors or spirits of indigenous belief who had been subjugated by the Buddhist master Padmasambhava.

Then, of course, there are the fairies, former deities shrunk to local sprites who take residence the shade beneath a daisy and hold court at the edges of the wood. … Further in, the elven diaspora, still powerful where things are wild.

There is relation between humans and the spirits of place which engage formally in ritual or accidentally by straying from the path. Alexander Pope does so in this verse letter to the Earl of Burlington when planning out his garden:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington

I am reminded here of the garden of the Findhorn community in present-day Scotland, where planters invited devas — a Hindu imagining of land-spirit — to co-create abundance. (The results of the partnership were sometimes astonishing; William Irwin Thompson in The Findhorn Garden writes of 40-lb. cabbages and roses blooming in the snow.) Dowsers seek water with wands empowered to find leys of energy, and feng shui practitioners in China were learned in the art of geomancy, harmonizing the plans of houses with the energies in the land.

Spirits of place resonate still in the charm of a given vista, the healing properties of a spring and the kindred feelings we have for a great tree or winding river or untouched glade. Are they what is virginal in nature, what has power to change us, or things echoing with a vast magnitude?

Here in Florida, a small remaining remnant of long-leaf pine forest is in the crosshairs of a proposed housing community in southeast Orlando. (The madness here is that people continue to flock to a state burning up and drowning.) Split Oak Forest is tiny—a rectangular strip only 2-1/2 square miles—and is one of the last strands of the pines in state which used to be covered with them. Turpentine production, logging, orange grove planting and then housing development decimated old growth Florida. It’s only a ghostly remnant, but a fierce political fight is underway to save what is left from the bulldozers. Native Florida is in that tiny space and deities still reside there. So to the state’s vast shoreline (shifting endlessly) and lakes and flora (which is where Florida gets its name).

In celebration of the ármaôr land-spirit of harvest, write of a land-spirit closest to you. They may reside in your house or under it; you may have an affinity for a tree or shore. Is that relation changing as the Earth warms? Is partnership and affinity with both the living and the dead? Whatever spirit you find, please may it be LOCAL. What does your poetic divining rod find in your back yard? Who knows? An entire cornucopia of earth-mythologies may pour from the wee folk we discover!

Write of the SPIRITS OF PLACE.

— Brendan


earthweal weekly challenge: EARTH-MASKS

Greenland mask

Mercea Eliade records a story from the Kwakiutl Indians of a young man who grew feverish and seemed to die. It was too cold to bury him, so they laid him at the outskirts of their village. Soon they heard the baying of wolves. In the morning they heard the young man singing his sacred song … The man said he had fallen asleep and woke in a council of shamans who initiated him into shamanistic rites. Afterward they put on wolf masks and began to howl, beating time on their sacred drums. The man emerged, sought his home, and woke. He called himself Naualakume, and was a great shaman of wolves, and had within him the transformed shaman who would make him dream “about what I should do when curing really sick ones, as he was giving instructions to me.” (From Primitives to Zen)

Most masks you find now in museums or online galleries, except at Halloween when the human tribe has license to indulge in some of the old pagan fanfare.

In the tale related above by Eliade, wolf-masks are devices of initiation; yet Eliade elsewhere notes that shamanic masks are rare. “The shaman’s costume is itself a mask and may be regarded as derived from a mask originally … Wherever it is used (and outside of the shamanic ideology properly speaking), the mask manifestly announces the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, mythical animal, god). For its part, the costume transubstantiates the shaman, and it transforms him, before all eyes, into a superhuman being.” (Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), 168-9)

Mbunda tribal mask, West Gambia

So the mask is a device used to stir up a ritual frenzy but is not an end in itself. This is important, as modern humans place too much faith in literal things.

The mask in primitive use is a veil-parter and invoker. Joeseph Campbell writes,

The mask in a primitive festival is revered and experienced as a veritable apparition of the mythical being that it represents—even though everyone knows that a man made the mask and that a man is wearing it. The one wearing it, furthermore, is identified with the god during the time of the ritual of which the mask is a part. He does not merely represent the god; he is the god. The literal fact that the apparition is composed of A, a mask, B, its reference to a mythical being, and C, a man, is dismissed from the mind, and the presentation is allowed to work without correction upon the sentiments of both the beholder and the actor. In other words, there has been a shift of view from the logic of the normal sphere, where things are understood to be distinct from one another, to a theatrical or play sphere, where they are accepted for what they are experienced as being and the logic is that of make believe—“as if.” (Primitive Mythology, 21-22)

Attic ritual mask, c. 600 BCE

Karl Kerenyi’s monograph on Dionysos brings the mask into even sharper focus. He notes that wooden masks were used in the Dionysos cult, either worn by dancers or hung on a pole or tree in the center of the rite. The mask said little—it was just another human face—but the voice from behind found a deeper authority, and the eyes staring out became that of a god who was persona but also life-force, what Kerenyi calls zoë:

The zoë that is present in all living creatures became as spiritual reality as man opened himself to it, perceiving in it a kind of second sight. Man did not form a concept or idea of zoë. He experienced its immediate nearness in the animal. To those who did not wear them, the masks communicated a strangely ambivalent experience of zoë as uncannily near and yet at the same time remote. Such was the impression made by the god himself when he was only a face. He appeared to man with human features: more immediate than zoë in all other forms and yet lifeless, as though removed from every living thing. (Dionysos: Archetypal Image or Indestructible Life, Princeton U Press 1996)

Dionsysian ritual survived in Greek drama; the masks of comedy and tragedy—hilaria and trisitia—corresponded to spring and autumn festivals when dramatic competitions would be held. The heightening of emotion—those hilarious, tragic swings—were cathartic for the chorus which stood in for all of us.

Those masks survive to this day in situation comedies and police dramas on TV, the ecstasy and agony of manic depression and the buffoonery and despotic despair of authoritarian regimes like the Trump White House.

The god behind those masks survives, too. Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”  The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”

Masks are important in our work as poets. Here is Rilke:

… More and more in my life and in my work I am guided by the effort to correct our old repressions, which have removed and gradually estranged us from the mysteries out of whose abundance our lives might become truly infinite. It is true that these mysteries are dreadful, and people have always drawn away from them. But where can we find anything sweet and glorious that would never wear this mask, the mask of the dreadful? Life – and we know nothing else —isn’t life itself dreadful? … Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full joyous consent to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; …To show the identity of dreadfulness and bliss, those two faces on the same divine head, indeed this one single face, which just presents itself this way or that, according to our distance from it or state of mind in which we perceive it – : this is the true significance and purpose of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.  (letter translated and anthologized in Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Ranier Maria Rilke)

Louise Gluck was just awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—an extremely rare honor for an American poet (T.S. Eliot was the only other one; Bob Dylan was named for the prize but he’s a songwriter, not a poet). I’ve always loved the Rilkean detachment of her voice, oracular and personal at once: To me the very essence of the mask. Here is a poem from her 2014 collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night:


Small light in the sky appearing
suddenly between
two pine boughs, their fine needles

now etched onto the radiant surface
and above this
high, feathery heaven—

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie—

Shadows moving. The ropes
making the sound they make. What you hear now
will be the sound of the nightingale, Chordata,
the male bird courting the female—

The ropes shift. The hammock
sways in the wind, tied
firmly between two pine trees.

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them

because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

I have used the screen name of Brendan in my posts of online poetry. The full name of Brendan MacOdrum pays homage to a pair of mythological figures, that of Brendan the Navigator and MacOdrum of Uist, the poet who was said to come from the seal-tribe which I believe is the primal background of St. Oran, my blog’s namesake. The use of a screen name hearkens back to the mask. By speaking through the Brendan mask I can dramatize my dailiness; my history becomes the exempla of mystery; the narrative becomes impersonal the song of humankind. (That is, when I’m not wearing out my readers with bitching and bemoaning.)

Dionysos makes our wounds tolerable because we look upon them through his fictive mask, putting an as-if proscenium between actual and imagined horrors. We can say the unsayable because the words as metaphors can’t really burn us. We can go to Hell and back, like Dante, and get the girl in the end. We can write of the darkest things and go on with our normal, quiet and untroubled lives. Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne after finishing Moby Dick, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as a lamb. It is not a piece of feminine Spitalfields silk — but it is of the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, & birds of prey hover over it.”  The mask of Dionysos allowed Melville that precious little distance between the real and imagined that allowed him, as Gaston Bachelard once put it, “to sing reality.”

We have desperate need now for earth-masks, vehicles of transport from human to nonhuman. Masks can help free us of our literal bondage to an only-human existence in place since late Mesopotamia. Neoliberalism has us so locked into a suburban lifestyle that it seems madness to reject our fossil-fueled comforts; it may take a mask at the window at midnight to break the consumer enchantment in which we are imprisoned.

Haida transformation mask, Pacific Northwest

So, for this week’s earthweal challenge, take up a mask and start singing. Your mask can be tribal or mythic, literary or psychological. Assume the persona of a ghost or ancestor, a sea-beast or an eagle. What does the mask empower you to say and sing? How different is the world when viewed through the mask? Does the mask allow you to enter collective or personal cellars or sidhes or spookhouses it would be devastating to do otherwise? How does your voice change? What happens to language devices like music, metaphor, meaning, rhyme? Does the mask allow a bridge from human to nonhuman earth? Do new imagined futures emerge from its oracles?

You are welcome to use any of the images in this post for your mask, find one of your own or write the verbal semblance of one, which is what you will do regardless.

Let’s summon a wild choir with our MASKS!

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #40

A Tasmanian devil in mainland Australia. Tasmanian devils have been released into the wild on Australia’s mainland, 3,000 years after the feisty marsupials went extinct there, in what conservationists described as a ‘historic’ step. (Getty Images)


Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #40.

Share a poem and visit your fellow linkers and comment.

The open link window remains open until midnight Sunday EST.



earthweal weekly challenge: HAUNTED WILDERNESS

We visited ghosts in an earlier challenge this year, but since it’s October I’d like to revisit our earthweal sights on the haunted world we’re inheriting and ever in the act of passing on. Extinction is the chilling, ever-growing shadow formed by the Anthropocene: the haunting is vast.

As I continue through Rebecca Giggs’ fine new book Fathoms: The World in the Whale, I come to see the connection between oceans far emptier of these lumbering cetaceans and the twilight (and first light) just outside my window now almost wholly devoid of birdsong. The two are imbued in the same haunted silence. She writes:

The Australian philosopher and ethicist Thom van Dooren has an idea I’ve found long compelling: that when animals die out, the cultural and ecological relationships that furnish their existence can be experienced as a kind of nonstop haunting. Van Dooren is interested in the kinds of stamina that attend extinction and endangerment — how vulnerable animal species … don’t just disappear in a snap but continue to be revealed after their passing in different varieties of fortitude and mourning, both in human societies and in the lives of interdependent organisms. When a creature is gone, its significance may grow … So long as a feature doesn’t steer its proprietor into co-extinction … there will be a kind of ghostly residue: a physical communication with no visible respondent. A fascinating notion: that the too-muchness of the flower might point out a lack in the world. (45)

Aboriginal whale hunts in Sydney Harbor were ended by European whalers who fished the waters out, so to speak; yet the whale remained vast in Cammerayagal custom—perhaps moreso as a ghost. “Whale masks might have looked even more like monsters to the person who had never seen a whale,” Giggs writes “Perhaps whale dreams, without real whales to satisfy their inference, were received as dictates from the realms of the ancestral past instead of the animalic future. But whoever surreal or mythic a whale became, the animal itself was not forgotten.” (46)

Fathoms makes huge the spectral cultural remnants of that once-populous tribe, as an account in itself and a critique of the modernity which slaughtered it to the point of extinction. It is at the far end of the modernity where we now stand; it is here that our witness, our next poems, are challenged to keep the fading memory of whales—of the living, diverse and thriving Earth— alive. It is for us to take up the whale mask and sing the haunted verses.

Thom van Dooren put it this way in a separate essay:

Ours is a time of mass extinction, a time of ongoing colonization of diverse human and nonhuman lives. But it is also a time that holds the promise of many fragile forms of decolonization and hopes for a lasting environmental justice. Here, the work of holding open the future and responsibly inheriting the past requires new forms of attentiveness to biocultural diversities and their many ghosts. But simply beyond listening, it also requires that we take on the fraught work—never finished, never innocent—of weaving new stories out of this multiplicity. Stories within stories that bring together the diversity of voices necessary to responsibly inhabit the rich patterns of interwoven inheritance that constitute our world. (“Spectral Crows in Hawai’i,” anthologized in Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generations (ed. by Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew, Columbia University Press, 2017, p. 207)

For this challenge, write of haunted wilderness. What is the resonance of those lost relations? What has grown more significant in absence? What evidence of their passing lingers in co-dependent species? What would an ecosystems composed of myriad hauntings look and sound like? How is the magnitude of that changing in the Sixth Extinction? (Can a single whale’s song now be heard around the world?) How is human culture absorbing this magnified absence? Can seeds of renewal to be found, planted in cold moonlight? What new possibilities and futures might arise from such wild dearth and death?

We are makers: Let’s put our ungodly powers to good use!