Tag Archives: Avebury

Ideas of sacred land

What makes a place sacred? Perhaps there’s a religious event associated with it, or a human construction there to hold that sacredness and alert us to it. Maybe the construct’s purpose is obvious – as with temples, maybe more elusive – as with stone circles. Often we’ll travel vast distances to visit the sites that humans have framed as sacred by building something. Be that Stonehenge, Greek Temples, Nazca lines or ancient cave paintings, or anything else of that ilk.

Repeated use of a place by people approaching it in a state of veneration has an effect.  However, these designated sacred places also attract tourists, who come to look, but not to experience the sacred. A sacred site full of loud, photo taking, irreverent site seers doesn’t always feel very sacred at all. Of course being Pagan does not prevent us from showing up as tourists, and our showing up does not guarantee anything will happen.

I’ve been to Avebury more times than I can count. It’s a place I love visiting. I’ve participated in rituals there and spent time contemplatively amongst the stones and on the earthworks. For the greater part, I’ve had no really spiritual experiences there. No flashes of awen, nothing numinous. A sense of awe at the vision and determination of its builders – every time. The most profound experience I had there was a few years ago when, for the first time, I had chance to walk the site. I went out to Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow and back to the stone circle. There are many sites in the Avebury complex aside from the main stone ring, and seeing some from afar and moving through that landscape was by far the most profound thing I’ve ever done there.

I’ve been to the Nodens temple site at Lydney, once, as a visitor. There were a lot of visitors. It was an interesting experience, but not a profound one. As a ‘pilgrim’ coming in for one visit, what are we expecting from the place we land at? Does that expectation psyche us up to a heightened state so that things feel more profound than otherwise they might? Thinking back to my first visit to Stonehenge, sleep deprived and deeply invested in the experience, I think the answer is ‘yes’. Making an event of pilgrimage, of arrival at the sacred site, we can enchant ourselves into feeling more than otherwise we might.

It may be a bit like the difference between the chemical rush of falling in love, and the depth of a long term relationship. The wildest reactions to another human can be fleeting and soon lost. It takes active, dedicated involvement to make a relationship, with another human or with a place.

All of this suggests to me a case for making pilgrimages over and over again to the same places. Ideally not just driving up and looking around, but moving thoughtfully through the whole landscape, putting the place in its context. Where does the sacredness stop? Of course it doesn’t, there is no line in the land. There’s the limit of how far the tourists normally walk from the car park, and it’s important to find ways of going beyond that limit. If you can’t walk out of and around a site, time spent at the edges, looking out will take you further than you might otherwise have gone. Time spent in the site paying attention to it takes you beyond gawping and into experiencing. The more touristy a site, the more important it is to figure out how to be something other than a tourist in that place if what you really want is a spiritual experience.

Avebury and the Neolithic mind

I love Avebury, I’ve been there many times and the landscape as a whole, with its many ancient features, I find incredibly compelling. I’m not much of a historian, I find it hard keeping dates straight in my head and the who ruled when habits of history don’t agree with me. I’m much more interested in how regular people lived, what they thought and believed, how they organised their lives and so forth.

Nicholas Mann’s Avebury Cosmos is a fascinating book. As the title suggests, it’s very much about archaeo-astronomy, working out how the night sky would have looked at the time of building, and the different stages of development around Avebury, from its early beginnings at the Windmill Hill settlement, through to the building of Silbury, and the abandonment of the site for the overtly solar Stonehenge construction. Mann makes a compelling case for Avebury being a place of star watching.

Knowing very little about the night sky before I started reading, the star information here was hard work, but accessible to me. I learned a lot, and I can honestly say that some of what I learned staggered me, and has left me with huge questions about how we might be shaped by our environments and how, for those ancestors, the order and motion of the night sky might have influenced everything. How the making of something on the scale of Avebury would inevitably change the culture that made it, too.

Issues of geographical layout, dating of constructions and positions of stars are laid out with confidence and authority, often with reference to other authors. As a non-expert I have to take this on trust, but given that these things can be checked, and the manner of presentation, I am happy to trust.

Much of the rest of the writing is concerned with re-constructing Neolithic culture by seeing what can be inferred from the site. Some of the inferences are very logical – the scale, resources, number of hands required and duration of building tell us that there was some kind of organisation here and that Avebury was an important centre drawing workers and celebrators from across the south west. Mann considers the behaviour of other star-watching peoples who left more tangible evidence. He considers later myths and legends that might connect to the site, or to star watching ideas. Frequently he offers multiple interpretations offering an array of suggestions as to what people might have been doing here, and why. The speculation is clearly presented as such, and as there is no great case to make, no rabbit out of hat mystery to solve, it is a much more readable work for someone like me. Mann does not have any big claims or huge answers, but he opens the way to thinking about what life was like around Avebury, and how radically different cultures may have understood their existences. As someone who has a lot of issues with modern culture, these alternative views gave me hope.

Anyone looking for great goddess matriarchy won’t find any direct reference to it here. However, Mann charts the shift from the apparently gentler, less hierarchical organisation of the Neolithic to the first signs of conflict in the resource-poor Bronze age. He talks of climate change, and also the effect of the beginnings of trade in over-production and impoverishing the land. There are lessons here, too and it made me realise how hierarchy and patriarchy depend upon capitalism.

The diagrams are not easy to look at in a kindle, I couldn’t get notes and images onto the screen at the same time, which was frustrating, so I would suggest paper is probably better. If you have any interest in ancient history, stars, or Avebury itself, you want a copy of this book.

Guest Blog: Walking your talk

Mark put this out as an email, and I asked if I could reblog it because I think it’s a great example of doing your druidry, and quite literally walking the talk. So, with his permission, here we go…


By Mark Lindsey Earley

Well, I just about did it! I had foot problems leading up to the walk, so A/ wasn’t able to train very well, and B/ started the walk with very sore feet, which didn’t bode well!

Towards the end it made sense to stow my boots and I did about six miles (where the route was over soft grass) barefoot.

This made it feel even more like a pilgrimage (which in many ways it was, to me). Arriving at the Avebury stone avenue felt very numinous, and being barefoot,  walking at a very sedate and measured pace, holding two staffs, I felt like a bronze age high-priest making a very dignified entrance (and for a while, a bit less like a fat, middle-aged bloke stumbling along like a slowed-down Ozzy Osbourne).

As I approached the Avebury henge I came over all unnccesary. This was probably a combination of relief & achievement; the poignancy of my 300- odd comrades, who were nearly all walking in memory of someone they had lost to dementia, and the sheer magic of having physically linked two of Wiltshire’s (and the world’s) most magical places.

The walk was stunningly well organised and the route was fantastic. I would have expected a few dull bits, or maybe a few short spells trudging alongside busy roads, but we had none of that. The route led through the wild, martial expanses of Salisbury Plain, past barrows, ancient earthworks and target zones (!), down into the vale of Pewsey, through water meadows, parkland and picture-postcard villages, along the Kennet and Avon Canal and then up the huge and dramatic escarpment onto the wonderful Marlborough Downs. We passed  Adam’s Grave, a chalk White Horse, walked along the amazing Wansdyke (the West’s answer to Hadrian’s wall) and past West Kennet Longbarrow. I absolutely love this part of the world.

A huge thank you to all who sponsored me, spread the word, dog-sitted etc. and to John for the loan of two trecking sticks which saved my life.

Anyone who still wishes to donate has until Halloween. I’m 48 % of the way to my target, so please keep the sponsorship coming in. Thank you.

Lots of love



Walking at Avebury

I didn’t blog yesterday because I spent an amazing day at Avebury. I’ve probably been there eight or nine times before, as a visitor, and for Druid rituals. I caught the last few rituals Emma Restall Orr undertook there, and through those met many of the wonderful Druid Network folk.

Tom, being American, had not previously encountered standing stones, so being able to take him into that space was a joy. For those not familiar with the site, Avebury is about 6000 years old, has a magnificent henge earthwork, and would have had one large stone circle with smaller circles inside it. There were avenues coming off, stones from which remain, and many other sites surround it – round barrows, other stone circles, Silbury Hill, the Kennet long barrow, and Stonehenge is in viable striking distance. It’s too big a space, I think, for one big ritual circle, you’d never hear each other over the wind! Different areas of the circle have distinctly different atmospheres, and lend themselves to different sorts of work. There’s also a lot of scope for walking – outside the monument, around the henge and around the stones.

Unlike most ancient sites, Avebury has a village in it, and roads running through it (which gives you a sense of the scale). You can’t experience the circle as a circle, which is odd. But it’s what we’ve got, and the houses have been there for a very long time. I wonder if people always lived here. It’s a place that has a people-friendly quality, it’s comfortable to picnic and sunbathe amongst the stones, and I don’t find the presence of noisy, enthusiastic children in any way out of kilter with the atmosphere. Avebury, for me, has never felt like a place for solemn and secret things. It’s a celebratory place, a community place, and welcoming. Which is as well because it gets hordes of pagans and tourists visiting it.

One of the things I’ve never been able to do before is explore the surrounding area on foot. All sites exist in a context of landscape, and frequently of other sites or areas of habitation as well. Most of our ancient ancestors would have been on foot, so walking between ancient places is an amazing way of communing with the space and the ancestors who worked, lived and worshipped in it. The first thing we did was avoid going by car through the site – no way to make a first encounter. Tom and I walked in together, which was breathtaking. It’s a place with a lot of memories, and ghosts for me, I welled up on the way in, it was painful walking into some of those recollections, but also healing to go back to that. I remembered especially Vicki Williams, whose beautiful song ‘Timeless Land’ was the visiting Avebury anthem for years. It brought back so keenly my grief over her death. I remembered other friendships that had decayed with time, and fleeting connections that I never had chance to explore. There is never scope to do everything.

We walked the inside of the circle (as best you can) and the henge itself – although some of it was closed to allow the grass to re-grow. It’s seldom possible to do the whole thing. Then we followed one of the avenues out, walked over a hill to look at Silbury, and climbed the next hill to the long barrow – I’d not been there before, but the cool and gloom was gorgeous after the sun. Going into old graves is something I find very moving and it ought to get a blog at some point. I could have stayed for hours, but having accepted a lift, that wasn’t an option. We walked back, watching the shifts in perspective, rolling hills hiding and revealing different aspects of the space.

It was one of those experiences where it is hard to pin down in words what it did to me. The sense of connection and involvement with landscape, was deep and personal. It took me further into communion with the space than organised ritual has. I’m increasingly finding that walking is my preferred ritual form. Walking the land, the lines, the circles, the contours, meditating, being in the space, learning, feeling, sharing ideas. It’s only something that would work for very small groups, and is lovely as ritual for two.

Today I am tired, and much of my head is somewhere else. There was so much richness of inspiration yesterday, it will take a while for all of it to filter through properly.

It’s easy to feel like a druid in Avebury, even without the drumming and pageantry of a big gathering. It’s easy to walk those hills and feel connected to the land and the ancestors. At the moment I’m lucky because I am living somewhere that is also beautiful and full of ancestral resonance, but many places aren’t. It’s good to go somewhere that nourishes the soul, but also important to bring that energy back to the places that need it, and to ponder ways of making all space sacred and inspiring in the same way. Not something I can hope to do on my own.