The Tellurgic Intelligence of Cities

In Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram makes some points that I think are important for urban Pagans (that would be most of us).

Human Communities, too, are informed by the specific sentience of the lands they inhabit. There is a unique temperament to the bustling commerce and culture of any old-enough city, a mental climate that we instantly recognize upon returning after several years, and that we mistakenly ascribe solely to the human inhabitants of the metropolis. It is a result, we surmise, of the particular trades that the city is known for, or the dynamic mix of ethnicities that interweave there, or the heavy-handed smugness of the local police force. Such social dynamics, however, are steadily fed by the elemental energies of the realm — by the heavy overcast that cloaks the sky for weeks at a time, or the splashing speech of the river that rolls through downtown, tossing glints of sunlight into the eyes of all who walk near, or by the way that the greasy exhaust from forty thousand commuting cars interacts with the humidity of the summer air. The dismal social ills endemic to certain cities have often been stoked by the foolishness of urban designers who overlooked the particular wildness of the place, ignoring the genius loci, the unique intelligence of the land now squelched and stifled by local industries. A calloused coldness, or meanness, results when our animal senses are cut off for too long from the animate earth, when our ears — inundated by the whooping blare of car alarms and the muted thunder of subways — no longer encounter the resonant silence, as our eyes forget the irregular wildness of things green and growing behind the rectilinear daze.

Still, even the stone structures of a metropolis may become expressions of the genius loci. Old buildings regularly worked over by the sun, rain, and wind finally become gestures of the local earth. The very architecture of any city old enough to have negotiated with gravity, century after century, for the stance of its walls and the solidity of its foundations, is now a conduit for the pulse and power that rises steadily from the ground. The people who take up residence and work in that city are channeled into patterns of life appropriate to the realm by the edifices that surround them, by the worn-smooth cobbles of the winding streets and the slightly sagging structures within which they dwell.

Thus, the old city of Prague, which straddles the Vltava River with its statue-laden bridges and its battlements, its narrow lanes and its Gothic towers, holds certain chthonic qualities in place even as the recently released tides of capitalism sweep across it. The strange and brooding psyche of the local earth is preserved and curiously protected in the hand-built substance of this town, where High Gothic structures from the fourteenth century jive with ornate Baroque edifices from the seventeenth, where somber Romanesque churches converse in muted tones with audacious Art Nouveau neighbors. Despite the corrosive power of the capitalist economy (usually a kind of universal solvent), an earthly magic dwells and moves within the city of Prague. it’s a power that cannot easily be eradicated here, where the pagan Green Man still peers down from the shadowed corners of medieval churches (stone vines spiraling from his gaping mouth), where zodiacal clocks in the looming clock towers tick off the mythical hours, and ravens squawk in the branches above a cemetery so thick with tilting headstones that even the ghosts cannot squeeze between them. Given solid expression in the ornate structure and statuary of so many buildings, the tellurgic intelligence of the local earth had only to recede into the old stonework in order to survive the sterile era of Soviet communism, with its anti-aesthetic of mass efficiency, or to weather the new occupation by the culture of total commerce. From within those aged walls, the energies pulsing up from the ground continue to exert their influence upon all who live and work there. Hence, the kabbalistic and magical arts still flourish in the city of Prague. I am acquainted with a molecular biologist there, respected for his research throughout Europe, who at night composes and interprets astrological charts for the country’s intelligentsia. I have been befriended by an accomplished and erudite geologist in that city who regularly turns his attention to the arcana of geomancy in the off hours. . . . In old Prague, as in other venerable cities whose cobbles have been bloodied and buffeted by succeeding ages, the built scape of the city does not stifle the sentience of the land, but rather ensures that the power continues to vitalize the human community.

I live in Washington, D.C., a city newer than Prague, but one with its own very distinct “feel,” genius loci, tellurgic intelligence. Part of its feel is that newness, even old things in this city aren’t really very old. It’s a city on two rivers, a city that starts on land often called marshland and rises up a hill. It’s a city of white marble, heroic and yet wonderfully human sculptures and fountains, and plentiful museums. It’s a city where power and testosterone literally hum in the air, becoming, if one is not careful, like water (unrecognized) to a fish. One of my goals, as a Witch in relationship with her landbase, is to learn how to work with and use the powers of this specific city. When I need dirt from a cemetery for a spell, I think about which of the city’s cemeteries is best suited for that spell. When I want to do magic to influence the airy business of laws, I have a number of high places from which to scatter birdseed. When I want to get deep into the roots of the power structure, I can choose between the rotunda of the Capitol or the tidal basin off of the Potomac.

If you’re like most modern Pagans, you live in an urban area. How does that influence your magic? How is your city like Prague or like Washington, D.C.? How is it different? How do you get in touch with the soul of your city, with the “elemental energies of the realm”?

Picture found here.

7 responses to “The Tellurgic Intelligence of Cities

  1. Living in one of the first houses built when Findlay was formed, I found the energies in my own Land dormant, waiting. Tapping into it, giving it life through working the soil, the reawakened spirit spoke of earlier times when the land was wilder, and life was simpler. There is an early Midwest ‘feel’ here, where creativity was necessary to live. Built on Christian ethics, those conservative standards still thrive; but there is an undercurrent of life that nurtures the free spirit and pokes through the cracks in the cement like a wayward seed seeking light.

    Excellent article.

  2. Pingback: The sun that will ever arise « Song for the Apple Mother

  3. I like your new blog design. This post reminds me that I need to buy Abram’s new book too.

    I do not live in a city anymore, but here is a post about trying to connect with a neglected regional (?) god.

  4. A very interesting point. I live in Southern California and the cities here all have slightly different feels even though they all flow into each other and this idea might be why. Claremont is wooded and alive with undercurrents of wildness, activity, and independence. Upland feels sparse and windswept up against the mountains. Chino is settled and simple with it’s farms and dairies next to the subdivisions and strip malls.

  5. I enjoyed this excerpt — I may need to move Abram’s book up in the “to be read” pile…

    BTW, I think you forgot to close the italics tag — your whole blog is now in Italic!

  6. One of the reasons that I hope, someday, to visit Damascus, is that it is the longest continuously occupied city on earth. It was old when it was occupied by the army of Alexander the Great. Simply to experience the energy would probably be worth the trip.

  7. While I’ve always been at least somewhat in tune with the workings of whatever city I lived in, in a magical/spiritual sense, it was not until I moved here to Eugene, Oregon that I became fully immersed in localized polytheism and magical practice. And it is not just the obvious nymphs and landvaettir that clamor for one’s attentions in our many parks and wild places within the city limits, but a gestalt experience of the city itself, even right downtown. To me, it was always clear that the well-known eccentricity of our inhabitants (common, for instance, to see someone sporting fairy wings, or riding a penny-farthing, on an average day) flows directly from the land and spirits itself. One receives more omens here in the mumblings of passerby, experiences more magical synchronicities, and is more nourished by the creativity all around, than anywhere else I’ve been. I’ve responded with intensified offerings and ritual to the land wights, to our city’s founder, to the dead in our graveyards, to the plants and animals that live and die here, to my gods in Their unique local manifestations, and to the very city itself.

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