poet. writer. imposter.
Quite a long read this one, handily broken up into small sections. Research, discovery, spirituality, TV, poetry… it’s a mixed bag/experimental approach (for me anyway) Hope you enjoy it.
A Psalm of Stone
In 1977, ITV first broadcast a children’s TV drama – produced by HTV – called ‘Children of the Stones.’ Set in the Neolithic village of ‘Milbury,’ it told a tale of events that cycled throughout history, the mysterious powers that manifested inside the stone circle and the fates of the villagers that lived within said circle and came into contact with the Lord of the Manor.
As an impressionable thirteen-year-old, eager for supernatural thrills, I was utterly enthralled by the show. I wondered where the village of Milbury was but couldn’t find it in either our atlas or our AA road map. To me, this just added to the mystery and made the events of the TV seems more ‘real’; more exciting. It never occurred to me that the village – although obviously a real place – had been renamed for the purposes of the TV show.
During the unfolding of the drama, various named locations were visited and stories and myths about the individual stones were told. I absorbed and loved these stories, retelling them to my friends, none of whom watched the programme. It became part of my psyche in much the same way as Alan Garner’s novel ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ had a few years earlier.
I asked teachers, librarians and friends about stone circles and ley lines and none of them knew what they were or indeed what I was talking about. The consensus was that only one stone circle existed. That was Stonehenge and that it was built by the Druids. The circle I saw on TV therefore must have been a TV set. Disappointed, I stopped looking for the mythical Milbury circle unable to reconcile the aerial shots of the village inside the circle that was shown in the end credits of every episode.
Several years later, my friend Evan and I started chatting about old TV shows. He asked if I remembered ‘that weird thing with a stone circle’. I said I did and enthused about how fantastic the show was – and that I still had the novelisation and DVDs. After binge watching the entire series, he suggested we go and visit the site.
‘We can’t,’ I said, ‘Milbury doesn’t exist.’
‘No, but Avebury does,’ he said, ‘That’s where they filmed it. It’s in Wiltshire.’
Feeling both foolish at missing the obvious name change and overwhelmed with excitement, we planned – poorly as it happened – a road trip. We borrowed a tent and some camping equipment from my friend’s neighbour downstairs, threw a few supplies in a rucksack and hitch-hiked to Avebury. It took well over a day to get there. This was because the journey included being dropped in North London because the driver that picked us up decided to change his destination en route to Oxford. He refused to stop on the M1 to let us out. We ended up walking from Edgware to the outskirts of the Slough via Virginia Water – we were hopelessly lost.
The process of liminality within ritual space works like a chrysalis. One can enter into the liminal state, but on exiting, everything including one’s perception of the world is irrevocably changed. This is true even in profane – that is ‘not sacred’ – space. Like the chrysalis, you can’t ‘un-cocoon’ yourself to your previous state. The metaphor of cocooning and growth – or at least change – is analogous to the concept of ‘Chapel Perilous,’ first noted in Mallory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur.’
In Chapter 15, entitled ‘How Sir Launcelot came into the Chapel Perilous and gat there of a dead corpse a piece of the cloth and a sword,’ the sorceress Hellawes attempts to seduce Launcelot into an ungodly life. Launcelot is sent on a quest to find a piece of cloth and a sword that is housed in the Perilous Chapel. He enters and retrieves the artefacts, but on exiting, Hellawes is waiting for him. She tells Launcelot that if he leaves with the items, he will die. He refuses to give them up. Hellawes declares her love for him and asks for a single kiss. In exchange, she will allow him to leave with the sword and cloth. Launcelot denies her and leaves anyway. Hellawes had set the chapel up as an elaborate trap that Lancelot avoided because of his loyalty. Had he entered the chapel again after kissing Hellawes he would have met confusion, death and abandonment by God.
Chapel Perilous here acts as a symbolic Id. One of Freud’s three components of the psyche, the id is the impulsive part of our psyche that responds directly and immediately to basic urges and desires. The Chapel Perilous, via Hellawes, is offering base and libidinous gratification. Launcelot acts as the superego – which provides the moral standards by which the ego operates – in overcoming temptation and striving for perfection, in not allowing himself to behave in a way that contradicts the oath he has taken to Guinevere and God.
As a metaphor, Chapel Perilous lacks precision but when dealing with liminality, order and preciseness is difficult to impose because as soon as a solid definition is reached, the liminal state has passed.
Relph in ‘Place and Placelessness’ states that: ‘(Liminal) Space is amorphous and intangible and not an entity that can be directly analysed. Yet, however we feel or know or explain space, there is nearly always some associated sense of place.’ He further states that: ‘‘Existential’ space or ‘lived’ space… (is) intersubjective and hence amenable to all members of the group for they have been socialised according to a common set of experiences, signs and symbols.’
The Chapel Perilous as a psychological concept was popularised by and obtained some credence by counterculture ‘Quantum Psychologist’ Robert Anton Wilson. He defines the concept as ‘a psychological state in which an individual cannot be certain whether they have been aided or hindered by some force outside the realm of the natural world, or The concept of whether what appeared to be supernatural interference was a product of their own imagination.’
His description of the function of Chapel Perilous, wrapped in the language of ritual magic is thus:
‘Chapel Perilous, like the mysterious entity called ‘I,’ cannot be located in the space-time continuum; it is weightless, odourless, tasteless and undetectable by ordinary instruments. Indeed, like the Ego, it is even possible to deny that it is there. And yet, even more like the Ego, once you are inside it, there doesn’t seem to be any way to ever get out again, until you suddenly discover that it has been brought into existence by thought and does not exist outside thought. Everything you fear is waiting with slavering jaws in Chapel Perilous, but if you are armed with the wand of intuition, the cup of sympathy, the sword of reason, and the pentacle of valour, you will find there (the legends say) the Medicine of Metals, the Elixir of Life, the Philosopher’s Stone, True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness.’ (Wilson, RA., Cosmic Trigger.)
This reconfiguring of Chapel Perilous opens it up to the ‘ordinary’ person where once it was reserved solely for grail seekers, as seen above. With each psyche being unique, Chapel Perilous is by definition different for each person travelling through it; tailor made by the shape of the individual’s state of mind. Armed with a philosophical question, or dilemma, maybe an unfamiliar or potentially frightening course of action, a prayer, one will either:
Some travellers may stand at the door to the chapel unaware that the Chapel even exists, particularly if the metaphorical ‘wand of intuition’ is missing from the seekers psyche. The implication here is that one must prepare for one’s experience with navigating the Chapel. The unwary or unprepared visitor will be lost, but those with the above listed magical attributes, obtained through self-discipline, spirituality and learning will – as the Grail Knights – navigate the chapel and become illuminated or start on the path to apotheosis.
We got to Avebury at around midnight and pitched the tent. It was a black, moonless night, both characteristics enhanced by thick rain clouds. As we started to build the shelter, the clouds ditched then contents on us. Gleeful, relentless. Eventually, cold, wet, unhappy, we sat around a small Calor Gas stove. Neither of us wanted to eat, despite not having done so for at least 18 hours. This turned well as Evan had accidentally left the bag with the food in it somewhere along the journey. Probably at one of the services stations along the M4, if that’s where we had been. We couldn’t be sure.
It made matters worse, when we woke up after a freezing night huddling together to try and keep warm, that we were in approximately three inches of water. We had managed to pitch the tent in a depression that collected the rainwater.
I opened the tent. The rain had stopped, and sunlight was beginning to peek over the horizon. The landscape was covered in fragile mists and the discomfort of the previous six hours evaporated as we walked through the phantom swirls. We dismantled the tent, draining it of rainwater before packing it up and then went to the church. With it being so early, the shops and the pub weren’t open, so we had an hour or so to kill before we could grab anything to eat. The church provided shelter from the drizzle and was warm enough to cause us to steam dry.
I remembered from the TV show that the font had an interesting carving on it. It was suggested that some of the masons who worked on the church still acknowledged the ‘old religion’ and objected to the church being built at all, but work was work. As a cheeky nod to the old ways, a bishop was depicted being bitten on the foot by the ‘solar serpent’. Sure enough, just visible after centuries of wear and tear, a bishop can be seen.
Whether this story is true or whether this the carving depicts the story – or part thereof – of St Patrick expelling the snakes from Ireland is up for debate but I like to think it is the former.
Buoyed by seeing the carving, which confirmed to me that Milbury really was Avebury, I suggested we search for some of the other sites from the TV show.
‘There’s a stone outside of the post office,’ I said, ‘It looks a bit like a cactus, but it’s meant to be one of the villagers holding her hands up.’
‘Oh, it that the one in the road? In the first episode?’ asked Evan.
‘That’s it. She owned the guest house that Adam and Matthew Brake move into.’
‘Totally freaked me out, that.’
I sniggered, ‘The whole thing was freaky!’
We walked to the post office and were deeply disappointed to discover that the stone was not there.
‘They can’t have moved it, surely? It’s a heritage site!’
The post-office also acted as a general store, so we entered to buy some food. Evan, who was always bolder than I, asked the post-mistress what had happened to the stone? She clicked her tongue.
‘Are you here just because of that bloody TV show?’.
‘Uh, no. We wanted to see the circle. I mean we liked the program, but…’
She made a harrumphing sound, ‘The stone doesn’t exist. It was a fibreglass prop. A lot of the stones were.’
Of course, it was. The same stone had appeared in two different places. How did we not spot that?
She snatched the money from us for some groceries and we slinked out, disappointed at the non-existence of the stone and at the rudeness of the post-mistress.
Ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep suggests that rites of passage follow a universal pattern consisting of three phases; the rites of separation, in which the neophyte is removed from his mundane life to the threshold of the new, elevated life he faces; the transition rites in which the neophyte sheds his previous life and travels facing the challenges of rebirth; and rites of incorporation in which he having traversed liminal space and partaken in the social constructs of ritual, takes his place within society, elevated and illuminated by his liminal experience. Van Gennep calls the middle phase the ‘liminal period’ and the subsequent incorporation the post-liminal period. All societies, he says, use rites to denote and demarcate important transitions.
In Daniel Tutts model of liminal experience (below), we can again see the norm, represented as structure, and a rite or ritual as literally being outside of profane reality via Van Genneps Rite of Separation. Once again, the creation of a ‘bubble universe’ of sacred reality is constructed.
Anthropologically, the definition of liminality is ‘the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rites’, ergo the state of being part way through a transition. The process of transformation takes place within liminal space and that transition once complete, manifests in post -liminal space and reintegration.
Liminality, therefore, operates as both the internal and external space of the initiate/participant and although there maybe a physical solidity to the place of transition – the lightless tunnel between the outside world and the Lascaux caves, for example – the spatial and psychological experience of the initiate, while sharing these spatial and temporal elements, is unique to each participant.
By this time, the National Trust Information Centre was open and we decided to get some more information about the site. We read about the history and the ways in which the site had been treated over the centuries with fascination. I was pleased – if pleased is the correct word – to hear that the story of the itinerant barber-surgeon, crushed under one of the stones – first heard by me in TV show – was true and that he met his end while participating in the now outlawed annual ritual of burying a stone for luck. In the light of the artificial stones, this made the TV show seem more real again.
As if to counter that feeling, on asking which stone had the solar serpent carved on it, the museum warden said, ‘Solar Serpent? There’s no stone with a serpent carved on it. Do you mean the font?’
I explained about the TV show and the carving.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘I keep hearing about this programme, but I’ve never seen it. I think that stone must have been a prop.’
When considering the liminal, it is useful to remember that its root comes from the latin ‘limens’ meaning ‘threshold’ and liminal has come to mean something that dwells between two or more identifiable states. Thus, ritual space is neither of this realm nor of the divine or – the infernal – or their analogues, depending on the religious persuasion of the ritual observant – but a bridge between the three.
Ritual space – where the veil between the mundane and the transcendent is thin – is space that focuses ideas; lays bare the hopes fears and aspirations of the acolytes participating in a given ritual, that is, a series of actions and gestures used to communicate with the divine/infernal. Whether ritual achieves anything tangible is up to the interpretation of those who participate. Reality, and its interpretation, is in a state of flux. By nature of expectation, ritual space is liminal space. The liminality of ritual space acts as a buffer between three distinct paradigms – the divine, the infernal and the earthly – and occupies a specific, discrete area.
Many religions seek to give sacred space permanence by constructing buildings around them, Churches, Cathedrals, Synagogues, etc., but where sanctity refers to object and places that have been given special status in reference to the divine, liminal/ritual space is entirely non-tangible, ‘other’ and transient subset within a larger space.
Liminal spaces are places one visits as a break from the usual; places that exist outside of the norm and that represent a change, be it physical or non-physical (temporal, psychological, spatial); A discrete territory created on the boundary line of an established region. Ritual operates within all of these paradigms providing a temporary multisensory, multi-planar experience from which one emerges changed.
Rites of Passage, especially religion led Rites of Passage are particularly strong with the concepts of liminality and especially the concept of ‘Chapel Perilous’. As far back as the Classical Greece, the concept of liminality in terms of the spiritual were well known with neophytes being sent out to uncultivated mountains to have their status changed from the neophytic state to having full civic status. Odysseus, for example, was sent to the slopes of Mount Parnassus; Autolycus, his Grandfather, performing the ritual that elevated his neophyte status to manhood.
Cities, or Polis, were seen as areas devoted to particular Gods, each god having its own set of likes and dislikes; each city, believed to be discovered and founded by a patron god and gifted to humanity had complex rules and behaviours that were said to appease and displease. Although there is no one volume that explicitly states all of the rules and behaviours that are acceptable or not, Hesiod’s poem ‘Works and Days’ set out some of the rules and operates as a partial manual detailing the respect one should have for both nature and community.
Each instruction, such as:
‘Do not ever urinate in the waters of rivers flowing forth towards the sea, nor at springs, but avoid this especially—and do not shit there—for this is not better’
‘Do not ever pour fiery wine in libation to Zeus or the other immortals at dawn with hands unwashed, for they do not heed you, but they spit back your prayers’
‘If you are making a home, do not leave it unfinished, lest a cawing crow sit on it and croak’
are all ways in which an already sacred space, object or time – made so by the grace of a Patron God or Gods – can be sullied and made profane and unclean.
Living within a permanent sacred space would suggest that the Ancient Greeks lived in a state of permanent liminality. While this seems unlikely, one cannot deny that great advances in human knowledge were made under the supposed aegis of the Greek Patron Gods. As a non-liminal state existed only within prescribed areas of the city usually public latrines, and beyond the boundaries of the city and surrounding blessed landscapes -farms and slurry pits.
Hesiod suggests that tombs are not sacred – contrary to current belief – and warns against sitting ‘a twelve-year-old boy on what does not move (a tomb), (it is) a thing that makes a man unmanly, nor a twelve-month-old boy either, for this produces the same result.’ Whether this means more like a woman or more like the profane is unclear. I suspect the latter.
Ritual space within the polis/sacred space was only used in public displays for the establishing of a new community, or when introducing a new ritual, most often on the adoption of a new or imported Patron God.
Even further back, Stone age man understood the concept of liminal transitional space. Caves were certainly utilised for funerary rites and interment in the vast majority of Neolithic cultures according to Barnatt and Edmunds (Places Apart? Caves and Monuments in Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age Britain. Cambridge Archaeological journal.12(1) pp.113-129.) and traversing the passages leading to the funerary and ritual space – often in total darkness – was understood to be a transitional space between the profane and the sacred; the mundane world and the afterlife. These passages were likely viewed literally as portals to another world in the same way as creating symbolic ritual space is utilised today. As Bjorn Thomasson asserts, ‘Caves have been, in many cultures, crucial liminal spaces where shamanic ekstases occurred, bringing humans in contact with the spirits or the beyond.’ (Liminal Landscapes ch 2 p22)
Thomasson later states that the cave painting at Lascaux must be interpreted as being part of a ritual passage to the spirit world and a real liminal experience. This statement is based on Arnold Van Genneps ideas in ‘Rites of Passage’ on which he suggests a theoretical framework for explaining many cultural beliefs and rituals. He singles out rites of passage as special and separate from the temporal patterns of seasonal and group social change.
Shamanic experience tells us that ritual space is quite literally ‘the Shaman’ who acts as a conduit between the sacred and the profane. As such the sobriquet of ‘The Walker Between the Worlds’ is often used by neo-pagans. The Shaman is the physical embodiment of the threshold.
The lack of stones, the absence of carvings made Avebury feel somehow ‘less’. Not being able to see the sites that thrilled me as a child was a deep disappointment. Being disappointed in a site like Avebury seems inconceivable now, but it took me a while to separate the fictional Milbury from the real Avebury. The solidity of the site means that Avebury bears more than a superficial resemblance to Milbury. In the TV series though, Milbury exists outside of regular time and space, trapped in a discrete mobius strip of time, where reality is treated as an unwelcome incursion to the perfection laid down by the Lord of the Manor. As a sidenote, HTV got more complaints about the title sequence and theme tune being terrifying than the programme itself… and that was terrifying enough.
A merlin whiffles and surveys
a ditch and bank, grateful
for now open land and prey;
leaving bark and sap
and leaf unsheathed;
replaced by rootless fruit
of earth. Oak and beech
suspire and sing
a bitter psalm of stone.
Too early for dew, the Sun
garlanded in frosted mizzlemist,
Sends the briefest scintilla
to trace the blue hour,
as processors slow-slip
through the lithic forest’s
long winter shadows.
Wheeling as their voices keen
a bitter psalm of stone.
Exultant laity shouts
an epileptic canticle
as wind sheared wheat
rattles an indolent protest,
drowned in hammerfire
and brutish duther.
Its slack maraca
a bitter psalm of stone.
The human response to something that is amorphous and intangible is to attempt tp categorise, ritualise and fetishise it; to attempt to impose order on that which is chaotic by nature and unorderable by virtue of the numbers of participants and their egos. For example in Christianity and many of the modern Pagan belief systems, participants seek to create sacred space by effectively creating a virginal and temporary new universe devoid of chaos; it’s state of ‘purity’ being seen as worthy of visitation by the divine or infernal, ritualising and fetishising a series of gestures and tones. Both belief systems involve representations of the fundamental classical elements of Air, (bell) Earth (Small dish of soil/congregation), Fire (candles), Water (small dish of water/font) and Spirit/ether (incense) – neo-pagans appear to be much more literal in their mysteries than High Catholics. Each artefact serves to purify its associated element and create what amounts to ‘bubble universe’; a portal to the divine that occupies both ‘real’ space’ and ‘divine’ space simultaneously.
In ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ (Peter Berger, Doubleday, 1969.) describes these symbolic universes as: ‘bodies of theoretical tradition that integrate different provinces of meaning and encompass the institutional order in a symbolic totality…symbolic processes are processes of signification that refer to realities other than those of everyday experience.’
The purpose of this liminal ritual state, ultimately, is one of illumination, integration, social cohesion and perhaps social control. By virtue of participating in the ritual, as practitioner or active observer, one receives divine or angelic wisdom and once illumination has been achieved, the portal/bubble universe/liminal space is closed down and returned to non-liminal status. ‘For the religious person the experience of such space is primordial, equivalent perhaps to an experience of the founding of the world and it follows that making of sacred objects and sacred buildings (and in some cultures that includes virtually all buildings) is not a task to be taken lightly but involves a profound and total commitment.’ Relph, 1976, p15.
Thus ritual and liminal space temporarily occupies both spatial and temporal space and creating patterns and ritually significant systems and structures throughout ‘existential space,’ that it both community space (villages, towns, houses, etc) and as well as ritual and magical landscape.
‘Human intention inscribes itself on the earth’ Dardel 1957
Nowhere is this more obvious, and literal, than in ‘ritual landscapes.’ Whether this is the pre-Columbian lines at Nazca, Peru that contain representations of geometric shapes and flora and fauna; or the megalithic structures, and the surrounding landscapes, of Europe.
Avebury consists of a stone circle atop an earthwork henge. Within the circle are two further rings of stones. Outside of the henge, there are two ‘processional’ avenues, lined by stones, that lead into the heart of the circle.
However, a sacred landscape is not in and of itself sacred. It takes the presence of people to bring a state of sacredness. In Eliade’s words, ‘For religious man, space is not homogeneous’; rather, ‘some parts of space are qualitatively different from others’ (1959:20)
In terms of liminality, the landscape has essentially been removed from the mundane and elevated to a ‘pre-divine’ status, awaiting the arrival of the participants to complete the human/divine circuit and make it wholly divine. Sacred sites, therefore, are those places where the divine breaks through into the human world, manifesting in the form expected and pre-ordained by the participants.
Repetition of these actions over time gives the site a history of divinity and therefore it acquires a ‘special’ status. The spatial and gestural symbolism can then be passed on as symbolic meaning.
‘Every sacred space implies a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred that results in detaching a territory from the surrounding cosmic milieu and making it qualitatively different… (Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane.1959:20)
There is overwhelming evidence to support that the ritual site of Avebury was not built as a single project. Much like Stonehenge, it was built over time, starting as a small site and growing over a period of around fifteen hundred years as needs differed. At the beginning of its life, the Avebury monument was likely to be contained within a small grove and may have been no more than a meeting place within Southern England’s deciduous forests. The construction of these sites and the changes that occur in the landscapes – including a massive programme of deforestation in order to actualise the growing adherence to a culture of farming – not only changed the physical landscape but also the psyches of those who constructed and worshiped at the sites.
William Stukely (1687-1765), an early antiquarian and described by Terrence Meaden in ‘The Secrets of the Avebury Stones’ as ‘Britain’s most observant field archaeologist’ visited Avebury every year between 1719 and 1724, making sketches and notes that have proved to be immensely valuable in understanding the nature of the landscape. Once his attempts to syncretise the structure with his Biblical obsession are discarded, his theories about the positions of missing stones and missing features have proven largely to be correct. Remains of a second avenue of stones – the Beckhampton Avenue postulated by Stukely in 1743 – was found as recently as 1999.
The structure was thought to add some validity to his assertions that the complex arrangement of earthworks, barrows, an artificial hill at Silbury and the circle itself is a bronze age depiction of the ‘Solar Serpent,’ a popular symbol of early religions that include Apep from the Egyptian Myths and Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl of the Mesoamerican stories. This theory, though intriguing has proven to be incorrect and yet many neo-pagans turn up to the site on quarter days to revere the serpent that does not exist. And quoting directly from Stukely’s disproved works. This in itself is a form of psychological liminality, impressing Stukely’s Christian Beliefs on a structure built in pre-christian times.
Christianity also played its part in the destruction of the circle. Stukely produced hundreds of line drawings and paintings of the circle and its inhabitants. Several of these works clearly show megaliths being destroyed with fires and sledgehammers. His drawings also indicate the presence of many other stones that have since disappeared. Some stones were buried as part of an annual festival, under guidance from the church, who were attempting to eradicate pagan beliefs, others were shattered and used to make drystone walls or to pebbledash buildings in the village that had grown within the circle – an act that confuses sacred and mundane space. The lack of understanding by the inhabitants leading, in some catastrophic cases, to a stone being chosen to be broken up and buried. Latterly concrete markers installed to represent fallen, buried or demolished stones have been ‘dressed’ during solstice and equinox celebrations. Whether this counts as post-modern ritual or a fundamental misunderstanding of the age and makeup of the stones is not clear but these myths of place are contrasted against one other and juxtaposed or subsumed which leads to demarcating various ‘zones’ within ritual space; the sacred and the profane. Sacred space is produced by the treatment of the landscape and the landscape’s effect on the users, the psychology of the inhabitants and builders, and the morality – forced by doctrine or otherwise – of social groups and the progression from history.
Ironic then, that a noted place of ritual becomes dismantled by a superseding ritual. Even stranger was a later ritual of ‘restanding’ the buried stones. Presumably, Avebury and other ritual landscapes were constructed to conform to basic human psychology and understanding of what makes a sacred space. While I may scoff at their lack of historical knowledge, does it actually matter? If acolytes come who have no understanding of the religion that created it, would they not be subject to the same psychological influences, even if unaware of the origins? Isn’t this behaviour the same kind of ritualising as those who destroyed and rebuilt the stones? Are their actions any less spiritually relevant? Does the power of belief win over the anthropological or religious or historical accuracy?
Sociologist Rob Shields calls the phenomenon of overlaying one reality onto another ‘social spatialization,’ or the act of fixing cultural values and important social meanings in place, and allowing for change over time. Each new iteration of myth building, along with the associated changes in ritual, landscape, practices and society, feeds into a rich topography ripe for exploration. He clarifies this by saying ‘I use the term social spatialization to designate the ongoing social construction of the spatial at the level of the social imaginary (collective mythologies, presuppositions)as well as interventions in the landscape (the built environment) … Social spatialization is thus a rubric under which currently separated objects of investigation will be brought together to demonstrate their interconnectedness and co-ordinated nature.
Like the teacher who told me that Stonehenge was built by Druids and the concrete dressers, the history is not as important as the belief; the belief that makes the space both liminal but solid and most importantly real to them. Like Milbury being my template for a real place, that space is every bit as real for me as the real village of Avebury. Social spatialization specializes in spaces that exist in the imagination as much as they exist as a physical ‘real’ space and treats them with equal value.
The sun had chased the rainclouds in the direction of Swindon and the last vestiges of the night’s saturation rose, reclaimed by the sky. The Manor House gardens, strewn with bumptious peacocks, hosted a café/restaurant called ‘Stones’ and we used the last of our money to buy something warm to eat, sharing a single plate of food. The events of the previous thirty-six hours were beginning to catch up with us and we both looked and felt tired and unwell. While discussing the events of the previous thirty-six hours and the plans to get home again, a lady on the next table – tie-dyed tee-shirt, cowrie shells woven into her hair and the heavy scent of patchouli oil – leaned over and said ‘You’ve had quite and adventure, haven’t you?’
We smiled and agreed that we had been on quite the journey.
‘Did you learn what you needed to learn?’ she asked.
‘Well, you came here for a reason, didn’t you?’
‘Did you find what you were looking for?’
I thought about the stones that were missing, the carving that didn’t exist, the disappointment I felt at their absence and said ‘No, I don’t think so.’
She gave a beatific smile and said, ‘Are you sure?’
‘None of things I really wanted to see were here,’ I said.
‘Are you sure you were in the right place?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. What I really wanted to see was Milbury, a fictional place overlaid onto Avebury for the purposes of storytelling. Reluctantly, I agreed that no, Avebury was, in fact, not where I wanted to be.
‘So, you could say that you’ve learned the truth of the place?’
‘Maybe. A truth, certainly.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ she grinned.
Modern archaeology appears, from observing many TV documentaries, to default at ‘ritual space’ on newly discovered buried buildings, until another ‘correct’ conclusion can be reached. To anthropomorphise for a moment, it’s almost as if the stones, having been made for ritual, are demanding further ritual from later inhabitants.
The landscape; the stones; they store stories.
In a symbolic universe where temporal spatial and psychological space have no boundaries, all one can rely on is one’s own experience. As such quantitative and qualitative analysis is largely moot as the experience relies on a set of unique hopes, frustrations, anticipations, confusions and fears. Transformation, the primary function of liminal space, can only happen when one ‘lets go’ of the mundane or profane world, when we relinquish all control and partake in the mysteries offered by sacred space.
This liminal divine state is subject to many interpretations and assertions that often contradict one another. This is particularly noticeable within the neo-pagan tradition, with the sheer volume of ‘How To be a Witch,’ books, each describing the ‘correct’ way to inscribe magical space and the ‘correct’ incantations; all of which differ wildly but to, one assumes, the same end. Christianity took steps to avoid the discrepancies between cults but as yet there has been no ‘Council of Nicaea’ to create (and undoubtedly deviate from) a uniform pagan doctrine. A famous adage within the pagan community runs ‘Four pagans = five opinions.
We spent another hour or so talking and laughing with the woman with cowries in her hair before she stood up abruptly and announced that she had to get home.
‘I can take you to the start of the M1 if you like. After that you’re on your own.’
‘You don’t live here?’ asked Evan.
‘I don’t think anyone really lives here,’ she said, ‘It’s mostly holiday lets, second homes, camp sites. Or day-trippers, like me.’
We thanked her for her offer, relieved that the first part of our journey home would be effortless. With renewed energy, we grabbed our stuff together and threw it into her VW microbus. It had to be a VW Microbus. The journey was pleasant but uneventful and after we said our goodbyes and thanks, we were left at Hemel Hempstead services to find our way home.
What interested me most about Children of the Stones is the terrifying rite of passage that very much adheres to Van Gennep’s three-part outline but presents the outcome as a terrifying loss of individuality. The villagers of Milbury lives quite normal lives until Hendrick buys the Manor. Each family within the village is invited to dinner (Rite of Separation) and relieved of their sin through a ritual that involves ley line energy and a handy black hole aligned directly above the stone circle. In a blaze of light, all negativity is stripped away and they become perfect citizens or ‘Happy Ones’ as the protagonist calls them. Post-ritual, the newly ‘happy-ed’ family meet the rest of the villagers who are waiting on the green to take them into their new life (Rite of Incorporation.)
I wondered whether I had participated in my own rite of passage on this visit. I had left my normal life, discarded part of my childhood and found a truth that I could take into the world, an understanding of duality. Entering the circle had become my Chapel Perilous. Leaving it, I was different. The elements were there as were the ritual magic elements from Wilsons model.
Evan preferred to think of it as a manifestation of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey.’
It wasn’t something I was familiar with. Evan tutted before explaining the theory. I was too tired to take it all it.
‘Look,’ he said, as cars and lorries passed us on the slipway, ‘we went on a quest. We found what we were looking for, but it was a disappointment. We lost faith and someone came to guide us on the way to enlightenment. We passed through trials and came out on top.’
‘And that makes us heroes?’
Evan thought for a moment.
‘Yes. In a small way, it does.’
‘Legends in our own lunchtime,’ I said, in a tone that could curdle milk.
Evan smiled. ‘You really need to sleep, don’t you?’
I gave a half-hearted smile back as a lorry pulled up. The driver signalled for us to open the cab door.
‘I’m going to Leeds,’ he said, ‘I can stop anywhere on the motorway for you.’
‘We’re going to Sheffield’, said Evan.
‘Hop in,’ he replied.
The next thing I remember is waking up at home, Evan asleep on the sofa. I made coffee for us both and, having showered and put on clean clothes, walked out into a new world.