"Every religion must have its holy places, affording a means of communication between man, gods, spirits, and forces of nature." - Hilda Ellis Davidson
I think that one of the most interesting concepts to contemplate is sacred space. In our post-modern paganism there is a tendency to view all space, all nature, as sacred and yet it has been said - and rightly so - that to make all space sacred is to lose any sense of genuine sacredness. Without the profane there can be no appreciation of the sacred, just as without the darkness the light has no value. I think that as neo-pagans, whether we are reconstructionists or or not, it is essential to have an understanding and a feel for the sacred. So if the popular view is too all-encompassing, how do we gain an understanding of sacred space? As usual I look at how our ancestors defined and understood it to help me grasp a modern meaning for the concept.
At its most basic, sacred space is a special area or space that is set aside for worship or a natural place that provides a special connection to Powers beyond ourselves. Sacred space may be created or exist temporarily or permanently (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). Additionally the formation of sacred space may be based in an acknowledgement of a place's inherent sacredness, such as we see in the Celtic practice of worshiping in groves of trees or by sacred wells, or may be an entirely human construct where a specific area is declared sacred or made sacred through ritual actions. Both the Norse and the Celts seem to have originally sought out natural sacred spaces for worship and to leave offerings, and the places seen as sacred in this way were the same for both cultures: clearings in groves of trees, hill tops, and near bodies of water (Ellis Davidson, 1988). The Norse continued to favor the use of open sacred spaces for worship until the Christian period, although there are examples of man-made temple structures as well, although these are usually smaller and associated with family use (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). Historically we see the intentional creation of places of worship which had their own sacredness in both cultures. In Norse cultures we see the creation of fridr-gardr, or peace areas, which were used for worship and also for law courts (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). In the Celtic areas we find rectangular and square earthworks, called veirechschanzen, which are believed to have been temple sites from around the first century BCE, and contain examples of offering pits (Ross, 1970).
Both Celtic and Norse cultures acknowledged natural sacred spaces, places that by their very nature had a sacred quality; this included special groves of trees, hilltops, lakes where offerings were given to the waters, swamps, and certain meadows or fields (Ross, 1970; Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). These places were sacred because of an inherent quality recognized by worshipers, such as the presence of specific trees or healing waters, or else were seen as sacred due to omens which occurred to indicate this sacredness or because of specific uses, such as leaving offerings at the sites, which sanctified them. These natural sacred sites might belong to specific Gods or spirits or might be general places of worship (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.).
Constructed sacred spaces might be simple or elaborate. These places were called hofs in the Norse and could be anything from a simple one room wooden building or a large multi-roomed temple (Viking Answer Lady, n.d.). The Irish word for a sacred space was nemed or fidnemed, terms which were likely used for both the natural sacred places as well as the human built temples (Ross, 1970). Both cultures seemed to have used the man-made structures to honor their Gods with offerings and for community celebrations. The Celtic examples include deep pits which contain the remains of ritual offerings and sacrifices. Although neither culture initially seemed to use physical representations of Gods later temple sites may have included such images, and the Celtic temples are believed to have included a central pole or pillar which may have symbolized a sacred tree.
In the end I believe that modern sacred space is really no different from ancient sacred space; it is what we create and what we find and acknowledge in nature. What makes space sacred is sacred use and, in the natural world, the organic focusing of sacred energy by the landscape and particular features. Anyone can create a sacred space through ritual use, and repeated use can make a temporary sacred space more permanent; this can also be done intentionally through focus and intent. The greatest challenge for us today may be learning to recognize the natural sacred places on our own and properly honoring them. So many of us live divorced from the natural world that it is easy to see why we might begin to feel that all the natural world is sacred, yet if we make the effort to get out and connect with our environment we will begin to see that while we can nurture connection with the sacred anywhere there are special places that are, in and of themselves, sacred. These places deserve to be found and recognized, and honoring them through ritual use, even something as simple as meditation, not only teaches us to appreciate the sacred but honors the spirit of that place in way that is mutually beneficial. Whether we are creating a sacred space or appreciating one we have recognized, we will doubtless find that an appreciation of sacred space deepens our own spirituality.
Ellis Davidson, H., (1988). Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe
Viking Answer Lady (n.d.) Sacred Space in Viking Law and Religion. Retrieved from http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/sacspace.shtml
Ross, A., (1970). Pagan Celts