Friday, April 13, 2007

Stonehenge: A Monument To What?

"Stonehenge is a monument to the failure of religion. Whatever or whoever was worshiped here for two thousand years failed."

"Faith is only as strong as its believers."


"Where do you find yourself in the midst of such dramatic times?"

These quotes/questions come from a book, The Spiritual Traveler, that I am reading while getting ready for my trip to Europe. These quotes jumped out at me as I have not thought of Stonehenge to be a "monument to failure." How can something like Stonehenge be considered a failure? Just the size of the stones alone are a testament to the resolve that these people had. It took them years to plan it, bring the stones from the distance they came from, and to erect the stones in a way that they were aligned with the sun (or moon) on a certain day at a particular time. To me, all of this taken together makes it seem as if it is a testament to their success.

But that is not what the authors are talking about. They are saying because this particular group seemingly abandoned their space of worship, they failed. More to the point, their god(s) failed. I find it interesting that the authors posed their statements in this way.

While I was reading this particular section regarding Stonehenge, I was reminded of the book Catspaw, by Joan D. Vinge. In this book, there is a scene where a group of University students go to a planet that has been abandoned to study various artifacts that have been left behind. The main character, Cat, comes to the conclusion that the main artifact (The Monument) is actually a monument to death. Using this idea as a comparison, the authors of the guidebook are seemingly saying it was the death of a religion that surrounded Stonehenge. The difference between the book Catspaw and the guidebook is that with Catspaw, you get the impression that even though the original inhabitants are gone, the monument is a testament to their success of getting their message across (even though they are no longer around).

I think we need to look at it in way that helps us to realize that things do change. It could be that the people came to a different understanding and no longer needed to use Stonehenge as a religious monument (if that is what it was). But do we really know what happened? No. We can only make assumptions based on what we do know.

This will be something that I will be keeping in mind as I visit Stonehenge (and Avebury) myself.


Emily Lilly said...

I totally agree with you, Sojourner.

Another immediate obvious response to the authors of "The Spiritual Traveler" is that if you visit Stonehenge at the right time of year these days, you will find worshippers there. The vision, or gods, of these ancient people is strong enough to revive itself thousands of years later in a vastly different culture. How is this failure?

And another response: Bethlehem and Jerusalem are not now owned by Christian governments, even though they are very holy places to Christianity. Has the Christian religion "failed"? I doubt many Christians would agree with that assessment, and I wouldn't, either. Territorial ownership is hardly a litmus test for religious viability.

Note: this comment was left by Jeff Lilly, not Emily. :-) Emily's name is now on our Blogger account.

Chas S. Clifton said...

While Stonehenge is important today, as a Pagan site, a marker of English identity, or a site of resistance, I suspect that its original purpose was much much different.

In graduate school I took a couple of seminars in Mesoamerican religion, where we do have some texts to go with the monuments. There (and in imperial China as well), big construction projects with astronomical alignments were chiefly about showing how King Somebody's rule was aligned with the Will of the Gods.

I strongly suspect that Stonehenge was largely a product of some monarch's ego or a dynasty's collective ego. You don't need big standing stones to tell you where the Sun rises or when to plant your crops, after all.

Spider said...

I think it's good that we don't know exactly what happened there or why it became unused, it stops us following blindly that which has gone before.
Please come up north and visit Thornborough henges, quite possibly of greater importance than stonehenge ever was ... but we don't know for sure :)

Bernulf said...

Did the gods fail? What are the criteria for failure? What constitutes success? Would this success be rated on our terms, or on the gods' terms?

Would it perhaps have been more fair to ask whether or not the people of Stonehenge failed their gods? If so, then the same set of questions would still apply.

All of that considered, I think Jeff's response was pretty on-the-mark (but then I'm not too surprised by this, lol).

Erik said...

Avebury is wonderful; be sure to stop in and have a pint at the Red Lion. One of the only things I regret about our UK trip is that we didn't have time to book a room and sleep inside the circle.

Paul said...

The sacred lanscape around Avebury is definitely not to be missed - much richer than Stonehenge. I agree with Spider about Thornborough Henges and I guess he and I only live a few miles apart. There is a Beltane event in the central Henge. All these places and many more have always evoked a strong response and although we do not know how they were originally used we can honour those who imagined and built them.

Sojourner said...

Jeff – There are so many directions we could approach this issue from. Yes, there are people that worship there now, but I find myself wondering if that was the original purpose. While I’m not discounting that possibility, I have not read much research that has supported it. However, I do think the way that the authors approached this subject was strange considering the book that it was in.

I was wondering about Emily’s name suddenly showing up as the author of your post back in January when you were a guest blogger. :) Now I know.

Sojourner said...

Chas – That’s a very interesting viewpoint. As I have not read much about monuments from Mesoamerican religion (or the religion for that matter), and I am interested in learning more, do you have any recommendations of what to read?

When you say that Stonehenge may have been a monument to a monarch’s or dynasty’s ego, one question that comes to mind is regarding the other stone circles within England. Would you say that all the stone circles, no matter their size, were made as a reminder of someone’s rule?

Sojourner said...

Spider – Interesting point you make.

Thanks for the tip. I will try to get up to the Thornborough henges if I can find a way there. (I would have figure out how to get there on public transportation, which I don't know if that would be a source of trouble for me or not.)

Sojourner said...

Bernulf – I agree that these are all great questions to get people thinking about the subject.

Sojourner said...

Erik - Sleep inside the circle? That’s allowed at Avebury?!?

Thanks for the tip about the Red Lion. :)

Sojourner said...

Paul – From what I have read, I think I am going to enjoy my visit to Avebury. While Stonehenge is a “must see” place, mostly because it is much talked about, I don’t think I will be spending too much time there. I am trying to figure out how I can get to Avebury without having to take tour so that I can spend as much time there as I would like instead of feeling rushed.

I very much like your last statement. While human curiosity tends towards “finding answers,” this is a reminder that we don’t always need to have all the answers to be able to appreciate something.

coloradocelt said...

I do not think that it is a monument of failure in any way. It is a monument to change, as all cultures and religions do.

Stonehenge is a very complex site, and goes far beyond kingship or astronomical observation. Especially when you consider the recent amulet finds and the nine contemporary neolithic housing finds.

To chalk Stonehenge up as simply a monument by a king who wanted to strut his stuff ignores the larger implications and massive changes experienced during the Neolithic.

This place has fascinated people for over 4000 years. That, in my book, is not a failure.

Sojourner said...

Colorado Celt,

I don't think it is a monument that represents failure, either. I wouldn't say that it was originally a monument to change, although that may a way that we interpret it today.

Chas S. Clifton said...

My teacher on Mesoamerican religion was David Carrasco, then at the U. of Colorado, now at Harvard Divinity School.

His books include City of Sacrifice: The Aztec Empire and the Role of Violence in Civilization.

Sojourner said...

Thanks Chas!

ColoradoCelt said...

Great post btw, it always amazes me how much a place like Stonehenge can bring out in us.

Sojourner said...

Agreed. It is great that places such as this bring out the tendency for discussion.

Thanks for the compliment, Colorado Celt.