Thinking About – What makes a site sacred

IMG_5278Since the Spring Equinox of 2000 the group I help facilitate, the Anderida Gorsedd, has held open rituals at the Long Man of Wilmington in Sussex. Eight rituals a year, rain, snow or sunshine for 15 years. 119 rituals held under the watchful gaze of that hill figure. Some Pagans questioned why we chose that particular place for our ceremonies. Nobody knows how old the figure is. There are suggestions that he is anything from a folly carved by the monks of Wilmington Priory, to Oliver Cromwell, Odin, Gwydion, or an ancient surveyor. But if you spend some time there, and if you open yourself to the atmosphere of the place, there is a mystery, an enigma, that bypasses fact and logic and instead goes to that part of the human soul that knows when something is sacred. Maybe it is that mystery but…

There are aspects to the Long Man that only become apparent when you have visited the site over years, things that help create relationship. For instance, to his right you can see the scar of an old flint mine. On the hill above you can see the bumps of a bronze age cemetery and a long barrow. There is something mystical, magical even, about this figure. Standing there on the chalk downs seemingly holding open a doorway into the Hollow Hills. The soil from the flint mine has created a flat mound just below him that is almost perfectly round and large enough for a circle of 100 people to stand, hand in hand. The side of the hill upon which the Long Man stands is bathed in sunlight from the Spring Equinox and through the Summer, but after Samhain the sun doesn’t rise high enough and thus the figure, like John Barleycorn himself, disappears into the shadows, until he is reborn again into the light of Spring. Although we have no archaeological proof of the age of the Long Man the Gorsedd has developed a relationship with the area, and now to many that patch of ground is as important and powerful as Stonehenge.

I have watched many Summer Solstice sunrises from the hill above the Long Man. I know thousands flock to Stonehenge but I can never see myself joining the party there. I like my local connection and Stonehenge, although only a couple of hours drive away, just doesn’t give me the same connection as that chalk hill. We have held initiations there beneath the moon, and picnics with children playing in the summer sun. From the Gorsedd hill you can see much of The Weald, and with each season that vista changes. It makes me feel a part of the cycle, not just an observer, or one drifting through time. Instead, once every six weeks or so I go to the same place and touch, feel, smell, experience the moment on the Wheel.

I know others have a similar connection to their local places and to me this is right at the heart of what makes a place sacred.

Pilgrimage.

As I said in my recent post The Forest of Druidry it really feels like for most of us the shackles of seeking authenticity are off. I used to hear some Pagans express that we didn’t know what stone circles were, so how could they be sacred to us? That it was somehow fake, or playacting. A similar argument to the one some expressed about our relationship with the Long Man when we first gathered there. But we are 20 years on and still those places call to us. For many they have become part of our sacred landscape. When I spoke to Maxine Sanders last year she told me how her and Alex’s Coven used to regularly work their magic at the Long Man, and that some of Alex’s ashes were scattered there. The footsteps we take in pilgrimage to the places we hold sacred add to the mystery of the sites.

We may not be using them in exactly the same way as those who built them, but we have a different Paganism these days. One that has relevance to our time. We were left these incredible places by our Pagan ancestors and I think they would be amazed and very happy that they are still being revered, respected and honoured, some 4000 years after they were built.

And on it goes.

3 Comments

  1. Jayne Southern January 14, 2015 at 11:52 am - Reply

    Yes I have a local place called Castle Hill above Almondbury near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. It was an Iron Age Fort built by the Brigantes over 4000 years ago. I go up there a lot but especially eight times a year to celebrate the eight festivals. Sometimes on my own, and recently with a fellow OBOD friend. Folk just turn up there at Beltane where Morris Troops ‘Dance up the Sun’, or just watch the sunrise at the Summer Solstice….special! These memories of our ancestors survive to this day in such places.

  2. Lulu in the Woods January 14, 2015 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    these place are part of the magical ley lines that traverse the country and whomever first ‘built’ there were only picking up on the magic of the land speaking. Aboriginal Australians would not worry about what interpretations their clan’s songlines carry, it is ultimately irrelevant to them because it is the earth itself singing, I’m sure nowadays many of the lines in australia incorporate garages and shops and schools, but what does it matter how old, how ‘genuine’ the stories are? they are all part of the dreaming, and one that is richer for all those layers. the most important thing is for us to make a connection with it and know that it is the spirit of the place that is in the end, trying to make a connection with us x

  3. Woodland Bard January 18, 2015 at 9:53 am - Reply

    Damh, a huge impact question on me. For 55 years, I was an addicted follower andf seeker of ancient stone sites, since a wee lad. Learned to use an OS Map before I could read. Picked up the farmer stories, attended the rituals and ceremonies, even made up my own with friends at places from 8 years old … then 4 years ago I had a paralytic stroke !!!

    During that stroke, I was taken on one of those out of body journeys, we hear and read about, with a guide that showed me a whole different story of those sites. I was shown the forests cleared, the genocide of land for farming and controlled by those who enslaved to people to build these stone structure. At the same time, the sacredness of the forests and water springs, here long before humans were guests on this planet, were suddenly ignored and ‘replaced’ by these human built temples. The sacred fire started by lightning became a stone temple. the well become stone covered and then a tomb etc. .

    I did recover from my stroke, no longer paralyzed. I dumped by Celtic Ways ancient sites pilgrimage business, and started woodland and well events and became, Woodland Bards myself, as people were calling me that. Encouraging reverence for native forests and natural water flow, and all of the wildlife within is what I do now.

    What I feel you discovered as sacred is not the site, but the surrender to nature, weather and season you gave yourself at that point. You became totally present within it all, all senses tuned at each same moment. We all need to know the places we trust where we can surrender like that … and not places that are inside, not places inside human built structures. I firmly believe we have to be totally ‘naked’ to the present with this

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