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Into the Out Of: An overview of Sacred Space

By Barry Walker

Originally Published at Lughnasa 2001

When you read your first book on "doing spells", attend your first open ritual, or drop in on some pub moot of some kind, you will no doubt come into contact with the idea of creating Sacred Space. It is such an obvious thing to do, according to most books on Magick, that few ever question just why we do it; even people who are "old hands" at wand waving take it for granted that you cast a circle or such like before working. If you ask them why, you may get an answer about "protection" or some such. In this article I will examine our drive to create scared space, showing that it seems to be a deep urge within most of us, not just those who claim to be magicians or witches and how the concept of creating sacred space for ritual use goes far beyond 'just' a place to do magick. Ritual and the creation of special areas for important life events is a common theme in mankind. The need to define the sacred out of the mundane reaches into the lives of everyone on the planet. How the concept of sacred space can crop up in some unexpected ways.

Why do we do it?

The First Sacred Spaces

From the dawn of man we seem to have had hard wired into our brains a drive to separate, define and control our environment. For early man the world must have been a terrifying place, full of creatures that saw him as food. Storms, floods, droughts and other natural cycles could in turn provide great bounty or great suffering; death could fall upon a person at any moment without warning. In order to survive these arduous conditions our ancestors seem to have turned to what today would be called magickal thought in order to help them, though I expect it took thousands of years before early man saw what he was doing as "supernatural" in some way. From the early stone age right into modern times tribal peoples and those living at the margins of society instinctively seem to discover ways of being that can be defined as "magickal". Cave paintings in Spain and France show men who seem to be hunting prey animals. It is a theory that these paintings are far more than early stabs at winning the Turner Prize. But rather by depicting a good outcome for a hunt or other 'life event', the real hunters would find ample food 'out there' in the hostile world outside the cave, and would come to no harm during the quest for sustenance etc. It is clear to me that the caves containing the magickal paintings were seen by their creators as sacred spaces; places apart from the normal world of tribal life, an Underworld, a separate reality, where spirits could be contacted with ease by those brave enough to venture into the darkness: alone. I can imagine that only members of the tribe who were apprentice to the shaman-artists or the shaman themselves would be permitted to enter these caves on a day to day basis to view the sacred, magickal, paintings. Other people, hunters, gatherers, elders etc., would be lead into this Other World by the shaman-artists at special times, such as when a person came of age; or when the hunting season was about to begin. The caves where the Underworld where initiations into major life events would take place, viewed by the spirit world.

The drive to separate the mundane from the sacred, to form places for special events in our lives, or in order to try to control what might otherwise be seen as random outcomes, commenced with the dawn of man and the urge has never left us.

Time moved on from the early Stone Age yet mankind kept the need to set aside large parts of his environment for reasons that seem strange to some today. After all, it was bloody hard work building a stone circle, mound or great earth-work. Today, when people attempt to move a rock using "stone-age technology" it almost always turns into a pig's ear of a job. Time and effort was spent that would seem to have been better served in more "productive" ways, such as hunting for food, building shelter etc. Yet all over the world man (and woman, I use the term "man" as a handy if somewhat sexist, shorthand) built and maintained massive structures. In some places re-forming the outlines of mountain ridges so a notch in some high rocky outcrop would form an alignment with a standing stone, which itself may weigh upwards of several tonnes; first having been moved for miles away from the location where is was quarried. These works of early sacred space created out of the very landscape where people lived we so widespread and massive thousands remain with us today. It seems that in our past whole parts of the countryside were being changed into a grand ritual landscape, sacred space on a scale that has never been seen since, why they did this we can never know for sure. But it is clear from the number and scale of the monuments that were left to us by these people that the need to do this formed an important part of their lives. This urge to build a scared landscape was also planet wide, with examples of monuments dating to the dim and distant past being located on every continent.

It is clear to me that no matter why, we were born with this "ritual circuit" in our heads. It has been with us since the time of our first ancestors (and some say even before that.); always with us yet strongest in those who we now call shamans, witches or magicians.

"I cast this Circle at a Time that is no Time; at a Place that is No Place"

Sacred Space and the Magickian

In magick one must leave this world, the work-a-day world in which we all live and, enter into other realms of being, the Mauve Zone, the Astral Plane, the Underworld; it has many names. It does not matter if you perceive these realms as "mere" states of consciousness or real, "out there" beyond Daath places. What the Magickian is aiming for is to define the rules; even if only in a small way over a small area for a short time.

To create this area where the Magickian can order world to conform to their Will, a clear and distinct boundary has to be formed, marking the edge of the "ritual world" with its new rules and new denizens. This needs to be distinct from the work-a-day profane world where only random chance and wyrd seems in control, where it is easy to become a victim to events beyond anyone's power to alter or prevent. This is one of the reasons a Magickian would create sacred space, be this a classic "magick circle" or some other form of ritual area, a Temple or Druidical Grove for instance. By defining the border, by splitting and separating the normal world, the world of man, and the next world, the realm of spirits, Daath, the Mauve Zone, the Magickian can have more control of events by knowing which world he is dealing with, and what kind of inhabitants may approach him. To some extent, he is almost equal to God here, as he can shape all aspects of the world inside the ritual area. This ability to create the sacred out of the base is what much magickal basic training is about. It is a slight of mind trick that the would-be Magickian must master if he is to advance to greater things.

In witchcraft, both traditional craft and modern forms of wicca, also in certain forms of Ritual Magick, there is the idea that during a magickal rite some kind of energy is produced by those taking part. In witchcraft this is most commonly visualised as a Cone of Power, and is named such. Built inside the magick circle, often created by wild and frenzied dancing around the boundary of the sacred space. Drumming, chanting or sexual activity are other ways this energy can be built and maintained. The energy thus formed can be shaped and directed in accordance to the Will of the Coven or Lodge, becoming in effect a thought form or elemental, formed from the element of spirit (or mind). At the end of the rite when the circle is opened, some kind of psychic seal is broken and the power containing the focused Will of its creators shoots out into the world, where the spell takes effect, causing the change Willed by the Coven etc. In this instance sacred space is being used to contain power while its being built and programmed.

As well as containing the power, the sacred enclosure is also called upon to keep out unwanted influences and provide a "psychically sterile" area too. The creation of a separate reality gives the Magickian certain powers to remove or banish elements that may be disruptive to the aims of the ritual being undertaken. The Banishing Ritual (of whatever kind) is often called upon to cleanse the newly formed sacred space before other magickal work can take place. Another important aspect of the making of a ritual area that has definite and well defined boundaries is the protection this affords the Magickian from any hostile entities that may be drawn, moth like, to the place of working. Without the sanctuary of a magick circle some forms of evocation of kakos deamon could prove fatal to those undertaking such an ill-conceived act. Some spirits are considered so dangerous that two enclosures are created, one being the Circle of Art, where the Magickian and any assistants stand, the other being the Triangle of Manifestation where the spirit is compelled to appear and remain. This is would be standard practice for those working with the Goetia. It has to be pointed out though, some modern magickians I know of shun all such ideas as banishing and protection, seeing this as an insult to magick of the place. They prefer to work with the energies and elementals that dwell there rather than being arrogant enough to think their ideas of how a place should be are "better". I do have some sympathy for this when attending "open rituals" at places like Wychbury Hill (a sacred hill and place of great power and importance just outside Birmingham) that are being organised by people who have very little empathy with the genus loci. Some of these 'rites' would be better undertaken in their living rooms not at such an important local Place of Power. Sometimes the very place of working is sacred before you start to tinker with it; you don't have to "do" anything - the very place is magickal and anything you do there being puny in comparison. In cases such as that, "best leave well alone mate" is my advice.

A magick circle or other form of sacred enclosure also creates an area where the Magickian can place himself at the centre of all things. This Omphalos concept is again found in most world myth-scapes and seems to be part of the sacred "hard wiring" of our brains. In Norse myth the World Tree is one example of this, reaching from the deep underworld into the realm of the sky gods. The important symbolism of creating a "centre of all things" during the ritual and placing oneself at this centre should be apparent. By doing this any tiny effort by the Magickian will be magnified many times as the butterfly effect ripples outwards before reaching the "hub", the "real world" where the change will manifest itself. In traditional witchcraft there is a certain rite of midwinter that contains the line, "I stand at the hub: Turn the wheel of the year".

While visiting and performing rituals at the Rollright Stones on the Warwickshire/Oxfordshire border (border lands.) I have received the impression that the builders of that circle had, as one reason for its creation, the marking out in the 'real world' an Omphalos of some kind. There is a feeling there on certain nights of being, in some strange way, at the centre of many worlds. Where if one was not careful, it would be easy to slip out of this one and be lost: forever. I have been told by dowsers of that weird landscape energy known as "ley lines" that the Rollright circle is the focus or crossing point of many of the lines in the area. This would make the Rollright Stones the hub of some vast wheel on the landscape of South Warwickshire. As an amusing aside, in the books the, "Green Stone" and "The Eye of Fire" by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman, the "baddies" belong to a black occult order called "The Wheel", and hold Dark Rites at this circle. I wonder if this is one of those spooky coincidences or if the authors know more than they are telling in their books?

The last example of the magickal use of sacred space I'll examine is the idea of what in Chaos Magick, have become known as an "Temporary Autonomous Zones" or TAZ. The concept behind a TAZ is an area, in this case a form of sacred space, where as well as the spiritual and physical rules of the normal world, the rules of how we can act are also changed in accordance to Will, freeing the people in the TAZ to respond in ways that if done in every day life may be seen as very undesirable indeed. In the TAZ sacred space, normal rules being removed for a while means sexual ritual can be undertaken without the shadow of Christian guilt spoiling what otherwise might be a powerful rite. This is not to give the impression that this is taken as an excuse for some sort of Satanic Swingers Club; though as an aside, I'm sure that someone could have a lot of fun creating such a thing :) Any acts that take place inside a TAZ are considered sacred as they are being performed inside an area that has been designated as sacred space. This freedom can also be the key to overshadowing or invocation based ritual where one person acts as a "channel" for an entity of some kind, be this a God-form or elemental spirit. Without the freedom afforded by a well formed TAZ, people can sometimes find the worry of making a total tit of themselves by saying the "wrong" things during such rituals can give them the fear so much that they find it almost impossible to get into deep possession trance.

A temporary autonomous zone is an idea that is spreading from being a concept used by magickians into mundane world where a number of experimental drama groups use what amounts to a TAZ in their improvised plays. The idea of creating sacred space for non magickal use may seem a bit strange, but we all in fact do this, many without even noticing.

The Sacred of the Normal

As I said at the start of this item the drive to create scared space is a deep seated, almost hard wired urge that has been with mankind since we first emerged from the primal ooze of creation. While the greatest number of knowing users of created sacred areas are indeed members of the magickal community, everyone in fact does this at one time or another, even though they may not be thinking in such terms at the time. Each Saturday in winter a fair number of people head off into the cold to pay a hefty chunk of cash to watch sport in stadium that the supporters consider more sacred than almost anything else in their lives, and woe betides anyone who may wish to do things to "their" sacred ground. More of that later.

Non ritual, ritual in this case being taken to mean "magickal use of a special area set aside for some activity", can be thought of as a form of sacred space creating. If that definition is accepted it can be seen that many of our normal life activities can be thought of in such a way. When we are planning a party for some reason a room or even a whole house can be re-arranged in order to create a "party atmosphere": what is that if not the creation of what in effect is the same as a Temple being set up by a Magickian for a ritual?

What about dressing a tree or a whole house for Christmas? This activity goes on in almost every household in Britain and creates a form of TAZ, one in which people try to be nice to each other, if only for a day or so! When a stage is set for a play or the location of a movie, what is been made here is an area set apart from the normal world where the rules will be changed for a while, virtually the same definition of what a magickal circle (sacred space) does. Even simple acts such as spring cleaning share many of the features of magickal sacred or ritual space; in this case the area chosen is being "banished" of unwanted elements, be those dirt and dust in house cleaning or some nasty critter from the Nite Side in magick.

Sport seems to be well disposed towards ideas of sacred space for some strange reason, "The Sacred Turf" of Wembley Stadium being one of the best known. Look at the passion that was aroused when the plan for the new one seemed to be heading towards the idea of the new stadium being located outside the Wembley site and re-located at the NEC outside Birmingham. It is almost as though the idea of not having the National Stadium based at Wembley in London was sacrilege. Government Ministers lost their jobs over this one. It was a Big Issue.

In this short look at sacred space we have seen how ideas about separating off parts of the world into areas that are considered so different they become places where strange and wonderful things can happen seems to have always been a part of us. We have looked at some of the paradigms a Magickian would use when working with sacred space; and we have seen how ritual and creation of "special environments" is so deep seated that virtually everyone does it in one form or another. Just what makes something sacred, how do we define it? Well, I'll leave that for another time.

Further Reading

  • Sacred Britain - Martin Palmer & Nigel Palmer; Piatkus
  • The Green Stone, The Eye of Fire - Martin Keatman & Graham Phillips; Granada
  • Prime Chaos - Phil Hine; New Falcon Publications
  • NightSide of Eden , Kenneth Grant; Skoob Books Publishing.
  • And try to visit the Rollright Stones.