Pagan Nature Sanctuaries; Fairies as Guardians

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TWH – This is the third and final report in this series on the Harvard Divinity School’s Conference on Ecological Spiritualities.

Pagan Nature Sanctuaries

Frequently, religious groups have specialized rural sites. Pagans call these places “nature sanctuaries.” These sanctuaries serve many purposes, sometimes at the same time. Some function as nature restoration projects. Some contain permanent ritual sites that attract Pagans from afar. Some have caretakers as permanent residents. Some are places for Pagan burials.

The sign outside of the Elysium area at Gaea Retreat. (2018) – Image credit: E. Scott

Dr. Sarah M. Pike, California State University, Chico, has researched Pagan Nature Sanctuaries. She spoke about Circle Sanctuary in Wisconsin, Lothlorien in Indiana, and Wisteria in Ohio.

Common themes

Pike said these sanctuaries contain “altars, shrines, and stone circles and host a variety of events to honor the cycle of the season spirits of the land, ancestors, and deities.” They are also actively engaged in nature restoration work.

She also discussed the performance of “rituals and ritualized practices and ways that both express and constitute reverential and intimate relations between humans, soil, plants, rocks, non-human animals, and spiritual beings.”

By definition, sacred space differs from profane space. People come from nearby cities and towns to attend rituals. Yet, they are “welcomed home” when they arrive. Pagans consciously strive to re-enchant the land. Traveling to the sanctuary constitutes a journey into sacred space which becomes a spiritual home for the extended, spiritual community.

Pike reported that shrines and ritual spaces focus relationships between gods, humans, nature beings, and spirits. They also stretch back and forth throughout time. Stretching back leads to the fraught relationship of white U.S. Pagans to land to which they (we) lack deep ancestral ties.

Adding to that huge issue, the complex and messy relationships between humans and natural beings like animals, birds, bushes, fish, grasses, rivers, rocks, and trees present another set of problems. Pagan sanctuaries face many challenges.

Circle Sanctuary

Circle Sanctuary has separated its nature preserve from its ritual space. Their ritual space includes a labyrinth. Circle “built” that labyrinth out of plants native to Wisconsin.

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

Circle Sanctuary. Photo: Paula Jean West

Pike quoted Fox, “It’s essential for nature religions, in particular, to have some places that are wild places.” These are not “human no-go” areas, but rather areas where people can commune with nature.

It is necessary to develop deep bonds between the land and those who come to it. As a result, Circle has ritualized restoration work. Before conducting a prairie burn, they will “meditate, honor the spirit of the prairie, and invite the spirit of the prairie to work with them, as well as all the elements.”

Circle tends the land “as a community rooted in sacred land, the health of the community is tied to the health of the land.”

Circle has adopted a few European customs such as healing-request prayer ribbons. Pike reported that Circle has also contacted and worked with Native Americans to preserve Native sites on Circle’s land.

In 2011, Circle Sanctuary held its “first full-body green burial.” That burial is near a ceremonial stone circle. Fox said that they will tend the graves. Circle, however, will only allow people to plant species native to a Wisconsin forest in or near the cemetery. Fox stressed, “No geraniums. They don’t belong in a Wisconsin forest.”

Currently, the green cemetery holds the remains of about 6o people. Only eight full-body burials have occurred at Circle Sanctuary. Pike said, “some people still prefer being cremated and have their ashes scattered or buried in a small step space.”

Lothlorien

Pike said that they separate the areas with shrines and ritual space from the nature preserve. Of its 97 acres, Lothlorien has set aside only 10 acres for human activities. The other 87 acres belong to nature in all its wildness.

Pike quoted one of its caretakers, “This land has a consciousness of its own. I think we give it a name, so we can recognize it, focus on it, so we can ‘get’ it.”

Wisteria

Wisteria has designated over 200 acres as a permanent nature preserve. They have built neither shrine nor ritual space within those 200 acres. Those acres serve themselves, not humans.

Wisteria also built an ancestor mound to connect with the past. They began to bury the ashes of loved ones in the mound, hence its name, “Ancestor Mound.”

Wisteria is located in the region where Native Americans had built mounds. That historical presence inspired Wisteria to build the ancestor mound. Pike did not report whether modern Native Americans considered Wisteria building a mound to be cultural appropriation.

Despite their many challenges, Pagan Nature Sanctuaries allow Pagans to act as land managers. It’s challenging but necessary.

Fairies as Protectors

Many Pagans think of Fairies as mischievous creatures, with a logic opaque to humans. A recent survey challenges that belief.

Dr. Sabina Magliocco, University of British Columbia, surveyed Pagans about fairies. She reported that “fairies are experiencing a moment of resurgence” among modern Pagans. This resurgence involves a new way of thinking about Fairies.

Her survey found that modern Pagans think of fairies as “nature spirits and protectors of the environment.” Respondents expressed themes of balancing wrongs done to nature. They also expressed “emotions of climate grief and its antidote hope.”

The survey

Magliocco surveyed 500 Pagans. Besides standard survey questions, she also collected narrative stories about fairies.

William Blake, “Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing,” c. 1786.

About two-thirds of respondents first learned about fairies from books and literature. Specifically, respondents learned about fairies from sources like Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty. In contrast, only about one-third reported learning about fairies from their families.

In over 30 years of research, Magliocco has noticed a steady decline in the influence of rural, folk culture. At the same time, almost everyone “knows who Tinkerbell is.“

Magliocco does not think you can separate folklore from popular and literary culture. She said “popular culture and literary culture have never been apart from vernacular culture, [or] from folk culture. They are reinforcing each other.”

Definitions

Liminal beings, like fairies, generally resist strict definitions. Magliocco said, “We can speak, in Europe at least, about a broadly pan-European category of beings, who are called fairies in English but who have other local names.”

“Appearing mostly in humanoid form,” they belong to “a category of supernatural beings … Yet [they] are neither ghosts nor deities.”

In traditional folklore, humans perceive fairies as unpredictable, capricious, and mischievous. Yet, Magliocco reported that they “represent forms of justice. They reward politeness, humility, and respect. And [they] punish those who treat them with disregard.”

Fairies as guardians of nature

Survey respondents reported a belief that fairies acted as guardians of nature. This understanding predates modern Pagans.

Magliocco cited the work of anthropologist, Conrad Ehrenberg. Among the rural Irish in the 40s and 50s, he had found a similar understanding. The rural Irish understood that the “Aos sí” (Irish fairies) punished “those who dumped waste into streams and swept refuse into the street.”

Respondents had told Magliocco that modern fairies “appear to warn humans of impending disaster, if they do not mend their ways and suggest techniques for reinventing the physical environment.” She described this as a category of “folk environmentalism.”

Several respondents reported known encounters with fairies as protectors of the environment. One respondent described what happened to their partner. They were mowing the lawn. Despite warnings to avoid a mushroom circle, their partner mowed too close to that circle. Then, fairies attacked them with small sticklike darts. Some darts had pierced their partner’s body.

Magliocco’s discussion did not report that fairies have any agency. Magliocco only focused on how humans perceive fairies. After all, it was an academic conference.


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