Honoring City Spirits - Part II
One of the first things I realized when I started honoring city spirits actively was A) how varied and individual their personalities are and B) there is a protocol for engaging with them, particularly as the relationship is first being established. Now that first point should have been a given for me; after all, as an animist it makes sense: spirits are individuals. I don't know why it came as such surprise to me that talking to New York City was different from talking to Paris who was different again from Venice or Washington or Berlin or Köln but it did. I suspect in my case, it was largely a matter of not having had much facility for sensing city spirits for a very long time and then suddenly finding myself able to engage. There was a real moment of cognitive disconnect to realize how much NYC had taken care of me and watched out after me when I'd been all but oblivious to his presence. Then there was the awareness that sometimes there isn't just one governing spirit in a city. New York City for instance has at least two: a spirit of NYC that I experience as male, and the spirit of Manhattan, a very angry (and justly so) Native spirit that reads to me as female. We'll come back to that in a bit. Then of course each borough has its own spirit and each neighborhood within that. It's a general rule of thumb in doing this work that the name of the spirit is the same as the name of the city, the name of the borough spirit is the name of the borough and so on.
My mentors when I began honoring city spirits were actually a city spirit herself (Paris) and a river spirit (the Seine). They introduced me to the fact that one could engage and gave me an introduction in doing so properly. They were surprisingly gentle (though Paris can be extremely formal and harsh, even dismissive, with those she does not deem worth her attention), perhaps because there was a family connection there through my adopted mom. I actually developed quite a crush on the Seine--he's a flirtatious, playful spirit of tremendous age and wisdom and quite beautiful. Yet he never came across as jaded to me and he was more than willing to chat and answer my questions. It was a good introduction.
From Paris, I came home to New York and began applying what I had learned. Then, every time I travelled, I would make a point to seek out the city spirit, introduce myself, and make offerings. I did this of course as best I could, formal or informal depending on what I sensed from each individual spirit itself. It wasn't until I went to London (quite recently I might add) that I got another serious lesson in the proper way to do such work. The lessons London gave me involved introductory protocol. Now, before I continue, I should point out that this is what I was given and what works for me and what I will probably teach those who come to me when they ask how to work with city spirits. People doing this work on their own however, might be given other instructions. We're dealing with sentient beings after all; so the best I can counsel is to use this as a guide, and then allow the working relationship to develop to the mutual benefit and satisfaction of all parties involved.
I always get a little annoyed with the expectation that as a shaman or spirit-worker, or even as a Pagan and polytheist, I'll be "nature - oriented." I'm really not. I work much better with city spirits and I'm much more comfortable with them. Moreover, city spirits are more accustomed to dealing with people and adapt more readily to our nonsense. There's a shared history there, a symbiosis and the power dynamic is quite different from that which exists between rural areas and their inhabitants and a different thing again from unpopulated nature. One type of spirit is not better than the other, but we all have our likes and dislikes and our affinities. My strongest affinity is definitely for city spirits and their environs.
I knew, courtesy of other allies, that London would be a powerful alliance for me - for a number of personal and past life reasons-if I could cultivate its acquaintance properly. I began making offerings before I left my home in New York, and asking my ancestors and the spirit of my town to help broker the relationship. What this did for me was pattern my mind and energy to be particularly receptive to the promptings of London spirit well before I ever arrived. I gave myself a head start. I'll let you in on a little secret about elemental work too: any given elemental spirit (and city spirits are a type of earth vaettir) is connected to every other elemental spirit of that particular element. In other words, every spirit of earth has a connection to every other spirit of earth. They can communicate. So it was perfectly possible to ask the spirit of my town to play go-between for me.
Once in the UK, as the plane was landing and during the ride to my hotel I carefully greeted London, introduced myself, and expressed a wish that we could later engage and begin building a working relationship. Later that day, after I'd gotten settled in at the hotel, I got a very strong push from the city spirit to promenade myself. I hadn't been expecting this; in fact, I had no idea what to expect. I was informed, however, that this initial promenading was part of the expected protocol when meeting a new city spirit for the first time. So, I put my coat on and went out (my sister in tow) walking where the city itself directed. I was led right down to Parliament and Big Ben, past the Old War Office, the Cenotaph and other military monuments. I was directed to walk around there for about an hour and then leave offerings, which I did. The next day, I went to visit the RAF memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and later I was directed to visit a cemetery and leave offerings.
I hadn't thought anything of this until speaking to a group of native Londoners. I noticed that many of them referred to the St. Paul's Cathedral area as the heart of the city, though that wasn't my experience at all. As an outsider, when I was told to go to the heart of the city, I was then specifically directed to the heart of Westminster: the seat of the government. I finally asked a couple of colleagues about it and my experience generated a bit of excitement. Unbeknownst to me (though my friends quickly explained) London is made up of two cities: the city of Westminster and the city of London. It made perfect sense that someone with a military orientation, in service to the military dead, who had been connecting very strongly to WWI and WWII dead since setting foot on English soil would be directed to the governmental center. After this, I went to St. Paul's and then to part of an old Roman wall also in the city of London and made offerings there too, though my connection with London city spirit was much lighter than with Westminster city. I did this out of respect and to be polite.
Cities remember so much. They've watched generations after generations of human folly and suffering, success, and hope, failure and joy pass by. They have much to teach. I mention above that I do quite a bit of work with the military dead and this was very much at the fore while I was in London. Both city spirits made it so. I was there during the anniversary of the bombing of London. It's one thing to know as an academic, that WWII had a tremendous effect on London and its citizens but quite another to feel the presence of the military dead, to sense the memories of the city spirits, to run one's hands over the charred walls of a building still pitted with shrapnel marks, or to talk with an old man who had been a little boy during the bombing and hear his tales of how he would collect the shrapnel, white and gleaming, when the raids ceased. The entire time I was there, WWI and WWII tugged at my memory. The city shared its memories, its experiences, its grief, and its will to endure and sustain its people and more than once upon going out, I found myself paying homage. Cities do that: they wake one up to things past. They can share their experiences and connect one to the moments that scarred it the most, and thus defined it. London is a magnificent city. It has valor. One thing I noticed too: not a single military monument, no matter in how obscure a place, was bereft of decoration. All of them had at least wreaths of paper poppies and most had more, offerings left by a people that remember the sacrifices of her past.
Every city has its story. Because there's not really a template, a 101 book for doing this type of land work, one way for people to start engaging with their city spirit is to take time to learn their city's history. Learn its secret places, it's stories, its folklore. Learn how it was built, learn all the names it has born and how it built its relationship with the people that live in and off it. Talk to your city spirit, show an interest in building a relationship. Leave offerings--you'll get a sense as you do this work of what offerings your spirit likes. If in doubt, good clean water poured out is always good, a little tobacco (remove the filter since that's not biodegradable) is also usually acceptable. It's a good place to start anyway. When doing this type of work, you may find yourself pushed to be more diligent about recycling, or pushed to volunteer time cleaning up a city park. This is a good and concrete way of honoring the spirit. It's painfully easy to forget the practical, physical component to all of this but it's an important part of this work. It does no good to talk about honoring a city spirit while befouling the city streets with garbage.
One thing that took me awhile to grasp, and so I pass it on: when you are leaving offerings to an elemental spirit, make sure that they're biodegradable. Do not give in offering, if you can help it, that which will violate the health of the element. For instance, if i want to give a pie to land spirits, I won't set out the pie in the pie tin. I'll remove it from the tin and give only that which nature can devour without harm. Likewise, I don't leave out anything that might harm the animals of the area. I try to keep my offerings organic, humanely harvested, and biodegradable. Anything you do to make the city a better and more humane place, can be done as a mindful offering to its spirit.
That concludes part two of this series. In part three, I will discuss how to incorporate altar and shrine work into one's work with city spirits, particularly valuable in honoring spirits of cities in which one does not live. Lest this sound strange, it's worth remembering that some cities, like ancient Rome, had their own temples and were revered as nearly divine.
In the meantime, I encourage readers to post their questions, or email me privately at tamyris at earthlink.net. I"ll answer your questions in the next part of this series so please don't hesitate to contact me. Now go outside and pour out an offering to the spirit of the place where you live. Honor its genius loci, the spirit of place in return for its supporting you. It's a good and gracious place to begin.
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