Magic In Stonehenge

What is it about Stonehenge that continues to draw more than a million people per year?

Stonehenge is considered one of the “most important prehistoric monuments in the whole of Britain.” Located on the Salisbury Plain, the 5,000 year old Bluestones, Sarsen, and Welsh Sandstones that comprise the Henge fill the place with ancient stories of wonder. The intriguing aspect of Stonehenge is the mystery of its unclear past.

Stonehenge has been standing for more than 5,000 years

Monument, cemetery, astronomical predictor, sacrificial ritual site?

For many years, historians have debated why Stonehenge was built and what is was used for. Most believe it to be used as a burial ground; however there are many other purposes that have remained unidentified. A main contributing factor as to why it has become a top tourist attraction for Britain is due to its association with Druidism.

The tourist advertisements use the religious history of Stonehenge to give it an enchanted, mysterious appeal. We were handed audio guides that told us some interesting facts and pieces of history about the ancient stones. Haunting choral melodies was used in the background during the portion where the audio described the Pagan rituals and Druid history of Stonehenge. This is an example of the darker, mysterious stereotypes associated with Druidism.

Druids are known for their magical aspects. Modern day Pagan ritual at Stonehenge.

Regardless if Stonehenge was truly used as a Druid ritual site, the two have become popularly related to each other. Stuart Piggott evaluates in his article, “The Druids and Stonehenge”, the becoming’s of the Celtic originated Druid religion to Stonehenge. Piggott states that Druids in the Ancient times who were the first who supposedly practiced at Stonehenge were “philosophers, poets, and seers whose doctrines are known in detail and contain hints of higher things.” The first to actually connect Stonehenge to Druidism was Julius Caesar during his conquests in Britain. Roman and Greek writers documented Druidism as “the priests of barbarian Celts”.  They are known for having “elaborate series of ceremonial observances and solemn ritual which took place in the open air, in circles of standing stones.” Hence why Stonehenge is distinguished as a possible site for Druid rituals with its distinct circular structure. Piggott calls on stories that describe Stonehenge as a once great Druid ritual site: “particularly impressive ceremonies were performed at sunrise on Midsummer Day when the rising sun first strikes the altar stone” (Piggott). Today, thousands still gather in the Salisbury Plain around the ancient stones to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The magical atmosphere that Stonehenge provides gives the Pagan festival an added sense of mystical to it.

However, Piggott points out that recent research has found that Druids couldn’t possibly have been associated with Stonehenge. Stonehenge is a monument used in the middle of the second millennium, but the Druids are the priesthood of the Celtic peoples a little around and before the beginning of the Christian era. He concludes that, “no ancient tradition associates the two.”

So then why is present day Stonehenge commercially advertised as a magical place that the Druids built for their sacrificial ceremonies?

Modern day tourism has greatly affected Stonehenge as a sacred site. On Brittania.com, the site states how a “commercial circus” has taken away from the essence of Stonehenge from when it was originally created. With the commercial circus, I think the mystery of Druid and Pagan affiliation is put on the forefront for advertisements because it’s what sells admissions tickets. Most people see it as a place that has hidden secrets of magic and mystery. The sacred ruins bewilders imaginations and lets them run wild as Piggott mentioned poets who created mythical poems about Druidism and Stonehenge. These published works definitely had an impact on the way people view and buy Stonehenge.

Whether people see it as a burial ground, a miraculous piece of architecture, an instrument of science, or a place of worship, Stonehenge is an important piece of history that draws many visitors. This circle of stones has managed to survive over the centuries, withholding some of Britain’s greatest history. Many people are trying to revert Stonehenge back to capture more of the site’s original history and reveal the true information about Druid connections.

Me at Stonehenge!

External Sources

Piggott, Stuart. “The Druids and Stonehenge.” South African Archeological Society. 9.36 (Dec. 1954): 138-140. JSTOR. Web. 22 July 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886827&gt;

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-18519636

http://www.stonehenge.co.uk/history.php

http://www.britannia.com/history/h7.html

A Taste Of Heaven

Every morning on the way to class, I pass by the old, brick church on the corner of Queens Gate and Harrington Road. Standing promptly in front of the aged building is the symbol of Christ on the crucifix which always catches my eye. When we first arrived in South Kensington, I used this church as a landmark to remember how to get back home. I had no idea of the stories that were held inside. On a weekday morning when I had a little extra time, I decided to wander in for a few minutes.

When I entered the large wooden doors, I was greeted with the high ceilings and darker atmosphere I’ve accustomed myself with when visiting churches and chapels around London. However, the hall was smaller, more intimate than those I’ve seen before. Even more surprising were the couches and small café bar set up as a makeshift lounge area. As I soaked in the quiet church, Chris Lee, one of the pastors, offered me some tea. Along with the refreshments he offered me information about the church and took me around the building kindly.

HTB St. Augustine’s Church on Queen’s Gate and Harrington Road

St. Augustine’s is one out of three churches of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB). I asked Pastor Lee how old the church was and he laughed and told me, “very old.” In fact, it’s older than any church that I’ve been to back at home. St. Augustine’s began in 1865 when Reverend Richard Chope used his garden to worship in Anglo-Catholic tradition. As the number of attendees increased, the Church Commissioners requested a parish to be served by the church of St. Augustine. The building is constructed with a brick and marble exterior and filled with colored mosaics and stained glass. The feel and look to the church stands in stark contrast to the pristine white residential buildings of the rest of the Queens Gate surrounding area. The functions the church hosts I found were surprisingly modern. They hold concerts for alternative, Christian rock bands and interactive youth group events. Their next big upcoming event is called Focus which is “the annual teaching week away for members of HTB, its church plants, and other church friends.” I collected the pamphlet for it on my way out and it’s depicted as a weekend camping getaway of fun, community, and faith (more information can be found on HTB’s official site). Before I left, Pastor Lee invited me to join their Sunday service. Wanting to experience a service in a building as beautiful and rich with history as St. Augustine’s, I attended the 4:30 pm service. I never imagined myself going to a full service at a Christian Anglican church. Even though both my dad and my sister are Christians, I’ve never made time for church, always thinking there was something better I could do on my Sunday mornings and afternoons. After walking out of the large, wooden doors I wouldn’t say I was a changed person, but I would say that I was enlightened tremendously.

Before going to the service, I must admit that I was very nervous stepping out of my comfort zone. My nerves were soon calmed when one of the members of the church greeted me and picked up a polite conversation until the service started. I was pleasantly surprised when the service first started with a few songs sung by a five membered band soothingly strumming guitars. It wasn’t choral music which what I was expecting, instead it was more contemporary rock. Soon, everyone in the church was standing up with palms held out open to the air and sang along with the songs of worship. It was a powerful thing watching everyone sing together without really needing to read the lyrics on the helpful monitors for newcomers to follow. A real sense of community and connection was occurring within each individual in the church.

The excerpt in that afternoon’s service was from the Corinthians and the reverend evaluated what heaven was going to be like. As he read the passage, I enjoyed how he took the words and made them uplifting rather than preaching. He introduced the image of heaven with the one we typically think of when we’re kids. We think heaven as a place of white fluffy clouds filled angels and light. Then, by analyzing the chapter out of the Corinthians he concluded how heaven is in fact a place where there is no pain or worry and that you’ll be one with God.

I myself am unsure if I truly believe in heaven. I want to believe that there is a place where there is no pain and no troubles and we could remain in an eternal bliss if you have done well with your mortal life. I suppose since I’m so young, I don’t want to think about what will happen to me after this life. Whether it is ignorance, fear, or youth, the service broke through those aspects and inevitability got me thinking of these topics.

If I had to describe the service in any way, I would say it was an out-of-body experience and unlike anything I’ve really observed before.  Everyone was extremely kind to me. The lady I sat next to named Phyllis who was a regular member of St. Augustine’s told me about the lively feel of HTB. She said it was always refreshing to take a little time out of her busy schedule to be with friends and connect with God. She then told me how HTB and specifically St. Augustine’s was a great place to learn and understand not only the ways of God, but of religion and Christian faith.

She was right. I learned so much from my experience. HTB isn’t simply a place of worship, but a place where people can gather to converse with friends. Along with their services and prayers, they also put on several outreach programs including marriage courses, depression support groups, recovery courses, and job seeking courses. HTB supports the community of South Kensington. People of all walks of life come to St. Augustine’s and are treated as equals.

I truly enjoyed my time at St. Augustine’s and plan on going to next Sunday’s service with an open mind and a more confident spirit.

Focus is HTB’s next big summer event! For more information click here.

Hidden Treasures at the West London Synagogue

                    

Westminster Abbey. Holy Trinity Brompton Church. Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

All three of these places of worship that I have visited so far in the program stand out amongst the buildings in London.

Adventuring the small side streets of the city, I didn’t quite expect the West London Synagogue of British Jews to reside in the crooks and crannies of the urban sprawl. Then again, I didn’t really know what to expect at all since the little information I knew about Judaism was from my religious studies lecture the day before and from what I could recall from the movie Fiddler on the Roof. My prior knowledge doesn’t even compare to what I gained during my experience at the synagogue.

I thought that the building blended in with its surroundings. It was completely unlike the bold, definitive exterior of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Families continuously brushed past us, coming and going as they pleased. I thought it was neat that this building, which resembles a hole in the wall from any outsider, is so welcoming and popular for its worshippers. It almost felt like a secret sanctuary that only people who knew what they were looking for could find it.

I soon realized it wasn’t simply a secret sanctuary, but more so a secret treasure. Once we entered the synagogue, the building seemed to unravel with each room we went through. The head teacher, who was our guide for the day, took us through the layers of the synagogue. There were venues for events, parties, lessons, and a large sanctuary for prayer. This atmosphere definitely contrasted the large, open halls that we observed when we first entered St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Holy Trinity Brompton Church.

There were many traits of the synagogue that differed from the churches. The aspects that I personally connected to the most rested above me.

The Eternal Flame

First, our guide pointed out the Eternal Flame that hung above her. The Eternal Flame is a feature of many synagogues that is hung above the ark of Torahs. In an article by Rabbi Adam Zeff in The Jewish Exponent, he explains that, like any symbol, it withholds a unique meaning to each Jewish individual. It is originally known to be the flame that had to be kept burning on the sacrificial altar in the ancient sanctuary. However, to other Jews it can also represent “the persistence of God’s sheltering presence” or “the protection and inspiration of the Divine that is with us” during troubling times. While contemporary temples now keep their Eternal Flames alight by electric candles, I thought this physical symbol was unlike anything else I’ve seen yet in a church. I think it’s comforting to always have that familiar warmth of a flicking light hovering above you in a place of worship.

The second significant trait that stood out to me was the three Stars of David positioned at the highest point in the sanctuary ceiling. The Star of David is a six apex star which became the accepted Jewish symbol many centuries ago. While most affiliate it with Judaism, the Jewish Star also holds meaning for other cultures and peoples. It shines for us all and is thought of as “an earthly symbol of God’s heavenly stars”. The stained glass version at the West London Synagogue gave the three stars a colorful, illuminated look. They also hold an importance for celebration of holidays. Only until three stars dot the sky can any holiday of the Jewish calendar commence. Our guide informed us that the three star design was a unique trait to the West London Synagogue. It was very unlike the Holy Trinity Brompton church that had looming, dark paintings on the ceilings. The tall ceilings and dark figures in this church made me feel small and intimidated. On the other hand, the Stars of David bring your eyes upward towards the heavens and seem to shine in the brightly lit synagogue.

The three Stars of David on the ceiling of the sanctuary

Recollecting on my time at the West London Synagogue, I feel that there was a certain theme prevalent throughout the tour:

Encouragement of questions.

Not simply in the way that you would ask the tour guide a question about history of the building, but rather to question the ways of one’s faith. Questioning what is stated in the Torah or how something in the Jewish religion works is greatly encouraged. This is something that I found very unique to Judaism.

I asked my Jewish friend, Stephanie, about this and she confirmed that, “questioning and wondering about religious prompts is highly valued in Judaism.”

Having open discussions about the Torah, like at events such as Torah on Tap, has allowed different interpretations to be accepted. I admire that they create an open learning environment not only for Jews to understand their own sacred stories, but for outsiders to comprehend as well. I feel like the best way to better understand one’s self and one’s traditions is by asking questions about it.

Exploring the West London Synagogue was like finding buried treasure. The little things about the synagogue were the aspects that stuck in my mind and helped me gain a better understanding of the Jewish culture and tradition.

I remember that the character Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof said, “…because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

The Jewish tradition of encouraging exploration and questioning is an intriguing and enlightening way to find the buried treasures within life.

The LGBTQ Community within Islam

For most of my life, taking trips to bigger cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York were always such exciting treats. Living in the city of London, I’ve seen and learned about so many pockets of different communities existing together in one cohesive urban pot. According to BBC.co.uk in 2005, the numbers of social, political and cultural groups that work in support of the LGBTQ community make London the gay capital of the UK, comprising 5% of the city’s population. This is a significant jump for me. In my hometown, the gay community is greatly underrepresented, so being surrounded by people who create a more accepting atmosphere towards differing sexual orientations has been wonderfully refreshing.

However, not all cultures and religions in the UK have held their arms open as widely as the city dwellers of London. The current position of the gay and lesbian community in Islamic cultures is unsettling. In a recent article on Guardian.co.uk news, it was reported that 28-year-old Kabir Ahmed and his group of antigay supporters were convicted of hate crime for handing out leaflets alleged to have been threatening to gay people in the city of Derby, just north of London. The leaflet (image featured below) entitled “The Death Penalty?” depicts a mannequin doll hanging from a noose with quoted Islamic texts stating that capital punishment was necessary to rid society of homosexuality. A statement taken from Ahmed reveals his firm stance against gays which has invested from his Islamic roots:

“My intention was to do my duty as a Muslim, to inform people of God’s word and to give the message on what God says about homosexuality.”

Kabir Ahmed accused of hate crime against LGBTQ in Derby, UK this past January.

The case further investigates the controversial distinction of whether or not Ahmed’s acts were truly a hate crime against gays or if it was simply a declaration through religious practice. While I personally felt uncomfortable with the Ahmed’s quote, it does highlight the treatment towards the LGBTQ community within Islam. After reading the article and using information from lecture on Islamic faith, I was intrigued to find out the Qur’an’s (the sacred text of Islam) position on homosexuality. In the Qur’an it states the following:

“We also sent Lut: He said to his people: “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds” —Qur’an 7:80-81

While I thought the gay community had troubles in my little hometown of Clovis, I had no idea of the struggles Muslim LGBTQs have endured. Apparently, death threats are not uncommon towards the LGBTQ community from Muslims. From the teachings through the Qur’an, it is understood that homosexuality is a disease and disorder. It’s something that is sinned and leads to corruption… It’s taught that no person is born homosexual. Muslims, like Ahmed, who follow this belief suppress the LGBTQ people within this religion to fear being open with their sexuality.

Having a brochure being handed to you that says you don’t deserve to live for simply being who you are is not only undermining, but terrifying as well.

“Death Penalty?” Leaflets. (Muslim text blurred out).

I believe that sexual orientation cannot be something you choose. Living in a generation of the 21st century, I’ve been taught by my parents and society that it didn’t matter how I looked, how I lived, or who I loved. So, reading this article was a bit of a shocker to me. I wasn’t aware of the suppression that was inflicted to this underrepresented community who follow Islam. From this perspective, I would clarify Ahmed’s actions as a hate crime towards the gay community as the phrases and disturbing image fosters a sense of self-resentment for being homosexual. While I do believe others should be able to practice their religions and beliefs freely, I do not agree that they should inflict fear on a set group to the point that they can’t live a normal lifestyle. To me, that feels like our supposedly progressive age is actually moving backwards.

But I do have hope. There are several progressive scholars within the Muslim community who are building a more positive image of acceptance of homosexuals. On the site for Muslims For Progressive Values, they are making advances in stopping “the way homosexuality and Islam are being positioned against each other” as it creates “a false dichotomy and does no favors for the GLBT folks or Muslims.” In another article on the site, one of the major advocates for Muslim LGBTQs, Dr. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, uses the Qur’an in contradiction of Islam’s outlook on this community. In his work he demonstrates that “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims do indeed deserve a place in Islam” and that “common punishments for homosexuality in Islamic countries have no basis in the Qur’an.” Kugle has written several books on the matter including Homosexuality and Islam and  Sexual diversity in Islam: Is there room in Islam for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Muslims?. His ideals have been a large contribution in creating acceptance of homosexuals in the Islamic religion by seeing the Qur’an in a different light. I am hoping that leaders such as these further the advancement for equality and safety.

Hearing events such as the World Pride Parade that’s happening this weekend in London is bursting my bubble and opening me up to the positive outlook towards LGBTQs. My conservative hometown never held an event like this. I love the idea of everyone coming together on one day to celebrate being who we are. As a LGBTQ ally, I see this as a great opportunity for myself and others to gain a better understanding of this community. The floor remains open to everyone on the controversy with Ahmed’s pamphlets. Lines still remain blurry as to whether or not this was a hate crime or a religious act. It’s up to our generation to define them.

London World Pride Parade 2011 (photo credit: Pride London/One Sunny Day)
Check out the event in Trafalgar Square this Saturday, July 7th!

Introductions

Hi everyone!

I’m Lauren and I am third year Biology major and trying to get a Microbiology minor. If you’re looking for me around campus, you’ll most likely find me at the Kennedy Library. I not only study there constantly, but I also work as a LibRAT at the Reference Desk! I also love playing badminton and I’m on the Cal Poly Club team (yes we do indeed have a team!). That’s just a tid bit about me.

I don’t know much about religion. So I decided to take this class in hopes of being more properly educated on the topic. When growing up, I was never pushed to go to church. My parents practice different religions; my father is Christian and my mother is Buddhist. They both decided that they wanted my sister and me to choose what faith to believe in if we found that we believed in anything at all. I was exposed to both Christianity and Buddhist practices when my mom would take us to the annual Obon Festival in the summer to celebrate those who have passed away and when my father would take us to summer Christian day school lessons. The decision to give us the freedom to choose what religion to follow was something I greatly appreciated from my parents. Due to this, I never latched on to any belief, however, from the teachings I have had I do believe that there is some sort of greater power and have always considered myself Agnostic. In this way, I feel like I’m open to learning about all different beliefs and cultures.

I haven’t traveled outside the country, unless you count a very short day stop on a cruise in Canada. I grew up in the very suburban, bubble like town of Clovis and then moved to the similar like city of San Luis Obispo for college. So this first, big leap to London completely on my own is an out-of-body experience I want to take in stride. I want to make the most of it. Funny that my mom wanted me to pick London because most everyone speaks English and that it would be most similar to home… Boy, was she wrong! I am already in awe by the amazing differences (big and small) in culture and society here. I think that’s what I’m most excited about: the mountain of information out there and being able to learn it by walking in the footsteps of the locals. I think that there’s no better way to immerse yourself into a new country. I’m ready to step out of my comfort zone, see beautiful places, experience different customs and religions, meet new people, and appreciate how diverse a community can be.

Cheers to the experience of a lifetime!

~Lauren