Cryptids and Land Spirits
For a long time I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of allowing modern concepts to intersect with my witchcraft. I consistently fall in the trap of thinking old = valuable and new = invalid. Like most witches I straddle a line between historical validity and unverified personal gnosis. As I’ve become more invested in my locality I’ve realized that unless I am open to new ideas I could have a very empty practice. What I mean is that in Florida we don’t have a plethora of witchlore to learn from.
Florida never had witch trials or any extensive witchlore. The few tidbits out there are somewhat easily identifiable as fakelore, namely the Tallahassee Witch’s Grave and “Wiccademous” (come on guys, really?) Without any kind of active witchlore, a folkloric approach hits a wall unless the witch broadens their horizons.
Local Stories, Local Spirits
That brings me to cryptids, urban legends, and monsters. Almost every state is teeming with monster stories and Florida has some fun ones to spare. With a folkloric lens I can look at a story, suspend disbelief for a bit, and consider the possibility that these monster stories may be a manifestation of the land spirits.
When looking at monster stories there are often features of a creature that make them uniquely suited for the local environment. They may have a defensive function unusual for a similar animal, for instance: intense smell for waning off predators, added wings on a bipedal creatures to help navigate treetops, or an otherwise normal animal becoming bipedal to better track prey. These monsters are often protective of a certain area, rarely venture outside of the general vicinity, and yet are still elusive to any actual attempts to track them down. Sometimes cryptids are just oversized versions of a normal animal that is in an area where that species normally doesn't live. Most of the time however cryptids are a combination of fantastic animal qualities in one creature. These features all slapped together sound very similar to almost any creature in mythology abroad.
Skinkin' Up the Swamp
Lets take the example of my favorite Florida monster, the Skunk Ape. Think Bigfoot sloshing through the Everglades fighting off gators and boars. While also smelling like a bag of rotting sausages. Skunk Ape’s are often heavily compared to Bigfoot by locals with some special features. The most common features are that Skunk Apes are smaller and have more human-ish faces than most other wild-men. He’s also said to live (almost) exclusively in the Everglades and typically don’t care much for human attention. And of course there’s the smell, which will always hit your nose before you actually see the monster. While it’s easy to write Skunk Ape off as a statewide superstition (especially with that name) there is actually an extensive history of wild men in folklore. What makes a faun or satyr more magical than a Skunk Ape?
I think Skunk Ape makes for a good example because most Floridians recognize the name immediately, but also because I’ve had some minor experiences that line up with Skunk Ape as a land spirit. Not enough for firm grounding or constant inclusion in a practice, but certainly enough to continue approaching the spirit. Most of my spirit work involves minor pact making, through a series of initial meetings and trading of services with spirits. So when I enter new places I typically feel out for land spirits to make myself known. During this process I normally see spirits as animals, but twice now in some unfamiliar swamps I've been greeted with an intense smell and vaguely humanoid shapes.
A lesser known story but one that had a deeper influence on me are the Gator Men. I grew up in a small semi-rural town in Central Florida. There wasn’t a lot by way of folklore or even urban legends there, but I do remember one story that my cousins used to tell to scare the living hell out of me. They said that lurking in the lakes were gators that could stand on two legs and would gladly drag you down into the waters. Not to eat you, but just to take pleasure in drowning you. I was kind of a wimpy youngin so these stories did a number on me.
Despite finding very few records of anyone ever experiencing sightings of Gator Men in my town (or anywhere in the state really) some of my first land spirit encounters were with bipedal gators who had human-shaped torsos. The spirits were every bit as scary as the stories I remembered as a child, but far more helpful to me as a witch. I often down played the experiences because I fell into that trap again. These weren't European goddesses of the earth, or elemental gnomes, they were just superstitious monsters so I couldn't conceive of them as real. I’ve since thrown that mentality out (although I’m still a skeptic at heart) and I now embrace serendipitous experiences like this. Sometimes I encounter spirits who take odd shapes, only to do a little bit of digging and find a history of that spirit as a cryptid.
Get Out There and do Some Diggin'
If we can get past someone else's ideas of what makes a practice authentic and start thinking in terms of what is effective on a personal level, then there is a world of possibility in every story. The caveat to this is of course that we need to be transparent on what is personal gnosis and what is historically verified. I take every story with a grain of salt and a shimmer in my eye. I always hope there's something more but I don't let myself get hung up on a story if there's nothing there.
Given enough time out in the Everglades maybe I would have more concrete experiences of the spirit in the shape of a wild man with a heavy stench. Maybe I would never catch that glimpse again, there’s no telling unless I go and try.
This isn’t to say that all stories are true and all urban legends are actually depictions of mighty genius loci, but the overall concept is important for me. If stories have power then the time period in which they are told does not diminish that power. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve unearthed a hidden gem of local occultism, sometimes I feel a little goofy trying to find me a Skunk Ape. But I’m always trying to keep myself open to the idea that there is something more to the stories we tell.
I want to give a major shout out to Tara-Love Maguire and Chris Orapello who founded the Blacktree Coven in New Jersey. Their work, which includes the famous cryptid The Jersey Devil, has been a major inspiration to me. Hearing them talk openly about working with cryptids has helped me get past the “Silly” feeling I’ve always had about a relationship between cryptids and land spirits.
Line art drawn by Aaron Oberon (2018) Swamp's Heart. All images and content copyright by author Aaron Oberon, 2018. All rights reserved.