Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox: Eco-Shrines by John Halstead

This column is for sharing ideas for religious technologies which we might use or adapt to deepen our Naturalistic Pagan practices. It includes the ideas and experiences of others, as well as some of my own, and I welcome you to send me your ideas for sharing in future posts. If you have discovered a ritual technique which works for you that you would like to add to the Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox, click here to send me an email.

Where are all the Pagans?

I have a theory that what the religious “Nones” may be looking for is not the “religionless church” offered by the Sunday Assembly and Unitarian Universalism, but “churchless religion” — symbol, myth, and ritual, without the moralism, dogmatism, and hierarchy — a kind of “Hinduism for the West”.  And it so happens, that is how Paganism is sometimes described.

So why aren’t people flocking to Paganism? I suspect that part of the reason we Pagans have not yet capitalized on the growth of the Nones is that people can’t find us.  Sure, we’re easy to find on the Internet.  And you can still find Pagan books in the (rapidly shrinking) metaphysical section of (rapidly disappearing) bookstores.  But I question whether people can really experience Paganism virtually or by reading a book.

Imagine someone wakes up on Sunday morning (because that’s the day they’re conditioned to think about religion) and they decide, “I want to check out Paganism.”  Where do they go?  Reading a book or surfing the net are no substitute for physical religion.  Where can a person physically go and experience contemporary Paganism in the flesh?

“They can go anywhere,” you might say, “the holy is all around us.”  True enough, but it is a fact of human experience that we tend to be blind to things which are everywhere.  Sometimes, when the holy is everywhere, it seems like it is nowhere.  We need special places and special times to remind us of the everwhere-ness and the everywhen-ness of the holy.

So where can a person go and experience public Paganism?  I live near Chicago, which is the third largest city in the U.S., and as far as I know, there is no special place for Pagan worship.  If I’m lucky, it will be near one of the eight Pagan holy days, and I can find a public group to circle with in a park.  But if not, I have wait to six weeks until the next station on the Wheel of the Year.  Where to go in the meantime?

Pagan Temples and Shrines

The solution to this is obviously to build something — somewhere where people can physically go to, individually and collectively, practice Pagan religion.  Such structures provide a place for the curious to visit and provide a kind of symbolic legitimacy in the eyes of the non-Pagan community.  But as much as we Pagans like to dream about building permanent temples, it’s not something that is going to happen on a large scale anytime in the foreseeable future.

It’s interesting that most of the visions of Pagan temples I have heard seem to have in mind something that is both a place of worship and a community center.  The concept seems modeled on the Christian concept of a church.  But if we look back at ancient pagan places of worship, many of them looked less like community centers, and more like what I would call “shrines”.  For many Western religions, these two functions are merged in one building.  And when Pagans talk about building “temples”, we often follow this model, which unifies the community center with the shrine.

I think there’s value in separating these functions, though.  Many contemporary Pagans tend to eschew such divisions (which hint at metaphysical dualism) in favor of bringing all parts of our lives together in one place and time.  But there are problems, both practical and psychological/aesthetic, with trying to worship in a place that doubles (or triples or quadruples) as a bookstore, dining hall, and site for intermediate basketweaving classes.

So how can we Pagans offer the experience of “churchless religion” to people?  The answer, I think is public shrines.  There are a few wonderful examples of permanent Pagan shrines, including Sekhmet Temple in Indian Springs Nevada, which has shrines to Sekhmet, the Lady of Guadalupe, and the Mother of the World, and the Eco-Shrine of Diana Graham in Hogsback, South Africa.  But even building something on this scale is not realistic for most Pagans.  So what is the alternative?

Eco-Shrines

I got the idea of eco-shrines after reading a story about a neighborhood in Oakland which was plagued by drug dealers and illegal dumping.  One community member, Dan Stevenson, bought a small statue of the Buddha at an Ace hardware store and put it in the median.  Dan wasn’t even Buddhist.  Over time, though, people began leaving offerings of flowers and fruit.  Eventually, they erected a shrine around the Buddha, which the city allowed to remain.  People come every morning at 7 a.m. to pray.  And perhaps most remarkably, the crime rate for the neighborhood dropped 82%!  (Here’s some more links to get the rest of the story.)

pagan-buddhist-japanese-shrine

Shrines can be created in natural places of special beauty.

This gave me the idea of creating small Pagan shrines in public spaces. At first, I had in mind something like the picture to the left.  But I was concerned about what impact the human artifacts would have on the environment. So then I had the idea of creating shrines out of found natural materials.

As it so happens, I’m not the only one who had this idea.  Mark Green, over at Atheopaganism, has come up with an idea of creating temporary shrines from natural materials:

“… sometimes when I’m in nature, I just like to build a little altar-y thing–an assemblage of found materials nestled, perhaps, in the hollow of a tree or on a flat stone: some spot that seems special. To me, they are offerings, kind of like love letters to nature; they say, I am connected to you, I was thinking about you, I love you.

dsc_0203-1

Shrines can be 100% biodegradable.

“Well, first find a ‘magic place”: a tree with a hollow, or a flat rock in the middle of a stream, or a place where the sun angles down through the trees and illuminates the ground–anywhere that strikes you as special.

“Collect materials and place them, making careful consideration of their arrangement. This can be a highly meditative process; it is likely that you will find yourself in the Ritual State simply by focusing on creating the “art” of your installation.

“Finally, ‘consecrate’ your installation. Say or sing words to commend your artwork to that place, or to the world, or whatever is meaningful to you. Express your feelings until you know that the work is done.

“Be careful not to alter anything in a permanent way. These installations are moments in time, not monuments. So little is left of the wild places in our world that junking them up with durable human ‘handprints’ is not appropriate: make your installation something that will naturally fall back into disarray as wind, weather, decay and the movement of animals scatter its components. …”

Medicine-Wheel

Geometric shapes are a common way of indicating sacred space.

Anna Walther also talks about this practice in her essay, “Four Devotional Practices for Naturalistic Pagans”, and in more detail in her recent post “Building a Land Shrine”.

Natural materials can be arranged in geometric shapes, like the familiar quartered-circle to make a natural “medicine wheel”.  Stacking stones is an ancient way of marking a holy place (and is even attributed to a Biblical patriarch: Gen. 28:18).  Rocks can be balanced on top each other in all kinds of interesting configurations to create natural monuments.  They can also be stacked to make an altar on which other natural objects are placed.

balancing-rocks

Rock balancing has become an art form and can be a type of eco-shrine.

This practice isn’t limited to religious naturalists.  It is a can work for anyone, regardless of their theological orientation.  Polytheist, Galina Krasskova recently started a “Public Shrine Project”.  As she explains it, people can build temporary shrines, ideally with found objects, in public places.  Krasskova describes it as a kind of “land art,” which combines devotion and art, and “reseeds” the mundane world.

Here are the guidelines Krasskova lays out:

  1. The shrine must be created outdoors.
  2. It must be impermanent. You create it, pray or make offerings, and leave, knowing the shrine will be disbursed into nature or that people will take the objects left there.
  3. You must use bio-degradable materials. Part of the process of crafting one of these shrines is doing so in a way that does not harm the environment in which it is crafted.
  4. If you can, try to use found objects and materials as part of your shrine.
  5. Take photos and submit a brief write up describing the shrine and your experience.
Hasfest Grove Altar 2012

Stacking stones is an ancient way of marking a holy place.

When I initially had this idea, I imagined erecting these eco-shrines in secluded places and plotting their locations with GPS coordinates, kind of like geocaching, so other people interested people could find them.  But I like better the idea of placing the shrines in conspicuous locations, like Dan Stevenson’s Buddha shrine or like the roadside memorials on highways where someone died.  I see it as a way to reclaim our public green spaces from the desacralizing influence of modern urban and suburban planning, a kind of guerrilla art that can be employed to re-enchant our public green spaces.  Public parks or any other green space, even a highway median, can be re-enchanted in this way.

At first, at least, we would have to expect that these shrines would be removed by landscaping or maintenance staff or desecrated by ne’er-do-wells or iconoclasts.  But one of the advantages of the eco-shrine is that it is relatively easy to rebuild.  Passers-by who are especially parochial are bound to be creeped out by eco-shrines.  But I imagine that, if we kept returning to the same spot, rebuilding our natural shrines, that one day we would find that someone else had followed suit and built an eco-shrine before us.  And after years, the place might indeed become a holy place in the mind of the non-Pagan public as well.

Share your experiences building temporary eco-shrines in the comments below.

About the Author: John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Postand the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans.

To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.

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5 Comments on “Naturalistic Pagan Toolbox: Eco-Shrines by John Halstead

  1. I agree with your hunch that many “nones” might consider Paganism if we could all find each other and have formalized places to gather. I love the idea of publicly accessible shrines. Your idea of re-enchanting our surroundings is enchanting. Interesting post!

  2. “5. Take photos and submit a brief write up describing the shrine and your experience.”

    Submit to where?

  3. What a simple, practical and beautiful idea to bring your Paganism to life. I’m rather fond of building stone cairns at the beach, it’s a very meditative experience and there’s something moving, almost Taoist, in their impermanence as you know they’ll be washed away with the tide.

  4. Pingback: Finnish Folk Belief and Shinto | The Thought Forge

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