More on land spirits

Apparently, one only has to ask in order to receive an answer. A few days ago I posted a question I’ve struggled with for many years, only to have it answered simply and easily in a matter of hours by Heathen Guy.

To recap, I was struggling with the idea of being an Anglo living in an area that was formerly Indian. It seemed to me that it might be appropriate to worship the pre-Christian gods of Europe because that is my heritage, but it also seemed that it might be wrong to ignore the Indian-ness of the local land spirits. Yet, my Indian cousins would be quite distressed if an Anglo claimed any part of Indian heritage simply by reason of occupying the land as a conqueror. Heathen Guy responded that the land spirits are not tied to a specific ethnicity, even though they might have been long accustomed to receiving offerings in an Indian fashion.

I think this is a very practical and common-sense solution. It is an elegant counter-argument to the Icelandic Ásatrúar who opined that Americans and Australians ought to be looking at their own indigenous religions rather than to the religion of their ancestors.

The ethnicity of land spirits first became an issue for me because of articles like Stephen McNallen’s Wotan vs. Tezcatlipoca: The Spiritual War for California and the Southwest ( or his The Birth of California: A Modern Creation Myth ( I see now that he was making a quite different argument, but when I originally read these articles, it seemed to me that they were written against a background assumption that Anglos have brought their land spirits to this land, as well as their ethnic gods.

I am still a bit confused over when a particular deity is a land spirit and when he or she is something more. For example, Tonantzin, the great Aztec corn goddess, is Christian in her aspect of the Virgin of Guadalupe. As Tonantzin, she is arguably an ethnic goddess of the Aztecs. But, as the Virgin of Guadalupe she is Queen of Mexico, Celestial Patron of Latin America, Empress of the Americas, and Mother of the Americas. With these titles, it seems to me that she is the land spirit par excellence of North and South America. Tonantzin is an interesting example to use, because hers is a borrowing now sanctioned by time. For the indigenous people of Mexico City, she is a part of their cultural heritage, baptized, like them, into the Catholic faith. Yet, for American Catholics, she is merely one aspect of their goddess, the Virgin Mary.

Perhaps the answer should be that this goddess is indeed the land spirit of the Americas, but her aspects as Tonantzin and Guadalupe are cultural artefacts respectively of the Aztecs and Catholic Latinos. Even so, it seems to me that where something specific is known about any land spirit, it would be appropriate for heathens to incorporate that information rather than re-forming the spirit in an entirely Norse way. Such an approach would be consistent with the orthopraxy of indigenous pagans worldwide, who typically believe that the offerings they make to the gods are the offerings preferred by those gods, and that the rituals they conduct are efficacious only if done properly.

I’ll have to think more about how adaptations would work in practice. My neighbor, for example, as an Anglo could offer a ceremony to the spirit of the buffalo who roamed these plains, but if he would cross a line if he were to use use any part of the Cheyenne or Arapaho or Lakota ritual. (I use the example of the buffalo because I’m not aware of any nearer equivalent of land spirits to the tribes whose hunting ground Denver once was.) If my neighbor knew that a medicine bundle with particular components was believed by those tribes to ensure an abundence of buffalo, wouldn’t he want to incorporate that knowledge when constructing his own ceremony to honor the buffalo? Does it make a difference whether he adopts only the broad outline without copying the details? And, if so, who decides when the line has been crossed? Would it make a difference if the tribes were extinct? I think a folkish heathen would say, along with the Indians themselves, that my Anglo neighbor, if he needs to honor the buffalo, should adapt a Norse (or Saami?) ceremony, say for honoring the reindeer. Such an adaptation would be culturally authentic, but still ignores the problem of orthopraxy.

After re-framing the question to remove the assumption that land spirits are ethnic, it becomes clear that the ancient Norse who moved into the Scandinavian peninsula and into Iceland and Greenland did not take the land spirits with them; they found them there. In the same way, the Indians did not bring the land spirits of my local area with them.

From this revised perspective, I can once again affirm with my Indian cousins that it is morally reprehensible for Anglos to expropriate the cultural heritage of Indians, yet now understand that it is appropriate for heathens to worship the local spirits according to ancestral custom.

But I have one further quibble: it’s not always easy to separate land spirits from the ancestors. Indigenous people typically claim a kinship with their gods that later people living in the same area would not have(or would have to invent). For example, katsinas who live in the San Francisco mountains and come down for a season each year among the Hopi are both land spirits and a type of god similar to the Shinto kami. The Hopi explicitly hold their land by a grant from Masaw, one of the katsinas, who is the guardian of this world. And, as you might expect, the Hopi creation story links them to the gods in a way that makes the Hopi “relatives” of the katsinas. So, what is the relationship between the katsinas and non-Hopi people living on Hopi land? Would the katsinas still visit the new inhabitants of the Hopi reservation even if those new inhabitants had their own tribal ideas about land spirits that did not include the katsinas and who did not claim a physical relationship to the katsinas?

On a personal note

If I seem to make much of an Aztec goddess, it is because of my personal history with her. As a child, perhaps at about the age of 8, I conceived the idea — I don’t know how — that there is Goddess of the Americas to whom I ought to be praying in addition to my Christian prayers. In my childlike theology, I thought of her as a daughter of Mother Earth, to whom of course it was also necessary to pray. (Adults, it seemed to me, just don’t think things through properly.) When I got a bit older, I was very excited to find a name for Mother Earth (Demeter), and it really bothered me that the American goddess didn’t seem to have a name. When I was much, much older and getting ready to convert to Roman Catholicism, I discovered the Virgin of Guadalupe. She had previously been pretty much invisible to me for cultural reasons even though she had been floating around my peripheral awareness for many years. Remembering my youthful devotion to the unknown Goddess of the Americas, I chose Juan Diego as my confirmation name. Just as the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego, I wanted to honor the way she “appeared” to me, in the sense that I knew she must exist long before I found out who she was. A silly story, I know, but it’s one of my favorites about myself and paganism.

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