Saturday, April 7, 2007

Circles and Standing Stones: part 3

Ravaged giants rooted in primordial chalk
sleep now in this mild September light.
Where sheep crop the long grass among the stones
old gods, unvanquished, linger at the edge of sight.

The people formed a circle facing the Mother-Stone; the men dressed in the skins of the red deer, crowned with the Horned God's antlers, the women in white robes, their long unplaited hair bound back with bands of silver. Beyond, the mist writhed and billowed, red-stained by torchlight.

That's Avebury as seen by my heroine, circa l880 B.C., when the temple was long past its glory days but still quite possibly used for rites associated with the Mother Goddess.

When John Aubrey discovered Avebury in 1649, he boasted that the temple "did as much excell Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church". Hearing this report, King Charles II rushed off to look for himself. Whatever the king may have thought, Avebury is still regarded as the connoisseur's megalithic ruin. Spread out across a shelf of chaIk on the Marlborough Downs, it's older than Stonehenge, dating from about 2600 B.C. and far grander in scale.

Apart from the village of Avebury iself, and a few discreet signs, very little intrudes on this immense, romantic expanse of grass and stone and sky.

Most megalithic ruins inspire awe, but also a certain amount of gloom. One suspects that under one's feet are the bones of men, women and children who came to sudden and violent ends. But on a sunny September evening, with the yellow autumn light falling across the green pastures, and sheep dozing contentedly with their backs against the warm stones, there is nothing oppressive about Avebury. The stones themselves, alternating between pillars and lozenge-shaped stones balanced on a single foot, are like nothing so much as dancers engaged in some vast and stately round dance.

The only sadness one feels is that so much of Avebury has been destroyed. Of the original one hundred sarsen stones of the outer circle, thirty have survived. Only nine stones remain in the two inner circles. William Stukeley, who was one of Avebury's earliest visitors, watched in helpless despair as local farmers topppled and smashed most of the stones to build the village which still sits inside the great circular earth bank. This "stupendous fabric", he wrote, which had endured for thousands of years, and if left to itself would have lasted as long as the globe, "has fallen a sacrifice to the wretched ignorance and avarice of a little village unluckily plac'd within it."

We followed the trail around the top of the bank, peered down into the ditch, now fifteen feet deep, once twice that depth; and wandered along the Kennet Avenue, with its lines of paired stones, until it ended in a fence and a ploughed field. It was late in the season, and late in the day. We had the place to ourselves.

In this lush green landscape it's tempting to romanticize the past--to think of the builders of Avebury as a peaceful, prosperous folk with lots of time for constructing megalithic monuments and taking part in picturesque rites. Yet the skeletal evidence they've left behind-- fractured arms, shattered skulls, limbs twisted by rickets, spines piercd by arrowheads-- tell quite a different story.

1 comment:

Colleen Anderson said...

Hi Eileen,

Just dropping in to say hi. Somewhere on my shelf I still have a copy of Sarsen Witch. And I hope to get to Ireland in the fall. Not quite Avebury but close. I'd love to see those stone formations some day. And congratulations on the reprint of the book.