On the Fairy Road

An exploration of historic and modern Fairy beliefs, and more generally Irish-American and Celtic folk beliefs, from both an academic and experiential perspective.

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Pagan Pilgrimage, Basic Guidelines

The idea of making pilgrimages - effectively of travelling to a place perceived as sacred - has gained popularity among pagans. I often see people in various social media groups talking about making such journeys to places they believe have sacred qualities or associations or talking about trips they have made. The main questions I see people asking centre on how to do this in ways that are most respectful to the sacredness of the location, but often are rooted in a paradigm of interaction with these places that is humancentric and ultimately doesn't really respect the location. It can be hard to shift out of that mindset. 

I am speaking here as someone who has dealt with tourists and been a tourist, and who has seen firsthand the harm that humans do even when they are trying to engage in a sacred way with a place. Often this harm comes from short sightedness and failure to understand the full impact of their actions but sometimes its also from a very self-centred place. I've seen 5,000 year old historic sites treated like someone's own backyard, seen graffiti on standing stones, rubbish tied to rag trees and tossed into cairns, and painted 'So-and-So was Here' stones left at archaeological sites. None of this reflects best practices, and I believe that we, as a wider community, can do better. 

As spiritual seekers and people who might be trying to engage with spirits of place and the Daoine Maithe (by any name) I encourage everyone reading this to give some thought to the long term impact of what we do when we visit a location. I also encourage people to adopt the mentality that, firstly, these places don't belong to humans at all but to the spirits that inhabit them and we are merely guests, and secondly to think of these as places to be preserved for generations to come (rather than our own instant gratification). 

Here are my suggested basic guidelines:

  • Take Nothing; Leave Nothing - Speaking here of tangible things that is. Many of us come from cultures where materialism has been embedded so thoroughly into us that the idea of visiting a place and not taking something physical away from it, or leaving something physical of ourselves behind can be a radical idea. Nonetheless the best practice when visiting sacred sites is to take nothing physical away from that place and leave nothing behind to indicate you have been there. This is especially true of archaeological and historic sites, but really any location you can apply this. Humans have mucked enough of the planet up without needing to leave an even bigger footprint behind, and we cause real harm to sacred sites by treating them like our own vending machines.
  • Be Respectful - Too often people treat sacred places, wherever they may be, as a possession rather than a person. This view assumes it is a thing to be used and enjoyed, not a spirit to be engaged with. The truth, in my opinion, is that everything is enspirited and sacred places especially so. If you approach these places not as things but as people in their own right not only will you have a very different experience of the place but I believe you will also find it easier to engage with that location in a healthy respectful way. 
  • Engage Thoughtfully With Folk Practices - Many tourists who go to sacred sites want to jump into any folk practices they observe at those locations, whether that's rag trees or coins on stones or water at holy wells. I suggest not ever jumping into anything without understanding the entire purpose of it. If there is someone there who can explain the practice, its purpose, and how its properly done then you can of course make a decision to participate or not. But simply seeing things tied to a tree and deciding to spontaneously tie something to the tree yourself isn't a good idea; you don't know why or what's being done there and you might not actually want to participate in that. To use bualan stones as an example there's a purpose to them and they can be turned on way or another to accomplish very specific things; if you don't know which way or for what you shouldn't mess with one just because you see another person doing it. Also participating without thought in some of these folk practices has had harmful consequences in recent years to several locations, resulting in sacred trees dying, for example. 
  • Keep It Organic - Following up that last point, make sure anything you do that might leave a temporary mark, like tying a rag to a rag tree, is done with entirely organic biodegradable material. Although I encourage people to follow point 1 and find other ways to feel connected without leaving anything behind at all, there is value in the older traditions and following them - but they must be done thoughtfully. Tying plastic or synthetic material to a tree is never a good idea. My friend Lora O'Brien suggests using a couple strands of your own hair and I know people who use natural wool yarn tied loosely so it either disintegrates or falls off in time. 
  • Offer Thoughtfully - This is a big one I see on social media, both people asking about offerings at sites and people talking about offerings that are entirely inappropriate. Basically 90% of what's okay to do in your home or yard is not okay at a public site, particularly objects like crystals and food. You will poison wildlife if you leave things like chocolate and even well meaning offerings like bird seed can cause problems with the seeds are non-native or invasive. Milk and alcohol poured out can kill plants. I suggest either pure water or offering money to the maintenance of the site itself, or more generally to a related charity if you really want to make an offering. 
  • Leave It Better Than You Found It - Finally I suggest bringing a bag for rubbish and picking up all the trash you find around. And you will find it. Everywhere. On one trip my friends and I were pulling rubbish out of the inside areas of a cairn; it wasn't even one generally open to the public but it still had lollipop stems and wrappers and assorted flotsam and jetsam in it. Never underestimate the ability of humans to treat the entire world like a rubbish bin, so come prepared clean up.

If you are a pagan making a pilgrimage to a place you feel is sacred then strive to treat it as sacred. Don't just focus on what you can get from the experience, but look at what you can give to the place. See your visit as relational and reciprocal.  

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Morgan has been a practicing witch since the early 90's with a focus on the Fairy Faith and fairylore. She has written over two dozen non-fiction and fiction books on topics related to Irish mythology, witchcraft, fairy folklore, and related subjects. Morgan has also taught workshops on these same topics across the United States and internationally. In her spare time she likes to study the Irish language in both its modern and historic forms.

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