Blog Post 64 – City Spirits

Today’s post is going to be a little different.  I’m not going to cite any outside sources (at least, I don’t think I will…I may not be able to fight the urge).  Instead, I’m going to present some thoughts I have had which were spurred on by discussions about modernization last week, and in particular a comment from Crystal on Podcast 10.  She mentioned that as a city witch, she often feels the pull to get back to nature, which got me thinking:  can cities, buildings, and skylines be a part of nature, too?

Now, I know this isn’t an original thought, and that there are deeper philosophical questions here about whether people are a part of nature and therefore whether their creations are also a part of nature, but that’s not really what I’m getting at.  When I talk about “nature” above, I really mean the whole of nature, encompassing the spiritual dimension as well.  I’m thinking more in terms of whether the Otherworld might well have city elements in it.

Do buildings have specific spirits?  Like spirits of the land do?  Can you tap into a building’s spirit and use it in magic?  These are the questions that are swirling about in my head.  For example, there are definite precedents in hoodoo for using things like dirt from a courthouse or a bank or a hospital, because it’s assumed that the land upon which those structures reside will have absorbed a particular type of energetic influence which the root worker can then use for his or her own ends.  Is using that energy akin to using a little bit of the spirit of those places, or is the conjurer simply using accumulated human energy?

Even more to the point, are there places in cities that echo the kind of spiritual resonance found in locations like the Rollright Stones or Stonehenge?  After all, those structures were, at least to some extent, man-made (though I won’t begin to deny that they may be sitting on top of very particularly powerful places that have nothing to do with people).  But why can’t the Empire State Building or Beacon Hill in Boston or the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville have their own resident spirit (or spirits)?  And moreover, why not use places like that to do magic—not just in terms of collecting dirt or knick-knacks for spells, but actually deploying spells there, or finding subtle ways to contact spirits and interact with them in those locations?

For me, train stations have always had this very powerful Otherworldly significance.  I imagine that after death, there’s this sort of “waiting” place which always seems like a train platform to me.  Trains come and go, taking each person off to different post-mortem existences, or sometimes allowing them to just ride and enjoy the scenery for a bit.  There are food cars, drinks, other passengers to play cards with if being dead gets boring…er, at least, that’s how I envision it.  But lately I’m thinking that going to a train station is a lot like going to the Crossroads in traditional hoodoo practice.  I think I may try out a few things at our city train station and see how it goes.  If I do, I’ll be sure to post on that and let y’all know about it.

This is, of course, not an extensive discussion of this idea.  And there are probably lots of better sources for reading and thinking about urban magical practice than our little blog.  In fact, Velma Nightshade over at Witches Brewhaha recently did an episode discussing city witchery that’s well worth checking out (I couldn’t resist the opportunity to link to something).  But I just had to let some of these thoughts out, as they were making a lot of noise in my head and the gerbil that lives there was getting upset.

What about your thoughts and opinions?  Any strong inclinations on city magic?  Does it depend upon specific places?  Is there some way to turn a city landscape of concrete and steel into the same kind of magical place an ancient grove might be?   Do you practice this kind of city magic yourself?  Inquiring minds want to know!

Thanks for reading!

-Cory

PS – I will be closing the current polls at 5pm today, so if you still haven’t voted, please do!  See the top right of the sidebar to vote.

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11 Comments on “Blog Post 64 – City Spirits”

  1. YearInWhite Says:

    For me, I’d say the answer is a big resounding, “YES!” Places can certainly have power.

    I don’t know about converting an urban sprawl of concrete and steel into the same magical place as some ancient and overgrown grove, though… Instead, I think it’s more about using the different energies that suit the situation.

  2. Emma H Says:

    I’d definately say yes!

    I for one believe that there are a vast multitude of spirits in urban environments. Nymphs and other nature spirits in beautiful parks and gardens (and also artificial water ways. I live in central england, famous for it’s canals. I genuinely believe these canals accumulate spirits just like natural rivers, maybe even their own deities!).
    Similarly, I’m sure there are plenty of spirits that find homes in urban areas, perhaps because they have always been there, or perhaps they find the energy inviting. This is in addition to spirits that may just be passing through, spirits of sky and weather, sprits of our dead etc!!
    Finally, lets not forget the good old household spirits, known to different peoples for thousands of years!

    In addition to this, there are amazing currents of energy in cities. Have you ever just walked into a city centre and felt the energy there? It builds up like a well. You can practically see gods like Hermes walking in amongst the crowds. You can feel the life force of all those busy people, even the pigeons!
    In hospitals, you can feel Apollo walking between the beds, you can feel gods, spirits and energies drawn to the site.

    The city is just as alive and thriving as elsewhere. It just isn’t green! 😀

  3. Jae Says:

    Such an excellent post, for it made me once again, think of something one of my great-grandfathers said about sites that cities, churches, building are built upon: He pointed out that Washington,DC was built upon drained and swampy land, Cinci, Ohio is supposed to be upon a ley-line, things like that. And how energy of a place, the people inside over the decades can build up and attract, well, certain things.

    There is a prison right up the road here, been here since 1930 and sometimes, when I’ve over there, I swear, I can *see* the vast amounts of…what? Energy, tension, feeling, misery, fear, the prison is vastly over-crowded, violent prisoners mixed with non-violent ones! A lady said to me recently that someone well-trained or talented could easily tap into that vast well of energy and do all sorts of baneful things with it! I just did not ask. Of course, the big huge mega-churches sometimes affect me that way…they seem to be be fairly “rocking” with energy, resonating and vibrating in an almost visible manner.

    There is an old T.B. hospital not far from here and it totally scares me to think of all the local kids that sneak on there to spend the night. A place full of fear, suffering and most likely many terrible lingering deaths!? (Nevermind that many forms of TB germs live in the walls or dirt for decades and decades!) I am no expert, but it appears to me that someone intent on seriously cursing could use the dirt, leaves, energy of that place! Imagine it all, ooooh, I scared myself ! Seriously.

    An odd little thing that sort of ties in to what you’re discussing, is that when we moved here six years ago, I took long walks along roads and odd little alleys in town and there is this old street, that dead ends in a hollow with tall trees, a creek and lots of caves. This place scares me so badly, I won’t walk there any more. Doing some volunteer work at the local Historical Society, I found out….that over six lynchings were done there in the 1920s and 30s, including a mother and a daughter! A shantytown of some size was there clear up until the late sixties and the area was always notorious. But hangings, lynchings,. shootings? The little houses and shacks are gone, it’s all small homes with land around them and the hollows are full of woods and trees. Vultures seem to like hanging out in the trees! The lady at the Historical Society told me and gave the records of a terrible flu raging through there where people literally fled and left the sick and dying children and elderly…records from the U.S military surgeon that came to help! I’m rambling here but this place has spooked (no pun intended) family and friends that visited us and went for walks down that way too. It’s very pretty from a distance and the creek is fast-flowing and full of little rapids. (The Historical lady told me that was why the poorest and “shiftless” people lived in the hollows, to be hidden and close to water!)

    Lots to think about! Thanks again for an excellent article.
    Jae

  4. simon14 Says:

    It makes me remember this ( even if i m not a chaos or magick adept, i found out that i have, naturally, a similar practice – even if i think that there’s no word that could translate, really, what drift is. I think this is a natural inclination of contemplation of the world, in my litlle opinion it can’t be “created”. Anyway… ) :

    The Drift

    by Stephen Grasso

    The drift is a versatile occult practice that can be applied to many different situations and used in a variety of contexts. It is most commonly used to collect ingredients and materials for sorcery workings, and to seek answers to divinatory questions – but there are undoubtedly a number of other applications that can be unlocked by the imaginative sorcerer. The drift can be performed in virtually any location and at a moments notice, hence it is ideally suited for those situations when you are caught unprepared and need to work some powerful magic on the fly. It is also a very direct method of communicating with the spirits or genus loci of a particular geographical area, or in a wider sense, with whichever Gods or Goddesses you regularly contact or make service to.

    The mechanics of the drift are simple. You are attempting to walk between worlds and bring something useful back with you. It is essentially a shamanic journey that takes place physically in real time, as opposed to an internal journey such as the drum-led trances of indigenous tribes like the Jivaro. The drift forces you out of your comfortable centrally heated temple space and puts you on the spot like few other occult practices. It gets your magic out into the world, in a very real and very physical sense.

    A drift can begin in several different ways, depending on the situation and the intent. Sometimes drifts can be spontaneous. If you have sufficiently internalised the practice, it’s not uncommon to find yourself kicked into a full-on shamanic drift at virtually any moment. Going out to buy a pint of milk, walking home from the pub, or visiting the shops can often be transformed into heavy magic without a minute’s notice. The spontaneous drift can sharpen up your sensitivity and adaptability to a very high degree, but to get the best from it, you need to be able to receive and filter ‘information’ in an effective manner. The drift is a high-risk occult practice as far as your sanity goes, as it encourages a scary level of openness to spirit communication. Before you know it, you’re the mad guy speaking with invisible beings on the high street and going through the bins looking for occult secrets. That kind of thing is pretty much par for the course with this kind of work, so to begin with, it’s useful to learn a method of switching it on and off.

    It’s important to remember that what you are doing is attempting to ‘walk between worlds’ – with an emphasis on the word ‘between’. It’s relatively easy to go off into the deep end with this practice and become a paranoid lunatic remarkably quickly, but that’s not the point of the exercise. It’s your skill as a magician that allows you to safely navigate the wilder areas of consciousness and bring back something useful. To become accomplished at the drift, you have to develop sufficient skill at mediating between your normal day-to-day existence and the hyper-real shamanic experience.

    In order to begin the drift, you should look for an appropriate starting place – a physical access point that will allow you to enter into shamanic reality and return again when your business is done.
    The most immediate and accessible cross over point into shamanic reality is, of course, the crossroads. Every inhabited location will have a crossroads of one form or another within walking distance, and the crossroads is the supreme symbol of intercession between the worlds. However, any work involving the crossroads falls firmly within the territory of the various Gods, Goddesses, Saints, Spirits, and Mysteries associated with it. You need to ask their permission before you can go through the gate. This is easier to accomplish if you already have a working relationship with one of more of these entities. The general modus operandi would be to make appropriate offerings to them at their spot and ask if they will open the doorway for you, allowing you to go through and accomplish the intent of your drift. You should seek their blessing for your journey and ask them to ensure your safe return.

    The mysteries of the crossroads are essential to the operation of this work. Although it’s possible to begin a shamanic drift in a more freeform style, utilising a physical crossover point such as a gateway, railway arch, narrow alleyway, or similar symbolic route, these structures still fall under the domain of the crossroads at an esoteric level. Therefore if the entire operation is performed under the specific auspices of a crossroads entity, with both their permission and their involvement, you are likely to get far more effective results. Once offerings have been made and permission has been granted, you can begin the drift. Depart from your access point, either walking through the gateway/arch, or leaving the crossroads in a different direction to which you arrived. You are now entering shamanic reality.

    In the early stages of the drift you should begin tuning into your environment. Pay close attention to what’s going on around you and try to read the language of the city, or wherever you may be. Look out for any strange graffiti, headlines on discarded newspaper, unusual words or phrases that leap out at you from otherwise innocuous sources, and so on. Pay attention to snatches of overheard conversation, the lyrics of songs echoing from car radios, or announcements from train stations and the like. You are looking for a sign or signal that can be readily interpreted in relation to your intent. Don’t try to force it or just make something up to fit. Relax into the drift and wait for something to come through of its own accord. The process of the drift is a two-way dialogue with the spirits. You might have to be patient, but you will know when you’re on the right track.

    The first piece of information that comes through will either answer your question right off the bat, or else it will lead you onto the next stage in your journey. Sometimes drifts can be resolved very quickly, for example, within minutes of leaving the access point you see a random piece of street art that answers your question in no uncertain terms. If this happens, then simply return to the crossroads, thank the spirits and ask them to close the door for you. Sometimes it’s that simple. Frequently, however, the first signal that you receive will point you onto somewhere else, or only give you part of the story, leading you further down the road to look for more clues.

    You should eventually start to get a sense that you are following a symbolic thread through the city. Each sign you receive brings you a little further towards your eventual destination and the realisation of your intent. Sometimes you might lose the plot completely and find yourself clueless as to where you ought to go. If this happens, just relax and tune back in. Try to pick up the thread again and get back on the right track. Occasionally the spirits might throw you a curveball. For example, you might pick up a fragment of map that strongly suggests you need to get on a bus to the other side of town in order to complete the quest. Or you could find yourself going on an elaborate and exhausting journey across the city, only to find what you were looking for outside your own front door. Anything can happen on a drift. You’re stepping into a zone of increased potential and should be prepared for any eventual outcome.

    One of the biggest obstacles to successful drifting is your own self-consciousness. The message of the drift might clearly dictate that you do something a part of you balks at. You might be required to steal something conspicuous from a public place, or behave in a highly unusual manner at an extremely inappropriate location. Often all that can be done in these circumstances is to go beyond whatever ingrained social conditioning your actions have disturbed and take a leap of faith in the name of magic. It’s actually surprising what you can get away with in public without anyone batting an eyelid, particularly in a major city such as London.

    The drift can sometimes be hard work, and if you don’t come up against the occasional ‘what the fuck am I doing’ moment, then you’re not fully engaging with the process. A useful psychological trick for getting beyond any embarrassment or self-consciousness is to put aside the intent of the drift for a moment and just consider the whole thing as an abstract exercise in de-conditioning.

    If you find yourself hesitating over some fairly inoffensive but extremely peculiar action, for example picking up an old shoe in broad daylight and swapping it with your own, or acquiring an oddly resonant object from the centre of a busy roundabout, then you’ve inadvertently uncovered something very interesting about yourself. You’ve discovered one of the walls of your personality – something that sets limits on what you personally consider to be acceptable public behaviour. What is it doing there? What purpose is it serving? Look closely at the range of emotional responses you’ve tapped into and see what you can discover about yourself. The process of trying to move beyond one of these tiny barriers in order to acquire a power object could well be considered a powerful shamanic act in its own right.

    One of the most difficult and complex aspects of this work is knowing how to strike the right balance between moving with the flow of events and tailoring what happens towards your ultimate goal. It’s just as easy to be distracted by tangential phenomena and forget why you were drifting in the first place; as it is to be so completely focussed on your intent that important material is overlooked. Getting the right balance only really comes from experience and practice – so don’t be too hard on yourself to begin with. Go where the drift takes you, but always keep in mind your reasons for embarking on the journey. If you feel yourself straying too far from the path, don’t be afraid to gently guide yourself back on course. If any odd or tangential material comes through that seems unconnected to your goal, just make a note of it for further investigation at a later date – another separate drift may be required to uncover its mysteries.

    To put some of this into context, here are a few practical examples of situations in which the drift can be utilised. The method is ideally suited to divinatory workings, particularly if you need to get a quick answer to an important question but don’t have access to paraphernalia such as tarot cards or rune stones. A short divinatory drift can be employed during a lunch break, on the journey home from work, or in any situation where you need to gather information at short notice via non-ordinary means. It requires little in the way of planning or preparation. Simply visit the crossroads, make your offerings, ask the question and see what comes through.

    A related information gathering drift practice is the underworld divination, which can be employed in any city that has an underground tube or metro system. Begin the drift near the subway entrance and literally envision your descent onto the tube system as a shamanic journey to the underworld for hidden knowledge. You are descending to an alien landscape of white tiled walls, harsh fluorescent lights, and metal worms that burrow through the earth carrying semi-conscious human cargo. Ride the tube lines until you get the answer you’re looking for. Converse with its denizens, read its walls, listen to its voices, and try to understand its language. You might want to leave a coin with an underground busker or beggar as payment for any information you receive.

    A drift can also be utilised if you need to work some spontaneous sorcery and don’t have access to whatever tools or temple space you might normally employ. You would begin the drift in the usual manner and ask to be guided towards ingredients for a gris-gris bag or similar fetish item, which at a push could be constructed from a sheet of paper or small carrier bag tied up with an elastic band or piece of string. You will walk the streets until you find a specific number of items for the bag, all of which should at some level correlate to your intent. The ingredients could be anything from curious plants growing between paving stones, to sigils derived from graffiti seen on walls, to just about anything that feels right or manifests itself to you in an odd way. The more often you work with the drift, the better you tend to become at recognising and acquiring what you need.

    After awhile you may even find yourself developing a ‘language’ of ingredients to use in work of this nature. As always, resist the temptation to just arbitrarily make up a list of aesthetically pleasing correspondences. Hoodoo ingredients should be revealed to you through the living shamanic process of working the drift. If you want to cobble together a symbol system one afternoon over a cup of tea and some biscuits, then that’s fine, but you’re only short changing yourself and not fully engaging with what you might call shamanic reality. Magic takes place in the wild and unpredictable territories outside of the individual ego, and you can’t get anywhere near those areas unless you relax the controls and let the material emerge of its own accord.

    Once you’ve drifted for the ingredients to go in your gris-gris bag, you might then look for an appropriate power spot to construct and charge it. If you’re not familiar with the psychogeography of an area, let the drift itself guide you to an appropriate place. You could make offerings to the spirits associated with that specific area, or to whatever God/desses you regularly work with, and ask them if they will empower the bag for you. This could involve leaving the bag concealed at a particular spot, and returning after a set period of time to pick it up. Or it could mean walking anticlockwise around a statue or building nine times with the bag in your hand, or any number of possible formulae. Speak to the spirits, listen to what they have to say, and don’t make any deals that you’re unwilling to follow through on.

    This guide to the drift method has been written from the perspective of the urban magician, but its principles can just as easily be applied to a rural setting or to whatever environment you find yourself living in. If you live outside of the city, you may find that information emerges via phenomena such as the flight of birds, arrangement of twigs on the earth, cloud formations, shapes made by driftwood on the beach, or any number of environmental factors. Try experimenting in different settings and locations to see what comes through.

    You could speculate that the series of peculiar omens, superstitions and old wives’ tales that have been handed down to us by successive generations are the remnants of codified information derived via methods such as the drift. So by engaging with this process yourself, you are building a direct relationship with both the land you live on, and the environment in which you operate as a magician. You’re developing a living shamanism that has nothing to do with the various re-constructionist neo-pagan traditions that flood the occult scene, but grows out of the same methods that shamans have always worked with. Going out into the wilderness, speaking with spirits, and returning with knowledge and power.

    http://worldtree.tribe.net/thread/0f2bf2b5-8091-441c-85da-0587869e0242

    Concerning the “crossroad” nature of train station, i join your feeling. And i think it can be extended at every “passage” place like supermarkets or airport. They all belong to Maitre Carrefour, Legba, Mercury, Herne or Hecate. They all are places of choices and potentials and are some kind of gates in my opinion. Blabla. Still a very interesting blog.

    A french reader ( excuse me, again, for my barbarian english ).

  5. Juniper Says:

    Yep!

    I’ve found some very powerful sites in city parks for example, often there’s a reason why people “choose” to leave a certain area as green space. Linear parks seem to have strong energies for some reason.

    Rivers and bodies of water in a city still have spirits.

    Statues and memorials as well! A memorial for war veterans, or a memorial park bench, or a statues of a founding father are ancestor shrines in a way.

    Old houses and buildings of course, of course.

    Places of human habitation build up energies, ghosts, stories, folk lore.

    Whats concrete made of? Crushed rocks and water … how is that unnatural?

  6. Pombagira Says:

    umm. yes.. then i made a blog post on my actually blog.. ifin you wanna go see..

    http://pombagiraspolly.blogspot.com/2010/05/city-liminal-places.html

    also to agree with Juni, i to do not differentiate the city as not nature and everything else as nature.. mmm.. everything is from this earth right..

    *twirls around*

  7. Jae Says:

    To Simon14, thank you for a very interesting and thoughtful entry and Pombagira, you certainly have given me a LOT to think about. Here, almost all the train stations are deserted or converted into other uses. Yet, a lot of movement and energy went through them for so long, I wonder what could be lingering there?

    What about fences? Board fences, rock wall fences, wire, barbed wire? I can’t even recall who it was that told me that all fences are a form of crossroads and those little stairways on the fences you used to see on all the horse farms were particularly powerful. Actually, I was cautioned about hanging near or around fences near dawn or dusk or at night.

    Alas, I “cain’t stand up on my feet in the city”, as that old Areosmith song used to say, literally, at times, in big cities I get very dizzy and almost overwhelmed from not just the noise, smells, and bad air, it’s the sense of soooo much. Neil Gaiman I think, hints at this in many of his novels…spirits in places and in Blue Girl, the school is haunted by a boy killed from interaction with the school spirits. This book will also have one looking at closets in a totally different light, too.

    Imagine the possibilities along the Interstate highways…*shivers*

    Simon, your English is not barbarian, I couldn’t even begin to speak or write French, so who is the barbarian? *heehee*

    Take care,
    Jae

  8. Anon Says:

    “Do buildings have specific spirits? Like spirits of the land do?”
    If your an animist, then the answer is surely yes. Perhaps a brief discussion of what animism is could be of use. Is animism important in American traditions? Is it that different than European traditions?


  9. There are some excellent responses to this post! I didn’t realize it would spark such an interest, but I’m glad it did. I certainly come down on the “yes” side of the question for myself.

    Hopefully I’ll get the chance to report back on some city-style conjure work sometime soon, though for the next couple of months I’ll be rather far out in the sticks (not that I won’t be doing my absolute best to work some witchery there, too, of course).

    At any rate, thank you all for such thoughtful and clever responses!

    Best wishes,

    Cory

  10. Darlene Says:

    I have also found traintracks to be my “crossroads” and I had no idea why. Luckily I live a block away from one and I’ve been known to collect pieces of wood and iron nails from it. Perhaps there is something I am attuning to, I just thought I was a bit peculiar. Its always encouraging to find that I am on the right *track* . 😉


    • Haha! Cute pun 🙂

      I think there must be something about trains that pulls on witchy antennae. It seems like a lot of folks feel the way we do.

      Be well!

      Cory


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