Guest Post: Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 25, 2013 — 10 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Holli Emore.  Holli Emore is the founder and priestess of Osireion and Executive Director of Cherry Hill Seminary for Pagan Ministry, where she previously served as Chair for the Board of Directors. Committed to building interfaith relationships, Holli is a member of the board of directors for the Interfaith Partners of South Carolina. Holli often teaches public groups about the rapidly-growing NeoPagan religions, and has served as a regional resource for law enforcement and victim services since 2004. Holli is the co-founder of the original Pagan Round Table. Osireion is a Pagan tradition which draws its inspiration from the religions of ancient Egypt.]

“Sacred Lands and Spiritual Landscapes” was the first academic symposium presented by Cherry Hill Seminary, in partnership with the University of South Carolina. More than a year in the planning, Sacred Lands took on a topic which turns out to be very popular this season for other academic groups (ASWM Regional Symposium, St. Paul, MN; ). It’s a subject which can also be puzzling for contemporary Pagans, mobile, multi-rooted and fiercely self-determining as we are.


The range of papers illustrated the complexity of the theme:

  • “Traveling the Land Within” (Wendy Griffin, about the lesbian land movement in 1960s-70s America)
  • “Spiritual Landscapes: An ecofeminist process philosophy view” (Lisa Christie)
  • “Into the Sacred Woods: The inner and outer value of a Pagan sense of place” (with a focus on boys’ experiences in woods) (Elinor Predota)
  • “Born Again Pagans: An industrial band discovers ‘sea, hill, and wood’” (Hayes Hampton on the band “Coil”)
  • “Betwixt and Between the I-and-Thou: Imaginal dialogue and the psychic cartography proposal” (Jeffrey Albaugh)
  • The Tour as Pilgrimage: The seduction of Avalon” (Christina Beard-Moose)
  • “Song of the Chattahoochee: On being a southern (Pagan) Witch in Atlanta’s urban landscape” (Sara Amis)
  • “Rock-Candy Cairns: How the Irish and Scots-Irish diasporas produced Pagans in Old Appalachia” (Byron Ballard)
Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Ronald Hutton (center) with symposium presenters and CHS staff.

Sacred Lands opened on Friday with greetings by Holli Emore (CHS Executive Director), Wendy Griffin (CHS Academic Dean), and greetings by proxy from Jonathan Leader, Chair of the USC Department of Archaeology, and South Carolina’s State Archaeologist. Jonathan had a back injury on Thursday which prevented him from attending any of the symposium, much to his and our disappointment. He has plans to present his paper to a small group on campus soon and videotape it so we can share with symposium attendees. On Saturday, Carl Evans, Chair Emeritus of the USC Department of Religious Studies, was able to join and address the group briefly.

Our guest keynote speaker, Ronald Hutton of Bristol University in England, then gave a talk about his current research on the actual records of the witch trials in Europe. As might be expected, the information was tantalizing; unfortunately, it will not be published for several years. Meanwhile, the group in attendance heard fascinating insights:

  • It appears that more men than women were killed in several areas;
  • Most victims were not burned alive, but after execution by another means, such as strangulation or beheading, to dispose of a body deemed unworthy of a Christian burial;
  • Where there was strong centralized government, there were fewer executions of witches: the body counts soared wherever a heavily localized system of justice effectively put the accusers in charge of the trials. Small German states were one example of this latter situation, Scotland another.
  • Areas of Celt cultural influence had far less witch trials;
  • Professional inquisitors made very little money from witch trials.

A subsequent reception at the S.C. Institute for Archaeology & Anthropology gave attendees the opportunity to discuss Professor Hutton’s talk and meet the man himself, as well as visit with each other, before walking down the street for dinner out. Columbians Pam and Mary put together a lovely reception, assisted by volunteers Deb and Jeff of North Carolina.

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton

On Saturday morning presentations began in earnest, with critique offered by guest respondent Chas Clifton, editor of The Pomegranate. Professor Hutton delivered his keynote address, “Britain’s Pagan Heritage” with astonishing mastery and aplomb. The speech used the story of the Lindow Man (a bog body) discovery and subsequent controversy to illustrate the nature and value of historical research to society in general, including those of us who call ourselves Pagan. For years Lindow Man has been used as evidence that ancient druids practiced human sacrifice when, in fact, several forensics experts gave the opinion that the body was more accurately dated to the Roman period of Britain. The original assertion that Lindow Man showed wounds indicating ritualistic killing was challenged by several scholars, among them Hutton. About a decade’s worth of visitors to the British museum read display materials about druid human sacrifices before the exhibit was finally changed. (Unfortunately, the misleading copy is still found on the museum’s web site.) Note that Professor Hutton does not dispute ritual sacrifice as one possibility, but rather he insists that the actual evidence be examined without bias. Lindow man may have been the victim of a mugging, or an executed criminal, or simply an unlucky victim of an accident. Professor Hutton also devoted as much time to discussing interpretations of Stonehenge, and ended with a plea for individual people to be left ultimately to make up their own minds about the nature of ancient British religions; he also recognized how difficult in practice this was.

After more papers by independent scholars in the afternoon, the group moved outside to close the symposium with a drum circle. Many who stayed overnight gathered for brunch on Sunday morning before scattering back to the 18 states and one country overseas from which they had journeyed. More thanks go to volunteers who managed the registration and support areas at the symposium: Susan, Elizabeth, Sabina, Gin and Doug. Melissa, Juan, Destiny and Clyde loaded up drums and rattles, carried them onto campus for our drum circle, then packed them back up and took them away again on Saturday.

While “Sacred Lands” was an academic symposium, it was marked by a distinctly celebratory mood. Jon Leader of USC was genuinely pleased to be approached last year about collaborating on the symposium; he teaches the undergraduate anthropology course “Magic and Religion” using Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon as a text, as well as a film documentary of the Pendleton witch trial, and had met Hutton in England during a past visit. We at CHS were very happy to be deemed worthy of such a collaboration by our esteemed colleagues at this more than two centuries-old institution.

While some of our participants sat through the de-icing of their plane before departure, and others skirted tornadoes and flooding rains, Columbia, South Carolina, was dressed to impress in a spring display of flowering trees and swelling green. With weather in the low 80s, visitors soon shed their jackets to enjoy the sweet air on the historical part of the campus. (Professor Hutton commented that he loved the humid, warm air, which reminded him of his native India.) Spin-off outcomes from the symposium included discussions with potential new board members, CHS being approached by two publishers, the possibility of a new library volunteer, and many new relationships. While no plans have been made yet, USC has invited CHS to return in 2015 to do a next symposium, and Professor Hutton has offered to serve on our CHS Advisory Board.

What did we learn from this experience? Professor Hutton reminded us that we should be continually testing our assumptions, and that history is never completely written because we continue to learn and adjust our theories of the past. Hutton was also strongly affirming of Pagan practitioners, reminding us that the authenticity of our religion need not rest on ties with antiquity, though we may be proud that such ties exist.

An account of the symposium would be incomplete without reporting the two comments most frequently heard: that Hutton was “brilliant” and that he is one of the kindest and most courteous people one could ever hope to meet. But the event was about more than our illustrious keynoter. The variety of presenters and guests gave a rich texture to the weekend. Even with the depth of paper topics, a great many more aspects of the topic remained unaddressed, a fertile field for future gatherings and discussion.

[I would like to thank Holli Emore for taking the time to write a report on this symposium for The Wild Hunt’s audience. For those wanting to hear more from Ronald Hutton, Cherry Hill Seminary has just posted a short interview with the historian.]

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “The Tour as Pilgrimage: The seduction of Avalon”
    I could be wrong, but that sounds like a fairly clever play one words.

    …In case I am wrong, I’ll explain my thinking:
    Tour – Pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a form of spiritual tour.
    Avalon – usually thought to refer to Glastonbury, with its tor.

    On another note, How do American Pagans deal with the concept of ‘Sacred Lands’ when the land there is already sacred to the natives?

    • Charles Cosimano

      Like eveyone else. Depends on how good the casino there is.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        That infers a complete lack of respect…

        • Fritz Muntean

          Back in the day, I used to teach in Native villages, mostly on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Sooner or later, my students all asked some version of the same question: “Fritz, you’re a white man, right? Can you explain why white people think we Indians make good ‘stewards of the land’? Don’t they know we were nomads? Don’t they know what that means? Haven’t they seen the casinos?” Etc.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I wouldn’t say that they are ‘good stewards of the land’, more that they got there first and have had a much lower impact.

    • Nick Ritter

      “On another note, How do American Pagans deal with the concept of ‘Sacred Lands’ when the land there is already sacred to the natives?”

      How did the Anglo-Saxons deal with the concept of ‘Sacred Lands’ when the land there was already sacred to the Celts?

      Our situation here is far from original in human history.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Quite simply, the Angles and the Saxons (along with the Jutes and others) came as conquerors. Until they got converted by the Christians.

        • Nick Ritter

          Yes. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians came to Britain from what is now the Netherlands, northern Germany and the Jutland peninsula of Denmark, bringing with them Germanic culture, language, and gods. They made places holy to their gods in a landscape that had previously been holy to Romans and Celts. The same thing occurred in what is now the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and western Germany – I’ve been doing some study on holy places in Europe, so I know how extensive the overlap is between the area of Germanic holy sites and the area of Romano-Celtic holy sites. As an aside, there aren’t many places that were considered holy both in a (Romano-)Celtic cultural context and in a Germanic cultural context.

          So, my question to you is this: what makes the discovery and use of holy places (often not the same places as are revered by Native Americans) in North America by people of non-Native-American ethnicities and cultures so different from the historically documented situation mentioned above? Specifically, what makes how we deal with the concept of “Sacred Lands” in the wake of our colonization of this continent necessarily so different from how various Germanic peoples dealt with the same concept in the wake of their colonization of Britain?

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Simple, really. It is happening now.

            Further, to repeat, the Angles and the Saxons (along with the Jutes and others) came as conquerors. Until they converted to Christianity.

            In the USA, the Christians came as conquerors. But are now converting to Paganism(s).

            You pointed out that holy places differed between the overlapping cultures in ancient Britain and Europe. Is that true in the USA today? If so, that could well be one method that both religious expansions used – possible acknowledgement of sites already being sacred?

            I ask the question out of a genuine interest. (And also because I am an advocate of Geographical polytheism.)

          • Nick Ritter

            I am unsure of the larger theological point of your distinction. I’m familiar with your Geographical polytheism (i.e. gods are primarily of a place) from previous conversations with you, and I assume you’re familiar with my ethno-cultural polytheism (i.e. gods are primarily of a people); I’m not understanding how your point of view deals differently with the two instances cited above.

            If gods are tied to specific places, that would mean that they do not move when the people who worship them move, and that when people move to a new area, they worship the gods of the new area. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t happen. When people move (as in the example of Germanic invasions of Britain above), they bring their gods with them.

            You cite the relative order of invasion and conversion as an important difference between the two examples given. Could you elaborate on why this is important? Is it that gods can move with people, but only so long as those people maintain an unbroken tradition of their worship? If so, what is the essential difference – theologically speaking – between that unbroken tradition and a broken tradition taken up anew?

            “If so, that could well be one method that both religious expansions used – possible acknowledgement of sites already being sacred?”

            It seems that way, although in my experience, the holy site of one people may well be ignored by another people, or otherwise considered eerie or uncanny. It doesn’t seem to happen often that another people’s holy site is used by one’s own people, unless the site is geographically very significant (a river, a prominent height, etc.).