Our group had left Silbury Hill in need of refreshment before our next visit of the Mountains of the Sun weekend, and where better than the Red Lion in Avebury to seek it? The pub sits in the middle of the ancient stone circle…the sun had made a watery appearance as we sat down outside the pub. The benches were almost full. Nothing unusual there on a summer Saturday the week before Solstice, but it is not every day that the place is full with a party celebrating a handfasting.
There were flowers, children with garlands and smiling faces. The bride wore a gown of white crochet-work and one of the flower girls, with an impish smile and the face of a small angel, brought us a deep red Sweet William. It was a moment of transition from one life to another for the young couple, in a place where it seems very likely such transitions were celebrated long, long ago.
And an ambulance arrived. Not for some drunken reveller, but for a little old lady with frail, birdlike hands that fluttered her distress as the bride leaned down to reassure her.
Around us the children still ran laughing. A couple argued quietly, most seemed oblivious to the drama being played out but feet away from them… or if not oblivious, then they discretely turned their attention away; perhaps the kindest thing they could have done for the old lady.
Here, it seemed, all life was being played out around the benches of the pub. Not only the story of all our lives, but also the story of the landscape in which we found ourselves, as if we were being given a glimpse into a greater mystery.
We, of course, had just come from another place of transition, from life to death, at West Kennet long barrow. We had talked of how naturally the cycle of life must have been viewed by our ancestors. The comparison had been drawn between the pregnant belly of Silbury and the womblike darkness of the barrow. We had spoken of the spiral path that winds up Silbury Hill, like the ones at Merlin’s Mount and Glastonbury Tor… and surely they too must represent a reflection of the cyclic nature of birth, death and rebirth into another state.
We had spoken of the fear of death and its causes… the fear of the unknown that is carried by those who have no firm belief… the fear of divine retribution, Hell and Purgatory for many who do… and the fear of dissolution, perhaps the widest fear of all. The idea of ‘not being’ is one we generally find impossible to contemplate; our ego fights back, desiring survival. Yet if there is nothing after death… no consciousness, no spark of self… we will not know it, because we will not be. If there is something… then we cannot avoid it and there is little to be gained by meeting it with fear. And if the ego is dissolved, becoming part of Something Bigger… then, is that not a beautiful concept, and if it is so, our natural state?
To our ancestors it seems that death and birth were a more natural pairing than they are seen today when death is, as far as possible, kept quietly sanitised and joyless. We grieve, and I think we have always done so, for the loss we feel, and because we love and will miss those who have passed that portal and gone beyond our touch and the meeting of eyes. Love is at the root of life, the force behind birth and the cause of our grieving. Yet perhaps we need only look to the cycle of life for reassurance. Is anything ever truly lost, even love, or does it simply transform into a different state; its component parts rearranged, reordered… yet remaining themselves?
The vows at a lifetime handfasting are traditionally ‘for eternity’ or ‘for as long as love shall last’. For the group seated around that pub table, the unfolding events were a pertinent illustration. We were there to share a weekend of exploration, both in the green land and the inner landscape. Our goal together is to seek a transition as complete as any other… a death to the self that is rooted in the ego and a birth into a new awareness where the world takes on a different hue. Yet here too there is fear of ‘what next’… the same questions of ‘who will I be if I am not I?’ and the ego clings to life as stubbornly as we do. More so, perhaps, when we walk towards it willingly. Maybe this too is a natural transition and one which, one day, we must all meet and perhaps all we need to do is be ready to step on that spiral path and see where it leads.