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.
  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    Spectacular post; thank you. One sentence in particular really resonates with me:

    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).

    All places are sacred; each space has its own spirit. Being in right relationship with our spaces is the work of a lifetime.

    • Deborah Bender

      I agree that each space has its own spirit, but in my experience, some places are more numinous than others. Those are the places that tend to become religious gathering places in pagan societies.

  • justplainwyrd

    I like the version of Paganism that exists scattered in living rooms. No clergy. No cathedrals. Just family and friends, growing (or not) organically. Following the big religion example, I suspect, will lead us to the same big religious pitfalls.

    Great post. I love the reminder that sacred is what we make of where we are.

    • ChristopherBlackwell

      It is my same worry that as we become bigger ad more organized that we soon will make the same mistake that other religions did as they became more organized developed political and financial power. So I will remain a solitary. I have built my personal temple and it goes more sacred the more often that I use it.

  • Ryan

    “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.”

    I totally agree, if nature is sacred then all places are. As much as I love places like stonehenge, I also think they can be a distraction from the sacredness that is all around us, wherever we are. Going to these places can be a great experience, but we don’t need large, showy temples if our temple is the earth.

    • Deborah Bender

      With respect, “all places are sacred” is unworkable. I would say “all places are potentially sacred. We can make them sacred if we choose to.”

      The earliest dictionary definition of “sacred”, from the Latin, is “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity”. To make something sacred or recognize it as sacred requires making it unavailable for uses unconnected with service or worship of whatever it is sacred to.

      There are derivative secondary meanings of “sacred”, such as “regarded with great respect and reverence by a particular group”, but the problem remains in a diluted form. Recognizing a place as sacred limits how one can behave in it or towards it without disrespecting the place or committing sacrilege.

      If we were all fully developed spiritual beings, we would carry on all our waking activities aware of and fully immersed in our connection with divinity. For such a person, diapering a baby, having an argument with someone, or balancing the books of a business or would be done in a sacred manner with full consciousness of the divine, and there would be nothing wrong with carrying on those activities in any sacred site of their religion. Most of us are not able to maintain that state of consciousness 24/7, and we use the cue of physically entering sacred space and the ritual behavior associated with doing so as a mental cue to shift our consciousness from everyday concerns and ego-driven expression into attunement with the divine. If every place (or every time, or every act) is equally sacred, we lose that psychological cue.

      To put it another way, if all places are sacred, does it make any difference where we put the toilet? Does it make any difference where we slaughter chickens? Should we adopt the practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans and only slaughter chickens when they are being sacrificed to a god?

      • Lupa

        For those of a pantheistic bent, everything is sacred because everything is of the Divine (however you want to define the Divine–not everyone is of one theological mind). I actively strive toward seeing every moment as a manifestation of my connection with the universe, and so for me, remembering everything is sacred is my psychological cue to maintain that view of the world.

        And yes, that even includes things considered mundane or messy. If I am taking a bag of trash out to the dumpster, I am aware not only of the sacredness of being able to move through the world in that particular spot (my home) and how that spot has supported me, but also the awareness of the landfill to which that garbage will be going, how it is sacred too and how many people (myself included) aren’t treating it with as much care as we could be, which then is impetus to act in a more mindful manner in the future–to include when making decisions to cut down on non-recyclable and non-compostable waste.

        Additionally, just because a definition is newer doesn’t mean it’s less valid. Definitions and language change, just as understandings of spirituality change. I disagree that the definition that’s thousands of years old is automatically more relevant to today just because it’s old.

  • kenofken

    “Any place can be experienced as supremely holy.” That is the key to this whole issue for me. We sometimes take ritual to the shore of Lake Michigan or a nice clearing in an oak forest. Those places on a full moon night beat any cathedral ever built in my eyes. It is true that we can’t for the most part, make such public spots semi-permanent or revered or untouched as exclusive sacred sites the way the ancients did.

    That difference has less to do with there being more unclaimed land in those days than the fact that control was exercised by tribal and clan governments and priestly classes and religion was integral to the place and people who used the sites. People in general also had a much keener sense of the numinous back then, so that few people thought it wise to casually desecrate someone else’s holy site (war was a different matter). It’s not entirely impossible to create local sacred sites today. Even on public land, you just have to use a little discretion and don’t install or leave anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve seen, and done, a few places where you can tie ribbons to trees and bushes, use a nice flat-top boulder as an altar, clear a nice ring of working space etc. Leave libations and edible offerings which nature takes back, maybe some coins, nice stones etc. Whether through laziness or reverance, I haven’t had any serious problems with vandalism.

    As to the Pantheon or other cathedrals or even church buildings, the Catholic church at least is very careful about who they re-sell property to, and not just former sanctuaries. They recently refused to sell off a surplus mansion to a gay couple. Pagans are not on the preferred list either…
    The Pagan movement in America as a whole right now is just not in a place where its going to build and support congregational-style church/temples. It’s not the model most of us want, and many of those who do profess to want such a thing usually underestimate the enormous financial commitment that entails. If you aren’t personally willing or able to put up $200 a month, every month (or more), you don’t want a church building, and you ain’t getting one.

  • Lupa

    My own approach to sacred sites, power spots, whatever you want to call them, tends to be a lot more subjective. I’m more interested in personal meaning, though that betrays my place as a highly independent person within a very individualistic (as opposed to collectivist) culture. And I think that’s one of the conflicts we run into–a lack of consensus. We neopagans don’t have an unbroken tradition running back thousands of years in one specific area. we aren’t concentrated in one place, and most of us don’t spend our entire life in the same location, creating a lifelong relationship with the land there.

    I don’t feel that the answer is to co-opt other cultures’ sacred sites, or even necessarily to try and agree on what we should all see as sacred. If there is a particular place that moves you to feel closer to whatever it is you consider sacred, then make note of that and honor it as you will (being mindful of others’ relationships to the place).

    It’s all temporary, anyway; mountains erode, continents are subducted, species go extinct and new ones spring into being, all changing the character of a place. The closest major peak to me, Mt. Hood/Wy’East, is less than one million years old; it never saw the ancient ancestors of the horse that roamed eastern Oregon 40 million years ago, never mind dinosaurs further back. My own preference is to honor the mighty processes and components that create and destroy these places, as well as honoring the places for the snapshots of our planet’s history that they represent. Therefore, everything is sacred to me.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    To paraphrase Gregory:

    “We should, by no means, destroy the temples of the White-Christ but rather the idols within those temples. Let us, after we have purified them with holy blood, place altars and relics of the Ēse in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of desert gods to the service of the true gods of this land. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the Ēse. Further, since it has been their custom to give nothing in sacrifice, they should learn some solemnity in haste.

    Let them, therefore,on the day of the dedication of their hofu, or on the feast of the heroes whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves mead halls around their one-time churches and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting.
    They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the desert gods, but for the glory of the Ēse to whom, as the warders of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by
    leaps and bounds….

    Mention this to our cȳþþ and cynn; that they may help with the matter as they see fit according to the conditions of time and place.”

  • “The heavens are where you are – and that is the place to train.” -Morehei Oeshiba (O Sensei)