The plan was to base our inaugural public ‘solstice’ event at Avebury and thus it seemed natural to book a room at the Public House which is situated in the centre of the Stone Circle…
Only, The Red Lion no longer provides B&B so we ended up instead at a hotel some ten miles away in Ogbourne St George.
Now, Ogbourne St George is a curious name and one redolent of both mystery and intrigue, and given our literary proclivities, we thought it might be possible to find something of interest in the village to occupy our Companions for at least one of our allotted slots over the weekend.
We had stayed in Ogbourne… before and had a visual memory of a strange mound-like structure in one of the fields lying adjacent to the hotel and had pinned to it an accompanying mental note which ran, ‘…must have a closer look at some point.’
A little research in the form of flick through the ley-line dowsers’ classic, The Sun and the Serpent by Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst, confirmed both the visual memory and our hunch that the structure would hold some interest for us.
It was not a prehistoric construction at all but a ‘folly’ built sometime during the Second World War by a local farmer but somewhat amazingly it had, according to our venerable authors, been constructed over a node which marked the crossing of the Michael and Mary currents.
This, it seemed to us, was very curious…
The mound now looked like nothing so much as an overgrown hillock with its spiral causeway, rising twenty feet in height, all but obliterated by trees, bushes, and shrubs and there was a picture of it in the aforementioned tome which approximated with the mental image which had been stored in my mind for future reference all those years ago.
It was in this respect reminiscent of another of the mounds we planned to visit over the weekend.
The now slightly more famous, but equally tree-infested Merlin’s Mound stands in the middle of the private grounds of Marlborough College beset by houses of learning and no doubt deliberately dwarfed by both the sheer bulk and the lofty spires of the College Chapel.
This mound is a prehistoric structure and has recently been given a date of construction commensurate with Silbury.
As we had been unsuccessful in our request to the authorities concerned to climb the mound and as the third of our mounds, the aforementioned and world-famous Silbury Hill is now fenced off and no longer accessible to the public we were hoping that our unobtrusive poor relation in Ogbourne St George would afford our Companions the chance to scale its relatively modest sides and experience the dual currents of the Michael and Mary leys.
In this, though we were destined to be disappointed…
I thought I would share again an account of a moment from our first official workshop, to show how these things affect even those who know how the story unfolds. You are never able to predict the emotional impact of such things…
I was up to meet the dawn on Saturday, finding the world covered in a heavy frost and very beautiful. The morning began with a guided meditation. The companions gathered at 7am and closed their eyes. It was a simple journey… that of a seed thrown by an unseen hand to the winds. The tiny point of consciousness watched from inside itself as it grew, illustrating the journey into becoming.
Breakfast and preparation… and then it was time for the second of the ritual dramas.
These dramatic episodes, played with conviction in a place made sacred, have a profound effect, enabling understanding, engaging the emotions as well as the intellect as they bring the teachings to life in a unique manner. This is one of the ways we will teach, through workshops and teaching sessions and the weekend workshops, open to all.
These do not form an essential part of the School’s course, they are not required, nor is attendance limited to School members… but rather they enhance and enrich it, as well as allowing friendships and companionship to grow. Study can be a lonely thing and the personal journey must be ultimately walked alone… but that does not mean there cannot be company along the way, a hand to hold when the ground seems rough or laughter shared in sunlight.
The first ritual drama saw the arrival of nine travellers, sheltering from a storm in the monastery of the Keepers of the First Flame. A shamanic drummer and two Troubadours, accompanied by a strange Child also sought shelter. They were following a quest to rescue an imprisoned king, or so they believed, and sought shelter and refuge for the Child while they continued their journey.
The first drama introduced these characters, and ended as the Troubadours left to continue their search, leaving the Child in the care of the nine and the Keepers. On Saturday morning the second drama was to explore the characters further, seeing deeper into their innermost being.
As the Troubadours were ‘absent’, Steve assisted our technician and had placed me in the role of the Great Mother, simply to bless the individual journey each was about to undertake as they entered the Temple.
And that felt odd. All the very human insecurities raised their head as I had read this point.. me, as Great Mother? How… what could I, just me, bring to this? And that question, I realised, was also the answer. I could bring my Self. It is all we can ever do.
The costume was simple and symbolic, grey veiled in clouds of night, a girdle of stars, dark tears at my throat and a simple nine-pointed circlet, beautifully crafted by Katie. All chosen for their simplicity and symbolism… especially the veil which prevented the pilgrims from seeing her face, yet allowed them into her embrace. I thought I had it sorted.
I do not know and cannot tell what others felt. Only what I saw and felt myself. I stood in the silence of the sacred space and waited for the first of the companions to enter, a silent prayer in my heart, not knowing really what to do, simply trusting that I would know when the moment came. The bells called the Companions in, and the first saluted the central Light and turned to me.
And it was simple. I just held out my arms and embraced them and the cloudy veil held them like dark wings.
It sounds very little. But, from my heart to yours, I tell you that this was the most profoundly moving thing. Each pair of eyes met mine with radiant joy, each heart was open and full of Light and Life and Love, each face lit with so much beauty. One after another I held them. Overwhelmed and humble, with a glowing, incandescent sun, it seemed, blazing in my heart.
I sat in silence to watch the drama unfold and behind the veil the tears slid across my cheeks to meet my smile.
… When Brother-Warrior entered the chamber of the princess, because of his Cloak-of-Darkness, she thought she was enjoying converse and congress with a spirit.
So too, did all her hand-maids but before departing he took off his cloak and left them with the fleeting vision of a ‘Fairy Warrior’.
After Brother-Wizard and Brother-Warrior had left for the wooded isle, Brother-Smith wasted no time in fomenting the populace who were missing the usual round of the wondrous cow.
He walked to each home-stead in turn crying “no milk today, the King of Castle-Hill has stolen your cow.”
In this way they were left in no doubt as to who was to blame for their loss of sustenance and the King of Castle-Hill spent the next nine months touring his lands putting down local revolt after local revolt without the use of his baleful eye.
The king had no opportunity to visit his daughter, as promised, and indeed, as few knew of the island’s existence, and the magic halter, and the wondrous cow were still kept there, it would have been foolish for him to do so.
“It is time to collect the magic halter,” said Brother-Wizard to Brother- Warrior after a time.
Together, the two of them, again, set out for the wooded isle in the coracle and once they reached the tower and the nine home-steads they collected not only the magic halter, which the king’s daughter freely gave to them but also the ‘fruits’ of Brother-Warrior’s last visit.
The nine children of the hand-maids were given together in a blanket fastened by a thorn which Brother-Wizard carried on his back whilst the grandson of the king was kept in a separate cloth which Brother-Warrior kept slung upon his breast.
As they made their way back to the mainland the thorn holding the blanket broke and the nine children of the hand-maids fell into the sea and were turned into seals, by Brother-Wizard, so they would not drown.
Brother-Warrior brought the grandson of the king safely ashore…
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.
It’s not the best of photo resolutions, but the above image says it all. Briony saluting the Derbyshire landscape in her own way at the end of three days of the Silent Eye’s Tideswell-based workshop: Sue and Stuart’s creation; and a wonderful experience for the group of souls who braved the provocative title for the weekend…
‘Rites of Passage: Seeing beyond Fear‘
…and decided that they would examine the roots of their own fears… and face them in the warmth of loving companionship and symbolic danger.
It’s a time-honoured formula for all mystical organisations; one that brings us all to a point where the day to day ‘fog’ of habitual perception is cut through by the vividness of landscape and experience. That’s what we hope to achieve on these weekends. This one worked well – and in different ways for each person, as it should, for we all have different stories that have brought us to our ‘now’.
Sometimes, especially in reviewing such things, it’s better to start at the end. The picture (above) of Briony is of her at the ‘peak’ of the weekend; the last act of the formal part of our physical, emotional and spiritual wanderings across the ancient and mysterious landscapes of Derbyshire.
A short time later, we would be laughing in one of the oddest, oldest and most wonderful pubs in England…
But that’s for the final chapter of this short series of blogs. For now, let’s drift backwards in time to the sunshine of the Saturday morning. A day of ‘Indian Summer’ as good as any we been blessed with over the years.
We were up high in a place called Baslow Ridge. Looking down on a series of valleys that lead to places like Bakewell, and the glories of the Chatsworth Estate.
The Eagle Stone stands alone, an outlier from a distant time of glaciation. It dominates the landscape like the monolith did in Kubrick’s film of Arthur C. Clarke’s story 2001: A Space Odyssey. People are drawn to it from miles around. It even featured in the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as the place that Elizabeth Bennett visited and climbed… to get away from it all.
It is still used by local folk as a rite of passage. Those who seek the hand of marriage with the girls and ladies of the nearby town of Baslow are expected to demonstrate their suitability by climbing the stone unaided. It’s not a trivial ascent, as this second shot of the rock shows:
The Eagle Stone is an example of a sacred folk-object at the centre of a local custom; a ritual, in this case. The ritual was a gateway into adulthood–and maturity. There would be real caution – if not fear- for anyone faced with the challenge. But, with some secret help from your friends, there was only an element of danger, rather than the certainty of death…
But many in the history of these parts have not been so lucky. Going back in time to our first visit of the weekend, we were brought face to face with personal fear and sadness of a degree that would be hard to envisage in modern life… and one of the most heart-rending sacrifices we could have encountered.
It’s 1666 in a small High Peak town, not far from Chatsworth. In the space of a single week, a lone woman buries all six of her children and then her husband. No-one will help her; no-one can help her. It is the most awful piece of personal history imaginable and yet the act which surrounds it is of the highest nobility.
And so the story – the plot – of the weekend, moves from an historic example of fear and self-sacrifice – but seen through modern eyes, through the ancient stones set in the Derbyshire landscape and their cultural and symbolic use, to its finale in a rather foreboding place, high above a valley with a dark history…
Seen like this – backwards from the end, we can appreciate the careful construction of the weekend carried out by Sue and Stuart. Sue has begun its re-telling in her Silent Eye and personal blogs. She’s a great storyteller and there is little point in my replicating her excellent eye for detail.
Instead, I will pick certain moments of significance and focus on them – and hence this backwards-in-time introduction to set the scene.
It’s a long way from the Friday meeting place at Eyam to our final (small for drivers) glass of Black Lurcher at the Three Stag’s Heads near ‘Hanging Rock’, but it’s a fascinating journey. The weekend demanded a degree of serious intent… but we had lot of fun, too.
In the end, on Sunday morning, everyone was alone for a moment on that dark peak… Very Carlos Castenada, really…. but that’s just my personal take on it.
Next time we meet, it will be August 1666 and, in this part of Derbyshire, something remarkable, unique and utterly selfless will be about to happen.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school of modern mysticism that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.
The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.