Thinking About – More on Sacred Sites

IMG_5278It was the Anderida Gorsedd moot last night, a talking stick moot where we choose a topic for discussion and then pass the Talking Beer Mat around the table, each expressing our thoughts on the topic. Always deep, always very thought provoking.

Last night we chose Sacred Sites – What are they and what makes them sacred?

It was always going to inspire a blog post today.

The site closest to my heart here in Sussex is the Long Man of Wilmington and I wrote about my relationship with that place in a blog in 2013 here. There are also other spaces I love dearly. Mount Caburn, Cissbury Ring, Chanctonbury Ring, Kingley Vale, Thundersbarrow Hill, too many to list. Move out to other areas of Albion and the list increases. This little island has been inhabited for so long that we are incredibly lucky to have such an array of sites left us by our ancestors.

Then there are those in other lands I’ve visited. Sites from different peoples and cultures, but they all seem to inspire the same wonder and mystery. When travelling with my music people are kind enough to take me to visit some of the sites local to them. Occasionally they will then visit us and we will go on a road trip to take in some of our iconic spaces.

Top of the list for overseas visitors is always Stonehenge.

I get that. It’s obviously our most famous site. It’s an amazing place. But to me the experience of visiting Stonehenge just doesn’t touch me spiritually. It’s odd. Being in a huge group of tourists, all walking around in silence with electronic phone-like gadgets, listening to pre-recorded voices. Not being allowed anywhere near the stones. Observing them from a distance, like an ancient Cathedral trapped in Amber, untouchable, unreachable. The new visitor centre placed a mile away delivering coaches of people has now made the experience even more bleached clean and lifeless. I know, it earns English Heritage a huge amount of money, but considering the billing of the site on our overseas guests check list, the final experience never lives up to the hype. It’s a shame. Many years ago the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids had the opportunity to hold their Winter Solstice ceremonies within the circle, in the dark. I will never forget it. Being inside the circle800px-Uley_Long_Barrow_-_view_from_the_east you can feel that the stones are still very much alive. That the energy of Stonehenge is there, and it is overwhelmingly powerful. Which makes it even more sad that so many people miss it.

But this isn’t a Stonehenge rant. There are already plenty of those. But this does highlight something for me. I connect on a far deeper level with a site if I am with a very small group or alone. There is a difference walking into a neolithic Long Barrow with a big group of people, walking en masse around the outskirts of Stonehenge, or going there alone. Sitting within a tomb, alone.

I remember visiting a Long Barrow called Hetty Peglers Tump many years ago. It was a stormy day, and as I approached the tomb I saw that the entrance was small. That I would have to kneel down to get in. I had no torch, and it was pitch black inside. Going in there, lighting the space with just a match was a powerful thing. The presence of the dead was palpable.

1280px-Iona_Abbey_Scotland_-_seen_from_ferryThere is something about a sacred site that makes me feel closer to the Mystery. I know that all of the Earth is sacred, but there does seem to be these nodes that somehow bring that presence closer to the surface. I have spoken about stone circles, hill figures and long barrows, but I also feel this same sacred energy in some churches, in Cathedrals, in woodlands with certain trees, and on out of the way islands.

I will never forget my first sight of Iona. From the coast of Mull across the Sound of Iona there I saw this ancient sacred island. One of the very first pieces of rock to push above the sea level it has been sacred to Pagans and Christians alike. A ferry takes you across the Sound and the first step onto that sacred isle was wonderful. No cars are allowed on the island so the peace is delicious. All you hear are the sea birds and the sounds of the waves as they lap the shore. Very few places have affected me as much as Iona. Lindisfarne was another, and one day I will get across to Bardsey.

Each of us will have a site that speaks to us, and to some that might be our garden, or the bank of a local river. A site doesn’t have to be old to be sacred. It’s about a personal relationship with the land, and each of us has it within us to reach out, and touch the land, to make our sacred relationship with it something that has depth and purpose.

What is your favourite Sacred Site? What draws you there?

14 Comments

  1. Woodland Bard February 10, 2015 at 1:27 pm - Reply

    The strange thing is, 5 years ago I would have written much what you have done there Damh. For a start I was a stone mason for about 11 years on Iona. With one other person we restored the little Relig Oran chapel in the mid 70s, cleaned up the sheela n gig at the nunnery and rebuilt the alter there and other jobs. Since 6 years old I was addicted to maps and venturing to as many megalithic sites as I could and plot as many ley lines as I could, including some cycling around with John Michell, and finding out all of the stories I could about these sites.

    Then at 60 years old I had a massive stroke, totally paralysed me for awhile, and I had an out of body time. With that I was taken by a guide, who I could not look at, who showed me a totally different story about ‘sacred’ megalithic sites and ley lines. I was shown the elitism of them, the majority serving the few, the attempts of humans to control nature for their own ends, the genocide of sacred wild land for controlled farming, and even the removal of woodlands to build some of these stone ‘sacred’ sites.

    I was finally taken back to a woodland I played in as a child, my den, and how that went away by development, and then shown how these ‘ancient sites’ had done the same.

    That’s how I got the Woodland Bard nickname. Since then I dumped my association with stone sites and gave my reverence to the native will woodlands and the spring waters that feed our wells as these are the sacred things we ignore. They were here on this earth well before us humans were guests on this earth.

    My heart drops when I see a lawnmower on the top of Newgrange cairn in Ireland, to preserve its manicure lawn look, and even worse when a tree is taken away and tree seedlings nearby caused by drop seeds of birds or wind taken away, ‘because they disturb the prettiness of the place’.

    When a cairn gets priority over a naturally occuring tree it totally questions what I regard sacred. When I see moss and flowers come through the stones of a ruined sacred site, then to me its sacredness taking over.

    However, it works two ways, and places me in a hypocrite arena as this winter when a tree fell and just missed my cottage home, I had other trees shortened or taken down to protect my home. Nothing wasted, of course, and I do live here, its not an ornament … but the question remains and always will do.

    Which is more sacred? Something us humans build or what grows out of the processes and unseen wonder of Nature. Which of these two have priority, because those stones taken from the earth will never grow and be replaced again, for one.

    • Damh the Bard February 10, 2015 at 2:38 pm - Reply

      I completely get that Jon and thanks for taking the time to write such a personal and in depth reply. This also came up at the moot last night. In Dorset there is a small stone circle called the Nine Stones. It’s right on the side of the main road at the edge of a woodland. For years a majestic Beech tree grew beside one of the stones in the end almost became one with the stone. Certainly a part of the living circle. It created a lovely shade, and stood like a guardian to the site. Then for some reason the top branches were cut and the tree was killed. The bones of the tree still stands there, its broken body still a part of the stone, but the life has gone. To me the life of the circle went with the death of that tree too. It was crazy.

      I love these ancient sites. Most of them anyway. To me the woodland, the well, the spring are also sacred places. Newgrange has become a little bit like Stonehenge for me these days. When I went there years ago I parked out front and went in only own. Apparently it’s all very controlled now. It’s the smaller, out of the way sites that, for me, still hold their power. But a mighty Oak in Windsor Great Forest is it’s own Cathedral.

      • Karen February 10, 2015 at 7:53 pm - Reply

        great post, Damh (and Jon, too); I’ve always thought that some of the most sacred sites I have encountered have been the smaller, more out of the way places; things like the woodland, the wells in out-of-the-way places, (and ‘dressing’ them at times, as we used to do in the Highlands), the springs, caves, certain spots by a river, et al….and not those that are ‘officially’ part of any heritage body or org., for ex. Like with your experience of Stonehenge, I went through a # of years of witnessing over a period of years very great changes at a couple of key sites in Scotland, and the quiet, peaceful places I initially knew (back then) will never be there again… but the whole area, and the surrounding woodland, imho, was the most ‘sacred’ place there, anyway… And – lol! — have always thought that a large beech grove, with its natural ‘pointed arches’… is certainly its own forest ‘cathedral’…. Here’s to the music in these places, & the wind in the trees… and the Space between the notes…

      • Woodland Bard February 10, 2015 at 9:56 pm - Reply

        When a tree breaks out in a circle it does become an amazing thing as absolutely nobody planned that. Even if it wasn’t cut, it would not live there forever. Like us it has its time. It is special when that life is around though.

        When I was a stone mason on Iona I was eventually fired for refusing to cut down a Yule blossoming Hawthorn in the Nunnery and protesting about it. At that time the upkeep of Iona heritage was funded by a Trust called the Cathedrals Trust and they were dedicated to keeping everything neat and tidy.

        Some even say a cutting of the Iona thorn is what went to Glastonbury, of course πŸ™‚
        Even so, to Cathedral Trust it was just ‘ugly’, must have been 1981 I think. They poured all kind of poisons of it and then it was gone, but ….

        When I visited Iona in 2004 … there it was again, tall, flourishing and fulling back to life in the same spot. Obviously National Trust are now keeping it.

      • Gary February 11, 2015 at 1:44 pm - Reply

        I remember the Nine Stones and that Tree very well – I and some friends used to spend a lot of time there. one of the intensely magical things about that small secluded circle that somehow managed to maintain its’ privacy despite being only 6 feet away from a very busy and fast road was the way that the Tree had become very much an intrinsic part of the Circle. Many of the energies and entities that we saw and/or felt when working there almost seemed to use that Tree as a doorway (and definitely a Guardian) into the spiral – apart from the large stone to the East. It was a very intense place for one so small – the whole circle cannot be more than 12-15 feet across? To hear that the tree has become an empty shell is heart-breaking news… I am deeply saddened by its’ loss.

        Blessings to you both xxx

  2. Natalie February 10, 2015 at 3:07 pm - Reply

    I have had the privilege of visiting your lovely land twice (I’m a Yank), and even more fortunate to have visited Stonehenge both times at Sunrise within the circle itself. I am glad I did not have to experience it as a tourist from outside the fence, I am sure that would have been a very disappointing experience. But my personal favorite Sacred Site (of the few I have visited) was the West Kennet Long Barrow. To me, did not feel like a tomb of sadness, but a tomb of joy. Deep in the back, candles lit, I could feel the ancestors there, and the reverence they had for all of Nature.

  3. Adam ranger February 10, 2015 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Oh no you went and mentioned the “S” word.. but its ok I think you got away with it πŸ™‚ My favourite sacred site locally.. its got to be the Long Man of Wilmington.. and thats is for very personal reasons, the rituals held there by Anderida Gorsedd over the past ten or so years have made this a very special place for me. I know the chalk figure may or may not be ancient, but there are longbarrows on the top of the hill so the site itself has much ancient history. I guess a sacred site does not have to be ancient to be sacred, its the association that goes with it to the individual that makes it sacred

    Another of my favourite sites is the Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake District. Not been there for many years, but I will always remember as a teenager coming across the site whilst walking in the Lake District.. The setting is just so magnificent, and there is a brooding presence in the stones that has always drawn me there when I have been in that part of the world. But I will never forget that connection with the ancient land and its people that I felt the first time I saw this circle.. and that was in the days before I knew about “paganism”

  4. Mollie February 10, 2015 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    I do so agree with the above. After living abroad for some years I am now back in England and my intention is to visit/revisit sacred areas in the SW where I live and also in the North Yorkshire region where I and my ancestors come from.

  5. Jayne Southern February 11, 2015 at 7:37 am - Reply

    This a a great post and very interesting comments have been posted.

    I have a friend who in April is cycling for charity the Belinus Ley Line and he will visit all the sacred sites on this pilgramage. He is a Druid and as he travels to each of the many sites on his journey he will hold a small ceremony to offer blessings to each place. He is called Jeff Gantshuck and he’s from Yorkshire like me!

  6. She of the Wind February 11, 2015 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Living within the city, it is a joy when I find a ‘sacred spot’ that I resonate with and ‘it’ resonates with me. Even more a pleasure when I’m able to be within a woods and come upon a tree’s root-system where great meditation awaits. Near my home used to live two elderly Oak trees, one eve upon a walk I noticed something different, the trees were gone! A powerful surge of sadness ran through me and I cried for the passing of the ‘Elders’. Impermanance is abudant as is the nature of the omniverse, ever-changing and reshaping her/his/it-self. I wonder what would happen if all of Humanity honored all of existance as Sacred? The wonders of creation wait…

  7. […] some other friends about Sacred Sites and what they meant to each other and he wrote a powerful blog about the subject after the meeting. Another friend of mine, John, wrote a comment in reply to his […]

  8. Filidh Lochlannach February 14, 2015 at 5:45 am - Reply

    My personal favourite sacred site is an ancient stone ring in my neighbourhood. I want to share with you a small excerpt from a blog article I wrote about it.

    “I sat on top of “The Castle near the Farm by the Bog” at December 21th and watched the first sunrise of the year. Yes, for me the year really starts with the first sunrise after the winter solstice. It was absolutely amazing. A small cloud on the horizon formed a colourful artwork as this lifegiving round fireball was born over a ridge where I know “The Brekke Castle” (The Castle near the Farm between two Meadows) is. There were rainbow clouds higher up in the sky, and a white woolen blanket of fog that came into the valley from “Drammenselva” (The Wavy River) and showed me how high the water once might have been before the blanket slowly rolled back to where it came from. A black woodpecker chopped in a dry spruce beside me. The same woodpecker that was drumming a welcome solo for me last autumn at the exact same place before the frost came and invited me to other trips. I felt that I met an old friend. There I was with a torch that I had lit before the Sun was born again, and felt a little like I belonged to an old Germanic tribe. I wonder if some of them also sat by a fire and wished the Sun welcome here at the same peak?”

  9. Jeff Stilson February 15, 2015 at 6:43 am - Reply

    I have two incredible experiences at ancient sites that I will never forget. My wife (an ex-pat) and I came over from the states 4 years ago to visit with her parents. In the time we were here she took me to two. The first being obviously Stonehenge (if I hear one more American call it Stonehedge I’m going to throttle them…bloody Yanks! And I am one!), and the lesser known but more accessible Woodhenge just up the road.
    Before we came over, my wife found out how to apply for a 1 hour pass inside the circle when not open to the public. They allow only 26 people at a time so you’re allowed to experience it without being swamped. We are legally married, but we thought it would be perfect to be handfasted in the circle. She contacted a friend of hers to do the ceremony for us and he gladly agreed. And yes Damh, you are right. The energy is absolutely palpable when you enter the circle. It was perfect. We started the ritual and everyone else stopped and stood silent and watched while we had our handfasting. It was beautiful…very moving that they were all so respectful and so moved to just stand and watch. Never to be forgotten.
    The next day we went up to Woodhenge. Aside from one other couple, we were the only ones there. it was not long before dusk when we got there. it was quiet and slightly cool. A perfect evening. We had purchased a bottle of mead, which we affectionately refer to as Druid Fluid, and proceeded to do a small ritual to honor the ancestors. We made an offering to the corners and to the soul buried in the center. At that point I was overcome with emotion. I felt incredibly connected with my ancestry, with Albion and with my Paganism. I felt like I was home. Perhaps I was. I long to return and experience more. Very beautifully related Damh.
    Blessings.

  10. James August 29, 2016 at 8:54 am - Reply

    Wonderful shares here. A real treat to happen across . My personal favourite at present is the praying hands of Mary located at killin, Scotland. No real map or path to get there, beautifully obscure.

    On reaching it with my partner it was most rewarding, dramatic skies and lanscape accompanied by flawless silence, the walk was not too steep, and not a single person in sight,you really have to use your intuition to find it. I left a poem there lodged between her palms.

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