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Honoring City Spirits - Part I
This is going to be a two, perhaps three part article series on honoring city spirits--something that's become a significant part of my own practice of late. In fact, having just recently taught a class in honoring the Holy Powers of the Northern Tradition, it struck me powerfully that in the end, so much of it comes back to honoring the ancestors (into which the Gods may, technically fit) and honoring the land. These little epiphanies are amazing--I find myself wanting to smack my forehead and wondering why on earth it took me so long to grasp what seems, in the end, so essential. I can't help chiding myself for not seeing these things sooner! I'm sure we've all been there at one time or another. Anyway, I've been doing quite a bit of work recently with city spirits and I wanted to talk about some of that with you, my readers.
I've been traveling over the holidays, this year going for the first time to London and Oxford, delightful cities both of which I've wanted to visit for a very long time. For an animist, who is also a shaman, visiting a new city isn't necessarily as cut and dried as it may sound. A few months ago, when I wrote my article on the goddess Cardea, and the Gods of small things, (http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/crossing-the-sacred-threshold-the-gods-of-small-things.html) the editor of Witches and Pagans asked me how to go about initiating those devotional relationships. I've been pondering the question since and I think that a good place to start (in addition to honoring one's ancestors--they can really go a long way toward helping a person in these things) may just be working with city spirits. These spirits are a type of vaettir, or nature spirit, what the ancient Romans called a genius loci (spirit of place) but they're louder (at least I find them so) and more used to interacting with human beings than other types of earth spirits. Also, there are so many different ways to engage with the topography of a place, and each of these can be a pathway toward engaging with the city spirit itself which in turn can be a really good segue into working with the Gods and spirits of "smaller" things.
Now while there are many ways of engaging with city spirits, I can only tell you what I do. I encourage my readers to experiment, to share what each of you do, share your experiences, what has worked and what hasn't because we can learn from each other. Additionally, so many of these practices are dependent on the individual city spirits, the individual locales. There’s no hard and fast technique that will work all the time. We’re dealing with individuals, after all. Of course, I'm still learning. Of every piece of my practice, this has been one of the newest to really click into place. I've only really started working with city spirits about six years ago. What do I do? Well, my work with the spirits of place is divided into two categories: the spirits of the city in which I live and the city in which I work, and the spirits of cities I visit regularly (or have visited in the past and with whom I made a strong connection). How I honor a given spirit varies depending into which category it falls. After all, I think there are more ways to honor spirits that we engage with regularly and that’s usually pretty easy when you’re living in a particular locale. Engaging with the topography itself helps foster the connection. Because I just came back from a trip however, I’m going to start this series by talking about the ways I’ve found to engage with new city spirits, the genii loci of places one might be visiting for the first time.
To begin with, I don't just visit a city. I develop relationships with city spirits, complex, multi-faceted, nuanced relationships. Before I go further, I want to add that I really don't think this is a shaman thing either; I think it has everything to do with being an animist who has worked hard over the years to develop an engaged devotional practice. I think it's part and parcel of being an active polytheist. I also think it's something that everyone can do in his or her own way. Of course this practice may come with certain taboos and obligations precisely because in engaging with a city spirit, one is engaging with a living, sentient spirit --but more on that a bit later.
Perhaps I’m extrapolating too much from my own experience, but I think that too often city spirits get neglected. I know it tends to come third on my mental priorities after honoring the Gods and ancestors. As I said earlier, it's only been the last few years that I've really started engaging deeply and consistently with the genii loci of the places in which I live and roam. For a long time I knew it was important, I just didn't know how to go about doing it! I actually learned how to relate to city spirits from a city spirit: Paris. Yes, you read that rightly. Paris, France taught me how to engage with city spirits. I went there for the first time maybe six or seven years ago in the company of my adopted mother and she took me all around to the Paris she knew. She had been born there and Paris had nurtured her as a child on her many visits. As we wandered around, I started to get a strong sense of the presence, the being-ness of the city: (it was definitely a she, by the way. Paris is definitely female). By the end of that first day, I felt like I had been introduced to her and by the second, we were in active communication.
Why did it happen then? I don't know. Maybe I was in a particularly receptive headspace, maybe I was at a point where I was ready to add this into my work, maybe it was just luck of the draw, or maybe it was that Paris was being particularly gracious because of my mom, who was one of hers having been born there (and Paris does take care of her own in a way though she can be harsh as any city can be harsh to some). My mom may have been the necessary interlocutor for this relationship to develop. All I know is that I'm immensely grateful. She introduced me to a body of techniques, a growing awareness of the sentience of place that I’ve taken with me and utilized in my work and devotional life ever since.
It helps to have an interlocutor, by the way, someone either born and bred in the city in question, or who is strongly connected to it. Being properly introduced may be déclassé in human society, but it’s something I’ve found many city spirits appreciate. Of course it’s not always possible, but when it is it’s something worth taking advantage of. I have encountered cases where the land spirit or city spirit simply refused to respond to non-native born people. Often this occurs when there are ancestral hostilities between areas, people, or places. In such cases it can take a very long time to develop any working relationship with the land and it may never happen. Earth spirits, of which city spirits are a type, have long memories and can be very, very stubborn. In such a case, I’d definitely suggest seeking out an interlocutor native to the area.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. For now, the important points to remember are that to the animist mind, cities have their spirits, they’re alive, sentient, and capable of relating to the people who come into their territory. What’s more, it’s beneficial to do. Of all the many nature spirits that we might encounter, city spirits have the most experience interacting with humans. They are integrally involved in the process of civilization. Having one as an ally can make city living (or travel) a thousand times more rewarding, safe, and comfortable.
In part II, we'll talk about the proper protocol for facilitating an introduction with a new city spirit and I'll share some of my own experiences quite recently with London, which I found out is actually comprised of two cities combined. In part III, we'll be getting down to the minutiae of honoring them on a regular basis, particularly when you do not live in the city itself that you would like to continue celebrating.
In the meantime, I would love to hear from my readers. What cities do you love? How do you relate to them? Are there any experiences you would like to share. I’d also like to wish everyone a happy new year. May 2013 be better and more productive in all good ways than 2012.
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