Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Relationship of Religion and Landscape

There is a debate among landscape archeologists about the relationship between nature and culture. Is it nature that influences culture, or is it the opposite and does culture influence nature? One of the theories is that the two can’t exist without the other and that they are equally important in a society. More specifically we can look at how religion factors into nature. In the same way as culture, it is thought that nature and religion in many cultures rely on each other.

There are many societies where their religious practices are very much influenced by the landscape around them, and the landscape also is influenced by the religion. In this paper I will examine the religious practices of a handful of societies including the Celtic pagans in Ireland and Scotland, and the Hoodoo practices of the slaves in North America. Examining these religious practices will help us answer questions such as: What is the relationship of space within the landscape and the religion? How does nature factor into the religion and vice versa? What does the idea of space have to do with the religious practices?

To find out how the landscape influence religion, and how religion influences the landscape we have to look at a bunch of different sources to gather the data to make these assumptions. Most of the information is going be found by using the post-processual approach of archeology, which means that it would be heavily reliant of cultural texts. Mythological and ethnographic texts will be the most helpful in gathering information, as well as pictorial representations left at the sites. Artifacts and archeological features with the landscape will also be helpful in figuring out more about the relationship, especially when it comes to spatial distribution within the landscape and its significance.

Religion is an aspect of a culture that every society has in its own way. It might not be the organized religion that we think such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other religions of that nature, but they all have their religious practices that they participate in either as a group or the individual. Many religions have certain rituals that they do daily and have everything to do with the environment around them.

In Celtic Paganism, or modern day Wicca as we know it as, the landscape greatly influences the rituals that are practiced. In the same sense, the religious practices influence their landscape and how they use the landscape within the society. The most obvious of their practices is their worshipping of their different gods, and praying to them using the different elements. Their gods are even related to the different elements and other parts of the landscape. For example there is the goddess Anu who is the “mother earth” goddess or the goddess of plenty, the god Bel who is the sun and fire god, the goddess Flidais who is the goddess of the forests, woodlands and wild beasts, the god Llyr who is the god of the sea and water, and many other gods and goddesses with corresponding elements of the landscape (Conway 103 – 110).

Another part of Celtic paganism that reflects the landscape is their concept of the “Four Powers” which are the four elements that have both a symbolic color and symbolic Gaelic name. The element air corresponds to the word Noscere which means to know and is associated with the color grey, water corresponds with Audere which means to dare and is associated with the color blue, fire corresponds with Velle which means to will and is associated with red, and earth corresponds with Tacere which means to be silent and the associated color is brown. Then there is also a fifth power, the spirit which is Ire meaning to progress, and is associated with the color purple. All these colors and elements are seen in most spell work that was done back when Celtic paganism flourished in Western Europe and even in modern times with the neo-pagans and Wiccans. Usually how it works is a pentagram (A five pointed star) is drawn out onto the altar and five candles, the colors of the five different elements, are placed on each point of the star. Then different spells can be cast, using the elements as the basis for the spells (Conway 17 – 20).

In addition to the actual elements, other parts of the landscape are used in spell work and rituals. The Celtic-Pagans believed that everything in nature was infused with power and spiritual energy, hence why they worshipped the elements and the different parts of the landscape. So it would make sense that the pagans would use these spiritually infused pieces of nature in their practices, such as various herbs and plants. In paganism certain herbs, fruits, vegetables and other plants had certain values when used in spell work and rituals. For example if one were casting a protection spell bay, pine, heather, pepper, rosemary, thistle and juniper would be ingredients one would use since they all hold protection qualities (Conway 181).

In addition to all the evidence that we have for landscape influencing the religious practices, we also have evidence for religious practices influencing the landscape. To find information of this influence we then look to the archeological record to get our data sources. Probably the biggest argument for religion influencing the landscape is the example of Stonehenge in English county of Wiltshire. This site was originally thought to be the site of Ancient Druid (Celtic high-priests) practices, since the large stone structures were erected in a circle and even lined up with the sun and moon at the respected equinoxes and solstices. This then became a pilgrimage place for ne-pagans and Wiccans starting in the 20th century. Recent archeological evidence shows however that this site was a burial site and was much larger and more complex then archeologists previously thought (Heath 1 -8).

Figure 1: Layout of Stonehenge site

Figure 1 above, shows the layout of the entire site of Stonehenge. This layout shows an example of how the landscape has been influenced by the culture. This site was part of a ritual landscape and was joined to Durrington Walls by their corresponding avenues and the

River Avon as seen in the figure. The site is supposed to symbolize a journey from the living to the read with the area around walls being the place of the living, and the actual henge was a domain of the dead. This journey was a celebration of past ancestors and the recently deceased, and was cemented into the landscape (Bewley et. al 640).

Also within the landscape are various barrows or burial mounds that are placed all around the site. This shows that not only was the site symbolically a journey from life to death, but literally also, since people were actually buried within the site. The biggest breakthrough in discovering these features in the site was the Lidar survey at the site. The Lidar survey was an aerial survey of the entire site that showed all the features that a regular land survey wouldn’t be able to see.

The figure 2 below shows the satellite image of the site taken during the Lidar survey, which had influenced many of the sketches and maps that are made of Stonehenge today. It is then easy to see that these feature in the landscape, that are influenced by the religion are less noticeable on the ground, but when pulled back on the entire landscape it tells a story, the story of the journey from life to death.

stonehenge satelite.jpg

Figure 2: Viewshed from 1.5 meters above the centre of Stonehenge (S), unobscured by trees and buildings and the stones of the monument itself, with site detail from the Wiltshire County Sites and Monuments Record. Green areas are not visible from Stonehenge. Barrow cemeteries: Curcus (C), King Barrow Ridge (K), and Normanton (N); and Monarch of Plain (M) and Coneybury King (B) barrows (Bewley et. al. 643).

Also what is important to note about the site of Stonehenge, particularly the henge itself, is its role in the alignment of the cosmos. The henge lines up perfectly with the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset (also known as the summer and winter solstices). This furthers the idea that Clive Ruggles a professor of archeoastronomy at University of Leicester came up with when he said: “Every human culture has a sky, and strives to interpret what people perceive there. The understanding they develop forms a vital part of their knowledge concerning the cosmos and their place within it” (Ruggles 14).

This statement is key in understanding the cultural landscape. Ruggles had it right, humans are always striving to find their place within the cosmos, and the Celtic pagans way of dealing with it, is to try to control it as much as possible within their rituals, and within the landscape itself. Thus the religion of Celtic Paganism becomes the perfect model to show how the landscape/nature influences culture, and how culture influences the landscape.

To go along with the whole idea of space/cosmos and finding ones place within that space the example of Hoodoo practices fit into that perfectly. Finding out about this relationship between landscape and culture is similar to the information used in the example of the pagans. A lot of folkloric evidence from slave autobiographies was used as was mythology of the rituals and a lot of archeological evidence from the archeological record from the sites.

Hoodoo is a religion that is very concerned with space and what a person’s role is in that space just like what the pagans were concerned with also. Most of the rituals of hoodoo have to do with containing that space and being able to control it through use of part of the landscape or nature. One way that they contain that space is the “mojo bag.” The mojo bag contains many different parts of different elements of the landscape and it is all wrapped up in a piece of cloth that belongs to the person. These bags are placed in the four corners of the house, in front of doorways near the heaths and other “passageways” thus protecting the inhabitants of the house.

Archeologists have been finding strange catchments of strange artifacts since 1990, which include but aren’t limited to: coins with puncture marks, various animal bones, various colored crystals, buttons with bizarre scratching on them, glass bottles and various colored glass beads (Leone and Fry 372). When they were excavating the east wing of the house, they found a concentration of these artifacts that normally weren’t associated with that area of the house, or even a trash pit. The artifacts were deliberately placed beneath the brick floor. The archeologists at first didn’t understand what these objects were, and what their purpose was in these locations of the catchments (Cochran 1).

The archeologists then explored more about Hoodoo using the post-processual approach, looking into folklore and more historical texts to learn all they could about the rituals. They found out that Hoodoo, like Celtic paganism is all about space, and containing space to be able to control it. So the artifacts that were found could then be attributed to this need to control. Many of the artifacts are round such as the buttons and beads symbolizing the world. They found out that these artifacts were then pierced and worn around the neck to act as a sort of protective amulet (Russell 66).

Figure 3: Artist’s rendition of pierced coins

Figure 3 is a picture of a pierced coin found intentionally buried to the north of the bricked-in doorway appears commonly as a charm in Hoodoo practice. (Image courtesy of Johnstone Quinnin, Archaeology in Annapolis.) This then shows that after they were done wearing such a charm they discarded it in an intentional spot, or put them into the mojo bag because it meant something to the person casting the spell.

First it is important to note that all the artifact catchments were found in standard places within the home such as hearths, sills, and the corners of the room. This information then shows that all these places were important in the house. The artifacts were placed in the hearths and sills to keep away evil spirits that might try to come in through the chimney or the windows. At some of the other sites the windows themselves were even marked with X’s in each corner to further protect the inhabitants from evil. Catchments were also found in the corner of the rooms, which further explains the need to control (Leone and Fry 377 – 378). The four corners of the room represent the four corners of the earth, which also is represented by the four elements just like we see in paganism. This then shows the representation of the landscape/nature within the homestead.

Figure 4: Excavation of the Brice House Basement

The above Figure 4 is of Hoodoo materials located in the Brice House near the east/west dividing wall doorway which seems to indicate an intentional placement, rather than simple household waste or discard. (Photo courtesy of Archaeology in Annapolis.) This shows that the occupants intentionally placed these artifacts at this place to protect the doorway between doors (and in their minds between worlds).

These artifacts that were placed in these areas were not only placed together under the floor, but there is reason to believe that at one point they were part of a mojo bag. A mojo bag is usually a piece of flannel cloth (color depending on what kind of mojo bag it is, i.e. green flannel for good luck or protection) tied with a drawstring and containing many of the different artifacts listed above. It is usually also accompanied with dirt inside the bag either from a graveyard or from a crossroads, thus having past of the literal landscape contained in the bag (Irvine 134). In none of the records I looked through did they find the dirt, but obviously it would be hard to tell dirt from the bag, from the rest of the regular dirt in the house. The biggest problem with the mojo bag idea, especially in this site, is that usually the bag itself has completely decayed once the site is excavated, just leaving behind its contents.

Another placement that seemed odd was one of the Brice House hoodoo catchments was found in an oval pattern to the south side of the doorway and just to the north side of the same door. Caches were also adjacent to each fireplace in both the north and south rooms. The room had a north-south passage and an east-west dividing wall, thus creating a cross pattern, or x. The artifacts were placed at the focal point of the cross-the doorway itself (Cochran, 3).

This goes back to the notion of the use of the “X” which represented a crossroads, which was a form of the landscape that was very powerful, just as we see the crossroad dirt used in the mojo bags. Historians found that 19th and 20th century folklore accounts of Hoodoo practices, as well as lyrics found in numerous blues songs, make reference to the power of the crossroads. The most famous of these songs is probably “Crossroad Blues” by Robert Johnston. Crossroads were where according to slave autobiographies and mythology, pacts and deals were made with the gods or demons, since in the landscape this was thought to be a center or a convergence of worlds. The Hoodoo artifacts make a crossroads that was intended to give its makers active control over their own lives including such applications as curing rheumatism, protecting children, warding off hell hounds (the devil’s bounty hunters), assisting with finding a mate, and warding off a harsh mistress or master (Cochran 4).

The Brice House is just one example of a site where these catchments are found, there are more in the United States, especially in the South. These sites prove that these rituals were in fact being used within these homesteads by the slaves and emancipated slaves. These sites back up the fact that nature and the landscape were the basis for the religion and ritual practices. Space played a huge role in this religion and it is reflected in the archeological record, as well as the historical and mythological references. Hoodoo is then another great example of the mutual relationship between the landscape and religion/culture.

It is then easy to see that the culture and landscape have a mutual relationship especially when it comes to religion. One seems not to be able to exist without the other. In both these religions we see that the rituals are all based on the elements, nature or other part of the landscape. These two examples are great at showing this mutual relationship, and can be used as models to answer then same question about space and religion and the landscape for other societies.

Works Cited

Bewley, R.H., et al. “New light on an ancient landscape: lidar survey in the Stonehenge World

Heritage site.” Antiquity, 79.305 (Sep 2005): 636 – 646.

Cochran, John. Historic Annapolis Foundation. (2001). James Brice House. Retrieved from:

Conway, D. J. Celtic Magic. St Paul, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2004.

Irvine, Alex.. The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls. New

York: HaperCollins Publishers (2007).

Leone, M. P., & Fry, G. M.. “Conjuring in the big house kitchen: An interpretation of african

american belief systems based on the uses of archeology and folklore sources”. The Journal of American Folklore, 112.445 (1999): 372 – 403.

Ruggles, Clive. “Under one Sky.” New Scientist. (2009): 14.

Russell, A. E. “Material culture and African American spirituality at the hermitage”. Historical

Archeology, 31.2 (1997): 63 – 80.


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