ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Pagan places

Do elves have rights? Conflicting models of locality and the supernatural in the North Atlantic

Jeremy Harte, Bourne Hall Museum

In August 2002, the fairy thorn of Latoon in Co. Clare, Ireland, was mutilated with a chainsaw. This revenge attack followed a preservation campaign which had rerouted a multi-million euro road development. Planning, heritage, superstition, the native and the national: there is a lot of conflict over locality in Latoon, and the fairies are in the thick of it.

Relationships between people and spirits in the British Isles and Scandinavia were traditionally mediated through the identification of ‘fairy places’ - trees, hills, wells and stones. Until recently, these beliefs were classed as relics of prehistoric lore, or as the natural tendency of a naïve folk to see animistic powers in wild places. But the schema of fairy tree vs. road development, played out again and again at different sites in Ireland and elsewhere, needs more sophisticated interpretation. Globalisation and the requirements of capitalism and the state are clearly reviving, or even creating, the traditions which oppose them. It is not a long step from the fairies of Latoon to the trolls and eco-pixies who wrecked JCBs in road protests at the Newbury bypass. The fairy as a site of anarchic resistance has a long pedigree in guising and other carnivalesque rituals.

Who constructs these fairy landscapes, and how? Mere survivalism is not enough to explain the presence of fairy hills and other special places. This would not account for their spread into the North Atlantic colonies - first Iceland, and then Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Taboos on the clearance of fairy land were not just picturesque superstitions. In areas with a subsistence economy, they acted as a direct tax on the food supply. The Gentry - like the human gentry whom they resembled - appropriated the surplus of peasant labour, and kept resistance at bay with carefully planned acts of random violence.

Fairies, like road protestors, construct themselves or are constructed through binary oppositions. ‘They’ are shaggy, violent, pagan (or Pagan) and wild; ‘we’ are decent civilised house-dwellers. But the fairy/ human opposition is not confined to this. As the social networks of indigenous communities are enlarged, and come under strain, so cultures adopt the fairy as an icon. The musical, dancing, feuding sí and the tricksy leprechaun are adopted as honorary Irishmen; the marginal, archaic huldrefolk become Icelanders. And other sub-cultures who wish to break free of this ethnicity will resist the fairies - with a chainsaw, if necessary.

Walking the past: the emergence of a sacred place

Helen Cornish, Goldsmiths College

Recent debates concerning methodology and theoretical perspectives suppose that place no longer occupies the foundational role it once did in anthropological research. This, it has been argued, becomes apparent through multi-sited fieldwork which transcends geographical locations. However, while communities may be increasingly transnational and spatially indeterminate, they are frequently associated with places which acquire a fetishistic quality, either as sites of origin or sacred locations, which serve to symbolise a sense of ‘home’ which is shared and unchanging.

Drawing on my multi-sited doctoral fieldwork, I will present a case-study of pagan pilgrimages in North Cornwall. What interests me is how this new and expanding religious practice is constructing legitimacy, identities and traditions; in particular developing a set of responses to place which serve to create and reinforce a sense of community among a highly disparate group of people. While there is no established hierarchy or recognised leadership among pagans, there is however, a developing sense of a shared past, through which authoritative discourses emerge. These seem to work especially effectively when associated with place.

My own research has engaged with the wider, non-geographically located pagan community who create a sense of shared practice and belonging through diverse channels of communication (the Internet, publications, books) as well as through geographical events such as conferences and seasonal festivals. These work to develop an imagined community along the lines proposed by Benedict Anderson (1983). However, I wish to argue that Anderson’s idea of an imagined community underplays the importance of real, experiential places in the expression of community.

Part of my fieldwork has focused on the Museum of Witchcraft in North Cornwall, founded in 1951 and located in Boscastle for reasons of convenience and general appropriateness, rather than because Boscastle was historically a significant centre for earlier generations of pagans. I shall show how pagan visitors have developed pilgrimage practices associated both with the Museum and sites in the surrounding countryside, which have imbued this place with historical depth and significance. In particular, it is the experience of walking through these places which produces for pagan visitors a powerful sense of belonging. The ‘spirit of place’ is emphasised through an understanding of the landscape as literally alive and populated by the non-human entities who occupy the Otherworld, and who become more accessible through sacred places. I see this case-study as exemplary of the way sacred places can develop for an emerging community of diverse people.

Siting sacred heritage: contestations of place and field in Pagan interpretations of sacred sites

Jenny Blain, Sheffield Hallam University & Robert J. Wallis, Richmond University

Within the many voices of today's Britain are those evoking an insistent past. Prehistory is defined in heritage texts, but adapted in practices of 'Pagans' and 'travellers' today, who draw on a 'pagan' past for guidance and justification, and produce their own narratives of site, landscape, and population. Heritage is contested, with disputes over access, practices, and knowledges, indicated in negotiations over Stonehenge and elsewhere: whose knowledge, for whom, how attained? Within 'alternative' discourses, 'scientific' knowledges may be challenged, often contextualised as abstracted and heartless or assumed to exist within a politics of deceit. Within 'scientific' accounts, 'alternative' knowledges are ignored consistently. Conventional heritage presentations of landscapes or monuments focus on providing 'testable' information to 'visitors', with 'ritual use' a catch-all term which, though problematised by some archaeologists, is routinely presented for consumption by a naïve, visiting, public.

Specific landscapes of megaliths, circles, henges and chambered tombs, however, have become focal points for constitution and performance of Pagan identities, whether on larger or national (even international) scales, as at Stonehenge or Avebury, or local ones as at the small stone circles of the Peak District. Pagans frequenting ‘sacred sites’ often reject description as ‘visitors’, rather ‘coming home’ to landscapes within which they constitute relationships with deities, ancestors or spirits in the land.

Official or popular heritage interpretations in Britain seemingly present changing 'truths' linked with a politicised ideal of science as evidence abstracted from experience. Alternative and Pagan discourses draw on some heritage understandings, challenge others. ‘Authenticity’ forms a politicised backdrop for spiritual performance, and ‘indigenous’ understandings elsewhere become appropriated or paralleled by ‘new-indigenous’ voices in Britain.

The Sacred Sites project ( engages Pagan and heritage theorisings and practices, through ethnographic fieldwork and documentary analysis. Fieldwork follows discourse, people and conflict from the large, obviously-contested sites of Stonehenge or Avebury, to the archaeology All-Party Parliamentary Action Group, e-lists of the Stonehenge Peace Process, small-scale rituals and litter clean-ups, and protests at Stanton Moor. In presenting here our understandings of Pagan approaches to sacred sites and importance of sites for emerging Pagan identities, we explore also some obligations of representation that accrue to those researching the contested terrain of megaliths, mythscapes, identities, appropriations, and accumulations of theorised knowledges of 'the past'; how these may connect with our own involvements with ‘heritage’, sites and Pagan identities; and challenges of engaging with a ‘field’ located by place and practice, spirituality and political discourse.