Today is the autumn equinox, when day and night are equal in length, at one time considered an event worthy of note. Certain groups still observe the occasion, notably, the druids of England. Their preferred venue is, of course, the grand-daddy of prehistoric observatories, Stonehenge.
These groups refer to themselves as Druids, and I did not realize until I read the Wall Street Journal’s coverage yesterday of a recent controversy (about which, more later) how many druid groups are active in England right now. The article mentions two (The Loyal Arthurian Warband Order, and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) along with an Archdruid of Stonehenge and Britain, and the Council of British Druid Orders. which lists sixteen member groups, and references a couple of others. These groups are seeking to reclaim a heritage of nature-based worship disrupted almost two millennia ago by the Roman invasion of England.
In general, so long as that worship does not impede the rights of others, I think people should be allowed to pursue whatever religion feels nearest their soul (or whatever conception thereof they might hold). I have a number of friends who are pagans of various ilks, but the one proclaimed druid I met locally did not leave a very positive impression as a spiritual person. Still, I was a bit surprised to find druid organizations proliferating to such a great degree. Perhaps the call to protect the environment in general has encouraged this growth, along with a feeling of connection to the land.
Most of the evidence we have for a history of druidism and the practices that might have been used comes from the Romans themselves, who were hardly an objective source (rather like citing inquisitorial documents to research the beliefs and practices of witches). During the 18th and 19th century, there was a vogue for revivals of old-time religion, and much of what is claimed on behalf of many neo-pagan religions is actually born from that enthusiasm, rather than from an earlier history of belief.
The other source we have, is, of course, the archaeological record. As you know, I’m very keen on material culture: the physical evidence of what people make and do, where they go, how they use what they had and the places they lived. Archaeologists are adding to our understanding of prehistoric Britain all the time. Both the English Heritage magazine and Smithsonian magazine included coverage this month of the recent ground-penetrating radar survey of the Stonehenge landscape.
Which brings me to the controversy mentioned earlier. It seems that Arthur Pendragon (yes, that’s his legal name) the leader of the Loyal Arthurian Warband, is aasserting the historical custom of his group to park their transportation on a dirt track near the Stonehenge circle itself when they visit or perform rituals there. In particular, Pendragon’s motorcyle. English Heritage has spent a good deal of time and money in the last few years building a new visitor’ center and car park, and getting a highway moved to better preserve the landscape, and the experience of the landscape for visitors. Pendragon accuses them of wanting the druids to use the carpark mainly so that English Heritage can get their five bob parking fee.
But if you look at the history of use, the archaeological evidence tells us that people using the circle did, in fact, park themselves (their houses and workshops) at a distance from the circle and walk there. So an argument can certainly be made that the present-day druids be willing to do the same thing. After all, it’s about the sacred landscape, right? The walk to the circle was likely part of the ritual for many years and some types of observances. But probably not for everything. Sometimes, in contemporary religious observance, you just want to pay a quick call and be on about your day. Still, as a non-religious visitor to Stonehenge, I certainly applaud the effort to restore the site to a more prehistoric impression, and allowing motorcycle parking adjacent to the circle would spoil it.
I propose that, just like many churches have special parking areas set aside for the celebrants, English Heritage should consider setting aside a few parking places for druids (possibly via a placard system, or simply by confirming plate numbers of registered celebrants) who would not have to pay the fee to visit their sacred space.
English Heritage makes money, sure. And what they do with that money is attempt to preserve the history of the nation for future generations, including the generations of druids that will hopefully follow upon this one. It seems to me that the preservation of the Stonehenge landscape is one goal that all of those groups could agree on.