Most of what you think you know about the Druids is a lie.
Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric monument in the world (of course it is also on the UNESCO list) and it had been on my bucket list for quite a while. Naturally, it was one of the first places I visited upon arriving to the UK for my studies in 2017, together with Bath and Salisbury. Since I’d always been fascinated by faeries, druidic lore and related Celtic mysticism, Stonehenge, along with Tara and Newgrange in Ireland, was a must-see. Now, brace yourselves for a historically heavy post (I did try to keep it brief) or scroll through to the pretty photos, as my visit to Stonehenge was incredibly informative regarding the origin of the myths I love so much.
Let’s dive in: the iconic stone circle of Stonehenge was built in the late Neolithic period, about 2500 BC and some Bronze age burial mounds were erected nearby later. However, before the stone circle, in 3000 BC a circular ditch with an inner and outer bank was built, with 56 Aubrey holes inside the bank. The purpose of Aubrey holes remains unknown, but they likely held timber posts or stones. A stone henge monument was built at the same location about 5000 years ago and about 150 people were buried there, which constitutes the largest Neolithic cemetery in Britain. The Stonehenge stone circle was built out of larger sarsens stones in a horseshoe shape and smaller bluestones in a double arc and was later rearranged and connected with the Avon river through the earthwork Avenue.
Bronze age mounds popped up in the surrounding area and some of the stones acquired carvings of axe heads and daggers. In the Iron age a hill fort was erected nearby and in the Roman times Stonehenge was frequently visited, with findings suggesting it might have been a ritual place for the British-Roman people. There are several references to Stonehenge from the medieval times and the creation of the stone circle was attributed to the wizard Merlin between the 14th and 16th century.
Fast forward to the 20th century, when visitors began to trickle into Wiltshire and the conservation efforts of Stonehenge began. The land was privately owned until 1918, when the monument was donated to the state and is now in the care of the English Heritage foundation.
However, the actual meaning and purpose of Stonehenge remains to be determined. The more serious theories range from the coronation place of Danish kings, a Druidic temple, an astronomical computer for predicting eclipses and solar events, as it is precisely aligned with the movements of the Sun, while the more bizzare theories consider it a team-building exercise among others. Currently, the boring consensus among archaeologists is, that it is a prehistoric temple aligned with the sun movements.
Common knowledge classifies Stonehenge as a Druidic temple, which is apparently a popular misconception from the 1720s, quite similar to the modern day vaccines-cause-autism stupidity (provaxxer all the way here). While I love reading about what is considered Druidic lore today, there are very few historical sources dealing with it and most of what we think we know today actually originated with Dr. William Stukeley, an antiquarian. He spent 20 years working on his publication about Stonehenge and while he started out with innovative methodical fieldwork (a discipline preceding archaeology), he delved too deep and finished in complete speculative theology. He weaved a tangled web of Druidism as a natural religion and a rightful successor to the belief in God, styling himself a Druid by the name of Chyndonax, and soon became known as the Arch-Druid. As such he is the father of the modern day Druidic faith, which still holds solstice celebrations at Stonehenge today (for which they fought the local police force in 1926) and has mixed with the Wiccans, neo-Pagans etc.
Stukeley’s research-turned-half-truth was so convincing, it persists in the public knowledge until today and I was not aware of the whole misconception until 2017, when I actually researched a bit about it. He managed to attribute all stone structures and every aspect of ancient Britain to the early Druids, connecting it with megalithic monuments in Ireland and elsewhere, for which no archaeological evidence had been found until today and likely never will be. Most of the common Druidic myths and stories therefore sadly have no actual basis in history, although they make for a very compelling fantasy read. However, there is at least some historical evidence for the origin of my beloved Fae, more on that here.
If you survived through the history lesson, let me describe a bit more about my actual visit to Stonehenge. I took a bus to the location, which included an audio summary of the significance of Stonehenge and stopped at the Visitor centre. There is a reconstruction of some Neolithic dwellings in front of the centre, where I had a funny conversation about flint stone in Slovenia with one of the archaeologists. He kept asking me questions I didn’t really know how to answer and I think he was genuinely surprised that I did not know the details about the prehistoric use of flint stone in Slovenia (in my defence, that was not exactly covered in my engineering courses). From there, it was a rather long walk down the road to the stone circle itself, but I was too stingy to pay for the shuttle bus, so I walked as usual. If you do pay for the bus, it takes about 10 minutes to get to the stones.
The stone circle is roped off and a visitor path runs from the Stonehenge to the Bronze age mounds, as it is forbidden to enter the circle and touch the stones. Luckily the site was not too crowded, although there was still plenty of people as it was to be expected. Since I was travelling alone, I had to ask some random strangers to take a photo of me with Stonehenge (the third stranger was the charm, she actually managed a decent photo unlike the my-thumb-is-in-front-of-the-camera-lady and the I-don’t-know-how-to-use-a-smartphone-man). My solo travelling always results in the funniest photos taken by randomers and too many grudging selfies (better than nothing though!).
As for the Stonehenge circle itself, it is easy to understand why it has fascinated so many people over the ages, as the structure is truly majestic. The stone blocks feel incredibly heavy and their age is palpable, lending it a sacred air, which, combined with the eerie nearby ravens, would easily make a believer out of even the hardest soul. It truly is a wonder as it is difficult to imagine how they were able to lift the stones without modern technology, let alone position them in precise alignment with the Sun movements.
Impressions of Stonehenge and the Bronze age mounds
Since it was a beautiful autumn sunny day, some of my Stonehenge photos turned out like the Windows background image and I’m pretty proud of that.
The Old Sarum Iron age settlement remains are also located near Stonehenge, but, for some reason which I cannot currently recall, I did not visit them (that happens to me sometimes, I get sidetracked by something else). All in all, Stonehenge was well-worth the hype for me, but I suppose I can understand why some people might find it underwhelming, since it is after all “just” some big old stones in a circle.
Bonus photos of the beautiful English countryside with sheep