Circles of Stone

What are they, these enigmatic circles of stone that can be found all across this land of Albion?

I remember the first time I consciously visited one. It was the Merry Maidens stone circle in Cornwall. My eldest son Zakk was still a baby, the sun was shining on a beautiful Summer’s day and we were on our family holiday, once more visiting my county of birth. Our next point of call was the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft, but first we headed further down the county to seek out this mysterious place.

Parking the car on a grassy verge we got together all of the kit needed when you take babies with you on holiday – we were planning on having a picnic here too. I remember that day so clearly. I walked around the stone circle first, walking sunwise, spending a little time with each stone, reaching out and touching it, opening to its energy. Upon stepping inside I felt the air change – this happens when certain people cast their magical circles around sacred space too. It’s like the air becomes thicker, warmer, inside. I sat with my back to the eastern stone and watched my son crawling through the lush, long grass. Occasionally getting up and pointing him to crawl back to me when he got too far away.

There was magic here, a magic I felt in many other places during following years.

For some time I was a sales rep, on the road, calling on customers from Cornwall, Wales, Cumbria and Scotland. My area was the west of Britain, and I had to spend quite some time out on business trips. What I would do was look at my route for the week, then plan the sacred sites I could visit after my last call on each day. I had the Ordnance Survey Map of Ancient Britain and literally ticked off the places I’d been to as I travelled around. During this time I managed to visit a lot of sites. From the recumbent stone circles of Scotland, to Castlerigg, Arbor Low, the Druid Circle near Penmaenmawr, the Rollrights, Avebury and Stonehenge, Stanton Drew, Merrivale, and many other sites that are marked on the OS maps but have no name, some of which were so run down, or in the middle of the moors, that I had to really search for them.

Occasionally I would find offerings left by others – a small bunch of flowers, or a little cake. Sometimes there would be a candle, and sometimes wax on the stones themselves, and I found this harder to reconcile. But the degradable offerings I loved to find, as they showed that I was not alone in my love for these places, and that they were still centres of worship thousands of years after they were originally built. But this does open the argument for or against leaving offerings at sites.

I have heard some people call these offerings ‘debris’. I have seen one woman who worked for a sacred site tip out a plastic bag of offerings onto a table at a Pagan conference and go through them one by one. I have to say she did this in a very derogatory way, even when she unrolled a small scroll of paper that had been left at a stone circle and read out the handwritten poem to a departed loved one, as if it said nothing more than ‘Darren Waz Ere’. I found this as disrespectful to the person who had left this offering, as she did about the ‘debris’ itself. Obviously this wasn’t and still isn’t a simple issue. However when Cerri suggested that it might be a good idea to have a table at their site so people can leave offerings there that idea was scoffed at and dismissed as this ‘suggests we know that these stone circles were religious centres and they might just have been goat pens!’ Okay then, continue to deal with the ‘debris’.

To me these circles of stone are a legacy left by our ancestors. The people who built them were Pagan (although we don’t know the details of their beliefs). The Paganism of today has emerged as a need of our time, and these sites form a direct link to those that came before, and I think it is right that we respectfully hold our ceremonies at these sites, that we visit them and seek wisdom there, and also that we build our own like the one on Limetree Farm in Yorkshire. The other choice is to leave them as sterile monuments for tourists to photograph, then get back on the coach until the next one, possibly giving them no further thought.

I think (and of course I may be wrong) that if the people who built these sites 5000+ years ago knew that in the year 2010 there were still Pagans who revered the Earth, who worked with pantheons of Pagan Deities, were meeting and working their magic at that same site, trying to get in touch with the feelings and energies that the builders might also have been seeking, I think they would be very happy about that. And even if they are just goat pens (and I really don’t believe that!) a part of modern Paganism is a reverence for our ancient ancestors, and these sites form that link with them. Their blood and sweat helped form them, and our rituals today are empowered by them, their legacy, and their memory.

8 Comments

  1. Matt Durkin December 1, 2010 at 12:20 pm - Reply

    Ahhh, henge-hunting!!

  2. John Willmott December 1, 2010 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Wow! You are covering a lot of points there Damh πŸ™‚ .

    First, I hope I’m still around when Zakk writes his first blog of his first impressions of stone circles. I was heavily into them from 6 years old myself, cycling many miles to them. Parents would be horrified if they knew where I went but I learned to use Ordnance Survey Maps, a compass and dowsing rods by 6 years old too. Fortunately my father and grandfather and their brothers and sisters were druidy kind of guys.

    Regarding offerings, I get upset when this ventures into vandalism, all too common at Ireland’s ancient sites, burgundy and purple candle wax allowed to drip and pour down stones, bales of hay and straw stolen from farmers who had put them down for the animals not for alters. Buy your own to bring guys !! Also litter that is obviously not offerings but laziness and disrespect for those who will follow to these places.

    Use of these ancient sites are bound to have changed with faiths over time. The people who may have constructed something 3000 BC approaching different to those who altered and did something else in 1500 BC and so forth, but seems to all be about sacred sanctuary, a veil between two worlds.

    I also get upset when people who visit these site assertively make them exclusive to their own attendance and tell others to go away, telling people to go away who have often travelled 1000s to visit. I always feel the sacredness should flow to include all present without control of enforcing something pre-planned. I do not find that act “spiritual” anyway.

    What is loosely called pagan is a growing awareness and calling so the existing circles and visible ancient sacred places are getting a little crowded yet there are many, many unmarked special places that welcome a new circle, a new alter, a new coire, a new cauldron to be placed.

    I like how you mention “build your own”. I like building labyrinths for this purpose myself but its not the only possible visible structure for sacredness. DIY stone circles and cairns are very nice and don’t have to be stone either. Live willows are great, other tree plants, bushes of herbs can be nice. I’ve seen a good place with builder’s bricks.

    Also there is always chalk. I’ve had great experiences within chalk circles.

    Again, thank you Damh for yet another riveting inspiring and memory poking blog post.

  3. David December 1, 2010 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    Great post!

    Whilst I can understand the frustration of seeing some of the “offerings” – which are just litter – it always felt to me that someone was reaching out at their time of need to the gods and ancestors. Perhaps they could have cleaned up after themselves – but then perhaps they weren’t in the most stable of minds (stress etc) at that time.

    I guess it’s ironic that today’s “litter” could become tomorrow’s archeological find…. “hmm, obviously this ancient people offered drink to their gods – see, here is a liquid container for something called Stella…”

  4. Denarius December 1, 2010 at 3:29 pm - Reply

    Thank you Damh. Your posts will always give me inspiration. I am a lone wanderer of Dartmoor and greatly revere our ancestors in every form. Thanks again.

  5. John Willmott December 1, 2010 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    I like your comment David. Taking that further, today’s landfills could be the next millennium’s archaeologist’s discovery of sacred sites.

  6. John Willmott December 1, 2010 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    Excuse me for adding a fair bit of content here but I posted a link to this from both my Facebook Profile and Page and one interesting comment has come up.

    A woman has expressed how she pops into fields to have some contemplation time in ancient sites within them.

    Today in Ireland you have to be careful when doing that as the goddess, or cailleach, you may sometimes evoke … is the farmer’s wife!

    Its always a good idea to always ask for entry first and accept a “no” if you are told no.

    More often you will not only get a “yes” but also be rewarded with inspiring warm stories and wisdom you may never have heard or shared if you had never asked the steward’s permission first.

    For over 55 years now I’ve learned so much from farmers and their wives who are stewards of the lands of many sites and are very proud and caring of the sites.

    Some henge hunters tell me, “its not their land but land of the Goddess” to justify approach to these sacred sites without permission. From what I gather most of these ancient megalithic sites were central to land being farmed and indications that many of these sites were connected to a single family rather than a wider clan, community or tribe. Therefore I suspect some kind of permission was needed back then and probably sometimes denied..

    It is also told in lore that bards were paid from yields of land dedicated to them to sustain them so they could spend their time as bards more than farmers. Is it possible that the most important of these ancient sites are among lands set aside for the lives of bards, and permission of entry was required by them?

    That would have probably monitored potential vandalism πŸ™‚

    Farmers generally warm to requests as they are a pathways to trust, so never fear asking them, and you will be amazed what many of them share, even though it may often start with …

    “I cannae see what ya wanna see a bunch of ol’ stanes fer …. but my mother used to say …. and my father used to say ….. and ye know one night I saw …..”

    … and so it goes on, priceless inspiration, visualization, wisdom and sounds you will never find in books.

  7. Ray December 17, 2010 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    Very well then, in the UK it is not considered OK to leave offerings of candles and notes and such at sacred sites. This is good to know, thanks for posting that Dave, whenever I get to the UK and have opportunity to visit these sacred sites, I’ll bring my Harp and hope to leave a song.
    In America, we european types spend a lot of time making sacred sites. Although there were some here before Colonial times. Serpent Mound, in Southern Ohio, is an Incredible site of that nature. I have heard it was designed to channel Goddess energy, bring her closer to the energy of the sky, with that union, it is believed her more destructive energy is given an outlet to disperse, decreasing the chance of Earthquakes and other “furies” of Mother Earth.
    Thanks for posting something that clarifies etiquette in the UK for a future pilgrim like myself.

  8. Gail White January 11, 2011 at 9:24 pm - Reply

    I visited Avebury for the first time this summer and loved it – more than Stonehenge really, as it’s not yet commercialized and both people and sheep wander freely among the stones. Whoever did these things left us a sign of their presence. As Masefield says:

    Gathering as we stray, a sense
    Of life, so lovely and intense
    It lingers when we wander hence,
    And those who follow feel behind
    Their backs, when all before is blind,
    Our joy, a rampart to the mind.

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