The Temple Of Life

Being involved on the interweb's political and philosophical scene you regularly find instances of animosity (whether light-hearted or heartfelt) between Christians and those who have found solace in Europe's ancient pre-Christian religions. I have no problem with it being known that I fit into the latter of these two groups, nor that I am fairly hostile towards what I feel is the cultural sterility of Christianity. But working to rekindle paganism within Europe requires educating others out there of the depth and substance paganism offers a reawakening European identity.

Regardless, one of the things you hear quite often from the Christian contingent within politics is the derogatory insistence that us pagans "worship rocks". Whilst you could return an equally childish but well rehearsed quip, in some ways it may be better to explain to those Christians (if they're willing to listen) why pagans have in the past at least, worshipped standing stones or stone circles.

Ask somebody to name a stone circle and you've got more than a good chance that the person being asked would name Stonehenge, yet few are probably aware that there is another henge in Britain which spans a much greater circumference than our most well known example. Whilst Stonehenge's structural feats are impressive, Avebury's sheer size sets it apart from all the others across Europe. Indeed when you factor in not only the stone circle but instead look around at the entire surrounding area, it reveals itself as a truly breathtaking site.

Archæologist Patrick Crampton once wrote in his 1967 book "Stonehenge of the Kings" that Avebury was not simply a temple to an earth Goddess, but also a city;

"That morning, I had stood at Stonehenge and been conscious of the ruins of a prehistoric 'city' around me. Now, in the South Circle at Avebury, I knew I was at the heart of the first metropolis to exist in Britain".

Avebury lies just south of Swindon in Wiltshire and its construction began during the neolithic period at a time where the inhabitants of the British Isles were just beginning to learn agricultural processes and animal husbandry. The huge circle of sarsen stones is contained within a deep set earthen ditch that practically encapsulates the entire modern day village of Avebury with homes, pubs and shops fitting quite comfortably within it. Originally the monument also contained two smaller stone circles inside the larger, along with a now destroyed but once impressive 'Obelisk', a phallic centre-point for presumed fertility rituals that are believed to have been performed here. To the west and south of the main stone circle once stood the Beckhampton and Kennet stone avenues, from whence the name Avebury is derived - and it is assumed by most that these avenues were used in some form of ritual procession on special dates throughout the year. Today, only a small part of the West Kennet Avenue remains, and a fraction of the original sarsen stones that make up the still impressive main stone circle.

That is not all however, because the entire plains on which Avebury is built was host to a huge complex of burial mounds, tombs and other smaller stone circles, of which few survive to present day. Silbury Hill for example, Europe's largest prehistoric structure, was built from the chalk extracted from the ditches in the construction of the henge, and would have been incredibly difficult to build. Thousands of man hours were put into the construction of Silbury Hill alone - all under excruciating conditions. These men and women digging the ditches used a combination of bones, antler and wicker baskets to deposit the loosened chalk and earth to Silbury Hill which sat a considerable mile or so from the main stone circle. Unfortunately many of the smaller stone circles and burial chambers that were dotted about the landscape no longer exist because of years of abuse from disinterested or ignorant farmers, or over-zealous Christian superstition.

Avebury shouldn't be seen as an isolated culture, and it would be wrong to view either Stonehenge or Avebury as being a complete package in their own right. We really ought to take the entire area, including as far south as Stonehenge and Old Sarum, and as far west as Stanton Drew into consideration seeing as these sites were in generally constructed around same time period, within easy travelling distance and clearly singing from the same cultural hymn sheet. For all intensive purposes, albeit with no knowledge of their own inter-regional political issues, it seems this entire area was effectively a fantastic early civilisation which lasted a great number of years. The millions of man-hours that it must have taken to construct these monuments is proof that these builders were not the stereotypical cavemen that we have been taught to laugh at by the popular (but incorrect) view of ancient history. In fact their society at that time must have included a great deal of organisation, trade and cooperation to complete such complicated tasks.

Avebury today.
The one thing you get from the experience as you walk around Avebury, is a sense of the scale of workmanship that went into the monuments. This was not simply a henge lobbed up with no concise purpose, it obviously had a very real connection with the everyday lives of the neolithic tribesmen and women who lived in such a time and place. It was built, stone by stone, over the course of many hundreds of years, each generation knowing they would never see it fully completed. It may seem strange to us today why anyone would start a construction project you know you would never live to see completed. With the average age expectancy at that time of late twenties to early thirties, it's fascinating to think how many generations must have taken up this project. It wasn't designed from the outset of course, as every generation must have contributed to it in some way or another, although they were very likely guided along the same lines of both aesthetics and practical use.

The Womb Of The Goddess

West Kennet Long Barrow's Entrance
The million-dollar question is why Avebury, Stonehenge or any of the other smaller or lesser known stone circles were constructed in the first place?

Of course nobody knows outright what the answer is and if and when that definitive answer comes, it will no doubt have a detrimental effect not only on the tourism industry but on our own collective imaginations. In all seriousness though, given that the architects were illiterate, it is unlikely we will ever come to a full understanding for this interesting period in British history. Whilst the artefacts, bones and monuments they left behind leave us some clues, they are but whispers which our modern biases and cultural lenses may struggle to interpret correctly. That said, some of these whispers have been interpreted the same way often enough to become regarded as the most likely explanation by modern archæologists and religious experts alike. Piecing together the fragments that we think we understand gives us an albeit incomplete glimpse into the inner-workings of a small part of our neolithic ancestor's mind set.

The overarching principle you get at Avebury is the reverence for the cycle of life. The multiple burial mounds surrounding both sites, and the older and more impressive 'Long Barrows' give hints to the powerful force the dead must have had on the living to this ancient culture. However signs left in the landscape also allude to a strong religious experience centred around rebirth and fertility, it is as though they worshipped the very nature of life itself and perhaps the idea that their ancestors would be reborn once again through these fertility rituals.

Inspect the open air tombs or 'Long Barrows' around Avebury and you'll find that they all face east, either towards the rising sun or moon. Whether this difference was based on preference or as the cultural practices shifted is unknown, but the underlying symbology behind the east facing tomb is not all that alien to us. After all, every Christian church is built with the congregation facing eastward towards the rising sun, with an obvious association with the rising of the sun representing the resurrection of Christ. Its not really much of a jump to consider that the privilege of resurrection to our neolithic ancestors was open to anybody or everybody (or perhaps just to a certain caste, depending on their ideas on authority) instead of just the one "saviour" in Jesus Christ.

The most notable long barrow in Britain is probably West Kennet, built just outside of the main village of Avebury. Excavations conducted during the mid-fifties found a long corridor with four chambers spliting off of it. In these chambers were the bones of some forty-six burials, most of them found in a jumbled, incomplete state indicating that the bones were often disinterred, and perhaps used in ritual or religious celebrations. Among the remains there was no indication of age or gender preference. Man and woman, old and young shared the chambers alike and even the remains of a foetus was found by excavators, showing that maybe our neolithic ancestors had more respect for the lives of unborn children than our own modern society that normalises abortion.(1)

In the book The Secrets of the Avebury Stones written by Terence Meaden, he puts forward the idea that the resting places of the dead had a role to play within the religious beliefs and rituals of the living. As an example, he hypothesises that specially shaped sarsen stones built into the western most end of the West Kennet Long Barrow may have had some symbolic use. Meaden makes special reference to a stone resembling a face to the left, and a skull shaped stone to the right. In the days that the tomb was in regular use, the light from the morning sun would have shone down the main corridor and onto this 'skull' stone in winter, and the 'face' stone in spring and summer. If these stones were chosen or sculpted especially for their shapes and alignments (and not just coincidental) then the intended symbology should be obvious. As the sun rise shifts through the course of the year from a period of sterile winter to life-giving springtime, so too do the spirits of the ancestors and the deities that our neolithic ancestors worshipped.

Today West Kennet Long Barrow is almost totally enclosed at its entrance by a line of huge sarsen stones, but archæologists found that these large stones were placed after the tomb went out of use, and the inhabitants for one reason or another, felt the need to seal its entrance. As such, its unfortunate that the alignment of the sunrise along the tomb's passage isn't something we can experience today, but another clue left behind hints once again to builder's religious beliefs. The main sarsen stone used to seal the entrance, sitting directly inline with the main passage, has a shape looking suspiciously like a vulva upon it. Could this tomb then have represented the impregnation of an earth and fertility goddess by a masculine, life giving solar deity? On its own the evidence may seem anecdotal, but there exists further evidence around Avebury which may lead credence to these claims that I shall go into a little later.

Needless to say, these views or theories are not new. In Meaden's book he states;

"Several archaelogists, from Tony Cyriax (1921) onwards, have expressed the view that long barrows were intended to duplicate as closely as possible the sexual and reproductive organs of woman, hence female deity."(2)

Some, like Varg Vikernes, claim that the religious importance of tombs and the remains of ancestors continued way past the neolithic and in some cases never died out until middle ages. For example he suggests that in pre-Christian Europe, children were led into the open crypts of their ancestors to retrieve the tools or weapons interred alongside the bones of the deceased in a rite of passage denoting both new found adulthood and a form of reincarnation. I do see some merit in his claims. For example, a custom we're all familiar with on Halloween or Samhain with trick or treating (formerly known as guising,) is thought to have originated from the act of dressing in the clothes of dead ancestors to imitate, or become their ancestor for the night. In other myths surrounding graves, is the idea that sleeping in a tomb or barrow on the night of Halloween can induce visions or great powers of divination.
A diagram of  the configuration inside
West Kennet Long Barrow.

Strangely, the association with West Kennet Long Barrow and the sun has continued into modern day through myth and folk lore. It is claimed that the ghost of a priest and white hound appears each year at sunrise on Midsummer's day. Whilst I'm sure nobody quite knows when this myth originally started, it wouldn't be at all surprising to find that this is some perversion of an ancient belief or custom going back millennia.

There are other examples of structures in Europe like West Kennet Longbarrow apparently showing similar purpose. For instance in Ireland the Newgrange barrow, although much grander in its construction, appears to have been built with the same principles in mind. Newgrange is an imposing monument; a circular construction standing up to twelve metres tall and spanning seventy-six metres in diameter. Whereas Avebury's barrow favoured the spring equinox, the Newgrange barrow was perfectly aligned to the sunrise on the winter solstice, lighting up chambers which like West Kennet, contained the bones and personal belongings of the recently deceased.

For whatever reason, these Long Barrows eventually fell out of use, and as already mentioned, were sealed up and closed off from the rest of the world for some 4000 years. It appears a new type of burial method, the burial mound, replaced the older barrow custom - perhaps indicating the influence of a new dominant culture.

A Kurgan Influence?

Although the long barrows were clearly a very important part of Britain's neolithic culture until their eventual closure, they were not the only monuments being built around the area at that time, nor indeed were they the last.

Silbury Hill alongside the B' road.
Only recently in June 2017, have archæologist unearthed evidence of a hugely impressive set of monuments and palisades near to the West Kennet Long Barrow, constructed an incredible 800 years before work had begun on the main stone circle that encircles the village of Avebury today. The palisades (high, wooden walls) and wooden "henge" circles made from the trunks of some 4000 mature oak trees may, according to Professor Alex Bayliss (Historic England's head of scientific dating) have been a camp constructed to house workers who had come to the area to help construct Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill is a huge monument that lies between the main Avebury stone circle and West Kennet Long Barrow to the south. It stands nearly forty metres tall and is the largest pre-historic mound in Europe. Researchers have concluded that the mound was built in multiple stages, its construction being particularly labour intensive; taking up to eighteen-million man hours to construct. In the book Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain, Euan Mackie suggests that the kind of social organisation required to construct Silbury Hill, and other labour intensive construction projects such as the stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury, would have required a form of quite sophisticated authoritarian government, wielding great power over a large section of the British Isles.

What is interesting however is that the date of Silbury Hill's first construction phase (circa, 2400 BC) seems to coincide with the closure of the long barrow at West Kennet, and the start of the more ambitious projects both at Avebury and Stonehenge.

When I first began writing this post I had a theory that the sudden adoption of burial mounds coinciding with the closure of West Kennet Long Barrow, and the work that was started on Silbury Hill around that time was all very much interlinked. I wondered whether a new group of settlers had moved into Britain about this time, bringing with them new, albeit commonly-derived cultural practices from what we now know as the Proto-Indo-European culture - known on the continent as the Kurgans (a tribe originally based around the Ukraine region.) Again this was just a hypothesis of mine, as it seemed strange that cultural practices that had been followed for a thousand years or more had suddenly changed over the course of a few hundred years. Perhaps the authoritarian leadership necessary and responsible for organising the building of the later, grander monuments, were newcomers from the continent bringing with them new ideas on social order, along with new technologies in warfare to achieve a regional dominance.

Burial Mounds found at Stonehenge
It may seem a bit anecdotal, but there may well be a bit of mythology that survived into modern day surrounding this possible incoming cultural elite muscling their way into neolithic British society. 'King Sil' as one legend goes, was buried on horseback inside Silbury Hill, whilst another similar tale says the buried king was actually a solid gold effigy, presumably cast on horseback (3). My idea was that perhaps Silbury Hill had been constructed to honour the first leader from this new group which, if my Kurgan idea was correct, may gain some credibility by the fact that domestication of horses also emerged in Britain around the same time that the Silbury Hill's construction started (thus perhaps explaining the importance of the horse burial with King Sil.) After all, the Kurgan tribes around the Black Sea had mastered horse-riding a thousand or more years before it appeared in Britain. It seems logical that the use of horses for transport may well be one of the reasons why this tribe of people from the Black Sea region were able to spread so far across Eurasia.

So this was my theory anyway, and to be honest I wasn't going to go into it in any great detail until I found in Stephen Oppenheimer's work The Origins of the British, that my idea was backed by both genetic and artefact findings across southern Britain. He states;

"Usefully in this case, the genetic evidence extends from humans to domesticated ponies in north-west Europe, although the genetic dates for the latter are still uncertain.

In my view a Late Neolithic invasion of humans and horses from Eastern Europe (Kurgan or otherwise) cannot be falsified genetically - at least not yet.

In this chapter I have presented evidence for large-scale Neolithic gene flow from the Balkans/Ukraine area into northwest Europe marked particularly by the Ian male group. Ian is also represented in Ukraine and farther east in the so-called Kurgan homeland north of the Caspian Sea".(4.)

As this new group spread into the north-west of Europe, they left evidence of their cultural influence with the artefacts and burials that they left behind. Much of Europe came to exhibit signs of their 'corded ware' pottery, unique battle axes, horse domestication and as I've already suggested - the change to individual graves and burial mounds from the older communal tombs.

Some of the archaeological examples common for the most part on the continent are absent in the British isles though. For instance Corded Ware pottery and battle axes buried in the graves of men throughout the continent fail to show up in Britain. Instead, a different form of pottery dubbed "All-Over-Corded ware" existed in Britain, a style we also shared with the Low Countries across the Channel.

To explain this, Oppenheimer suggests that the isolated nature of Britain (owing to the fact that we're on an island,) slowed the influence of cultural change spreading elsewhere on the continent through a combination of migration and trade. However, the discovery of similar All-Over-Corded ware, coincides with concentrations of the Ian (ie."Kurgan/eastern European") male lineage along the south and east of Britain.(5) Interestingly, some high-status burials discovered around Stonehenge were found not to have been locals (isotopic tests on their teeth showed they were from a colder climate synonymous with either the Alps or eastern Europe (6), and that their burial roughly corresponded again with the period in which larger expansions began to be built at Avebury, Stonehenge and Silbury Hill. Whether this means anything will probably remain unknowable, but it does raise the question of whether the fact that at some time in the Late Neolithic, continental rulers imposed themselves on the native British people. It certainly wouldn't be the only time in British history that a small number of invaders came to our island and imposed themselves as the new aristocracy. The Saxons, Normans and Danes, who account for less than 6% of the overall genetic stock of today's native Britons (7) shows a precedent for relatively small groups of people wielding supreme power over a much larger population.

Once again, if we look into surviving mythology in the British Isles (and North Western Europe in general) we may find a correlation between the legends of bronze and iron age societies, and the archaeological record of the late neolithic. In the indigenous Germanic religions, there exists the tale of two warring tribes of deities, the Vanir and the Aesir. With neither side able to completely defeat the other, these tribes of Gods eventually merge into one group through intermarriage and hostage taking. Whats interesting about this tale is that the Vanir seem in many ways to be the 'older' fertility based, matriarchal deities, whilst the Aesir perhaps represent a more martial, patriarchal cult. After all, the chief God of the Aesir was Odin, who even the Christian Saxon King Alfred claimed to have derived a royal lineage from. There is a possibility that these old tales represent a clash of cultures between 2500-2000BC, that were so culturally important that it survived into our modern age, albeit in broken fragments via the recording of medieval poems.

In Rudolf Simek's 'Dictionary of Northern Mythology' he writes;

In older scholarship the myth of of the Vanir wars was mostly seen as a reflection of a historical war which took place in the 2nd millenium B.C. At that time the established South Scandinavia-West European megalithic culture was overrun by the north-westward advancing battle-axe culture, whence came the mixture of the (non-Indo-European? matriarchal?) champions of the megalithic culture (= vanir) with the Indo-Germanic battle-axe people (= string ceramics culture = Aesir). These historical processes would have stayed in memory in the form of the myth of the Vanir and the pact of peace between the Aesir and the Vanir (Eckhardt).(8)

Similar tales are also told with the 'Celtic' warring tribes, and as far east as India with the Asura - Deva wars. With all things, other interpretations obviously exist, and Simek also points out that the Vanic War maybe a symbolic representation of the need for social castes in Bronze and Iron age society, but my take is that if a new group of elites did push their way into prominence throughout Europe and the British Isles, then it may be that both interpretations are correct. In Britain's case especially, a strong social caste was almost undoubtedly present in order to organise the building of the grand megalithic structures that dot our landscape.

Unsurprisingly mythology can't always be trusted; excavations of Silbury Hill throughout the centuries have failed to turn up any ten foot tall solid gold statues, and oddly enough, no bodies have been found inside either. In 2007 English Heritage conducted a one million pound survey and found a group of great sarsen stones buried inside Silbury Hill when using ground penetrating radar, leading some to speculate that these buried stones represented the 'souls' of the deceased, instead of real remains. I don't think anyone is really qualified to answer why Silbury Hill was built, but suffice to say it clearly had some great importance. It seems quite hilarious to me, but there are the claims by some that Silbury Hill was simply a dumping ground - as though the deliberate act of stacking up a huge earth and chalk mound with a gravel base was of no real significance.

Personally (and again I stress that I feel nobody, let alone myself is qualified to really make a truly educated statement on this) I feel that the mound was probably built over the top of something that has been missed. Perhaps the stones buried were part of an old Long Barrow, or that there are human remains way down at the monument's base that we've not found yet. My personal feeling is that it is a monument either to someone of great importance (hence the King Sil story) or that something of cultural importance to the early neolithic culture was buried under the orders of this new culture from the continent - the huge burial mound a way of reminding everybody who lived in the area that their society was now completely under new management, and that the old ways of doing things was dead.

Any take over from another group of people would have had to have been a relatively peaceful exchange of ideas however, because as I'm about to explain in the next section, the old joint fertility-ancestor worship simply evolved into a more theatrical display away from the long barrows, and into the stone circles themselves.

The Stone Circles

An Artist's impression of how Avebury
may have looked in its final complete state.
It makes sense to think that the main stone circle at Avebury was built first, with the two smaller stone circles inside and the avenues built afterwards, but recent archaeology finds that this isn't the case at all. Instead the whole area seems to have been built in stages, spreading out from a single point like a ripple upon a pond. Unfortunately as I've already mentioned, due to the work of superstitious Christians over the years, the vast majority of the main stone circle and its avenues have disappeared forever. In fact were it not for the works of Alexander Keiller in the late thirties who dug up and re-erected many of the fallen stones that had been buried during the 17th and 18th century, we would have very little remaining today left to see.

Whilst the sheer size of Avebury's main circle is difficult to detract from, the real focal point for this monument sadly no longer exists. We are fortunate enough to know roughly what pieces are missing from the puzzle though, because of the works of William Stukeley an antiquarian who documented Avebury's destruction quite vividly. I'll hold off discussing the site's desecration for now as I will be writing about it in another post in the near future, but save to say that the villagers almost had the practice of breaking up the stones with fire down to a fine art.

Stukeley recognised the importance of 'The Obelisk' as he called it, a great stone some 21ft in height, far larger than the rest of the remaining sarsens that we have today. Stukeley wrote in his book Abury;

'The central obelisk of this temple is of a circular form at base, of a vast bulk, 21 feet long and 8 feet 9 inches diameter; when standing, higher than the rest. This is what the scripture calls a pillar, or standing image, Levit. xxxvi.i. These works, erected in the land of Canaan by the same people... were ordered to be demolished by the Israelites, because at that time perverted to idolatry.'

The Obelisk's cultural importance has only recently just been reconfirmed. Back in June 2017, archæologist discovered a stone square (that no longer exists) actually surrounded the Obelisk. Whilst the original surveys done by Keiller in the thirties had discovered its existence, they had originally thought the square layout had been a medieval barn, but recent investigation has revealed that the square shape had originally been a neolithic wooden structure, that the people had remembered by placing stones in its footprint, presumably as some kind of memorial to the older structure.

Obviously, nobody knows exactly what this wooden structure was used for. At 3500BC it would have predated the building of Silbury Hill and the larger stone circle by a thousand years or more. It may be that the building served as a mortuary house, or perhaps the first chieftain's home - whatever the case it obviously had a huge cultural importance for the people who lived there. My theory, given that they already had Long Barrows like West Kennet in place for burials, is that this building was once the home of a great leader, perhaps the founding father of the stone circle culture in this region who had ended up being revered as a demi-God by subsequent generations. Obviously this is just an idea, but it may explain the later alignment of the Obelisk which later came to rest on top of this building's footprint.

In The Secrets of the Avebury Stones Terence Meaden goes into quite some detail explaining how
The 'Vulva' stone which a shadow was
cast upon from the phallic Obelisk.
experiments show, somewhat conclusively, that a shadow cast by the Obelisk at sunrise around May Day align perfectly with a large sarsen stone in the smaller southern stone circle which, like the stone left in West Kennet's entrance, looks suspiciously like a vulva (9). In other words, this is another depiction of a solar 'Sky God' impregnating a female Mother Earth. Similar alignments also exist at Stonehenge, with a shadow cast at the sunrise of midsummer, (although it is widely believed that Stonehenge was predominately centred around the winter solstice.)

As already discussed, the start of the larger stone circle at Avebury which enclosed the two smaller circles began with the closure of the Long Barrows and the emergence of new cultural practices of burial mounds, probably from the continent. Strangely however, it is theorised that the old long barrow customs didn't die out completely, and were instead repackaged into a new practice held in a more open air environment. Huge sarsen stones were built into two 'Coves', allegedly built to be a representation of older long barrows, and they aligned with both the winter and summer solstices, once again highlighting the importance of the sun in relation to their religious practices.

Finally, the last stage of construction was the completion of the outer ring and the stone avenues which like so much of the rest of this monument, are today but a shadow of their former glory. This last stage of construction was the icing on the cake, the opus magnum for this particular society as its power and prosperity slowly waned, and Stonehenge took over as the new dominant force in the local area.

Ritual Of The Serpent

Stukeley's famous illustration the Avebury
complex in its 'serpent' guise.
William Stukeley's illustrations of the overall Avebury complex mention that with the avenues, the whole thing resembled a serpent. With his connection to the Church of England (within a few years of his work on Avebury he became a priest) it seems he may have been keen to associate ancient civilisations with something immoral and sinful. Perhaps to his Christian sensibilities, he was right.

Some, like Micheal Dames in his book The Avebury Cycle, theorise that the two long avenues of stone that lead in from the west and south were important ritual components to the annual festivals held at the site. The theory is that a fertility ritual took place in which men and women were segregated at the start and had a procession along the two separate avenues, meeting at the half way point in the main stone circle for a symbolic (or perhaps actual) copulation between male and female attendees. Dames suggests that male adolescents passed along the Beckhampton Avenue, filtering in to the northern inner-circle, whilst their maidens came from the south and made their way into the southern inner-circle. Perhaps the goal here was the consummation of arranged marriages as the shadow from the Obelisk symbolically penetrated the Earth Goddess on the dawn of May Day. Personally I feel Dames makes some rather rash assumptions, but I can't help but feel that his idea is a good educated guess considering all the other points we have discussed so far about the religious nature of the monuments these people left behind for us.

To my mind, the credibility for Dames' line of thinking, comes from the fact that the Kennet Avenue begins its mile and a half pathway at a site called The Sanctuary. Today, The Sanctuary is a rather uninteresting collection of concrete bollards provided by the National Trust to act as place-markers, providing visitors with a representation of where wooden beams were found buried in the earth. Like so many things already discussed though, nobody knows exactly what function The Sanctuary served, but one interesting idea is that it was a thatched mortuary house held up by the timber posts.

If the women began their travels to a fertility ritual from a place where dead bodies were kept, it seems logical to me, given all the other evidence from around the landscape, to conclude that they may have invoked the spirits of the dead to inhabit their wombs, ready to be reborn into this world at February the following year. Being born in February, the children conceived at the ritual would be emerging into this world around the time of Imbolc, a festival associated with the Celtic goddess Brigid, an Indo-European goddess of the dawn and spring with theoretically the exact same root as Easter/Ostara, Eos or Aurora. In other words, through Easter and Imbolc, we still have some tangible connection with this very ancient religious practice which predates not only Christianity, but the more patriarchal pagan religion which came to dominate north-western Europe between the Bronze to early Medieval periods.

Do we know enough to accurately reconstruct a neolithic faith? Probably not. But it is nice to think that some of our culture may well be unchanged for many thousands of years.

A Superior World View?

Feel free to switch off at this point as I give my own pagan perspective of the subject matter discussed so far about Avebury, and how it corresponds with our modern lives. My aim here is not to seem preachy - but simply to get people to consider something our society today seems to sorely miss.

Now, assuming that we have the general gist of our neolithic ancestor's worldview, I think its a fair question whether we in the modern age can learn anything from them. Whilst we have made so technological progress in the relatively short space of time between 3000BC to 2000AD (comparatively with our evolutionary history)  in terms of all the things that matter, I wonder whether we've actually regressed in many ways.

For instance, the act of adding to or beginning the construction of something despite knowing that the those builders who began a project would never have any hope of seeing the finished results, is in my personal opinion evidence of a superior worldview, and if I'm being dramatic - a superior civilisation to the one we live in today. Our ancestor's view of the universe was not linear like our understanding today. They did not see birth as the start, nor death as an end; to them everything was a renewing cycle. It seems pretty alien to us, perhaps partly due to a hangover from Christian indoctrination, but the ancient philosophy really would have some outstanding benefit for us today if we was to take up a similar approach.

Our civilisation today is disgustingly narcissistic, there is little forward planning and as we descend further down into this regressive cesspit, the feelings of the shrieking minority trumps the will and opinion of the majority; not to mention forgoing logic and reason in the process. As a society we shun community and celebrate the cult of the individual. We put off starting large projects like renewable energy for instance and shy away from beginning epic projects like space travel, despite it being within our grasp, because we know it would impede our own personal comfort here today. We protect our comfort level without any thought given to the hardships that it may create for the young generations, let alone those unborn! How many times have you heard someone say "oh well, it won't happen in my life time", whilst apparently carelessly condemning their own grandchildren into poverty, or at risk of some great ecological or economic disaster.

It could be argued that Christianity, or monotheism in general, began this harmful pathological indifference. Their views on the afterlife as being some final destination that is more important than the physical world around them, puts mental barriers up to matters of material. Why take an interest in this world when you can quite easily reach paradise through death? Not only that, but the Christian can repent on their death bed and wipe the slate clean, regardless of how hideously immoral they were during their life time. Surely such a practice raises the question of whether this mindset harms the notion of personal responsibility - let alone the wider reaching implications that this has on a society.

The linear mindset in the monotheist religions beginning with birth and ending in either eternal damnation or paradise, makes one less likely to care about future descendants and in fact makes them fearful of their own deaths! Fast forward to modern "progressive" atheist society today though, and the situation has got a whole lot worse. The rise of atheism has acerbated this view of a linear time, and society has begun to show the mental scars associated with such a nihilistic approach to life.

To pre-Christian societies, the dead lived on in the lives of the living. Death was not some final resting place, but a part of a cyclic process. Even if you took out everything spiritual, from a scientific point of view we have to agree that in many ways, we are immortal. The elements that we are made of were forged in the heart of a star, our DNA has been passed on, ever changing but still with some degree of direct linage for four billion years, and when we die our children will continue this trend until ultimately there is nothing left of Earth but a few scraps of carbon and Voyager spacecraft beeping in the void.

In the short term our own bodies are either cremated or rot in the ground, and our nitrates go back into the soil to be reused in an ever replenishing cycle. Yes, we might lose consciousness, but then does that matter? Are plants not alive, or jellyfish? Our immortality it could be argued is not won through some form of strict religious doctrine, but through the realisation that our children, families, communities - even ecosystems, are an extension of ourselves. In the case of our own children that is even more true, biologically speaking we really do live on. In doing what is right for our kids today to ensure their survival, we will in our own small part live on through the consequences of our own actions. Ultimately, this world view can either be spiritual or merely philosophical - but it is certainly something that in my opinion can learnt from the ancients.

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1. Prehistoric Avebury written by Aubury Burl, published by Yale University Press [Page 278]
2. The Secrets of the Avebury Stones, by Terence Meaden, published by Souvenir Press [Page 108]
3. Supernatural England written by Eric Maple, published by Fraser & Stewart 1977 [Page 175-176]
4. The Origins of the British written by Stephen Oppenheimer, published by Robinson 2007 [Page 262-263]
5.The Origins of the British written by Stephen Oppenheimer, published by Robinson 2007 [Page 264]
6. The Origins of the British written by Stephen Oppenheimer, published by Robinson 2007 [Page 268]
7. The Origins of the British written by Stephen Oppenheimer, published by Robinson 2007 [Page 486]
8. Dictionary of Northern Mythology written by Rudolf Simek, published by D.S Brewer in 1993 [Page 352]
9. The Secrets of the Avebury Stones, by Terence Meaden, published by Souvenir Press [Page 25]
10. The Avebury Cycle written by Michael Dames, published by Thames & Hudson [Page 154-5]


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