Sacred Geographies

The term sacred geography stems from the realization that people in the past conceived the landscape as charged with meaning, some of which stemmed from the common worldview developed by their community as a whole, and some of which worked on a personal level. The significance assigned to particular places, routes through the landscape, and other (generally more visual or perceptual than physically marked) divisions, connections, and directions might well be a result of real events or memories. But it might equally well derive from mythical or sacred connotations that make little sense from a modern, Western perspective. Time is an important factor, too. The sacred power of a place was often thought to be enhanced at particular times, for example, when it was visually reinforced or revealed by a brief play of sunlight. Once we realize this, we are in a better position to appreciate conceptions of landscape in the context of worldviews—cosmologies—other than our own; conceptions that are unlikely to view landscape simply as a resource to be exploited and can give rise to actions that we would not necessarily perceive as rational.

At the same time, using the term sacred geographies (or sacred landscapes) to describe these conceptions has a major drawback. It implies that there was a clear separation between the sacred and the secular. That this is unhelpful is demonstrated by innumerable anthropological studies of historical and modern peoples. There are different degrees and types of sa-credness; and while some sacred places were very special indeed, mundane places often had sacred aspects as well, helping to integrate the need for preserving worldly harmony into many different aspects of everyday life. Rites to ensure continuity and regeneration were often related to particular places, whether public temples or personal shrines, and tended as well to be related to natural (that is, seasonal) phenomena: accordingly, they were often carefully timed in relation to the cycles of the celestial bodies.

In all probability, true sacred landscapes, devoid of all mundane activity, simply did not exist. However, the sacred aspects of all landscapes were crucially important. The methods of archaeoastronomy are particularly important in their potential to reveal sacred aspects of prehistoric landscapes (for which, by definition, no historical evidence is available) where these have resulted in spatial patterning with respect to the heavenly bodies.

See also:

Archaeoastronomy; Cosmology; Landscape.

Aboriginal Astronomy; Aztec Sacred Geography; Hopi Calendar and World-view; Lakota Sacred Geography.

References and further reading

Ashmore, Wendy, and Bernard Knapp, eds. Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Carmichael, David, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves, and Audhild Schanche, eds. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. London: Routledge, 1994.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 120-121. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

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