Pagans Receive Support In Battle Over Stonehenge
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PAGANS GET SUPPORT IN BATTLE OVER STONEHENGE
By Hillary Mayell
National Geographic News
October 31, 2002
Pagans, Druids, and Travelers in the United Kingdom are demanding some
respect, and it looks like they may be on their way to getting some.
Researchers studying the conflict over access to ancient sites such as
Stonehenge, a circle of stones built around 2300 B.C., have concluded that
"alternative site users" should be given a larger role in making decisions
about how such monuments are used and managed.
"Contemporary Pagan interests are no less and no more valid than those of
archaeologists, preservationists, or the general public," said Robert
Wallis, an archaeologist at American University in London and co-author of
Adherents of Paganism, who include Druids, Wiccans, Witches, Heathens, and
others, conjure up images of people in dark hooded robes performing scary
rituals. But Pagans are a fast-growing sector of post-modern Britain and can
be found throughout society, the researchers say (see below for more
"They come from all walks of life," said Wallis. "There is tremendous
diversity among the groups. Many of the beliefs and practices of today's
Druids and Pagans draw on the early indigenous religions of the British
Celebration and Preservation
Stonehenge has been the most visible battleground in the clash over
competing interests of various groups.
Archaeologists and conservationists regard Stonehenge and similar sites as
archaeological treasures to be protected and preserved. Pagans, Druids, and
other users like them view it differently.
"We see Stonehenge more as a temple than as a monument," said Arthur
Pendragon, a Druid leader. "Instead of wrapping it up in cotton wool, we see
it as a living landscape, to be used to celebrate the seasons and quarter
days [solstices and equinoxes]. Druids want to use sacred sites as they were
Wallis and co-author Jenny Blain, an anthropologist at Sheffield Hallam
University (SHU), argue that including Pagans and others who want to use the
site for spiritual reasons will benefit the public and the monuments
The study, Sacred Sites, Contested Rites/Rights, was funded by the Human
Rights Research Centre at SHU and is continuing under a research grant from
the Economic and Social Research Council.
The authors say Pagans, Druids, and other groups like them labor under two
clouds in their efforts to gain standing in the decision-making process.
The first problem is the groups' reputation. Largely as the result of media
coverage, say the authors, the groups are frequently considered hippies,
druggies, and crazies -- people operating on the fringes of society.
In addition, those who favor using the ancient monuments for spiritual
purposes have been blamed -- unjustly, according to the study -- for past
damage at many of the sites.
The celebration of the summer solstice at Stonehenge is a particularly
powerful draw among Pagans and has been a focal point of controversy in the
Celebrations were held there as long as 10,000 years ago. The site's Stone
Circle was erected around 2300 B.C. and is built so that the stones are
aligned with the first rays of light from the solstice sunrise. Contemporary
Pagans believe the summer solstice carries deep mystical and religious
significance, and want to continue ancestral forms of celebration at what
they consider to be a sacred site.
From 1972 until 1985, the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge were often
raucous free festivals, rife with drugs, alcohol, and celebrants climbing
and defacing the stones. English Heritage, the government entity responsible
for the site, banned all solstice celebrations in 1985 after an inflammatory
confrontation between celebrants and police that came to be known as the
Battle of Beanfield, for the place where it occurred.
The 15-year ban was lifted in 2000 and open solstice celebrations have been
held at the ancient monument for the last three years. Despite increasing
numbers -- English Heritage estimates that up to 20,000 celebrants attended
the summer solstice this past June -- the occasions have been peaceful, said
"A substantial amount of work has gone into making it that way, with many
people within Pagan and Traveler communities acting as stewards, publicizing
the reasons for 'rules' and so on," she said.
Struggle for Standing
Including alternative users of monuments such as Stonehenge in the
management process will ultimately benefit the sites themselves, the
While Stonehenge is the best known sacred site in Great Britain, there are
hundreds more that also are attracting increasing numbers of celebrants, and
most of these sites are open to use by anyone, said Blain.
In northern England, Pagan groups protesting the threat of quarrying have
set up camp on Stanton Moor to protect an ancient stone circle known as the
Nine Ladies, Blain noted. "There are basically good relations between the
camp and the local heritage management people," she said. "It's an example
where Pagan and heritage interests largely coincide to attempt to protect
The Ancient Sacred Landscapes Network, a Pagan coalition formed in 1998 to
act as guardians of ancient monuments and sites, has organized litter
clean-ups, campaigned for better maintenance of the sites, and worked hard
to promulgate a "leave no trace" ethic among worshippers.
In the last several years, the many groups involved in the issue --
including English Heritage, landowners, Pagans, and local authorities --
have engaged in numerous discussions with one another.
Still, the disparity in views is wide.
"English Heritage views its responsibility as a need to protect the
monument, maintaining it as a relic of the past, of some bygone age," said
Pendragon. "They've gotten bogged down with this view that Stonehenge should
be maintained in the condition it was in 40 some years ago when it first
came under their protection, which is really quite arbitrary."
He added: "I think there would be no better testament than the rebuilding of
it, putting the stones back up and restoring it to its former glory. No one
argued about the restoration of Windsor Palace when it burned down, saying
that the fire is history and therefore the palace must be left as is. Of
course, that [view] is very controversial with the archaeologists."
Yet in terms of mutual respect, he said, "it's definitely been getting
better; much better."
Just as Christianity has different expressions of worship -- Catholic,
Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and so on -- Paganism has different
strands. Groups known as Wiccans, Druids, Shamans, Sacred Ecologists, and
Heathens are all part of the Pagan community.
What unites these different Pagan groups, for the most part, are deep ties
to nature and the worship of multiple deities, both goddesses and gods.
The Pagan Federation lists three guiding principles that define modern-day
- Love for and kinship with nature. Reverence for the life force and its
ever-renewing cycles of life and death.
- A positive morality, in which individuals are responsible for discovering
and developing their true nature in harmony with the outer world and larger
community. This is often expressed as: Do what you will, as long as it harms
- Recognition of the divine, which transcends gender, acknowledging both
the female and male aspects of a deity.
There are no official figures on the number of practicing Pagans in the
United Kingdom, but the Pagan Federation estimates there are about 200,000.
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