From sacred sites to story-places: a phenomenological approach

Places are being re-storied all the time. It happens on a very small and intimate scale such as new personal memories or with the specific meanings people attach to a place in everyday life. And it happens as well as on a larger scale, when an entire community flips the collective meaning and build an entirely new narrative, making a specific place into the focal point of a new story. Places are not lifeless containers of everyday life: people do not live in places, but through them, as philosopher Edward Casey puts it. In this text, I would like to briefly address a phenomenological approach to places and how it could be incorporated in the studies of pre-Christian sacred sites, as well as into discourse more broadly.

In Lithuania, there are no cult buildings from and very few artefacts of pre-Christian religion. The sacred places are natural objects – hills, rocks, streams, forests, etc., rich with folklore tradition from the 19th–20th centuries.

Sacred stone with flat-bottomed bowl of Šilalė, Western Lithuania. Photo by the author.

They are part of a sacred landscape full of meanings and ideas, instead of material culture. However, ancient sacred places belong as a rule to the field of archaeology and history. And, as far as conventional archaeology operates, a lack of artefacts makes it difficult to apprehend this kind of places.

The surroundings of Mikytai sacred hill in Western Lithuania and a stone “well” of Mikytai sacred site: supposedly an offering place, excavated in the seventies. Photos by author.

I would like to introduce a phenomenological approach to the study of sacred natural sites, in place of a usual historical one. Phenomenological approaches are centred on human experience, thus the focus shifts from the archaeological artefacts or historical data to the stories and meanings behind them.

A new term story-places provides a different definition for places that historians and archaeologists usually call ‘sacred sites’. This allows us to temporarily set aside the religious meaning of these places and apprehend them as subjects of human experience. It was in the works of the New Zealand anthropologist Michael Jackson that I first came across the term yirmbal. It is translated as a story-place and it is how Indigenous Australian people Kuku-Yalanji term natural places that are significant to them. It is important to note that even though some of us would call everyday rituals and mythology religious, people themselves usually do not use the term ‘sacred’.

Čepkeliai bog in Eastern Lithuania, a significant place for famous Lithuanian folk-singer Petras Zalanskas (1900–1980), and one described in his diaries. Photo by the author.

With story-places, attention shifts from archaeological, historical data or religion to people and their stories. Every story tells us about a connection between human consciousness and a place. My own phenomenological research into folk stories revealed how complex this relationship could be. For example, take Bronislava Kučinskienė, who lives near one of the most famous hills in Lithuania – Šatrija.

Šatrija Hill and Bronislova Kučinskienė. Picture 4 made by author, picture 5 made by Jonas Tamulis in 1975 (from archives).

This woman spins a complex tale of her own experience while singing and dancing on top of the hill, combined with a legend about a girl encountering a witch. A warm memory and horrifying story about witches both happened on the same hill.

Phenomenology focuses on lifeworld – an everyday realm of immediate human experience. Lifeworld is full of intersubjective relations and the connection between human and place is one of them.

Contemporary “pagan offering stone” at former hill-fort and sacred hill Rambynas, Western Lithuania. Photo by the author.

Therefore, in the field of phenomenology places are perceived not as a part of physical landscape nor as an intellectual construct of the human mind. Places are knots in our lifeworld where life happens. And that life, that experience, reaches us in the form of stories. Places become story-places when seen as they are experienced, or told through stories. These stories are not necessarily folk-stories or even personal memories. Michael Jackson calls it radical empiricism: all stories are true, even the ones told in literature.

Ancient oaks in Šventybrastis, Central Lithuania – a childhood place of poet and writer Czeslaw Milosz, portrayed in his novel The Issa Valley. Photo by the author.

Phenomenology is very subjective. Different cases form patterns and common behaviors, not theoretical systems. A single folk story is not a mere statistical element or ethnographic unit – the story represents unique relationship between a human mind and a place. This brings a term “re-storied sites” to another perspective. Because meaning is not permanent – it could (and it should) change with every story, in each case.

View from the top of sacred Alka hill in Salantai – a Christian town church is 1,5 km away, church and ancient hill always looking at each other. Photo by the author.
Wooden cross on top of Girgždūtė – one of the main hill-forts and ancient sacred sites in Western Lithuania.