Thinking About – What makes a site sacred
Since 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.
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.