Genius Loci: The Ancient Worship of Spirits of Place or Land Spirits
What are the genius loci? Before the spread of Christianity, the ancient people believed in the Genius Loci also known as spirits of place. Rivers, wells, and springs were guarded by powerful water spirits. Mountains and caves were 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. One thing is for sure – there are too many legends, folktales, and sagas in which the ancient people not only believed in spirits of place, but they also worshiped them.
The genius loci were gods to the ancient European people. In fact, many of the gods and goddesses of Celtic and Germanic lore presided over sacred places. Were these gods separate from these sacred places or were they deified spirits of place? We will examine the ancient cults of land spirits and delve into a world where nature was incredibly alive, honored and worshiped.
Ancient Genius Loci Cults of Europe
Perhaps one of the most well-known of the old pagan cults were the Druids of ancient Britain. Druids were a priesthood of the Celtic tribes prior to the Christianization of Europe. They worshiped the old gods in groves of trees, which is also where they gathered. People assume this was because they used nature as their temple, and while this is true, this would be denying a big part of the story. Druids worshiped the trees themselves.
Sacred Celtic Trees
The Celts believed the trees had spirits, and this is why there are seven known sacred Celtic trees. Oak, Ash, Elder, Yew, Alder, Hazel, and Apple. Oak, in particular, was a well-loved tree by the Druids and Celts. It’s surmised that the word Druid stems from the Greek work for tree-spirit dryad. For ancient pagan holy-days, trees were decorated with ribbon and offerings left at the foot of trees.
Goddess Danu and the River Danube
Scholars claim the Celts named places after their gods. 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 occupied by the spirits of place. And therefore the genius loci were deified. For instance, the Irish Goddess 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 assume that the river’s spirit might have been called Danu from which sprang an ancient Celtic cult based on the genius loci.
Greek and Roman Spirits of Place
The ancient Greeks and Romans were not short of genius loci cults. One example of the worship of spirits of place in ancient Greece and Rome is seen in artwork on their household walls. These household spirits were thought to originally be spirits of place that were adopted into a home. These spirits were called Lares by the Romans and were said to be guardians of sacred places. The Lares familiares were guardians of the hearth and home and were depicted as serpents. The ancient Romans held festivals to celebrate and honor the various Lares, 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). Venus, the Goddess of Love, was originally a nymph (a water spirit) born of the waves.
The Norse Genius Loci
The Norse people honored spirits of place (genius loci). These land spirits were documented in their sagas, including the Poetic Edda, in the form of dwarves, giants, elves, and other “supernatural” creatures. Dwarves and giants were guardians of the mountains, crags, and hills, while elves guarded sacred forests. Were they their own sentient beings or were they the spirits of mountains and trees? The Norse people felt strongly for their spirits of place, so much so that a law was written in the Dark Ages that stated any boat coming to port must remove any dragon-head carvings (etc) before coming to shore so as not to anger their guardian land spirits.
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Appeasing Spirits of Place
In the times of genius loci cults, before a house could be built, the spirits of the land had to be appeased, driven out, or adopted into the spirit of the house itself. In Northern Europe, the area to be built upon was first purified by fire. A person was to take a torch and walk the perimeter, thereby letting the fire cleanse the air and prepare for construction. Perhaps the fire worked to remove any negative entities present on the land. In Sweden, the spirits of place were asked and appeased first before construction began. They feared if they didn’t ask permission, the guardian spirit would wreak havoc on their household.
In Russia, the people spent a few nights on prospective land, just to ensure no malevolent spirits were present. In Finland, the foundation and walls of the house were erected, but before anything else was done, the home-owner would spend the night there, to ensure no malevolent forces would be angered by the construction.
Travel and Dangers of the Genius Loci
Our ancestors not only had to worry about appeasing the spirits of place before erecting a building, they also had to worry about it when traveling and before any major holy-day. 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 to appease the genius loci of the water. Archaeologists still find objects at the bottoms of lakes and bogs that were once offerings to land spirits.
There are stories of people who venture too far off the path and consequently anger a land spirit. Sometimes its merely the person’s presence, but most of the time it has to do with the individual hunting or fishing without permission from the genius loci. At this point, the spirits of place rise up from the depths of the water or from a cave/mountain and 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 world mythology is rife with monsters, great beasts, and fairy-tale creatures of all kinds. Folklorist Claude Lecouteux’s theory is that these beasts were once genius loci, guardians of sacred places before the spread of Christianity. Beginning in the Medieval Era, There’s an insurgence of stories involving dragons. Yes, there were stories of dragons before this era, but they really took hold during the Dark Ages. This was because the spirits of place were demonized by the Church, and so we read stories of saints and christian knights defeating great dragons (demons). Think of it this way – dragons were monsters who breathed fire (hellfire) and guarded sacred sites or places with treasure (caves with precious gems). We can see the remnants of the genius loci in Christianized tales. In China, the great rivers are named after dragons, as the Chinese associated dragons with the winding, flooding rivers, as guardians of the waters. Not European, I realize, but it supports the idea of dragons being land spirits.
Dwarves, Giants and Trolls
In the Poetic Edda of Norse origin, dwarves and giants are mentioned time and time again. Also in Norse mythology, trolls are the guardians of bridges and force the traveler to solve a riddle before passing. Think of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. Trolls are thought to also be guardians of certain mountains and caves, and after the spread of Christianity became dangerous beings. In the Prose Edda, a skald comes in contact with a female troll. The female troll states she is a “beloved follower of the seeress and guardian of the nafjord”. She has allegiance to a powerful sorceress and also is a guardian of a sacred place. Two obvious references to old heathen customs and beliefs in land spirits.
Water Spirits of Britain & Ireland
If we travel across the water to Britain and Ireland, there are numerous mythological creatures that are demonized land spirits. This includes the various water spirits – the kelpie, selkie, puca, and mer-people. It is also possible the “wee folk” or the “sidhe” were once spirits of place 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. Therein is the correlation between genius loci and pagan gods. There were ballybogs, small creatures who guarded the peat bogs. The banshee (bean-sidhe) was a female ghost-like fairy heard wailing before the death of members of the oldest Irish families (possibly guardians of those families from pagan times). They were seen washing warriors’ clothing in the water, and therefore called the “Washer at the Ford”.
The Leprechaun and Sirens
Let’s not forget the Leprechaun, who in modern times is 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’s surmised that mer-people might be water spirits or guardians of the water instead of actual physical beings. In recent years, a group of workers in Africa halted construction near a body of water because the mer-people scared them with screams and pranks. And how about the stories of sirens and mermaids who sing to sailors, wrecking their ships on the rocks before coming too close to an island? All of these tales point to the these beings as guardians of places in nature. Be it an island, body of water, river, spring, etc.
The Suppression of the Genius Loci
In tales from Medieval to modern times, land spirits aren’t friendly with humans. At best they are territorial of sacred places they protect. Before Christianity, spirits of place were not only revered, they were deified. So when the Church rose to power, the land spirits were demonized and people began to fear them. Stories of the land spirits stealing, killing, and eating people ran rampant. Is it possible that the spirits of place, the genius loci, were once appeased and worked with humans in regard to sacred places, but now have been angered and driven back into the remaining wild places? There are theories that many hauntings today may result from angered land spirits rather than ghosts of the dead.
In WB Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, there are stories of people building on land guarded by fairies only to find themselves tormented by invisible hands. There are tales of people cutting down sacred fairy trees only to find themselves tormented or ill thereafter. The genius loci might have been suppressed by Christianity and modern technology and urban expansion, but they have survived in other ways. What do you think? Have you seen a fairy in your garden lately?