Genius Loci

The late Jim Kimmis was an enquiring and wide-ranging researcher whose death in 2006 robbed us of a valuable perspective on neo-antiquarian topics. In this hitherto unpublished article, Jim lays out some preliminary thoughts on the nature of place impressions

What is this genius loci, this spirit of place? When the phrase was coined, it referred to a tutelary deity or daemon, something that chose to inhabit and care for a particular locale. Since the Enlightenment, the sense of the term has shifted towards the human subject, so that it can be used, without embarrassment, to mean the associations that attach to a place, whether from the viewpoint of the individual or of the group. When the Latin word genius is traced back, it is found to grow from a putative Indo-European stem *gnjos which also yields the Germanic *kunjam, from which English derives ‘kin’. It is, in fact, one of a large family of terms having to do with birth, becoming and relationship: this should alert us to the possibility that the connection between spirits (of any kind) and living human beings is a close one.

It is now accepted by most archaeologists who work in the field of European prehistory that the surviving monuments of the Neolithic landscape – long barrows, chambered tombs and causewayed enclosures – bear witness to a widespread collective religious practice that centred on relations between the living and the dead. Earlier hypotheses which related such landscape features to a theistic religion have lost favour for lack of evidence. In the current model, the first groups to settle and cultivate the land invested a great deal of time and effort in accommodating at least some of their dead alongside the settlements of the living. It is thought that communities met at intervals to share food and to pursue a sequence of funerary rites that might take years to complete, and that this social activity took place at the monuments. Global comparisons suggest that such practices are accompanied by a belief that the dead reside in the place(s) of their deposition and that they remain actively engaged in the life of the community, at least until the funerary sequence is completed.

This Neolithic cultural formation is to be contrasted with those of both the preceding Mesolithic period and the succeeding Bronze and Iron Ages. The patterned movements of Mesolithic groups in pursuit of seasonal food make it impossible to assume a similar relation of continuous proximity between the settlements of the living and the monuments of the dead. Indeed, the archaeological record knows no such monuments, with the result that we remain unclear about the religious and funerary practices of the period.

The Bronze Age, by contrast, yields plentiful monuments and a growing catalogue of settlement sites, but the material evidence suggests an ideological shift which privileged the individual over the community. The tumuli of this period – and probably of later ages – embody the honour and status of individual members of a society that seems to have been socially stratified. The contemporary stone circles and alignments, some of which certainly relate to the sky as much as to the land, suggest a religious framework which was celestial and theistic, rather than ancestral and chthonic.

The Latin-speaking culture which originated the term (and, in its present form, the concept) genius loci comes within the historical view and does not have to be reconstructed from its material traces alone. Written records make it plain that the religious practices of the Roman empire were extremely diverse, and that there was a clear distinction between public and private cults. Relations between the living and the dead were negotiated – except in the case of emperors and those of like status – within the family or household, rather than within the wider community. The life of the family brought together the activities of its living members with those of the domestic spirits – the lares and penates –while the obligations of piety (pietas) included the honouring of the family’s immediate ancestors. In this context, every house was also a shrine, and everyday life was conducted in the presence of and even with the co-operation of a host of spirits. At the same time, however, members of the household also participated in the public religious practices of their community, where the engagement was with gods rather than with their own kin.

I hope that it is clear from the foregoing that I want to site the concept of genius loci within a cultural tradition which is domestic, intimate, chthonic and genealogical. Such a tradition may co-exist with another set of practices which are public, formal, celestial and theistic, and the same individuals may partake in both.

The available evidence for W Europe, at least, seems to root the first tradition in the Neolithic and the second in the Bronze Age. Relations between the two traditions may be presumed to vary during the prehistoric period, and can be traced with increasing confidence as written records become available. The story of Christianity in this part of the world provides a fascinating account of the continuing dialectic between the private or familial and the public or national in matters of belief and practice, particularly regarding the disposal and honouring of the dead, up to the present day.KImmis cromlech image.jpg

I want to say, then, that the spirit of place is an entity that belongs with the spirits of the dead rather than with the gods. It attaches to a locale in the same way that an ancestral spirit attaches to a grave or funerary monument, by deposition and by the observance of sequential rites, and it is thus dependent upon and intimately linked with living human beings. It is endowed with some kind of consciousness or sentience; it is capable of entering into communication with (some of) the inhabitants of the place and with (some) visitors; and its behaviour is liable to change if and when those living beings alter their use of or attitude to the place. It behaves, in other words, as a neighbour.

So far I have treated the genius loci in deliberately human terms, suggesting that its relations with living members of human communities are modelled upon the everyday relations obtaining within those communities, whether with kin or with neighbours. However, the anecdotal evidence of folklore and of contemporary reports strongly suggests a non-human dimension to this spirit which is rooted in the landscape itself, rather than in the culture of the inhabitants. When the spirit of place manifests in visible or tangible form, it may take on human lineaments, but it is imbued with a presence and a power to affect those encountering it that cannot be reduced to human dimensions.

Whether it comforts or terrorises, inspires or overthrows, it acts with an energy and an authority impressive in scale and, apparently, unbounded by time. Its power and its durability are properties of the landscape in which it resides, mediated through a form which is intelligible to human consciousness1. What I have articulated here is, at best, a starting point for and initial assumptions towards a piece of work which would examine in detail the experience of the genius loci wherever it has been recorded and wherever it can be inferred from material remains.


1. Such assertions are difficult, perhaps impossible, to substantiate. They are grounded in my occasional intuitions of the spirits of places, and weakly supported by a selective use of evidence from domains including archaeology and anthropology. For pragmatic reasons, any research addressing this might be restricted to this country, and probably to selected areas.

Published in NE137, Spring 2014, pp.18-20

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