I went to Stonehenge yesterday, on the basis that I’d never properly visited it, and a bunch of my friends were going. I’ve technically already seen the stones when passing by on the road, and in restrospect going to see the site in person isn’t worth much more than the view you get from a car’s passenger seat. For the £13 entrance fee (student price, normal fee is more) you get access to the field where the stones are, but it’s more of a tourist attraction than anywhere of any special cultural interest.
There’s a subtle internal contradiction between the role of English Heritage in preserving/protecting ancient sites, and its aim to promote them by turning them into theme parks. The fields around the stones are National Trust land, but there’s nothing stopping ordinary members of the public from wandering into those fields and admiring the stones from behind the fence or from the road.
It’s also clear that the tourists have no interest seeing the various burial mounds which are dotted around Stonehenge. We walked a short while out to the King Barrow Ridge, which gave an fine view over the surrounding area, and we were completely alone there despite hundreds of tourists being bussed into the site just across the field.
And here’s an obligatory photo along with the stones:
On the way out we were funneled through a gift shop, some people tried to walk out a different way but they were intercepted by attendants. In the shop there was a t-shirt which had written on it ‘Stonehenge rocks’. You see, because stonehenge is rocks. Rocks! Like rock music…
I do still believe in the idea of Neopagan society as an alternative civilisational project which lies dormant beneath ‘Christendom.’ Before going back to the train station we walked through Salisbury to the cathedral and it’s useful to compare it with Stonehenge: On one side the stone circle sits comfortably within its natural environment, its spiritualism remains slightly abstract with no markings on the stones and no holy text to explain what they mean; the people buried there must have been important, but it’s difficult to place them in an organised state or class structure. On the other side the cathedral literally towers above the landsape, it holds the Magna Carta along with the tombs of politicians and aristocrats, statues of powerful men are carved into its walls.
Both monuments really do reflect the societies which built them. One is simple and organic, the other modern and complex. So in today’s modern and complex society I think there is still much to copy about the old ways. I don’t mean this in terms of copying ancient lifestyles, nobody wants to live in a mud hut.
What I mean is that the modern reinterpretation of paganism ascribes a humanist dimension to it. It goes beyond a spiritual belief to encompass a strong environmentalism and a vague sense of social justice. Insofar as religion can be political, neopaganism has a progressive character. It reflects a particularly egalitarian vision of pre-capitalist Britain.
Other religions spill over like this too; Protestant Christianity fostered early capitalism in Europe, and Islam also includes a set of instructions on science and the economy.
More broadly the attempt to reclaim Paganism fits into a number of different movements to reclaim national culture in England, there’s the Ramblers’ Association, the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, the Campaign for Real Ale, the celebrations of the Levellers, the Diggers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs. There’s a progressive trend running through all these which ties them together, and Stonehenge is part of that.