Ideas of sacred land

What makes a place sacred? Perhaps there’s a religious event associated with it, or a human construction there to hold that sacredness and alert us to it. Maybe the construct’s purpose is obvious – as with temples, maybe more elusive – as with stone circles. Often we’ll travel vast distances to visit the sites that humans have framed as sacred by building something. Be that Stonehenge, Greek Temples, Nazca lines or ancient cave paintings, or anything else of that ilk.

Repeated use of a place by people approaching it in a state of veneration has an effect.  However, these designated sacred places also attract tourists, who come to look, but not to experience the sacred. A sacred site full of loud, photo taking, irreverent site seers doesn’t always feel very sacred at all. Of course being Pagan does not prevent us from showing up as tourists, and our showing up does not guarantee anything will happen.

I’ve been to Avebury more times than I can count. It’s a place I love visiting. I’ve participated in rituals there and spent time contemplatively amongst the stones and on the earthworks. For the greater part, I’ve had no really spiritual experiences there. No flashes of awen, nothing numinous. A sense of awe at the vision and determination of its builders – every time. The most profound experience I had there was a few years ago when, for the first time, I had chance to walk the site. I went out to Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow and back to the stone circle. There are many sites in the Avebury complex aside from the main stone ring, and seeing some from afar and moving through that landscape was by far the most profound thing I’ve ever done there.

I’ve been to the Nodens temple site at Lydney, once, as a visitor. There were a lot of visitors. It was an interesting experience, but not a profound one. As a ‘pilgrim’ coming in for one visit, what are we expecting from the place we land at? Does that expectation psyche us up to a heightened state so that things feel more profound than otherwise they might? Thinking back to my first visit to Stonehenge, sleep deprived and deeply invested in the experience, I think the answer is ‘yes’. Making an event of pilgrimage, of arrival at the sacred site, we can enchant ourselves into feeling more than otherwise we might.

It may be a bit like the difference between the chemical rush of falling in love, and the depth of a long term relationship. The wildest reactions to another human can be fleeting and soon lost. It takes active, dedicated involvement to make a relationship, with another human or with a place.

All of this suggests to me a case for making pilgrimages over and over again to the same places. Ideally not just driving up and looking around, but moving thoughtfully through the whole landscape, putting the place in its context. Where does the sacredness stop? Of course it doesn’t, there is no line in the land. There’s the limit of how far the tourists normally walk from the car park, and it’s important to find ways of going beyond that limit. If you can’t walk out of and around a site, time spent at the edges, looking out will take you further than you might otherwise have gone. Time spent in the site paying attention to it takes you beyond gawping and into experiencing. The more touristy a site, the more important it is to figure out how to be something other than a tourist in that place if what you really want is a spiritual experience.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

5 responses to “Ideas of sacred land

  • Scott

    Some years before I was even aware of the idea of Druidry, I travelled to Ireland which is the land of my Mother’s ancestors. As far as I know I was the first of her line to return in @220 years. While there I went to the Boyne Valley to visit Newgrange as I ‘ve always been fascinated by that place. I paid my fee, joined a tour and went inside. I was so excited! While inside the Newgrange structure, the tour provides an example of how the light moves through the structure during winter solstice. To demonstrate this they first have to turn out the lights. It becomes pitch black dark. You cannot see your hand in front of your face. But then, something remarkable happened. I began to see bright bursts of light all around me and inside the structure. Light was floating everywhere. At the end of the demonstration, I commented to my friends who joined me that day that I thought the sparkling light show was really interesting and I asked their opinion. They had no idea what I was talking about. I stayed quiet. Thereafter we travelled to Knowth and Dowth. To this day, I have no explanation for what I saw. A trick of my brain to compensate for the utter blackness? Or, something else? Regardless, I will never forget it.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Some places are naturally sacred, they bring out the wonder and awe from us. Some places become sacred for all of the reasons you suggest, but we could decide to make all places sacred and treat them as such. Then it would be a much different world than we live in now, because our own perspective would see it differently and treat it differently.

  • lornasmithers

    As someone with an active imagination it’s often myths and stories that lure me to a place – particularly if it’s associated with deities, other spirits, or ancestors with whom I feel a connection. I find a lot of magic in the interplay of working with those stories and anticipating how I’m going to perceive them in the landscapes where they’re set. Sometimes I find fulfilment, sometimes disappointment, quite often something entirely unexpected happens. Some places I’ve found to be quite giving and I’ve had amazing experiences on a first visit but others have made it quite clear they don’t want me there at all…

  • Scott Tizzard

    Hi Nimue. I’ve tried posting twice, but it does not seem to work. I will try this last time.

    Some years before I knew of the concept of a Druid, I traveled to Ireland as I have Irish ancestors on both sides of my family. I am the first to return to Ireland from my Mother’s lineage in ~220 years. While in Ireland I went to the Boyne Valley to visit Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. I’ve always been fascinated by these places and was thrilled to be able to visit. While visiting Newgrange, the tour was invited into the passage tomb and then to simulate the winter solstice light, the electric lights inside are turned off. With the lights off, it is so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. Then a ray of light is slowly directed along the floor until it reaches the back wall. But a curious thing happened. I began to see sparkles of bright light and orbs all over the place. They were quite bright. After the tour ended, I asked my friends what they thought of the sparkling light show. I thought is was great and wanted their opinion. They had no idea what I was talking about. To this day I do not have an explanation. A trick of the mind in response to the deep dark? Or, was it something else?

    • Nimue Brown

      oh, that’s fascinating! I guess the rational explanation is the brain compensating for lack of input, but, I can’t help but feel if your brain was prone to doing that, you’d know! How very interesting!

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