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Unit 5. Spirits of Place

Hieros October 21, 2022

We all know the feeling of walking into a space – a room, a garden, or a clearing in a wood – and feeling the presence of a certain energy which affects our mood. It may be calming, exhilarating, welcoming, refreshing or perhaps disturbing. The ancient Romans personified this energy and gave it a name – genius loci, the spirit of place – and often portrayed it as a snake. This motif is featured in the monument on the left, the Schlangenstein (Snake Stone) in the Park on the Ilm in Weimar, Germany, based on a Roman original at Herculaneum. The object shown here is actually a 1960s copy of the 18th-century version, which was badly damaged during the Second World War and was originally commissioned by Duke Carl August of Weimar in honour of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The inscription reads: GENIO HUIUS LOCI (to the spirit of the this place).

Image: Rainer Halama. Licence: license CC BY-SA. via Wikimedia Commons

This stele stands in the garden of the Casa Gabriella at Ascona in Switzerland, venue for the Eranos seminars, held here from 1933. These were gatherings of leading intellectuals such as C. G. Jung, Mircea Eliade, Martin Buber and Joseph Campbell, who came together to discuss the mystical, symbolic and esoteric in an interdisciplinary spirit. The inscription means “to the unknown spirit of the place”.

Photograph: Eranos Foundation.

And here again is the head of Apollo, doubling as that of the French Revolutionary leader Antoine de Saint Just, in the garden created by the poet and artist, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay, and his wife Sue in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh. The whole garden is dedicated to Apollo.

While one might conceive of there being one dominant spirit for a garden, there may be many others for different areas within the garden. Below are some pictures from our own garden, showing markers for the presiding spirits of various nooks and corners.

A stele to Orpheus, the god who could beguile all humans and creatures with the music of his lyre. The inscription reads: “To Orpheus. Faintly your music beguiles Boreas’s realm.”

The Green Man, an ancient Celtic symbol for the male forces in nature.

A stele to Pan with the inscription: “Pause and listen to Pan’s Arcadian pipes.”

This stele, with a relief of a robin and the inscription “GENIO LOCI” (to the spirit of the place) stands in a small, half-hidden grove in our garden, where an actual robin (shown on the right) often hops and flutters around. I consider him the spirit of that spot and therefore have made this stele in his honour.

Spirits of Nature

We can also personify the natural energies that are present in a garden – energies of the elements, of the earth and of the plants. Those of the plants are known in the Indian vedic tradition as devas. Even in the secular culture of today many people evidently feel the need to acknowledge the presence of these beings – for example by placing figures of gnomes or fairies in the garden. The German ethnobotanist Wolf-Dieter Storl writes of this practice: “The redcapped dwarfs, scorned by intellectuals as the epitome of petty-bourgeois bad taste, are in fact visual representations of the etheric forces in a garden. These and other terracotta figures . . . support . . . the gardener’s imagination . . . helping to create the etheric space in which the invisible helpers can ‘incarnate’ and operate . . . The little statues then become literally animated.” (Wolf-Dieter Storl, Pflanzendevas, Aarau, Switzeland, AT Verlag, 2004, p. 134.) Below are two examples of such figures.

An elderly dwarf in the garden of Olandar, the home of Leigh and Carla McCloskey in Malibu, California. He appears to be a gardener, as he is carrying a rose in a flowerpot.

This charming fairy, seen here in our previous garden, has since moved with us to our present one.

Celebrating the spirits

Let’s say we have already placed various images and markers in the garden in honour of the spirits of place and the devas of nature. But now we feel we want to do something more active to celebrate them. Our ancestors regularly honoured the spirits of nature and of place through offerings and through seasonal festivals with rituals, dancing, singing and carousing. Traditional communities in various parts of the world still preserve these customs, but in the modernized west they survive only in a few remnants such as the Mayday and harvest celebrations. Some people might write off as superstition the whole idea of honouring the devas and nature spirits through ritual. But our ancestors knew better, and they are supported by certain scientific discoveries over the past half century or so, such as that plants can respond to human emotion and to music. So those festivals and rituals with their processions, chanting, drumming and singing are not so far fetched after all. Why not make it a practice to perform regular rituals in the garden – say at the equinoxes and solstices – alone or with family and friends. If you were celebrating the spring equinox, for example, you could all go out into the garden early in the morning, face east to welcome the coming spring, dance in a circle and sing something joyful and springlike. Even just the sound of a drum can be a powerful accompaniment to a ritual. If your ritual is carried out with feeling the plants and the spirits will respond. And if you carry on the practice with regularity it will build a positive atmosphere in the garden. As examples, the pictures below show (left) a Morris dance group in our former garden in Bremen, and (right) Donate in the garden with her drum.

The “Langhus” Morris dance group performing in our previous garden in Bremen, complete with “Fool” dressed as a Green Man.

Donate drumming against a backdrop of topinambur flowers

Exercises

  1. Sit quietly in your garden, put yourself inwardly in touch with the spirit of the garden as a whole or of a particular spot. Observe what associations come to your mind and write down what they were. They might be images, symbols, words or perhaps music.
  2. Make an image of the presiding spirit of the garden or of a particular spot. It might be a mythical figure, a bird, an animal or an abstract symbol. You could of course buy a ready-made image from a shop selling garden ornaments, but there is a virtue in making your own image, as in doing so you will imbue it with a certain energy. It could be a simple image etched on a stone slab with hammer and chisel, or a figure sculpted in clay or in a type of modelling material that does not need to be fired and can be made weather-proof by spraying it with a protective coating.
  3. Carry out some action in honour of the spirit(s) either alone or with a group. Perform a ritual or a circle dance, play an instrument, sing a song, read a poem aloud. If you do this with heart and passion the spirits will surely respond.
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