On the night of April 26, 2017, those of us who love Glastonbury received some devastating news; one of the two Ancient Oaks of Avalon was on fire. Images and videos popped up in my Facebook feed, and I gasped aloud to see Gog, an enormous and gnarled oak tree which has stood as a guardian over Glastonbury, UK — a site many believe to have been the location of the legendary Island of Avalon — for over 1000 years, engulfed by flames. Glastonbury resident Jill Barker witnessed the conflagration, and posted video and images of the blaze to Facebook.
Gog and Magog are the last trees remaining from what was believed to have been a ceremonial processional of oaks leading towards Glastonbury Tor. Although Gog has been dead since 2008, the two trees remained side by side, and was frequently visited by locals and visitors alike, especially by those for whom the trees held spiritual significance; indeed, they are considered to be Sacred Guardians of Glastonbury by many. And thus, held in reverence, the site was a place of meditation and ceremony, and those who live locally have reported that the trees and the area around them was often filled with offerings of many kinds… and it is this practice which may be responsible for the fire. Information is still being collected and sorted, but an early theory is that an unattended candle may have started the blaze.
I have been visiting, and taking others to visit, sacred sites in the British and Irish landscapes for over 25 years, and in fact, I visited Gog and Magog on my very first journey to Glastonbury in 1991. Spiritual pilgrimages of these kind can be profoundly life-changing events, especially for those who live across an ocean or over a continent away. I have observed over the years that whether locals or visitors from afar, those who are moved to make these kinds of connections with the land want to do so in a way that honors the space and also permits them to keep their own connection to the area, and this takes two forms: the leaving of offerings, and the taking of mementos. Both of these have potential to be problematic, and so the restating of some ground rules around these practices could be helpful… and may even avoid tragedy.
1 – Be Mindful and Seek Consent
In many Pagan traditions, it is customary to gift an offering of some kind to a sacred site or to an outdoor space where you have performed ritual; these offerings are intended to thank the spirits of Place for supporting the work, are gifted as an energy exchange for this support, or shared as a way to pay respect to the spirits and entities who dwell in the area. The form of these gifts, and the reasons for giving them, are probably best determined ahead of time so that you can plan accordingly. Your personal path may inform the types of offerings you may leave, drawing, perhaps, upon what may have been historically gifted and emulating that practice. But, as with any interaction with the realms of spirit, it is important that you make the time to ask for permission — whether to perform a working, or to leave an offering behind. Even if you came prepared to scatter some herbs as a sign of your gratitude, and you find that the area does not want the herbs, it is important to honor its wishes. If you work with a site on a regular basis and build relationships with the spiritual energies which dwell there — be they elementals, nature spirits, Otherfolk, genus loci, or divinities — you can ask about preferred offerings.
2 – Align With Local Traditions
Research a site beforehand in order to learn what you can about its history, as well as any local folklore or folk practice which may be associated with it. Some holy wells in Ireland, for example, have specific practices connected with them, such as circumambulating the well a certain amount of times before taking a drink. Knowing this before visiting and being able to replicate this practice yourself honors the traditions and spirits of Place, as well as permits you to participate in the living culture of the site. There may also be prohibitions in place for the site: perhaps visitors are asked to be silent, or to have their heads covered, or to not touch an object of veneration. It is important that you follow these guidelines, especially if you are a guest in this culture. If the place you wish to visit prohibits visitors, or the working you wish to do is inappropriate because it comes from a different cultural context than that of the site — a context which you may not have claim to — again, respect local tradition.
3 – Evaluate the Impact
This is a key point, both when it comes to leaving offerings and taking materials away from the site. Consider what would happen if everyone who visited an ancient ruin, or a long barrow, or a ceremonial hill left something behind, no matter how well intended? I have seen sacred sites littered with offerings of stones, crystals, coins, dead flowers, plastic trinkets, used incense sticks, and candle wax. Until those who care for these sites, formally or informally, periodically clean up these items, a build up begins to feel less like a collection of offerings and more like a pile of trash… and trash does not elevate nor honor a site.
Similarly, there is an impulse to take something from a sacred site in order to help a spiritual seeker reconnect with the energies of the space. In some cases, this is not only fine, but encouraged and welcomed. The caretakers of both the Red and White Springs in Glastonbury, for example, make their water available to pilgrims 24/7, and no-one is going to miss a small stone taken from the rocky beach at Dinas Dinlle in Wales, nor will gathering fallen apple blossoms from an orchard in Somerset negatively impact the apple harvest. However, trying to chisel a piece off of one of the megaliths from Avebury stone circle, or stripping an oak tree of its mistletoe is incredibly disrespectful and selfish. As is leaving burning candles inside of the trunk of a 1000 year old tree…
4 – Explore Alternatives
There are more gentle ways to share your gratitude with a site, or to bring some of its energy home with you, without causing harm. Some of the best offerings also happen to be ones that our ancient forbears would also have left in a sacred space: a libation of mead or wine is always lovely, as is a piece of indigenous fruit (making sure it is not the kind of thing that would harm any wildlife who might receive the offering on behalf of the area). Honey, milk, and butter are also wonderful food offerings, as are blends of sacred herbs that can be gifted to the area. If you are going to tie a cloutie or prayer ribbon onto the branches of a tree that overhangs a holy well, choose natural fibers that will eventually biodegrade… and don’t tie them too tightly, as they can impact the tree’s growth.
An offering need not always be something that you leave behind. Using sacred intention to clean up the trash of those who have visited the site before you is a powerful gift to give to a space — for what is an offering, truly, other than a gifting of energy? Perhaps you could create a nature mandala as an offering, using items found in and around the landscape itself; leaves, feathers, stones, and flowers can be gathered and used to create consciously constructed art which will hold the energy of your intention without being intrusive in the sacred space. Perhaps you could donate time or money to the organizations which protect and maintain the sites that are sacred to you — what a beautiful and lasting gift! You can also gift a space with your song, or a dance, or an energetic outpouring of love. Again, look to see what the local traditions suggest, or what makes sense to you from the perspective of your path.
There are also ways you can bring some of a site’s energy back with you without depleting or defacing the space. For example, you can bring a quartz crystal into a stone circle to be charged by the space and then place this crystal on your altar when you return home, or you might consider making a living flower essence from an herb that grows at a sacred site instead of picking a bunch of the plant to use as incense in the future. Of course, photographs can later be used as focuses for journeys and meditations, and stone rubbings (where appropriate) can capture inscriptions or details of stone textures. You can also ask the spirits of the area for a symbol that will help you to connect with the space from a distance, so that you can continue to build a relationship with the site. All of these options achieve the same end in different ways, and are ultimately more respectful of Place.
5 – Determine What Is Ultimately Served
Beyond one’s wishes and personal agenda, it is important to recognize that the natural world in general, and sacred sites in particular, do not exist for our pleasure, and are not there for us to exploit. Places that are connected to the mythic landscape have the power to catalyze our spiritual growth, and can help us build bridges between this world and the Otherworld — along with whatever spirits, ancestors, and divinities may dwell therein. Being in right relationship with these sacred places includes being conscious of how we interact with the area, being thoughtful about how we appropriately honor the space, and being mindful about how our presence may or may not impact the space — both for those who dwell in it, as well as for those future pilgrims who will come to the site after us.
Chief Seattle’s wise words apply very well when it comes to interacting with the natural world: “Leave only footprints, take only memories.” How much more important does this ethic become when working with the sacred? How impactful will your working be if it is tainted by debris you may have left behind? How does it honor the spirits of Place if you have contributed to an imbalance in the area, whether by taking what is not yours or leaving behind something destructive … like an untended candle flame.
What are your practices around making offerings? What is your favorite way to remain connected to sacred sites you may have visited? Please post in the comments below.