Tag Archives: stonehenge

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

M

 


Living with history

We’ve been wandering around in a cathedral today – something I always like doing. Along the way I read up on glass restoration and the issues it raises. Often, to repair a thing is to change it, especially if you add or replace material. A thing that is repaired enough times may cease to be the original. (Something Pratchett frequently plays with in his fiction). So to what extent should we intervene, to preserve, replace, keep viable, to what extent should historical things be left to crumble? It’s an interesting issue for any pagan to consider because of ancient, historical sites. But I’m going to keep talking about glass.

I’ve been looking today at a big stained glass window in which a number of restoration theories have been tried. It’s a window full of figures. Some have lost their faces due to time. On a couple of people, these have been replaced with plain glass, making the missing bit obvious. The effect, from a distance, is weird. ‘Blobby head’ does not begin to do justice. Then we have the sketched-in faces to give an impression – these stand out as being separate from the original and also jar with it. For added comedy value, a restoration old enough that no one wants to mess with it, has put a beardy face over a woman’s body! Finally there’s a new face replacement that looks like a vibrant piece of stained glass, in keeping with the window as a whole. At a glance you wouldn’t spot that it’s a modern addition. However, the woman represented has been given a fringe / bangs and a jaw line, so that anyone looking closely can tell it isn’t part of the original window from the 1300s.

I’m very much in favour of preserving that which is beautiful or meaningful. I think it’s important to consider the sense of the whole though, alongside authenticity. I saw a wooden knight figure which had been damaged and reassembled, there was a bit of wood missing, but the absence didn’t undermine the sense of the whole. Not like the blank glass blobby faces in the window. “Authentic” may be an issue, but so is “usable” and I am entirely opposed to turning things into museum pieces when they could be kept as living, functional spaces, or items. The idea of museums is relatively recent, most of our ancestors either kept using, or discarded. With finite space, time, resources and money I think it’s fair to question why we keep anything. Not to say that we shouldn’t keep history, but that we ought to consider why we want to hold it ‘in tact’ why we are so alarmed by intrusions from our own time, why we want to pickle history and put it behind glass and only look at it.

The Victorians had an enthusiasm for ‘restoring’ that meant something a lot like ‘making over’ fitting the actual past into their ideas about what they wanted the past to have been. That’s always a risk, but now those Victorians are also part of history. What they did to historical things is part of the world we inherit. Is Victorian history less valuable than 1300s history for being that bit closer? Is it only the scarcity of material from a period that makes it valuable? What we value and preserve, and why, is an important question. How many hovels have you seen preserved as national history? Isn’t it odd how historic worth and money tend to go together?

What do we want the past for? Do we need it to be somehow pristine, untouched by intervening years? That’s so unnatural. I’d rather have a breathing, living thing that is part of now, as well as part of the past. I love modern windows in ancient buildings – if you have to replace something, why make a replica when you can make new? And I love the modern, female figure with her jaw and fringe, who fits, but is not pretending to be of the time. Would I want someone to put Stonehenge back to its original form? Absolutely not. It is how it has become, and there’s no certainty we’d get a reconstruction right. I wouldn’t mind if the road could be taken away from it though. It’s funny, we go mad trying to preserve a specific thing, so often forgetting that it belonged to a context, which mattered. We preserve specific ancient sites, but not the landscapes in which they sit. In focusing on one tree, we forget the forest.

History is good, but making a thing work is more important. A stained glass window full of blank panes and blobby heads may avoid introducing modern matter, but it’s not impact free. It changes the context of all the remaining glass. I’d rather a well considered reworking that respects the integrity of the whole, rather than clinging to the past above all else. I’d rather something that works, and can be touched, than a broken relic doomed to remain forever in a display case.