October 14, 2003

Silver sickles and Mistletoe

The flea talks about the Salisbury plain, home of Stonehenge, Avebury and other ancient wonders. I’ve had a fascination with this area ever since discovering a copy of Stonehenge Decoded on my uncle’s bookshelf as a youngster. Too young to understand most of it at first, I could nevertheless sense the romantic mystery of the region. Over the years, I read and reread that book countless times, and checked out everything I could find on Stonehenge in the library.

Common knowledge holds that the druids were the builders of Stonehenge, who held blood soaked rituals involving human sacrifice on the site. As usual, common knowledge has it completely wrong.

Stonehenge as we know it is merely the remnants of a construction that evolved over a long period of time, and was added to, subtracted from, and heavily modified by various peoples along the way. Although the best known of the features in that region today, the entire Salisbury plain is positively littered with archeological treasures and mysteries.

As for the druids, they weren’t so much a civilization as a sort of combination civil service and learned class, performing functions as healers, spiritual guides, accountants and judges. There is absolutely no evidence that they performed human sacrifice. Stonehenge also predates the druids by several centuries.

My long interest in Stonehenge led to my ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, and since the story also involves Halloween, it seems a good time to tell the tale. It requires some setup and meanders a little along the way, so bear with me.

In the late seventies, I was stationed in Grand Forks, North Dakota, serving as an Air Force Security Policeman. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and rumors were running wild that Uncle Sam was going to get involved. After work one day a clipboard was handed around and we were told to list our personal information for dog tags. Name, serial number, date of birth, blood type, and the last column listed “BAP” by the first several guys to fill out the roster. Thinking it meant ‘baptized’, I just put the little ditto marks under the ones above and forgot about it.

When the dog tags arrived, I learned that my religion was listed as Baptist (you saw that coming, didn’t you?). Any inaccuracies were to be reported, so I told my Sergeant that they had the religion wrong. I didn’t tell him that I was an idiot. When he asked what religion I wanted listed, I told him ‘nothing’. He asked me to reconsider, his reasoning being that having a religion listed could conceivably be a good thing if worse came to worse. I didn’t agree, but not wanting to argue the point I told the sergeant to put down the first thing that came to my mind - druid.

It became a pretty good conversation starter, being an official druid. Official, as far as Uncle Sam was concerned. Over the next several years, I would get the occasional survey form (this was the early days of ‘diversity awareness’), apparently looking for the druid viewpoint on issues. I assume Devil worshippers, Wiccans, animists and other pagans all got the same mailings. Since I wore the tag, I did some reading and learned a bit about what druidry was and is.

My next assignment was Montgomery, Alabama – heart of the Bible (thumping) Belt. I’d since acquired cross-training into the computer career field and a wife (I still have both as a matter of fact). Working at my desk one October morning, I was listening to a local radio station where the DJ was taking callers, most of who were rabidly anti-Halloween because of its ‘devil worshipping’ connotations.

Finally one caller managed to push my buttons. Among the yadda yadda about paganism and Halloween, he claimed that Great Britain was collectively going to hell because they weren’t Christian (read ‘Baptist’) and that Druids sacrificed humans at Stonehenge.

I called the radio station and talked to the DJ. Not a local boy, he was loving the nuts calling in for their comedic value. I gave him my rebuttal about druids and Stonehenge, and he asked me if I would go on air with it. I agreed and did my thing, staying on the line afterwards at the request of the DJ. Talk about stuff hitting the fan! For the next two hours, I became a most inexpert on-air expert, arguing my points after every four of five callers screaming for my sacrilegious hide. Eventually word got around at work that I was on the radio, and people started coming by to see me. When my commander dropped in, I wrapped it up and got back to work.

I consider myself a lapsed druid nowadays.

Posted by Ted at October 14, 2003 05:35 AM | TrackBack

Have you been to Stonehenge? Strange place. They give you these listening devices that provide a "walking tour". Upon arrival in the parking lot from the bus, it just looks like masses of people on cell phones walking around Stonehenge in a drugged way. Creepy.

Posted by: Helen at October 14, 2003 11:27 AM

Never been myself, although it's one of my two dream vacations. I think there's a new effort to reduce the modern footprint around the site. If I remember correctly, they want to limit the number of visitors and even want to put the nearest road underground in the vicinity.

I'd probably be one of those walking around in awe, looking creepy. :D I'd love to spend a night there.

Posted by: Ted at October 14, 2003 12:14 PM

My wife and I went there in '80 or thereabouts. We walked from the village of Amesbury to the site. A pleasant approach because the road winds and rises and falls, so that every time you crest another hill, you're a little closer. It was almost like we discovered it. When we arrived, we didn't even bother with the tour. We just looked at it a while and walked back to Amesbury in time for a nice pub dinner.

In summer '02, we returned to Britain with our two teenage sons for a walking holiday in Wales. We spent 3 weeks hiking various trails, including ascents of Sugarloaf, the Blorenge, and Snowdon. On the way back we spent one night in Salisbury and took the bus to Stonehenge. Interesting, but kind of anticlimatic after all the castles and ruins we'd visited in Wales.

Still, a very cool place. Some rock band should figure out how to incorporate a scale model stonehenge into their show :}

By the way, there's a 1/3 scale model of stonehenge at the University of Missouri at Rolla. There are some problems with scale and with latitude differences, but it's also a very cool place.

Posted by: chris hall at October 15, 2003 05:32 PM

As an alternative to Stonehenge, check out the Avebury stone circle. Few people around (in October, at least), no fences. In the same area of England as Stonehenge, near Newbury.

Posted by: jessy at February 26, 2005 08:11 AM
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