One thing that both the Irish and Norse culture share is a fairly similar view of Otherworldly spirits, often in modern times called fairies. Since honoring, connecting, and working with these spirits is, and always has been, the main aspect of my practice it probably isn't that surprising that I feel drawn to both systems of belief. My own views are based equally on study and experience, although talking about the latter is challenging for me. What I have found though is that many modern pagans and recons have vastly different views on this subject than I do, although I'm not entirely sure why. Where I see real beings that are powerful and intelligent, others talk about caricatures of elemental forces, simplified and minimal, or myths from the past that are treated as a thing of the past. Sometimes I wonder if many of the people talking about the spirits really even believe in them at all, or if it's just an intellectual exercise.
People talk about connecting to spirits of sacred places or wanting to go visit somewhere that has a reputation for certain spirits, when there are plenty of Otherwordly beings around us where we are. Even cities have their own spirits that abide in them. And when people do acknowledge the spirits where they live they do it in ways that often strike me as odd, although I am obviously only speaking my own opinion here. So this blog is going to be mostly my opinions and views about the spirits of the land and of the Otherworld, and I will say up front that this is all very real to me. Before I knew the pagan gods, before I had any religion to speak of, I knew the aos sidhe; that connection is the bedrock of my belief and my practice.
Firstly there is the assumption that to connect to local spirits we must understand the local beliefs about those spirits. Now on the one hand I will never argue against research and a better understanding of another cultures' views. But, honestly, I think this can get over-intellectualized; if you want to know the spirits of the area you live in (or your home) then get out there and make the effort to get to know them. Do it and let them get to know you, without getting caught up in what names to use or what offerings are traditional - that part should come organically over time. What matters is reaching out. Obviously in some cases they may just have no interest in you, or even feel antipathy, and if that happens respect it and leave them alone. But I digress. My point here is that what matters is making the effort. In my own experience I don't think any one type of spirit is limited to one culture or area, but rather that different cultures found names to describe the same type of spirit, just the same as animals and plants were named from one area and culture to another. Variations exist, to be sure, but not so dramatically that a person couldn't make an offering to the spirit of the local river even if they don't know its mythic history.
I realize this is a broad generalization, and will not be true of everyone - I certainly know people personally who are exceptions to what I'm about to say - but in general I have found that many pagans tend to take an oddly bifurcated approach to the denizens of the Otherworld, separating them into two groups (like the title of this blog) as if they really were separate, when the reality is much more simple and far more complicated. Being animists most will acknowledge spirits-of-place and objects like trees and rivers but it seems to be done in a superficial way, either imagined as vague feelings of awareness, or as primitive sentience, particularly when spirits-of-place are brought up. There is also an idea that these spirits exist only out in nature, and while it may be true that many prefer not to be near human habitations, for a variety of reasons, there are plenty enough that don't mind. Otherworldly beings are viewed anywhere from the stereotypical Victorian fairies to comical or mischievous to elemental forces, but again rarely seen with any real personality or depth. I can't even tell how many times I've heard or seen people referring to all beings of the Otherworld as if they were plant spirits or guardians of our natural world. As if anything with the Aos sidhe was that simple or clear cut. I think what probably bothers me the most, personally, is that there is often an almost condescending attitude about the spirits, as if they require us to care for them, or conversely, as if they exist only to guide us. In my own worldview we do not rank above the spirits in the grand scheme of Power, rather we are at one end of the scale with the Gods at the other and the multitude of spirits inbetween.
The traditional belief in both Irish and Icelandic culture is that there are a wide array of Spirit beings, and that these beings can bring luck or harm depending on their mood, inclination, and your actions. In Norse belief these beings can include everything from the dead to land spirits, from Alfar (elves) to trolls and other "faery" type beings. In the Irish there is a similar view that the aos sidhe may include the dead, the taken, spirits of particular places, and an almost endless variety of beings, from Pixies to the Alfar-like nobility. The beings of the Otherworld can grant luck and healing, or can torment people and bring illness or death. In Iceland even up to today this belief remains strong enough that roads and other construction are often done with the Elves in mind, lest they be angered. In Ireland within the last ten years roads have been rerouted or redesigned to avoid cuttng down or pulling up faery trees, an act which is believed to curse the people responsible.
The coat of arms of Iceland features the image of four landvaettir, or land spirits, a dragon, bird, bull, and giant, who are believed to stand at the cardinal points and protect the island to this day. And here we can see the first difference between traditional belief and the common modern belief, because the land spirits (landvaettir) are not seen as vague consciousness at all but as physical spirits with form, awareness and intent. In the same way the faeries are seen as being dangerous to those who disturb them or destroy what belongs to them, not as harmless little creatures or as gentle guides for us. Faeries are not angelic beings, out for our greater good, but rather are independent sentient beings who may or may not be willing to help us, usually at a price.
Although it is true that dealing with the spirits is always a tricky thing, and often dangerous, it is also true that it can be beneficial and in many ways is, I think, necessary. Historically cultures have always had someone who acts as an intercessory between human society and these beings, and so we still have them today, but it is not required to become a fairy a doctor or seidhr worker to respect and honor the spirits around us. One way to build a relationship with your local spirits is to leave regular offerings; generally milk, cream, or honey work well. I do understand that not everyone perceives Otherworldly beings and that for those who can't see or speak to spirits it really is an act of faith to connect to something that can't be "verified" as it were. But hasn't that always been the way of it? For every man or woman who sees them and for every story spread about interactions with them, there are hundreds more who never see them or even sense them in any way, yet still believe and incorporate honoring them into daily life. At a minimum, if offerings are more than you want to do, at least think of the Otherworldly beings around you - whether ghosts, spirits-of-place, or fairies - as you might your human neighbors. Be polite, be considerate, show respect.
Elves, wights, and Trolls - K. Gundarsson