At the beginning of this month (July 2021 – for future readers) I took myself off on a road trip and visited the beautiful Stonehenge. This neolithic monument is a place of spiritual significance both in the UK, and around the world, and was the main motivator behind my four hour (getting towards five hour) drive from Manchester to Wiltshire, in southern England.
As someone with a deep respect for the spiritual and an interest in history, this monument was the perfect place to visit and provided a great opportunity to learn about those that came before me.
Although I visited the site as a little girl its importance, and impressiveness, was somewhat lost on me.
As I parked my car this time around I felt very excited. The sun was shining and there was a tranquil beauty to the surrounding landscape that made me understand why this place was chosen as the monument’s erection site. I walked through the ticket office and continued onwards towards the monument which was about a 30 minute walk away.
I passed through fields of hay and was again struck by the tranquility and beauty of the place. Flowers swayed in the wind and the grass sparkled under the intensity of the sun’s rays. Birds chirped and cawed overhead and I felt grateful to be there.
Through some woodlands and out into a field I came – to my left were multiple ancient burial mounds and up ahead was the monument itself – Stonehenge. Glimmering in the sunlight, hundreds of crows flying overhead and adding to the location’s majesty.
It felt special – words don’t do it justice, but it is special. The air felt very still.
Stonehenge has a complicated history, having gone through various stages of construction and development before becoming the Stonehenge as we know it today. We recognise the monument nowadays as a collection of stones in a specific circular formation, however the stone circle came later in 2500 BC – originally the site began as just a circular ditch and stayed that way for 500 years.
Historians understand the ditch to have been a sacred earthwork enclosure that the Neolithic people used to bury and honour their dead. Important items were placed in the circular ditch at this time and ceremonies and processions were held to mark special occasions.
500 years later in 2500BC, which is a mind-blowing 4500 years ago, the stone circle was erected by a community of Late Neolithic people living three kilometres away in the nearby town of Durrington. It was erected to align with the winter and summer solstices – the longest and shortest days of the year – which were spiritually significant times for this community and many others like it.
The only existing stone on the site in 2500BC was the Heel stone (pictured below). The stone’s position was altered, by the community who erected Stonehenge, to mark the place where the summer solstice sunrise appears on the horizon when stood in the centre of the circle.
The henge comprises a mixture of Sarsen stones, which is a type of sandstone native to southern England, and Preseli blue stone. These blue stones found within the henge, were brought from Pembrokeshire, Wales by the community of people that moved to Wiltshire around this time and built Stonehenge. This Preseli blue stone was transported all the way from Wales because they believed it held magical and healing properties. This explains why they went to so much effort to transport the huge rocks so far.
A gentleman I spoke to at the henge (a lovely knowledgeable guide) told me that the community moved here from Wales because it was a better place to farm, as well as a beautiful place to live. They brought their important ancestors with them and signified their resting places at the site by marking their burial within the ditch and under specific stones.
They built the henge carefully, constructing it in a specific series of circles to align with both solstices, specifically the winter solstice, which was the most important date of the year for the Neolithic people. On these dates people would gather in and around the stones to watch the sunset. This was a place for them to honour the passage of time, pay their respects to their dead and to praise their gods.
When inside the henge on the solstice dates, staring down the corridor of stones (specifically down the avenue built as an entrance to the henge) the light would have shone directly into the henge space. This would have iIluminated the crowds below, shining down onto the community, their buried dead and showing the rise and fall (or death and rebirth) of the sun. This ritual at the site denoted the fragility of life and provided an opportunity for the Neolithic people to praise their gods within this ceremonial space.
The guide I spoke to told me that this monument marked the world as the Neolithic people understood it. They believed the world was flat and the way the henge was built allowed them to gather in a space that represented the centre of their world. As there were less trees at the time, the henge, with a circular ditch around the outside, was a smaller demarcation of their Earth – a world within a world – and all it encompassed and was the most important place for them to be. Here they gathered to watch the death and rebirth of the sun and to honour their ancestors.
When I was reflecting on the henge as a place to honour the passing of time, I was reminded of the Japanese tradition of Hanami – flower viewing, which I have learned about recently as next year I will be travelling to Japan to teach as an English teacher.
Hanami is a ritual that Japanese people undertake every year, specifically when the cherry blossoms flower. This tradition is very special and important because it recognises the growth, bloom and perishing of the blossom. It is a time for marvelling at the beauty of the flower as it blooms, yet also recognises the flowers withering as well.
It is a time for the flower watcher to reflect on the transient nature of life – to see that life as a human is as beautiful and fragile as the blossom. It reaffirms all that life and death is, and suggests that whilst we are alive we have the opportunity to live in the best way that we can.
This recognition of the cyclical nature of life, the passage of time, life, death, suffering, joy and all that it is to be a human being, is incredibly beautiful to me. It also reminds me of the core teachings within Buddhism as well – the focus on human life, the nature of what it is to be a human, with all of the joy and the pain that involves, and how important it is to be present in every moment.
I feel there is a lot of focus, especially in Western society, on what comes next. The next job, exam, achievement – always onwards onwards onwards. A striving for something external.
It has been incredibly transformational for me through yoga, meditation, world travel and working hard on my personal development up to this point, to change that focus and turn it inwards. That is where the real opportunity for growth lies I believe.
And that’s why these places of spiritual significance resonate with me – because they speak to this human experience. They honour the fluidity, fragility and beauty of existence. They recognise the challenges inherent in humanity and how all life comes to an end. These ancient rituals and traditions, like the ones practiced at Stonehenge and the ones practiced currently in Eastern parts of the world, such as Japan, honour this. Each day, each life. Each death. All of it and so much more.
At the time Stonehenge was built hundreds of other similar spiritual stone circles and monuments were erected around the world. This illustrates how societies worldwide shared a similar view of the world, worshipping the same gods and practicing the same rituals and processions to honour their beliefs, at these henge type monuments.
I find it fascinating to think that 4500 years ago humans were so advanced that they were able to build a prehistoric temple that still stands to this very day. I also find it beautiful that they were motivated to do this by a deep reverence for their gods. This belief, the rituals around their worship and the feat of engineering to erect the henge, using crude tools, is incredible to me.
Bearing in mind, metal tools didn’t come into being until the Bronze ages so everything undertaken by the Neolithic people was done so without metal machinery or aid.
Even into the Bronze ages people still recognised the importance of Stonehenge and ensured their dead were laid to rest in burial mounds in sight of the monument. However from 2400BC onwards people started burying their dead in individual graves. As time has progressed the spiritual significance of the monument has somewhat dwindled.
For me, as you can tell, this place, and those like it, hold so much more than just the physical stones. This prehistoric temple holds thousands of years of worship, tradition, ritual and culture. It is a place of respect, a place for reflection – to honour your ancestors, to respect those that have passed on, to worship God and a space to marvel at all that it is to be a human being in the here and now.
For me it is a thing of beauty and reverence and I am blessed to have visited as an adult and to have spent time within it.
Thank you for reading.
Love Alison xxxx