December is the time when Roman polytheists honor the rivers and the hills.
My first experience with a God was with the River God of the Kennebec River in Maine. When I met the Kennebec, She was wild and untamed in spite of being dammed for over a hundred years. (Note 1) (Note 2). My family lived at the meeting of this river with the Dead River at The Forks. Although the Dead River is considered a branch of the Kennebec, it has a different nature. According to my late grandfather (former Maine Guide), this river was called “Dead” since it took so many lives of people trying to travel the river. While the Dead was quiet and menacing. I could sense that the Kennebec did not tolerate humans very much either.
Since then, I have met the acquaintances of other River Gods. The ancient God of the Potomac of Washington D.C. is so primordial that He is beyond language. The New River of West Virginia, although more primeval, is amused by humans and their activities.
One place that I have had direct experiences of land spirits is Western Maryland. This mountainous region has vast forests, meandering creeks, and wild rivers. It was first traversed by various Native American nations who warred with each other. Later the combatants of the French and Indian War and U.S. Civil War left their imprint with battles. Besides this bloody history, phantom beasts, unquiet ghosts, and odd people inhabited the area. (The most famous beasts are the Dwayyo, a werewolf-like creature and the Snallygster, a reptilian-avian creature.) The nexus of all this weirdness is South Mountain, which is an extension of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The strangeness of Western Maryland includes experiencing displacement of time and space. Returning home from Chambersburg (PA), I went through an unknown portal. I found myself navigating my car through a herd of mastodons, which were browsing on spruce trees. Dodging the hairy beasts, I kept going until I went through another portal back to my own time. I later found out that my experience was not that unusual for this area.
Echoing my experiences, Regis Boyer wrote in his forward of “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” by Claude Lecouteux. (Note 3), “We evolve within an inhabited ‘natural’ world, one in which the gods themselves, or the deified dead, are the cornerstone of reality. As a result it is a world that cannot conform to appearances.” (Note 4) Boyer further observed that the “Spirits of the Land” (Genii Loci) have been devalued, starting with Christianity. Even in modern times, the devaluing continues, but the Sacred still manifests Itself.
In examining ancient and medieval customs, Claude Lecouteux concluded that people once understood that they cohabited with the Spirits (Gods). Because of this, ancient peoples performed rituals, listened to oracles and made sacrifices. The folk customs of the medieval peoples such as the “rite of crossing a river” continued to fulfill this contract with the Spirits (and various Gods). Lecouteux continued, “they left us one essential law: mankind should live in harmony with the surrounding nature…. In order to prosper then, we must continue to honor the genii loci.” (Note 5).
Lecouteux interprets the ancients as asserting that the world is neither human nor spirit centered, but is full of spirits. Some are Gods, some are land or water spirits, but none are human. A wise person understands that they would have to co-exist with all of these Spirits, since they will encounter Them at times.
Recognizing the power of the Gods, Christianity sought to tame Them. The Church renamed various Gods as Saints, and built churches by sacred fountains and in groves. Those Spirits (and Gods) they could not tame, the Church called demons, who had been expelled from heaven. Meanwhile, lay people often saw these Spirits as dragons, fairies, or simply “The Little People.” No matter how much the Church (and later Science) sought to de-sanctify Them, the Gods still remained powerful.
The Gods of Water have many sacred places throughout Europe, which are still recognized. The Severn of the U.K. is named for an old British Goddess. The Rivers Boyne and Shannon in Ireland are named for the Gods Boann and Sinann respectively. The healing springs at Bath, England is the sacred place of Sulis, the Celtic Goddess of Healing. The Romans revered the Tiber River as Tiberinus. Each of these Gods received offerings from local peoples.
I, as a Roman Polytheist, do not see rivers, springs, mountains, and forests as aspects of “nature.” For me, They are not part of one divine entity such as “Mother Earth.” Each has their own power. Some heal, some kill, but all need to be respected. Bodies of water have yielded offerings of silver made by people, who understood the power of these Spirits. One does not enter a forest without permission nor drink from a spring. The Land and Water Spirits remain vigilant, ready to assert Themselves even in modern times.
Tourists like to white-water raft on the Kennebec and Dead Rivers. However, these rivers will claim lives as their due. The loggers who once drove logs down the rivers to the mills understood this. They knew these rivers took what was rightfully theirs.
Note 1. Gods and Spirits of the Land and Waters include Those of cities, forests, mountains, and streams.
Note 2. The dam was removed in 1997. Since then, She has reasserted Herself as a powerful, wild river.
Note 3. Lecouteux, Claude, “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” translated by Jon Graham. Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015. Lecouteux, who is French, specializes in the study of medieval folklore and magic. He taught at the Paris-Sorbonne University.
Note 4. Page x, Claude Lecouteux
Note 5. Page 182, Claude Lecouteux
Fair, Susan, “Mysteries and Lore of Western Maryland.” History Press: London. 2013.
Lecouteux, Claude, “Demons and Spirits of the Land,” translated by Jon Graham. Inner Traditions: Rochester (VT). 2015.
Rada, James, Jr., “Looking Back: True Stories of Mountain Maryland.” Legacy Publishing: Gettysburg (PA). 2017.