‘Going Native’ at Stonehenge

Posted on June 27, 2011


From a Guest Blogger:

Having grown up not five miles from Stonehenge I feel a certain affinity with the stones and with the surrounding countryside. The area is fantastic for walks and many views are stunning: that from my bedroom at sunset was one of the best though unfortunately there is no chance of seeing Stonehenge in that direction.

As a child I dutifully went along with my parents to the Salisbury Museum in the Cathedral Close and read how the stones were dragged (probably) from Wales, carved (most likely) with a combination of fire, cold water and axes (or hammers: it is difficult to tell)  and then erected with the help of pulleys (we assume) into a circle so that Druids (although there is some doubt about that) might celebrate the Summer Solstice. About this last detail, too, there is contention since the stones are in fact better aligned for observation of the Winter solstice and modern ‘druidical’ practices now reflect this: the druids gather there not only in June (as they have done since 1905), but also in December.

Furthermore, to the best of our knowledge no identifiable descendants of those who built Stonehenge survive (or did not at least did not take any pains so to identify themselves until the beginning of the twentieth century). There are, regretfully, no records from the place and time of Stonehenge’s construction that tell us why the stones were so arranged or what religious rites (druidical or other) took place there. It is curious indeed that we should assume that any religious rites were observed. For all the insistence of the New Atheists that non-theism is Man’s natural state we all seem quite happy to assume Stonehenge was religious in its purpose, as if religion were the one thing that we might reliably posit in a prehistoric society that arranged stones in a circle. But I digress…

William Stukeley: Founder of modern Druidism

For those of us born close to those rather large stones on Salisbury Plain it is difficult to understand quite why anyone today might want to establish a religion based on rites long since defunct. Round about there are any number of Anglican parishes that are, doubtless, as spiritually accommodating as anyone might wish (one of the first neo-druids was in fact an Anglican clergyman) and that can at least make some legitimate claim to a truly ancient and living religious heritage. One suspects, however, that such might seem too bourgeois to the latter-day druids and pagans who gather for the solstices. Perhaps the organised religion of the Christian can seem at times to lack the (pseudo-)asceticism of modern druidry as practised by one the more eccentric of their leaders, Arthur Uther Pendragon (born John Rothwell in Wakefield, Yorkshire), who has spent much of the last few years living in a caravan near Stonehenge and surviving on the generosity of people he happens to meet.

There is also to all of this perhaps a more cosy nostalgia (though probably not in a caravan) than parish council meetings are capable of creating. The ceremonial robes of modern druids bear a remarkable resemblance to those worn by Iron-Age re-enactment societies, while those of Arthur Pendragon himself look like something out of Lord of the Rings. Perhaps some are wont to feel there is something more authentically human in a caravan life lived out next to a World Heritage site than in fighting through traffic morning and night, something indeed more fundamental to human nature about which the stones can remind us. Spirituality is something modern life seems at times ready-made to exclude, and there is nothing per se odd about a desire to worship something greater than ourselves. However, the departure from human reason that seems to accompany druidical beliefs (statements of faith are hard to come by and there is little in the way of druidical apologetics) suggests that this is not going to emerge as a world-defining religion any time soon. We must not forget that whatever it is that Pendragon and his associates might know about human nature it was most definitely absent for quite a while. Britain as a whole, and Salisbury Plain in particular, did remarkably well without knowing druidism and witchcraft. It would be a mistake to believe that such alternately fanciful and secretive religious practices might heal our curiously virtuous but flawed human nature. Like the freemasonry of neo-druidism’s founder they are, at best, childish and at worst, if actually taken seriously, devilish.

Ultimately, what heritage Stonehenge really represents is unclear. What it was truly made for is forgotten and the local people identify with that monument as nothing more than a curious arrangement of stones near the horizon. Maybe there were human sacrifices there, maybe they had harvest-festival-like services from a druidical book of common prayer. My advice is that, if you want to do as the natives did, enjoy the scenery, then go to the pub.


Photo Credit: David Ball

Posted in: Culture, Religion