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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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THE facts contained in the preceding chapters have suggested, at all events, that whatever else went on some four thousand years ago in the British circles there was much astronomical observation and a great deal of preparation for it.

In a colony of the astronomer-priests who built and used the ancient temples we had of necessity:—

(1) Observatories, i.e., circles in the first place; next something to mark the sight-lines to the clock-star for night work, to the rising or setting of the warning stars, and to the places of sunrise and sunset at the chief festivals. This something, we have learned, might be another circle, a standing stone, a dolmen, a cove, or a holed stone.

A study of the sight-lines shows us that these collimation marks, as we may call them, were of set purpose, generally placed some distance away from the circles, so far that they would require to be illuminated in some way for the night and dawn observations. When there was no wind, one or more hollows in a stone, whether a menhir or a quoit, might have held grease to feed a wick or a pine-wood torch. But in a wind some shelter would be necessary, and the light might have been used in a cromlech or allée couverte. Stones have been found with such cups, and débris of fires have been found in cromlechs.

It must not be forgotten that here there was no oil as in the Semitic countries whence, as we have seen, the immigrants came; and it was not a question of a light on the sight-line alone. If wood were used, it must have been kept dry for use, and whether wood or animal fat were employed the most practical and convenient way of lighting up would have been to keep a fire ever burning in some sheltered place.

(2) Dwellings, which would be cromlechs or many-chambered barrows, according to the number of astronomer-priests at the station. These dwellings would require to be protected against the invasions of the local fauna, very different from what it is now, and for this a small, and on that account easily blocked, entrance would be an essential.

These dwellings would naturally suggest themselves as the shelter place for the ever-burning fire or the supply of dry wood. Tradition points with no uncertain sound to the former existence of life and light in these "hollow hills." Mr. MacRitchie's book ( footnote 317:1 ) contains a mine of most valuable and interesting information on this subject.

(3) A water supply for drinking and bathing, which might be a spring, river or lake, according to the locality.

Given a supply of food we have now provided for the shelter and protection of the astronomer and the man.

But the man who brought this new astronomical knowledge was, before he came, astrologer and magician as well, and, further, he was a priest; hence on account of his knowledge of the seasons, he could not only help the aboriginal tiller of the soil as he had never been helped before, by his knowledge; but he could appeal in the strongest way to his superstitious fears and feelings, by his function as the chief sacrificer and guardian of the sacrificial altars and fires. Hence it was that everything relating to the three different classes of things to which I have referred was regarded as very holy because they were closely associated with the astronomer-priests, on whom the early peoples depended for guidance in all things, not only of economic, but of religious, medical and superstitious value.

The perforated stones were regarded as sacred, so that passing through them was supposed to cure disease. Whether men and women, or children only, passed through the hole depended upon its size. But a hole large enough for a head to be inserted was good for head complaints.

The wells, rivers, and lakes used by the priests were, as holy places, also invested with curative properties, and offerings of garments (skins?), and pins to fasten them on, as well as bread and wine and cheese, were made at these places to the priests.

The fact that the tree on which the garment was hung was either a rowan or a thorn shows that these offerings commenced as early as the May-November worship.

The holed stones, besides being curative, were in long after years, when marriage had been instituted, used for the interchange of marriage vows by clasping hands through the opening.

The cups for the light would also be sacred objects; and many of them have been since used for holy water.

The cursus at Stonehenge and the avenues on Dartmoor may be regarded as evidences that sacred processions formed part of the ceremonial on the holy days, but sacrifices and sacred ceremonials were not alone in question many authors have told us that feasts, games and races were not forgotten. This, so far as racing is concerned, is proved, I think, by the facts that the cursus at Stonehenge is 10,000 feet long and 350 feet broad, that it occupies a valley between two hills, thus permitting of the presence of thousands of spectators, and that our horses are still decked in gaudy trappings on May Day.

Nor is this all. It is hard to understand some of the folklore and tradition unless we recognise that at a time before marriage was instituted, at some of the sacred festivals the intercourse of the sexes was permitted if not encouraged. This view is strengthened by the researches of Westermarck ( footnote 319:1 ) ) and Rhys. ( footnote 319:2 ) Given such a practice, the origin of matriarchal customs and of the couvade is at once explained; and it is clear that. the charges against. the Druids of special cruelty and impurity must be. withdrawn. Their sacrifices and customs were those common to all priesthoods in the ancient world.

I have shown that some circles used in the worship of the May year were in operation 2200 B.C., and that there was the introduction of a new cult about 1600 B.C., or shortly afterwards, in southern Britain, so definite that the changes in the chief orientation lines in the stone circles can be traced.

To the worship of the sun in May, August, November and February was added a solstitial worship in June and December.

The associated phenomena are that the May-November Balder and Beltaine cult made much of the rowan and maythorn. The June-December cult brought the worship of the mistletoe.

The flowering of the rowan and thorn tree in May, and their berries in early November, made them the most appropriate and striking floral accompaniments of the May and November worships, and the same ideas would point to a similar use of the mistletoe in June and December.

The fact that the June-December cult succeeded and largely replaced the May-November one could hardly have been put in a cryptic and poetic statement more happily than it appears in folklore: Balder was killed by mistletoe.

This change of cult may be due to the intrusion of a new tribe, but I am inclined to attribute it to a new view taken by the priests themselves due to a greater knowledge, among it being the determination, in Egypt, of the true length of the year which could be observed by the recurrence of the solstices, and of the intervals between the festivals reckoned in days.

However this may have been, all the old practices and superstitions were retained, only the time, of year at which they took place was changed. As the change of cult was slow, in any one locality the celebrations would be continued at both times of the year, and for long both sets of holidays were retained.

Since I have shewn that the solstitial worship came last, traces of this, as a rule, would be most obvious in places where it eventually prevailed over the cult of the May year. In such places the absence of traces of the May festival would be no valid argument against its former prevalence. In other places, like Scotland, where the solstitial cult was apparently introduced late and was never prevalent, we should expect strong traces of the May worship, and, as a matter of fact, it is very evident in the folk lore and customs of Scotland; even the old May year quarter days are still maintained.

Between the years 2300 B.C. and 1600 B.C., whether we are dealing with the same race of immigrants or not, we pass from unhewn to worked stones. The method of this working and its results have been admirably shown to us by Prof. Gowland's explorations at Stonehenge.

From the tables, given in Chap. XXVIII, it can be seen that, so far as the present evidence goes, there was a pretty definite time—about 2300 B.C.—of beginning the astronomical work at the chief monuments; Cornwall came first, Dartmoor was next.

Almost as marked as the simultaneous beginning are the dates of ending the observations if we may judge of the time of ending by the fact that the precessional changes in the star places were no longer marked by the marking out of new sight lines.

The clock-star work was the first to go, about 1500 B.C. The May-warning stars followed pretty quickly.

We may say, then, that we have full evidence of astronomical activity of all kinds at the circles for a period of some 700 years.

What prevented its continuance on the old lines? It may have been that the invention of some other method of telling time by night had rendered the old methods of observation, and therefore the apparatus to carry them on, no longer necessary.

On the other hand, it may have been that some new race, less astronomically inclined, had swept over the land.

I am inclined to take the former view. It is quite certain that for the clock-stars other observations besides those on the horizon would soon have suggested themselves for determining the lapse of time during the night. The old, high, bleak, treeless moorlands might then in process of time have been gradually forsaken, and life may have gone on in valleys and even in sheltered woods, except on the chief festivals. When this was so astronomy and superstition would give way to politics and other new human interests, and the priests would become in a wider sense the leaders and the teachers of the more highly organised community.

It is clear that in later days as at the commencement they were still ahead in the knowledge of the time. "Hi terrae mundique magnitudinem et formam, motus coeli ac siderum, ac quod dii velunt sciere profitentur" is Pomponius Mela's statement concerning them. ( footnote 322:1 ) From, 1500 B.C. to Caesar's time is a long interval, and yet the astronomical skill of the so-called Druids, who beyond all question were the descendants of our astronomical-priests, was then a matter of common repute. Cæsar's account of the Druids in Gaul (Bello Gallico, vi. c. 13, 14, 15) is extremely interesting because it indicates, I think, that the Druid culture had not passed through Gaul and had therefore been waterborne to Britain, whither the Gauls therefore went to study it. ( footnote 323:1 )

Simultaneously with the non-use of the ancient stones, we may imagine that the priests—of ever-increasing importance—no longer dwelt in their cromlechs, but, rather, occupied such buildings as those which remain at Chysoister, and from this date it is possible that burials may have taken place in some of the mounds then given up as dwelling places. As sacred places they were subsequently used for burials, as Westminster Abbey has been; but burials were not the object of their erection. ( footnote 323:2 ) This new habit may have started the practice of cist burial by later people in barrows thrown up for that special purpose.

I cannot close this Chapter without expressing my admiration of the learning and acumen displayed by Dr. Borlase in his treatment of the subject of the Druids in his History of Cornwall, published in 1769; I find he has anticipated me in suggesting that the hollowed stones were used for fires. It is clear, now that the monuments have been dated, that the astronomical knowledge referred to by Caesar and Pomponius Mela was no new importation; if, therefore, the present view of ethnologists that the Celtic intrusion took place about 1000 B.C. is correct, it is certain the Celts brought no higher intelligence with them than was possessed by those whom they found here; nor is this to be expected if, as the inquiry has suggested, the latter were the representatives of the highest civilisation of the East with which possibly the former had never been brought into contact.


317:1 The Testimony of Tradition.

319:1 History of Human Marriage, Chapter II.

319:2 Celtic Folklore, ii., 654.

322:1 Pomp. Mela, Lib. II. c. 2. I have already (p. 52) quoted Cæsar's testimony to the same effect.

323:1 'Disciplina in Britannia reperta, atque in Galliam translata esse eixistimatur."—C. Bell. Gall. lib. vi. c. 13. This "discipline" also included magic according to Pliny. "Britannia hodie eam (i.e. Magiam) attonite celebrat tantis ceremoniis, ut eam Persis dedisse videri possit" (lib. xxx. c. 1.)

323:2 Bertrand and Reinach, Les Celtes et les Gaulois dans les Vallées du Pó et du Danube, p. 82. Tregellis, "Stone Circles in Cornwall." Trans. Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society, 1893-4.


Next Chapter: Appendix I. Details of the Theodolite Observations at Stonehenge

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