There has been a bit of a preoccupation around here lately with stone. Between the recent and forthcoming workshops we will have visited a fair number of stone circles, standing stones and burial chambers and it might be tempting to think we are simply indulging our curiosity or even wafting around the stones of the past, in denial of the fact that evolution has taken humanity thousands of years away from the time and spiritual climate in which these stones were erected.
There is a temptation also to look at these stones and call them primitive constructions, or crude symbols, yet the planetary and seasonal alignments present at many of these sites, let alone the scale and sheer number of them across the landscape, suggests we need to reassess that misconception. While arguments smoulder about their purpose and significance, their beauty, mystery and the power of standing in their presence is undeniable.
We look upon these enigmatic stones from a position of greater knowledge of the world and indeed, the universe than at any other time in human history, yet we still look at the precision and beauty with which they were built with awe… and wonder if, for all our knowledge, we may have lost something. Did the Old Ones understand the world in a way we have forgotten? There are so many questions that will remain unanswered and any answers we are given will be accepted or denied according to our own predisposition.
Yet there are still things we can learn from looking at these monuments to our own distant past. Not all of those lessons need to be about the stones themselves, even if we simply observe through modern eyes, the stones can act as catalysts for our own progress towards understanding.
I remember a very interesting talk given by Steve some years ago, based on the work of Maurice Nicoll, in which he looked at some elements of the Gospels from a symbolic, rather than a literal viewpoint. He suggested that certain words refer not to physical objects, but to more abstract concepts. Three of the words he looked at were wine, water and stone. I can’t recall the exact terms he used, but roughly, wine symbolised spiritual truth, water living truth and stone the rigidity of dogma. Within the context of the Gospels stories, those terms work to shed an extra level of illumination on the parables. Such apparently coded symbols may have been common knowledge in an earlier era, much as the symbolism of the medieval wall paintings that look so strange to our eyes yet conveyed a clear message, in their day, even to the unlettered peasantry. Like any code of symbols, though, just because it works within one era and arena, it does not necessarily follow that the same meaning would be applied across all others.
Of the three words that Steve examined, his symbolic definition of stone is closest to our general use of the term. We speak of things being ‘written in stone’… like the Ten Commandments that were inscribed on the tablets… and therefore both unchanging and unchangeable. It is for this reason that it is so apt for describing the decline of living truth into mere dogma. Yet, I wonder if even the common definition of ‘written in stone’ should be set in stone?
Rock is part of the very fabric of our planet. You could say that it was formed from cosmic energies operating in earth. The elements that existed before the formation of rocks were gradually solidified to form the basis of our lands. Man recognises stone as a symbol of solidity and permanency; even today, we use it for our monuments because of its longevity and durability. In a more abstract sense, because of these same qualities, it represents truth and it is true that the truth as we see it, when it is set in stone and not allowed to grow can indeed become dogmatic.
When our ancestors built their monuments they began by using wood, a material in plentiful supply and relatively easy to work. Traces of vast monuments, such as Woodhenge and Seahenge, still remain. Yet timber circles were not enough. Our ancestors too chose to build their monuments… and in Britain that means the circles, the monoliths, cairns and chambers… in stone. The organisation and work involved with the simple tools we are told they had available at the time is staggering. You cannot imagine that they would have cut, shaped and carried up to eighty stones weighing up to four tons each, over the 150 miles from Wales to Stonehenge, for instance, unless they saw some great virtue in doing so.
It can have been no arbitrary decision. Perhaps it was something to do with the Prescelli hills where the stones were formed, perhaps something to do with the qualities of the stone itself. We may never know. Either way, it was an incredible undertaking. The precision of the stones at Stonehenge, both their crafting and their placement, is well documented and many books have been written exploring the astronomical alignments built into the circle. It can only have been conceived with some kind of sacred purpose in mind, especially considering the labour it took, the manpower and the time, in order to raise the monument and the vast, sacred landscape in which it stands. Stonehenge may be the best known and visually the most impressive, yet there are over a thousand stone circles in Britain.
You can imagine the Old Ones lifting the stone with reverence from the earth, shaping it both to their needs and to its place in the landscape. You can see them placing it with care to exemplify and illustrate a living truth which made sense of their world, raising their beliefs to be written in the permanent language of stone.
Yet stone is continually open to change. It is constantly being eroded and reshaped by the weather, even by the touch of human hands. It is destroyed by progress, cleared away, moved, re-used to suit the needs of later generations. Its meaning, both as a symbol and as an exemplar of our ancestors’ beliefs, may be lost. Yet, the original message… the essence of what was ‘written in stone’… although invisible to later eyes, still remains encapsulated in the living stone they raised.
We will continue to build our monuments in stone to the truth that we see and their meaning too will one day be lost in the mists of time. Unlike our ancestors, we record our world… with new technologies that will also become obsolete. Five thousand years from now, there may be some knowledge left of the meaning and purpose of what remains of what we now build, but the true import, the understanding of the emotional, social, religious and political context, will have been lost. Stone is not a permanency, it just has a longer, slower life than we mere humans. It is in a constant state of change, just like the truth it symbolises. Even dogma will have its day and either self-destruct or slowly fade, replaced in the heart of Man with a new paradigm. But behind the truth and the reality we know and profess, there is a greater Truth, eternal and immutable. We may not be able to see it, but somewhere beyond our differences and arguments, beyond our ever-changing beliefs, doubts and systems, we know it is there. It is in this greater Truth that understanding grows and sometimes we may be able to catch a glimpse of it, written in the very stones of this little planet we call home.