Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sacred Stones?

I'd like to take a moment out for this, the twelfth post on my blog, and present you with something that I have recently been looking into, and which I hope you will find as interesting as I have. Apologies in advance for the rambling nature of this blog...

I presume we all know about the great stone circles of Stonehenge and Avebury, perhaps even the Ring of Brodgar up on mainland Orkney, but Britain today is peppered with so many prehistoric sites that are so often overlooked in favour of the 'big three'. Nobody precisely knows what these monuments were used for, all we really have are educated guesses, some more convincing than others. Within the last few decades, though, a group of people has been slowly emerging, claiming these sites as their own, which has often led to some pretty controversial clashes with the authorities who now maintain them, and can lead to some very thorny, but no less interesting, questions about the whole thing. 

Before I begin, I'd just like to point out two things. Firstly, I am no expert on neo-paganism or the Alternative Culture. Secondly, I do not mean to offend anyone, but I realise that where religion, history and philosophy meet, some strong feelings can be brought to the fore. 

First, I'll just make some (very brief!) description of the main sites. Stonehenge is of course the famous circle of stones, wrongly-named as a henge denotes an earthen bank and not a stone circle. From it, there is an avenue that bends around and follows the River Avon, eventually arriving at the incongruously-named Woodhenge and nearby Durrington Walls. The latter is an enclosure where, it has been proven, at least one massive gathering of people has taken place, from the midden deposits there. Woodhenge, just across the road from Durrington Walls, is a concentric series of post-hole circles, now denoted by concrete pillars, that perhaps formed the house of a wise-man or similarly important person. This interpretation has some flaws, as we have no real solid evidence that prehistoric society was hierarchical. 

Nearby Avebury is the biggest stone circle in Britain, within which there are two smaller stone circles, both of which have some element to differentiate them. There is an avenue that leads from Avebury, running to a further, smaller circle at The Sanctuary. Nearby is the largest man-made mound in Europe, Silbury Hill, whose purpose is entirely unknown. As at Stonehenge, the whole landscape is peppered with long barrows and cairns. Avebury, perhaps significantly, is situated very close to the Ridgeway, a prehistoric trackway that is roughly the equivalent of the M6 in terms of today's traffic flow. It is believed there is a second avenue, opposite the West Kennett structure, though the existence of this is disputed.

Up in Orkney, the Ring of Brodgar is part of a further ritual landscape that encompasses what is being described as a neolithic cathedral on the Ness of Brodgar; the Standing Stones of Stennes, and the massive chambered cairn of Maes Howe. Nearby are the settlements of Barnhouse and, a little further off, Skara Brae. There are standing stones and chambered cairns all over the place here, as well. 

As I said above, nobody knows what the purpose of these megalithic monuments was. They have, over the years, been the focus of interest that has shifted from the notion of Avebury as a centre for devil-worship to praising the construction of Stonehenge as an outstanding human achievement. Or perhaps extra-terrestrial achievement. But I won't get into that. Whether Stonehenge and Avebury are ceremonial gathering-places to commemorate certain events, or whether they are ceremonial monuments to commemorate certain people - or whether they are the mundane market squares of their day - nobody can actually say with authority. The now-accepted theory by historians and archaeologists is one that Mike Parker Pearson put forward some years ago, that the Stonehenge landscape forms part of a massive ritual commemoration of the dead and the ancestors. 

An interesting feature of the Standing Stones of Stennes is that archaeologists have discovered that a hearth was once in the middle of these. The theory has now been put out that chambered cairns like Maes Howe were once homes of important people who, once dead, were commemorated by being buried in their own homes, the structure being built over as a memorial to the dead within. 

The vast array of long barrows and other funereal monuments that dot the countryside of Britain like smallpox are, I think, evidence that our prehistoric ancestors did indeed like to commemorate their dead. Most of these monuments are communal affairs, used by an entire settlement rather than just one person (such as happened with the pyramids of Egypt), although a shift does begin to occur during the Bronze Age, with definite evidence for that hierarchy beginning to emerge. However, at the time the great stone circles were constructed, it appears they were done so as a communal enterprise, a group of people undertaking this work for their own ends, not those of one person. Whether those ends were to commemorate the ancestors of a community, to stamp their own authority on the land, or to commune with the stars or the sun (or extra-terrestrials), we just don't know. What we do know is there were no burials at Stonehenge. As far as I'm aware, there has been no unearthed evidence to suggest any sort of festival at Stonehenge, unlike that held at Durrington Walls a mile or so away. 

Which brings me onto the modern-day use of these sites. Heritage bodies such as Cadw and English Heritage, both subsidised by the government, call themselves the guardians of these places, etc. The National Trust, which has a presence at Avebury as well as EH, holds places "in trust for the nation". They do not claim to own the sites. However, access to sites like Stonehenge is restricted, which brings about complaints from many special-interest groups who claim these monuments for their own. I'm talking now of the various faith groups and religions that have been spawned from the New Age and are more commonly grouped together under the term "Alternative Culture". 

I don't really like these terms, I have to admit. "Alternative" often sounds like it isn't to be taken seriously. In this instance, you would have the "traditional" religions of Britain, and then these "alternatives". But I'll have to stick with them, as they have been accepted as the terms to be used in these circumstances. 

Neo-paganism is a decent-enough umbrella term, I find, to encompass all forms of paganism, druidism, Wicca, Goddess-worship and the like. Many representatives of these religions and faiths find a kinship with prehistoric monuments, and claim a direct lineage from the people who made them. Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge seem a bit misplaced, though, if archaeological evidence is to be taken into account. The festivities would be better placed in Durrington Walls. The cynic in me thinks such people wouldn't find it as exciting to celebrate in what is, essentially, just a field, as they do to be up close to one of the most remarkable survivals of the prehistoric period. 

A person's religious practices should be entirely in sympathy with that person, of course, so I'm not trying to dictate devotional terms. I just feel the neo-pagan appropriation of Stonehenge (and other such sites) for religious purposes is really no different to me walking into your house and demanding to be allowed to use it for my own religious purposes once every six months. I think it's great that ancient sites are having a new lease of life and are being given new meaning, but sometimes I wonder whether that meaning is perhaps misplaced. 

The negative image of neo-paganism is of course coloured by many extraneous factors, perhaps the biggest being the influence of the Christian church. I think it is now widely proven so as to be accepted that the early Christian church, in order to gain ground with new followers, subverted what might be called "traditional" practices such as druidism and linked them directly with devil-worship, misrepresenting the pentagram as the devil's sign, etc etc. This process had, of course, been instigated when the Romans began their expansion, and the druids were still seen as a major threat, being the major religious leaders in Britain and France. The Romans, of course, successfully integrated themselves with a native population's religion by drawing comparisons between it and their own, and when no comparison could be made, they simply adopted it into their own pantheon - Sabrina, the goddess of the River Severn, is a fabulous example of this. 

At the very least, by declaring yourself to be a pagan of one description or another usually results in an eye-roll and maybe a half-hearted remark about being a "tree-hugger" or something. This avenue of attack has been so successful that it has lasted over 2000 years in the human conscience, even today the first thing most people associate with such an image as the pentagram is occult rituals and Satanism. Readers of The Da Vinci Code should know all about this! However, I don't really think many people do themselves any favours when they commit acts that have the potential to forever damage such sacred sites. 

A specific instance comes to mind when I visited the burial chamber at Tinkinswood, near Cardiff in South Wales. The tomb had clearly been used the night before to some purpose or other, with a mass of tealight holders left in almost every recess possible. Surely by now everyone knows that rocks cannot cope with excessive heat? Burning candles on monuments like this puts the stone at risk of cracking, and when coupled with a metal tealight holder, which conducts the heat better than wax, it just makes matters worse. To say nothing of the damage such acts can do to the lichens that grow on these stones today. For a culture that purports to respect all life, it is something of a double standard. 

^ Tinkinswood Burial Chamber, an evocative sight in the early morning mist...

^ ... but with an interior littered with the detritus of the 21st century. 

Ceremonies did take place around burial chambers such as these, of course, outside the tomb, possibly as part of a funeral ceremony, or perhaps on commemorative days throughout the year. There is no evidence to suggest ceremonies took place within the tombs, however. And I'd like to point out that candles have only been in use from about 200BC, long after such tombs ceased to function in such a way. 

I'm always curious as to why such religious groups have such a kinship to the ancient structures while seeming to provide none of their own. There is a school of thought that dictates a sacred space is only sacred because we as humans make it so, and a counter school for whom sacred spaces manifest themselves to us, and we merely formalize the sacrality of that space. For groups who believe in ley-lines and places with inherent Qi etc, I would have thought the pursuit of such spaces would at least be of minor interest. 

Certainly, the existence of ley-lines have led to the massive popularity of Glastonbury with the New Age movement. A site of specific historical importance anyway, the myths of Arthurian connections that surround this otherwise quaint little Somerset town have led to immense interest from all sorts of faith groups, both "traditional" and "alternative". The picture painted in Glastonbury is one of tranquil harmony, with Catholicism and Crystals living side by side, with each respecting the others' right to be there. Jerusalem could perhaps take a lesson from this? 

There does appear to me, though, to be an element of a "manufactured tradition" to this. The counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s has seized upon the neolithic past as a way of distancing itself from the norms of that time, much the same as Ireland throughout the 20th century has done in an effort to wipe the slate clean of what was seen to be British colonialism and instead forged strong links to its Celtic and neolithic past. In order to remove links to an Anglican Christian society, people have looked first to the religions of the Orient, then back to their own native religions of pre-Christian times. The only problem being we have no idea what form that religion took. Trying to explain sites like Stonehenge is, as Francis Pryor points out, like trying to explain the Christian cross without knowing the story of the crucifixion. In the absence of fact, a search for a plausible truth has borne out what we see today, trees literally smothered by ribbons that are meant to honour nature but will probably end up killing the tree they bedeck. 

Is there, then, a third way? Demonstrating your religion seems to be a very medieval attitude, when you could be killed for not conforming to the religion the state has decided is right. Is it not enough that you believe, that you also have to prove to other people and demonstrate that you practice religion x? As well as having much in common with missionary religions like Christianity, it also seems again a relic of the counter-culture movement, where visible protest was the order of the day. You must be seen to be doing something. It isn't enough that you know, yourself, that you believe. Is it not enough to see a tree and appreciate it for what it is, and then move along? Do trees not produce enough of their own decoration, that you have to add some piece of manufactured rubbish in practising a religion that claims to honour the supremacy of nature over all things anyway? It all seems a bit bizarre to me. 

The neolithic sites of Britain are, unquestionably, evocative sites, that speak of a remoteness of time that is inspirational to many. I find many of these places to be "sacred", in terms of the way in which such places should be treated. There is also a remoteness of space for a lot of these sites. While Stonehenge is (currently) situated between two busy A-roads, and some chambered tombs are rather incongruously situated (Carreg Coetan Arthur Burial Chamber stands out as being in the middle of a modern housing development), others are hidden away, tucked into little corners or sited high on hilltops up and down the country, generating a lot less traffic than perhaps they would otherwise attain (instantly I think of Mitchell's Fold Stone Circle in Shropshire), and that makes them a special place when you finally find them, making them a "sacred space" anew. 

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