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March 12, 2010

I write this about to go and pack. This evening, an expedition led by the university’s Pagan Society, of whom my friend Rhiannon (of Rhiannon Problematising) is a leading light, are embarking on a grand tour of major pagan sites of southern England, taking in Avebury, Glastonbury, the Rollrights, West Kennet, and Stonehenge. The brilliant thing is that, because it’s officially a religious party (though it includes a fair few non-believing tourists, such as myself, along for the ride) we get to go inside the stones at Stonehenge, which is barred to common mortals. Religious exemptions; gotta love ’em.

I am fairly sure it’s going to be an amazing weekend. I’ve actually been to all the sites before, except Stonehenge, but they’re all on the list of places I’ve wanted to revisit. There’s something about stone circles, something about the feeling of the land, that sends shivers down my spine.

I don’t believe in anything in particular; I’m fairly sure that the stones at Avebury, or the Rollrights, even Stonehenge, are normal stones, and that the ground they encompass is normal ground. But it’s impossible to deny that, for me at least, stone circles are weird places.

I think it’s a combination of two effects. Firstly, the cultural resonance that these places carry: pretty much everyone raised in Britain, I should think, at some level knows what we associate with standing stones. A vague collection of half-remembered factoids and old stories gives a jumbled impression of calendars, altars, Druids, dancing, the solstice, sunrise … And for those slightly better up than average on their pre-Christian British traditions, the list also includes faerie, the Hollow Hills, giants, ley-lines, Merlin and assorted other characters.

It’s impossible to go into any place with that much baggage in your head and not feel something. The general principle applies to any place with special significance, but standing stones are unusual in having thousands of years’ worth of accreted folklore while at the same time still being unutterably mysterious. We still don’t know who built them, or what they were for, or how long they’ve weathered the British rain.

The second point is tied into that: the human brain can’t comprehend that amount of time. Every day we move between buildings that have stood for two or three hundred years; that’s a safe and familiar span. Particularly old castles or churches that are hitting the eight- or nine-hundred year mark give rise to a little more awe, but they are still recognisably castles and churches. We know what they are. Safe and familiar buildings.

The Pyramids are four thousand years old. Four millennia is up there at the limit of our ability to comprehend time, I think,  but in this case, there’s a recognisable continuum with later things, and again, we know what they are. Burial mounds, temple-cum-monuments. Not to mention that they’re instantly recognisable, their shapes familiar since primary school. Safe. Familiar.

Stonehenge is about the same age as the Pyramids, and it’s more alien than they will ever be: we’ve found nothing, no inscriptions, no murals or scrolls, to tell us what processions came up the long avenue or who moved amongst the stones. Without the reassurance of information to hold onto, the only thing left unambiguous is that these places are old. And so we try to comprehend that span of time, to make any meaningful sense of a label so far out of human experience, and the result is bewilderment.

It doesn’t help that, on top of being of unfathomable purpose, even the construction is alien. Nowadays we like to build in squares: circles themselves are relatively rare. We like squared-off, manageable pieces and shapes: the stones of Avebury, rough and irregular and some taller than a grown man, defy order. We construct; the builders of stone circles, with the notable exception of Stonehenge, only arranged.

There’s something about the standing stones, their age or their fairytale heritage or their wilful refusal to be explained, that makes every circle seem like an adventure is just about to begin, that something that’s been poised to happen for uncountable centuries is about to start to move.

I’ve been to these places in bright, scorching sunlight; I remember visiting Glastonbury Tor on a punishingly hot day, when just surviving the climb took a full bottle of water and the horizon was dancing in the haze. But I only remember that on an intellectual, data-filing level: in my head the sky is always a mottled slatey grey, with the weight of the clouds promising rain, or with the first drops already in their air. There’s always a wind blowing, not strong, but blowing. And there’s always a chill.

I’m looking forward to the trip. It should be memorable and fun and interesting and maybe a little scary if the weather turns out right (well, wrong). I don’t doubt but that it will lead to a flourishing of ideas, either; I’m taking my notebook along to record any flashes of inspiration.

I cop to having an overactive imagination. I’ve been contemplating going back to fantasy for this NaNoWriMo, too, and maybe that’s influencing it. (I could definitely have a scene at a stone circle – probably in a thunderstorm, for good measure …) But there’s something. There’s something. I doubt it’s telluric currents or the influence of Faerie or the ghosts of victims of ancient sacrifices, more probably down to my own feeble attempts to rationalise something utterly strange, but there’s something.


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