The Spirit of Place: The God in your Backyard

“I have lived through many ages…..”

By J.A. Doyle, the Wizard of Grand 2013

As a child, I would follow my imagination deep into the forests that were close to my home. Taking up a fallen branch as a stave of power, I became the forest’s resident wizard, learning spells babbled by brooks and runes sung by the wind in the tree branches. I dug up roots to discover their intoxicating aromas, I pocketed seemingly ordinary stones that became mighty talismans. The skies eventually became painted with pink, orange, and lavender. The shadows of the trees growing longer and darker, the sounds of the animals now softer than the wind, I would shed my wizard persona and head back to my little home with my mother. The wizard stayed in the woods, but I brought the magic home with me.

As an adult, I have been known to make my way into forests and fields to recharge my spirit and pay homage to the beings that dwell within. On the boundaries of such places, I whisper words of safe passage, alerting the gods of this place of my presence. I will make libation of water and saliva, maybe also setting bread or cake down in thanks. I listen to the creaking trees, the running streams, the bird’s songs, I breathe in the smells riding the winds. The innocent games of imaginary wizardry that I observed in my youth have informed my real practices as a true wizard today.

The enchanting voices of the land that I listened to as a child and attempt to give my attention to today belong to the Genius Loci, or Spirit of the Place (Genii Loci, plural). Every place has a spirit. From the wildest of forests, and fields gone fallow, to the manicured garden, and the city-scape. We draw our nourishment not only from food (which, ideally, should have come from the Land itself), but also from spiritual currents that exist in the world.

An Altar to the Genius Loci in Pompeii

Cultures the world over have ascribed specific gods, or discovered specific spirits dwelling within specific areas. The Ancient Romans often saw the Genius Loci or power of the Land as a serpent. The Greek City-States, such as Athens, the city of Athene, and the lands around the states were under the patronage of their city-god. The Chinese worship of the Cheng Huang is very similar to this. Even the Monotheistic Israelites, despite objections from their priests, would pay homage to the gods of the lands in which they found themselves living, such as the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah. In 2nd Kings 17:24-34, the Assyrians, being plagued by man-eating lions, sent their priests to learn the customs of the “god of the land” and ended up with a syncretic religion that worshiped Yahweh along side their traditional cultural gods.

The Shinto traditions of Japan, being at their core animist, have erected Torii gates to signify the presence of a God (called Kami) in a natural setting. To the Shinto, the Kami exist within nature and not above it. To better understand what these Spirits of Place are like, I turn to a quote from the Edo period Japanese scholar Motoori Norinaga who says that the Kami are “any thing or phenomena that produces the emotions of fear and awe, with no distinction between good and evil.” While this definition is quite broad, we can assume that the Spirits of Place have a direct influence on our feelings and sensations when we are in direct contact with them. Have you ever looked upon a storm, a sunset, a mountain ridge, or an ocean shoreline and felt a strong emotional response? If yes, then you have felt the power of the Genii Loci. Feeling is just the beginning. Opening the way for communication and the building of a relationship through love and mutual aid is the next step.

Watch the 2009 movie “The Secret of Kells” and pay attention to the character Aisling. This movie did the Fair Folk justice in the depiction of her. Aisling is a mysterious, magical girl who rules over a vast dark wood outside of Kells, allied by wolves, able to fly and change her shape. At first, she wants the intruders to leave her forest, but after realizing there is no threat to her land she becomes a great aid. Aisling (which is Gaelic for “dream, vision, muse”), is the resident spirit of this land and befriending her leads the main character to the exact thing he was looking for, thus accomplishing a part of his quest. The Spirits of the Land often know more than we do, or have knowledge that we can gain with the second sight. It is a knowing that does not come from the words of a page.

I think that it is important to establish a relationship with a wild area far from cities and establishments, the lessons taught within are old and universal. However, living in a city or suburb does not cut one off from experiencing the Spirits of Place. Life is life, no matter where it grows, but it may take different forms depending on the location (and the spirits) that foster its growth. The Land still resides below the concrete and asphalt. The roots of trees planted in inner-city parks must be able to find their sustinance somehow. So shall we who live in Urbania. A good guide to establishing a relationship with the Genii Loci of your own city is a book written by Christopher Penczack titled “City Magick: Urban rituals, spells, and shamanism.”

Live Life with your Environment in Mind

We are all aware of the impact the human race has upon the Earth. She is being drained of resources that took thousands of years to create. Her sacred landscapes are being ravaged and whole environments supporting vast amounts of life are wiped out in weeks. As magically-minded people, we must realize these impacts can come from our practice, too. Since Antiquity, we have utilized the powers of stones and minerals to help, heal, and harm. Since then, we have mined many crystals and metals from the deepness of the Earth, and not many of the techniques used to mine have been ecologically respectful. A river-stone polished in the elements can be as mighty as a carved, multifaceted quartz. Be aware of the environment in which you cast your circles and perform your ceremonies. Go into an area with an effort to leave it cleaner than you arrived. Heal the Earth with ritual and prayer, but also put your energy into picking up refuse blown into woods and rivers, help protecting our natural resources. If you wish to work in harmony with your Land, you must strive to protect it.

The Viridarum Umbris by Daniel Shulke, published by Xoanon

One of my favorite pieces of advice when beginning work with the Spirits of Place comes from the modern grimoire “Viridarium Umbris: The Pleasure-Garden of Shadow” by David Shulke. A veritable talismanic book, the Viridarium drips heavily with poetic speech seldom found in most books about witchcraft and magic since the 1800’s. Of all books on the subject of the Green Art, I recommend the Viridarium to guide you. Mr. Shulke has this to say:

“When knocking upon the Door of the Land, four are the fonts of power to propitiate with sacrifice. The first is the Land itself- its rock, water, soil, and air. The second is the spirits of all plant and animal denizens. The third is the Mighty Dead and their accumulated wisdom. The fourth is the living folk of the land and their wisdom, called Custom and Lore. Where the Faithful are gathered in the name of these four gods, the Nymphs and Host of the Seirim shall come forth in exhortation.” – Viridarium Umbris, Shulke, pg. 153

In my personal practice, I interpret this passage to mean that in order to contact the Spirits of the Land, I must realize that the over-arching Genius Loci is comprised of many parts. Using a jigsaw puzzle for example, each piece can be seen as an individual spirit with a form and image unto itself. Assembling the puzzle, we can begin to see that each of the spirits is but an organ in the greater body of the one Genius Loci. The Spirit begins, firstly, to manifest from the ground itself, and secondly through the creatures of the Land- the trees and plants, the birds and beasts. The dead who have found their final resting place in that Land comprise the third portion of this Genius, and the fourth part is the observation of the laws, customs, stories, and faith of the people living there. We begin to see that in our work to contact the Genius Loci, we are a key in ourselves. We, by virtue of being here, are but a facet of the Spirit of the Place!

This is a notion that was practiced by many ancient cultures and has been revived by the New Age movement and the Gaia Theory. Everything is connected, everything is one. As we breathe in the sweet, musty scent of the forest or the dense, smoggy odor of the city, we are sharing in the breath of life. We gaze upon the bark of a tree and we see similar patterns in our own skin. We notice two birds fighting over food and realize, we too are hungry. We stop to drink the water gushing from a hose on a hot day or scoop up the running water of a clear stream and we ingest our own blood and tears. We see the hare bound from its subterranean home as we pass by. Only a fool would not be able to recognize their brother from our shared Mother Earth. We are comprised of all the elements that the whole of existence is created from. We devour life to live, and we integrate the elements of what we consume into our bodies.

Being raised in a Christian environment, I was exposed to Biblical notions such as “In the sweat of your face you will eat bread till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” (Genesis 3:19) and “All go to the same place. All are of the Earth and all return to the Earth.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20). These, more than other notions that demanded my adherence, stuck with me and found a home close to my heart and practice. A prayer of the Feri Tradition of Victor Anderson echoes this sentiment, “Holy Mother, unto you we all emerge, and unto you we all return.” We all come from that Garden called “Eden,” and we shall all return to it without fail. In reality, we never left in the first place.

Go outside. Turn your awareness towards your environment. With each of your senses reach out to probe the landscape around you. What sounds emit from the living things around you? What do you see moving, growing, staying still? What smells and what tastes do you detect in the air? What rides the air that interacts with your physical sensations? What emotions and feelings surface from your environment? Are there any natural tokens that call to be transformed into talismans and symbols of your art? If so, take them respectfully. Try this practice every time you exit your house, your workplace, or any other building. Walk around your neighborhood, your Downtown area, your favorite park or woodland, and practice expanding your awareness. You will begin to understand your relationship with the Spirits of the Land in which you reside, and theirs with you.


Essays on Cities and Landscapes by Tom Turner

Craft of the Land, Craft of Fire by Robin Artisson

Sustainable Witchcraft by Melanie Harris

Local Gods (Israel Part 2) by Kirk

Land Guardianship by Sarah Lawless 

Viridarium Umbris: The Pleasure Garden of Shadow by Daniel A. Shulke

The Temple of Shamanic Witchraft by Christopher Penczak (Chapter 6: Lesson Two, The World Aside)

City Magick by Christopher Penczack

The Secret of the Kells, 2009

Cheng Huang


3 responses to “The Spirit of Place: The God in your Backyard

  1. A fantastic post 🙂 The living land is there, even if it is hidden beneath rivers of asphalt!

  2. Pingback: The Curio Cabinet Spring Blog Series | The Curio Cabinet

  3. Pingback: Belated Beltane and a Hiatus | The Curio Cabinet

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