In existence for some 5000 years, Stonehenge remains a mystical draw for druids and the general public alike.
WORDS: AMY MACPHERSON
By the time you read this, summer solstice will have passed and the face-painted, saxophone-playing, flower-adorned masses will have seen in the dawn of another June 21 at Stonehenge.
Last year brought some 20,000 people to the ancient stone circle on Salisbury Plain, from modern-day pagans and alternative lifestylers to the merely curious. It’s a rare chance for visitors to enter the circle itself and get up close and personal with the stones, which for conservation reasons are normally out of bounds. Since the year 2000 the site’s custodian English Heritage has allowed ‘managed open access’ for special occasions like summer solstice, when visitors can welcome the first rays of the year’s longest day in a festival atmosphere with music, dancing and general revelry.
By all accounts it’s a cracking party, but for many it’s more than that. Druids and other neo-pagan spiritual groups see Stonehenge as a temple, a sacred site for marking one of the most important days on the ancient calendar.
What is it about this ancient monument that draws these pilgrims? The story of Stonehenge is a compound of science, guesswork and myth, and its true origins and purpose will never be known for sure. It’s a monument so old that it was begun before the Pyramids were even a twinkle in a pharaoh’s eye. Medieval legend held that Merlin the magician spirited the stones down from Ireland, and the truth – what we know of it – is hardly less extraordinary.
Stonehenge was a work in progress for thousands of years. The first stage of development began 5000 years ago, when a circular ditch and bank were dug on the site. By around 2600BC, there was some kind of wooden construction at its centre, and the next stage saw the first stones brought to the circle from 2500BC-1500BC. Over this thousand-year period, miraculous feats of prehistoric engineering saw the stones manoeuvred into the formation that is still recognisable today. The logistics of their journey to the site are mind-boggling, particularly the smaller stones on the inside of the circle. Called the bluestones, these are believed to have been taken from a dismantled stone circle in the far west of Wales, then painstakingly transported by boat and land to their current resting place.
Visiting Stonehenge today reveals just how accomplished the ancient builders were, and how well they chose their materials. For despite 5000 years of wear and tear and opportunistic pilfering, enough remains of the monument to give a good idea of what it would have looked like complete. With just a little imagination, you can picture its imposing silhouette against the light of a prehistoric dawn. It isn’t the biggest stone circle in the UK, or even the oldest, but it’s easily the most sophisticated.
Archaeology provides some tantalising glimpses of the people who worked on Stonehenge. We know they were skilled woodworkers, because the techniques used to hold the stones together – such as tongue and groove – are characteristic of carpentry. The resources needed to create such a monument mark it as the work of a political or social elite, and this is backed up by the riches uncovered in the area’s bronze age graves. The most famous of these is the Amesbury Archer, referred to as the King of Stonehenge, who was buried on Salisbury Plain at the same time as the monument’s biggest stones were being brought to the site. Intriguingly, DNA tests showed that he came not from England but the Alpine region, modern-day Austria or Switzerland.
While science can provide some answers to the ‘how’ of Stonehenge, it can’t be so sure of the ‘why’. Over the years, the most popular theories have been that the circle was some kind of prehistoric calendar or astronomical device, a temple to the pagan gods of the sun and moon. It’s widely accepted that the general area had a spiritual significance of some kind, considering the 280 Bronze Age burial mounds dotted around the plain – for some reason, ancient people associated it with the afterlife.
One thing most experts agree on is that Stonehenge was not created as a druid temple, and some use this as grounds for claiming that modern-day druids are barking up the wrong tree when they flock to site at midsummer. The original druids were pagan priests of the Celtic civilisation, which did not arrive until the Iron Age – the circle was created during the earlier Neolithic and Bronze Ages. But world religions aren’t neat categories with start and end dates, and the continuities between druidry and earlier spiritual traditions are unknown. There is also some evidence of Iron Age activity at the site in the form of pottery fragments.
Whatever role their ancestors played in the history of Stonehenge, modern pagans have been drawn to the site since the early 20th century, with the first gathering of druids in 1905. It hasn’t always been an easy ride – access rights have come and gone, and now that managed open access allows anyone to spend midsummer’s dawn at the site, druid rituals are just one facet of the June 21 festivities.
However, three days after the ‘official’ midsummer, a smaller group was set to gather at Stonehenge at dawn without the festive hoopla of the earlier event. The Druid Network believes June 24 is closer to the traditional date of midsummer, and thanks to an agreement with English Heritage, this is when they practice their solstice gathering – the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr.
Christine Cleere, the Lead Priest for the gathering, is diplomatic on the matter of open access.
Personally, I think that the temple of Stonehenge should be open to all, to practise whatever they feel called to do, providing it is done with deep respect, honour and reverence,” she says. “Those who attend the open access are seeking one form of experience and are expressing their spirituality in their own valid way.”
But the peace and quiet of June 24 make it a very different occasion.
“For me, as a druid, working within Stonehenge is a deeply personal spiritual experience, and one where silence and meditation form an exquisite still point within the madness of midsummer,” she says. “Just as Christians would expect respect for, say, Salisbury Cathedral, all we ask is respect for the temple of Stonehenge, and respect for others who wish to celebrate in their own way.”