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On Sacred Land: Listening to Spirit (Part 1 of 3)

At the beginning of February, I got to go to Earthspirit's  Feast of Lights.  When I was there, I got to attend  Andras Corban Arthen's "Sacred Land: an Anamanta Workshop."

I've enjoyed Andras's teaching ever since I was a little Witchling and I took his Witchcraft 101 classes.  It was nice having beginner-oriented stuff that wasn't condescending or lightweight, and even though it was obvious in his survey of all the different sorts of Witches he'd encountered that he liked his own tradition best, he did real justice to the subject, and offered enough practical ideas that I took home something to think about.

Twenty-five years later, and he's still at it--making me think. 

Not enough of us really think about how our Paganism connects us to the local landscape.  I know that I've thought about it more and more since moving to our house at the edge of the woods, and I was ready to look at my relationship with the earth in new ways.  I got what I came for--not just in terms of the ideas I agreed with, of course, but in some new ideas that I didn't agree with--or only in part.

It's nice when you open up your mind, and let somebody else's ideas blow through.  For instance, I'm not normally a huge fan of applying word analysis to thinking about magic or religion.  But that was how Andras began his talk, and it did fit what he had to say.

To begin with, Andras focused on the distinction between the words sacred and holy.  While both get used interchangeably in modern English, their origins are quite different.  Holy comes from the same root as whole, hale, or hallow.  According to Douglas Harper's Online Etymology Dictionary, "Primary (pre-Christian) meaning is not possible to determine, but probably it was 'that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated.'"

A holy thing, in other words, is one that must be left as it is--untouched and undivided.

That is not, however, the origin of the word sacred.  If a thing is sacred, a term derived from the "Latin sacrare 'to make sacred, consecrate,'" then it derives its spiritual quality not from its wholeness but from a quality of being separated from the ordinary--of being set apart.

Andras illustrated his point with a series of photographs from his travels to Neolithic sites in the British Isles--images of places like these:

Maes Howe entry.
Photo: Rob Burke, 2003.
Footpath to the Maes Howe Entrance. C Michael Hogan, 2007

It can be very difficult, of course, to determine exactly what ancient peoples were doing at these carefully constructed sites.  We know that they served as burial chambers--though probably not for all the members of a community.  And there seems to be evidence that the chambers were periodically re-opened, and that some sort of ritual observances happened there.  Communing with the ancestors?  And were those ancestors seen as sleeping or awaiting rebirth within the living land?  These can only be guesses, of course, but they are intelligent and informed guesses, for anyone who has ever read deeply into the archeology of that period.

Andras also shared pictures he'd taken at what are sometimes called "Cloutie wells"--places where, at a spring or a well that comes bubbling up out of the earth, "clouts"--or rags, in plain English--are left tied to the branches of trees and bushes.  This kind of practice goes back a very long way, and continues into modern times, where it is definitively associated with healing magic.  The rags--not ribbons, but well-worn rags--are soaked with water from the well and applied to the body of the traveler, then tied and left behind at the well as part of a personal pilgrimage for healing.

Sancreed Holy Well.  Michael Murray, 2005.
Cloutie Tree Near Madron Well.  Jim Champion, 2006.

It is, again, impossible to be sure.  But there certainly are modern associations with water that rises from springs and wells with the feminine, and with the healing power of the earth.  It does not seem to be too much of a stretch to think that those associations may be as old as the practice of cloutie well offerings themselves.

Very old, in other words.

Two interesting things are worth noticing about how these sacred sites were and are used by the people who visit them: first of all, their value does not appear to have been in their being places like any others, but instead, in being places set apart--sacred because set apart--from ordinary, daily life and from the surrounding landscape.  They may call attention to the surrounding landscape--many Neolithic sites are quite dramatically situated on the land--but they are distinct from it.  They are, in a way, places where the magical and numinous powers of the land are concentrated.

They become gateways for human beings to pass through (in the case of burial chambers, at times quite literally) on their way to communion with the spirits of the land. 

The second thing to notice is that no one--not Andras, and certainly not I--is claiming that there is necessarily a cultural continuity of human use of these sites.  The myth of druids building Stonehenge is well-understood to be just that: a myth.  Many of these sites are far older than the Celtic and then Saxon and Norse, and then English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish peoples who have frequented them.  And it is not possible to prove any kind of lineal transmission of religious belief or practice about them.

But that isn't important, unless you're a cultural anthropologist or a historian.  If, like Andras, like me, and maybe like you, my reader, your interest in religion is not scholarly but practical, it becomes possible to open ourselves to unprovable probabilities.  Like this one: it was not necessary for these sites to be part of continuous religious teachings on how to make use of them for them to remain sacred.

On some level, it wouldn't be necessary for any human traditions at all to carry these ideas forward through time.  Because gates have two sides to them, and once in place, the spirits of the land themselves can be the teachers for anyone with a heart open to hear them.

More than that: how does a place become sacred to begin with?  (Sacred--not holy.  Remember the difference!  All places may be holy, but only some will be effectively sacred, set apart for connecting the worlds of Spirit and of human life.)

Yes, there are humans involved in recognizing the sacred potential of this site or that, and in constructing whatever shrines, paths, megaliths, or barrows mark the way.  But to one who believes in the living spiritual presence of the land and the spirit beings that walk it, those humans have help in finding our way to these sites, and help again, once they have been found, in learning how to approach the land in that place, in order to come into relationship with the spirit beings that are present there.

It is through listening to the spirits of the land--and perhaps of the ancestors who have been laid to rest in that land--that we find, build, and rightly make use of sacred spaces in the landscape.

All this was part of Andras's talk.  As I said before, nothing profoundly new in the content, but the way the ideas lined up made me think.  This was especially true when he began commenting on how, when he and his family found their way to land of their own, they took years in constructing the various sacred sites (a labyrinth, a stone circle, and a peace cairn) they've erected since moving there.

This was not a question of procrastination.  Rather, it took years to develop the relationship with the land that allowed them to sense what and whether it was right to build, and on what sites on the 135 acres they own together.

I found myself nodding enthusiastically at that.  I've known too many Pagans who come into a little bit of land and throw up half a dozen hastily, shoddily built shrines, often in the most unsuitable locations, with no apparent attempts to learn what the land did or did not want on it.

(Peter and I have been living in our own house in the woods for four years now.  We're still working out where to leave offerings.  And while we've built a garden, planted fruit trees, and done maintenance on the trails already in place, we have thus far put up only one small, temporary icon in the woods.  We are very much of the mindset that it is right to feel our way.)

The point of setting aside sacred space, as Andras seemed to be describing it, was about listening to the spirits of the land on which we live, and getting to know them as they really are, without projecting our own wishes and fantasies onto them.  And that far, I find myself in complete agreement with what he had to say.

Beyond that, I found some room to differ.

Next: Part 2 of 3: On Sacred Land: In Wilderness


One thing I’d like to clarify is that, while it’s certainly true I don’t claim there is “cultural continuity of human use” at European sacred sites, I also don’t claim there isn’t. I make that small point because it’s pretty much become conventional wisdom in the pagan movement to assert as fact that such continuity ended altogether a very long time ago. While I think that’s probably more true than not (especially speaking generally), my own direct, personal experiences with various small ethnic communities in fairly remote parts of Europe has been such that I cannot simply discard their claims to an unbroken (not unchanging) spiritual/cultural tradition involving certain ceremonial sites --- the sacred caves of the Basque peoples being one good example.
Brian Taylor said…
This reminds me of a radio broadcast in which Peter Carter, who traces his fenland family back to 1475, said he thanks his ancestors for every eel he catches. Remarkably, his eel traps turn out to be almost identical to some recently found by archaeologists and dated at 3,000 years b.p. No linguistic continuity, of course, but apparent continuity of material culture.
Andras, thanks for stopping by and commenting, and especially for clarifying your point of view.

Of course, if I'd stopped to think of the context of your work with small ethnic pagan religious groups in Europe, I'd have been a little more careful in how I phrased my piece.

I do think the point that the land itself can communicate with humans how it wishes to be in relationship with us is very important, though. I'm glad I got you right on that, because beyond questions of anthropology and history of religion, there are spiritual and mystical questions I find even more interesting... and less often addressed, even by p/Pagan writers.

Thanks again--I really enjoyed your talk (and connecting with you at Feast of Lights! *smile*).

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