How is the genus loci recognised as our multi-sensory world awakens in the rebirth of the land at Springtime? In attentive observation, when walking and sitting, humans imagine the ephemeral qualities of place into more anthropomorphic forms. Understanding of energies, arises through story, poetry, and every rock, tree and spring gains an identifiable spirit, which can then be named and assigned a personality. In Ireland the 'feeling' or 'spirit' is transferred into the story of the place... Ireland land of poets and scholars.
on the Preservation of Spirit of Place, 2008
Spirit of place is defined as:
the tangible (buildings, sites, landscapes, routes, objects)
and the intangible
elements (memories, narratives, written documents, rituals,
festivals, traditional knowledge, values, textures, colours, odours,
that is to say the
physical and the spiritual elements that give meaning, value, emotion
and mystery to place.
Take the distant view
This is the view over Dundalk and the Irish Sea from Old Faughart graveyard.
A wise geology
professor taught his students, 'never rush into a landscape'. Stand
back, take in the form of the countryside; the green rolling hills,
the flat plain where the blue sky fills fifty percent of your view,
the grey cliff faces of old worked quarries, the dark lakes trapped
in the mountains as the Ice Age glaciers receded.
P. W. Joyce, an Irish historian and researcher, in his The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, written in 1910, expressed his understanding from a very Victorian viewpoint, yet much of his information is still relevent today. He explains:
In an early stage of society, the people are in general very close observers of external nature. The sights and sounds by which they are surrounded the shapes and colours of hills, glens, lakes, and streams, the solemn voices of winds, waves, and waterfalls, the babbling of streams, the singing, chirping, and chattering of birds, the cries of various animals all these attract the observation and catch the fancy of a simple and primitive people.
The Irish peasantry were, and are still, full of imagination to a degree perhaps beyond those of most other countries..... it is certain that an examination of our local name system will show that the people who built it up were highly imaginative and sensitively alive to the natural phenomena passing around them.
Observing our local landscape we usually first notice a predominent colour in the land – red earth where there is a high level of iron, yellow clay, white chalk, swathes of a many shaded woodland or a hillside of bright primroses.
For instance the Hill
of Tara is in the townland of Caslteboy which means Yellow Castle.
Perhaps this refers to a covering of yellow earth or from the flowers
as, to this day, the hillside can be covered with the bright yellow,
coconut aroma, of gorse / furze. The local goddess of Sovereignty
is Medb Lethderg, translated as Maeve of the red side. Is it a
coincidence that the red, chalybeate rich, St. John's Well is in this
Gorse on the western hillside of Tara,
in the area of the Sloping Trenches.
Red stained stone at St. John's Well, Warrenstown
– no longer accessible by the public
Other examples of place names include: Dublin meaning a black pool, Bawnboy suggests there was a protective wall (bawn) which was possibly yellow from the clay which covered it. Carroroe includes the word Rua which connects to red.
All colour effects our moods, and coloured light can be used to heal (chromotherapy) as it enhances our sense of well being,. Green, for instance, is the dominant colour in nature. A lush fertile area might include 'glas' or green in its name. It is recognised nowadays that an outdoor walk will bring us into balance and harmony and has a gentle influence upon both mind and body. Thus the spirit of a green mossy space around say, a healing well, will be felt as benign and healing.
However, lakes can be seen as brooding even dangerous places. There can be a sense of foreboding where the waters look inky black, partly from the infusion of dark brown peat, partly by the reflection of the dark sides of the surrounding hills. Loughduff, Loughdoo, and Doolough, all mean black lake. It is easy to imagine mysterious monsters inhabiting these places and stories of these are passed down through the generations -
When Saint Senan was in the Island of Scattery he banished many serpants. The biggest one was banished to Doolough Lake. He took three jumps from Saint Senan's Lake to Doolough Lake. He had to eat a trout and a half every day.
Yet the landscape is never purely one colour. Our three dimensional world has many shades and hues bringing in the concept of speckled. Breac [brack] signifies speckled or parti-coloured. Different forms of vegetation, species of tree, rocks, angle at which the sunlight falls on a hillside, creates lush green areas and dry upland, presenting a speckled or spotted appearance. In 1601, the Four Masters mention a place in Galway called Coill-bhreac, now Kylebrack, a speckled wood from a mixture of various coloured trees.
Go out of the door,
wrap up warm in coat, scarf, warm woolen socks and gloves, and you
will still sense the action of the elements of earth, air, fire and
Earth, offering it's stability, nurturing fertility and strength is dark brown, covered by waxy green leaves of winter plants, pillows of white ice crackling under our feet. Looking towards the far horizon see the blue haze of winter's humidity, and if you are lucky see the orange / red vitality of the low lying sun. A red breasted robin balances on a precariously thin stem of a blackened dead plant... it seems as if the we inhabit a sleeping enchanted land. We breathe in the cold air, breath in life, and breathe out a white watery mist.
Prevailing winds in Ireland tend to be west south-westerly with easterly winds occurring most often in spring, from Imbolc in February to Bealtaine in May. We feel the wind on our face and hear it blowing through the trees, over the moorlands, as if strange voices whispered and echoed through the land. We see it rippling water on the streams and lakes, conjuring up a further experience of the spirit of place.
Tim Robinson writes about it in his Connemara trilogy, Listening to the Wind....
Each tree has room to face in all directions (which is what distinguishes the presence of a tree from that of an animal). The limbs of the first oaks that we stepped between flowed up and out through the air with slight bends like those of a slow river.
Yet in Ireland the impression does not stop with the sight and sound of the wind. The Middle Irish religious cantos, titled Saltair na Rann “Psalter of Quatrains” written in the 10th century, advises us that:
God also made the colours of the winds, so that the colours of all those winds are different from each other.
Clockwise, north is black, then speckled, dark purple, yellow, red, white, greyish green, green, pale, dark brown, grey.
This is not as strange a concept as it first appears. Synesthesia is
an accepted perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense
leads to an automatic, involuntary experience in a second sense.
Chromesthesia or sound-to-colour synesthesia is where heard sounds
automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of colour.
Recognising the genus
loci involves being aware of your surroundings, and what happens when
you visit a place. What appears and catches your attention? Is
Yeats communicating with the spirits of nature in this famous verse?
Is this an account of a meeting with the spirit of place?
William Butler Yeats - The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood, (Hazel, whose nuts feed the salmon of knowledge, is used for dowsing and divining, and a hazel wood may be home to the sidhe.)
Because a fire was in my head, and cut and peeled a hazel wand, and hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing, And moth-like stars were flickering out, (a white moth may be a departed soul, is a night time flyer suggesting the dark Otherworld)
I dropped the berry in a stream and caught a little silver trout.( Here is a shape-shifting trout into a glimmering girl who Aengus, god of love, searches for in the land. )
When I had laid it on the floor I went to blow the fire aflame, but something rustled on the floor, and some one called me by my name: It had become a glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair who called me by my name and ran and faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
and walk among long dappled grass,
and pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
(And finally a reference to the apples – there are some that believe Ireland is Avalon – using the traditional colours of silver for the moon and gold for the sun, bringing the universal concepts into earthly realms.)
At Samhain we recognised aes sidhe as almost ephemeral spirits of place, present but often veiled, existing in a realm parallel to ours and only sometimes accessible. They may be known as active guardians / protectors to the area and to some extent all that lives there, but they are mostly known through stories and legends passed down the generations. Imbolc sees our interest turned to Brigid, perhaps ancient goddess of the land, and certainly Christian saint, one of the three patron saints of Ireland (with Patrick and Columba). Her story is well known and her presence more tangible than the aes sidhe. Statues are erected in her name and holy relics stored in churches.
The country of Ireland is often referred to as her green mantle. In legends Brigid symbolically spreads her mantle over part of Kildare and claims the land for herself and for her church foundation. Those on the land come under her mantle, her protection and it is a blessing to be placed faoi bhrat Bhríde sinn (under Brigid's mantle).
Of course this healthy green-ness of the vegetation arises because of the superb Irish climate, where salty sea water, travelling in the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean, brings both warmth and abundant rainfall. These conditions result in many rainbows.
Bridging the land and
heaven, rainbows, multi-coloured and magical, are connected to the
spiritual manifestation of place. Treasure is found where the
rainbow touches the ground.
association is personified in Brigid's rainbow story. Caught in a
rainstorm, she hangs her mantle on a sunbeam to dry. Dripping from
its edges, colourful rainbows form in the water droplets, and her
mantle is 'bright' with colour.
Another story connects
to a similar imagery - the rainbow cloak of Manannán mac lir. His
cloak is also invoked for protection and it had the properties of
changing colour to blend with a particular time of day, blue-green to
silver in daylight and purple in the evening. It became the grey
mist or sea fog, providing a veil of invisibility and thus safety.
Colours connected to Brigid include:
White (geal) is her
colour, and symbolizes purity. White in the environment brings to
mind the pristine snowy landscape during her festival in early
It is also the colour of her sacred food – milk and milk products. As an infant she would tolerate no impure food, and was fed on the milk of a white skinned, red eared cow. This immediately infers the symbolism of an otherworldly spirit. The colours are also repeated in the red, white and black oystercatcher that is called Brigid’s bird.
According to Robert Graves, one of her symbols was the White Swan.
Black the town yonder,
Black those that are in it,
I am the White Swan,
Queen of them all.
Boinne, goddes of the River Boyne in Meath, is also anciently connected to white. Her name is interpreted as white cow, bó find. And here there is another connection to milk, as her river is likened to the Milky Way. And what constellation travels along the Milky Way? Cygnus the Swan. So many layers of symbolic meaning that come to us when we start linking to the spirit of place! Sometimes it is best to 'keep it simple' as we over interpret what we feel, and yet we do need to satisfy all realms of being, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual when sensing our environment and living / interacting with it.
Green (glas). An old
name for Brigid was Brighid of the Tribe of the Green Mantles. And
Ireland is known as the Emerald Isle.
At Imbolc, as green
shoots appear through the dark cold earth we have the promise of
Spring, of renewed life, and the spirit of place changes as the
warming sun melts the drifts of snow and ice. How we feel, sense and
experience the genus loci can indeed change with the seasons.
In Christian tradition, her mantle is blue, which is also associated
with the Virgin Mary.
If we are
familiar with the legends and myths we know that blue, along with
green, crimson, red and purple were reserved for royalty in Ireland.
Immediately we see a figure out of the corner of our eye, and notice that they are wearing these colours. We know that we are in the presence of an important essence of the environment.
Red (ruadh) is also her
colour - the colour of the flames in the hearth and of the fires in
her forge. Brigid is described variously as flame or red haired.
The green / red associations continue with the description of Bodb Derg (Red Lord) and his followers in Tain Bo Cuailgne thus:
There was no person among them that was not the son of a king or a queen. They all wore green cloaks, and they wore kilts with red inter-weavings, and borders or fringes of gold thread upon them …
Our experience of connecting to the spirit of place may change with the seasons. We see, hear, smell and sense the many aspects of the Genus Loci at different times of year. An area full of life affirming bright blossoms in the summer may be apparently dead in the winter, black and brown leaves and twigs abandoned and scattered on the ground.
By relating these changes to the maiden, mother and crone aspects of the triple land goddess we can attribute human intentions, traits and emotions, to these differences and imagine non-human beings active, setting life in motion, in the landscape.
The plants are often a
guide to the active expression of the energy of the time and of the
place spirit. Look around you and be amazed.
Noticing these changes,
and bringing plants into our life and ceremony, we share in the
wonders of earth and acknowledge the genus loci. Flowers in ceremony
Imbolc – the maiden goddess is symbolised by the purity and innocence of white dew bejewelled snowdrops, gentle and apparently fragile these little plants are tough and bold bursting through the frozen ground, the first stirrings of Spring.
Spring Equinox – joyful golden yellow or deep royal purple of crocus and merry daffodils, naturally yellow but also in pinks, whites, creams and orange, remind us of what has lain waiting in the ground, the bulbs ready when the time is right to burst forth. White and pink cherry and apple blossom promises an abundant future harvest.
Bealtaine – fresh green leaves and foliage burst forth in hedgerows and fairy hawthorn trees' white flowers form drifts across the land, as if the snow had returned. Under the still bare woodland canopy peaceful bluebells nod, releasing a subtle scent. Most flowers bloom in the Spring and our attention is heightened as they call to us for admiration and praise.
Summer Solstice – the mother goddess, her blood colours representing the life force which is full and strong, coursing through all of nature, springs up in vibrant orange/red poppies, their passion warmed in the heat of the sun. We feel most alive and nurtured in the summer.
Lammas – the land is
still green, with sunlight and wispy clouds playing every shade over
the hillsides and harvest rich fields. From gold and yellow to
deepest orange, warming and ripening energies are expressed in the
beige and brown of expanding food grains and grasses.
Autumn Equinox – red of ripened apples and abundant black and red berries continue the harvest theme as the earth mother shares her cornucopia of abundance.
Samhain – yellow, orange and red fire colours are a last hurrah of autumnal leaves as many of the plants and trees withdraw their life force, the mother goddess growing more restful and ready to put her feet up.
Winter Solstice – the
crone goddess in her guise of all absorbing black of the lengthening
night exhibits the colour of darkness when all rests, recalling the
stark truth and wisdom of life and the deep mystery of it all. In
this state we are reminded of eternity by the evergreen, spiked, waxy
dark green leaves and vibrant blood red berries of holly, yew and
Lost by David Wagoner, from Collected Poems 1956-1976
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.
written by Nora J
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Other articles on the Genus Loci are Aes Sidhe and Cuilenn - Holly