A couple of months ago we took a group of visiting friends to Waylands Smithy, a neolithic long barrow on the ancient track known as The Ridgeway. By the time we arrived the Sun had set and we walked the ancient track in darkness. Walking through the gate to the barrow it appeared as a black shape in the night. Ancient, sacred, and doubtlessly haunted by countless ancestral spirits.
We walked to the doorway, crouched down and crawled inside the tomb. Utter darkness. Silence. I switched on my torch and the inside of the tomb was washed with light, illuminating, and casting deeper shadows inside. In the centre of the far end of the tomb an arrow had been pushed into the earth. It stood as if fired from far above. There were flowers.
For this week’s look at an area of my spiritual life I’m going to take a look at what is often an controversial topic.
I remember being at a Pagan conference some years ago where one of the custodians of a stone circle was giving a talk about this topic. They had brought a carrier bag full of what they called ‘debris’ they had collected from the stones. They un-ceremonially upended the bag and tipped out the contents which they then picked through, holding bits and pieces up to show the audience. They said, “There are crystals, ribbons, lots of aluminium nightlight remains, and pieces of paper, including bad poetry for dead boyfriends”. They picked up a little scroll of paper, then tossed it back onto the pile of ‘debris’. I was shocked. Shocked that people would leave offerings that might damage the stones like candles, but also shocked at the callous way some of these offerings had been not only dismissed, but treated so horribly by a person who, as a Pagan, seemed to have no respect for the emotion behind some of the offerings. They might not have been sacred to her but to the partner of that dead boyfriend, who had written their heartfelt words onto a scroll, then left it in what they obviously considered a sacred place (as a Christian might light a candle in a Church) it was important. Some of this ‘debris’ was devotional.
All around me people were voicing their disgust at the litter on the table before the speaker. And although I could see their point, I also couldn’t help but think that we were all missing something incredibly important. I looked at Cerri and it was obvious that she was feeling it too. She put her hand up to ask a question. The voices died down and she said, “Why don’t you create a little space, just a table or some kind of altar, where people could leave their offerings? If people are going to leave votive offerings, isn’t that better than having nowhere, which is why they are left by the stones?”
A good and valid question I thought. But all around me, giggling. I was now even more confused. “Look,” the speaker said, ” we don’t even know what the stones were used for. They might just be a goat pen for all we know! If we put an offering table we would be suggesting that this was a ritual site, and we don’t know that is was. No we won’t do that.”
We don’t know that it was… Well, maybe that’s true. But it is now.
I went back to the stone circle this past Summer. Sat quietly among the stones. That potential ‘goat pen’. Looking around I saw a few flowers left here and there. The aluminium remains of a nightlight sat at the bottom of one of the stones. People still coming here and leaving their offerings. If they had placed a small table I think people might have used it. Instead the ‘debris’ still comes.
When I stepped into Waylands Smithy and saw the arrow and flowers I was torn, as I always am when finding ritual offerings of this kind. Part of me thinks why did you feel the need to leave something like this? Why not leave only footprints? Then another part of me thinks the Pagan religion is alive, this tomb built by our ancestors is still being used 5000 years on. It’s a hard one for me to balance. People have been leaving offerings at sacred sites since the dawn of humanity. It seems to be something in our very DNA. This is nothing new, in fact we can honestly say that this is an unbroken tradition.
When Cerri and I went to Cyprus some years back we went to Aphrodite’s Rock. We parked our car and walked under a roadway, through a dark passage and then out into the light of the beach, and the first thing we saw was a tree literally dripping with white ribbons. Did I look in disgust at this ‘debris’? No, I had tears in my eyes. Here on this beach the Great Goddess Aphrodite was still being remembered and honoured by hundreds of visitors. She was alive, and if this tree hadn’t been hung with clooties I would never have known that. Instead I would have seen a beach and a rock connected with an ancient myth on an island that had seemingly forgotten its ancient heritage. Seeing this tree made me happy.
I have a current bugbear and that is when authors write ‘the Druid did this, the Pagans did that’ etc etc. I am very much looking forward to the time when we give our paths the credence and acceptance to be able to say ‘the Druids do this, the Pagans do that’. Here this tree was a living example of a spiritual practice. As are the ribbons and clooties on other trees in Britian.
Last year I went to the Rocky Valley Labyrinths, and Avebury, and at both I found offering trees. There were ribbons, hair, but also plastic bags, and other non-biodegrable stuff tied to the trees. Now that I don’t get. If people are going to leave offerings make them natural offerings. Small things that we know will rot away into nothing over the course of time. Not Tesco carrier bags..!
There is no easy answer to this debate. Simply saying “don’t leave stuff” is not going to change anything. There is a drive to leave physical objects in honour of our Gods and the Spirits of Place. This ‘debris’ can even add great atmosphere to a site – if you’ve ever been to St Nectan’s Glen waterfall in Cornwall you will know what I mean. But if we are going to leave offerings let’s make sure they are honourable offerings. Not nightlights, candles or plastic, but a simple hair (my personal favourite), small cotton or silk ribbon, flowers, honey, or milk. Something that is a part of you, something that has taken some thought, not only for the object of the offering, but with respect to the place and people who will visit the site after you.