Our land is sacred, as the Native Americans taught us and the ancient Britons believed. Once it was peppered with holy places: hills, caves, groves, pits and shafts, but the most common were watery places such as wells, springs, rivers and lakes. The presiding deity varied from place to place. I don’t think the ancient Britons equated one with another as the Romans did, saying ‘What you call Minerva we call Sulis.’ Instead they respected each genius as unique to that place.
In this year of exploring southern Britain, mostly sites along the Fosse Way but also further afield, I’ve been to the wells and streams, baths and springs of Sulis, Coventina, Cuda and many others now nameless.
Now I’m not a full-blown Romantic who can sit down in a sublime landscape and commune with the spirits. At least half of me is of a sceptical bent (it leads to some interesting inner conflicts). However, when I catch myself poo-poohing the concept of elementals, I remind myself that I met one once, and the contact bestowed (bestowed, note, not gifted!) what writing talent I have. But that’s another story. This post is about genii, not elementals.
Shakespeare knew his fairies and spirits. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mustard Seed, Cobweb and the rest are elementals, but Titania and Oberon – they are genii, spirits of the place.
(Eek! As I write this in my hut there’s a great follollop on the floor and I look down to see a frog just landed. But I’m not superstitious, and I don’t think it’s an elemental in disguise, really I don’t.)
I know what a genius loci looks like, but I’m not sure how. In my mind there is an image inspired by votive altars and other less expected sources such as a contemporary drawing of an Inca chief and designs by Inigo Jones for a masque. So, this is how he looks: he has a mural crown (that is, one that is tall and encircles the head, called ‘mural’ because Cybele wore walled cities on her head), and carries a sheaf of corn, a rolled parchment or a sceptre. He is bare to the waist and then skirted. The Inca chief is only close, in that he wears a mural crown of feathers and bears an arrow, but perhaps ideas for costume amongst natural peoples, as well as ideas for costumes for masque designers, are fed to us from the Otherworld, which is why someone who is particularly clever is called a ‘genius’. It does not mean, and should never mean, someone who thinks up something original, so much as someone who divines a truth by mysterious means (I think Einstein would agree with this).
Female spirits also have a form that is strangely familiar.
Some female spirits of place look after entire countries, such as Eire (from Eriu) and Britannia. They are often shown seated and bearing a bowl, cauldron or horn of plenty with which they nurture the earth. It’s an image which recurs in the Middle Ages as Grammatica.
Himself asked me recently, ‘What constitutes place?’ Such a good question for which I have no answer. At the time we were sitting on our plot on the allotments in the middle of Wolvercote Common which is within Port Meadow, itself a part of Oxford, and so on until you get to the Milky Way, the Universe, etc. We decided that there is no genius of the allotments (unless you count Paddy, the top gardener and envy of us all) but plenty of elementals, as well as Spirit Animals: Buzzard, Kestrel, Betty the Blackbird, Vole and Fox, presumably lots of fairies such as Mustard Seed, Cobweb, Weed Weaver and Bee the Bumble, if only we had the eyes to see, and then that stalker of nightmares, the Squitch. Wolvercote, and, indeed, Oxford, is a very watery place, water meadow in fact, bounded on one side by the great Tamessa himself (whose holy source is not so far away) but perhaps our nearest sacred spot, other than the Holy Well of Frideswide at Binsey, is the hidden lake near the railway line. Was it once a mere or pool where depositions were made, an honouring of the waters by people who understood their dependence on spirits and elements? Their sense of sacrifice and gratitude seems utterly lost today. But let me not get on to fracking.
Thanks to Jeremy Naydler for his drawing of Grammatica from a 12th c. manuscript fragment.