AN ANCIENT TEMPLE TO FORGOTTEN GODS?
Stonehenge, Nr Salisbury, Wiltshire.
Stonehenge is located around two miles to the west of the town of Amesbury in Wiltshire and is about 90 miles to the west of London.
Stonehenge exerts a powerful force that brings people from all across the globe to experience its magical aura and to stand in wonder beneath this monument to a forgotten people, whose everyday lives and beliefs can now only be guessed at.
Indeed, arguments still rage over the origins of this ancient enigma - for the truth is that nobody knows for certain who it was that built Stonehenge and what its original purpose was.
WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF STONEHENGE?
Could it have been a place for religious rituals? Was it intended as an observatory for predicting important astronomical events? Was it used as a place of worship and sacrifice by the Druids?
The truth is that we actually know very little about Stonehenge. As Lord Byron pointed out in his poem Don Juan:-
"...The Druid's groves are gone - so much the better. Stonehenge is not, but what the devil is it?..."”
LEGENDS ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF STONEHENGE
Early mention of Stonehenge was made in 1135 by that great weaver of colourful legends the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth.
He claimed that the stones were brought from Africa to Ireland by a tribe of giants, and from there the great wizard Merlin flew them across the sea to their current location!
TWO TYPES OF STONE
It is worth noting that two distinctive types of stones were used in the construction of Stonehenge, bluestones and sarsens.
Neither of these are, or were, readily available in the immediate vicinity.
LOCATION THAT THE SARSENS CAME FROM
The nearest place from which stones the size of the large sarsens could have been brought from (the heaviest of which weighs in at a hefty forty five tons) is the Marlborough Downs situated 18 miles to the north east of the site.
BLUESTONES FROM WALES
As for the bluestones they probably came from the north flank of the Prescelly Mountains inWales, and their transportation must have been a colossal undertaking for those times.
HOW THE STONES WERE BROUGHT TO STONEHENGE
It is believed that the stones were carried by raft around the coast of Wales to Bristol, then transported up local rivers and heaved overland until finally being lugged on rollers up the avenue that approaches Stonehenge, where they were then erected to form two circles.
Considering the achievement of getting the stones to the site and the effort required to then erect them, is it any wonder that our more recent ancestors came to see the hand of sorcery or even the hand of the devil in their construction?
MEANING AND ORIGINS OF THE NAME STONEHENGE
It was the Saxons who named the stones 'Stonehenge' or the 'Hanging Stones.'
In the 12th century, Henry of Huntingdon claimed that they were given this name because the stones appear to float, a claim that is made about many stone circles.
However, it is also possible that the name is an over-literal translation of the Anglo Saxon hengen which means both hanging and gallows.
AURELIUS, MERLIN AND THE MURDEROURS SAXONS
Medieval writers, from Geoffrey of Monmouth onwards, refer to the monument as the "Giant's Dance," and repeat the assertion that Aurelius Ambrosius, King of the Britons, wished to construct a memorial over the site where 400 hundred and sixty British ‘Consuls and Princes’ - who had been massacred at a banquet by the treacherous Saxons - lay buried.
He sought the advice of Merlin who told him to send for the Giants Dance from Kilarus, a mountain in Ireland.
UTHER PENDRAGON SENT TO FETCH THE STONES
Aurelius sent his brother Uther Pendragon together with an army of 15,000 men to bring the stones to him, and although they had no problem defeating the native Irish - who, quite naturally, weren’t keen on letting their monument go - the inavading army found that moving the stones was an almost impossible task.
So Merlin intervened and, using a series of engines, he was able to transport them down to the sea and thence by ship to Britain, where they were erected exactly as they had stood in Ireland.
KNOWN FACTS ABOUT STONEHENGE
Inigo Jones the 17th-century architect - and the first person to make a serious study of Stonehenge - concluded that it had been a Roman temple.
In the 18th century the antiquarian and freemason William Stukeley won overwhelming support for his theory that Stonehenge had in fact been a ‘Temple of the British Druids’.
ARCHAEOLOGISTS BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND STONEHENGE
Only in the 20th century were archaeologists able to gain an understanding of the monuments real age and arrive at a more realistic assessment of its true purpose.
Numerous prehistoric remains are scattered across the open countryside around Stonehenge. They stand as testimony to the strong collective activity of our distant ancestors, who grazed their cattle, grew their crops, and worshipped their Gods on and around Salisbury Plain.
THE ORIGINS OF STONEHENGE
In around 3500 BC work was begun to build Stonehenge, which it has been established, was built in three phases over a period that spanned around 1500 years.
The first stage was the construction of the circular bank and ditch that contains the Aubrey holes - named after the 17th century antiquarian John Aubrey, who included a plan of Stonehenge in his lengthy and discursive Monumenta Brittanicca.
It was at this time that the first of the standing stone was erected outside the single entrance to the circle.
THE SECOND STAGE IN THE CONSTRUCTION
The second stage began some 200 or more years later. It was during this phase of the construction that the Bluestones were transported to the site from Wales.
However, not long afterwards, these were taken down and the giant stones that dominate the site today - and which form most peoples most abiding impression Stonehenge’s appearance - were re-erected in their place.
A VERITABLE AND SKILLED WORKFORCE
Some of these stones weigh around 26 tons and stand eighteen feet high by 7 feet wide, so it is safe to assume that a veritable army of workmen must have struggled with their erection.
They were evidently skilled craftsmen, for they wrought the stones to make them slightly convex, slotted them into place with lintels that covered each of the two vertical stones and then hinged them into place by use of ball and socket joints.
These trilithons - so called because three stones were fitted together - were constructed in the circle and horseshoe shape that is still visible today. Later the dismantled bluestones were rebuilt
THE FINAL STAGES IN THE CONSTRUCTION
Some 1500 years after the beginning of Stonehenge the final changes took place.
The bluestones were dismantled yet again and re-erected inside the circle where they can be seen today and where they give the distinct impression of cowering beneath the colossal trilithons.
THE ALTAR STONE
At the same time, the stone now known as the Altar Stone, a large block of green sandstone from Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire, was set up in front of one of the trilithons.
The thousands of man hours that those who constructed the stones, together with the detailed planning, testify to Stonehenge’s being very important to the peoples of that time.
The fact that its designers - and there can be no doubt whatsoever that this is an elaborately designed monument - carefully selected and the blue and green stones and then had them transported to the site from Wales is evidence that these particular stones must have had a particular significance for them.
MORE THAN JUST A MEETING PLACE
Stonehenge was evidently not intended as a mere meeting place for the local community, but today any discussion of its original purpose can be little more than speculation, although a few tantalising clues do offer a glimmer of light as to its possible function. Cremation burials found in the Aubrey Holes, clearly show, for example, that funerary rites were once performed at Stonehenge.
STONEHENGE AND THE MID-SUMMER SOLSTICE
It is possible that, during the mid-summer solstice, the first Stonehenge was intended as a place where the rays of the life-giving sun could shine upon the ancestral remains buried here as it rose between the so-called Heel Stone and another stone that no longer exists, and that the Aubrey holes were intended to represent entrances into the Underworld.
COULD IT BE A CALENDAR?
Another theory is that the monument may have been used as a basic calendar to either map the heavenly bodies for religious purposes, or simply to chart the seasons, an important consideration for what would have been essentially an agricultural community.
A SHADOW OF ITS FORMER SELF
Today Stonehenge is but a shadow of its former glory, although it is still an impressive place, and even though it was abandoned some 3000 years ago, an aura of enchantment still pervades the whole site.
Although there is a genuine consensus that its function was almost certainly religious, nobody who has watched the midwinter sunrise over the great sarsen stones at the winter solstice can doubt that the stones must have had some astronomical significance or purpose.
THE SUMMER SOLSTICE AT STONEHENGE
At dawn on the morning of the summer solstice (21st June) white-robed descendants of the United Ancient Order of Druids (founded by freemasons in London in 1833), still come to the site to perform a ritual handed down through oral tradition, during which they play harps and trumpets, salute the Heel Stone and the sarsen stones, utter murmuring chants and wave oak leaves or incense into the air.
At other times of the year access to the stones is prevented by a fence intended to protect this ancient monument from the rigours and, sad to say, vandalising tendencies of the modern tourist industry.
STILL A MAGICAL PLACE
Yet this is still a special, mystical and magical place to visit, and if you arrive here in the early morning before the ceaseless onslaught of tourist busses disgorge their cargoes onto the site, you can truly imagine the sheer spiritual beauty of Stonehenge - a place where people came to worship at the dawn of time.