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