30 Days, Day 11: On Urban Spirit Work

This is a revised version of an earlier essay I’ve written. Reposting here as part of my 30 days since it remains extremely central to who and what I am and what I am doing, especially with Weaving Wyrd.

One of the challenging things about my path is that it is entirely urban. This doesn’t mean that I create new, urban deities and follow those but rather than my practice draws me to the city and binds me to the city in a way that some people are bound to the countryside.

I don’t follow Squat, Skor and Skram or make offerings to Asphalta, I don’t get tattoos for competition representing capitalism (particularly because, for most of us, capitalism is cooperative and not directly competitive), and I don’t have body piercings or plan to get them. I don’t use gasoline or antifreeze in my rituals, and I think if I ever think that such is a good idea for my elemental practice I should have someone commit me to an asylum. I am not a tribal eclectic pagan or chaos magician who happens to live in the city, which seems to be who Kaldera and Schwartztein’s book The Urban Primitive: Paganism in the Concrete Jungle is aimed at. I am also not studying what is called Technoshamanism, per se, and am not a member of the modern primitive movement. I have no issue with those who practice such paths, but they are not my path.

At the same time, I do not hold the countryside or “nature” up on some pedestal. I do not, as one review put it, revere the wilderness as a source of magical power and dismiss the cities in which they live as spiritually dead places. I have no calling to go live or even spend time working on a farm (beyond, perhaps, as a journey to learn more as an Odinsman, but that is a separate matter), to raise or slaughter animals, or anything else along those lines. The countryside is also not where I go for rituals: most of my rituals are performed well within city limits.

I do not own a car, do not plan to ever own a car if I can avoid doing so, and thus even if I had a deep desire to “escape to the wilderness” every so often I could not do such on a whim. I do enjoy outdoor, “wildernessy” activities such as hiking in the mountains, skiing, and camping but they are not intrinsic to who I am. I have no desire to hunt, not because I am squeamish about it but simply because I can get meat through other channels and have no particular desire to do it. While I practice spinning, I have no desire to start from grease wool simply for the sake of doing it (I might if my friends end up owning sheep, however) and most (though not all) of my clothing is machine made.

I sincerely doubt I will ever have a home in the countryside.

My teacher–who is heavily Vanir focused–needs to escape to nature every so often and get out of the city, but I simply don’t have that drive.

My life and my livelihood are tied to cities (and to computers), and I have no plan on changing that nor any desire to change that. I am a white collared technical professional and while I tend to avoid true “concrete jungles” such as NYC, I have no issues in cities such as Denver, Kyoto, or Bangkok which are more open.

That said: I follow old pagan gods. I have longstanding relationships with Odin and Grandfather Raven, among others, and have either received help from or had pleasant conversations with a variety of individuals of races including (but not limited to) the Vanir, Dokkalfar, and Jotuns. For whatever reason to date I’ve had minimal dealings with the Duergar and the Ljossalfar (that I remember, anyways). I am learning–slowly, at the moment–how to be a spirit worker and study seidhr. Some of these gods have trouble adapting to modern city-life, but so far most of them (especially–unsurprisingly–Odin, Loki, Coyote, and Raven) seem quite adept at working inside of modern cities.

Ravens, rabbits, crows, and even Coyotes have adapted beautifully to life in the city (favorite quote: We couldn’t find an area in Chicago where there weren’t coyotes), and their grandfather spirits seem to have done the same.

Meanwhile our offerings are also becoming reflective of this shift. I’ve heard a few people comment on several of the norse gods liking M&M cookies, and I’ve heard of Atomic Fireballs being used as an offering to Loki.

That is not to say that there aren’t difficulties. Finding a tree I can wrap myself around (an exercise mentioned in The Wind is my Mother by Beart Heart) without someone asking if I am okay or calling the police is difficult–though I can put my back to one in most cases and just rest there. When I do need a “bit of greenery” it tends to be limited to an organized, structured form such as a groomed park. Finding places to leave offerings is a challenge, and sending something more complex than a piece of paper up in smoke is frequently quite difficult (especially in CO, where the joke goes that if you shoot someone on your property put a gasoline can in their hand and it will be considered justifiable). In my experience pathwalking is also more difficult in a city, because there are too many “this world” things that need to be paid attention to such as traffic, both legal and practical restrictions on where you can go, roads that curve repeatedly in inconvenient ways, etc. One also has to focus more on blending in.

On the other hand, there is also a strong and increasing need for spirit workers and shamans inside of city limits. People need spirits cleared from houses or get their livers eaten by trolls and need someone to figure out what happened to it. Places of work can be high stress and filled with a variety of energies that need a good shamanic practitioner to deal with them. There are spirit-forms and landspirits that live in cities, some of which–like coyotes–have just “moved in” and made themselves at home, others of which may be unique to cities. Others just cluster around large groups of people (fear feeders and other dark water creatures, for example).

Most pagans today live in cities, and thus as spirit workers our corporeal clients–as well as our best sources for human instructors and knowledge–tend to be here. This is also not a modern phenomena: There are signs of ancient settlements in Cappadocia that would use underground cities to hide from invaders, Damascus (دمشق‎) was inhabited as early as 5-6000 BCE, while Gamla Uppsala was a thriving population center in the 4th century. Our cities have become denser, larger, and more people live in them. We have covered them in concrete and asphalt instead of cobblestone, but the existence of cities is in no way new. We are part of our environment, and it is part of us, and cities have their own spirits and energy that–even if we choose to not deal with them–our corporeal clients frequently must.

Basically I have found no true conflict, at least so far, with following these paths–spirit worker, Northern Tradition Pagan, follower of Odin, etc–and living inside of a city. At least, so far, for me.

This is not to say that the spirits don’t sometimes place demands on us that require us to move outside of the city. Some spirit workers find they need to learn how to bow hunt, or feel a compulsion to get “out.” Some find that their gods want them to till the land on at least a periodic basis. Some feel decidedly uncomfortable in cities, or view them as overly complex. Some find the need for body modification or tattoos which make client interactions in white collared jobs difficult. Sometimes we can negotiate how this will work inside of a city (e.g., by joining a farm co-op or getting tattoos in a less visible location), sometimes some people can’t. It varies by individual and depends on their relationship to the spirits.

This also isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with being “called to the countryside.” There is nothing wrong with making a personal decision based on the factors in your life to abandon cities in part or in whole.

I just don’t believe there is anything with being called to the city either, even as part of a nature-based religion. I also think that we, as pagans and as spirit workers, need to be having a discussion on how to adapt our practices for use in the cities. We need to be sharing tips and tricks, and establish for each of us exactly how much cannot be done inside of a city, how much we can adapt to city life (can we put a stang against a wall in the apartment instead of in the ground, for example?), and how much is best done inside of a city.

Further Reading

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One Response to 30 Days, Day 11: On Urban Spirit Work

  1. Makhsihed says:

    *applause*

    “cities have their own spirits and energy”

    This.

    And I sometimes think the city itself is its own spirit. Cleveland as a city is a very different entity, sleeping/comatose though it might be, than Denver.

    I love the energy/feel of Denver, and sometimes I feel like I can almost talk with it, or at least interact/engage with the city-spirit on some level. It’s a relatively young entity as cities and spirits go but vibrant, energetic, full of vigor. I don’t see why more people don’t interact with cities on that level.

    Then again, not a lot of people tend to interact with the spirit-of-place in nature, either: I hear a lot about spirit-of-species, usually fauna rather than flora, but not as often (except from, say, Moonvoice) do I read about spirit-of-place. Like the spirit of a particular hill, or field, or mountain, or habitat.

    Hm. Interesting thought. I wonder now about the spirit of, say, El Dorado Canyon, or Castlewood Canyon, or Clear Creek…

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