Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Druids and Stonehenge

Just what did the Druids have to do with the building and use of Stonehenge?

The Druids did not build Stonehenge but the people of the land where Druidism flourished most certainly did build it. The effects of the stones and the other structures from the Stone ages of the past left their mark on the Druidic lore just as they left their marks on the Celtic cultures in which the Druids flourished. Celtic culture can be placed backward in time to when Stonehenge was still in use. Whether Celts and Druids used it is a hypothesis that has not been fully developed by research or in the academic literature. What can be said is that Stonehenge marked Celtic culture in much the same way that it affects modern culture. It is food for the psyche and the mysterious.

FWIW the time of the last use and alteration of Stonehenge was placed at 1240 BCE by Wainwright and Renfrew in The Henge Monuments. This dating leaves little gap between it and Celtic culture arriving in Britain. Of course, the Druids are sometimes considered to predate Celtic culture. One of the definitions of Druidism is the Way of the Men of the Oak. Worship and veneration of the Oak as a representative of deity goes back many thousands of years. In fact, it goes back over 20,000 years in Europe. According to Stuart Piggott as quoted originally by Anne Ross in her book, Druids:

"We are in fact ignorant of what may well have been many varieties of religious experience among the European and Neolithic communities from the sixth to the third millennium BC and their contribution to later Celtic religion is a wholly unknown factor. ... By the time of the historically documented Druids the background of possible religious tradition would then be roughly as follows. Taking as a starting point the forms of Celtic religion as inferred from archaeology, epigraphy and the classical and vernacular texts there are three main antecedent phases. The first would be the traditions, predominantly Indo-European, going back to the second millennium, and perhaps to its beginnings. Behind this again would be the wholly obscure religions of the Neolithic agriculturists with, in Gaul, and especially Britain, eastern and western components mixed from the end of the fourth millennium BC. Finally, underlying all, there would be the beliefs and rites of the hunting peoples of pre-agricultural Europe which might well have contained elements surviving in shamanism. It is a pedigree which could be a good twenty thousand years in length. Druidism, when we first encounter it, is an integral part of the social structure of Celtic Gaul; it is an Indo-European institution with, whatever criticisms may be leveled against the over-elaborate schemes of Dumézil and his school, analogues in the Brahmin class of Sanskrit India or archaic priesthoods of early Rome. But there are distinctive elements which may owe their existence to those earlier sources of European religious tradition we have just sketched out."

Druidism has it roots twenty thousand years in the past of Britain and Europe and its more recent branches go back four to five thousand years ago in Europe and Britain. Druids existed among the Celts at the earliest recorded historical reports of them and they were an established priesthood at that time. The conservatism of Indo-European priesthoods is well documented and an accepted *given* when considering their origins and long term effects on their cultures. Druids and Druidism are not exceptions to this rule. Druids most probably were present and used Stonehenge in the late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. The only question is whether they were known by that name at that time. There was certainly a priesthood and there were most certainly oaks used in the henges and other sacred enclosures before during and after that

I also think that a cult of the oak and a cult of the Sun existed in ancient Europe long before recorded history and is supported by archaeological findings and anthropological interpretations of the data. The name Druid is thought to be composed of two Indo-European roots which mean "Oak" and "Knowledge." Priests of Oak Knowledge seem to have existed back to the times when oaks were used to structure sacred enclosures and ritual sites.

There was little possibility of calling these priests Druids until Indo-European language and culture arrived on the scene. The earliest that could have occurred is concurrent with the building and rebuilding of the three major phases of Stonehenge however.

Stonehenge is a physical representation of the center of the universe as a site for spiritually enacting rituals that tie the people to the place and the power within it. That characteristic of it has been acknowledged by many people and cultures who've come in contact with it over the years. In fact, such monumental structures as Stonehenge certainly epitomizes are built as symbols of power, are used as ritual centers and continue their existence across cultures due to their symbolic nature. New people borrow and adapt it to their own power structures and prestige as a symbol and a center of their own power. To a lesser extent, that is what is happening to and at Stonehenge even today.

As to a differentiation of sacred and secular in cultures, societies and among people in the near, old, ancient and prehistoric past, let me recommend that you read Symbols of Power at the Time of Stonehenge by D.V., Clarke, T.G. Gowie and A. Foxon. It contains pictures and detailed discussions of the possibilities regarding this issue:

"The dominant monuments in the British landscape at the beginning of this period were the large communal burying places -- conspicuous landmarks whose size and silting suggest that they played a major role in defining social groups and maintaining their cohesion, Gradually regional groupings began to acquire greater importance, exercising control over the design and construction of large monuments -- henges, stone circles -- which were created for use by the living, involving considerable resources. Leaders of these groups acquired prestige good as symbols of their power."

This was only 5000 to 6000 years ago. Going further back into the past, one finds that social groups were more dispersed and that their ritual or social structures were less organized on a grand scale. However, this didn't prevent them from having sacred objects or locations. Many of these have survived from then to now and have been uncovered by archaeologists and explorers. Caves and cave paintings, streams, wells and springs, mountains and forests were the ritual centers in the past, formed as surely as the "things" in Norse tradition and discovered by the spiritual specialists of the people and their tribes.

One can look to the artifacts that have survived in Europe from the last Ice Age going back 30,000 to 40,000 years to see items that can be considered to be ritual item, whether portable or fixed. Some of these artifacts might be a blending of science and ritual attitudes (such as the bone plaque from the Aurignacian levels at the Blanchard rock shelter of S.W. France - Cunliff, p. 71 of Prehistoric Europe, 1997). This place is a series of holes and patterns on bone that could be interpreted as indicating the phases of the Moon. In the Mesolithic we find evidence of social change in burials, symbols and art that suggest shamanism was important to the tribal functions of the people. Into the Neolithic times these social and religious functions became even more organized as the hunter gatherer societies yield to farming which led to settlements and a greater accumulation of wealth and power in those locations. This is when the great henge monuments, passage graves and other sacred centers begin to appear as a result of this human, social; organization and greater prosperity.

The archaeological record in Europe seems to show that humans have always seen the sacred as being a part of the everyday, but it also has been accompanied by an esoteric and magical outlook that points to the sacred and the spiritual as being beyond this interaction. As societies have developed, this attitude has caused many sacred areas, sites and monuments to be constructed as focal points for ritual practice and spiritual expression. In this desire to communicate beyond the ordinary, art has been a close associate of religion and the two are often found together. This associated spans the entirety of human existence since at least the last Ice Age in the archaeological record and the human psyche.

In my study of Druids, henges and the past of the British Isles I've read a lot of books by archaeologists, astronomers, mathematicians and mystics about Stonehenge, Newgrange and other Neolithic and Bronze Age structures. Here are two such works and some of the central points and issues they attempt to make in direct quotes from the authors/books themselves:

John North, Stonehenge, a New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos, The Free Press, 1996:

"It will not of course be suggested that the monument on Salisbury Plain was an astronomical observatory, at least in the current meaning of that word. The stones were not erected as a means to investigating the heavens in a detached and abstract way. The aim was not to discover the patterns of behavior of the Sun, Moon or stars but to embody those patterns, already known in broad outline, in religious architecture. There are signs that such ritualized architecture had been practiced in the Wessex neighborhood and elsewhere for over a thousand years before the first phases of the building of Stonehenge. While that monument in stone surpassed all before it, in architectural subtlety as well as in grandeur, to appreciate even this point one must know something of the earthen and timber structures that went before it and consequently about half of this book is concerned with that earlier material."

He goes on to strongly suggest that the positioning of the timber posts in these structures offers a more reliable and precise testimony as to how the Sun. Moon and stars could have been observed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Additionally he shows how the landscape and the heavens were coupled to these structures through human activities, tools and constructions. He suggests that the most precise alignments were on stars and that these are the alignments most often found in almost all of these structures.

Geoffrey Wainwright and Colin Renfrew in The Henge Monuments, Ceremony and Society in prehistoric Britain, pp. 164-165, Thames and Hudson, 1990:

"The building of communal monuments -- the great henges and timber buildings was a deliberate strategy by those holding power to maintain the social order and to increase their control over it, They were symbols of group identity which not only assisted in the cohesion of the group but would also have contributed to increased status and power for the individual who could manipulate the feelings of power and permanence which they must have inspired in the population. John Cherry has considered the role of such monuments in early societies and has pointed out that their construction consistently occurs at two points in the cyclical development of such groups. The first period of monument building takes place while societies are at a formative stage and assists in binding them into a coherent organization by providing a common focus for their activities and aspirations. There may then be a reduction in the intensity of public works until a second phase of monument building takes place as the fabric of that society decays. At this stage their construction can act as a way of focusing the communal will and efforts as an act of integration. Viewed in retrospect across 5,000 years of human settlement in these islands, public monuments coincide with periods of change. In Wessex, the henge monuments and timber buildings involved far greater investment of manpower than earlier monuments and they belong to a formative stage when a phase of economic expansion was taking place."

Wainwright and Renfrew go on to say:

"Questions about the use of the great enclosures has, up to now, polarized between views as to whether they were symbols of group identity manipulated by powerful individuals to enhance their own status, or whether they were the centres of learned orders, skilled in advanced astronomical and geometrical knowledge. The protagonist of the latter theory has been Euan MacKie who claimed the existence of a central authority with magical expertise and saw the timber buildings as the residences of this elite group. This theory was largely based on the work of Alexander Thom who espoused the view that some very advanced astronomical and geometrical knowledge had accumulated in Brittany and Britain well before 1800 BC. From this, McKie went on to postulate a learned and skilled professional order of wise men whose members were able to pursue their studies full-time while supported by the population, and could command the labour required to erect hundreds of henge monuments, stone circles and standing stones, some of which were their 'observatories'."

The two go on to suggest that recent work has cast doubt on some of Thom's theories and that the theory viewing these structures as centers of power and prestige for the ruling individuals is more in favor. Of course, the work of North above argues just the opposite viewpoint that these were ritual centers organized for use in spiritual matters as well as astronomical observation and acknowledgement. If one follows the lead of North and MacKie, then the profile of Druids as wise men, with knowledge of the stars and a high positioning within their society matches well with their theories and the factors that brought the henges into being in the first place. I wouldn't be surprised that Druids used such structures for star and ritual work. I'd be surprised if they didn't given what we know and what was reported about them in these two areas. The theory presented also would seem to strongly suggest that Druids (or priesthoods like them) actually did construct Stonehenge, Woodhenge and a vast number of other Neolithic and Bronze Age sacred enclosures.

I'd also like to suggest that one take a look at the work of Alexander Thom and later Clive Ruggles regarding Neolithic structures and astronomical uses:

Clive Ruggles, Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, p. 159, Yale University Press, 1999.

"And there is certainly evidence (albeit almost entirely indirect) that the Druids, the principle mediators between the natural and the supernatural world of Celtic times, had considerable practical knowledge of astronomy and calendrics. Last of all, hitherto unsuspected patterns of continuity of material tradition from earlier times through to the Iron Age, as have been suggested recently in the case of timber circles, imply that one should not retain an entirely closed mind about the continuity from even older sacred or calendrical traditions."

Ruggles offers up an example of astronomical alignments in Ireland which have also been tied to Celtic sacred rituals and times through archaeological excavations. This connection takes that particular Celtic practice back to an earlier time of 2000 BC and continuing for 2000 years or more. His cites in support of the above quote and the point of my discussion are:

Cunliffe, Barry W. and Colin Renfrew, eds (1997), Science and Stonehenge (Proceedings of the British Academy, 92). Oxford University Publishing.

Piggott, Stuart, (1968) The Druids, London, Thames and Hudson.

Gibson, Alex (1995), 'The dating of timber circles: new thoughts in the light of recent Irish and British discoveries,' In John Waddell and Elizabeth Shee Twohig (eds.), Ireland in the Bronze age, Stationary Office, Dublin, 87-89.

Ruggles says something similar to what noted Celtic scholar John Carey has to say about continuity of traditions from the Neolithic through the Iron Age in Celtic and Druidic traditions, practices and ritual sites:

Carey, John, (Time, Memory, and the Boyne Necropolis, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 10/11, 1990 and 1991, edited by Harvard Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures Edited by William J. Mahon
Edited by Phillip Freeman

In his article, Carey emphasizes the point that the Celtic people had a continuity of traditions from the Neolithic through the Iron age. He discusses an Early Modern Irish retelling of the story about how 'Angus Won the Brugh.' This is contained in the tale, "Altram Tighe Dá Mheadar" (The Fosterage of the House of the Two Vessels) to illustrate that the sacred nature of Newgrange was recognized by the people who encountered it, lived near it and were influenced by it. Other such locations of continuity of tradition are Stonehenge, Crough Patrick and countless sites in Ireland, Scotland, Britain and the Continent. In Britain, the tales of Arthur and Merlin seem to echo this kind of continuity.

As John Carey says in his article on Newgrange:

"In the case of Newgrange, we must therefore suppose not only that there was some cultural link between its builders and the first speakers of Goidelic in Ireland, but that this link exercised a formative influence on the belief system of the latter. Again, the survival of some version of these ancient doctrines in the medieval literature indicates that the world-view of the Irish remained, at least in certain respects, astonishingly stable throughout the intervening centuries: the Boyne legends were still relevant, and important, in the Christian period."

In his statements and conclusions, Carey is referring to the use of Newgrange as a cosmological and astronomical timepiece and observatory, confirmed through archaeology and astronomy as well as preserved and conserved in the Irish legends associated with it. I believe that there probably is a similar situation occurring in the case of Stonehenge as its presence translates the original intention of its builders through layers of Celtic and Druidic traditions onward to the psyches and impressions of modern times.

A tale for you of a wonder hill, the Red One's home and the Young Son's arrival:

" 'Do you know, Oengus,' said Manannán, 'that this house is not suitable for Elcmar, and that he is not worthy of the stronghold, and that the Bruig, will not always be his? When we are seated in the drinking-hall, arise before Elcmar and command him to depart, for that will be a good omen and good luck for you, and destruction and misfortune for him. And the means of his expulsion will be the charm (sén) through which the angels came from the King of heaven and the Lord of the universe, the charm through which we took the sovereignty of Ireland from the Fir Bolg, the charm through which the sons of Míl in turn took the lordship of Ireland from us. Command him not to come (again) to the house from which he departs until "ogam" and "achu" are mingled together, until heaven and earth are mingled together, and until sun and moon are mingled together (nogu cumusgti ogham 7 achu re chéile, 7 nocu cumusgi neam 7 talamh ara céile, 7 nogu cumusgi grian 7 ésga ara chéile).' "

It's small wonder that the legends of Stonehenge have Merlin magically transporting them from Ireland to the Salisbury Plain over night through Druidical incantations.
Searles O'Dubhain
The Summerlands

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