Stonehenge, a cosmic temple
The two kinds of stone
As the rough stone is transformed into a cut one, the being is transfigured through an initiation process. The initiation consists essentially in purification rites destined to strip the being from his present state to allow him to reach a superior one.
No doubt that stone cutters were initiated and had a special stature in the Neolithic society. Stone cutting helped them to reach higher states of being and higher states let them improve their technique.
From a general point of view, the upright stone symbolizes all the possible being's states from the terrestrial or physical states to the celestial or spiritual ones.
- The sarsen gateway is composed of two upright stones topped by a lintel that characterizes the passage, the process of transformation of the being from a state of being to another;
- The upright blue stone describes the realization of the being after transformation. Besides, it is not by chance that blue stones are located inside the sarsen circle and the arc of trilithons. They symbolize the beings that have already crossed the gateway and attained higher states.
We therefore understand why the master-builders of Stonehenge have used two kinds of stones to make all the difference between transformation and realization, between called and chosen beings.
Moreover, it is no more by chance that sarsen stones are probably originating from a forest, the place of initiation of “carpenters”. Besides, the Stonehenge builders used the carpenter's technique to make the structure stable. As for the blue stones, is it by chance that they most probably come from a mountainous region, an elevation symbol towards Heaven and superior states ? All these stones were undeniably impregnated by the spirit of the places of their origin and destined to fulfil a related function.
Of course, it would have been simpler to say that the blue stones were coming from a previous construction stage and the huge sarsen blocks from the only place they could have been extracted from. However, this does not explain why the builders needed to use such huge blocks of stone.
We are confronted here by a significant feature, which we will highlight throughout our discovery of Stonehenge. The essential is not in the most impressive (sarsen blocks), but in the less imposing (blue stones). In fact, the master-builders of Stonehenge did not want to divulge the meaning of the construction to the outer world, but reserve it for initiates only.
In addition, we observe that symbolic and factual explanations are complementing rather than opposing each other.
The two privileged accessing paths
The construction structure incites us to take the symmetrical axis, oriented northeast-southwest, to approach the building centre. This axis represents one of the diagonal of the “solstitial rectangle” determined by the sunrise and sunset position at the solstices and function of Stonehenge latitude (φ = 51.2°) 1.
The directions linking the centre of the structure to the solstice and compass points draw four axes around which Stonehenge was constructed. The solstitial axes are to the temporal order what the compass points axes are to the spatial order. The sunrise and sunset cycle is associated with south at summer solstice and with north at winter solstice.
In this passage from an order to another, the sunrise and sunset cycle is transformed into a point and time into an immutable instant or eternity. As we will see later, the passage from the northeast-southwest to the south-north axis means to surpass the human states to attain the supra-human ones. In other words, the northeast-southwest axis is subordinated to the south-north one.
The being taking the northeast-southwest axis at summer solstice will have his back to the structure to watch the sunrise. On the contrary, the being taking the same axis at winter solstice will be able to watch the sunset straight ahead. It follows that the individual who wants to watch the summer solstice sunrise is invited to rejoin the outer world. Do the crowds pressing around Stonehenge today to celebrate the summer solstice not rejoin their home next ? On the other hand, the being facing the structure to watch the winter solstice sunset is called to dive into the night depths. In the first case, the being rediscovers his ordinary state; in the second, he opens himself to the night mysteries to rise towards superior states. This movement is in accordance with the annual cycle of the sun. Indeed, summer solstice corresponds to the start of the descending phase of the sun towards the south celestial pole whereas winter solstice is associated with the beginning of the ascending phase of the sun towards the north celestial pole (for more details on this point, see the description of the celestial sphere). A similar correspondence exists with the monthly cycle of the waxing and waning moon.
After having been embraced by the night mysteries, the postulant could follow his initiatory voyage using another access. In fact, the sarsen circle includes in its southern part an upright stone lower than all the others, apparently intact and, consequently, unable to support lintels. It must have corresponded to another access alongside a south-north axis. Here again, the individual facing south, i.e. looking in the direction of the noon sun, had his back to the structure and was sent back to the outer world. On the other hand, the being who looked towards north (during a moonless night maybe), towards the “midnight sun” could either follow his route towards the centre of the structure or leave the horizontal plan proper to the sunset and raise his eyes at the vertical towards the starry sky. His look must have then stared at the polar star or north celestial pole, i.e. the motionless point around which stars and “wanderings” are turning, the centre of the cosmic wheel, the centre of the celestial wheel that finds its reflection into the centre of the terrestrial circular structure.
Note that beings following both northeast-southwest and south-north axes met only one gateway on the way towards the centre of the structure. The northeast-southwest axis crosses a gateway of the sarsen circle leading to the intermediary zone of the human states. The south-north axis goes through a trilithon giving access to the central zone of the supra-human states. The narrow passage left between both pillars of the trilithon does nothing but underline the great difficulty of attaining the spiritual states, ultimate step of initiation probably reserved for a very restricted number of postulants. A difficulty that found an echo in the narrow gate, the hole of the needle according to the Gospel: “I say it to you again, it is easier for a camel to pass through the hole of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Saint Matthew XIX.24).
The solstice celebration
In Briton's societies at the end of the Neolithic era, the access to knowledge was reserved for the authority possessors. In order to limit its access, the master-builders of Stonehenge deliberately diverted looks from the essential towards the apparent:
- The sunrise was masking the sunset;
- Sun and daylight were masking night and polar star;
- The northeast-southwest axis was masking the south-north axis;
- The horizontal plan was masking the vertical axis;
- And so on.
The north celestial pole depicts the undifferentiated Principle beyond any duality, any distinction between sunrise and sunset, day and night, clarity and obscurity etc. It symbolizes the Unity that governs the world, the immutable Principle at the source of the manifestation of all beings and things. Returning towards the Principle, which has given birth to us from the deep night, always constituted the ultimate goal of genuine spiritual traditions. The path to reach it went through the initiation to the mysteries of the world beyond.
The return paths to the origins have been perpetuated through the times and found an echo with the Roman god of initiation, Janus. He was the custodian of the gates of summer and winter solstices, giving respectively access to the little mysteries (realization of the fullness of human states) and the great mysteries (realization of the fullness of supra-human or spiritual states). Janus was usually represented by a being with a double face, one turning towards sunrise, the other towards sunset. Nevertheless, beyond the duality which is appearance only, he was equally endowed with a third invisible face including the two visible ones. This third face symbolized the Unity that surpasses oppositions and seizes the world in its totality.
The two northeast-southwest and south-north axes, related to the initiation to mysteries, privileged west and north in comparison with east and south. In other words, the night world took over the daylight one. The being could only discover the true knowledge, the light within the darkness depths. He firstly had to die in his present state of being before his re-birth into a superior state, i.e. he had to exhaust all the possibilities linked to his preceding state to be able to develop the possibilities of the following one.
The initiatory re-birth of the being most probably took place during the winter solstice period, i.e. the beginning of the sun ascension towards the north celestial pole. Its celebration was very likely set up according to a calendar based on the combination of sun and moon cycles and maybe inscribed within the building structure. The celebration period must have just as well opened the way to the realization of human as supra-human states. This let us think about the existence of a highly hierarchic society, where the different structure circles gathered the beings together according to their degree of knowledge. The two preceding axes constituted channels of communication between the supreme degree and the other degrees; he was trustee of the traditional doctrine and standing at the centre of the structure.
As for the ordinary beings, they must have stood outside the structure, of the sarsen circle at least, to admire the sunrise at summer solstice. As beings of the dawn and daylight, they opened their mind to the outer rather than the inner light, to the visible rather than the invisible world, to the world diversity rather than its Unity. Trapped by the wheel of time, they could not reach the motionless centre, symbol of eternity.
Only beings of twilight and night were able to communicate with the invisible world. During the winter solstice celebration, fire certainly played an important role. Indeed, if the outer flame lights the terrestrial darkness, synonym of ignorance, it also goes up towards the celestial heights, the world of spirits, of the true knowledge. A knowledge only accessible to beings ready to let their present state die and to be re-born into higher states. The celebration of the night world, of the initiatory death and re-birth at winter solstice must also have been a period of communication with the world of dead and divinities living in it.
Having reached this stage, it would be easy to draw a parallel with what we know about the Celtic tradition at the risk of building up quite another story... It would be more appropriate to be interested in populations prior to the construction of Stonehenge.
- Christopher Chippindale:
- “Stonehenge Complete”. Thames & Hudson Publisher, new and expanded edition 2004.
- Realization of a Mike Pitts' project:
- “Rebuilding Stonehenge”. A film by Pati Marr, Johanna Schwartz and Bruce Hepton, United Kingdom 2005.
- Realization of a project by Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright:
- “Stonehenge - The Healing Stones”. A film by David Stewart, United Kingdom 2008.
- Realization of a Mike Parker Pearson's project:
- “Stonehenge decoded”. A film by Christopher Spencer, National Geographic 2008.
- “The secret of Stonehenge”. A documentaire by Andra Heritage, 2017.
- René Guénon:
- “Symbols of Sacred Science”, Sophia Perennis Publisher 2004;
- Notably, chapters 10 on “the Druidic triple enclosure” and 35 on “the solstitial gates”.
1 back In fact, at the solstitial sunrise and sunset, the angle formed by one of the diagonal of the solstitial rectangle and the south-north direction can be determined from the following formula (see the position on the celestial sphere):
cos a = - sin (δ)/cos(φ)
Where δ = ±23.5° at the solstices, that is:
a = cos-1 [sin(23.5°)/cos(51.2°)] = 50.5°
It follows that both solstitial axes make an angle of 2×(90°-50.5°) = 79°.
Furthermore, the discovery, in 2008, of natural furrows dug at the ice age and oriented according to the winter solstice sunset, could explain the choice of the place for the construction of the site at the neolithic period.