I’m writing this on Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Samhain, on the cusp of the season when traditionally the veil between the worlds thins and the presence of the dead can be felt. Which is not a scary thing—witness the celebrations in Mexico for Dia de los Muertos (actually 3 days) when the spirits of loved ones visit to impart advice or prayers, and when families picnic in the cemetery, build shrines with offerings and mementos, and tend the graves of loved ones. Cultures worldwide have similar celebrations.
Before visiting Stonehenge earlier this year, I didn’t realize that its location in Salisbury Plain was an important burial destination of the ancient world. The famous stone circle—incidentally, not built by the Druids, but in stages by earlier people—is surrounded by burial mounds and barrows. Thor and I hiked over the fields past some of these mounds, making our own pilgrimage to the site that has been sacred since prehistoric times, and only then did I appreciate the setting and its significance. For thousands of years, people made the pilgrimage from all over Europe to bring their dead to be buried within sight of the Stonehenge circle.
Scientists now think that the site evolved over about 10,000 years, and probably began as wooden posts, with the present-day stone circles built in a period between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago. The large stones in the outer ring, the Sarsens, probably came from Marlborough Downs, about 20 miles away. But the smaller Bluestones in the interior came from Wales, quite a distance to transport these huge boulders, and no one knows how it was done. These Bluestones were considered by some to have special healing properties.
There is certainly something magical in the place and structure—even my skeptical scientist husband Thor admitted it!
We followed our Stonehenge visit by a ramble around nearby Avebury, another ancient stone circle that has a more homey feel, as it incorporates a small settlement, and people are allowed to wander at will and touch the huge, unshaped boulders that sprawl in a circle along with massive earthworks of ditch and mound.
Tonight, remembering the feelings of awe and reverence inspired by our visit to Stonehenge and Avebury, I’m musing on the impulse of people worldwide to build stone monuments, many of them to honor the dead and keep their memory alive. I wander into my backyard to light a candle on the shrine I’ve built to honor my mother and beloved animal companions who have moved on, and realize that Thor and I have no less than five stone structures in our yard. Some of these incorporate large pieces of columnar andesite from nearby Mt. Baker, where my mother loved to take us girls huckleberry picking. Thor and I hike there often, now missing our beloved golden retriever Worf, buried beneath his own shrine of stone columns. Tonight, as I light my candles and touch the stones that connect me to the cycles of the earth, I will listen for whispers from the dead.