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.
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.
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.
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>