On Human Wrought Boundaries
There is some inherent, unique quality to man-made boundaries, a quality which I feel often gets overlooked in conversations about Paganism. The demarcations of space which cut across the landscape in sometimes glaringly artificial lines, which nevertheless draw our eyes to them. We follow them and trace them, experiencing them as both tangible and intangible forces. A ditch or culvert, roads and dirt tracks, an old moss-covered stone wall, and even post markers of property or former lines which no longer exist are all representative of the division of human space in this world.
These structures contain something more, something that exists both within and alongside the power from the natural realm that many Pagans emphasize. At times, it can be near-palpable and noticeable: crossing a threshold or stepping through an opened gateway, or crossing from one side of a seemingly mundane border to the other can elicit a feeling of change and otherness. These spaces can be as liminal as the twilight and the dawn, or as much as stepping onto a mound. They simply exist in different and sometimes imperceptible ways.
And people have long known this. Intuitively or by design, the power of the boundary was understood by numerous traditions. Boundaries have long been used by priests to demarcate sacred space. It was understood by witches and cunningfolk, in their use of intersections and existing structures. In a way, it just makes sense that there’s more to the division of the world. Humans are creatures of space as much as anything else. And as such creatures, they are adept at engaging with the forces which also inhabit that space, and are even able to construct it on their own with little initial assistance from the divine.
I often see Pagans approach their religions by being enamored with the glamour of the natural. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, ever. The sanctity and engagement of the divine in the wild and in the natural world, of the gods of the land and earth and those ancient powers that predate humanity’s ascendancy are just as important now as they were in the yesteryear. If not more so. Please do not misconstrue what I am saying in this regard.
But so many Pagans seem to ignore the importance and reject the power inherent in the constructed. Commonly, I have seen it viewed as an eyesore, or a physical reminder of the destruction that our species has caused – the creation of an unnatural edifice that contrasts directly with any real sense of the natural. Some go so far to view it as a blight on their quest for a true Nature religion, something that is at best tolerated but often lamented.
Yet there is power in these boundaries. The Romans knew of Terminus, He of the boundary post and the demarcation of what would today be considered the “secular space” of fields, and pastures, and workable property. He, who was honored by a position of such importance that He was placed next to Jupiter Himself. As traditional polytheistic religion pervades every facet of one’s engagement in this world it is understandable that these sites would be treated as importantly as those of nature. What’s more, the priests understood the importance of the sacred, but nevertheless artificial, boundary in the establishment of the pomerium.
Artificial construction bears relevance and importance in a cosmic sense, much more than some would think. The intersection of two walls creates an inherent axis mundi, a physical representation of the sacred cosmogony. The entire edifice becomes an image of the cosmos. Whether through natural happenstance, simply by existence of a familiar sacred geometry, or through some measure of ritual efficacy, the animation and sanctification of space through sacrifice and rite, these sites become attractants to all measure of spirits and deities. These boundaries are as important as the sacred trees that represent the connection between earth and sky, and they in the same way connect our presence space with that of the cosmic other.
There is sacredness in the enclosure. Walls and barriers so erected protect and, further, preserve the sacred from the profane contamination of the material and mundane. In their many forms they enshrine conduits directly to the numinous – rocks piled just so, a string or rope surreptitiously placed, borders and boundaries that ties reality together in an intimate way. The dichotomy of sacred and not is protected by powerful monuments wrought of human hand, be they ditch or bank that surrounds a sanctuary, or a wall which encloses one’s yard.
Crisscrossing the landscape there are networks of roads which both follow and cut across the contours of the land. These lines of hot asphalt and dusty gravel or dirt enable us to function as a society. They’re necessary and used daily without a second thought. But these very same roads, the arteries of present civilization that act as boundaries in their own right, cross. They become gathering places where dead things can gather during those thin nights of the year, and where Trivia reigns over liminal places. Cunningfolk seek to use them and work their spells with the inherent power of these boundaries. The mundane becomes a source of the esoteric.
Would these very same sites have achieved such relevance if not for the intersection of humanity and the numinous? I could not say, but perhaps not.
Interacting with these human boundaries gives me a sense of the other that pervades our material existence. The walls and roads cut across mundane reality in ways which assist me in contextualizing my place in geography and being. There is a noticeable shift in my perception at times when I walk across such a line, even when I don’t expect it. Even something as innocuous or unremarkable as the political border of two states found in the woods can have a more profound meaning. There is something there. Those that would reject it for being artificial are missing out, I feel.
My religious and esoteric practices take place within the realm of human experience, within the human landscape. I do not seek to maneuver outside the anthropocentric world. I come back to this place when I return from the wilds, across the henge or the road. I am always reminded of how the human environment interacts with the spiritual on a fundamental level, and how the most mundane features can reflect the cosmos.