Archive for the ‘Sacred Sites’ Category
In 1692, the sleepy town of Salem Massachusetts was swept with fear as the most infamous witch trials of colonial America rocked burgeoning province. While not impervious to the witch trials which had been sweeping Europe over the course of the preceding centuries, America had managed to avoid the wild, superstitious fear until the 1640s. Several trials occurred in the 1640s, but only in 1647 did New England have its first execution of a witch. A smattering of accusations and trials occurred over the next several decades, but the peak of the witch-hunt in the early Americas ultimately took place in Salem and its nearby villages.
The most well-documented of the early American cases, the trials of Salem spiraled from cases of childish magick to a socio-political nightmare that took the lives of a significant number of the female population of the township and its surrounding areas. The witch trials encompassed both purported actual witches, like the confessed enchantress Tituba, to the young girls whose immature attempts at divination were tied together with later seizures, speculatively from the eating of or exposure to psychotropic grain or other natural products. As the American lowlight of the Burning Times, the Salem Witch Trials represent an important, although tragic key point in the the anthropology of magick.
As I happened to be in Massachusetts this past weekend for an archaeology and heritage conference, I was able to make a pilgrimage to the pleasant New England town of Salem. Be it out of respect for the witches and innocents persecuted by the infamous trial or a morbid curiosity about gothic matters, Salem has become a tourist Mecca. And while many things in Salem have an element of kitsch about them, there is still much respect for the town’s solemn role in the history of witchcraft, both with regards to honoring the dark events that brought it notoriety and valuing the role it has for the modern Wiccan, Witch, and Neo-pagan communities because of its occult connotations.
My tour through Salem started off with a green bang. As we drove into Salem proper, my co-tourist and I discovered that Salem Commons was featuring an ecological rally for a green Salem (good cause!). We began our official tour with a brief visit to the National Park Service’s Visitors center for Salem, mostly to collect the relevant maps and brochures that were necessary to navigate the town. A meandering stroll around town led us past such amusing things as a local Pirate museum and some of the Witch museums of wax figures, none of which took our fancy enough to actually go in. Though these museums probably certainly have their charm, I was more keen to skip such secondary and third resources and go straight to the primary. And thus my principal goal for my Saturday afternoon in Salem was visiting the actual historical points of interest.
This kicked off with a visit the Burying Point, the oldest graveyard in Salem. Somberly perched on high ground in the city center, the Burying Point contains several of the dignitaries associated with the witch trials, many relatives of famous colonial personages, and my particular favorite concept (from my warped archaeological perspective) an exciting array of tombstone iconography representative of the seriation of styles prominent during the late 17th and early 18th centuries (super dorky reference, but I am quite a fan: Remember Me as you Pass By, Chapter 4 of James Deetz’ seminal book on historical archaeology and the cultural implications of gravestone iconography In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life). I had been planning on taking some pastel rubbings of some of the iconography, but sadly, very prominent signs forbade against this artistic endeavor. I did , however, manage a respectful rubbing of Emily Dickinson’s grave marker (“Called Back”) earlier in my trip.
The Burying Point is also the home of the Witch Trials Memorial, an artistic series of granite benches and inscribed paving stones which memorialize “the events of 1692 … as a yardstick to measure the depth of civility and due process in our society” (per the Salem City website).
Following a quick trip to A&J King’s fabulous bakery (walnut cinnamon buns to die for!) and brief tours past some of the more architecturally exciting bits of downtown Salem, we headed for the most pop culturally iconic monument in the town: the Bewitched Statue. As pictured at the start of this article, the statue is a bronze casting of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens astride her broomstick and against a crescent moon. Placed in Salem by TVLand, it is a fitting memorial to one of television’s greatest and most respectful representations of witchcraft in the modern world, as well as a testament to the role Salem holds as a place of magic, forever associated with the witches (and falsely accused magicians) of the New World. As a bright spot in the history of witchcraft, the show Bewitched, and its commemoration in Salem, provides a perfect counterpoint to the dark history Salem is typically associated with.
More meanders through town ensued, including trips into several of the touristy cum magickal shops, which although great, could not compare to the Sacred Mists Shoppe (if you haven’t been to the bricks and mortar version of Shoppe in Napa, it is well worth a trip of its own! Go!). And finally, after some fabulous frozen custard, my co-tourist and I headed over to the Maritime Museum and House of Seven Gables. Though the pirates obviously held strong appeal, it was the House of Seven Gables I was more excited to see. For one reason or another, it seems most American high school curriculums include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, but I believe his House of Seven Gables to be the far superior and more engaging text. The story of a lingering superstition, the politics of the witch trials, and a cursed set of families, the dynastic saga peaks at the invasion of a distant cousin who manic-pixie-dream-girls the lineages out of their various plights. Hawthorne’s cousin’s house that inspired the tale still perches along the waterfront in Salem. The house is a stunning piece of period architecture which serves as a historical testament both to the book, and the family’s own actual connections to the Salem witch trials that inspired the initial cursed events of the classic tale.
Though Salem’s place in the history of witchcraft is a dark legacy, the town of Salem remains an important focal point for magick. The idea of ‘The Witch’ has come a long long way from the hysterical fear it once elicited. Modern role models for the wiccan and neo-pagan communities like Bewitched or even Harry Potterhave done much to move away from the evil stereotypes once associated with being a witch. But in order to appreciate how far society has come out of the broom closet, we must fully understand how deep the fear of the ‘other’ represented by magick has come. We must memorialize the dark times in order to fully appreciate the light.
Poised between spring and summer, Beltane is the Celtic quarter-marker festival of budding fertility. As the sun waxes brighter in the northern hemisphere, it is a festival marked by flames and bonfires in earthly reflection of the heightening solar powers. The fires are and were also intended to purify the world for the upcoming bounty of spring fruits and autumnal harvests.
Standing as it does on the cusp of warmer weather and as the herald of the vivid growth and coloring of late spring and summer, Beltane was a festival of the in-between. In the ancient mythology of the Celtic Isles, particularly Ireland, it represented a changing of regimes and hunting grounds among the Tuatha de Dannan, the Fianna, and the more human aspects of the ancient population. Famously, the Sons of MÍl (the mythical Milesians) first landed on the southwest coast of Ireland on Beltane in an attempt to upset the balance of power and claim the islands for themselves. As they first stepped foot on the beaches and upon feeling the power emanating from the earth on the sacred isles, connecting them to the sacred day, the sun, and the cycle of life and death; their poet Armhairghin composed a song-chant in honor of the occasion. He sang:
“I am an estuary into the sea.
I am a wave of the ocean.
I am the sound of the sea.
I am a powerful ox.
I am a hawk on a cliff.
I am a dewdrop on the sun.
I am a plant of beauty.
I am a boar of valour.
I am a salmon in a pool.
I am a lake in a plain.
I am the strength of art…”
The sacred place on the sacred day of Beltane inspired an ancient invocation of one-ness between man and the universe: a positive invocation that inspires boundless definitions beyond the borders of human conception and perception. For, like its parallel fall festival of Samhain, it is a time when the boundaries between the worlds is dim. And like Samhain, it was a time when fierce protections were set in place to ensure that the roaming faeries and ancient gods of Dark Age and early Medieval Ireland did not interfere with mortal affairs or kidnap mortals into the Otherworlds beyond the mortal veil. Of particular concern were the Aos SÍ (the people of the Mounds), better known as the Tuatha Dé Danann or the Sidhe: the common name in Irish Gaeilge for the Mounds themselves. These faerie mounds which still dot the landscape of the Celtic isles are in reality Neolithic burial sites. But prior to the archaeological excavations conducted over the past several centuries (and really, still), these mounds were superstitious spots on the map. They were sites associated with the unknown depths of antiquity that had come before and when the early religions of the pagan past were translated into Christian terms as fairy tales and mythic saints, the ancient mounds retained their mysterious symbolism.
Legends held that the mounds variously housed the denizens of faerie or acted as party portals between the mortal realm and the Otherworlds ~ which in Celtic mythology are a complex and intriquing web of inter-dimensional theories modern physics are currently exploring. On certain special days, (Beltane among them) the locks between the layers of reality were undone, and the Aos SÍ were able to travel into the mortal realm via the Faerie Mounds and other portals within the landscape despite their contract with the Milesians that they must remain in the Otherworlds. Often their travels involved wild rides through the countryside or midnight dances near the mounds or in the surrounding forest. Hapless mortals lured into their revelry would often disappear, never to be seen again or returning suddenly years later, thinking only a few days had passed. Such was the case of the literarily infamous Tam Lin from last year’s Sacred Mists Beltane Blog who disappeared with the Sidhe and returned centuries later.
In order to avoid being caught up by the Aos SÍ, various rituals were enacted for protection and to simultaneously draw the good blessings of the faerie folk upon their households. The bonfires, ripe with fertile and purifying symbolism, also serve as faux-faerie fires. In this sense, the bonfires act as a sort of apotropaic magick whereby the humans mimic the revelry of the fey thereby keeping other bands of Tuatha Dé Danann from wandering their way by convincing them that there were already faeries in residence. Less flammable offerings of foods were also often left outside of the house or certain plants or flowers hung over the doorways and windows to keep the sidhe out, while still currying their good favor as they passed by on Beltane, Samhain and other days of the in-between. Milk, honey, cakes, and bouquets of fresh and dried herbs were, in particular, favorite offerings to the faerie folk.
Though Beltane is an ancient festival of hope and confidence, it is still widely celebrated in the modern world as one of the highlights of the Wiccan and Druidic calendar. And the belief in faeries and in other magickal denizens of the house and countryside remains strong the world over. So be sure to celebrate this festival of light, growth, and impending summer. It is a marker of good things to come!
Check out Sacred Mist’s Free Beltane Spells and Recipes : especially the Fried Honeycakes ~ just be sure you make enough for you and the Aos SÍ!
[Pictured at the top is Edward Hugh's Midsummer's Eve].
I don’t know about you, but the wall in front of my desk is a veritable collage of notes, images, and articles I’ve pulled out of magazines and printed offline. They’re up there as visual reminders to inspire me during the daily grind and to direct my research. The current center of that web is a picture I pulled out of National Geographic last year of an Aztec offering found buried deep beneath Mexico City’s Zócalo Plaza (pictured at right). Despite excavation, the positioning of the shells, animal bones, and pottery within their stone tomb remains virtually the same as when they were placed in the stone box centuries ago. And what’s more: the unique positioning of the box within the stratigraphy of offerings buried in the Plaza is indicative of a wider sacred emphasis on the use of space and placement within ancient ritual magick and mythology. I can’t recall exactly where I put the Aztec Offering picture on my wall at first, but over the intervening months it has slowly migrated, becoming the central focus of my paperwork montage. With this particular picture suddenly as my desk focal point it seems fitting to address the power of placement and the art of magickal spatial management.
In cultures throughout the ancient and modern world the arrangement of objects on altars, in rooms, and throughout their personal and public space has held power. Be it the arrangement of the candles on altars or the positioning of furniture in line with the tenets of feng shui, the idea of symbolic alignments is an active one with ancient (and potentially psychological) depths. In arranging objects in a way which is pleasing to the eye and therefore to the mind, there is the assumptive potential that they will also be pleasing to the divine or on a divine plane; thus balancing out or enhancing the divine and mortal energies flowing through the world. Or so follows some of the premises behind much of modern anthropological and psychological enquiry into the contemporary use of aesthetics. While the philosophies behind the ancient use of spatiality (sometimes called phenomenology when applied to sensory perceptions of the spatial use of ancient landscapes) are not as clearly known as those which remain into modern times like feng shui, what can be understood from ancient patterns of placement typically relates to the placement of objects and sometimes buildings in ritual contexts, mythic tales and divine cosmologies.
The Aztec Offering from Mexico City is an example of these latter instances. Once, hundreds of years ago, Zócalo Plaza was where the Temple Mayor stood as a visible reminder of the sacred mountain Coatepec (a sort of darker Aztec Olympus) where one of the greatest mythological soap opera’s occurred. For it was on Coatepec that Huitzilopochtli the sun god killed his sister the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui and threw her body off of the mountain. Portions of the dark Aztec sacrificial rituals of the 14th to 16th centuries AD were intended to be representations of this event, which for various reasons was central to their mythos. And in lieu of being able to access the sacred mountain of Coatepec, men built pyramids in Mesoamerica to stand in their stead. In front of the Temple Mayor was a series of ritual statements symbolic of other aspects of Aztec mythology: like the pink stone monolith of andesite (now broken) representative of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli squatting to give birth before the pyramid. And beneath them, representing the various levels of the Aztec Underworld were a series of symbolic ritual offerings: a level of sacrificial knives representing the razor sharp teeth of the earth monster opening his maw to accept incoming souls to the afterlife. Beneath which was a leaf-wrapped cache of incense, beads, and jaguar bones: potential gifts paid for entrance or a magickal bundle to ensure correct passageway to the best part of the Underworld. And below that was the stone box that started this train of thought. A box filled with seashells, snails, crustaceans, and corals hailing from the three nearest seas (the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Pacific); along with a series of sacrificial knives each inscribed with the attributes of deities associated with the setting sun. And in its center, was placed the remains of a wolf or dog, bejeweled with a jade collar, gold anklet bells, and turquoise ear plugs: a testament to man’s best friend, who would lead the way and protect his master’s soul even unto death and its Underworld.
Funerary contexts are often where the spatial patterning of artefacts is most clearly detected by archaeologists. The Egyptian pyramids, like their Mesoamerican counterparts, are complex tapestries representative of the ancient mythologies: inside and out. From their placement within the landscape, to the elaborate burials they contained, placement was of the utmost importance. For instance, the pyramids at Giza (pictured at the start of the articles) were built in alignment with the ancient sky, just as many standing stones were throughout the ancient northern European world. And everything about an Egyptian burial or entombment was ordained by ritual: from the placement of grave goods in certain areas of the tombs to the placement of scarabs and papyrus spells around and within the body and its wrappings. The shape of the Egyptian pyramid itself was dictated by local mythology and was often ascribed as a symbolic representation of the sacred mound which rose out of the primordial waters of the world and formed the foundation of all life.
And while these ancient uses of space and arrangement might seem really distant from the modern world of sky scrapers, motorways, and electrical appliances: consider how often you do ‘arrange’ things without even noticing. You arrange flowers. You set the table for dinner (forks on the left, knife and spoons on the right!). You display your furniture, family pictures, and artwork. You organize your desk and in my case, the mess of inspirational papers you have tacked above it. And whether you’re following a set of traditional rules or just setting things up to be as pretty or as practical as possible: there is a method to that madness and a symbolism behind your movements. Be it an offering to the gods, the spacing of your living room set, or the arrangement of the herbs in your gardens, there is an unconscious art involved. There is a visual language ripe with meaning, some of which only you can decipher. And perhaps, the more you are conscious of the art of space and the art of offerings, the closer to something greater you might just be.
For Further Reading check out the National Geographic article that inspired this train of thought:
UnBurying the Aztec by Robert Draper from the November 2010 issue.
And to investigate the most prevalent trend in aesthetic spatiality in the modern world, check out the Sacred Mist’s collection of Feng Shui texts!
The Sacred Land.
There is one belief that runs through all aboriginal belief systems across the world and that is that the land is sacred. From the native Americans to the aboriginal tribes of Australia the land is something to respected and held in high regard.
Dare I also include Britain in this august company? I think that at one time I could have, and people in the Pagan world be they Druids like myself or Witches are trying to reclaim this sense of the sacredness of the land.
Some good friends and I visited Avebury on Saturday and we were treated to a guided tour of some of the lesser known sites in the landscape, some of which were over six thousand years old.
What struck me was the relationship the people had with the land and how in tune with it they were. From birth to death they included the land in there daily lives. Our lives are governed by small increments of time, days, hours, and seconds whereas our ancestors were governed by the turning of the seasons.
This is where I believe the wheel of the year plays its part. Although to some extent it is a modern construct I feel its biggest benefit is to slow our thinking down. As we follow this yearly cycle our brains are rewired to think in terms of what the land is doing at any given time.
So I believe that the land is sacred and I would go even further in believing that the land is the body of the Goddess. Her body the hills, her hair the waving grass, her arms and the majestic trees, her feet buried in deep dark soil.
So is the land sacred? Look around you at all the trees bursting in to leaf and the land becoming fertile after the fallow time of winter and I think that you would agree with me when I say yes it most certainly is.
Symbolic Archetypes in the Native American Mural at the Mission Dolores
Tucked away behind the baroque wooden altar of San Francisco’s oldest standing building, the Mission Dolores, is San Francisco’s oldest known mural. Painted in 1791 by the indigenous Native Americans of the area, the Ohlone; it was partially preserved from the ravages of time by the wooden reredos which was placed over it. The mural depicts a series of geometric designs and swirls which are broken by two yellow circles, one at either side of the mural; each containing a pierced heart. The heart on the right is pierced by a single sword. The heart on the left is pierced by three spears or nails in an image inexplicably reminiscent of the classic Three of Swords card from the Sola Busca and Rider Waite tarots, which form the symbolic base of most modern tarot decks. The Three of Swords, one of the few cards within the Rider-Waite deck not to feature a human figure of any kind: is a card of loss, of betrayal, and of injury to the spiritual heart and passion. And though it is unlikely that the designers and artists of the mural had the tarot specifically in mind; the symbol’s presence in a church hints at a subconscious and spiritual meaning which the symbol of the pierced heart embodies and which mankind recognizes at its deepest levels.
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In one of those rare confluences of the natural world, the cusp between December 20th, 2010 and December 21st, 2010 will hold special magickal significance.
Tomorrow, as many of you may well know, is the Winter Solstice. It is the shortest day of the year and its longest night. Traditionally it is a time of celebration, of rebirth; as winter fully begins within the grand circle of life, we honor the transition between the seasons. From time immemorial, man and womankind has commemorated both the astronomical event it represents and the symbolism inherent of the occasion. Life and Death, Spring and Winter: the turning of the clock and the changing of the season are inevitabilities we have charted and attempted to understand. We have built stone clocks and viewing points to witness the transition. Neolithic monuments like Newgrange, Ireland and the infamous Stonehenge; as well as modern viewing points like the Sunstones atop the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley display the actual moment of the Solstice as the sun reaches its lowest yearly high in the sky. The parties and festivals to celebrate the Solstice have traditionally lasted much longer than that single moment in time: anywhere from a night of partying to several weeks of merriment. Often several festivals would take place at the same time. In ancient Rome, the Saturnalia, the Festival of Invictus Sol (itself an accumulation of several festivals to many sun deities), and the more ancient Brumalia were celebrated all together. Today the Germanic Yule and the Celtic Midwinter Grianstadh an Gheimhridh still compete alongside the more mainstream Christmas and Hannukah, when really, they too are celebrating that same winter solstice in disguise. At the time of the world’s greatest darkness, we are all working together to celebrate the light.