CraftCourses sits at the edge of the beautiful Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire, the home of the original bluestone monolithic blocks that it’s believed were moved from the Waun Mawn site to their current location, Stonehenge. Scientific dating from the excavation at Waun Mawn shows that the stones were originally put up in around 3400 BC with the first stage of Stonehenge built in 3000 BC. It’s possible that the ancient people of the Preseli region migrated, taking their monuments with them.
"How grand! How wonderful! How incomprehensible!" - Sir Richard Colt Hoare, one of the first recorded excavators of Stonehenge.
As an ‘outlander,' I came to live in this area with relatively little local knowledge only to discover the amazing fact that Stonehenge (or much of it) originated right here, on my doorstep in the bluestone quarry of the Preseli Hills. I lived for a time (many years ago) on Salisbury Plain, a stone’s throw from the henge itself and feel some significance in the fates that drew me here to this place. In my somewhat nomadic lifestyle, I have lived close to other ancient stone circles and monuments in Dorset, Somerset and elsewhere. Circumstance and coincidence but there is something utterly compelling and grounding about these giants of the past; the ancient stone, covered in lichens and moss, showing the wear of aeons of seasons and weather, oblivious to the passing generations of people who have wondered at them.
There are many monolithic stones in this area of West Wales, including several that are within a ten-minute walk of my house and the home of CraftCourses. As an avid watcher of the TV series ‘Outlander,’ I confess to self-consciously approaching one of them with distinct caution and, after carefully looking around to see if anyone was watching, placing my hands on it hoping that I wouldn’t find myself 200 years in the past (I’ve always had a vivid imagination)! Up close, you can see and feel the remarkable texture wrought by the environment, the homes of spiders and other creatures in every crevice, the myriad of colours that bely the grey appearance seen from a distance, and the warm silky surface, so tactile and inviting.
"The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling." - Lucretius
Also wondrous is the craftsmanship apparent in the unnatural planes of the stones, obviously honed by human hands at some distant time in the past. Craft at its most ancient and seemingly simple, but when you think of the tools that these ancient peoples would have used, not just to sculpt them but also to move them, the task was evidently not simple at all. The question most of us ask ourselves when confronted with one of these giants is why? Why were they hewn from the rock around us and placed in certain arrangements? What was their purpose? It is thought that stone circles were initially used as early astronomical observatories where people would be able to tell the timing of the equinoxes and solstices – these events were important for the pagan religious practices at the time and remain so in the present day. Looking at standing stones more widely, many believe that they are one of many monumental, historical items of special and arcane significance, along with stone circles, barrows & mounds, hill forts and earthworks, pre-reformation churches, fords and prominent hill tops. All of them are believed not only to possess an essential energy, but are connected by narrow channels of this energy in straight lines or ley lines. Although we most commonly associate Stonehenge as a place of worship for Druids, Paganism as a religion (or philosophy), is older still, having its roots in the pre-Christian religions of Europe. Its re-emergence in Britain parallels that in other western countries, where it has been growing rapidly since the 1950s. The social infrastructure of paganism reflects the value the pagan community places on unity in diversity, and commonly accepted ideas today - that all religions are equally valid, that absolute values of right and wrong do not exist, and that there is no such thing as sin for example – were all expounded by ancient pagan philosophers. It could be said that contemporary Paganism is the restoration of indigenous religion and results from our increasing interest in and knowledge of past and distant cultures as well as the changing natural world around us.
Pagans understand deity to be manifest within nature and recognise divinity as taking many forms, finding expression in goddesses as well as gods. They believe that nature is sacred and that the natural cycles of birth, growth and death observed in the world around us carry profoundly spiritual meanings. Human beings are seen as part of nature, along with other animals, trees, stones, plants, and everything else that is of this earth. Most pagans believe in some form of reincarnation, viewing death as a transition within a continuing process of existence.
The fact that society is facing a human-created climate emergency which could lead to the extinction of many species, including ourselves, makes Paganism today particularly appropriate with its central and distinctive feature being the sacredness of the natural world. Pagans stress the interconnectedness of all life and seek to live in harmony with nature, viewing the current environmental crisis as a result of humans considering themselves separate from and superior to the rest of life.
“Even so, I’m somebody. I’m the Discoverer of Nature. I’m the Argonaut of true sensations. I bring a new Universe to the Universe Because I bring the Universe to itself.”
Albert Caeiro - The Keeper of Sheep
Pagans have eight sabbats, or seasonal celebrations, throughout the year which form the foundation of many modern pagan traditions. While there's a rich history behind each one, every sabbat is observed by connecting to nature in some way. The annual cycle of seasons known as the Wheel of the Year has been influenced by folklore, history, and magic.
Samhain – At the end of autumn and when the earth enters a period of dormancy, Samhain is a chance to celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth, and to reconnect with ancestors, honouring those who have died. It is a time when the veil between the earthly world and the spirit realm is thin, allowing pagans to make contact with the dead.
Yule, the Winter Solstice – A time to gather with loved ones, focusing on rebirth and renewal as the sun makes its way back to the earth.
Imbolc – during the frigid month of February, Imbolc is a reminder of impending Spring, a time to harness the magical energy related to the feminine aspects of the Goddess, of new beginnings, and of fire.
“So now, as the Maiden form of the Goddess whispers to us of hope and new beginnings at the festival of Imbolc, it is on a cold February morning that you are invited to step onto the ‘Wheel of the Year.” - Carole Carlton, Mrs Darley's Pagan Whispers: A Celebration of Pagan Festivals, Sacred Days, Spirituality and Traditions of the Year
Ostara, the Spring Equinox – the time of the vernal equinox when rituals usually observe the coming of Spring and the fertility of the land. The ground becomes warmer and plants slowly surface from the ground.
Beltane – a time of celebration for the greening of the earth and its fertility. Observed on 1st May it is a time when the Earth mother opens up to the fertility god and their union brings about healthy livestock, strong crops, and new life everywhere.
Litha, the Summer Solstice – honouring the longest day of the year, Litha is a time to spend time outdoors focusing on the power of the sun. Crops are growing heartily and the earth is warm; a time to reconnect with nature.
Lammas (Lughnasadh) – as the harvest approaches, flowers and crops are abundant, Lammas is a time to reflect on the abundance of Autumn and to reap what has been sown as well as a recognition that the bright summer days will soon come to an end.
Mabon, the Autumn Equinox – crops have been gathered and stored for the coming winter and Mabon is the mid-harvest festival and a time when pagans honour the changing seasons, celebrating the second harvest. During this time of seasonal shift when day equals night, thanks are given for the gifts of the earth but there is also acceptance that the soil is once again becoming dormant at the gateway to winter.
“There comes a day each September when you wake up and know the summer is over and fall has arrived. The slant of the sun looks different and something is in the air; a coolness, a hint of frosty mornings to follow. I woke early on the morning of September 24 and reached for a warmer petticoat.” - Ann Rinaldi, Time Enough for Drums
We all need a reminder from time to time that we are a part of the natural world. Although paganism as a pantheist 'religion' or a ritualised way of living may not represent the way we see our lives, it is worth remembering that the practice of living by and celebrating the seasonal changes in the earth and the environment are probably the most relatable of all 'religions.' We are bound to the earth by the cycle of the seasons and without them all life and death would be meaningless.
In honour of the earth, nature, creation, those ancient stone masons, our pagan ancestors, pagan friends and pagan neighbours you might like to try your hand at stone carving or celebrate Mabon - the Autumn Equinox - with an Autumn-themed courseat CraftCourses. Perhaps a moon gazing hare to bring growth, re-birth, abundance, new beginnings and fortune or carve a green man to represent the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring. However you choose to bind yourself with nature, there is joy in living naturally and loving life.