The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Greeting the Druid…

You could not wish for a more spectacular setting for a stone circle. Perched high above the sea, with views to distant mountains in every other direction, it is  a magnificent site. A slight rise to the seaward side blocks the view of the modern quarrying and, from within the circle, there  is no visible trace of the modern world at all.

It is easy, here, to rebuild in imagination the fallen stones. There were once thirty of them standing, now only eleven remain upright. Even so, they have a presence impossible to capture on camera. It is a place to simply sit in wonder. To sit and wonder too what our forebears were thinking when they quarried Penmaen-mawr in the 1920s, decapitating the 1500 ft  summit by the simple expedient of destroying Braich-y-Dinas, the Iron Age hillfort that crowned it… which was one of the largest in Europe. No trace of the hillfort now remains… but looking around the area, it is evident that the stone circle was not a solitary feature, but part of a much larger complex.

The circle itself has been dated by some to the Bronze Age around 1500 BC, by others, including Burl, to around five thousand years ago. It scarcely seems to matter.  The circle, around eighty feet wide, sits upon a rubble base within a raised embankment. It is not a true circle, being flattened on one edge as if to avoid the ancient trackways that cross close by. I am not at all certain that is the reason… there is more than enough space to build a full circle had that been required, without encroaching on the tracks. Alexander Thom and Robin Heath, two of the most interesting people to read on the subject, have posited that there were mathematical and astronomical reasons for the shape. ( You can find a very informative article on flattened circles here.)

The circle is entered through a four-stone portal, but as you approach from below, one of the stones draws your attention straight away. It is known as the Stone of Sacrifice, for the hollowed bowl at its head. During excavations at the site during the 1950s, a fine burial cyst was found, scattered around with stones and quartz crystals. Within the chamber was a food vessel containing the cremated bones of a child ages between ten and twelve. Another cyst contained a similar burial of a child a couple of years older, buried with a riveted bronze knife. This has led to tales of child sacrifice at the site… yet no sign of sacrificial offerings has been found.

We visit ancient sites whenever we can. Child burials seem to be a common feature at many of them and all of them seem to be carefully buried, often with precious objects and in decorated urns. That would seem to imply that they were buried, with love and respect, in the most sacred of places. If there were child sacrifices, it would seem that this was both rare and honourable within their culture. While it appears abhorrent to modern thought, human sacrifice was a feature of many early cultures. For the most part, it was not originally seen as a thing of terror, but a gift to the gods of the most precious thing the clans could give… life. As there is no evidence of sacrifice at the circle, though, it seems more likely that these children were placed there either through love or perhaps to mark a belief in the cyclical nature of life. Were they affirming, by their presence, a belief in rebirth drawn from the seasonal changes and renewal of the land itself? Were they placed there as messengers to the gods? We may never know. Curiously though, a local tradition says that should a newborn baby be placed within the hollow of the Stone of Sacrifice, it will be granted a long and lucky life.

But it was the Druid we had come to see. And he was unmistakable. The robed and hooded figure watched as we approached as he has watched for five thousand years…which means that he was never a Druid. That is a Victorian misnomer, as the circle predates the Druids as we know them by millennia. But it begs the question of where the Druids began…not,perhaps, by that name, but by their function as the wisdom-keepers of the people. Modern man sets great store by its labels and titles, delineating, defining and confining each section of society by their position, mores, or beliefs. I do not believe that such labels matter… but function does.

Those who served the gods on behalf of a community were its priests long before the word was ever dreamed of. Our legends and myths abound with tales of bards, wizards, shamanic practices, wisdom that seems to come from the dawn of time and priestly, magical, mystical figures… all of which are  united in the archetypal figure of Merlin. There may never have been Druids at Meini Hirion, now known as the Druids Circle, but those who cared for the people here served the same Purpose, regardless of the rites they used or the Names of those they served.

I think there are lessons to be learned from the old places. Not just to understand what they did, how and why, but lessons of judgement and our own approach to spirit.  We tend to think of our most distant ancestors as primitive, but it takes very little to realise the complexity of what they achieved. You need only look at the astronomical and calendrical correspondences of the circles, let alone the mathematics, to see that the stones were not randomly placed, but show an incredible sophistication… one that we recognise in the construction methods of Egypt, familiar to our eyes with their walls and decoration, but deny or dismiss as crude within the old places of Britain. They may not have constructed their monuments with theodolite or laser measures; their knowledge may have been instinctive, intuitive, observational, rather than formal… but they were certainly more in tune with their surroundings than we are today.

When you stand in these places, you cannot help but feel that they recognised that their place within existence was tenuous and dependent upon  a respect for the natural rhythm of life. As you watch the ever-shifting light upon the heights, where clouds cast their shadows and swallow mountains, you feel close to the Source. It feels more fitting to lift the eyes to heaven beneath the sky than within the vaults of a cathedral; the green earth a more potent symbol for our roots and spiritual aspiration than the chequer board of a temple floor. The circle, an unarguable symbol of the Infinite.

We sat for a while, simply absorbing the atmosphere of the place. My companion had been once before with others, many years earlier. He spoke of the strong reactions they had to the place… some quite negative. The spirit of place is certainly strong, but we found it to be one of utter peace. A powerful but happy place. The birds, butterflies and bees seemed to think so too and accepted us as part of it… one going so far as to land on my hand and wander around for a few minutes before finally settling on the amber of my ring. A Green Man, his face crafted by Nature from lichen and stone, seemed to smile.

There was so much more to see…and we would not have time for all of it. The world below was calling. We would have to come back to explore the ancient axe ‘factories’ at Cwm Graiglwyd, where, five thousand years ago stone axes were crafted, so prized that they were traded across the whole land, just as those of the Lake District were traded. The craftsmanship was laborious and the heavy axes seem to have been more for ritual use than practical purposes. There would be no time to search for any of the many prehistoric sites that we knew were close by. But there was a least one we did not need to search for… tantalising stones called from just beyond the next rise…


15 thoughts on “The Wyrm and the Wyrd: Greeting the Druid…

    1. It does make you wonder. I think it probably has to do with growing urbanisation. The bigger the community became, the more dovorced they were from Nature as they felt more secure in groups…and needed her less.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. What an incredible landscape! I get those feelings too in places like that. In fact, I am sometimes struck by the ‘oppositeness’ of my reactions to a place… my sense of calm and peace where something horrendous is said to have occurred… like a battle, or sacrifice, or massacre, for example. Even with the passage of time, how is it possible to be so insensitive?


    1. Perhaps it is simply that some of the stories we still have are not always accurate representations of the truth, or are seen through a lens that has a perspective so different from the times of the events that we are too far removed from them to know their origins. Many things that seem tragic or evil to modern eyes may once have been seen very differently.

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      1. Yes, I suppose that is true. The sacrifice you were talking of, for example. If it was done, I think it was far more rare than we imagine.


          1. I agree. But what do you think about the ‘overkill’ of bog bodies? People talk of ‘triple death’ but that seems to have been a Medieval Christian thing imposed retrospectively on the old stories from what I can gather, and they involved accidental deaths, like Merlin, or punishment rather than sacrifice. Besides, one of the Irish bodies had wounds on the fore-arms consistent with an attempt at self defence. I am a little sceptical of the accepted King sacrifice theories. I’d like to know what you think, although maybe this isn’t the place for that discussion. 😊


            1. The jury is still well and truly out on that one! Many of the alleged triple deaths may not in fact be so and the wounds may have been inflicted accidentally, post mortem or through the natural process of decay.

              All the various theories have merit, from robbery or violent death in battle, to human sacrifice or the ritualised payment of the life of the king in exchange for the health of the land. In all probability, there is unlikely to be a ‘one size fits all’ answer and they may be a mix of all of these causes.

              In the case of the deliberate and ritualised infliction of a triple death, then punishment for a heinous crime seems as likely, in at least some cases, as the proposed sacrifice to the gods. We have only to look at being the punishment of ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ to know that this level of torture was inflicted even into the 19thC.

              However, where valuable items have been found with the body, it does suggest that honour was being rendered, either by sending grave goods into the Otherworld, or through votive offerings. Either way, only an honoured victim would have been accorded such wealth and yet be horrifically murdered.

              Given the number of stories that carry this motif of sacrificial deaths, the trifold deaths of gods and indeed, the lore of the king wedded to the land who gives his life to save it, I think that some at least of these deaths must carry that deep symbolic significance.

              Perhaps the drowning element was symbolic of the cauldron of rebrith or the Mother’s womb. Blood is returned to the earth from which it had drawn life and bones broken… bearing in mind that the bones had to be processed in antiquity before the dying was thought to be complete.

              Perhaps the most convincing argument though for willing sacrifice is simply the serenity of the faces that the peat has preserved.


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