Nagpur Diary 3 – Sacred Places: Reclaiming Ancient Traditions in the British Isles
The Conference in Nagpur that I recently attended was designed to forge links and explore the connections between the ancient wisdom traditions that are found all over the world. I gave a talk there based on the material that follows and on research into the links between Druidism and Jainism and other Indian religions (more on that later!)
Sacred Places: Reclaiming Ancient Traditions in the British Isles
Dear delegates and esteemed elders, I imagine it will come as no surprise to you to know that whereas in India the inhabitants are privileged to be living in a land where ancient traditions have been followed in an unbroken chain of practice since time immemorial, no such situation exists in the British Isles. We have enriched our museums and our culture with treasures from every corner of the Earth in a way that has been both helpful and unhelpful, but just as we colonised much of the planet in the past, so our own indigenous spirituality was superceded by a religious colonialism that very effectively disconnected us from our spiritual roots and heritage.
The use of the term ‘roots’ when discussing such a subject is apposite, since roots are anchored in soil, and spiritual traditions are mysteriously linked in the same way to the living earth beneath our feet. When Christianity arrived here instructions were given to take over the holy sites.
Pope Gregory’s letter to Abbott Mellitus on his departure for England, dated 17 June 601 advises him:
“When you come to our most reverend brother, Bishop Augustine, I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering over the affairs of the English: I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well-built temples by purifying them from devil-worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people (seeing their temples are not destroyed) will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly, so coming to know and revere the true God.”
The pope’s advice to keep the temples intact was not always heeded, and many of the old places were destroyed – often for non-religious reasons – to clear land for farming or to reuse the stones in buildings.
At other times churches were built next to, or on top of old sites. Near where I live in Sussex the smallest church in England was built in the middle of an old sacred grove of the Druids at Lullington.
In saying all this I am not complaining, or criticising what has occurred – in the Divine scheme of things perhaps these things were meant to happen, and although the old Pagan ways were overtaken by Christian practices, there is a sense in which the old churches, built on top of Pagan sites like a different species of tree grafted on to older stock, can still connect us to our roots and nourish our souls.
A wonderful example of this is the cathedral of Chartres in France which was built directly on top of an old Pagan holy well, that was almost certainly the site referred to by Julius Caesar as the gathering place of the Druids, who would come from far away to deliberate once a year on important matters and to choose their chiefs. If you visit the cathedral today you can go down in to the crypt to visit the holy well once worshipped long ago in pre-Christian times. And above it, the great labyrinth that can be walked in contemplation unites us with Pagan times when labyrinths were used ceremonially as a means of connecting worshippers to the mysteries of incarnation.
Orson Welles called the cathedral a ‘rich stone forest’ and the great mythographer Joseph Campbell loved this place that “talks to me about the spiritual information of the world.” He went on to describe how
The cathedral, in the form of a great cross, is oriented to the four quarters, with its altar facing east and with every detail, whether of proportion or of ornamentation, controlled and inspired by a Platonic-Pythagorean concept of the laws of numbers governing the universe. By these laws, made audible in music and visible in architecture, the soul is brought to accord with both its own spiritual nature and the universal ground: for, in the words of John of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres from 1176 to 1178. “The soul is said to be composed of musical consonances.”
Joseph Campbell, The Mythic Image
There is another place, just a mile or so from the grove of Lullington that I mentioned, where the continuity with the past is represented by an immense living Being: a great yew tree that is thought to be 1,600 years old. Beside it stands a church that is 900 years old and a little further on stands one of the old chalk hill figures that can be found in southern England: the Long Man of Wilmington.
If you believe that living beings retain a memory of their past in their cells or in their etheric body, as many spiritual teachings claim, then to sit beside this old yew in contemplation and reverence means you are sitting within the presence and the aura of a spirit that was alive at the time of pre-Christian indigenous religious activity, at the time of the creation of the great hill figure (the second largest representation of a human figure in the world) and at the time the Church was built and the first worshippers prayed at its altar.
And so, although there has not been a continuous chain of unbroken spiritual practice at these sites from the very earliest days, there are presences, beings here – ancient trees and stones and guardian spirits too – who have seen time come and go and whom we can connect with, to revere, and to open to as guides in our task of working with our heritage in a way that is appropriate to our age.
They help to bridge a gap of about a thousand years in which indigenous practice was forgotten or absorbed into the new dispensation – a time that lasted from the final triumph of Christianity in the 7th century, by which time everyone in the country was Christian, until the 17th century, at which time a number of people started to become interested in these strange monuments that peopled the landscape.At this time, William Stukeley, the founding father of the discipline of archaeology, visited Stonehenge and Avebury in Wiltshire and began to sketch the monuments and write about them – suggesting that they were the remains of the old temples of the Druids. And thus the period now known as the Druid Revival began.
Ever since then, over the 300 years which have followed, the interest in indigenous traditions – and Druidism in particular – has grown tremendously, so that now the Order that I have been honoured to lead for the last twenty years has thousands of members all over the world, and in our Order and in the many Druid groups around the world there has been an outpouring of research, scholarship and experimentation that is inspiring.
One feature of this Druid revival concerns the renewing of our relationship with the sacred landscape. Little by little we have started to gather at the old sacred places once again and for the remainder of my talk I would like to tell you about this – about the challenges we have faced and about the ways in which we have attempted to celebrate and worship at these sites.
The site which has received the most public attention has been at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. Here for a number of years so many people used to try to gather at the summer solstice dawn that the police created a cordon around the site and battles developed, the most notorious one being known as the Battle of the Beanfield, in which one person died in the conflict.
Why had the summer solstice come to assume so much importance? To understand this we need to look at the dimension of Time. There are the old sacred places that we have been talking about, but there are also the old sacred times. When you put a knowledge of these two together you can start to build an understanding of the kinds of spiritual practice that might be appropriate to follow or revive. Just as the Church appropriated the Pagan sites of worship, so they appropriated their holy days too. In this way the pastoral festival of lambing in February, known as Imbolc, became Candlemas, the harvest festival in August, known as Lughnadsadh, became Lammas, and the festival of the Dead, known as Samhain, in October became the Christian festival of All Souls. But in addition to these times, our ancestors celebrated the astronomical events of the two solstices and perhaps the two equinoxes too (although we have less historical evidence of these latter).
A breakthrough in the revival of our ancient traditions occurred in the middle of the last century when my teacher, the Chief Druid Ross Nichols, and his friend Gerald Gardner, who was responsible for the creation or revival of a kind of Witchcraft known as Wicca, got together during the Second World War and discussed the way in which Britain needed a return to an awareness of its roots and its old customs. As a result of their discussions an eightfold calendar of celebration was born which in the fifty years since they proposed it, has become the bedrock of Pagan celebration for many thousands of people the world over.
By proposing a set of eight festivals during the year, Gardner and Nichols hit on an idea whose time had come. Every six weeks or so followers of the Old Ways could meet up and attempt to commune with the land, the Ancestors and the spirits in a way that satisfied both their religious sensibilities and their yearning for more magic in their lives. The Church, particularly Protestantism, had removed much of the magic from religious life, but Gardner and Nichols succeeded in drawing on centuries of the magical tradition in their newly devised rituals, so that now you have the remarkable situation that you can visit many sacred sites in Britain at the festival times to discover a magical ceremony being held in full view of the public. In these celebrations one can detect traces, like strands of DNA, of many of the elements of Britain’s magical history. Go to Stanton Drew, Glastonbury Tor, Avebury, or the Long Man of Wilmington on an equinox or solstice and you’ll be able to spot the influence of the pre-Christian Druid, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon periods. Depending on the group performing the rite there may also be inspiration drawn from the herb or star lore of those wizards who practised in England between 1500 and 1900 known as cunning-folk, of Elizabethan magicians and their love of angel and spirit invocations, and of Freemasonry and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in its appreciation of ritual structure. This is the outstanding legacy of Gardner’s and Nichols’ work, proving that magic is once again alive and well and openly practised in the English countryside in the twenty-first century.
Gardner’s group began observing the eightfold cycle in 1958, Nichols’ group in 1964, and by the end of the Eighties this way of celebration was well established in Britain, Europe and in the English-speaking countries of North America and Australia. Over the decades this structure has proved to be extremely fertile – giving birth to numerous books and groups which use it as a central scheme for worship.
This brings us back to Stonehenge and why the time of the solstice there had become such a focal point for unrest. Ever since Druids had attempted to worship at Stonehenge in the early part of the 20th century, the establishment had reacted with unease. A difficult situation occurred in 1914 when the Druid Chief George Watson MacGregor Reid objected to paying for entry to the site, arguing that worshippers should never be asked to pay a fee to exercise their religious freedoms. This conflict echoed through the rest of the century, until it reached its height in the 1960s when the burgeoning Pagan movement met the heady atmosphere of Flower Power that was fuelled not only by inspiration from India (thanks to the publicity provided by the Maharishi and the Beatles and the many gurus who began to reach out to the west at that time) but also by a new wave of interest in indigenous traditions, sparked by a growing awareness of the network of sacred sites that exists in Britain. This network was seen as connected by a system of lines – that some saw as purely functional, connecting old trade and pilgrimage routes and others as energetic, connecting sacred sites with ‘dragon lines’ of prana or chi, or Nwyfre as it is called in the Druid tradition.
I am very interested to explore such lines that might exist in India, and in researching the subject on the internet I was very excited to see that people talk about Curry lines. I thought perhaps this referred specifically to lines here in the birth-place of that delicious dish, but soon discovered that this referred to a theory advanced by a Mr.Curry that the earth is covered in bands of energy 3 metres apart that run from the north to the south pole. In addition there are supposedly Hartmann lines that run east to west. There are a number of theories about such energy lines. Some believe the earth is covered in a grid -like geometric pattern – others that it is more variable and organic, and that the earth has chakra systems, just like the human body. It can be fascinating to explore this topic and to ask, for example, what chakra does Nagpur represent? Are we here today in the heart chakra of India, or at the solar plexus perhaps?
These ideas are exciting and they thrilled the young people who made up the counter-cultural movement of the 60s and 70s. They wanted to be at a centre of energy at a magical time, so where better than to congregate at Stonehenge at the summer solstice dawn? The trouble was there were no structures in place to contain their youthful energy. The Druid ceremonies proved insufficient channels for the tide of enthusiasm, and instead a pop festival was held at the site which was tolerated for a number of years by the authorities until they decided to ban it, and create what became known as an ‘Exclusion Zone’ around the site, which cost millions of pounds to police and caused great antagonisms. Today after many meetings with Druid leaders and other representatives, English Heritage, the body which controls the site, simply allows everyone to turn up, which means that as many as 60,000 people arrive at the stones for an experience of the solstice. The result is sadly a mess. If it were happening in India I believe you would be able to organise it very well – centuries of tradition and practice mean that large festivals can work here – witness the Kumbh Mela festivals which attract millions of pilgrims.
But we are not so skilled at such things and I am embarrassed to say that you would probably be disappointed if you came to Stonehenge at the solstice. But if you came with a spiritual group, such as the Order that I represent, you would have a very different experience. We make a private booking to visit the site when the public is not there – and on a different day to the actual solstice itself, which is spoiled with such crowds. And we pay English Heritage to do this, about £10 per person, instead of refusing as some of our forebears did. We know that they have expenses in keeping up the site and protecting it. We then have an hour in which to celebrate together. We wear our robes, decorated with blue for Bards, green for Ovates and white for Druids and walk in procession to the stones. We make our way outside the large circle and pause at the four cardinal directions, forming a circle by holding hands and calling on the blessings of the spirits of these directions. We then enter the circle and stand with the great stones towering around us. It really is the most tremendous feeling. Three blasts are sounded on the Dord – a replica of the oldest instrument found in Britain: a bronze-age ceremonial trumpet. And then we hold our ceremony blessing the circle with fire and water and seeking illumination in our minds and hearts in this special place.
Stonehenge is the most well-known and dramatic of sites, but all over the country similar events occur with varying degrees of formality. Much of what we do will be familiar to most people in India – we ask for the blessing of the Ancestors and the spirits of the land, of the old gods and of the four elements. We make offerings sometimes of song, music, poetry or dance, and take the opportunity of this time to unburden ourselves of concerns and to seek inspiration for the future.
To give you a sense of how this feels, perhaps I can invite you to join me now in imagining we are at Stonehenge together. The great stones surround us in a circle. We can see the sun rising on the horizon through one of the great gateways between the stones, and as we see this we pray that all humanity might be illumined, that our lives might be blessed and that the land might be blessed. And we say an affirmation of community and brotherhood and sisterhood with all humanity that I will say, and you are most welcome to join in if you wish, or if you prefer not that is fine too: “We swear by peace and love to stand, heart to heart and hand in hand, Mark O spirit and hear us now, confirming this our sacred vow.”
Many many blessings. Peace to all Beings.
We can now confirm that Stonehenge was designed with the midwinter, not midsummer solstice in mind.
Thank you! What an interesting website you have:
Browsed through your blog.
It is interesting to note that Druidism is being revived
All the best !
A very interesting talk, thank you.
Just a small nit-pick- “curry” is not a dish. In India the word curry generally means something with gravy or sauce. Its used as a generic word for Indian food (which is not one dish) in Britain…
Thank you! It’s interesting isn’t it that curry, pizza and chop suey – three of the most popular dishes in the ‘West’ were all invented in the West and not in their country of origin. I wonder if hamburgers were not really created in Germany!