There Is Something About Stonehenge
A Midsummer Night's Awakening
There’s something about Stonehenge. It’s buried in the soil around here. It’s carved into the stones. It’s marked out in the landscape. It’s in the air you breathe.
You look at it from some angles and its just a jumble of useless old stones littering the earth, but from another – from behind one of the triathlons, say, looking out over the sunrise above the heel stone on solstice morning – it is grand, it is epic, it is iconic, it is unique. It is cosmic, in fact. You take a photograph of that and you show it to any one, anywhere in the world, and they will know where it is.
But it’s not just the stones: the whole landscape is scattered with forms: with burial mounds and processional avenues, and standing stones, and other great circles. Durringdon Walls is nearby, as is Woodhenge. They are all part of the same grand complex. There were houses here too, thousands of them. And every year, maybe two times a year, people would descend upon this place from all over the country and from abroad, bringing their animals with them, their whole families, from every direction, to hold some kind of a celebration.
You can sense this in the landscape. You can feel that this was once a thriving community, full of life, full of action. The humps of the burial mounds lined up in rows, the shapes carved into the landscape, the wide, high plain stretching out all around, all speak of a sacredness and a presence, a purpose. And one thing is clear. One thing we can be sure of. Whatever other purpose this structure in stone is designed for, whatever other activities might have gone on around here, it’s main purpose was time.
Stonehenge is a clock. It’s a great calendrical-clock. It measures out the days. It tells you what part of the year you are in. It is very precise. It tells you the exact moment of the Summer Solstice, and the exact moment of the Winter Solstice, the longest day and the shortest day. It tells you the exact moment of the Equinoxes, the days when night and day are of equal length. The people who built it were very sophisticated. This monument, this temple, this timekeeper, this clock, was raised here, at this specific point on the Earth’s crust, to give you a precise reading. Nowhere else would do.
It is an observatory. From here you can view the stars and take a measure of them. You can see the movement of the stars across the night sky, but you can also measure the movement between the stones. This gives you a reading of time. Time is space. It is movement. It is distance. As time moves, so the Earth moves, so the stars move, and by sitting in the centre of the circle here at Stonehenge, you can take an exact measure of all of this. From here, perhaps, in this centre of time, came the standardisation of measure which brought the world together.
The University of Time and Mind
The houses they have found around here conform to a type which existed throughout the British Isles. They had built in beds and cupboards, a hearth in the centre, a pounded chalk floor. They were built of wood and thatch here in Stonehenge, but of stone in the Orkneys, where wood was unavailable, but they are clearly the same design. Thus you can say that the civilisation which built this great monument to time was one which stretched throughout these Isles. The stone circles which litter the landscape of Britain are evidence of a unified culture. The pigs they brought to the great pig-feast which took place at the winter solstice in Durrington walls came from many miles away. Thus we can see people travelling across the land, using the ancient track-ways and trade routes, to gather together in this place, to celebrate a common time and a common purpose recognised by all the people of their time.
People gathered here. All of the ancients track ways point towards it. It is too great an enterprise to have been undertaken by only one tribe. All of the tribes must have taken part. Perhaps they sent their brightest and best here to learn the art of the stars and the meaning of time. Their artists, their poets, their priests, and their magicians. Their scientists. Their musicians. Their engineers. Their workers in stone and wood.
Perhaps it was the University of Time and Mind for a great civilisation which embraced the whole known world.
There was a city nearby. The city housed the workers. Perhaps, too, it housed the magicians and the intellectuals, the ones who had devised this great scheme, who had worked out in precise detail how the whole thing was to be done. The bluestones came from 150 miles away, from the Preceli Mountains in West Wales. They must have been dragged overland, or brought by rafts along the coast and up the rivers. Why the bluestones were chosen and how they were brought here isn’t known. Perhaps it will never be known. But it is a feat of engineering, of organisation, of almost unimaginable grandeur and, once more, it links the country together into a whole.
Later the sarsen stones were brought. These are much larger, though the distances are less. They were probably brought from Salisbury Plain itself, or from the Marlborough Downs. They are a type of sandstone, created by sand bound with silica cement, very hard, very dense. It was a huge undertaking to move them. The sarsens weigh up to 30 tons. They had to have been dragged overland, perhaps by means of rollers. Then they had to be carved and raised into the upright position and the lintels lifted to sit on top of them. The joints between the lintels and the upright stones were mortise and tenon joints. The tenons were cut into the upright stones and the mortises into the lintels. The joints must have been precisely measured to fit. And then the lintels are carved to make a neat circle, like the circle of the horizon. The whole thing must have taken years, perhaps decades, to finish, using only stone tools, stone to cut stone. There must have been a dedicated team working on the structure year in, year out. Once erected, with the sarsens hefted into holes in the ground, and then linked together by the lintels, with all that huge weight bearing down, it would have made a very solid structure indeed, which nothing less than an earthquake would have moved.
Woodhenge and Durringdon Walls
The use of mortise and tenon joints makes something else clear too. These joints are normally associated with wood-working, so the people who built Stonehenge were clearly craftsmen in wood before they were craftsmen in stone. Perhaps, then, we can imagine other great structures in the landscape, but built of wood rather than of stone. Certainly Woodhenge, which is part of the wider Stonehenge complex, about a mile away, overlooking Durrington Walls, was one of these. Now it just consists of a collection of concrete posts laid out to mark out where the wooden posts were once buried. There are 168 posts altogether, laid out very close together in concentric circles inside a bank and a ditch. The post holes are sizeable, meaning that the original posts could have been fairly substantial too: perhaps even whole tree trunks weighing up to 5 tons each. Like Stonehenge it is orientated to the midsummer sunrise but, unlike Stonehenge, the closeness of the posts would have made it impossible to have held a gathering within its confines.
So what was it for, exactly? We do not know. But we can imagine. Was it decorated? Was it painted? Was it carved? Was it roofed? How tall was it? Did it, too, have mortise and tenon joints connecting one level with another? Perhaps there was more than one storey. Perhaps it towered up above the landscape like an ancient pagoda, tier on tier, like an observation platform from which to view the landscape.
The whole vast complex, consisting of stone circles and wood circles and standing stones and avenues, took hundreds of years to evolve. There are several phases of building, and several sites where work was going on. Indeed, there is evidence of activity here over 10,000 years ago. Possibly it was a sacred site long before any of the major structures were begun. Possibly observations of the movement of the sun and stars from this vantage point go back many thousands of years.
And there were great feasts here too, great carnivals of indulgence, where huge quantities of pig meat were consumed at the mid-winter festival. It was the Old Stone Age version of Christmas. Possibly it was Christmas. It represented the death and the rebirth of the sun. The sun is stuck on the horizon. It stands still for three days. That is the meaning of the word “solstice”: standing-still sun. Maybe it feels like all of the energy of the sun is gone. The sun is dying. The light is at its weakest and the dark is at its strongest. The people mourn the passing of the sun and give encouragement for its return. They light huge fires which burn incessantly, day and night.
The three kings of the belt of Orion follow the brightest star Sirius, in a line, pointing towards the exact place on the horizon where the new sun will be reborn. And then it is born: a new sun. A new king. A new year. A new beginning. Thus time is circular and the old always gives way to the new, which always grows old again, forever and ever, Amen.
And then, on this day, the day of the new sun, in the thirteen month of the year, perhaps the people celebrated. Perhaps they drank. They were known as “the Beaker People” because of the vessels they used. The beakers were of decorated clay. We can only imagine what they were filled with. With cider, perhaps, which is easy to make. You put apples in a pot and leave them, and they start fermenting themselves, from wind-blown yeasts. Press the juices out of these pots and there you have it: cider. Possibly they put other things in the pots too: like psychedelic mushrooms which would have aided in communication with the gods of the place. The psychedelic mushrooms would have been gathered at the autumn equinox.
Certainly they ate. They ate huge quantities of pig meat. The bones of the pigs are piled up in that place, from centuries of seasonal celebration. Perhaps the pig bones were thrown on the fire, so that the hidden fat spluttered and burned, and the bones exploded from the heat, sending sprays of sparks into the air, to make a firework display. Perhaps they were the original “bone-fires”. And then, later maybe, they dragged the bones from the fire and interpreted the blackened cracks that were formed as a way reading the future. Was this going to be a good year or a bad year? What do the auguries proclaim? Perhaps it was from “reading” the cracks in the bones that the art of writing was developed. Thus reading the future became a way of holding the past, and time became circular once more.
The Christmas that People Forgot
But then, these people didn’t only have one Christmas, they had two. They had one for the mid-winter, and one for the mid-summer. That too is the time of the standing-still sun, when the victory of light over darkness is complete. But in this moment the seed of winter lies, and the darkness begins to creep back. It is the birth of the dark-god, a time of fruitfulness, but also of decay. The people will stay up all night to watch the rising of the sun on the morning of the longest day, to watch it flash it’s fire above the heel stone, as it does now, bringing its impregnating light into the centre of the circle.
And perhaps that is the meaning of Stonehenge, because if you look, all around the landscape there are burial mounds. Lines and lines of burial mounds, circling the monument like planets in the solar system. So Stonehenge is the land of the dead, the place where the dead are buried, where the most important figures from all the tribes are brought at the end of their lives. Perhaps this is another example of its unifying purpose: that all the different tribes brought their heroes here to be buried, their priest-kings and oracles, their magicians and their poets, their warriors and their queens.
So then maybe the stones represent the dead, and the light of the sun represents life. The stones are in a circle, like a womb. A womb of cold stones, the womb of the dead. So the light of the rising sun pierces the womb to bring life to the dead. Light that quickens, that brings the dead back to life. Perhaps that is the meaning. The Old Ones believed in reincarnation, in the circle of life. Perhaps they brought their dead here to be reborn. See the red fire of the sun creeping over the stones, blushing them with its sexual energy. Feel the warmth of the sun pulsating into the dark earth, bringing forth its buds of life. Out of the darkness comes life, and life proclaims life, and no one ever dies.
This is the Christmas that people forgot, the other Christmas, celebrated from time immemorial, in ages past. Even in Medieval times it was still celebrated, as the feast of the Nativity of St. John: the John in question being John the Baptist. It was second only to the birth of Christ in its importance. Shakespeare knew about it, and populated the festival with Fairy Queens and dunces, with high art and mummer plays, with spells and enchantments, with Oberon and Puck. It is clear from Shakespeare’s writing that the mid-summer festival was deeply significant to the popular mind of the early 17th century, and that it incorporated a veritable riot of folk-lore themes in which hidden elemental forces were portrayed.
The term “heel stone” - referring to the specific stone which lies outside the circle, and above which the sun rises on the Solstice morning – might refer to the fact that it “heels” at an angle. Or it might be that it should really be spelled “Hele stone”: Helios being Greek for the sun. Stonehenge is a temple of the sun. It measures the sun’s journey through the year. It is dedicated to the sun, the great life-giver of our world. It is built to celebrate a sunrise. And in this it reminds us of something else. In some ways a sunrise can seem like a mundane event, maybe. Certainly it is an everyday event. But it is also a cosmic event, meaning that it takes place in the cosmos. It links the sun and the earth into an interlocking embrace of cosmic proportions. We tend to see it only from our own perspective. But did the builders of Stonehenge know more than this? Did they understand the complex interrelationship of the sun to the planets, and of the planets to the earth? It is tempting to believe that they did.
What is true is that they made precise observations of what was going on in the sky and that they could make predictions about it. Stonehenge is a prediction. It is a prediction in stone. It knows beforehand where the sun will be at a certain time of the year. This is the significance of Stonehenge, then as now, that it places us within the cosmos. It links us to the sky. We are made whole by it. We are earth beings, but we are sky beings too. This is what Stonehenge was built to celebrate. This is why people came here. This is why people come here still.
So the people gathered. They gathered at the mid-winter, and they gathered at the mid-summer, to celebrate the turning of the year. They did this for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. They came from all directions, from all parts of the land. Stonehenge linked them, as it links us now. It is the very heart of these Isles.
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