A person or a group could regard the environment of a church or mosque as sacred due to the reverence held for the manifestation of the public behaviour and rituals that are held within the structure. However, to certain cultures, an indigenous sacred site within nature, for example the River Ganges in India, will have subtle and different meanings to followers of the Hindu faith.
This is a uniquely human quality that still moves and motives people still today in often complex and meaningful ways that are personal to the individual.
With this in mind I would like to look at what may have been the sacred purpose behind the construction of the sites at Stonehenge and Avebury? Then I would like to comment on the multi faith, spiritually chaotic town that is Glastonbury, to try to understand the relevance of Paganism and Christianity to this small community. But ultimately, why on earth is Glastonbury still, to this day, revered as a sacred place?
The historian, Mircea Eliade is quoted as ‘the sacred transcends this world therefore sanctifying it and making it real’ (Pittaway, 2008, p.
We could relate this statement to both Stonehenge and Avebury where groups of people came together to share a common idea and make it real. We can clearly see that these locations were so significant that whole generations of families were involved in the constructions that occurred (Peter Ackroyd, 2012, p.11).
Stonehenge is situated on the large 300 square mile chalk plateau called Salisbury plain. It is a flat open landscape that gives excellent views for miles around the site (Roberts, 2015, site visit).
At night, due to zero light pollution, the night sky is in full clarity. Imagine how the night sky would have looked 3,000-2,500 years ago when we roughly think the stones were raised?
Could this be the reason why our ancestors built Stonehenge and the even more impressive Avebury stones? Highly likely Stonehenge was used as an observation point to plot the movement of the celestial bodies as they rotated cyclically around their heads.
We all know of so-called ‘Druids’ on the television at midsummer waiting for the sun to rise over the stones. It cannot be any coincidence the sun, still rises exactly over the Heal stone on mid-summer’s day, which is the first stone set slightly apart from the main structure. Man would had to have plotted the course of the sun for many years just to get the dimensions and placements correct before the excavations began (Welfare and Fairley, 1980, p38).
The motives that inspired this great engineering feat, unique in pre-historic Europe, are unknown. However, at least two factors indicate that during this period the focus of worship shifted from the Earth to the heavens.
The entrance to the modified temple was aligned with the position of mid summer sunrise, and golden sun discs found among the remains of the people who built Stonehenge almost certainly indicate the temple had become a shrine dedicated to the worship of the Sun (Folklore myths and legends of Britain, 1973, p.185).
What complicates the origin of Stonehenge is that the smaller ‘bluestones’ were not mined locally but were excavated out of the Preseli Mountains of West Wales, 150 miles away (The Heritage of Britain,1975, p.18). The sheer effort of finding, mining, cutting into usable slabs and then the transportation across the often turbulent Severn estuary, is a marvellous achievement.
The idea of sacred to the makers of Stonehenge must have been passed down through the generations as we now know from dating the stones that construction at the site went on for more than two thousand years.
Stonehenge could be one of man’s greatest achievements which he used trying to find the answers to questions that were being explored at the time. Having visited all three sites in question, over the recent years, I felt that Stonehenge was set apart due to its remote location, as a place of solitude (Roberts, 2018, site visit).
In the same way you might visit a library for quiet study, is it then possible that Stonehenge was a place of learning where the sky was plotted and observed. But also as a sacred gathering place for many generations as they shared a common interest in the use and construction of Stonehenge.
Though much is now known about the origins of Stonehenge, many questions about what happened there, and why, still remain unanswered. Modern druids gather there to celebrate the Midsummer sunrise, but there is little evidence to link their practices with the earlier history of the monument.
In 1966, a theory was put forward by the British astronomer Gerald Hawkings that Stonehenge was a kind of early computer which had been used to calculate the movements of heavenly bodies (The Heritage of Britain, 1975, p.217). This theory aroused considerable controversy, and joins the long list of ideas which the Monument has inspired in the age-old attempt to unravel its mysteries.
The scale of Avebury is even more impressive with most of the modern day village contained comfortably within its ring structure. Recently I drove through the village, and had the feeling of intimacy (Roberts, 2016, site visit). In the same way a person might enter a church or religious place to seek solitude, but not in the same way as Stonehenge, which I think was set apart for study. Could our ancestors have created Avebury as a holy place?(The past all around us, 1979, Readers Digest).
The site is slightly elevated from its environment but not as remotely high as Stonehenge. It is also surrounded by a 430 metre diameter Henge, (english-heritage.org.uk). This henge embankment would have completely enclosed the view into the stones.
The entire site is now blended into the landscape by grassland and natural plant growth. But more than 3,000 years ago, during its creation, the bed rock of white chalk would have been exposed. Just imagine how the stones would have looked from above! In the same way later generations started to build cathedrals on a grand scale, is it possible that Avebury was, for its time, of great spiritual importance to its creators?
Both sites are highly impressive for many reasons. Their construction processes are still incredible to comprehend. For whatever their apparent purpose, they still provide a sacred place to a variety of visitors. Both are Pagan places of worship during certain times of the year and attract millions of visitors collectively as they too try to identify with how ancient man may have used these sites.
We know from intensive archaeological work, that the area around Avebury was also linked up with other sites of importance, such as West Kennett (english-heritage.org.uk). We can only marvel at the extent of the scale of work committed by the people who inhabited this area, as we try to understand what was the true purpose of these structures and the idea of what sacred really meant to our ancestors.
Glastonbury has the feel of a human micro climate. It still attracts people who travel and it takes on the persona of those who visit and deposit a lasting impression of the spiritual flotsam and jetsam that they leave behind. I felt that Kim Knott’s statement ‘nothing is inherently sacred’ (Pittaway, 2008, p.39) is applicable to Glastonbury due to the complex variegation of beliefs and cultures that are embedded within the psyche of the town, but are still relevant to the community, even today.
This is the town that was allegedly visited by Christ, as a child. It was the land of the once and future King Arthur. On the holy hill of Michael’s Tor, Henry the Eighth cruelly hanged the last abbot during the Dissolution of 1539 (The Chalice, Phil Rickman, 1997).
A town of multi faith culture where the old Pagan religion rubs shoulders with the Christian faith and it’s newer Anglicised version. And just down the road, most years, is the worlds oldest music festival.
Recently, I visited Glastonbury. I walked past quite a few banks and corporate shops. Various churches that offered Easter services. As I carried on up the slight incline of the high street, I could see an enclave of esoteric shops grouped together that offered a variety of indulgences from tarot reading, crystal remedies and goddess worship (Roberts, 2018, site visit).
A one stop high street to suit all and sundry. This is the very essence of Glastonbury, it appeals to the ‘every’ person. Throughout the centuries people came and stayed and they left a bit of their spirituality behind. A bit like a shore line when the tide has gone out.
But why should the location of Glastonbury be such a focal point of spirituality? In pre-history, before the Somerset marshes were drained, flooding turned Glastonbury into an island each winter. Pagan Celts knew it as the Island of Glass (Folklore myths and legends of Britain, 1973, p.156). For the people that regarded all islands and water as sacred, it must have had a special significance. The tor, which is just behind the town, can be seen for over ten miles around and uniquely captives the landscape.
History shows that a heady mix of religion and myth left an indelible mark on the town. The legend of King Arthur and the knights of the round table are centred around the Isle of Avalon, another name for Glastonbury. It was here that Arthur was carried away after the fatal battle of Camlann, and where his body is reputed to be buried. Inscribed on his tomb, ‘HIC IACET SEPULTUS INCLYTUS REX ARTURIUS IN INSULA AVALONIA, Here in the Isle of Avalon the famous King Arthur lies buried’ (The Heritage of Britain, 1975, p.206).
The Arthurian legend is a huge saga that originally came to prominence by Sir Thomas Mallory in 1485. It is a chivalric romance that details the often mythic struggles of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Its characters are mostly Christian in value as they search for the holy grail, this was the cup that Christ used during the last supper, ‘and therein is part of the holy blood of our Lord Jesu Christ’ (Le Morte D’Arthur, 1993, Chapter 11).
With Arthur being displayed as a Christian king it shows how Britain was slowly being converted from its Pagan past. However, the story also has pagan characters that used magic. Arthur’s wise man, Merlin, is one of literatures most enduring characters and has echoes of the druidic order that would have lived within the Stonehenge/Avebury area.
Glastonbury also has place names that are named after Arthurian legend and have sacred connections for all visitors to the town (Roberts, 2018, site visit). At the chalice well, the water is rust coloured where it bubbles up from the ground, it is a perfect example of how pagans see this as a holy place where the Goddess bleeds into the water and where modern day christians also see the water as representing the blood of Christ as captured in the Grail at his cruxifixction.
The chalice well derives its name from the holy grail which is supposedly buried nearby (Roberts, 2018, site visit). The authority that the grail commands is the major unifying factor that both pagans and christians have in common. It is the vessel that caught Christ’s blood while on the cross but is seen as a spiritual motif to all pagans due to the belief of its mythical restorative powers to heal.
The English poet, William Blake in his visionary epic poem, Jerusalem, also wrote about the apparent spiritual connections that Glastonbury has with Christianity, describing Christ as a young boy possibly walking around Glastonbury ‘And was the holy lamb of God, on Englands pleasant pastures seen’ (Blake, 1977, p.223). This canonical piece of poetry is portraying the landscape around the town as an embellishment of sacred space to a Christian ideology.
To conclude, I believe that a sacred place or site can provide various roles to different cultures. They can focus spirituality for a community using certain cultural rites or they can be functional through the observance of ritual or ceremony. All of the three sites in question can relate to this sense of sacred. However, what is clear about the idea of sacred to one person can be vastly reinterpreted by another.
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