By Galina Krasskova
Places have power. This seems to me to be a belief common to all denominations of Paganism. Even Heathenry, notorious for its ambivalence toward magic and mysticism acknowledges the holiness of site and space. Navigating one’s place, managing the energy in one’s space via cleansings and wardings is one of the first things a novice magician learns. Creating sacred space, through the usage of a plethora of ritual tools, is one of the first things a novice Pagan and/or Witch learns—at least it was twenty years ago when I was starting out! Places have power and how we conduct ourselves within those sacred sites has the power, by extension, to affect for good or ill, our spiritual life.
Of course, there are numerous ways to create sacred space. Heathens, for instance, often do it by bearing fire around the perimeter of the area. Wiccans cast circles. I’ve seen sound, herbs, aspersing, smudging, the bearing of ritual implements, physically marking off the area, and fire, to name but a few options, utilized in this manner. This is good. This is necessary. What I haven’t seen though overmuch is an awareness of space itself as inherently holy. We know it in our minds but for the most part, we’ve yet to adequately integrate it into our practice. Yet those places that we’ve walked, the places that we’ve been, seep into our bones. They affect us on a very fundamental level. They open us and grow within us in a very special way, changing who we are and how we look at the world, at least they do if we’re not completely head and heart blind.
I’ve traveled extensively in both Europe and the United States spending extensive swaths of time in Germany, Iceland, Scotland, France, Italy, Belgium and, most especially Switzerland. In fact, I’ve only just returned from a trip to Zürich where I went on an extensive ancestral pilgrimage. One thing has become clear to me over the past few years of travel: the land remembers. I learned this when I visited the small village and the attendant forests, roots, trees, and streams that my ancestors from generations ago had lived. The soil remembered the lineage. I learned this when I stood on the shores of the Rhine, where he borders both Switzerland and Germany and made offerings to the waters. The land remembers. We should too.
Now, I know that within modern Paganism and, to a lesser degree, Heathenry, city life is often viewed as somehow less sacred, less connected to the natural rhythms and cycles of nature than rural life; and in some cases, that may be true. Certainly I know that I struggle with my hostility toward the ways in which humanity has raped and plundered the earth, pouring over it like locusts and with much the same effect. The more aware and connected I become to the nature spirits that inhabit the places my ancestors walked, the more I fight that hostility. At the same time, I have found over the years that there is powerful magic inherent in cities – just as much as may be found in the most deserted of country dwellings. It is different, but it is there and so are land spirits. It actually took traveling to Europe to teach me that, first to Belgium and then later to Switzerland and Germany. Not only does each country have its own unique energy signature, but so does each individual city. Brussels does not feel (energy-wise) at all like Zürich, nor does Zürich feel at all like Berlin. It wasn’t long before I began examining American cities and while I personally find it far easier to connect to the land in Europe, American cities have their own unique charm and personality too and the energy can be just as powerful and useful. We may just have to search a little harder.
Let’s use Berlin as an example. I shall attempt to avoid singing the praises of this city. Suffice it to say, I fell in love with Germany’s capital. The first time I sang to Thor and blessed my apartment there and felt such an immense connection with the land and with my ancestors (who, on my maternal side, are German and Swiss), I knew I had something to learn whilst on that soil. It was as though the land itself rose up to meet me. The land spirits, certain ancestors (for those of us who have European ancestors) are much more immediately accessible in Europe and while I’m not sure exactly why that is (I have my suspicions) it made ritual, devotional and magical work much easier. I suspect this may be due to the continuity of culture, language and blood lines sustained by and sustaining each individual place. Regardless, it was an amazing experience and having had that experience once on foreign soil, I believe it is possible to bring that awareness of the power of the land, of the way in which the land itself can awaken one to the Gods and ancestors, and to the myriad ways in which the land energy can change and grow back to my work in the United States.
Because there is so much recorded folklore and history for the land, the people and the cities themselves, Europe is a treasure trove of magical places. Berlin, for instance, has a secluded pond in Tempelhof, a sub-district of the city. It has extensive folklore connecting it to the Goddess Hela and is in fact called Hella’s Pond. Ironically (and fittingly for this Goddess of Death), it is bordered by a cemetery and a craftsman’s shop selling headstones. Hela’s presence is quite palpable. Going there, which I did several times to make offerings, made me wonder why I had never bothered to find such special places in New York City. I realize that New York doesn’t have the Germanic folklore going back hundreds and hundreds of years, but it does have its places of power. Connecting with Hela at the pond in Berlin made me look at New York in a completely new way and that is one of the things that I would like to share with you: regardless of the city in which you live, there are sacred places, places of power, places redolent with the presence of the Gods. All one has to do is mindfully look for them. A good place to begin is with honoring and making offerings to the spirit of the city. Each city has a spirit associated with it. The spirit of NYC is called New York City. The spirit of Paris, is called Paris, etc. The name of the spirit is the name of the city. They can be contacted and honored like any other vaettir. When I realized this, I was ashamed at how long I’d gone without paying any attention or reverence to New York City spirit, especially given that this spirit had sustained me and looked after me for many long, hard, hungry years. It’s never too late, however, to begin honoring the major spirit of the place upon which one lives.
The most important item that I carried with me throughout my sojourn in Berlin and my travels in Belgium and Switzerland was my travel altar. Creating a travel altar is a devotional act and meditation in and of itself. I’ve written extensively in other venues about the importance of altar work but I’ve never before emphasized the altar as a portable devotional tool. It can be, nor are they difficult to make. Travel altars can be as individually unique as the person creating them. Mine started out as a stationary box. I actually bought a set of Japanese greeting cards because I wanted the pretty box they came in to use as an altar container. To that I added an image of Loki and Thor (by Grace Palmer, an amazing artist who is contributing to Asphodel Press’s forthcoming “Jotun Tarot”), a small carving of Odin, items from my main altar that symbolize the Goddess Sigyn for me, a statue of Nerthus in a pouch with red ochre and a few other things, including coins, old fashioned keys (symbolic of several Norse Goddesses), and stones. I was later gifted with an altar cloth and of course, I included a small portable candle. It was simplicity itself but when traveling in a foreign country for an extended period of time, when ‘doing time’ as it were in strange hotels, it really helped to have the stability and comfort of my altar (albeit in miniature) to turn to. To my finished travel altar, I added my northern tradition prayer beads. This was the first thing I set up upon arriving at my student apartment and the last thing I took down.
To make your own travel altar, first find a small, portable box that you like. Cigar boxes are ideal and can of course be decorated by anyone possessing more arts and craft skill than I (which is almost everyone!). I once saw a cigar box that had been padded and covered in lovely paper, satin lined and altered to include a small drawer. It was amazing. I however lack that skill so my poor little stationary box had to suffice. Once you have your box, decide upon a representational image of the God and/or Goddess with which you resonate most strongly. It can be a statue, if you can find one small enough, or a picture or a stone, or anything that fits in the box that speaks to you of that Deity. Then perhaps add elemental symbols: incense, feathers, stones, sacred oil, earth, a candle, etc. (if that is part of your practice). I also chose to add two pieces of driftwood for my ancestors. In Norse Cosmology, humans were first created by Odin, Hoenir and Lodhur out of two pieces of driftwood so for me, this symbolizes my ancestors. But if you want to include pictures of specific ancestors that is an excellent idea as well. Add whatever you like to make this a working altar for yourself. I have seen travel altars in cigar boxes and I have also seen them in small altoid tins. The size and contents are completely open to your own imagination.
I also suggest taking a journal with you. Traveling in a foreign country, particularly if the Gods and Goddesses you honor have a history of worship in that particular country, can be a powerfully different way of connecting to those Deities. It can teach you things about your Gods and about connecting to Them that can be quite surprising. It’s a chance to see a different side to your Deities and to expand your comfort zone a little bit. Keeping a journal of prayers, meditations, insights, and experiences while traveling can both be enlightening and provide a valuable “souvenir” to take home with you. It’s an opportunity to bring sacred mindfulness into even the most mundane of journeys. Try to set aside time nightly to write about your day and then see what experiences and insights that day may have brought.
If you are traveling to an area that forms part of your ancestral map, then you have another wonderful opportunity to both honor and reconnect with your dead. Make offerings to your ancestors, even if only a glass of water set upon your altar. Take the time to re-establish your relationship with them, to invite them to come into your life again. If you have the opportunity to visit the towns and villages that your ancestors came from, all the better, but if not, the experience can still be immensely rewarding. Do be careful when collecting soil, water, or stones – all of which I have done in the past for various altars. Sometimes the spirits of the land are fine with this, but sometimes they want to stay exactly where they are. Be respectful and ask first—you’ll know. You’ll get a sense whether or not it is appropriate to take them with you.
Of course, one doesn’t have to travel abroad to have such a powerful experience with the land, the Gods, or one’s ancestors. With the right approach, one can experience just as powerful a connection right in one’s hometown. For those of us who work with energy, who work magic, or who practice a religion that believes in honoring the land, I think it is very important to be mindful of the land we inhabit here and now. It’s wonderful to honor one’s ancestral lands but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the place we’re living at the moment. Magic is as much about waking up to what’s right in front of your nose as it is about crafting the future or drawing from the wisdom of the past. I think this is something many of us often forget. Connecting with the here and now is as important as connecting with and honoring the ancestors. So, here are a few steps that you can take to learn to work with the energy of your own city in a mindful, vital and useful way. It will enrich your practice a thousand times over.
First, learn the folklore of your city. Every city, no matter how young has its story. Find a good book on your town or city’s history. What groups of people settled there? Was there a native presence? Are there places thought to be haunted? Are there interesting tales or urban folklore associated with particular spots? What is your own history within your city ( i.e. were you born there and if not what drew you to your particular town?). These are all good ways of getting to know the spirit and energy of your hometown and that is the first step toward incorporating that awareness into your regular work.
Next, visit places of interest to you, whether it be a museum or a park or even a specific neighborhood. Visit those places that have unique or particularly interesting folklore attached to them. Walk around your town or city and try to look at it in a new way: try to map its energy. Really pay attention to the flow of energy as you walk and see how it changes, where it’s blocked, what it’s like, etc.
Don’t just seek out magical places within your city but try to create your own. Find places that call to you and begin incorporating them into your meditations and ritual work. For instance, I know of a woman who has a special park in NYC, a very small mini-park set up in Morningside Heights. There is no particular folklore surrounding this park save that it was dedicated by the family of a woman who died on the Titanic. There is no history of magic or religious use of this site yet it speaks very strongly to my friend and for her has become a sacred place. She goes there often to meditate and it is her haven when she is exhausted or depressed. She told me once that she feels it easier to reconnect to the Gods there, when she needs to recharge her awareness of that connection. So don’t let yourself be limited to specific places noted in books of folklore. Go out and explore and find your own sacred spots.
Honor the spirit of your city. If there are specific Deities associated with your city, perhaps – if you feel it appropriate—make an offering to them. If there are not, or you don’t know those Deities, make an offering to the spirit of the city itself. In Norse tradition, vaettir (singular: vaet) are land and nature spirits. The spirit of a city is something like a large vaet. Honor it as an ally just as you might honor spirit allies or ancestors. Develop a working relationship with it and see where that leads. For one of my friends, a devotee of Sigyn and Loki, it led to her becoming seriously involved in environmental work within her town (Monterey, CA). For another, it merely led to him becoming far more comfortable at living in the city as a practicing pagan and magician. It varies but it can add depth and dimension to your practice either way. Explore how your Gods can manifest, how Their presence can be felt and known in the city. While you’re at it, it’s a good idea to make regular offerings to the vaettir too. Beer and bread are good as are milk and honey and in the New World, they often like tobacco. The important thing to remember is that being Earth oriented is a temporal thing. It’s about the here and now as much as it may be about the past.
Find a place in your city that is dirty, polluted either physically with trash, or magically with energy and clean it up. Never neglect the absolutely practical solutions. Pick up trash in a park, on the beach, wherever you find it. It’s a matter of very practical respect. My adopted mother once put it this way: “love isn’t some sentimental abstraction. Love rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.” So does devotion.
The other thing you can do has more of a connection to ancestral veneration than it does to the magic of city living. When I was first visiting Hela’s Pond in Berlin, I stopped in to see the cemetery that is right next to it. I had quite a shock. German cemeteries or at least this German cemetery is beautiful. It looked like a nature park. The graves were not only well tended, but there was the palpable sense that these dead were honored in their own way, that they remained vital members of their families. People visited them and took care of their graves beautifully and in so doing honored and fed the spirit him or herself. It was a startling contrast to most American cemeteries that I have seen. There is a saying in Lukumi that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Therefore, honoring our ancestors should be a vital and valued part of any spiritual practice. Go to a local cemetery. Walk around and read the names on the headstones. Pour out offerings of water or beer. Clean up if the cemetery has trash in it or is dilapidated. Bring offerings to the dead, even if they are not YOUR dead and do so in the name of your own ancestors. Bring flowers, incense, alcohol—whatever you feel is appropriate (in American cemeteries, flowers are the most common gift to the dead) but extend a bit of care to the dead and consider making this an ongoing part of your devotional practice. Your own dead will thank you for it.
You may consider doing is something that was first suggested to me by a fellow gythia (priest). She is currently working on a year long project called the ’30 Day Altar Project.” The purpose of this year long project is “to help you reconsider the way you approach the Gods on a day to day basis by creating a public altar made up by simply living your life faithfully and taking the time to see the High Ones' influence all around you.” (www.altarproject.com). What do you have to do? Set up a public altar to the Deity of your choice after honoring that Deity regularly for a month. While the “30 Day Altar Project” is specifically for Norse Deities, there’s no reason that you couldn’t do this with any Deity on your own. Don’t rush out and buy things though, rather create the altar out of things you find while going about your every day life. Since the altars will be outside, try to make sure that whatever is included on the altar won’t harm the environment or any animals that may eventually come by and pick at it. Look at this act of creating a public (and albeit temporary) shrine as that of giving a gift to the God or Goddess of your choice. It is an offertory act connecting you both to that Deity and to the here and now of your own cityscape.
Better yet, if you have your own piece of land, set up an altar or shrine outside to the land spirits, a place where you can leave offerings. Put up a small cairn of stones, or any other thing you think they might like. Plant trees on either side or bushes or herbs. Keep it energetically clean and well tended. Make regular offerings. Make it a place of haven and sanctuary for the spirits of the land upon which you live.
I have created public altars in California, Berlin, and NYC and each time I have found the experience to be quite unique. Unlike creating and maintaining a permanent altar, where the energy is sustained over time, creating a public altar, an altar that you will then leave to the elements, animals and people, is a powerfully intense experience wherein the energy explodes in one act, one moment and then dissipates gradually over time, feeding the land itself. It is a new way of honoring the Gods within the framework of one’s city or town, of bringing an awareness of the Gods into the most mundane and temporal part of your life and of making a little doorway for those Gods through the creation of the altars, by which They may be experienced. Since materials for the altar are drawn from your daily travels, it also has the side effect of causing you to be more aware of where you’re going, what you’re seeing and what’s right under your nose! It is the perfect way to combine honoring the Gods with experiencing the energy and spirit of your city or town.
Don’t neglect the most mundane of actions either: recycling, composting (if you can), buying organic (if you can afford it), planting trees, picking up garbage, donating time or money to environmental organizations. These too are ways of tithing one’s time, energy, and attention in ongoing devotional practice. There is, after all, that well-known Hermetic saying: As above, so below. In other words, where the devotion of our minds and hearts go, so should our earthly time, efforts and attention follow.
When all this is said and done, consider making a pilgrimage to sites either of ancestral importance, or to sites sacred to the Gods you honor. For instance, I went to Bubendorf, to make offerings to my ancestors in the little village they came from and then I went to the Rhine, to make offerings to Father Rhine, Andvari, and Loki. We don't have a tradition of pilgrimage in Paganism or Heathenry, not like in Christianity, but maybe we should. I've found that going to these places, making these offerings, connecting with the Gods or spirits in such a manner gives one's spirit roots. It opens, changes, and connects us to who we are, where we come from, and why we do what we do like nothing else.
In closing, I think the main thing to remember when learning to work with the energy of your city is that no matter where you stand, no matter where you are, you’re standing on sacred ground. You’re standing on the body of a God or a Goddess (Ymir, Geb, Gaea, Erda, depending on your religion). Wherever you walk is holy.
Auf Wiedersehen and Viel Glück!
1. The 30 Day Altar Project: http://www.altarproject.org/
2. “The Urban Primitive” by Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein
3. Northern Tradition Prayer beads: http://www.cauldronfarm.com/prayerbeads/index.html#north
4. Grace Palmer’s Artwork: http://www.necropolisstudios.net/