I spend a good bit of time in airports. Culturally speaking, airports offer an interesting glimpse into the generic, surface-level identity of any given place.
As I write this, I’m surrounded by Canadian Maple Leafs, shelves of syrup, stuffed moose toys, and — strangely, but not surprisingly — Starbucks.
Canada is a big country, as is the US, and I’m sure what I see around me does little to represent the diversity and complexity of the nation. But, that isn’t really the point of the merchandise. The point is to touch on the key markers, and to provide consumers with physical objects (for purchase) that symbolize the spirit of the place. But, they aren’t really the spirit of the place; they’re a replica, or close proximity to the spirit of the place.
Pagans often identify themselves with the world, in a religious sense, as “a part of” rather than “apart from”. We are earth lovers, Land Spirit worshippers, or sometimes simply people who are willing to walk with a deeper level of awareness of the holiness of any given place.
But that makes me wonder about this airport I’m standing in. There is a kind of worldliness to this place that feels somehow discordant with a Pagan approach of being “in the world.”
Airports may be liminal — neither completely in one space of the other — but they are also quite utilitarian and secular. They seem very much rooted in the earth, although not in that dirty, gritty, soil-from-the-garden kind of way. They’re carpeted and fluorescent-lit. They are worldy places in that they are filled with things which are of the world but which do not necessarily glorify the world, or even make it more beautiful.
I’m aware that the word “worldy” is used negatively in many Christian traditions, and I may be slipping into that framework here with talk of what does and what doesn’t glorify the world. But, when considering the idea that Pagans see the world as sacred, I can’t help but wonder what might be considered to be un-sacred, if there is such a thing.
Gift shop goods are mass produced stuff, often imported from outside of the location which they elude to represent. They are, in that way, disengenuous; a kind of deceit.
Also, there is a sterility to airports, as well as in office buildings, shopping malls and many other public spaces that feels out of step with the natural world. I don’t take that to mean that those locations are out of step in the same severe way that Christian theology would describe a “sinful” person being out of step with God. But, there still seems to be a disconnect.
If the Divine is immanent and present in all things, how is it then that certain environments feel devoid of anything sacred? Perhaps our experience of sacredness is so heavily subjective that we (or me, in this case) are unable to find the evidence of that sacredness in physical things that don’t blatantly represent our limited, preconceived notion of what sacredness looks like.
If the gift shops were stocked with crystals, or tarot decks, or hand-made rune sets, or some other such Pagan accessory (forgive the irreverent term) would I feel more sacredness in this place? Perhaps. But then, another person with a different set of tools, icons, and symbols might feel little but discomfort in the presence of such things.
I have no problem accepting that the world is to be celebrated, and not rejected as outside the realm of the Divine. What does seem problematic to me is understanding if there are parts of the world that are worthy of more celebration and adoration than others, or if I’m to walk through every airport terminal and food court across the land with the reverence of a monk, the piety of a religious man, the attitude that where I stand — beside the Coke machines, the potted ferns and the ventilation system – is holy ground.
Is every place on the earth sacred? Is it inherently sacred, or sacred because we believe it to be so?
I think, and this is just my opinion, that a big part of the reason you have trouble perceiving airports as sacred places is that they are liminal, and for you, they lack a sense of ‘place’. Pagans are ‘people of place’, so much so that even the word ‘pagan’ implies a dweller in a certain space, and a deep bond with our place is often the source of our day-to-day spirituality. But airports are a ‘place’ for no-one; they are between places, constantly in flux. Their inhabitants are impermanent and thus there is no memory in them. Their history is restricted to numbers and statistics and flight times and sales.
Except it isn’t.
People come to work at those airports every day for ten, fifteen, and twenty years. There are people who know all the back ways and secret hideaways of those airports, the bugs in the system, the specific rules that are always broken because everyone understands how things really work. People pour sweat and blood into the guts of those airports, into their moving parts. People sneak kisses in the hidden spots of those airports. People care deeply about pieces of those airports which are placed into their charge, and people see beauty in the works there even if the works are objectively pretty ugly. People stand at the front desk watching thousands of other people go by every day, none of them staying, a rush of impermanence, but through all of that change and carefully controlled chaos they are still standing there, immovable, present.
When I worked at a bookstore, I attributed a certain meaning and harmony even to the chintzy things we sold on the shelves by the coffee shop, because these things were under my purview. Even if they were plastic and glue and representative of nothing, I had responsibility for them. I think in the same way, someone has a responsibility for all the chintzy souvenirs and top-twenty thriller novels. They may not like the things, but they care for them.
So I submit to you that the airport cannot really be your sacred space because it is not your space at all, but it can most certainly be someone’s space, and if that someone is of a mind to see it, that space can certainly be sacred. An airport may be very sacred from a different perspective. That’s just my rambling thought on the subject. That, and I would have a very difficult time NOT feeling the presence of certain deities in such a space – Hermes, Coyote, Woden, even Hekate. There is sacredness to the journey, and an airport seems to me like a place for psychopomps.
I agree with what you have written, and I compliment you on how you have written it. I see airports as “edge” places, neither here nor there, yet here AND there, like hedgerows connecting one world to another, full of bustling life. Liminal, the word you used, is perfect.
Thank you, Sonneillon
Thank you for the comment, Sonneillon. I’m glad the post resonated with you.
I’m deeply flattered, and I’m really glad it resonated with you.
I’ve read your comment several times now, and I want to thank you, sincerely, for offering this perspective. Your response was beautifully written.
You are right. Airports do lack a sense of ‘place’ for me, which is strange considering how often they’ve been a venue in my life. True — they aren’t in my care, and I can see what you mean about the investment a person might take in the maintenance — physically and energetically — of such a place. But, I wonder if there’s a different way I could learn to relate to them.
“…an airport seems to me a place for psychopomps.”
I wonder if you might unpack that idea a bit further for me. I can see the “crossroads” aspect of an airport, but I wonder if you have any personal experience that might illustrate what you mean.
Again, thank you for this comment.
I’m blushing so hard right now you don’t even know. XD
What I mean is that the principle aspect of a psychopomp is as a traveler and a guide. I’ll reference Hekate and Hermes the most since they’re the deities I hold closest in my personal practice, and I apologize if I explain things you already know – I tend to write down any relevant details to make sure everybody’s on the same page.
Psychopomps guide the dead, but they also guide living travelers, and travel ‘between the realms’ is their particular purview. It’s Hermes’ job to watch over travelers as they are between places and keep them safe on their journeys. To some deities, the act of traveling itself is sacred. Traditions of hospitality toward travelers are well established in numerous cultures – parables of gods traveling in disguise and blessing and cursing mortals based on the reception they received go back before recorded history. Odin in particular enjoyed that lesson, Jesus echoed it, and it even shows up in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast in the form of the disguised enchantress. Drew Jacobs has been exploring the sacred act of travel over at Rogue Priest and I’ve been following his travels with fascination. I have a little personal experience with extended travel – for each my trips overseas I spent over three days in-transit each way, dozing in airports and watching bad movies on airplanes. In some ways those trips stand out as some of the most sacred experiences I have ever had. I didn’t know Hekate then, but being so deeply displaced made me feel very close to the divine, and seeing the cultural differences in each plane, each crew, and each airport, as well as the international similarities, really brought home to me that these in-between places and these vehicles are still reflections of the people who hold the strongest relationships with them.
So I think that even if the brick and plastic of an airport doesn’t carry sacred context by itself, it is still sacred within two other contexts: as a liminal space, a warfarer’s station, and also as a place that many people have a relationship with, a place that has been imprinted with their contextual markers. I feel the attention of traveler gods and goddesses strongly in airports, at rest stops and truck stops, and in fast food restaurants off the highway. After all, Hermes has always been able to fly – we just caught up with him. And while I don’t necessarily believe in incarnated deities, I like the stories about gods traveling in disguise. After all, everyone who passes through those liminal spaces is an individual, and there’s no calculating the sum of the experiences they’ve had that have sacred meaning. They may be on a heroic journey, like Drew, or on their way to or from their sacred place. I think there’s a sacredness in facilitating their travel and caring for them in the interim. If Divinity really is present in our day-to-day lives, then our wanderer gods have already made those journeys before us, they make those journeys with us, and they will continue to walk those paths after we’re gone.
Was that what you were asking about, or did I take the wrong tangent?
Hee, maybe that’s why I *do* think airports have an aspect of the sacred about them: my own path is very much about liminal spaces, psychopomping, and resonates a lot with traveling, mixing, meeting, and even the expression of the Sacred in more ‘urban’ environments.
Not everything in an airport is an artifact that *expresses* or embodies the Sacred particularly well: some of these expressions may in fact not really honor Nature, for instance, or a city or a concept, (depending on our reactions to them, too, I suppose.)
There’s something very Underworldly about an airport, as a place of passages, transitions, changes, and crossroads… (I do sometimes think of the Descent of Inanna when passing through security. 🙂 ) Even the memory aspect about souvenirs and whatever else is sold.
And some of what’s there does have something of an aviation spirit about it, the now-common old airplanes hanging from some of the ceilings, the high tech, even something of memory of what airports *used* to be and represent.
They’re often, of course, very much gateways into or out of a given land.
I love your discussion of the travelers’ perspective vs that of the people who work there–aplace may be liminal/edge-space for some people, but central for others! Airports feel not they’re “not really anyplace” to the people passing through because they’re just nodes in the journey and travelers don’t ever stand outside the actual buildings (we come down out of the sky, get off the plane, go down the tunnel, into the building, back out another tunnel to another plane, etc), and so don’t get a feel for the
context of the buildings’ physical/geographical location the way you do
with, say, a highway rest stop. I’d also suggest, continuing your line
of thought, that we can find the sacredness not in the stuff that’s
there or the building itself, but in the relationships it creates and
enables–how many people get to grab their loved ones for the first time
in who-kn0ws-how-long in airports? How many people are touching down onto ground that THEY feel is sacred, or at least “home”?
Thanks so much, Nicole. I think you really hit it on the head when you brought up the relationships a place enables and creates. We all exist in context, right? We touch and we’re touched in return. Airports exist in the context of the people who frequent them and in that context they have meaning that’s mundane AND sacred. ^_^
I think many modern pagans invest the modern concept of “artificial” with the same anti-sacredness that Christians often invest “worldliness” with.
Being a bit more familiar with the older very positive uses of “artificial” (meaning something along the lines of “created by art and skill” and often implying beauty rather than utility), I find the categorical devaluing of “artificial” highly problematic. It is tempting because it is simple, not because it is true. We fall into it because it is easy, not because it enables us to create a more positive world.
When I worked in complementary health care, I became frustrated with the assumption that products were automatically safe *because* they were “natural.” I occasionally grumbled, “Tell it to Socrates–hemlock is natural.”
I think it’s a mistake when some pagans attempt to be “in the civilization, but not of the civilization.”
The challenge, as I see it, is to see what around us supports our values and what does not. Not simple and not easy. But utterly worthwhile.
Wonderful contribution, Ian. Thank you for the comment.
I love the phrase, “in the civilization, but not of the civilization”. Seems like an old, Christian approach, no?
just because something is sacred doesn’t mean you have to like it
Interesting — What exactly do you mean by that?
I actually do find airports sacred. Not because of any great beauty or permanence or separateness of the buildings, but because of the great multitudes of paths and stories that cross there – each on its own journey, meeting for just a while. Some other posters mentioned liminality, and for each individual traveller I think that’s true (and sacred in its own way) but when all the liminalities cross they create a sort of centrality, a knot. Which is pretty fascinating. And an airport is a crossroads of the highest order, really …
One of the most transcendent experiences I’ve had recently was while meditating in an airport chapel between flights.
There are academic theories about these so called non-places. But really, I would consider these places n0t so much as unsacred, but maybe more as desecrated. Yes, the airport is a liminal space but that alone does not make it sacred for me. I use the term sacred only very rarely. Everything might be sacred to someone, but I do not hold every place as sacred for me. I do need the distinction.
Airports are not only strange because of the lack of place, but also because of the lack of time. People working at all hours, 24/hour economy, it all feels rather exhausting. And a place, unless you get on a plain soon, whose energy can wear you out.
Most paleo-pagan and indigenous traditions have the notion that not every place is sacred.
For whatever reason, there are some places where the numinous can be more fully perceived than in others. Even in historical practices, religious ceremonies weren’t just held in any old place.
It’s hard to reconcile this with the notion that the numinous is omnipresent. It may be that, while it is, you need to be a mystic in order to perceive it everywhere.
Perhaps the spirits of different places react differently to different people. The spirits of a grove wherein my ancestors conducted rites for centuries would speak very strongly to me, if I had ears to listen, but a gas station just off the highway exit would not.
I have a hard time seeing places like airports and shopping malls as sacred. I know the conception of “natural” versus “artificial” is largely a modern category, but it still resonates with me. Perhaps I’m a hopeless Romantic after all…
But just as there are places in the woods that “feel” dark and threatening, or are home to unseelie spirits, I do feel that places like airports are potentially hostile locales.
Just my rambling $0.02
My belief is that our gods are in everything , i do have to agree that the sterility of such places makes it difficult to feel it tho.Tis hard to feel thier presence in the harsh manmade environments such as airports , malls etc . I have learned to connect w/ the world even in these kinds of places altho it can be difficult at times . My mind is calmer , more in tune in natural spaces , seems part of the human condition . I personaly don’t like hi rise buildings , to me feels unnatural to be that far off the ground , in that much of an artificial environment for an extented amount of time . As pagans we are more in tune w/ the world and her spirits , as such we feel the disconnect of such places more acutly. Kilm
Airports are no less sacred a place than anywhere else, It is true that it may be much harder to perceive that, because of the sterility and the literal and psychic noise. It’s also true that we may not think of it as a sacred place because we don’t think of it as a real space. Outside of employees, nobody goes to an airport to be there. Nobody wants to be there. It’s a transit point. That in itself makes them uniquely powerful places should we decide to ever avail ourselves of it.
I would venture to say that pagans, at least of most stripes, understand the power of transition points and gateways – Samhain, life, death and rebirth, the turning of seasons, solstice and equinox, that whole bit. They’re perfect time and space points in which to do some very powerful magick or even just meditation. I’m glad you wrote this, as I’m going to make a conscious effort to do some work along these lines next time I find myself trapped in an airport, and I would urge anyone here to do the same, and maybe re-visit the issue some time from now. If you have the time to kill and happen to find a chapel, give it a shot. Nobody likes airports less than me, but I also firmly believe that magickal work and paths are about being able to climb the rigging in a gale, not just a pretty day. I would cite the wisdom of Dune, which I find to be frighteningly applicable to everyday life. “Mood? What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises — no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.” – Gurney Halleck.
We regularly use statuary as representations of our Gods, often in forms that we find appealing. Are our statuary and other representations the same as the representations of a nation’s spirit, or a state’s spirit in an airport? I would argue no.
I think that the little statues, say, of a college can be used as a focal point to interact with the landvaettir, or land spirits, of a college. The same could be said when statues of Columbia were used in rituals in opposition to the DC 40. Was the statue Columbia? No more so than my college’s mascot, but both link us to the overarching spirit of something bigger. My statue of Odin is not Odin, but a link to Him.
Gift shops give us the opportunity to take a piece of the land with us, especially if the medium of travel would not allow us to carry bottles of earth or water. It may not be the grittiness of soil or the saltiness of a bottle of ocean water, but these little tokens, I feel, can connect us to these places all the same. They may not carry the energy or spirit of the place as well as, say, a bottle of sand, but they can carry the spirit all the same.
I want to add a wee bit more to this discussion , the entire world is sacred due to our mother and the gods/spirits presense within it , think of the Star Wars force and all that entails .But i also understand our disconnect in such manmade sterile places .My last airplane trip was a fiasco , bad weather , butt headed airline poeple etc . Spent the whole day in Philly airport , didnt arrive in Chicogo , by way of Wisconsin till 3 am from what should have been a 10 am short flight . to keep from going crazy in the midst of all of this i used meditation . Not an easy undertaking in a noisy , crowded airport .But i was able to pull it off, connected to our mother in spite of the nonsense of such a place. This helped maintain my sanity during that mess. Kilm
I guess I have a problem with the converse. If all places are equally sacred, then no place is particularly sacred. And that simply does not mesh well with my personal experience.
So since my experience tells me that some places are particularly sacred, then it means other places are not as sacred. And if it is possible for some places to be less sacred than others, then it seems likely that some places are a LOT less sacred than others — in fact, all the way down to “minimally sacred” or just plain mundane.
I think it’s like moisture. There are no TOTALLY dry places anywhere on earth. There’s always some small amount of water vapor in the air, a smidge of moisture under a rock, some water somewhere. But there’s a huge difference between Houston, TX, and Laramie, WY.
So the question for me is, how deeply do you have to dig for sacredness? I’ll grant that it’s always there, like moisture. But some places simply drip with divine energy, while others hold it only in tiny, hidden pockets carefully sequestered from the dry winds of secularity.
I can definitely identify with having trouble feeling the “sacredness” of coke machines and waiting rooms.
There is something about natural surroundings that calls up an inborn response in us, just as a flame calls up a certain response in a moth. I think this is what E. O. Wilson meant by biophilia, but I haven’t read enough of him to know if that’s accurate.
So I don’t think we’re crazy or deficient when we have more trouble feeling the sacredness of a metal detector than a centuries-old redwood.
However, I do think that sacredness per se, at least in a context of immanence, has more to do with perception than anything inherent. How often have I found myself in the right situation and mindset where something I never thought of as sacred before suddenly pulse with the numinous! For those who believe that this world itself is sacred, it is a challenge to be able to perceive the sacredness in all things, even the lowliest or more commercial. To be able to do so is a matter of personal growth, IMO.
That doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to “feel” it, though. Sacredness, like love, is not something that necessarily burns in you at all times like a passion. Sometimes it is more of a mindstate or just a cognitive understanding. I certainly do not “feel” the sacredness of a Halloween conical black witch hat someone wears at a festival – that’s worse than a friggin’ coke machine for me. But I can work it around in my head where I can understand how someone might see that as a symbol of identity with their path and therefore find it sacred. Yet it doesn’t mean I’m not shivering with revulsion on the inside. ;-P
also, specifically talking about airports, I actually do feel something special
with them. I recognize long ago that although each airport may be in a
totally different country, the airports almost resemble themselves more than
their local culture. This gives the strange feeling of going to this one
place out of space and time, which I called Transport City. It’s like a portal or nexus that goes…
anywhere. So that idea is goofy, silly,
fun… but sacred? Well I dunno. But I have felt something let’s say interesting
at airports. J
jets themselves though – those I definitely do feel as sacred. The sheer power of the thrust at takeoff, the
perspective looking out the windows at the tops of the clouds… breathtakingly
I can Agree w/ Themon , not all places are sacred . As pagans we can feel the sacredness of nature and temples. But cold , harsh manmade place tend to lack , for lack of a better term, a soul, spirit, or sense of place. I pesonaly would not consider such a place sacred, but this doesnot mean we can’t connect w/ our mother or meditate in such places w/ or w/o a chapel which in itself does tend to change things a bit . Altho i personaly have never seen an airprt chapel , hopefully such a chapel is non denominational.Due to the miriad of people and religions that pass thru an international airport.I can agree such harsh manmade places are not in themselves sacred Kilm