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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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I PROPOSE in this chapter to bring into juxtaposition the various British and Semitic-Egyptian practices which we have so far considered.

I confess I am amazed at the similarities we have come across in the first cast of the net; we have found so much that is common to both worships in connection with all the points we considered separately. I will, for convenience, deal with the various points seriatim.

1. The cult of sacred stones or cairns.

The only objection which, so far as I can see, may be raised to these practices being absolutely common is the idea among many British archæologists that the cairns, in which term I include chambered barrows or dolmens and their skeletons, the cromlechs and stone passages, were set up for burial and not for worship. This idea has arisen because some of them have been used for burials. But I cannot accept this argument, because since the burials might have taken place at any time subsequent to their erection they prove nothing as to the reason of the erection; and further, if these chambered cairns were meant for burials, there should be burials in all of them and yet there are none in the most majestic of them all, Maeshowe.

Let us consider a few facts in relation to the Semitic use of cairns referred to on p. 244.

That the cromlechs found both in Britain and Syria—there are 780 in Ireland and 700 in Moab—are the remains of chambered cairns is pretty clear from the evidence brought forward by Borlase. ( footnote 253:1 )

Mr. John Bell of Dundalk, disinterred over sixty cromlechs from cairns in Ulster. All dolmens were covered by tumuli according to Mr. Bell and Mr. Lukis. Monuments called cairns in the earliest Ordnance-Survey have been marked dolmens in subsequent surveys (e.g. Townland of Leana in Clare) because the earth covering the stones had disappeared in the meantime.

Among the evidences of natural and artificial caves preceding cairns which replaced them are the twenty-four caves which have been explored in France (op. cit., p, 568). ( footnote 253:2 )

Borlase points out with regard to the Irish dolmens that large tumuli were not essential; all that was necessary was that the walls of the cell or crypt should be impervious to the elements and to wild animals. A creep or passage communicating with the edge of the mound is common to Ireland, Wales, Portugal and Brittany (op. cit., p. 428).

The facts that the cairns so often had their open ends facing the N.E. or S.E., and that the west end was generally higher, like the naos trilithons at Stonehenge, must be borne in mind.

Most of what we know of earliest man has been obtained from their lives in caves; what they ate, the contemporary fauna and their art are thus known to us, but caves have not been considered as tombs, though men have died and left their remains in them.

In the case of a dolmen, however, an artificial cave, as we shall see, the possibility of people living in them appears never to have been considered seriously, and the tomb theory has led to bad reasoning and forced argument.

When burials are absent it has been suggested that "owing to some peculiarity of the soil, the entire of the human remains have become decomposed, only the imperishable stone implements entombed with the body remaining." ( footnote 254:1 )

Mr. Spence has pointed out the extreme improbability of Maeshowe being anything but a temple, and I may now add on the Semitic model. There were a large central hall and side rooms for sleeping, a stone door which could have been opened or shut from the inside, and a niche for a guard, janitor or hall porter! So high an authority as Colonel Leslie has pointed out that neither Maeshowe, New Grange and Dowth on the Boyne, nor Gavr Innis in Brittany bear any internal proof of being specially prepared as tombs. ( footnote 255:1 )

There is another point connected with these dolmens and cromlechs. An origin in the Semitic area easily explains why in Asia and Britain the dolmens are so alike, down to small details, such as the perforation of one of the side stones. Borlase has remarked also upon the similarity of Indian and Irish dolmens (op. cit., p. 755), similar holes also being common to them. The curious concentric circles, &c., found on some dolmen stones are common to Assyrian vessels. ( footnote 255:2 )

The most philosophical study of this question I have seen ( footnote 255:3 ) certainly suggests that much light; may be expected from this source.

Part of the cult of the sacred stones was the ceremony of anointing them. Robertson Smith (p. 214) gives us the meaning and history of anointing among the Semites, and notes its continuation from Jacob's pouring oil on sacred stones at Bethel, through the time of Pausanias to that of the Pilgrims of the fourth century A.D.

The anointing of stones was certainly carried on in ancient times in Britain and Brittany. Baring-Gould tells us: ( footnote 256:1 )

“Formerly the menhir was beplastered with oil and honey and wax, and this anointing of the stones was condemned by the bishops. In certain places the local clergy succeeded in diverting the practice to the Churches. There are still some in Lower Brittany whose exterior walls are strung with wax lines arranged in festoons and patterns.

"In some places childless women still rub themselves against menhirs, expecting thereby to be cured of barrenness, but in others, instead, they rub themselves against stone images of saints."

When I visited the Cave of Elephanta in 1871 I was told that the barren women of Bombay visit the cave once a year and anoint the standing stone in the chief chamber. In Egypt they still rub their bodies on the Colossi.

2. Sacred fires.

Among the Semites the sacrificial fat was burned on the altar. And we have seen that "this could be done without any fundamental modification of the old type of sacred stone or altar pillar, simply by making a hollow on the top to receive the grease." ( footnote 256:2 )

Baring-Gould, ( footnote 256:3 ) has written on the question of sacrificial and sacred fires in ancient times in Britain, and points out that there still remain in some of our churches (in Cornwall, York and Dorset) the contrivances—now called cresset-stones—used. They are blocks of stone with cups hollowed out precisely as described by Robertson Smith. Some are placed in lamp-niches furnished with flues.

On these he remarks (p. 122):—

"Now although these lamps and cressets had their religious signification, yet this religious signification was an afterthought. The origin of them lay in the necessity of there being in every place central light, from which light could at any time be borrowed."

FIG. 49.—Cresset-stone, Lewannick. From Baring-Gould's. Strange Survivals.

3. The cult of the sacred tree.

I have shown that the sacred trees in Britain, whether rowan, thorn or mistletoe, were at their best at the times of the festivals at which they were chiefly worshipped. Mrs. J. H. Philpot, in her valuable book on "the sacred tree," gives us the names of some used in different countries; it would be interesting to inquire whether the same consideration applies to them in the Semitic and other areas.

There seems to be no doubt that the Semitic Asherah was the precursor of the British Maypole, even to its dressing of many coloured ribands, and from the Maypole customs we may infer something of the Semitic practices which have not come down to us. Even "Jack o’ the Green" may eventually be traced to Al-Khidr (p. 29) of the old May festivals.

4. The cult of the sacred well.

Here we find only trifling differences. The chief one is the use of pins in Britain. If we knew more about the Asherah with its hooks this difference night disappear.

It has been pointed out by several authors that the worship of wells and water would be most likely to arise in a dry and thirsty land.

5. The time of the chief festivals.

Here we find beyond all question that the festival times were the same to begin with. May is the chief month both in West Asia and West Europe.

It was not till a subsequent time that June and December were added in Egypt and Britain, and April and September among the Jews.

6. The characteristics of the festivals.

Here again is precise agreement. The list I gave on p. 205 of what can be gathered from British folklore is identical with the statements as to Semitic practices which I quoted from Robertson Smith in the last chapter.

7. The worship in high places.

Absolute identity; and from this we can gather that the ancient condition of the high places wherever selected for temple worship was as treeless as it is now; otherwise the observations of sun- and star-rise and -set would be greatly interfered with.

Of course, there may have been "groves" associated with, but away from, sanctuaries in both Semitic and British areas; but it is not impossible that much which has been written on this subject with regard to Britain and the "Druids" may have been suggested in part by the erroneous translation of Asherah to which I have referred. It has also been stated that an early transcriber who, in error, substituted lucus for locus may also be held partly responsible, even if lucus does not mean a clearing in a grove, as some maintain.

8. The god or gods worshipped.

The year-gods in Babylonia and Egypt respectively were Baal and Thoth. It is worth while to inquire whether either name has made its appearance as a loan-word in the traditions of Western Europe.

About Baal there can be no question as to the coincidence, whether accidental, as some philologists affirm, or not.

We find Bel or Baal common to the two areas. Mr. Borlase informs us (op. cit., p. 1164) that in Western Europe Bel, Beal, Balor, Balder, and Phol, Fal, Fáil are the equivalents of the Semitic Baal. Balus, indeed, is named as the first king of Orkney. A May worship is connected with all the above. Beltaine and many variants describe the fires lighted at the festival, and it is worthy of note that although this fire worship has been extended to the solstitial ceremonials in June, the name Baltaine has never been applied to it at that time except by writers who think that the term "midsummer" may be applied indiscriminately to the beginning of May and the end of June.

I next deal with the Egyptian year-god Thoth. In Greece he became Hermes, among the Romans Mercury. In this connection I can most usefully refer to Rhys's Hibbert Lectures and his chapter on the Gaulish Pantheon. He tells us (p. 5) that "Mercury is the god with whom the monuments lead one to begin." There is also mention of a god Toutates or Teutates, and a Toutius, who might have been a public official (? priest of Toutates). Only Celtic or other later origins of the words are suggested; it is not said whether the possible Egyptian root has been considered.

We may even, I think, go further and ask whether some of the constellations were not figured as in. Egypt, otherwise it is difficult to account for the horror of the black pig (p. 195) at Hallowe’en. The whole Egyptian story is told in my Dawn of Astronomy ( footnote 260:1 ) in connection with the worship of Set, that is the stars visible at night, blotted out at dawn by the rising sun, or becoming predominant after sunset.

9. The worship of the sun and stars.

Here also, as I have shown, is complete agreement. The same astronomical methods have been employed for the same purpose. The chief difference lies in the fact that by lapse of time the precessional movement caused different stars to be observed as clock stars or to herald the sunrise on the chief ceremonial days.


253:1 Dolmens of Ireland, p. 426.

253:2 "France, indeed, furnishes us with a stepping-stone, as it were, between the natural cave and the dolmen in certain artificial caves which offer comparison both with the former and the latter . . . . the natural cave was scooped out into a large chamber, or chambers either by the swirling of water pent up in the limestone or other yielding rock and finding its way out through some narrow crevice. The ground plan and section, therefore, is that of an allée couverte with a vestibule . . . . the artificial cave is modelled on the natural one, and yet bears, as M. Mortillet points out, a close resemblance to the dolmen."

254:1 Wandle, Remains of Prehistoric Age in England, p. 147.

255:1 It is interesting to point out in relation to the fact that different swarms successively introduced the May and solstitial years that the "sleeping rooms" of the May year cairns at New Grange are about 3 feet square, while at the solstitial Maeshowe, built very much later, the dimensions are 6 feet × 4½ feet. There were differences of sleeping posture in the old days among different peoples as well as different methods of burial.

255:2 Borlase, p. 617.

255:3 "The Builders and the Antiquity of our Cornish Dolmens," by Rev. D. Gath Whitley (Journal R.I. Cornwall, No. 4).

256:1 Book of Brittany, p. 21.

256:2 History of the Semites, p. 364.

256:3 Strange Survivals, p. 122.

260:1 Pp. 146, 215, and elsewhere.


Next Chapter: Chapter XXIV. The May-Year in South-West Cornwall

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