One of the challenges that North American druids face is understanding, visiting, and working with sacred sites. In my druid training, one order in particular really emphasizes the sacred site–the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD). And I think if one is living on the British Isles, it makes perfect sense to do so as those sites are part of the heritage and tradition of druidry. The real question becomes–what is a sacred site here in the USA? What, if anything, should we do with them? I’d like to take some time today to explore “sacred sites” as they relate specifically to druidry in the USA.
The term “sacred” itself implies a connection to the divine, a concentrated or holy space, a space set aside for spiritual contemplation or religious observance in some way. When most think about what a classic definition of a “sacred site” is, especially in the context of modern Druidry, we often think about ancient sites. These ancient sites might be natural wonders and places that were the site of ceremony and reverence for a long time. These ancient sites may also have been built or adapted by humans in ages past, and continue to be revered and visited today. These sites, even today, fill us with wonder and awe, encouraging stillness and providing one with a spiritual or magical experience. This isn’t the only kind of sacred site, but I think its the most prevalent definition. I should also mention that the sacred is not limited to sites; it can also refer to events and objects. I recently had the pleasure of witnessing the most amazing dance of the mayflies on Lake Erie in June. A sacred event, indeed! But the subject of this post is investigating the idea of a sacred site in America.
Challenges with Sacred Sites in the USA
When we think about the “ancient site” approach to sacred sites in the USA, several challenges present themselves.
#1: Native American Sacred Sites, Desecration and Cultural Appropriation. Most ancient sacred sites in the Americas are Native American in origin. Because most of us do not carry the blood of the native peoples, nor live within their communities, the issue of cultural appropriation is a serious one. Even for those of us who carry a small amount of Native American blood, but have grown up divorced from native culture (like myself), the idea of appropriating sacred sites is uncomfortable at best. Even worse, with the long history of abuse, eradication, and genocide between the mostly white US government and the native peoples, appropriating any other culture’s site for spiritual use is, in nearly all cases, unethical.
The longstanding destruction of native sacred sites is also a noted concern. For example, in the Great Lakes region, I’ve visited Native American “sacred sites” that have suffered substantial abuses–White Rock, located about 30 miles north of Port Huron on the coast of Lake Huron, and Inscription Rock, located on Kellys Island in Lake Erie. White Rock in particular is worth noting, because it was a sacred rock to the native peoples of these lands, and it was desecrated repeatedly through the centuries. The most recent desecration was that it was used as a bombing target by the US government during WWII. Inscription rock, which once featured various pictures inscribed into limestone, was “reinscribed” by tourists for over a century and a half. In both cases, what was once a sacred site of the native peoples of this land has been degraded by those who came after.
The energies of these sites are not conducive to spiritual work–what I’ve done at both of these sites, when visiting, is to offer apology and ask if there is any work to be done. At White Rock, there was and continues to be substantial work to be done (and those who are interested about that can read more in the AODA’s recent release of Trilithon: The Journal of the Ancient Order of Druids in America).
For these kinds of sites, I think that apologizing, picking up garbage, and asking if there is any work to be done is about the only thing most of us should be doing at these sites.
#2 – Sacred Sites and Tourist Attractions. This brings me to the next issue with the ancient sacred sites and sacred sites of natural wonder and beauty in the USA–tourists. If a sacred site remains intact, especially if it is a site of wonder and natural beauty, more often than not, it is a tourist attraction. I’ll note the difference here between secular tourism to that of a pilgrimage or sacred journey, such as the one discussed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where pilgrims are traveling and visiting for a spiritual purpose. Tourist energy is not conducive to the sacred and little to no meaningful spiritual work can usually be done in such places. Tourists are there to see, to photograph, to experience a canned and predigested experience on the most superficial level. Combining tourism with the issue of cultural appropriation leaves most sites largely inaccessible for any kind of spiritual or magical work. Not to mention one can’t do any serious work with a droves of tourists milling about.
#3: Land and Site “Management” practices. The other issue at most well known sacred sites is the land management practices that govern them are not conducive to spiritual work of any kind, nor can one or one’s group gain privacy at any site. I remember reading a story a few years ago about a group of Native Americans who had lit a sacred fire on a sacred mountain for as long as their history went back. The chief of this group was arrested because they refused to follow US Park service law, which had a recent ruling disallowing fires in that spot. The park service had no sympathy or religious tolerance for the Native Americans; this intolerance and inflexibility largely extends to other groups as well. This kind of thing happens all the time, most of it less public than that story. Because earth-based religions of all kinds are not given equal treatment and respect here, and most of us are still in the closet, so to speak, it becomes even more difficult to have access to a public sacred site for the purposes of a private ritual.
This leaves those of us in the US interested in working with sacred sites in a bit of a conundrum–how do we meaningfully and respectfully work with sacred sites, if at all? For this, I have two ideas in mind: seeking unmarked sacred sites, and creating new sacred sites over time.
Seeking Sacred Sites
Are there sacred sites that don’t involve human interaction, human tending that we can work? These secret places of wonder and magic worked by other beings? Would they welcome us there even if we were able to find them? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.
A small group of friends (all druids) and I went into a state park that had been largely closed down. The pathways were covered in branches and trees, the roads were washed out even to get to where we were going. And it was one of the most sacred places I had visited in Michigan. Towards the end of our 5 hour hike, we came across a stone circle right in our path, with larger stones for the north and south, and covered with moss. We felt welcome, having been lead by the forest and the winding paths to this place. Entering the circle in reverence and respect, we sat there for some time, feeling the sacred energies of that place. Nobody had been by for a long time, and it was only because we entered in respect, and we asked to enter, that we were able to experience this sacred place and honor it. More recently, my visit to an old growth hemlock grove certainly qualify as a sacred site and experience!
When I was visiting Kellys Island in Lake Erie for a family vacation a few weeks ago, an opposite kind of thing occurred. I have never seen so much poison ivy in such a small area–all of the forests were protected by the beautiful poison ivy vine, covering the trees, matting the ground, going right up to the edge of any path. I could sense the tranquility and sacredness of those forests behind the ivy line; the old growth cottonwoods and maples, the mayflies darting about. The poison ivy sent a VERY clear message to anyone able to read the language of the plants–these forests are to be left alone. They spoke loudly, “Do not enter, do not pass, and do not seek sacred experiences within.” Knowing a bit about the history of that island helps understand the protectiveness of the ivy and spirits there. This beautiful island had a long history of industrialization and abuse, where glacial grooves were destroyed by quarries and pristine forests destroyed through logging…and now, the ritzy houses and expensive yachts have mostly moved in (we did find a nice state campground and hiking trails!) No wonder what remains of this unique ecosystem is off limits to human hands.
When you come across a naturally occurring sacred site, one that isn’t on the maps, I’ve found its best to let your intuition lead the way, and to read the messages of the plant, animal, and stone kingdoms to know if you are welcome. It might be that you have to establish a relationship over time with a site before the spirits of that site will give you access–listen and be mindful of what you hear.
Setting up Sacred Sites for Our Tradition
Beyond seeking sacred sites in places not on the map, there is a lot more we can do. I think one of the challenges that we face is that we assume a sacred site should already be there, setup by others or simply in the forest, and ready for our use. Revival druidry is a few centuries old, and while the British druids have done an amazing job in reclaiming sites connected with the ancient sites like Tara, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge, we have no such sites or connection to sites in the US. This brings me to the last key point–that we need to be establishing our OWN sacred sites.
Why is a site sacred to begin with? To go back to my earlier definition, its sacred because someone or a group of someones recognize its significance energetically, naturally, and so on, and made it a point to visit it, tend it, and work various kinds of ceremony there. Over a period of time, we can establish these same sacred spaces.
I also think its important to set up sacred spaces honoring the land to counter much of the environmental desecration we are seeing more and more. The disruption of the telluric pathways from oil pipelines and fracking, the harm to the planet from GMOs and pesticide use, the list goes on and on. The more of us acting in a sacred manner, living our lives in a sacred manner, and honoring the land with dedicated spaces and work, the more we can demonstrate that not all humans are on that same destructive path and help rebuild a sacred relationship with the land.
I know we can work to establish sacred spaces of our own because I’ve done this myself through the work on my land. When I arrived here five years ago, the land was energetically drained, the spirits were angry from the mistreatment of the previous owners, from pollution and garbage, from careless cutting of trees and eradication of plant life, and it took me a long time to shift those energies (you can read more about some of those initial efforts here). A group of us set up a stone circle and began doing regular ceremonies in this space. Over the period of five years, the energies of this land dramatically shifted in a positive direction–I’ve now had multiple people come and tell me that they don’t even feel they are still in Michigan when they come up my driveway or go out by the pond to the circle. I think, if anything, the site is in the process of shifting into the sacred, and that shift will take much more time to complete. Regular tending, mindfulness, and ritual all help maintain the space.
1) Listen before you act. If you want to establish a stone circle or other place of meditation/worship/magic, you should ask the spirits of the land and heed their responses. Combine this listening with your own observation and interaction (principle 1 in permaculture design). This listening and observation process can take quite a bit of time, so be patient and understand that this groundwork is an important part of the process. You’ll be glad you’ve done this work–the spirits of the land will guide you to where the site should be and often will give you vision about how to go about creating it. This listening then, can help you create a space for use beyond just the human realm.
2) Use Small, slow actions. To borrow a second principle from permaculture, you can’t establish a sacred space overnight. You need to recognize that sacred spaces and shifting energies take a lot of time. I have found that daily work, such as the AODA’s Sphere of Protection ritual, helps maintain and build energies slowly over time.
3) Do regular rituals honoring the land. I like to combine my daily SOP work with regular group rituals and solo rituals during druid holidays and regular honoring of the land work to establish the space. Honoring the spirits of the land and recognizing the sacredness of the place over time will help shift it.
4) Watch it evolve. The other thing that I’ve found is that once you’ve set your intentions and establish the initial space and begin doing the daily work, the space will evolve. You might see new plants growing, trees appear that weren’t there before, or other kinds of helpful and spirits from the inner planes might make the land their home. After we established this land as a sacred space, I found several hawthorn trees years after I moved in, I found a spiral willow on the island on the pond, and most recently at the Summer solstice, a friend and fellow grove member found foxglove growing behind the sacred circle. Keep a record of what is happening–you will be amazed by the changes over time.
5) Recognize sacred activity and set rules for the space. Protect the sacredness of the space–if you have visitors and guests over, make sure they understand the rules for the space (e.g. no consumption of alcohol in the space for non-ritual purposes, remaining quiet in the space, leaving an offering after use, etc). You’ll find that some well placed signage also helps visitors and/or family respect the space. It may also be that there are certain kinds of people you simply don’t want in that space, and that’s ok too.
I hope these thoughts help those of you pondering the idea of a sacred space here in our landscapes and how we might use the idea of sacred space as revival druids in the US. Thank you, as always, for listening!