Claude Lecouteux - Demons and Spirits of the Land

Lecouteux is a deep scholar who is interested in the mysteries, principally the European stream. I've read another of his books, The Tradition of Household Spirits, which was very interesting but quite different to this one. I never had a sense with that other book of his having a thesis, a particular thing to prove. In this book, he has: the way that numinous experiences of the natural world are the bases of gods, and that the layer closest to this cultural process is where we find spirits of the land. He then traces how they got mutated, particularly by Christian theology, into demons.

Those of you who have wondered at such beings as elves and the various forms they are portrayed in will have some of their curiosity satisfied by Lecouteux's demonstrations of how such terms changed in meaning over the time of the Christian occupation. But it is in the cultural layers prior to this that he makes his boldest assertion, of where the gods and spirits come from in the first place.

If you read mythology, you are probably familiar ad nauseam with the 19th century academic notion that gods and spirits are the responses of 'primitive' peoples to the natural forces which toss them around; Lecouteux's thesis is not of that ignorant imperialistic stripe. Rather, he quotes Christian scribes who forbid worship of idols, citing trees, fountains and stones; people are understood as quite literally worshipping the numinous power of a place, not a named idol. He is suggesting we take literally the Christian notion that the Germans worshipped 'groves'.

This centres his argument on the raw experience of natural power in the environment. This notion of spirit is closer to Aldous Huxley's idea of mind-at-large - that intelligence is something we are embedded in rather than something we have inside our skulls. 

The naming of these spirits changed over the centuries. The author show us how giants, dwarves and dragons conceal land spirits. And our ancestors got mixed up with the land spirits too. A founder of a house might be buried there, and over a few generations becomes the guardian spirit of the household. In a similar way, bodies of kings and heroes were buried to protect the land from invaders.

He leads us through how our ancestors paid for their invasion of the wild places and kept on paying, by making sacrifice to the spirits of the land that he had displaced. The church decried those spirits as demons, and many are the tales told of Christian holy men who overcame these spirits and made the land habitable for Christians. In other words, people were then able to live in that place without respecting its numinous intelligence any more. So this Christian abolition of nature-sacrifice is the origin of our present despoliation of the land.

The depth of the sacredness of a person's relationship to the land they live on is emphasised by the author. In old Germanic law, 'the proscription of a man sought to expel him from his domain, thereby stripping him of his sacred nature (mannhelgi), which means to make him óheilagr, 'devoid of sacred nature'' (p110).

It is not a big leap to see how this happened on a vast scale with the enclosures of the commons in Britain; the souls of a large proportion of Britons were stolen, a sickness which still runs like a bloody wound down the middle of British politics.

If you are fascinated by the history of spirits in the lives of humans, check out this book. Lecouteux is a one-off, and very worth reading.


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