Saturday, February 10, 2018

"Numina", and the Intelligences of the Living Earth

NUMINA:  Spirit of Place, Myth and Pilgrimage
By Lauren Raine MFA

"To the native Irish, the literal representation of the country was less important than its poetic dimension.  In traditional Bardic culture, the terrain was studied, discussed, and referenced:  every place had its legend and its own identity....what endured was the mythic landscape."

    R.F. Foster 1

The Romans believed that special places were inhabited by intelligences they called Numina, the "genius loci" of a particular place.   I personally believe many mythologies may be rooted in the actual experience of “spirit of place", the numinous, mysterious, felt presence within a sacred landscape. 

To early and indigenous peoples, nature includes a “mythic conversation”, a conversation within which human beings may participate in various ways.  Myth is, and always has been, a way for human beings to become intimate and conversant with what is vast, deep, and ultimately mysterious. “Mything place” provides a language wherein the “conversation” can be symbolically spoken and interpreted, as well as personified.    Our experience, and our relationship with Place changes when Place becomes "you" or "Thou" instead of "it". 

  In the past, "Nature" was not just a "backdrop" or a "resource"; the natural world was a vast relationship within which human cultures were profoundly embedded and interactive.   The gods and goddesses arose from the powers of place, from the powers of wind, earth, fire and water, as well as the human mysteries of birth and death. 

In India, virtually all rivers bear the name of a Goddess.  In southwestern U.S., the “mountain gods” dwell at the tops of mountains like, near Tucson, Arizona where I live, Baboquivari, sacred mountain to the Tohono O’odam, who still make pilgrimages there.  This has been a universal human quest, whether we speak of the Celtic peoples with their legends of the Fey, ubiquitous mythologies of the Americas, or the agrarian roots of Rome:  the landscape was once populated with intelligences that became personified through the evolution of local mythologies.   

"The Desert Spring", mask from 2013 performance with Ann Waters
 The Romans called these forces “Numina”.  Every valley, orchard, healing spring or womb-like cave had its unique quality and force - its Numen.   Cooperation and respect for the Numina, the animating intelligences of place, was essential for well-being.  And some places were regarded as imbued with special power, they were special places of pilgrimage.

With the evolution of patriarchal monotheism and religions that increasingly removed divinity from Nature and from the body, and, in the past century, the rapid rise of industrialization, we have increasingly looked at the world from a "users" point of view instead of a participatory one.  This overview tends to view the natural world as an object to be used or exploited, forgetting indeed that virtually all pre-industrial human cultures have rich traditions that teach that  the world is alive and responsive.   From Katchinas to the Orisha, naiads to dryads, the Australian Dream Time to Alchemy's Anima Mundi, every local myth reflects what the Romans knew as the resident “spirit of place”, the Genius Loci.

In those reverent traditions, sacred places may be locations where the potential for revelation, healing, or transpersonal experience is especially potent, and many contemporary places of pilgrimage carry on this mythos. It’s well known that early Christians built churches on existing pagan sacred sites.   An example would be the numerous sacred wells that are dedicated to a Black Madonna in Europe, or a Saint in England, in much the same way the Oracle of Delphi was dedicated to Gaia, the primal Earth Mother of Greek mythology, and later to the God Apollo.

"Gaia", 2013 performance with Ann Waters
Contemporary Gaia Theory 2 proposes that the Earth is a living, self-regulating organism, utterly interdependent and always evolving.  A system of relationships.  If one is sympathetic to Gaia Theory, it follows that everything has the potential to be “conversant” in some way, whether visible or invisible.    Ancient Greeks built their Oracle at Delphi because it was felt that it was especially auspicious for communion with the Goddess Gaia, and undoubtedly it was a site that was sacred to prehistoric peoples prior to the evolution of Greece.  

There is a geo-magnetic energy felt at special places on our planet that change consciousness, and can catalyze insight, healing, or visionary experience, perhaps even, as the Oracle of Delphi believed, prophecy.  Before they became contained and mythologized by religions or designated by prehistoric monuments, these sites were intrinsically places of numinous power and presence in their own right.  

They touch all who visit, and ultimately, no particular belief system is needed for them to have a transformative effect, although human architecture and the accumulation of human psychic energy and visitation may amplify this effect.  

Roman philosopher Plinius Caecilius commented that:

"If you have come upon a grove that is thick with ancient trees which rise far above their usual height and block the view of the sky with their cover of intertwining branches, then the loftiness of the forest and the seclusion of the place and the wonder of the unbroken shade in the midst of open space will create in you a feeling of a divine presence, a Numina."3

Many years ago I lived in Vermont, and one fall morning I stumbled down to the local Inn for a cup of coffee to discover a group of people about to visit one of Vermont's mysterious stone cairns on Putney Mountain.  Among them was Sig Lonegren 4, a well-known dowser and researcher of earth mysteries who now lives in Glastonbury, England.  Through his generosity, I found myself on a bus that took us to a chamber constructed of huge stones, hidden among brilliant foliage, with an entrance way perfectly framing the Summer Solstice.  

No one knows who built these structures, which occur by the hundreds up and down the Connecticut River, but approaching the site I felt such a rush of vitality it took my breath away.  I was stunned when Sig placed divining rods in my hands, and I watched them open as if I had antennas, quivering as we traced the “ley lines” that ran into this site.    Standing on the top of the somewhat submerged chamber, my divining rod "helicoptered", letting me know that this was the “crossing of leys”; a potent place geomantically.  

Months later friends gathered in the dark to sit in that chamber and watch the Solstice sun rise through its entrance way.  We all felt the power of the deep, vibrant energy there,  and awe as the sun rose illuminating the chamber.   None of us knew what to do, so we held hands and chanted.  We were all as “high as a kite” when we left.  

Earth mysteries researcher John Steele 5 wrote in  the 1989 book EARTHMIND  (in collaboration with Paul Deveraux and David Kubin) that we suffer from "geomantic amnesia".  We have forgotten how to “listen to the Earth”, to engage in what he called "geomantic reciprocity"; instinctively, mythically, and practically, to our great loss.   We disregard for short term economic gain places of power, and conversely, build homes, even hospitals, on places that are geomagnetically toxic instead of intrinsically auspicious.   Remembering, re-inventing, and re-claiming  what inspired early peoples  may be important not only to contemporary  pilgrims, but to creating future human societies that can be sustainable.

The act of making a pilgrimage to a sacred place is among the oldest of human endeavors. The Eleusinian Mysteries combined spirit of place and mythic enactment to transform pilgrims for over two millennia.  One of the most famous contemporary pilgrimages is the "Camino" throughout Spain, which concludes at the Cathedral of Santiago at Compostella.  Compostella comes from the same root word as "compost",  the fertile soil created from rotting organic matter -  the "dark matter"  to which everything living returns, and is continually resurrected by the processes of nature into new life, new form.  As researcher and mythologist Jay Weidner has pointed out, pilgrims finally arriving in Compostella after their long journey are being 'composted' in a sense.  Emerging from the dark cathedral, and the mythos of their journey, they were ready to return home with their spirits reborn.

In 2011 I visited the ancient sacred springs of Glastonbury, the Chalice Well and the White Spring as well as participating in the international Goddess Conference there.   Making this intentional Pilgrimage left me with a profound, personal sense of the "Spirit of Place", what some call the "Lady of Avalon".  Pilgrimage opens one to blessing and vision, and can take us out of the ruts of our daily lives into transpersonal communion.

Sacred Sites are able to raise energy because they are intrinsically geomantically potent, and they also become potent because of human interaction with the innate intelligence of place, the Numina.  “Mythic mind” further facilitates the communion.   Sig Lonegren, who is a dowser, has spent many years exploring sacred places, and has commented that possibly, as human culture and language became increasingly complex, verbal, and abstract, we began to lose mediumistic consciousness, a daily Gnosis with the "subtle realms" that was further facilitated by symbolism, mythology, and ritual. 

With the gradual ascendancy of left-brained reasoning, and with the development of patriarchal religions, he suggests that tribal and individual Gnosis was gradually replaced by complex institutions that rendered spiritual authority to priests who were viewed as the sole representatives of God.  The “conversation” stopped, and the language to continue became obscure or lost. 

Perhaps this empathic, symbolic, mediumistic capacity is returning to us now as a new evolutionary balance, facilitated by re-inventing and re-discovering the mythic pathways to the Numina.


1 Foster, R.F., The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (London: Allen Lane/Penguin Press 2001)

2 The Gaia hypothesis, also known as Gaia theory or Gaia principle, proposes that organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a self-regulating, complex system that contributes to maintaining the conditions for life on the planet. The hypothesis, which is named after the Greek goddess Gaia, was formulated by the scientist James Lovelock and co-developed by the microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.

3 C. Plinius Caecilius Secundus minor, Epistula 41.3, from Nova Roma,

4 Lonegren, Sig, Mid Atlantic Geomancy, website and blog (

5 Steele, John, Earthmind: Communicating with the Living World of Gaia, with Paul Devereaux and David Kubrin (Harper and Row, 1989)


Unknown said...

Lauren, this is a wonderful blog. I'm glad I found it today.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Great piece, Lauren!