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A Place Without Spirit

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

For modern Norse Pagans the world around us is alive in countless ways. Reality is full of countless beings, known as the vættir (pronounced vie-tear), who are tied to living beings and places. Vættr (pronounced vite) are associated in lore with everything from trees and rivers to mountains and forests. In places where the vættir tread you can almost feel the touch of something beyond sight yet very present, hanging in the air with its own sense of purpose.

Not all the vættir are associated with natural spaces. Some, known as husvættir, are tied to people’s homes and dwellings. According to surviving folklore the Norse peoples left out offerings for their husvættir to build relationships with them, keep them happy and seek their assistance. Though husvættir in folklore were tied to specific dwellings it would make sense for larger public spaces, like parks or community spaces like walkways and public squares, to have their own vættir. Those vættir could be the reason people use a particular space as a place for community and they might also be drawn to such spaces because of people using them for communal purposes.

Even though, from an ethical standpoint, one should act as if everything has or is associated with a vættr not all things do. Some places, like Iceland, are said to have multiple vættr tied to them. Others have may have none either because they never had a vættr associated with them. Such a state is not uncommon in surviving lore and even though it is possible modern practitioners should behave as if all places may have a vættr anyway. The most exceptional circumstances are when a place had their vættr was driven off. As much as this may sound unlikely there is a certain logic behind how this could be possible.

In the ancient world people regularly left out offerings, most of which were food and drink, for the vættir of their homes, the land they lived on or were passing through. This was as much, as was mentioned earlier, for building relationships with them as it was for keeping them happy. This suggests a certain level of reciprocity is necessary to keep the vættir both happy and willing to work with people. It also strongly implies that vættir might become hostile, depending on the actions people take, or even potentially leave if an area is no longer hospitable for them.

In the pre-modern world human capacity to cause such large-scale changes was very limited. This is no longer case in the present dy where everything from gentrification to mountaintop removal can radically and rapidly transform spaces anywhere in the world. Destruction of natural spaces to exploit existing resources is clear as far as how it can destroy the spirit of a place but the case of public spaces used by communities is one that is less discussed. If, for example, you replace a beachside promenade that once was a center for community enjoyment with a string of boutique fast fashion stores such development would cut off the vættir from what defined it in much like how clear-cutting a forest would do the same for the vættir of that natural space.

For the modern practitioner this poses some serious ethical challenges. When spaces are treated as shared both by the living things who inhabit them, whether urban, rural or wild, but also by entities whose presence enhances those places then you have to think about place in a very different way. Any serious disruption to a space, either as a habitat or its ability to serve as a community place, has consequences that reverberate beyond the obvious. Often new projects like strip malls or housing blocs are pitched as economically beneficial yet are incredibly destructive socially, ecologically and spiritually. Nothing is ever as simple as how it adds up on a balance sheet somewhere.

Ultimately the specific actions taken to preserve the spirit of a place are up to those who are fighting to preserve what's worth keeping intact. There are times when changing a place for the better is necessary but this question needs to be assessed in terms of all the potential costs and not just based on promises of future economic prosperity. Profit does no one any good if it comes at the cost of a place's spirit and what it provided. Whatever answers you reach when facing these challenges must resolve these deeper ethical matters.

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