This month the Smithsonian Channel will be airing an hour-long television pilot for a series called Sacred Sites of the World. The show was developed and produced by Tile Films, one of Ireland’s top documentary filmmaking companies. As suggested by the title, the series seeks to explore the historical, religious and cultural significance of sacred sites located around the world. As part of this process, and perhaps unique to the series, producers will also be demonstrating how these ancient sites and associated religious beliefs are still honored and held sacred by many in contemporary culture.Writer and researcher David Ryan said, “Director Stephen Rooke and I, along with the rest of the creative staff in Tile Films, have a strong personal interest in history, archaeology, religion … It’s the reason why we do this work in the first place.” Tile Films has produced other successful documentary series focusing on religion and history such as The Lost Gods.
The Sacred Sites’ pilot focuses on Ireland and tells the tale and progression of religious experience through its sacred sites. The program includes striking aerial images of cairns, dolmens, stone circles and temple mounds. It moves smoothly between these images, live-event footage, dramatizations, and interviews with a variety of academic experts including scientists and historians. One of these experts is folklorist Dr. Jenny Butler whose work is focused, in part, on connections between ancient beliefs and modern day Paganism in Ireland.
The show also includes interviews with modern Pagans, including footage of an authentic Lughnasadh ritual performed by the Owl Grove, a Druidic group from Rosenallis, County Laois. Member Jane Brideson describes the experience:
[The crew] spent time with us, asked questions to further understand our beliefs and were respectful of the way that we work. We explained … that we worked within a sacred space. They respected that by filming the whole ritual from outside the circle and being very unobtrusive. Once the ritual had ended the Grove gathered to share food and drink. Later filming recommenced and parts of our ritual were filmed again from within the circle with our consent. The whole experience was very positive for everyone involved.
The Arch Druid of Owl Grove, Mel Lloyd agreed saying, “The filming was exhilarating and very interesting for us all. We met with and had several conversations with the production team prior to the filming. So by the time the day arrived they we were all on very good terms with each other.”During the show, the Owl Grove is performing its Lughnasadh ritual as an example of how modern day Pagans still honor the ancient Irish God – Lugh. At several points in the show, producers highlight the fact that rituals are still held to honor the ancient ways, Gods and historic sites.
The filmmakers share past footage from the Bealtaine Festival of Fires, formerly held on the Hill of Uisneach, County Westmeath. In this segment, people dance near a large bonfire of hay and wood. Researcher David Ryan says, “Different groups were present, and not all were Pagan. Large numbers of ordinary festival-goers attended for the spectacle and the popular music event that accompanied the fire performances.”
Another segment shows a crowd gathered on the Winter Solstice to witness the natural spectacle that occurs within the ancient Newgrange temple mound in County Meath. Outside this 5000-year-old sacred site, travelers gather to experience an extraordinary annual, ancient event that signifies the return of the sun. In one shot, several of the visitors appear to be performing a ritual act to herald or call-in the solstice sun.
While Sacred Sites: Ireland does explores religion and respectfully incorporates modern day Pagan practice, the show is a purely secular, academic-style program. Its focus is as much on explaining ancient religious practice and culture through history and science, as it is an introduction to the sites themselves. At points, the temples even seem to be simply a jumping-off point to discussing changing ancestral beliefs, landscape and traditions. As such, Sacred Sites: Ireland sits very delicately and precariously wedged between history, science and religion.With that secular and scientific focus, Sacred Sites: Ireland ‘s may not for everyone. However the producers have made a significant effort to respectfully include the modern usage of these sites in their discussion. They have also attempted to show the beauty and spiritual power within these ancient sites and, in doing so, have demonstrated a definite respect for both ancient and contemporary religious beliefs. Bideson believes that the program will be excellent viewing for both Pagans and non-Pagans alike. She says,
I am always interested in the way Pagans from different paths work and celebrate and I hope that the programme will give others a glimpse into the Owl Grove and how some Druids in Ireland practice … it [also] shows us doing what we actually do rather than the practices that many non-pagans would like to associate us with.
If the Smithsonian Channel picks up the series, Tile Films plans to continue the process of exploring the many sacred sites around the world. Ryan says,
The locations for future shows still have to be finalised, but provisionally we are planning to focus on sites in Greece/ Turkey, Italy (ancient Roman sites), Malta, Egypt and Central America (Mayan sites). We hope to continue to include sites that remain sacred in the present day, and film the associated pagan rituals. Thus far we have been in touch with a number of different pagan groups in relation to the above, and so far all seem interested in participating.
When asked if they are considering any U.S.-based sacred sites? Ryan said, “Yes, we’d certainly consider Native American sites in the U.S., and the Smithsonian have indicated they’d be open to this. Any site in theory could be included so long as it is ‘sacred.’”
The pilot, Sacred Sites: Ireland, will air July 7 at 8 p.m. Eastern on The Smithsonian Channel. It will also be available to stream via the website.