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Sacred Places: Prehistory and popular imagination
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Beyond Reality

At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

Tune in and turn Earth on

Bob Trubshaw

If the Earth is sacred and we are part of a sacred relationship with her, this begs the question as to why some places are seen as sacred. Or, looking at this the other way, why are some places not seen as sacred? The pagan revival tries to work its way out of this dilemma, the ecological Green movement hits the same problem when it considers that everywhere is equally important ecologically, but has to live with the real eventualities where some places are more 'equally important' than others.

It is perhaps with the Protestant Reformation that the West broke with the tradition of the sacredness of places. Until then pilgrimage was a widespread feature of life. If the same places are still visited it is as tourists, more likely to take photographs rather than for spiritual benefit. If we look to the vestiges of Aboriginal culture which have survived the impact of European domination then we see a landscape in which all the Earth - her rocks, solitary trees and other landmarks - is part of the spiritual heritage. To belong to a particular tribal territory is to know the 'song-lines' that link the landmarks like a musical map. What Westerners find more difficult to accept is that the flat, 'boring' bits of the landscape are also part of the song-lines [1].

The intensity of experience that the traditional Aboriginal way of travelling over the earth allows is, without doubt, sacred. But take away the myths and the melodies and what are left? Just a strange assortment of funeral sites, water holes, stone circles, perhaps with a bare vestige of the 'folklore'. Would this, perhaps, be a fair description of our own leys? [2]

A similar scenario also pervades an area of endeavour so close to, but seldom involved with, Earth mysteries: that of landscape art. Here is not the place to discuss at length the work of such artists [3], but simply to raise almost the same question as before: If some aspects of the Earth can be seen as art what distinction are trying to make from the places which, by inference, are not art? Or is it that these artists are trying to call into question the assumptions that underlie our inherently dualistic, either-or mentality? Is the answer to the question simply that we must learn not to create boundaries, to recognise that either/or is an illusion which hides us from the either/both/or insights of Taoism and other mystical philosophies? To put it more succinctly, perhaps the answer is 'The question is not there'.

Various avant garde composers have sought to produce 'environmental music', such as the acoustic 'sculptures' of Max Eastley which use wind or water energies to create and determine the sound [4]. Bob Dickinson, a composer and musician, and fully aware of both Earth mysteries and neo-paganism, performed Castle Rigg Improvisations at that stone circle under the full moon at midnight on August 6th 1990. Walking around the perimeter of the circle at a steady, unchanging pace, as each stone was passed he struck a pair of stones together. This created a cyclical rhythm where the sounds and silences were set by the spacing of the stones.

Activities of this kind blur the distinction between 'art' and 'ritual'. Such music is furthest removed from the synthesised products packaged with pictures of rainbows and crystals that feed the gullible market for 'New Age' hype. Substitute the synthesisers and breathy flutes and the same chord sequences could be heard being brayed by the asinine masses at any church service. Am I alone in thinking that emulation of Victorian hymn-singing is not what the Great Mother wants to hear?

Rather let us go back to the roots of our music - the lullabies and nursery rhymes, the ancient carols and the plaintive wailing of pibroch (the classical Scottish bagpipe music that follows its own musical scale quite removed from the equal-temperament of the keyboard). And do not neglect the ancient melodies of 'Gregorian' chant - these have their origins in the rituals of the pre-christian liturgies, even if the words belong more with the Church [5,6].

When Don Robins' book, The secret language of stone [7] was brought to my attention earlier this year I was intrigued by his proposals for stone being able to retain the memory of structured sounds in an manner that might affect our lower brain activities. The ritual chanting of cathedral choirs, the vigorous stamping of Morris dancers and the rhythms of military drummer boys may all, in their own way, be recognition of this interaction between living mind and 'inanimate' matter [8].

When we visit 'Earth mystery sites' perhaps we should be more willing to sing, chant, drum and otherwise reinforce the sound patterns of that place or 'pilgrimage route/song-line'. But how are we to identify the traditional sounds of a specific place? Am I crossing the Rubicon of sanity if I speculate that the sensitivity of psychics and dowsers is not to an 'Otherworld' consciousness but a heightened ability for the lower brain to respond to the acoustic memories embodied in the surroundings? One of the first lessons that dowsing taught me is that consciousness is not 'skull-centred'; now it seems that my memory, too, might be shared with the world. I will refrain from an exposition of the various religions that hold that 'self' and 'non-self' are simply the two sides of an illusionary coin; no doubt many readers are already familiar with such mystical mind sets.

Mysticism and music, music and dancing, dancing in circles, the whirling dervishes, 'The Giant's Dance' (as Stonehenge was once known), the many folk-lore links between stone circles and dancers or musicians turned to stone - these overlapping experiences cannot be explored as dry words while sitting in warm armchairs. Are we forgetting that only knowledge can be learnt; wisdom must be experienced. On your next trip to ancient sites perhaps some of these feelings can be explored in practice - turn up, tune in and be prepared to sing out!


1: Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines, Cape, 1987
2: This question was answered in my article 'Straight thinking', in Northern Earth Mysteries No.43, 1990. (From 10 Jubilee Street, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge, West Yorks, HX7 5NP)
3: See my article 'Are Earth mysteries art?' in Markstone No.4, Oct 1990. (From Glebe Farm House, Fen Road, Owmby by Spital, Lincoln)
4: Bob Dickinson 'Sounding the landscape', in Markstone No.4.
5: G.B. Chambers, Folksong-plainsong: a study in musical origins, Merlin Press, 1956.
6: These paragraphs are based on my article 'The hills are alive . . . ' in Touchwood, Vol.4 No.14 August 1991
7: Published by Rider, 1988.
8: Yet another article of mine, 'Memories in stone' (Markstone No.5 July 1991) develops the plausibility of this.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.7 May 1991.

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