Working at Ancient Sacred Sites: Use or Abuse

by Andy Norfolk

What is a sacred place?

According to Ronald Hutton, ‘Any place can be a sacred site if a group of people regard it as such’ (1). Of course this means there may be a sacred No. 97 bus stop somewhere. There is a web-site which lists a drive-in market in the USA as a sacred site, because there are a couple of Masonic symbols on the building. There must be more to it than people agreeing a place is sacred.

Nigel Pennick says that ‘sanctity is a physical manifestation of the essential nature of a sacred place - which comes into being when the anima loci is recognised’ (2). It sounds to me as though he is saying that a site is sacred because it is sacred but that we have to recognise it as such for it to be really sacred.

Guy Ragland Philips says a sacred site is ‘a numinous place in open country - a summit, a grove, a well, a river source, or a place rendered sacred by people in the past’ (3). It seems as though these places have an intrinsic special quality, but that it needs to be acknowledged by people in some way. And of course he suggests that we can make places sacred.

Philips also says that the locations in which stone circles, standing stones, burial chambers and mounds are placed often say something very powerful about how the ancient people related to the landscape (4). This sounds remarkably like the approach taken in ‘cognitive archaeology’. Christopher Tilley writing about Bodmin Moor says that all the stone circles, stone rows and cairns are all carefully located to delineate a sacred relationship with the tors (5). He and others have discovered that the Leskernick settlement on Bodmin is set in a sacred landscape. They say ‘the hilltop and the area around the stone circles and stone rows was undoubtedly sacred ... but life in this settlement was imbued with a sense of ritual ... much of the ritual and knowledge was dispersed throughout the houses and fields, visible and available to all: communal rather than individual empowerment’ (6). Contemporary British Pagan attitudes seem very similar to the ideas that seem to have defined this sacred landscape. We are all empowered equally - rather than having a separate clergy. It also relates to Pagan belief in divinity being immanent in nature. The entire landscape is sacred, but there are important differences between places. A belief otherwise, that everywhere is the same, seems to me to be a product of the materialist/mass production society, which I hope Pagans see beyond.

Do ancient sacred places have special properties? Well I think so. I know how they make me feel. I'm not the only one to regard them as magical. Dion Fortune wrote of lines of energy connecting power centres in 1936 (7). The Farrar's say that ‘every land has its magical places, its ancient and continuing concentrations of power ... and legend, mythology and cultural tradition are a vital part of the spirit of the land’ (8).

Did Pagans use ancient sites? There is plenty of evidence that our ancestors used them, though quite how is more difficult to decide. It seems obvious that stone circles and standing stones were erected to mark their locations as somewhere special. Strangely it seems that there was a period of about 800 years from the mid-Bronze Age when these places were abandoned. It may be of course that they were still being intensively used in ways that left no archaeological trace. Later however these sites were obviously regarded as special. They acted as foci for burials for example. Still later the attitude of the church shows that Pagans were still using these places. In 658 CE a church council in Nantes decreed that standing stones where pagan rituals took place should be cast down and hidden. Wulfstan, Archbishop of York issued instructions between 1000 and 1002 CE forbidding various pagan practices and he condemned the existence of sanctuaries around springs, wells, rocks and trees. Between 1238 and 1295 the bishops of Worcester, Wells, Exeter, Winchester and Hereford issued similar decrees against veneration of springs, wells and trees. The Synod of Argyll ordered the destruction of a stone circle on Iona in 1560 because people continued to worship there. More recently in 1992 in Cornwall a born-again Christian farmer called Clemoes was apparently told by his minister that he should pull down a menhir on his land because it was a focus for pagan ritual. He pulled it out and threw it in the hedge, breaking the top off in the process. Only after a lot of lobbying, in which I was involved, was it re-erected, though sadly not in its original location. It is now in the hedge wrapped in rusting chicken wire to encourage the vegetation to cover it quickly and hide it from view.

Pennick talks of the orlog, the magical history of a place, and says the geomythic qualities and anecdotes are an integral part of a sacred site (9). Many legends associate Pagans with ancient sites. For example Evans-Wentz recorded a story that in Ireland druids used brass rods to turn one another into standing stones (10). At the Water Stone at Wrington Barrow in Somerset offerings were made of primroses and milk. Stukely, the 18thC antiquarian wrote about Rollright that "young people meet at the circle at a special time and make merry with cakes and ale", so not much change there then. In Cornwall if you touch the Giants Rock at Zennor 9 times at midnight you will automatically become a witch. Once you've done that you can stroll down the road to the Witches Rock at Trewey, a traditional meeting place for all the local wise folk.
Why are these places special? Ronald Hutton suggests that at Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesey the original henge may have been destroyed to build the passage grave on top of it ‘to pool the ritual force of both sorts of structure’ (11). Ross Nichols, Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids between 1964 and 1975 wrote that ‘upright stone stores psychic power better than trees... each stone gives an effect of personality’. He also refers to dancing in a circle to raise and direct power that could be lodged in a ring of stones. He says that the Merry Maidens in Cornwall is ‘a planned ritual circle, little interfered with, having much force still to be used’ (12). Mind you he rather spoils that by saying that this circle overlooks the sea, which it certainly doesn't. According to Starhawk ‘in the permanent stone circles of the megalithic era, where rituals were enacted for 100's of years great reservoirs of power were built up’(13). The Farrar's say that ‘to be in tune with the land witches should pay special attention to such places as Glastonbury and Newgrange... or their equivalents ... in the sense of using their psychic awareness of them. The power of these places is there to be experienced and tapped.’ (14)

These places need to be treated with respect on many levels. Patterns and colours of the all-pervasive aether are affected by human activity. If a place is treated with due respect the anima loci will be strengthened, if treated with disrespect it will be diminished or destroyed, according to Pennick (15). This sounds like a good argument for not ‘using’ the energy of these places but for working with it and building it. It is important that these places are used but it is important too that they are treated as allies and not slaves or objects. Working in this way can produce startling results. In November 1997 some Cornish Pagans who were getting rather fed up with the low but persistent level and damage to local sacred sites worked a ritual at Boscawen-un circle to cleanse and heal the site and send healing energy out to other sites. The next morning we had an earthquake measuring 3.8 on the Richter Scale. The early diagrams of the epicentre of the quake showed concentric circles neatly framing Boscawen-un. Hmm!
It seems that many ancient sacred sites were carefully located in the landscape to mark the eight festivals now used by contemporary Pagans, in theory anyway. Some examples are Newgrange built to mark mid-winter, Stonehenge, which marks various times of the year, Boscawen-un circle in Cornwall which marks Imbolc and Samhain, and Tregeseal circle not far away where the Boswens Menhir marks Beltane sunrise. These sites link this world to the whirling of the seasons and to the otherworld.
So many of the legends about these special places link them to the fair - and not-so-fair - folk that there must be some truth to them. I've certainly met a few strange beings at several of these sites myself. At many the guardian spirit of the place is very apparent. It seems entirely appropriate to be respectful of these beings when working at an ancient sacred site.

Are these very special places treated with appropriate respect? Sadly, all too often, no they aren't. For example the Clava Cairns are built of loose boulders. People scramble all over them dislodging the stones, including so it seems people from the Findhorn Foundation who want to feel the vibes. At the Nine Ladies circle in Derbyshire the place has been wrecked by ignorant people. I remember this as being a delightful place when I visited it in the early 70's. Now if you go there you are likely to find litter, dog-shit, fire damage and candle wax on the stones, drunken people with ghetto-blasters and stones damaged by carelessly reversed vehicles. Boscawen-un circle in Cornwall hasn't escaped this sort of stupidity. People have camped in the circle and filled it with litter and more dog-shit and built a sweat-lodge there. Some fool also managed to put something burning on the top of the centre stone. If it had rained while the stone was hot it would probably have split. As it is the top is now completely bare of lichens. These take many decades to grow even a small amount. The ones killed on this stone may have been hundreds of years old.

There is no archaeological evidence that I know of that the people who built the stone circles lit fires all over these sites. Even if they did what was appropriate then isn't right now. Fires kill wildlife, even if only the vegetation where the fire is lit plus any insect that don't run away fast enough. In many parts of Britain fires lit at sacred sites can all to easily spread to surrounding grassland or moorland as well.

In November '98 some other fools lit a circle of fires around Wayland's Smithy, chalked 14 pentagrams onto the stones and lit a fire inside the barrow against the stone at the back. West Kennet Long Barrow gets similar mistreatment. Fires lit against stones damage the stone especially when it is limestone. Heat turns this stone into something with all the strength of brown sugar. Fires aren't the only problem. Even candles have the same effect when they are stood in niches in places like West Kennet. The National Trust is repairing this damage with epoxy resin to stop the site falling to bits. Chalking pentagrams and slogans on stones may be someone's idea of showing that Paganism is alive and well. But frankly it's a bloody counterproductive way of doing it. Leaving enough decaying vegetable matter in the form of offerings to make a compost heap isn't exactly the best way of showing respect for your gods and goddesses either. And can someone please tell me why some people pick flowers at a site and leave them as offerings. This is surely madness. I'm certain the sprit of place and divinities are going to be far more impressed if the flowers are left alive for the benefit of wildlife and other visitors than picked and left to wither.

In many ways ancient sacred sites are the public's only view into Paganism. We don't tend to make ourselves very obvious generally, for some reason! Why is it then that some who clearly think they are Pagans feel it is appropriate to leave what most people would regard as litter at ancient sacred sites and treat them in ways which leave them spoilt and diminished for other visitors. I accept that not all the mistreatment these places receive is from pagans but too much obviously is.

So how can you tell if what you intend to do at an ancient sacred site is OK? It's simple really. Will your activities change it? If they do then you are getting it wrong. These special magical places have survived for millennia. They are getting increasing levels of use as interest grows in Paganism and the new-age movement. If they continue to get the sort of abuse that they have been getting in the last few years then they will be destroyed in decades. The idea that these places are there to be used for selfish purposes without thought for tomorrow, in ways which will deny our descendants the chance to visit such wonderful places is just plain wrong. To me it smacks of outmoded Christian attitudes - the sort of thing that some Christians are now trying to move away from. It is more than a little ironic for Pagans, to whom the land is supposed to be sacred, to be treating it as if they believed in Genesis 1:28 – ‘And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth and subdue it’. We are supposed to be moving away from the idea that power over things is acceptable. This seems to me to be something from the old grimoires that has crept into contemporary Paganism. Don't forget that these books were written by and for Christian heretics who wanted control over demons. What on earth has that approach got to do with Pagans?
It also seems only polite to me to listen to the site. I believe strongly in working with the spirits of the land where I live. For this reason I have spent a lot of time finding out about Cornish traditions and legends and tuning into the land. I feel a very deep connection with my patch. I don't feel it appropriate to bring bits and pieces of other cultures to this area and expect them to resonate with the land. I know that we have no proof of how our ancestors might have used these places but we can try to work with what we do know and listen to what the spirits of place have to tell us.

So how should you behave at sacred sites? Don't do anything that will damage them physically. Don't dig holes or poke things into cracks and crevices in the stones. Don't light fires. Don't put candles onto the stones where wax could damage lichens or mosses. Don't put anything where it could heat stone. Don't write pathetic graffiti on ancient monuments - real Pagans won't be impressed and Joe Public will think less of us for it. Don't take anything from these places - except litter. It should be part of Pagan worship to take litter away and clear them up before rituals and of course afterwards. Don't affront the guardians/spirits of the site. Don't upset landowners and those responsible for their care - needlessly. If they aren't looking after them then by all means point it out, but doing it politely and offering to help is more likely to result in the site being better cared for than being confrontational. And finally don't do anything that might annoy other visitors. And of course all this applies just as much to sites that aren't obviously ancient sacred sites too!

I'm sorry if that sounds like a lot of ‘don'ts’ but frankly I'm beginning to think that this sort of thing has to be said to make people think before they do something foolish. If you want the right attitude put more succinctly as Rae Beth says in her Resolution of a Witch:

May I approach the high earthworks and the stone circles as the fox or moth and disturb them no more than that (16).


• 1 Ronald Hutton, ASLaN leaflet, 1997
• 2 Nigel Pennick, Anima Loci 1993
• 3 Guy Ragland Philips, The Unpolluted God 1987
• 4 Philips, ibid
• 5 Christopher Tilley, Rocks as resources: Landscapes and Power in Cornish Archaeology, 1995
• 6 Christopher Tilley, Barbara Bender and Sue Hamilton, Leskernick: The Biography of an Excavation in Cornish Archaeology, 1995
• 7 Dion Fortune, The Goat Foot God 1936
• 8 Janet & Stewart Farrar, A Witches Bible 1981/84/96
• 9 Pennick, ibid
• 10 W Y Evans Wentz, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries 1911/77
• 11 Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles 1997
• 12 Ross Nichols, The Book of Druidry 1990
• 13 Starhawk, The Spiral Dance 1979
• 14 Farrars, Ibid
• 15 Pennick, ibid
• 16 Rae Beth, Hedgewitch 1990