By Danu Forest
Millions of people visit ancient sacred sites across the UK every year- whether it be world heritage sites like Stonehenge and Avebury, ancient sites in London like the sacred mound of the white hill where the tower of London stands, or smaller sites of Neolithic barrow mounds and megalithic stone circles that are scattered all across the UK and Ireland. With a host of websites and books to guide us seeking sacred landscapes that were built and honoured by our ancient ancestors is easier than ever before. Yet what marks the difference between the sacred pilgrimage and the tourist, consuming these sites as part of a bucket list? Over a million visitors go to Stonehenge each year, for example, but how many really tune in to its special sacred power and leave moved and deepened by the experience?
Many of our sacred sites are quite difficult to understand from a logical point of view. Most are sites of archaeological significance as well, with only limited knowledge about them and even more cautious interpretations placed on them by the experts. We are often actively encouraged to ‘look but don’t touch’ as anyone who has visited Stonehenge will know. While some sites are still wild and pristine, at other times sites have been reconstructed by the archaeologists or damaged by previous generations of antiquarians and we are left to the remains of their work. Yet for those of us with a little sensitivity, a certain feeling, a certain intangible tingle can let us know that the spirits and the power in the land at such places remains strong, despite the tinkering and despite their great antiquity. The spirits of the land will know us still.
To come to such places with an attitude of respect and care, to treat the experience as a sacred pilgrimage does much just in itself to help us connect with what we see. Remembering not to consume – not approaching with an attitude of ‘what can I get from this?’- but rather an attitude of humility and gratitude- of coming to the sacred places we have and giving them our love and honour, can help our hearts really open to these landscapes and this teaches us far more than the English heritage noticeboards ever can.
If you choose to visit a sacred site this year, whether it be a trip to Stonehenge, a Welsh long-barrow or an afternoon seeking a stone-row in Cumbria, here are some tips to help you honour the ancestors and powers of place that are still there to find, just a hairs breath away from our everyday awareness.
- Before you get too near, stop and breathe. Really feel where you are and become present. However you travelled there, shake off your every day mind and let yourself become still. Whatever your spiritual path, this is sacred ground to those who built it and to many others who visit.
- Ask permission- know that you have permission from current landowners etc to be there, but more importantly if this place is sacred to you, ask the permission of the spirit guardians. In my experience spirit guardians of sacred sites always remain, whether the place is a huge tourist attraction or a barrow mound mostly destroyed by the plough. These ancient and venerable beings will value your respect, and once they would have been honoured regularly. They have much to teach if you are quiet enough to hear.
- Be aware that you don’t know the etiquette- especially with Neolithic sites we don’t know how they were used, but want to still honour them as part of our own spiritual path. Therefore, say so and ask for guidance. And then listen for it with your whole body as well as your inner vision. Feeling that certain something in the pit of your stomach or a tingling in your hands can guide you quite effectively in how to move around an area and what to visit first and where you are and are not welcome. Dowsing is also helpful for this.
- If in doubt, walk around a site clockwise- sun wise- first. Let your footsteps be an act of respect and devotion, aligning yourself with the land beneath your feet as you do so. Traditional folklore tells us don’t walk anticlockwise around barrow mounds especially. This disrespects the spirits.
- Leave offerings but no trace. Often people like to make offerings of clooties- pieces of cloth tied to trees in an area as an offering or prayer. Once this was a traditional practice and the cloth was used to dip into holy wells for laving the sick, and hung up for the spirits to take the illness away. These days sweet wrappers, plastic ties, even socks have been used to mimic this ancient practice. Tying any old thing from your pocket to a tree is not ok. Instead sing, tell the spirits a poem or a story, whistle a tune…or just tell them you remember them and honour them as best you can. Don’t take stones or anything home with you and bring a bag to pick up rubbish.
- Find somewhere where you can sit comfortably, and just breathe. Be open to letting the place speak to you as it will without expectations. Allow it to be as it is and let the vast amounts of time that have passed since its construction fill you with wonder and awe. Listen to the wind. Watch the birds in flight. Let every aspect of the place reveal to you its special energy as it will, and if you are lucky you will leave only footprints, but changed forever.
- When you leave: At the gate, or a boundary of some kind, don’t turn your back, but cross the boundary/go through the gate, whilst still facing the site. Only turn your back when you have ‘officially’ left. Another traditional practice, this helps you make sure you are leaving without taking any spirits home with you!
Good luck with your adventures and may there be a blessing on the land!
About the author: Danu Forest is the author of The Magical Year and has been a practising druid witch and Celtic shaman for over twenty years, has been teaching Celtic shamanism and witchcraft for over a decade, and runs a shamanic consultation and healing practice. She is the author of Nature Spirits: wyrd lore and wild fey magic (Wooden Books), The Druid Shaman (Moon Books) and Celtic Tree Magic (Llewellyn), creates and teaches email correspondence courses, writes a “Danu’s Cauldron” blog for witchesandpagans.com, and has been published in magazines such as Kindred Spirit, Soul and Spirit, and Pagan Dawn. She is also an Ard BanDrui in the Irish Druid Clan of Dana, an ordained priestess, a druid grade member of OBOD (Order of Bards, Ovates (healers/seers) and Druids) and a member of the Society for Shamanic Practitioners