Editorial: The Barrow and the State

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Pagan Perspectives

Today’s column is by your humble weekend editor, Eric O. Scott, who has written for The Wild Hunt since 2012.

The Wild Hunt is always open to submissions for its weekend section. Please send queries or complete submissions to eric@wildhunt.org.

Earlier this week, BBC News reported that a burial chamber designed as a replica of Neolithic-style long barrows had been designated as a Druidic place of worship. (The Wild Hunt covered the story in our regular Pagan Community Notes feature on Monday.) The barrow will eventually hold hundreds of urns, housed in dozens of small niches built into the walls of four burial chambers. Each of the niches has already been reserved, but only about forty currently have occupants.

The barrow, which has been designed such that on the winter solstice the sun will shine down into the central chamber, has attracted the interest of Druids and other sorts of Pagans over the course of the past week. (The degree to which the barrow is genuinely of interest to British Druids living in the vicinity may be another question – one senior druid I spoke to about the barrow said to their knowledge no active Druid orders were meeting at the site, and that they personally would not want to be buried in such a place, “surrounded by strangers.”) The BBC report claims four ceremonies are held annually at the temple, attended by 30 to 50 Druids and other visitors.

Coldrum Long Barrow, near Trottiscliffe, Kent [Simon Burchell, Wikimedia Commons].

Yesterday, another report came out about the barrow, this time from the Telegraph, which reports that the owner, Tim Daw, has been informed by the Valuation Office Agency that he must pay in the neighborhood of £5,000 ($6,382) annually in taxes on the barrow. Typically, church graveyards are not taxed, due to their status as places of worship, but the Valuation Office interpreted the barrow as a “commercial storage facility,” and thus liable for the tax. Mr. Daw claims that, between the fees made to reserve the alcoves for future urns (reported as £1,000 each) and maintenance fees, he makes about £1,000 per year from the barrow, leaving him £4,000 in the red after this tax.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mr. Daw. “It’s not right and it should be treated the same as a Christian church. It feels like discrimination.” Mr. Daw is himself not a Druid, despite having built the site and registered it as a Druidic site of worship.

These two stories of the Wiltshire long barrow speak to one of my long fascinations in the development of contemporary Paganism – the interplay between the physical reality of our Pagan lives and the web of interactions with the state and the market that define, constrain, and legitimize them.

There is one site, and there are many sites. There is the long barrow, the edifice made of rock and chalk, which fills with light during the day of the longest night; and there is the spiritual space where the visitors, Druids or otherwise, perform rituals because something in the architecture strikes them as holy; and there is the economic space, where the long barrow is a set of market stalls, each selling a resting place for the price of £1,000; and there is the space as envisioned by the state, where one agency declares it a religious site dedicated to the Druidic tradition as recognized under the law, and another agency of the same government decrees the space is equivalent to a warehouse that happens to store somewhat peculiar cargo.

These things are all the same thing, or at least, they all point to the same thing. But they point to the different ways in which we conceptualize and navigate the physical world that undergirds our religions. I could not say how many spaces there are in the world where four Pagan rituals are observed annually, but I suspect the number runs in the hundreds, if not thousands. Some of those places host elaborate altars or lavish ceremonial regalia, and many involve acres of consecrated land. Most do not appear on maps, or in registers, because they are tucked into the corners of private homes, or held in the back of commercial metaphysical shops, or exist only for the span of an afternoon in a public park – places for those who know how to find them, and secrets to those who have not been initiated into their knowledge.

Yet the mainstream press calls the long barrow on Mr. Daw’s only the second Druidic site of worship in England – the first being the Southfield Temple of Druidic Worship in Lancashire – because it is only the second one to be recognized as such by the state. Even to those of us within Pagan circles, this imprimatur of state recognition retains an almost mystical quality, such that being so “recognized” often seems to bring more legitimacy to our religions than any hoard of traditions and teachings. The place deemed by a government office as “belonging to the faith” has an aura about it that goes beyond tax benefits, beyond even what we get from consecrating the place through our own magick. I am not saying this should be true, but I believe that it is, for now.

Ásatrú graveyard in Gufuneskirkjugarður, Reykjavík, Iceland [Haukurth, Wikimedia Commons].

All of this is even more true for those places where we intend to house our dead. By its nature, a tomb hopes to last for eternity, or at least long enough for its inhabitant’s descendents to have a few generations to visit, and the tie between the faith and the land goes deeper in this particular ritual than anywhere else. If we are of a religious bent, we would like for our bones to be united with a particular kind of earth; that’s the case if we are Methodists or Heathens.

The consecration of such ground, however, relies for now on the cooperation of a state who will recognize it as such and provide for its continued existence. The state, however has the option to deny us if it wills, and say that while we may have applied to build a site of worship, we will be taxed at the rate of a warehouse of ashes.