Sacred Landscape

by Melusine Draco

The sacredness of a landscape is not determined by the man-made edifices that have been littered across its face since ancient times.  These monuments – from the Pyramids to Stonehenge, from Angkor Wat to the Acropolis, from Göbekli Tepe to Teotihuacán – these magnificent temples were inspired by the landscape, and the sites were made sacred because of the astronomical phenomena visible from them.  All the truly ancient monuments were celestially aligned long before the first post-hole or building block was put in place; aligned by our Mesolithic ancestors with particular star-groupings, or the sun’s rising/setting at the solstices/equinoxes.

Mesolithic (also called Middle Stone Age), is the cultural stage that existed between the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), with its chipped stone tools, and the Neolithic (New Stone Age), with its polished stone tools.  Although culturally and technologically continuous with Paleolithic peoples, Mesolithic cultures developed diverse local adaptations to special environments.  Nevertheless, from an anthropological point of view, human activities become inscribed within a landscape in that every cliff, large tree, stream or marshy area transmutes into a familiar place ‘inside the Neolithic mind’.

Daily passage through the landscape provided biographic encounters for individuals, recalling traces of past activities and previous events and the reading of signs – a split log here, a marker stone there.  ‘So, all locales and landscapes eventually became embedded in the native and individual folk-memory. These ‘daily passages’ metamorphosed into sacred ritual journeys within the landscape, establishing spatial linkages between different topographical landmarks and given lineages: through the journey the lineage becomes ‘mapped’ in the terrain. The shortest route to a ritual mountain from any point on the plain, for example, was not merely undertaken but rather morphed into a prescribed walk in which it could be approached and seen from the propitious direction.’  This journey is always a combination of ritualized occasion and seasonal observation.

‘Ancient cultures understood that we live in a vast ‘sea’ of cosmic energy. They taught that everything animate and inanimate has consciousness, and channels this energy according to its individual capabilities to help facilitate this essential universal dialogue. Ancestral communication is the highest form of spiritual channelling that comes from a strong, deep and pure connection with the Ancestors and, through the Ancestors, with the Divine. In fact, the ancients understood that all matter, including our own physical body, is a gathering of this universal power, even though they couldn’t explain it.’  [Inside the Neolithic Mind]

They accepted that our thoughts and emotions were a form of energy, and that when these are in harmony with the living universal force-field, we become clear, unpolluted channels. Enabling the life force of the Earth and cosmos to flow through us more smoothly and abundantly, guiding our mystical evolution as new perspectives are revealed and advanced magical abilities are awakened within us. These abilities included heightened creativity, extrasensory perception and the ability to bring about dramatic physical results that those of the Elder Faith learn to feel, sense and use without filtering or distorting the energy.

Kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.

I have often quoted from anthropologist Christopher Tilley’s A Phenomenology of Landscape and Interpreting Landscapes in saying that ‘the landscape has a certain ancestral importance due to it being such an integral part of human development that it abounds with cultural meaning and symbolism’. This reflects Elder Faith teaching that bestows an instinctive grasp of how to behave within a ritual or sacred landscape, and to recognize the type of magical/mystical energy to be encountered there.  Tilley goes on to say: ‘There is an art of moving in the landscape, a right way (socially constrained) to move around in it and approach places and monuments.  Part of the sense of place is the action of approaching it from the ‘right’ (socially prescribed) direction.’ The method of approach is governed by a combination of place and time – both seasonal and social – while the ‘art’ is the simultaneous practice of meditation and ritualized operation.  ‘Flashes of memory, so to speak, illuminate the occasion.’

And in case we forget, sacred places and landscapes have been created and evolved through human interpretation, the manner in which people experienced and understood the world of their time. Some form of narrative structure unifies the sacred place within a broader landscape and reinforces the racial memory of events performed there. Sacred places and landscapes were also spatially liminal: just as events in cultural myths occurred in a ‘time before time’ and were then re-enacted in the present. Ancient monuments were erected upon or near natural sacred sites where there was a significant feature or a large area of land, or water that had special spiritual eminence to peoples and communities; consisting of all types of natural features including mountains, hills, forests, groves, trees, rivers, lakes, lagoons, caves, islands and springs. 

All of these natural elements could create a liminal space – a portal to Otherworld – a time between times. A liminal space could be either a physical or a temporal space, and often both at the same time, but it is always a psychic space.

‘In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning ‘a threshold’) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals (a psychic/temporal/ physical space), when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage (that is, within the liminal space), participants ‘stand at the threshold’ between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.’  [Victor Turner]

The sacred landscape is still littered with these ‘thresholds’ whether they be at the field margin, woodland clearing, the forest path, the mountain slope or a lake’s shallows.  They may change according to the time of day, or the seasons of the year.  They act as a sort of psychic Einstein–Rosen bridge linking this and Otherworld – the realm of deity, supernatural beings and the Ancestors – that exists alongside, and often intruding into our world.  They can be signaled by phenomena such as sudden, localised mist, a drop in temperature, sudden changes in the weather, or the appearance of unusual animals and/or unnatural phenomenon.   We have to focus because we have to practice recognising these signs for Otherworld.  We have to break the habit of missing them and create a new habit of actively seeking them out.  And then, hopefully, we’ll start to see them open up for us everywhere.

A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next’.  It is a place of transition, a sense of waiting, and not knowing; it is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it inform us. The liminal ‘veil’ is what we call the place where a transition occurs between the threshold and the place that waits before us – and although it may feel confining, it often takes only minor changes to get through to the next place.  In anthropology, liminality is the ‘quality of ambiguity or disorientation’ that occurs in the middle … Twilight serves as a liminal time, between dayand night – where one is ‘in the twilight zone, in a liminal nether region of the night’. 

It can, however, take a lot of hard work and concentration to get to the point of being able to enter into sacred liminality [Otherworld] willingly and freely and, it is a gift to be able to do so without a push from disruptive life experiences. It takes focus and intention, while ritual and repetition can make it easier.  As we learn to understand how it works and why it is necessary, we can learn to go with the flow and use sacred liminality to allow ourselves to psychically expand and develop.  It is here, on this threshold, we are able to enhance our creativity and tap into Universal wisdom.  It is here we begin to fully understand the ways in which we can mould the world in which we live.  And it is here that magic happens.

This is what the Japanese refer to as a kenshō moment. It appears suddenly and fleetingly, upon an interaction with something unexpected or intangible; on hearing, seeing or smelling some significant ‘strangeness’, or by experiencing an unexpected sight or sound. Kenshō is an initial insight or awakening. And we might experience numerous ‘kenshō moments’ along the way – in the Western traditions we refer to them as ‘portals’ or ‘gateways’ – and we must pass through several on the path before we reach an Understanding and/or Enlightenment (satori).  Of which there may also be many different type of experience.

In truth this is no big deal and we’ve all been there. Sitting on a rock or under a tree, feeling emotionally or mentally drained when a sudden thought comes to us and there is an immediate uplifting of the spirit. We may or may not immediately recognise it as such, but if we attempt to hold on to that moment, odds-on we may come up with a solution to our difficulties. On the other hand we may, of course, choose to ignore the sensation and dismiss it as something inconsequential – and continue to wallow in our misery. The experience may not be a spiritual moment in the accepted sense of the word but it is there if we know how to ‘see’ it.

The experience of such places is unlikely to have been equally shared and experienced by all of our Ancestors; the introduction and use of them would have been controlled and exploited within the community.  Knowledge and experience of particular locales and tracts of the landscape would also have been restricted and/or hidden from particular individuals or groups.  These powers of spatial experience are clearly related to the manner in which they are realized, by whom, when, and how in relation to the selection by the spiritual/shamanic leader within the tribe or clan.

The sacredness of any landscape grew out of the natural phenomena that made it remarkable to the Ancestors.  The way the light from the setting sun refracted on mountain slopes; the alignment of the rising or setting sun at the solstices/equinoxes between two peaks on a hillside … the landscape was sacred before those places of worship were added to it.  The phenomena of light bridged the interpretation of landscape and religious experience, while its symbolism pervaded the geography of the sacred terrain.  As Professor of Geography, Barbara Weightman, points out, ‘manifestations or evocations of light in particular may be associated with holiness and are critical aspects of sacred place’. This sacredness was based on feeling and seeing natural occurrences that happened on a regular or seasonal basis, and marked out a particular area as being ‘special’.

The Mound of the Hostages (Irish: Dumha na nGiall) is an ancient paqssage tomb located in the Tara-Skryne Valley in Ireland.  The mound is a Neolithic structure, built in the same style as the Newgrange tomb: dome-shaped with an inset for the entrance and a small doorway, set almost one metre into the side of the monument. The doorway is framed with undecorated standing stones and, as is common in passage tombs, this alignment allows for the rising sun to shine down the passageway only twice a year, illuminating the chamber within. At this mound, the passage is illuminated on the mornings of Samhain and Imbolc,  at the beginning of November and February, respectively.

No doubt to see this light cast upon such places created a deep awareness of an enhanced sensitivity to the reciprocal relationship between spiritual nature and the Earth in the ordinary experiences of the here and now.  In Spiritual Reality, Dr Jerry Killingsworth observes that ‘The historical religions now pretty much blanket the earth, but chronologically they form only the tip of the religious iceberg, for they span less than four thousand years as compared with the three million or so of the religions [beliefs] that preceded them’.  And these are the beliefs that are so firmly embedded in our ‘racial memories’ or ‘collective subconsciousness’ … primal beliefs that focused on a deeper sensitivity and vision that we do not know or recognize today.  ‘It is the living experience that we lack!’

But it can happen … On 22nd March 2020, the Pyramids’ archeological region witnessed a distinct astronomical phenomenon, as the sun set on the right shoulder of the Sphinx. Former Minister of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, noted that the phenomenon occurs twice a year over the course of four days, as the sun sets on the right shoulder of the Sphinx, on 2122nd March 21 and 2122nd September, that is, at the Spring and Autumn Equinox when night and day become equal. Hawass continued ‘that the sun, after falling at sunset on the right side of the Sphinx, heads south, and during the summer it moves to the north.’

The veteran Egyptologist also emphasized that a more significant phenomenon can be seen at the Solstice on 2122nd June, when the sun sets directly between the Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) and the pyramid of Chephren (Khafre). Hawass pointed out that the phenomenon proves that archaeologists ‘made a mistake when they said that the ancient Egyptians accidentally found an ancient rock and turned it into a statue with a human face and an inhuman body’. He further explained that the phenomenon proves that there is an astronomical and religious reason for sculpting the statue of the Sphinx, which is the sun god, that rises and sets between the horizons of the pyramids of Cheops (Khufu) and Chephren (Khafre).

Another natural phenomena that raised the question of why the sunsets and sunrises were so dramatic in early April.  The answer, according to Met Eireann meteorologist Siobhán Ryan, was partly to do with the current weather and also the time of year.  The country was enjoying a couple of relatively settled days and this dry, calm, still weather ‘scatters the light molecules in a different way and also changes the directions of light rays’, she says:

‘Our eyes are sensitive to the wavelengths in that and the different colours associated with different wavelengths, which bend in different directions.  Both at sunrise and sunset, light has to travel a greater distance to reach our eyes, than during the day, when it is more directly overhead.  So more of the blue – that we see in a cloudless sky – gets filtered out. This reveals more of the warmer colours of the rainbow that make up light.  Because we are coming into the Spring Equinox, there is also more sunlight and the sun is higher in the sky.

Our ancient Ancestors may not have had any understanding of the science of meteorology and light molecules but they were fully capable of charting seasonal phenomena. And as Professor Weightman observes, light is fundamental to religious experience, and its symbolism pervades the geography of sacred landscapes, especially when aligned with the Equinoxes and Solstices:

‘As sun, fire, ray, colour, or attribute of being and place, light serves as a bridge between interpretation of landscape and religious experience. To see the light cast upon places orients believers in otherwise undifferentiated space, grounding them in context of home. As sacred places are created, an inner light outweighs outer darkness, and a spiritual journey commences.  In at least four ways light is integral to sacred landscapes; as the sun or some other celestial body; as fire, the sun on earth; as light rays or beams and colour; and as an attribute of sacred beings and places.  Each of these affects how a local geography is perceived.’  [Sacred Landscapes and the Phenomenon of Light]

This phenomenon is at its most breathtaking during twilight. In the morning, it begins when the sun is just below the horizon and ends at sunrise.  We can define twilight simply as the time of day between daylight and darkness, whether that’s after sunset, or before sunrise, when the light from the sky appears diffused and often pinkish. The sun is below the horizon, but its rays are scattered by Earth’s atmosphere to create the colours of twilight. The ‘blue hour’ refers to the darker stages of both morning and evening twilight, when the Sun is quite far below the horizon, coloring the sky deep blue.

In the evening, it begins at sunset and ends when the sun reaches six degrees below the horizon.  Like the ‘blue hour’, the ‘golden hour’, it is a favorite with painters and photographers. When the late evening sun is close to the horizon on a sunny day, its light appears warmer and softer: this makes the ‘golden hour’, also known as the magical hour, popular with photographers and filmmakers. Dusk and twilight are beautiful, evocative words and times; dusk is the darker stage of twilight.  We may even be fortunate to catch a glimpse of the elusive ‘green ray’ – a meteorological optical phenomena that sometimes occur transiently around the moment of sunset or sunrise. When the conditions are right, a distinct green spot is briefly visible above the upper rim of the Sun’s disk; the green appearance usually lasts for no more than two seconds and I have only been fortunate to glimpse it once in my lifetime.

For many of us, however, the evening twilight is the most mysterious of all as it trails a magical veil across the landscape. This golden ‘hour’ refers to the period just after sunset, and its length depends on where we are, the time of year, and the weather conditions.  This strange, luminous light is unlike any other and it can  not be replicated because there are natural elements about it that make it unique and treasured whenever we experience it. This effect is easily visible when mountain slopes are illuminated, but can also be seen when clouds are affected by light diffusion.

The vast majority of sacred natural sites were originally founded by indigenous spiritualities, but many were subsequently adopted or co-opted by in-coming beliefs. There is, consequently, a considerable ‘layering’ and mixing of religious and other spiritual or belief systems.  Our ancient sites are subsequently connected to a wide range of socio-cultural systems and to different dynamics of change and cultural interaction, which nevertheless continue to adhere to at least some traditional or folk beliefs whereby religion interacts with nature and the landscape.  These ancient beliefs remained so powerful that they are increasingly being revived or rearticulated by many of the mainstream faiths, who are setting out their own religion’s relationship to the natural world and their perceived responsibility towards the planet.

Teotihuacán, for example, was not originally built by the Aztecs. In fact, it’s height of power had been almost 1000 years earlier, and may have been built another 1000 years or more before that.  The Aztecs were in awe of these ancient people and their city, although they knew very little about them; they believed it to be the birthplace of the most recent creation, where the new sun had been born.  The ‘pyramid of the sun’ is the third largest in the world and was built on a lava tube cave: a shrine here may be the original reason for the settlement. Though not built by the Aztecs, Teotihuacán was considered by them to be a sacred site and by the time the Aztec Empire was at its height, this great city had been around for over 1600 years.

As Dr Jerry Killingsworth rightly says, however, these primal peoples should not be romanticized because they had hard lives, were superstitious, and limited in their views, but they did have one thing that we have lost.  ‘And that was that spirit was everywhere and in everything; that that nature and earth are our own unique origin and habitats’ and they also had magic, mystical and holistic ways and views, and they could accept the mysterious, but we’ve lost some of that perspective in our obsession to explain everything.’

Wherever we go in the landscape there is always the overwhelming presence of the genius loci; an idea of a ‘spirit of place’ that has echoed down through the ages. It derives from an ancient and widespread belief that particular bits of the world are occupied by divinity or spirits who had to be propitiated and was a key element of Roman religion. Genius loci is the Latin for this spirit or guardian of a place and a phrase that has been adopted into English and other languages to become a popular concept across the world.

While spirit of place/genius loci was originally, and to some people still are, closely associated with beliefs about the sacred character of a particular landscape, it has been increasingly secularized. A quick Google search for genius loci brought up links to a recent art exhibition featuring the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and others; an American kick-starter campaign for a book on tales of the spirit of place; the name of travel company specializing in Italy; and an art project in Weimar in Germany.  Every ‘place’ has its own unique qualities, not only in terms of its physical makeup, but of how it is perceived by those visiting.

As Christopher Tilley explains precisely because locales and their landscapes were drawn in the day-to-day lives and encounters of individuals they were deemed to possess powers; the spirit of place may be held to reside in such a landscape:

‘Familiarity with the land, being able to read and decode its signs allows individuals to know ‘how to go on’ at a practical level of consciousness … People routinely draw on their stocks of knowledge of the landscape and the locales in which they act to give meaning, assurances and significance to their lives.  The place acts to create people who are of that place.  These qualities of locales and landscapes give rise to a feeling of belonging and rootedness and a familiarity, which is not born just out of knowledge … They give rise to power to act and a power to relate that is both liberating and productive.’ [A Phenomenology of Landscape]

Witches are, by custom and practice, ‘spirit workers’. It is one of the basic and unavoidable elements of witchcraft and gives acceptance to the belief that the Elder Faith is, indeed, part of the indigenous shamanic practices of the Old World and its peoples. And yet … the genius loci is not always welcoming, especially if it has been disrespected in the past, and outright hostility is not uncommon.  Just because we’ve signed up to the pagan Party and collected a wide assortment of merit badges, it doesn’t mean we are granted automatic admission to Otherworld.  Like the Ancestors, genius loci have been around for a l-o-n-g time, and have very long memories – and there’s nothing in the rule book that says they have to be pleasant!

If we get a distinct feeling that we’re being told to bugger off and leave them alone, then it’s best to take them at their word and make ourselves scarce.  Should we decided to re-visit the place at a later date, then a small propitious offering would be appropriate – but we make the visit brief and don’t outstay our welcome.  They may relent … and then again, they may not.  If not, then the response will not be open to misinterpretation … we may trip and fall, badly hurting ourselves or get lost; car keys may go missing; or ‘something’ may follow us home to create a little bit of physical or mental disturbance …

One instance of the genius loci objecting to a person’s presence spring to mind.  The first was when visiting another Old Craft coven for the occasion of newbies attending their first outdoor ritual at the coven’s secret working site.  Having worked at the site with them on numerous occasions without let or hindrance, it was obvious from the start that something wasn’t right.  The fire wouldn’t light, the wind kept changing direction and blowing smoke in everyone’s eyes, even experienced members muddled up the wording for the chant, and someone kicked over the uncorked bottle of altar wine. 

The Lady prematurely called ‘time’ and on the way back, when negotiating a steep slope, one of the newbies lost her footing and in slow-motion rolled down to the bottom and ended up with her backside in the shallow stream.  Three of us went back to the site the next week, made the appropriate offerings and never had any more trouble. It transpired that this particular newbie had been nothing but trouble and often disrespecting the Lady; it was obviously the genius loci’s way of saying ‘no admittance’.

We should always bear in mind that our sacred landscape, wherever we are in the world, is the same living landscape that spoke to our Mesolithic ancestors.  True, much of it has been profaned by the encroachment of human development but the sun still appears over mountain peaks and casts its ethereal light on the landscape at certain times of the day.  The tramp of tourism may have caused the flow of natural energy around the mighty monuments to degenerate but it is still there in other places yet to be discovered.   As Dr Killingsworth observes:

‘I believe what are the profound and mystical (beyond words) and holistic (beyond analysis) aspects of spirituality, that is reality, are the essence and non-dimensional characteristics, as in the atmosphere of the spirit, and this is why, I believe, the natives and primal could, and had to, sense, feel, and see the Great Mystery – the Great Spirit – that was in, out, up down, and all around, that is mystical and holistic which yields more to the instinctual and intuitive than to the rational and intellectual.’ [Primal Ancient Religions]

Bob Clay-Egerton maintained that Craft learning is about forty percent information and sixty percent intuition – that is, the ability to understand something instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning; bridging the gap between the conscious and subconscious parts of our mind, and also between instinct and reason. While philosopher Henri Bergson defined intuition as ‘a simple, indivisible experience of sympathy through which one is moved into the inner being of an object to grasp what is unique and ineffable within it.’

We can also look at it as the primal side of our nature and those ancient monuments in our sacred landscape are a testimony to its existence.  Our primitive Ancestors didn’t have a clue about physics: the science of matter and energy, and their properties and interactions in fields including mechanics, acoustics, optics, heat, electricity, magnetism, radiation, atomic and nuclear science.  And yet, they could build huge monuments that allowed sunlight to penetrate into the inner most chambers on a specific time and day of the year; or align them with the stars.  MD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: