The concept of local spirits is something that is often overlooked with magickal folks, and I think not really examined by enough people. Recently they came up on a forum I’m a part of, and some of the questions made me realize there are some gaps in how people think of them and work with them. Local spirits are a big part of my work, in fact other than Mother the first non-human entity I can remember encountering was a local spirit. In chöd, my primary Buddhist practice for the last several years, there is a huge emphasis on local spirits, to the point where I argue that if you only perform chöd in one spot you’re not getting that much out of it, because it’s all about your work with the spirits around you.
First off, what are local spirits? People use the term, but don’t really define it, and it can mean a lot of different things. Unfortunately while it means a lot of different things there is some overlap in the concepts making it a bit more confusing The term is used as an umbrella (purposefully or otherwise), so let’s break it down. Note: While I’m going to be saying several things that get called local spirits aren’t actually local spirits, that’s not any sort of judgment against them or working with them, just drawing distinctions, and there are reasons to work with all the classes I’ll discuss…except the last one.
The first is the most “obvious” of the meanings, what is generally called the genius loci, the literal spirit and intelligence that is embodied by a place. In Vajrayana Buddhism they’re known as sadak and shidak (ས་བདག་ and གཞི་བདག་). I’ll talk more about them later, because despite being the most obvious it’s actually a fairly complex concept. Also I’ll use the term shidak for this classification, not so much because I think it is more correct, but because it is free from a lot of the associations that local spirit or genius loci have.
Something that sometimes gets called a local spirit is more of a group spirit. Over time a place that is unified by a certain idea/identity builds up an energy to it, and eventually that can coalesce into a type of spirit, similar to an egregore. Not necessarily an innate soul, but still a potentially sentient and powerful spirit. In Vajrayana they’re known as a drongdak (གྲོང་བདག་), though the assumption/understanding is that they’re a “real” spirit rather than constructed, and I personally lean more to constructed or coalesced. A lot of cities have this type of group spirit. It isn’t the shidak of the place in a proper sense, but more the expression of the humanity of that place. Toronto’s spirit always shifts, which to me is appropriate for such a diverse population in such a time of transition, but generally feels like a large friendly woman of ambiguous/shifting ethnicity, but with a cautious edge to her. Cleveland’s spirit always strikes me as a grumpy old white man who just wants to read his paper in peace. These spirits are built up of the culture of the place, the attitudes, the feel and interaction. Old buildings with a lot of use can create something similar. I’ve been to a museum that has a sort of spirit curator, who isn’t/wasn’t a person, but is more of decades of tours and field trips slowly solidifying into a personality. Even though I wouldn’t classify them the same as a shidak, this does not mean I think they’re any less important or powerful, just different, and useful in different ways. In some cases the group spirit might be an interface for the shidak, but generally I perceive of them as distinct entities with an overlap in influence.
Related to the group spirit and the history of a place are ghosts, and ghosts sometimes get labelled as local spirits. Here, for simplicity’s sake, I mean some sort of remnant of a human, whether or not it is an actually spirit bound in a place, an energetic echo, or a cast off shell that has been animated. These might be spirits that are local, but are in another class from local spirits. Generally they are not nearly as big or influential as a shidak. I have encountered a spirit once that borders between ghost and group spirit, it was as if over time it subsumed (or was subsumed by) the collective identity of a place. I’m not sure if that’s something that happens with frequency, but I’ve only ever once got that sense from a spirit, and there was a sense that it was purposeful (on their end or someone else’s I can’t say). When you do offerings to a shidak, you may also be offering to these ghosts, and there is nothing wrong with that, but again I just want to have the terms a bit more clear and thought out. I say that specifically because I’ve seen people confuse a ghost with a shidak, simply because they didn’t know better, and the shidak didn’t want to be engaged so they assumed the only spirit in the area had to be the shidak.
There are guardian spirits that are tied to places. Again, this is something I could subdivide into its own post, but for simplicity I’ll just run through it quickly. Place guardians can be “natural,” for some reason or another a place has generated another spirit to watch over the place, almost like an assistant shidak. Other times a spirit “adopts” a place and watches over it. Sometimes the spirit is brought there by a person. How many sorcerers out there have set a spirit to guard a place? What if you die and never released it? Or it liked the place and stayed of its own accord. I separate these from shidak because they’re more specific, they protect a place, and dwell in it, but they don’t seem to permeate it, and exist in it in the same way, nor do they have the influence in the area that a shidak has.
Elementals can easily be grouped into local spirits and confused as them. Arguably many of them I’d be more likely to say are shidak than the other classes discussed. Elemental here is a vague term for the spirit of an element/quality of a place. Rivers, for instance, often have some spirit tied to them, the size/influence depending on the size/power of the river. While I wouldn’t call them a shidak, they do live in and as the water of a place, so it’s harder to make the distinction. Trees are another great example, but also that nebulous area. Trees can have individual spirits, trees in close proximity can also have a hive spirit. Again I wouldn’t call these a shidak, but more a spirit living in/on the land. It’s hard to draw the line between them and some shidaks. What makes it more complicated is shidaks often focus themselves in different areas, and large, old, or distinct trees are a common focus for them. So even if I don’t think tree spirits are shidaks, some shidaks focus their essence into a tree, making that division harder to identify.
A classification that I find in Vajrayana, that I’m only including for sake of education, is the naydak (གནས་བདག), which is the Sacred Place Lord. As far as I can tell they’re shidak of sacred places. While I’ve never encountered one I can’t say for sure, but I assume they are no different in structure/function from a shidak, but set apart because they inhabit a holy area, rather than a mundane one. Perhaps they’re more of an “angelic” type spirit occupying the place, it’s hard to say. They’re rare, apparently only living in the most sacred of places, so not every temple or powerplace will have a naydak.
Last, and certainly least, would be fae-things. I’m saying fae-things to avoid having to make long, complicated explanations. While we might quibble on details, you have a rough sense of what I mean. Elven, fae, faerie, and the like. While not human spirits, I’d say they’re like ghosts, in the sense of they might reside in a place and be local, but that’s not the same as being the local spirit, the shidak. Though their interaction is a bit more complicated. While a ghost exists in a place, the fae-things actually live there and consider the space their own. Even though they’re free to move on in a way that a ghost or elemental couldn’t, they can be more possessive/protective of the area because it’s their home and chosen land.
This is just the cursory break down of things that get classified as local spirits. In the next post of this series I’ll talk more about shidaks specifically.