Sacred Pits

In northern New Mexico there is a church, El Santuario de Chimayo, one of the most-visited holy sites in what we currently call the US. It enshrines a small, circular pit famous for its “miracle dirt.” Like many religious art installations, the temple was built around the sacred place, which, of course, predates human settlement in that area. However, in this case, it’s not the specific dirt so much as the surrounding place that “charges” the dirt. According to Olsen Brad, the church replaces the dirt from the nearby hillsides every day, but as theologian Belden Lane puts it, far from being a repudiation of the sacredness of the site, this transfer of dirt is proof of how the sacred extends itself into the profane (2001: 62).

Believers also speak of a legendary light emanating from deep in the ground at Chemeyo, and how Bernardo Abeyta on Good Friday in 1810 dug into the light and miraculously found The Black Christ of Esquipulas.

The site today, according to Lane, “is abuzz with the anguish of stored lament,” an atmosphere he can only compare to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Pit of magic dirt at El Santuario de Chimayo

The setup at Chimayo reminds me of Postcommodity’s 2012 installation Do You Remember When, where they opened up a square pit of dirt in the middle of Arizona State University’s gallery floor to create “a spiritual, cultural and physical portal — a point of transformation between worlds.”

Art installation with pit by Postcommodity

The circular pit at Chimayo also resembles the pit enshrined in Bethlehem marking the exact site where Jesus was born.

Grotto of the Nativity, Church of the Nativisty, Bethlehem, Palestine.
Grotto of the Nativity, inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine. In the myth-histories, this star marks the place where Jesus was born. See also the cave-like "Door of Humility" in Bethlehem.
Grotto of the Nativity, inside the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine. In the myth-histories, this star marks the place where Jesus was born. See also the cave-like “Door of Humility” in Bethlehem.


Like caves, pits play an important role in our myth-histories. The Hopi believe they emerged from a pit at the bottom of The Grand Canyon, specifically a “sipapu” near the otherworldly blue waters of the Little Colorado. This site is forbidden to outsiders, and backpackers who seek it out report strange accidents.

A sipapu is a circular hole that marks “a portal between worlds.” What’s that? Frank Waters in The Book of the Hopi recalls stories about the first humans being led through a series of “Cave Worlds” before exiting into our world through the sipapu. Apparently, when we stepped outside of the pit, we morphed from lizard-like beings into human forms. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and according to Larry Torres, the word sipapu in Uto-Aztecan refers to “the womb of the Earth.”

Clay also comes from pits by the river, and archaeologists like Ian Hodder talk about a near-universal “Age of Clay,” (aka the Neolithic) when humans lived in clay houses and through clay vessels. There are also a ton of humans-from-clay creation stories, like the Judeo-Christian one, where “Adam” is Hebrew for dirt.

Pits famously configure the lives of the Bimin-Kuskusmin of Papua New Guinea as well. This tribe worships the oil that comes out of a pit in the forest. They believe the oil flows under the landscape itself in “the realm of the spirit world.” F.J.P. Poole (1986) quotes the tribe’s leader: “The oil is our blood, our semen, our bone, our heritage from our ancestors…our life.” This connection makes the entire forest a realm of immense ritual and spiritual importance. A ten-year initiation is required before anyone can even set foot near the sacred pit.

Pits can also be scary and are associated with quicksand, swamps, tar pits, and black goo.



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