There’s a big emphasis in modern American paganism on sacred sites and visiting them if possible. People who are lucky enough to have these opportunities share their experiences afterwards which I think is a good thing and allows those who can’t travel to vicariously experience those places as well. But when I read accounts of travel to sacred sites one thing I don’t often see mentioned is what happens when you go somewhere and find yourself unwelcomed by the spirits and Otherworldly beings there. So today I thought that would be a good topic to discuss.
When we travel to sacred sites there’s often a lot of planning involved and with that planning comes expectation. It’s only natural of course that if you are putting a lot of time and potentially money into arranging a trip to visit a place that you consider deeply sacred that you will anticipate a deeply moving experience there. What people seem to forget is that places belong to more than humans – if they belong to humans at all – and that we cannot control or predict what non-human beings will think about any individual human going into a place.
Just because that site is sacred to a deity you feel close to doesn’t mean you are guaranteed a good experience there, or even any experience at all. Just because you have connected to a place at a distance through stories or pictures doesn’t mean that when you are actually there you will feel the same way. Having high expectations for any place can ruin your time there.
My best advice, honestly, is to try to have no expectations going into a sacred site visit.
The reality of visiting sacred sites is that places have their own spiritual ecologies and how well or poorly we connect to those is hard to predict. It isn’t really on an individual human, anymore than it is when you start a new job or new school or go anywhere you haven’t been before and meet new people. Sometimes you just aren’t going to mesh with the people you meet and the same is true for the spirits of places and Otherworldly spirits we encounter at different locations.
Even deities aren’t hanging around waiting for us to show an interest in them and some of them may really have no interest in us at all. We also have to remember that experiences at different sacred sites will always be personal and one person may feel a deep and profound connection to a place someone else feels nothing.
It’s also possible to go somewhere, even somewhere you have a lot of personal interest in, and feel unwelcome there. That feeling might be localized to one area or it may encompass the entire location; it might be a vague feeling of discomfort or it may be a sharp feeling of hostility. Humans have no inherent right to be welcomed anywhere and sometimes spirits just don’t gel with an individual.
That Time I Didn’t Sit In the Hag’s Chair
So, a personal story.
When I went to Ireland in 2016 I went up to visit Cairn T on Sliabh na Caillighe [Loughcrew] which features the Hag’s Chair, a stone at the back of the cairn that is shaped something like a large chair. It’s said that if you sit on the chair you can make a wish and the Cailleach will grant it for you. I walked around to the Chair with my friend Vyviane who told me about the folklore. It sounded intriguing and as I’d always liked the lore of the Cailleach and had in the past prayed to her at home during storms I decided to climb onto the stone.
I put my hand on the flat surface.
And I got a very strong sense that it wasn’t for me to sit there. It’s hard to describe in words but it was just a feeling like ‘no this isn’t for you to do’. So I didn’t. I respected that feeling and the energy of the place. I went wandering around the site and found another small cairn, open to the sky, that absolutely spoke to my soul and I spent my time there instead.
That Time I Didn’t Go Near Gryla’s Cave
Another personal story.
I was in Iceland in September 2018 and as part of the trip the group I was with went to Dimmuborgir, said to be the home of the Jolasveinarnir [Yule Lads] and their mother Gryla. I was very excited about visiting this location which is geologically gorgeous and rich in folklore. When we got off the coach even the scenery from the parking lot was breathtaking and I was anxious to get out and connect to the site.
Turns out I don’t mesh well with the energy of Gryla. As much as I wanted to explore the area and as eager as I was to see Gryla’s cave it was very clear almost immediately that I was not welcome there. The sun was high and the day was clear and bright but when I tried to walk the foot paths deeper into the park things seemed to get dark around me and I could physically feel the tension, like walking into a room full of people who don’t like you or want you there.
So I didn’t push. It wasn’t my place, and I didn’t want to be rude. I skirted the edges and enjoyed what I could until the group was done.
Some Contrast – Feeling Too Welcome
It can also happen that you visit a place and rather than feeling unwelcome and put off from a site you find that the location likes you maybe a little bit too much. Not in a good way, like you want to move in and become some sort of steward to the location, but in a bad way, like the place wants to consume you. There’s reasons that places get a reputation for taking people, very literally, and it’s always good to keep that in mind as well and to be prepared with some warding and defensive magic to get yourself out if you find that the spirits want you to stay.
I always carry a bit of salt with me in my bag, and it’s helpful to carry a small bit of iron if you can; an old folk method of getting out of such situations involves turning your coat or socks outside-in.
Ultimately we can’t force connections to places. We either feel welcome by the spirits there or we don’t and that’s alright. We aren’t going to feel welcomed everywhere we go and that’s alright too. When we visit sacred sites, whether those places are an hour’s drive away from home or plane ride across an ocean, we have to remember that we are guests in those places. It is up to the spirits there to decide whether they want to welcome us, ignore us, or whether they don’t want us there – and if they don’t want us there we should respect that, even if that means leaving.
Yes you can do things to be a better guest: you can clean up rubbish you find, you can make safe offerings like water poured out or money for upkeep of the site, you can do no harm to the place. But we are not entitled to a welcome from these places or their spirits, nor are we owed entrance just because we are pagans or animists or anything else of the like. No matter how far we’ve come, no matter how long we planned, no matter how much money we spent, sometimes it just isn’t going to feel right, sometimes the spirits aren’t going to like us being there, and we have to accept that.
We must never forget that our spirituality doesn’t guarantee anything from the Otherworld or land spirits here and that when we journey to visit sacred sites we are guests, effectively, in their home. We should strive to be good guests and if that means politely leaving because we aren’t wanted there, that’s okay. It’s not a failure to admit that you just don’t get on with spirits in a certain place, that’s just life.