Our pagan ancestors knew that every forest has brownies and fairies, every spring its lady, and every river malevolent beings in its depths. They told tales of giants in the hills, dragons in the lakes, marshes swarming with will-o'-the-wisps, and demons and wild folk in the mountains who enjoyed causing landslides, avalanches, and floods. They both feared and respected these entities, knowing the importance of appeasing them for safe travel and a prosperous homestead.
Exploring medieval stories, folk traditions, spiritual place names, and pagan rituals of home building and site selection, Claude Lecouteux reveals the multitude of spirits and entities that once inhabited the land before modern civilization repressed them into desert solitude, impenetrable forests, and inaccessible mountains. He explains how, to our ancestors, enclosing a space was a sacred act. Specific rites had to be performed to negotiate with the local spirits and ensure proper placement and protection of a new building. These land spirits often became the household spirit, taking up residence in a new building in exchange for permission to build on their territory. Lecouteux explores Arthurian legends, folk tales, and mythology for evidence of the untamed spirits of the wilderness, such as giants, dragons, and demons, and examines the rites and ceremonies used to gain their good will.
Lecouteux reveals how, despite outright Church suppression, belief in these spirits carried through to modern times and was a primary influence on architecture, an influence still visible in today's buildings. The author also shows how our ancestors' concern for respecting nature is increasingly relevant in today's world.
Next to water, the forest is the great lair or refuge of land spirits. It is a haunted place, an outlying space full of violence, a site of exclusion, a refuge of outcasts and exiles as well as pagan beliefs, a place of marvels and perils, a savage, marginal, dreadful space, as well as a focal point of peasant memory. It is in the forest where we most often find fountains and springs. The fairy Ninienne or Vivian loved to linger at the edge of the fountain of Briosques Forest, and Melusine and her sisters near the one in the forest of Coulombiers. . . . Here roams the mythic wild boar, li blans pors, hunted by King Arthur’s knights; here is where the Mesnie Hellquin travels as well as the hosts of Diana and Herodiades.
Headquarters for strange phenomena that are all so many theophanies, the forest is omnipresent in medieval literature. The Great Prose Lancelot mentions forests with evocative names such as the “Adventurous the Strange,” the “Lost,” the “Perilous,” the “Desvoiable” (unmanageable) and the “Misadventurous” Forest. All the texts emphasize its disturbing nature with adjectives that recur repeatedly: oscure, sostaine, tenebreuse, estrange, salvage. Moreover, the forest is almost always long and wide (longue, lee) and extremely old (des tens ancienor). The Romance of Claris and Laris say of one of them:
Too fierce and large is the forest and full of far too many great marvels . . . (3292) The fairies have there their stage In one of the beautiful sites of trees . . . (3317)
Of Brocéliande, the Anglo Norman poet Wace writes in the Roman de Rou (verse 6387):
There is where the fairies come that the Bretons tell us can be seen as well as many other marvels.
In short, the forest is a veritable conservatory of paganism, and this is why a thousand supernatural creatures frolic here where they have found refuge after being driven from their territories by the advance of man. Moreover, throughout the Germanic area, the forest often extends over the foothills of the mountains, thereby combining the mythical nature of both places.
The major problem encountered by the researcher is the following: to what extent are the dwarves, giants, dragons, and wild men found there the fictionalized vision of former land spirits? To answer this question, we must rely on the permanent features drawn from other sites: a figure jealously keeping watch over his land and forbidding anyone from entering or killing game there, an individual (monstrous or not, or even replaced by a monster) demanding a tribute from his human neighbors, pronounced paganism . . .
In the thirteenth-century story Virginal, of which we have several versions, the lady bearing this name rules over a dwarf people in the wooded mountains of the Tyrol. She has a terrible neighbor, Orkîse, who demands a young girl from her as an annual tribute. Who is this figure whose name clearly indicates he is regarded as an ogre (orco)? He is probably the literary or legendary avatar of the spirit of these forests. I would like to point out that in a legend from the Berry region it is said that the young girls of Ennordes draw lots every year to know which will go find the monster waiting for her in the middle of the forest. . . . Rather than get caught up in a game of riddles with all the risks that entails, I would prefer to focus on a figure who maintains a distinctive relationship with the sylvan environment: Merlin.
Son of a demon incubus, a devil given an angelic cast, protector of chivalry, Merlin is a complex and syncretic figure in whom many shadowy zones remain despite the many studies devoted to him. From his father he took his gifts of ubiquity, metamorphosis, and knowledge of the past, but he takes his gift of prediction from God. According to the Perlesvaus, when he died it was impossible to bury him in the chapel and his coffin was empty because his body disappeared when it was placed inside. He was covered with hair at birth and once grown up he was large, strong, thin, brown, and hairy. Geoffrey of Monmouth paints a picture of him as demented and living like a wild man (Vita Merlini, verse 1-112), ever going back to the forests when he had been torn from their midst. He shows him riding through the forest on a stag and leading a herd of bucks, deer, and wild goats, as he knows how to compel the obedience of animals like the churl in Yvain by Chrétien de Troyes. In the Vulgate Merlin,19 he is called the “wild man” and uses this term when referring to himself. He also sometimes assumes the appearance of a white stag. In The Book of Artus,20 he appears as the master of the fountain of storms, he dwells in a hollow oak, and states: “I want you to know that my habit is such that I like to remain in the woods by the nature of the one who engendered me.” Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that when King Aurele sent emissaries in search of Merlin, he was found in the corner of the mysterious forest near the fountain of Galabes, in the land of the Gewisseens. Robert de Boron’s Merlin21 also emphasizes the close bond connecting him with the forest.
Let’s keep in mind those features that let us see that the Merlin of the romances was undoubtedly once a forest spirit, an aspect that the authors largely concealed by making the seer the son of an incubus as a way to explain his powers. Merlin is the master of animals; he can take any form he pleases at will.
Claude Lecouteux is a former professor of medieval literature and civilization at the Sorbonne. He is the author of numerous books on medieval and pagan afterlife beliefs and magic, including The Book of Grimoires, Dictionary of Ancient Magic Words and Spells, and The Tradition of Household Spirits. He lives in Paris.
“What are the ancient mysteries of earth and water? Guided by the sure hand of Claude Lecouteux in this erudite and accessible book, we find keys to the recovery and renewed understanding of indigenous European religious traditions concerning land and water. A valuable book--highly recommended.”
– Arthur Versluis, author of Sacred Earth and Religion of Light
“Demons and Spirits of the Land is a scholarly investigation of the spirits present in the traditional landscape of Europe. Claude Lecouteux explains how humans are inseparable from our surroundings: we are not the only intelligent beings, for we cohabit the Earth with other sentient entities. Traditionally, these entities manifest as land spirits who take many forms: giants, dwarves, brownies, fairies, and dragons. Present in the land, they must be dealt with if humans are to live in harmony and well-being. This book details rites and ceremonies of coming to terms with the spirits of tree and forest, spring and mountain, taken from comprehensive documentary and folklore sources, including ancient authors, Arthurian legends, medieval romances, and Norse sagas. If you want to know about the nature of land spirits and how we relate to them, this is essential reading.”
– Nigel Pennick, author of The Book of Primal Signs: The High Magic of Symbols
“A superbly written treatise on the folklore of place, showing how the church has demonized once revered and respected land spirits. The setting up of high crosses, statues of saints, and the ringing of bells has been done for two thousand years to repel and control the fairies, elves, dragons, dwarves, and giants our ancestors once placated and venerated. But are we better off for all the church’s civilizing efforts?
“We are now at a turning point in human history where we need to come to terms with what we have wrought. The Earth Mother has given us food, healing, and shelter, and we have abused her in return. Reading these pages we learn that the dark path through the wilderness may once again lead us to a sacred space within the forest where in respectful company with the ancient deities, land wight’s, and the fey, we may yet resume our ancient offerings, begin the healing, and return to harmony with all creation.”
– Ellen Evert Hopman, author of A Druid’s Herbal of Sacred Tree Medicine and The Secret Medicine
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