Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Take only pictures

Lately I've really been interested in the idea of 'place' in religious practice. My pal Beth Shively and I have spent a lot of time talking about 'sacred' landscapes in America (or the lack thereof), and our conversations have been rattling around my head quite a bit. Last week I witnessed one aspect of the American approach to our landscape when I was hiking the awesomely-named Fiery Gizzard Trail in southern Tennessee.

The forest was all lovely and green and breezy. Now, in antiquity if you wanted to go hiking, you just attended a sacrifice, joined a religious procession or climbed up to some Cave of the Nymphs to unload an offering or two. Nowadays we like to 'hike' and 'enjoy nature' for its own sake. Our national parks are secularly 'sacred' simply for existing; they must be preserved in their virginal and pure state, kept undefiled. Yet, other peeps enjoy the landscape just as much as we do, but their interaction with it is incorporated into their religious life and mythological histories. Going on a pilgrimage neatly solves the basic human desire to get all holy, visit some tourist sites and get exercise. It's like the ancient Athenians taking a 12-mile hiking and camping trip to Eleusis, ostensibly to get initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter and Kore. But, really, in my reconstruction, that whole religious procession with its sacredness thing was also about swimming at the beach, finding the perfect walking stick, and eating s'mores.

While getting my Fiery Gizzard on, I fondly remembered hiking in Greece. If I'd been there wandering the countryside, instead of the Cumberland Plateau, I'd have come across like 17 shrines along the way, dedicated to various saints and multiple versions of the Madonna. My Tennessee trail had no such shrines. I wonder if I should go set one up just to see how fast the National Park Service would remove it. Take only pictures, leave only footprints...and votive candles. And good luck charms. And sacrificial chickens.

Of course, not all the US is a religiously barren wasteland. There's always the Mormon landscape or the sites of Catholic epiphanies of the Madonna. Just a few weekends ago I got to visit one of the most impressive native religious sites our country has to offer, the Newark Earthworks.

They were built by the Hopewell Indians at about the same time Julius Caesar and his boys were tearing up the Roman Empire with their civil war. The mounds were huge. And impressive.

Recently I saw an author speak who was attempting to emphasize the American landscape in his YA fiction. Most of us have grown up on Narnia and Middle Earth and Westeros, fantastical worlds based on European landscapes. This author said that he wanted to make our own countryside - Midwestern cornfields and southern mountains - just as full of wonder and magic and possibility as any mystical Irish loch. I dig that idea. I think it's time we stopped worrying about the musty, fussy Old Country and spent a little more time fixating on our own lands. Who needs Bethlehem when you've got Fiery Gizzards, after all?


Anonymous said...


I just finished a Re-read of American Gods. What's your take of Gaiman's assertion that America is "Bad ground for Gods"?


Yang said...

Interesting idea. Having visited several National Parks this year, I'm admit to being new and late-coming convert. Perhaps preserving the illusion of unchartered territory in fulfillment of Manifest Destiny is the highest American sacrament.

Anarchangel said...

"But, really, in my reconstruction, that whole religious procession with its sacredness thing was also about swimming at the beach..."

Given the modern landscape of Eleusis, that's quite an imaginative reconstruction!

On the roadside shrines: I'd heard they were set up to mark road deaths. Do you have any better information on that?