European lore preserves a motif that seems to reach back into the earliest strata of Indo-European cosmological thought – the idea that the cosmos, and, by reflection, the human self, is composed of the elements of the body of the First Being, who is sacrificed or murdered in the creation of the cosmos. Across the old world we find lists of these elements, in which components of the natural world are corresponded with components of the human self. In my own work I have adopted a conventionalized list of nine components, or elements – ‘duile’ in Irish:
Stone = bone
Soil = flesh
Vegetation = hair
Sea = blood
Wind = breath
Cloud = brains (thoughts)
Moon = mind
Sun = face
Stars = spirit
It has long been customary to attempt to classify the spirits according to the divisions of the natural world. The most common of these in the occultism of the last 1000 years have been the four ‘classical’ elements and the seven planets. In an effort to understand the spirits from a more broadly Indo-European perspective, and move back past the heavily Christianized magic of the renaissance magicians, we might consider using the duile as a way of examining the spirits. Initial work suggest a good fit for Indo-European ‘nature spirits’
So in this short piece I will attempt to fit some of the well-known types of Indo-European land-wights, or nature-spirits, or Sidhe-folk, into the Nine Elements of Druidic symbolism. In many cases this is a simple matter, and it sheds light on the nature of the spirits and how they fit into the cosmos. It also opens up some surprising vistas, and reminds us why the third Kindred isn’t just ‘everybody else’.
The Nine Duile are easily assigned to the Three Worlds:
• Stone – Trolls, Giants, Mountain Wights: Wights of Stone are among the eldest and strongest of beings. Mountain spirits are vast if sleepy powers, who can shake off human effort like leaves on a dogs back. Lesser spirits of stone may still be trolls – unwholsesome beings who like nothing better than to crack skulls. Some kinds of miners and delvers may also be of Stone, but they may also be of the next type.
• Soil – Dwarves and goblins, spirits of fertility and rot. Many of the kinds of spirits called bogles, or goblins, or various ‘brown men’ of the wood seem likely to correspond to the Soil. They see to the power of growth for root and seed, but they also are consumers, eaters of corpses and clearers-away of messes. Most ‘house bogies’ and their ilk come from this type, or perhaps from the next.
• Vegetation – Dryads, green-jacks, grain-men and women, willow-devils, etc. Perhaps the most common of the Land wights are vegetation spirits, present almost everywhere humans go. Folklore is full of flower-spirits and thorn-spirits, and the spirit of the grain that is honored every year might be a ‘god’ in the conventional sense, but he or she is also the spirit of the grain itself, as a vegetation spirit.
• Sea – The Sea is full of spirits in the world of the insular Celts, from the selkies of the north to the merrows (mer-maids and men), to various talking fish and enchanted beings. The Sea is alien to mortals, and always dangerous and strange, though potentially a source of riches, and a road of quests. Out on the wide Sea the marvels of the weather, of nearby sky, become apparent, leading to the other two elements in this world.
• Wind – The kinds of beings called ‘trooping sidhe’, who riot through the air in their rade, carrying that which they pick up, are beings of the Wind, as are messenger spirits, the winged ones who bear the word across the worlds. The Gaels had detailed lore about the winds, and we could focus on very specific spirits for the twelve winds, but even considering four classes of winged wind-beings for the Gaelic airts is interesting.
• Clouds – What are cloud-spirits? They are bearers of weather, surely, often the great forces of the lower airs that carry the waters of the world across its face. More giants, perhaps, of the storm variety, grey and filled with lightning, or low and daylight-quenching. Another system well outside the little reach of our senses, for the most part, though perhaps they hear us when we ask well.
• Moon – the Moon is given to the cool, clear light of the quiet mind, unenflamed by the passions, still and shining. The spirits who dwell in the moonbeams are the night people, a part of what we might call the Noble Court or the High Sidhe. Along with the other Sky beings they carry the offerings and prayers of mortals to the Gods, and bring back their Blessings, in turn.
• Sun – The Shining Court are great but perhaps remote, walking bright and proud over the land, bringing warmth to soil, stirring wind and sea. These great powers, of Moon and Sun, may not be ‘gods’ per se in various IE systems, but the spirits, the daimones, of these elements are always present, always powerful beings in the order of the worlds. When we see them in later folklore, I believe they appear as ‘angels’, and probably appeared as ‘gods’ to Pagan folks before that. Perhaps they do, in fact, do the business of the gods.
• Stars – to speak of the ‘nature spirits’ of the starry heavens is to open the whole question of the meaning of the seven planets and the many powerful fixed stars of European tradition. We have little indication of an important tradition of planetary symbolism among the Celts and Germans, yet it seems unlikely that the widely-learned Druids wouldn’t have picked up the basics from the Greeks. In any case, besides those traditional bodies of lore, we can only contemplate what a spirit of the light of the stars on a summer night might be, or do.
One immediate question in this arrangement might be “where are the animal spirits?” It seems to me that beasts are like us – they are beings of bone and blood and breath, none of which are shared by the vegetative form of life. So when we encounter animal spirits, perhaps they are in fact the ‘ancestors’ or ‘the dead’ of another species, choosing to help humans. Often I think they are guises worn by a god or spirit, often a spirit of soil or the green wearing the forms that live upon their power. Spirits of sun or moon, may come s beasts to better address our human mind and personality. The ancients seem to have seen the spirits using animal forms – especially wondrous or monstrous hybrid forms – and in these cases the characteristic animals of the element become symbols of the spirits’ power. It is entirely reasonable in IE lore to envision such spirits as human forms with wings or horns or hooves or fishtails.
This classification system offers us some handles on approaches to conjuring the spirits. We can construct sigils based on the simple Irish root-word for each element, perhaps clarifying them slightly with a general sign for Land, Sea or Sky. Using those sigils we could then ‘prospect’ for contact with a spirit using the scrying method. If the greater Convocation is used then this classification system might help the Druid to understand the nature of the spirits she meets.
A quick consideration of the possible practical magic associations of the duile might produce:
Stone – works of permanence and protection. Difficult spirits, but strong. Be careful of your protections.
Soil – works of fertility or of decay. Good spirits for service and productivity.
Vegetation – Works of sustenance, healing and vision. Important to maintain reciprocity with these spirits (as with all).
Sea – Not many practical works for land-dwellers among the strange beings of the Sea. Shore dwellers may know more than I.
Wind – Works of communication and distant vision. Messengers and raiders.
Cloud – Weather-working in an immediate sense, but many clans of spirits are involved there.
Moon – Works of vision and mystery, initiation and meditation, secret rites and night-sacrifices. Sun - Works of growth, strength and mastery, weather-work together with wind and cloud, spiritual perspective and memory.
Stars – Works of spiritual power. If one is willing to consider astrology, the whole realm of stellar and planetary powers might be present in this final, highest and strangest world.
In the process of developing a Druidic spirit-arte the problem of classifying and identifying the spirits is central to any new system. We have made little attempt to describe our third Kindred - usually they are just called ‘nature spirits’. However these beings seem to me to be related directly to the daimones of the Hellenic world, and to many other non-deific spirits throughout the IE range. By beginning to understand the nature of the kinds of Spirits we can more clearly honor them, and more clearly know which of them to ask for aid in what ways.
Yes, this Kindred has always been somewhat vague to me - perhaps I'm just obtuse. But this classification of yours sounds quite reasonable and could, perhaps, be very helpful. Have you considered posting this to our Religion list? There might be some interesting conversation to be had. (smile)
I like the list. I'm always thankful for how you express concepts in ways that one can grasp in a very real way.
I would tend to associate land Animals and Humans to soil. Land spirits to stone. All plants, trees... to vegetation of course.
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