How to visit a sacred site
I’m just back from 3 1/2 weeks in England and Ireland. As is our tradition, we’ve built our trip around visits to long barrows, passage tombs, dolmens, cists, stone rows, and caves. Which brings me to my topic: How to Visit a Sacred Site.
Doesn’t everybody know how it’s done? The sad truth is that I’ve seen some shocking behavior to avoid. But if you, like me, are a seasoned veteran at visiting important pagan places, there is always more to learn–especially about yourself–when preparing for a visit. Here is a brief summary of what I have found helpful.
- Plan, plan, plan before you go!
Some sites simply allow you to walk up to the location and visit (respectfully, of course). Many of the bigger sites are now tourist attractions, and that means a trip to a ticket booth and a visitor center. It’s also fairly challenging to attempt to do ritual work while on a, say, 15 minute “in and out” tour of Brú na Bóinne. You might amaze the little kids with your invocations, but will likely rattle the adults around you. A wise soul will know, however, that there are plenty of quiet and important places within a short meander from the front door of the Newgrange burial chamber where you could engage in some full-on ritual without being distracted or causing a disruption.I recommend a short walk or trip down the road to the third of the three sites, Dowth. While access to Knowth and Newgrange is all managed by tour buses and visitor center access, you can walk or drive right up to Dowth, and while you cannot climb into the tombs, you can walk the mound’s perimeter, boldly priestess from the top of it (as I did just last week), and have a full ritual experience.
Read widely and esoterically, so you know about the less touristed sites. Did you know that with some planning, you can (and I did) visit FourKnocks tomb by knowing where to go, and by phoning ahead to the elderly gentleman, Finton White, who holds the key at his home? We called Mr. White, had a visit, left our 20 euro key deposit, and walked away with the key to the great iron door of the richly decorated burial chamber. We had this glorious place all to ourselves, and enjoyed the zigzag patterns on the stones both outside and inside. Information like this tends not to be found in Lonely Planet or Rick Steve’s travel books. Do your homework, and you will yield rich rewards.
(inside FourKnocks tomb, where we were the only living guests)
- Bring a flashlight / torch
It’s good to carry a small torch/flashlight with rechargeable batteries when you make these visits. Even in broad daylight, it can be helpful to shine a light down a passageway to see what’s what.
- Bring an Ordnance Survey map
It’s a huge help to carry (and know how to navigate with) an OS map. For Ireland and the UK, we like both the LandRanger maps, which have a 1:50,000 scale, and the more detailed Explorer maps with the 1:25,000 scale. These can be massively valuable in helping you to locate hard to find sites in the countryside. They also carry markers for tiny, locals-only stone circles, tumuli, hut circles, Ogam stones, and other beautiful surprises you’d never know to watch out for. Here’s a snippet from a map of Dartmoor in S. Devon, England. Bet you didn’t know there was a ‘Crock of Gold,’ did you? Which leads me to my next bit of advice…
- Please don’t make a mess
I wish I didn’t have to write this. While visiting Loughcrew’s famous Cairn T this summer, a woman brushed past us in the tomb, pulled out art supplies, and began to do a stone rubbing of one of the beautiful, fragile, and highly decorated stones! I alerted the OPW staff, but should have called her on it directly. I’ve seen this sort of behavior before; about 20 years ago we visited West Kennet Long Barrow and witnessed the remnants of a bonfire inside the tomb. By all means, make offerings, but please ensure that they are small, biodegradable, and respectful of the site’s energies, and of its future visitors. I like to pour out some cider, sing or chant, trance or go into a deep grounding and listening place, or leave a tiny local flower from the field. Resist the urge to shove a piece of pink quartz from your altar into a crevice. It might feel meaningful to you, but you’re messing with the energies. For a little bit of information on offerings, check out Dver’s recent post on the subject. Make your offering intangible.
- Photography and ritual are a bad match
When you arrive, why not put the camera away and take a moment to ground, focus, and tune in to the energies of the site? I have learned not to photograph a site until I have done the work that needs to be done, and then I consult how I’m feeling, and decide whether, when and how to take any pictures. Photography can be a distraction and a barrier between you and the direct experience of a place and its powers. See what you think when you tuck the camera / phone / device away, and let yourself be led by the power of a place.
That’s it. Enjoy your sacred site visiting.