Taking Place

Sam Webster —  May 23, 2014 — 11 Comments

Ours is a religion of living rooms and backyards. How this will change as we Pagans become more prominent in society remains to be seen, but the conversation is underway. Recently Rynn Fox focused her Perspectives column here on The Wild Hunt on the “Gods of Place” and elicited a somewhat surprisingly uniform set of views on the topic, centering on the spiritual beings associated with places.

Moving here from my other blogspaces, I am more mindful today of the place than its spirit, the tension we have with place and what the future will require of us as we take our place in the wider world.

Humans have been making places special far back into the depths of time. After visiting the cave on the Gower peninsula of Wales where the Red Lady of Paviland was buried some thirty-three thousand years ago and which was used for (likely) ritual purposes for some eleven thousand years, I found a timescale in my mind that I could scarcely comprehend. My civilization is not as old as this place had been used.

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Living in America, a third generation child of immigrants, I wonder where my sacred spaces are? When I was a young Catholic, the churches were sanctuaries (my parents helped build three), and some of the buildings were magnificent. Once I realized we weren’t worshiping the same God, I no longer found those places quite as congenial. Many Pagans find the locus of the sacred in Nature. I’ve crossed this continent by ground seven times and seen majestic natural spaces. In each case I was struck by the feeling of sanctity. Here in Northern California, we have Redwood groves whose hushed and dappled columns move so many to declare them cathedrals.

The First Peoples, of course, have many holy sites on this continent. We know of some, but they are not always sanguine about us using them, or think us foolish for visiting places abandoned by all but ghosts, like Chaco Canyon.

In Europe Pagans are confronted by a different situation. First off there are many ruins, some very prehistoric, cairns, long barrows, dolmens, standing stones and stone circles. Once they were thought to be Druidic, now we know them to be much older, although maybe the Druids used them too. Who wouldn’t? Nowadays they are claimed by contemporary Pagans as belonging to our Ancestors, but since the genetic relationship between us and these immensely old sites is dubious to non-existent, whose are they? What should they be used for? The classic example is Stonehenge at Solstice. What a crowd! And Druids presiding!

It is a serious issue in Europe. The tensions between the archeologists, the responsibility of the state to preserve an important heritage, the desire to offer worship at ancient sacred sites, and the resistance of certain parties, theist and non, to such worship makes for a complex power dynamic. I am personally quite sure that with good communications and affirmed shared values to preserve the space, the right kinds of offerings and material prayers could certainly be arranged. (Water libations are not going to hurt any outdoor ancient site.) As Pagans become more socially, economically, and thus politically powerful, we will have the opportunity to participate effectively in the right use and preservation of these sacred places. We have a duty to preserve the past which is even greater than our present desire to worship, for we, better than most people before us, know that civilizations are evanescent.

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

But then there are the cathedrals of Europe. So many of them were built on places considered holy by the pre-Christian peoples, which is mostly why the churches were built there. Folks continued to worship in the same place, only differently. Today many of these splendid buildings stand mostly empty as Christian populations decline. I can’t help but think, Can we have them back now? You can keep (most of) your art. We’ll keep them open and preserve them for posterity. Fortunately for Pagans, most cathedrals don’t have pews, so we can just clear the chairs out for dancing and circles. (If they have pews, we can save some for the sidelines, but the rest will make a lovely bonfire.) My eye is on the Pantheon of Rome. While it may not actually have been used for worship by the Romans (the debate is not settled), it was the first building taken over by the Church and used for worship in the city of Rome. They have plenty of their own buildings now. Can we have it back? Alas, I am not Italian and have no standing to ask…

In the States, we build new places where we can buy them. In the country or in the cities, Pagan sanctuaries, stone circles, even monastic sites are being founded. Yet the “Pagan Retreat Center” is something of an epitome of failure. How many of us have fled the city to build a facility, only no one came, the bills piled up and we had to abandon our dreams? At the Pantheon Foundation, we have already received several requests for help with new Pagan land. The challenges of capital development and cash flow dog our community. Yet twenty families can put together a church without much fuss. Here in San Francisco Bay, we have dozens of these little churches. A question we cannot afford to ignore is why we can’t do this for ourselves?

In the ancient world, there were a number of ways of selecting sites for worship. One was social, establishing altars, shrines and temples for the benefit of a city and so were located in high or central places determined by the polis. The other, far more prominent, was to establish a place because of a theophany. The Deity showed Itself to someone at some place which thereafter became a locus of worship. Or perhaps the Deity told someone to set up an altar or shrine at some suitable location, like when Odysseus was told to carry an oar inland until someone asked where he was carrying that threshing pole (they did not recognize the oar), and there he was to set up the shrine to Poseidon, make sacrifice, and expiate the crime of blinding one of His sons. On so many ancient altars it is written that it was set up in thanksgiving for the gift of the Deity, some act of power saving a life, or liberation from suffering, or granting a benefit, or in expiation as with Odysseus for a wrongdoing. Then others could come, remember the Greatness of the Deity, and there offer sacrifice.

But this is a world where most of the land was unclaimed and where a shrine would be respected. Recently I set up a small herm at a crossroads near my home, and within twenty-four hours, the engraved stone was gone. We live in a very different world.

How are we to establish enduring places of worship in Nature, which we so love? How do we respond to theophanies? How can we, when we meet the numinous in some location create enduring space for worship to take place? As Pagans grow in power in our society, this will become easier, but it will require forethought to do well. Let us begin thinking about how we will take place as holy…

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

There is another side of this issue of place that needs be addressed before ending. The Christian interregnum scattered us, but like seeds we grow again spreading our way into new lands. While for many of us in the States that scattering separates us from the ancient sanctuaries of our Gods (please take care of them!), it has forced us to learn how to make wherever we are sacred (to ourselves, it always was sacred).

As our spiritual and scientific understanding grew, we also learned that the center of the world is where we stand at any moment. With sufficient depth of practice any place can be experienced as supremely holy. It can be said that we are no longer dependent on the ancient places. No longer can our religion be suppressed by tearing down our places of worship or stripping our temples of our sacred icons, relics, writings, and so on. We are mobile. We are on the internet. With a candle and a prayer we can make any living room into the Temple of the Gods, the Hall of Initiation, the Center of the Cosmos.

But I still want the Pantheon back…

Sam Webster


Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of "Tantric Thelema." He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.