Personal Thoughts on Sacred Landscape, Character and ‘Seeing As’
Article ID: 15138
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: August 12th. 2012
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Unlike with Druids, places such as Stonehenge, Carnac, Avebury and Glastonbury do not have any particular significance to Initiatory Craft, though this is not to say that they don’t have significance to individual Witches. That being said, the landscape and the character of the countryside about us, not to mention the fauna and flora of a place, can have spiritual significance to Witches as it can for other spiritual paths. The landscape can receive the projection of mythology and meaning in terms of ley lines, ghost tracks, corpse ways, etc. informing stories and legend that are idiosyncratic to the place. This is because human beings have evolved the ability not just to see and experience, but as Ludwig Wittgenstein (as cited in Beaney, 2007) said, they ‘see or experience as’. Wittgenstein used his famous drawing of the duck/rabbit to illustrate this point. You can see the drawing as either a duck or as a rabbit.
It is important to remember that the drawing does not change; you just see it as something different. Being able to see the picture as a drawing of something at all, as far as we know, is something only human beings can do.
So we don’t just see landscape or experience it, but rather we ‘see it as’ and ‘experience it as’, influenced by our beliefs and stances. To illustrate my point a person does not just see a field of wheat; it depends on their subjective phenomenal reality. If they are a farmer they see it as a source of income or as a business investment, if they are an artist they see it as having potential for a beautiful picture, if they are a historian they see it as the site of archaeological significance and if they are an environmentalist they see it as a good habitat for field mice. Likewise a Witch or other occultist may see it as having character, a character that may be partially informed by legends and folklore about the place.
As human beings we see and experience objects in the world as having character and meaning. I am reminded of the psychology experiment where participants were asked to watch a screen on which dots randomly moved around. When asked by the researcher what they saw the participants described it in terms of characters in a story with one dot, liking, bullying, fancying and chasing the others. They had assigned the dots motives, beliefs and thus characters. This is what the philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett (as cited in Frankish 2007) calls the Intentional Stance. Evolution has programmed us to assign beliefs, motives and agency to things in order to predict what they will do. So in order to predict how a person or an animal will behave in a given situation we assign them the beliefs that they should have in order to achieve their goals and work from there. It does not always work but it works enough of the time for it to be a useful strategy. How many of us swear at our computers or at our cars when they go wrong? We are assigning them characters. Natural selection has programmed us with this ability to infer agency and beliefs because in our distant past it increased our survival fitness. When we were wandering the plains of Africa and we saw a branch shake, it would be to our advantage (and the advantage of our genes) to infer a hidden agency, i.e. a predator and beat a hasty retreat. It is better to run from nine leopards that are not there then to not run from one that its.
Humans also have the ability to hold representations of another person’s beliefs, motives and character in our minds. The cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber calls this meta-representation. So Shirley can know that Kevin fancies her and can communicate to put him off because she can hold aspects of his character in her mind and make inferences from them.
We are meaning making and character assigning creatures. We don’t just experience the world and people around us, we ‘experience it as’ and this is just as true for places. We automatically assign places with meaning and with character, and it is with this character with which we can form a relationship.
In a previous article, I discussed my personal view of spirituality. To my mind it is a relationship that is experienced as having great value to the person who participates in it. It is so valuable that it can enable a person endure through times of crisis and help to bring meaning to such events. Importantly spiritual relationships are experienced as numinous; we relate to something other and greater than ourselves that inspires within us fascination, wonder, awe and even dread. I think it is possible to have this kind of spiritual relationship with a landscape or place; given meaning through either through personal involvement or through culture as with Stonehenge or Avebury. Such relationships are common in traditional cultures where the landscape is part of the mythology. You only need to think of Native Americans and their connection the sacred landscape as an example.
It is important to remember that this ‘experiencing as’ is a subjective experience that varies from person to person. It is their own meaning, their assigning of character (even if inspired by cultural forces such as legend and folklore) that gives the relationship value. It can also be inspired by the physical properties of the place, such as soaring and majestic mountains, the power of the sea and the beauty of the green wood.
However, there is no intrinsic sacredness that makes the place so significant. By this I mean that there is no need to reify ley lines, genius loci, spiritual energies, wights or whatever. They can still have meaning and value providing we remember Ryle and the category mistake and not mistake mythos for logos. There is nothing extra, no extra objects in the world but rather these and similar terms ‘make sense of’ the feelings these places inspire. The sacredness of a site is about the subjective meaning and spiritual relationship that a particular person has with a place so another person may feel completely different and have a different experience. The American pioneers experienced the landscape in a very different way to the aboriginal people they displaced. Likewise animals that don’t assign meaning may experience it just as environment. As far as we know birds fly directly over Stonehenge without picking up a ‘spiritual energy’ and which makes them go weak at the knees.
Certainly some buildings or woodlands have a ‘negative feel’ about them. This is down to the assigning of character and meaning to a place often based on its folklore and or physical properties. The wood may be dark and dingy with a sinister local reputation. The Jewish museum in Berlin was deliberately designed to create an atmosphere that makes its visitors feel very uneasy. This is done by virtue of its architecture with off kilter windows, weird sloping floors and walls and stark colour schemes. Tom Dyskhoff in a recent TV programme on architecture, called the Secret Life of Buildings, demonstrated how space can have an impact on how people feel. After staying two weeks in his room where the windows were reduced to average size of modern housing he found himself becoming depressed. This may also account for some of sick building syndrome; the rest may be caused by low level noise and electro-magnetic fields.
It is the subjective character of a place that is it genius loci, the spirit of the place. We experience places as having character and personify them. Therefore the power of place is in meaning and is subjective, cultural and personal.
Beaney, M., (2007) , Imagination and Creativity, Open University
Boyer, P., (2002) , Religion Explained, Basic Books
Dukes, R, (2005) , Uncle Ramsey’s Little Book of Demons, Aeon Books
Dyskhoff, K, (2010) The Secret Life of Buildings, Channel 4
Frankish, K, (2007) , Conciousness, The Open University
Location: Stowmarket, England
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Bio: Rhys and his wife Martita run a training course for those interested in initiatory Craft. He is a member of a rural coven in the North of Suffolk and works as a lecturer.
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