By Sally Griffyn , published by Kyle Cathie at £12.99. 176pp. ISBN: 1856263649. (Reviewed by Sam Fleming)
Sacred Journeys is a book that is written by a woman describing herself as a Witch, with the apparent and stated aim of encouraging all visitors to sacred sites to treat them as ritual places. Although the subtitle is "Stone Circles & Pagan Paths", the book covers tombs and springs/wells in addition to circles. It is also very much a feminist Wiccan's idea of ritual and spirituality, and shouldn't be thought of as being an example of pagan attitudes in general.
In the introduction, Griffyn tells us about her archaeological and her magical credentials, explaining that she worked with Doreen Valiente and on Neolithic sites as an archaeologist. This gives the strong impression that Griffyn is an authoritative source on the purposes and meanings of prehistoric monuments in both an archaeological and spiritual capacity. Thus, although she writes that "We attempt to step into ancestral shoes but there is little science to tell us how it was" it is near impossible to avoid the implication that her expertise means that what she tells us about these sites is the accepted interpretation.
The book details Griffyn's personal gnostic odyssey across prehistoric sites in the UK and Eire. She tells us what the ancients did and gives details of their beliefs and philosophy that can only lead me to conclude that she has access to a time machine that the rest of us do not. Especially given her statement that "I would like to take you to the stones and let you in on a few secrets". The details are given without qualifiers or mention of alternative explanations, save for the note in the first chapter that "[w]hat we read into these ancient rituals is informed by our historical context and we can only draw what seems to us the most appropriate conclusion, leaving the answer open-ended." In Griffyn's case, the most appropriate conclusion apparently is that everything is about the Mother Goddess, and all good things must perforce be feminine in origin. Given, however, that she set out to find "ancient spiritual centres that are surrounded by feminine mystery", perhaps that should come as no surprise. What does come as a surprise is that she then refers to the female genitals as "pussy" throughout the book. It is telling that I recall no mention of the word "penis".
My main issue with this book is one of conservation. Griffyn introduces the concept of working ritual at sites by saying "I encourage archaeologists and those interested in folklore to change their approach to sacred sites: to cast off inhibitions about being seen to be wacky and to use ritual at these places." She then explains that ritual is not necessarily an elaborate affair, and may comprise "no more than entering a sacred space, lighting a candle and meditating."
Those of us involved in conservation will have a sinking heart at reading this. There is no mention of what sort of candle to use, how to avoid damaging stones and lichen by heat damage and soot, or the possibility of the heat causing irreversible damage to sites, as has happened at West Kennet Long Barrow. She goes on to say that she has "..lit fires and seen birds and animals gather with me at the stones." The fact that lighting fires at megalithic monuments is damaging, not to mention illegal if they are scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, is not noted, and I am given to wonder if she even considers that it might be a bad idea. She also says that she lit incense and a candle inside Loughcrew Passage Tomb, and I doubt that she has contemplated that this also could be damaging.
In her section covering the Nine Maidens at Boskednan she suggests a cord ritual. Firstly it involves the lighting of incense, although no mention is made of suitable protection for the site. The Rollright Stones have suffered from careless use of incense and charcoal, as have many other sites. She goes on to describe a spell which involves tying knots in a cord. She tells us that "once this is done, the cord may be buried, thereby burying the obstacles of which you wish to let go. When you feel that the clarity has returned to your body and mind, choose the stone that receives you. Ask which direction to go and go to that stone." As the rite started at the centre of the circle, one can only infer that she is instructing us to bury a cord in the middle of a stone circle[, specifically the Nine Maidens at Boskednan. In her "Cord Rite for the Crone" she tells us that "it may be possible to find a nook in the rocks or in the standing stones themselves where you can leave the cord. Alternatively you can bury it." These are outright incitements to what constitutes criminal damage, as well as being blatantly disrespectful of the integrity of the site itself. Stating at the end of the book that one should remove all litter and not leave candles to burn unattended is hardly a sufficient acknowledgement of the conservation needs of such ancient sites.
The entire book suggests a belief on Griffyn's part that these sites were built with a purpose that is entirely compatible with, even similar to, modern Wicca. Of course there is no evidence to support this whatsoever. Wicca is not "the old religion", nor is it the "religion of the old ones". It is not even Witchcraft, although according to Griffyn the two terms are interchangeable. Yet, in her section covering Callanish on the Isle of Lewis, she says that the "colours of the stones correspond to modern Wiccan symbology of the Triple Form Goddess, and the white quartz of the phallic Consort stone glistens like semen." Apparently there is a view point from where one can witness the Goddess, recumbent in the landscape, give one of the stones oral pleasure. I am of the opinion that this owes more to Griffyn's personal interpretation than any design of the builders. As far as I am aware, the accepted position of the Sleeping Beauty of Callanish is face up. I could, of course, be wrong. That is the point. We just don't know what these sites were for, or what was in the minds of the designers.
Griffyn's archaeological treatment also leaves something to be desired. [The book claims to cover remote and/or good Neolithic ritual sites, and yet there are two megalithic sites in Cornwall that are neither. Also,] I would like to see references for her assertion that "fires were lit amongst the stones and crystals were buried beneath them" or that "many circles have quartz crystals not only in the stones themselves, but also buried beneath the stones." I have been unable to find any excavation reports that detail the burying of crystals beneath the stones. Her interpretations seem to owe far more to a Mother Goddess obsession to rival that of Julian Cope than archaeology, and she goes beyond political correctness in that way that is peculiar to some feminist Wiccans.
In my personal opinion this book is highly inaccurate and also dangerous, in that it encourages the very sort of behaviour that groups such as ASLaN and The Rollright Trust have been working so hard to stop over the past few years. As the megarak behind the Prehistoric Site Damage Database, I anticipate with dread the increase in tales of soot damage and spilled wax that will occur should Griffyn's personal idea of how prehistoric monuments should be treated gain a popular foothold in modern pagan culture. I cannot recommend this book for any reason, despite the often beautiful photographs, as anything that makes publishers think that this is the sort of thing they should be producing is a Very Bad Thing.
If you think that ancient sites are sacred in and of themselves, and that the fact that we don't know what they were for is part of their beauty, part of what makes them precious, then the disregard for any interpretation other than her own will make you cross. If you feel that these sites should be protected - not sealed off in a box, but protected from unnecessary damage such as that caused by fires and heat and wax, Griffyn's ideas of ritual will make you very cross.
If you too believe that everything good comes from the Mother Goddess, and the great majority of prehistoric symbology is associated with the feminine, that if you're a Wiccan you're a Witch and vice versa, and that sites like these are there for people such as yourself to use for your benefit and everyone else's ideas about them are wrong, then you don't need to buy this book.