To Honor the Land is to Deal with the Dead
Some friends were having a discussion with Sannion last night and as I was passing through (swamped with preparations for my upcoming trip), he mentioned one of the things they were discussing and it just blew me away. This is so spot on, so powerful, so incredibly profound that I, half way upstairs, stopped dead in my tracks and asked everyone’s permission to write about it here. (Obviously they graciously allowed me to do so, or I wouldn’t be posting this!).
The latest issue of Walking the Worlds discusses the importance of regional cultus to the restoration of our polytheisms. We talk about regional cultus a lot but I don’t think many of us (myself included) ever really stop to parse it out or to figure out how all of the various parts of our praxis are organically (no pun intended, I swear!) connected. Part of regional cultus is venerating the land spirits, what a Norse practitioner might call vaettir. Hand in hand with this goes a certain reverence for the land and the spaces in which we practice, which support our practice, be they cities or forests or anything in between. This is good. I think honoring the land is the third part of a very powerful trine of Gods, ancestors, and land that is foundational to polytheism as a whole. But I don’t think many of us take this any farther. My friends did and I’m still just blown away.
Essentially when you are honoring the land, over and above any individual spirits you may be engaging with, when we just talk about the soil itself, you’re honoring the dead. You cannot engage in regional cultus, you cannot really honor any piece of land, without also recognizing and honoring the dead. Why? This is basic to the way both geology and ancestor practice works. The dead are always with us, underpinning everything we are and everything we do. The Yoruba have a powerful maxim: “we stand on the shoulders of our dead,” or sometimes “we stand on the bones of our dead.” Well, we do. Literally.
What is soil but eons of dead matter? Many of us in the Northern Tradition praise the forces of decay because without decay and rot, without this process of transmutation what would our world be? With the grace of the gods and spirits of decay and rot, we have soil, soil made up of dead bodies, dead animals, dead plants, going all the way back to the beginning. We quite literally walk and live upon the remains of our dead and we are nourished by it physically just as ancestor work nourishes us spiritually. There is nowhere we can walk where the dead are not. There is nothing we can consume, that has not partaken of this blessing of death and decay (unless it is solely processed in a lab and then I don’t want to be consuming it!). All that grows in the soil and everything that devours that which grows in the soil, and all who devour those things…we are all physically nourished by our dead and in time our corporeal matter will fade into the blackness of the soil to nourish those who come after us in turn. I have said before that there is more life in a teaspoon of soil than in the greatest metropolis on earth and that is true, but in the soil itself, there is also more death. The two cannot be sifted apart.
We as polytheists and animists know that we are not apart from the natural world. We are in harmony with it (or strive to be). We are connected to all things that were and are and will be. The detritus of a small dead plant is as much part and parcel of our tapestry of being as those buried in a cemetery to whom we might be related by blood. We are literally made up of the dead. The soil is the stuff of our blood and bone. It’s all interconnected.