Long ago, our ancestors fostered a close connection to the natural world, honoring the spirits of nature as guardians and stewards of the earth that sustained them. Although this practice has dwindled over the years, remnants of the spirits remain and can be found all over the world, continuing to anchor local communities to the natural formations around them. Even if some of those old tales have faded from memory, the significance of such places will remain in our traditions and art. Here are a couple of my favorite examples!
Early communities frequently settled near bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, and the spirits that inhabited them ranged from protective to mischevious, and even dangerous. There are just as many tales of the blessings of water as there are of its dangers. And yet, even with this tumultuous relationship, water has always been valued as essential for life, not only serving as a source of water, but also food and transportation.
This significance is not lost today, as tributes to the aquatic guardians can still be seen today in our artwork, stories, and even architecture. Go into old cities and towns that were built along major rivers, and you will find the forms of fish, bearded or finned faces, with water pouring from the mouth. Such beings still keep watch, as in the image above, which depicts the visage of the spirit of the Rhine river in Germany.
Forests have long been associated with ancient guardians, spiritual refuges, shelter, and protection from the chaos of the world. The concept of the world tree or tree of life is a commonality amongst many cultures, as are spirits such as nymphs and kodama.
The sacred nature of forests has not been forgotten, and there are now vast stretches of land that stand protected by law. For many current civilizations, the oldest trees in the forests still serve as important symbols for the nearby communities, centers for gatherings and celebrations of life– such as the fromager or kapok tree for the Mayan and West African cultures. Across the earth, in Japan, shrines to the forest spirits and kami still can be found in places sacred to generations before.
Perhaps one of the most breathtaking aspects of the earth’s landscape, mountains (like trees) are symbols of strength and protection, and often homes to supernatural beings. For a village in Gabon, a nearby mountain is a home for ancestral spirits that may come and steal you away if you make too much noise while on the mountain path. In Incan mythology, each mountain has its own spirit, called an apu, who watches over the surrounding area. Small offerings were made to thank them for this protection, and to ask for help during troubled times– a practice still observed today.
In a similar fashion, native Hawaiians will still make offerings to the volcano goddess, Pele, to entreat her for her protection and assuage her infamous– and appropriately explosive– anger.
As with all things, these are just a few of my favorite examples of the ways the nature spirits of old still live alongside humanity today. What kind of stories and representations have you come across in your travels?