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Pagans, Memes and Old Stones

By Sam Fleming

Originally published at Beltane 2002

In recent years there has been an apparent upsurge of interest in ancient monuments and "sacred spaces" - more to the point, there has been an increase in a tendency to treat ancient monuments as sacred spaces, with all the consequences that this entails. Pagan, neo-pagan and other spiritual beliefs are beginning to have impacts on the management of ancient monuments, arguably quite rightly. This has been demonstrated by the English Heritage paper "Power of Place", the management plan for the Rollright Stones, and increasing co-operation between English Heritage and various pagan groups regarding access to Stonehenge at times of the year modern pagans hold to be significant. Not so long ago the very idea of English Heritage producing a publication with a name as metaphysically provocative as "Power of Place" would have been absurd. Archaeologists are paying more attention to the desires and views of pagans, such as at Seahenge in Norfolk, and groups such as the Ancient Sacred Landscape Network (ASLaN) are promoting the sacred aspects of ancient monuments with a great deal of success. 

However, this raises the question of what exactly is the modern pagan attitude to megaliths and other ancient sites. How has the way people treat these places altered, and how do we, as pagans, now approach these places? How are those places affected by the attention we as pagans give to them, and should we be looking more carefully at how we feel about these sites and how that feeling makes us behave? 

My own personal interest in ancient monuments, and, more specifically, the conservation and preservation of these places, and thus their management, has been ongoing for some time. I have worked for the Rollright Trust, worked with ASLaN, and engaged in a few projects of my own. Having worked as an archaeologist and an environmental scientist, and being a pagan myself, I see a need for pagans to re-evaluate how they approach ancient monuments and how they think of them as a resource. 

There is an issue that seems to be at the heart of this whole question, and that is the apparent juxtaposition of the concepts of ownership and stewardship. Many pagans appear to approach ancient monuments from the point of view of possession. "This is a pagan site, I am pagan, this is my sacred site and I will worship here." The forms of worship are many and various, and none can have any factual basis in the original purpose for which the site was intended. Personal gnosis and religious predilection have become the guiding lights by which many pagans choose the way they interact with places that are irreplaceable remnants of ancient peoples, even when that interaction could be causing irreversible damage. As pagans are now having more of an impact on how sites are managed, it is more important than ever that we take careful stock of what these places mean to us, and how we wish them to be treated. 

The introduction of a sense of spirituality to one's appreciation of an ancient monument demonstrably adds a great deal to the experience. Most of us will have experienced that indescribable sense of near, or in some cases outright, awe that simply being in a place such as Avebury can bring. This does not apply only to pagans. While working at Rollright I have spoken to a great many people who professed no experience or knowledge of what might be classed as pagan topics, and yet who walked out with a dazed smile claiming to have felt "something special" about the place. An ancient monument wouldn't draw the numbers of visitors that many such as Avebury and Stonehenge do, if there was not some aspect of these places that speaks to something deep within the human psyche. This, of course, only serves to increase the importance of stewardship versus possession. These sites are not pagan in the sense that you or I are pagan. Indeed, when these places were built it is not unreasonable to suppose that the very concept of "religion" would have been totally alien. As pagans, then, we do not really have any right to claim a greater sense of appreciation or knowledge about these sites than non-pagans, and yet, if we look at published pagan literature regarding ancient monuments, this is exactly what we find.

Let us take a fairly well-known example of a pagan work examining archaeology, in this case Julian Cope's "The Modern Antiquarian" introducing Avebury: 

 "For the Neolithics were the last in a long line of ancient people who had worshipped the earth as a Great Mother or Mother Goddess. Long before the temple-building people came, when Humanity still believed that it was the wind and the rivers which caused pregnancy, the earth of which the people of the Stone Ages lived was the Great Mother; an all-giving, all-taking, all-knowing, all-showing Divinity perpetually revealed in the landscape forms and occasionally glimpsed to even greater degree through combinations of fasting, solitude, chanting and repetition, natural psychedelics and some narcotics, deeply concentrated arduous physical exercise, or a pilgrimage to a previously known and tested scared centre."

As a comparison, here is an excerpt from John Timpson's "Timpson's Leylines", subtitled "A Layman Tracking the Lays": 

"...unless you can get inside Silbury Hill it looks just another artificial mound, albeit a big one, and what is there left to say about Stonehenge? After watching a long television programme explaining how it was a prehistoric fertility symbol, with the lengthening shadow of one stone entering, phallic-like, into the uncomfortably unyielding stonework of an earth goddess's private parts, I felt my own modest powers of imagination had been convincingly dwarfed. By the same reasoning, Silbury Hill has been interpreted as 'an earth sculpture of the pregnant earth goddess, a fertility symbol par excellence'. Gradually the mind starts to boggle."

I am fairly sure that the television programme in question was discussing Avebury, having seen something very similar, however he goes on to say: 

"But Avebury has a homely charm about it that no deep-thinking archaeologist can destroy. Its mysterious prehistoric stones intermingle comfortably with a traditional English village. And even though the shapes of the stones have been interpreted in various sexual ways, the whole arrangement of banks and ditches and standing stones, covering twenty-seven acres, still defies the experts - and long may it do so."

There is a difference in the way many pagans approach ancient monuments that is apparent in the difference in attitude between these two authors. For Julian Cope the project was a personal "Gnostic odyssey", and yet he writes as though his is the definitive answer and the level of detail in his answer is such that he must be possessed of a time machine. For John Timpson it was "just to discover where these [leylines] might take [him]" and so he approaches these sites with an open mind, ready to accept whatever impression results. Cope, like many pagan visitors, seems to see an Earth Goddess with fairly adventurous sexual preferences at every site he calls upon, and thus is convinced that all these sites are places where the Earth Goddess was worshipped. In many instances it would seem that these sites are important to pagans not because of their inherent value, but rather because they lend themselves very well to being interpreted as sacred, whatever that happens to mean to the individual. Pagans tend to visit these places because they are held to be sacred, not because they are unique remnants of a people who once populated this land, and because they are held to be sacred, this is how pagans seem to define their relationship to these places. It is a circle of preconception and reinforcement that is now being supported by the authorities responsible for looking after our heritage. 

Are these sites sacred? The concept of the sacred is one that is culturally and personally dependent. It is not possible to answer the question "Why are these places sacred?" It is only possible to answer the question "Why are these places sacred to me?" The answers to this question seem to range from "Because they are" to "Because they are from a time when the Earth was the Sacred Mother and everyone worshipped the Great Goddess." It is a very personal issue, and it becomes something that warrants great attention when something that is so personal becomes the basis for archaeological management. 

When one's relationship to a site is defined by one's preconceptions of that site as a sacred space, one's impressions of that site and the information one derives from it are also defined by those preconceptions. Here is an admirable example of how one person's preconceptions lead him to a superficially reasonable conclusion, and yet he seems oblivious to the absurdity of his reasoning: 

"Centrepiece of the [Stanton Drew complex], on the meadows on the south side of the River Chew six miles south of Bristol, is the 365-feet diameter Great Circle. The figure is the blatant clue to its purpose as a calendar." [Legg, 1998] 

This "blatant clue" is a number derived from the Gregorian calendar. Of course, Stanton Drew pre-dates the Gregorian calendar by thousands of years. Whether or not this particular site is some form of calendar, citing the diameter in feet and comparing it to the number of days in the Gregorian year is no basis for an argument. 

This particular example seems overtly ridiculous, perhaps, and the idea of a stone circle being a calendar doesn't particularly reek of the sacred. How about someone rather more obviously possessed of pagan inclinations? 

"Callanish at twilight - the circle with the Maid, Mother and Crone stones. The colours of the stones correspond to modern Wiccan symbology of the Triple Form Goddess and the white quartz of the Consort stone glistens like semen."

This is from Sally Griffyn's "Sacred Journey", in which she also writes of Callanish: 

"The Goddess of the land looks over these sacred and connected sites. Her form, the range of hills known as the Caillech or Sleeping Beauty, is a backdrop to one of the smaller circles. When you view the hills from a certain angle outside this circle her body seems to be contained within its perimeter...From one of the circles she may be seen to take the phallic stone in her mouth."

As a statement of something that she herself has seen, there is nothing wrong with this. However, caught up in her own view of this ancient monument, she, like Legg, presents her opinion as fact. Her statement in the introductory section that she "would like to take you to the stones and let you in on a few secrets" does nothing to prevent this impression. Here we have a woman whose impressions owe little to archaeology and a great deal to her conviction that all things are about the Goddess, and a vigorously sexual one at that. Thus, although the early accounts discuss the Cornish site of Men-an-Tol being used as a cure for sciatica and backache, Griffyn puts the stories of it being used as an aid to fertility top of her list and discusses it in terms of birth canal metaphors. She also describes Sheela-na-gigs as being goddess images carved by pagans working on the churches, with no evidence cited to support her statement. There is nothing wrong with this theory, but there is no proof, no way to tell. We do not know that they were not just symbols that had become part of the blend that was Celtic Christianity. 

Another example of personal perception being stated as fact is that of Terence Meaden and the carved heads of Avebury. In "The Secrets of Avebury Stones" he says: 

"Of course it is important to avoid being misled by Rorschach-type occurrences (for which the left-right frequencies on average balance out), but the heads are really there, for all to see, and for everyone to check under the conditions described [previously in the book]."

I did go and look for the heads at Avebury and found them decidedly absent. Of course this could be because I am unaware of how to look properly in order to see them, rather like a magic eye picture. Terence could well be perfectly correct, for other people have followed his instructions and seen the heads, however this still strikes me as being a matter of forcing one's perception to see what another has seen, rather than seeing what is there. 

For all that many pagan authors quote reliable sources and are well-read in archaeology, it seems that personal gnosis takes on some semblance of objective reality at some point along the line. Frances Lynch, discussing the shape of passage graves in "Megalithic Tombs and Long Barrows", notes that the "trapezoid shape is distinctive and surprisingly widespread in both Britain and northern Europe, where it is thought to reflect the shape of the great wooden farmhouses of the Danubians - the house of the dead echoing that of the living." This theory is no more provable than the often found more pagan notion that the trapezoidal shape reflects the Earth Goddess, lying prone with vulva gaping, a powerful symbol of fertility and the creative power of the woman. However, it seems more likely to be a theory that has arisen from observing patterns in remaining evidence, rather than one stemming from a belief of a matriarchal golden age where the mother was all. 

I must hasten to add that I see nothing inherently wrong with these theories, as long as they are taken to be theories. The danger currently arising is in the way that these deeply held spiritual beliefs are affecting the way pagans are now interacting with ancient monuments. A sense of religious importance, coupled with the apparently oft-held but inherently dubious notion of pagans somehow owning sacred sites by virtue of being pagan, has led to a significant proportion of visitors to ancient sites using them as places of worship. When one's belief system leads one to be convinced that ancient monuments are places of pagan worship, and that pagan worship involves the lighting of fires, the burning of incense, the burying of objects as offerings, and the placing of candles on stones, one is justifying the contamination and damage of an archaeological resource on the basis of one's personal perspective. One pagan, asked why a particular potentially damaging action had been done, responded that it was because it was "our sacred site". Last year a couple may have accelerated the damage at Silbury Hill because their beliefs that it is an alien artefact led them to abseil down within the collapsing shaft. Access to Silbury is restricted to prevent the massive problems caused by erosion, but every year many pagans climb the hill, feeling justified that their right to exercise their spiritual beliefs is more important than the need to conserve this unique site. West Kennet Longbarrow has suffered greatly from the attentions of pagans exercising their religious freedom, to the extent that it has required the use of modern resins to repair areas where fires have caused irreversible chemical changes in the stones. 

What can be responsible for the abdication of responsibility for conservation, for holding in trust, in favour of the idea that these sites must be subject to everything that a modern pagan form of worship can entail? The common argument is the one that goes "all things must end", or that there is a natural cycle of decay and that it is somehow contrary to the natural order to try to slow that decay or, as is more often the case, prevent its acceleration. There is unlikely to be any pagan who would support the destruction of ancient monuments by farmers, or the historical destruction by those holding Christian ideals, and yet there are many who seem to think that accelerated decay and hence destruction caused by modern pagan ideals is entirely justifiable. The irony of this is apparently lost. 

However. It is not all bad news. The tide is turning, and now you are far more likely to hear a pagan discussing how best to visit a site without causing damage than you are to hear one relating all about how big the fire was at their Full Moon gathering. Although authors may have very firm conviction in their theories, more often than not they are happy to agree that they are theories when cornered in a pub somewhere. There are books about visiting ancient monuments that prevail upon the reader to use public transport to visit these places rather than polluting the environment with car fumes to satisfy some urge (eg Main 1997, Anderson & Godwin 1987). I collect and collate information about the condition of sites across the country from visitors to those sites, and as an experiment I include a field on whether or not the visitor tried contacting the Spirits of Place. Only 2 years ago it was quite rare for there to be a positive response in that field. More recently, perhaps half of the respondents have answered yes. In the first couple of years of my time working at Rollright we would be finding significant quantities of ritual debris every week. During the last couple of years or so there have been fewer and fewer occasions when large quantities of ritual remains have been found. At least one group has arrived for a pre-booked ritual, greeted the site, and then gone home again because they felt the site wasn't prepared for them to hold their ritual there that night. A lot of this has been down to the hard work of organisations such as the Rollright Trust and ASLaN.

Even so, it seems time for us to address the sticky issue of possession vs stewardship, responsibility for conservation vs rights of access and worship. The opening of access to Stonehenge at the Solstice has largely been classified as a success by those groups who campaigned for it, English Heritage who agreed to it, and those who attended and took advantage of it. The plan was one of "self-policing" in that a selection of the attendees were given the responsibility of ensuring that everyone complied with the access rules. It was thought that this would be more politically sensitive and would lead to less railing against the establishment, thus reducing the risk of things getting out of hand. Despite all this, as reported by Jenny Blain in her report to English Heritage following the event, "[n]ot all were aware of or complied with the restrictions (dogs, glass {although the provision of plastic drinks canisters in exchange for glass was again successful}, fire, etc.)." [Blain and Wallace, 2001]. While not all attendees were pagan, "many expressed some interest in paganism and/or wider spiritual beliefs" [ibid].

The question we have to ask is where do we draw the line? If we, as pagans, are responsible for claiming our rights of access and fighting to allow people to commune intimately with sites they see as sacred, surely we have a responsibility to ensure that those rights are not abused? Are we prepared voluntarily to give up our rights of access in order to prevent the abuse of that right by those who care little for an irreplaceable resource because they see it through a layer of preconception? Often, the answer to that is no. At the Silbury Hill protest, on the same day as people were ignoring restrictions at Stonehenge, around a dozen people ignored the ASLaN warnings and climbed the hill anyway (See Cruithni report, 2001). I occasionally wonder what sort of uproar there would be if access to West Kennet Longbarrow were restricted to prevent any more damage being done.

At the Rollright Stones, a strict access policy has been in place for many years - namely, no admittance between sunset and sunrise. This partially serves to reduce the number of visitors to a degree, to give a minimal aid to the prevention of soil erosion by limiting footsteps when the soil is damp and cool during the night, and also because it is very hard to see if people are causing damage when it is dark. People who wish to visit during the hours of darkness can telephone the Trust and make arrangements, and there are procedures should a visitor wish to hold ritual there. The Trust does not prevent people gaining access after dark, nor do they prevent people conducting ritual there. They do, however, restrict the forms of ritual and the type of access in order to preserve the site for other visitors.

 This is eminently sensible and seems perfectly justified. Nevertheless, there are those who completely ignore all this and do what they want to when they see fit. Sometimes they choose to do this on dates when the Trust has volunteers on duty 24 hours a day because it is a sensitive time of year - full moons during the summer months are popular, as are the cross-quarter days and the solstices/equinoxes. Some of these visitors, when turned away, become quite aggressive and irate that they should be prevented from using "their" sacred site, even when they have evidently intended to light fires and place candles to burn all over the stones. The Rollright Trust has drawn a line and is sticking to it as best it can. This still draws ire from some pagans. Why?

 I should introduce the concept of the meme, lest it be unfamiliar. A meme is the ideological equivalent of the gene. Memes are ideas, competing for space inside our heads. It is a concept originally thought up by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene", and the examination of meme behaviour is called memetics; there is a direct analogy with genetics. Whenever a Llewellyn book comes out it is full of neo-pagan memes. For many pagans, one of the many pagan memes, usually Wiccan, has out-competed the Christian meme at some point so they have gone from being Christians to being Wiccans.

 If we take a good look at our culture, we live in a world where possession is of utmost importance. A thing is only valuable if it can belong to someone, if someone is willing to attach a monetary value to it (in environmental planning and economics this is called "willingness to pay"). Our land is parcelled up into small packages, each of which virtually has a sign on it somewhere saying "I own this". We have laws that dictate where and how we can walk, and what will happen to us if we do not obey. This entire land is a collection of pieces of territory. We are bombarded every day by memes in the form of advertisements that say we need to own shinier cars, bigger televisions, smaller phones, flashier shoes in order to find the right mate and be seen as worthwhile by our peers. Our entire culture revolves around the idea of self-worth judged by ownership. It should not really come as any surprise that this sense of ownership is extended to ancient monuments. Neither should it come as any surprise that the idea of being pagan today should be confused with the idea of being pagan by virtue only of being pre-Christian. There are hundreds of books on the market that refer to Wicca as "the Old Religion". There are films, television programmes, speakers at conferences, people at moots who will tell you quite earnestly and seriously that their path is one that the ancestors followed, and they will believe that themselves. There are even books out there such as Buckland's "Pecti-Wicca" that shamelessly butcher one perfectly reasonable modern form of pagan religion in order to make it seem indigenous to this island in the sense that it evolved from the mists of time. People are no longer being taught how to think and reason, or how to argue, or how to examine things critically. The internet culture is largely one of tolerance to the point of gullibility, mutual hugs instead of querying. The idea of subjectivity has become one of "I am always right, you can't say I am wrong because you are not me". The meme that says all we have is our perception has mutated into "if whatever I do is right for me, then whatever I do is right and no one has the right to tell me otherwise."

 Even in magical circles (pardon the pun), where almost everything is a matter of perception, the universe is not the sole possession of the individual. It is important to realise that the world is made up of lots of different viewpoints, and each viewpoint can be thought of as the ripples produced by throwing a stone into some calm water. Throw in one stone, there is a clear set of ripples, with nothing else affecting them. Throw in two stones, there are two sets of ripples that may or may not touch one another. It depends on how far apart they have been thrown. Throw in a handful, some ripples are bound to touch one another. Throw in a bucketful of tiny pebbles, scattering them across the water, you have an entire web of interacting ripples, where one stone's ripples may not touch those of a stone far away, but will definitely interact with those of stones nearby.

 When we visit a site, we cause ripples. We leave footprints, we cause a miniscule amount of erosion. We might emit some noxious fumes into the atmosphere by driving there, or leave a slight residue on a site. If we light fires, burn candles so that wax gets everywhere, or cause damage in any way at all we are forever changing the way other people can interact with that site. Those ripples affect the way other ripples occur - they effect the way other people look at a site. To say that one has the right to use a site as a place of worship, to worship there as you see fit and leave whatever remnants that are produced, is to deny the right of those other visitors to form their own impressions. And if one's idea of a site is produced by preconceptions brought about by a meme infection caused by reading too many of other people's ideas without stopping to form one's own, then all that is happening is that one is allowing oneself to be a vector for meme propagation. These sites do not need us to give them context for other people. Our ideas are not necessarily correct. It is selfish and arrogant of us to think that we have the right to force others to see things the way we do.

So, what if we discard the notion of possession and turn instead to the notion of stewardship? This means that we do not see these sites as ours to do with as we see fit, but ours to look after for the sake of others. It is the difference between taking a great work of art to look after so that others may enjoy it and buying something because one needs the canvas on which to paint. No one would paint over a van Gogh or a Da Vinci - the idea is preposterous. Not only because they are worth a lot of money, but because they are priceless in terms of the art. Ancient monuments should be seen the same way. If we truly view these places as sacred, surely we should be treating them as places to be conserved, to be looked after, to be kept in the best condition in which we can keep them. This does not include letting candle wax drip all over them or scorching great holes in the grass because current pagan ideas say that this is the way things should be done.

These places are not "ours" because we are pagans. They are everyone's because they are part of our unique heritage as humans; astonishing, awe-inspiring artefacts that, once lost or damaged, can never be replaced or restored to their former state. There is a compelling argument that we should not be thinking of them as ours but as places we are privileged to be able to visit, places we hold in trust for others. In a discussion of the drawbacks of archaeological dating, J.R.L. Anderson ponders what would happen if the British Museum were to be destroyed and then excavated a thousand years in the future. The fact that it contains items from prehistoric times does not mean that the building is prehistoric - the fact that the building dates from the 19 th century does not mean that all the objects contained within it date from the 19 th century. At the moment we do not have the technology or the capability to determine for certain what these places were for or what they meant to those who built them. It is possible we never will. We cannot know, in an objective sense, that the people who were there when the stones were freshly cut worshipped a sexually liberal Great Earth Mother. We cannot say what symbolism they really saw in the hewn-surfaces of the rocks that they put so much effort into moving. All we can do is try to preserve them with as little contamination from current cultural meme-sets as we can, so that others may observe them and enjoy them for what they are, rather than what we might wish them to be.

References and further reading:

Blain, Jenny and Wallis, Robert J. [2001]: Stonehenge Solstice access, 20-21 June, 2001.

Sacred Sites, Contested Rights Project.

Cope, Julian [1998]: "The Modern Antiquarian". Harper Collins.

Cruithni reports to be found at

Dawkins, Richard [1989]: "The Selfish Gene". Oxford Paperbacks.

English Heritage [2000]: "The Historic Environment Review - 'Power of Place' ". Available to download from

Godwin, Fay & Anderson, J.R.L. [1987]: "The Oldest Road: The Ridgeway". Whittet Books.

Griffyn, Sally [2000]: "Sacred Journey". Kyle Cathie Ltd.

Legg, Rodney [1998]: "Stanton Drew - Great Western Temple". Wincanton Press, Somerset.

Lynch, Frances [1997]: "Megalithic Tombs and Longbarrows". Shire Publications.

Main, Laurence [1997]: "Walks in Mysterious Oxfordshire". Sigma Press.

Meaden, Terence [1999]: "The Secrets of the Avebury Stones". Souvenir Press Ltd.

Timpson, John [2001 - paperback edition]: "Timpson's Leylines". Seven Dials, Cassel & Co.

More information on The Rollright Trust and ASLaN to be found at

Further reading on memetics can be found at