Proud to be a Neanderthal

1992 PortraitHomo Sapiens is currently the dominant human species on earth. This was, however, not always the case. For 200,000 years our closest cousins, the Neanderthal, dominated Europe.

Back in 1993 I backpacked around China and visited the historical city of Xian. I shared a dorm with an Australian who introduced herself as being an archaeologist. We needed to get some passport photographs and when she saw mine exclaimed:

Neanderthal!

You might think I was insulted, but in fact I am proud to be associated with the earliest Europeans. For most people, when we say Neanderthal we think about brutish creatures, somewhere between apes and humans; dragging their wives by the hair into their cave and beating other males with a club,

Anthropologist John Hawks believes that we should give them a bit more credit. Neanderthal humans were not as primitive as the popular image might suggest. They had the same brain size as us, but smaller bodies. Archaeological evidence points towards a sophisticated culture. Manganese oxide rocks with artificial wear and tear found in caves in Europe point towards art, as this material can be used as a pigment. Also, Neanderthal stone tools were no less advanced then the tools made by the Homo Sapiens. This shows that our evolutionary cousins were not primitive sub-humans, but capable of abstract thought.

Erik Trinkaus argues that early European humans exhibit morphological aspects that are distinctive Neanderthal traits. There are also some indications in genetic material found in the archaeological record. Some scientists have posited a hyberdisation of early Homo Sapiens with Neanderthal. The interbreeding between these two species of man could have accelerated evolution as diversity is the engine of natural selection. Scientists of have even suggested that the ability to use language was passed on from Neanderthal to modern Homo Sapiens. Based on this scientific evidence, I can say that:

I am proud to be a Neanderthal.

Why I am not an Australian

Australia is a rather strange country in that on the one hand it is quite hard to obtain a residency permit, but once you are in the country the government actively advertises to convince people to become Australian citizens. This is the only country I have lived in where there is ‘moral pressure’ on people to take on citizenship. Quite a few people ask me why I don’t want to be an Australian.

First of all, I do not want to be subjected to compulsory voting. Although I do believe that voting is a great good and if I could I would, compulsory voting actually reduces the quality of democracy. People have no reason to really care about politics, it is just something you do. I have read somewhere that only 75% of the votes are valid, so what is the point of forcing people?

Besides compulsory voting, the quality of political debate in Australian politics is very low. Now political debate is not very enlightening in most cases, but in my experience, Australian politicians are champions at producing meaningless drivel. The rhetoric is so thick it can be cut with a knife.

I am not sure whether the political parties think Australians are actually that stupid, or whether interest in politics is so low that nobody really cares what politicians say.

The campaign is aimed at explaining people why not to vote for the other. Also, for a country that voted against becoming a republic this election is very presidential. The debate is pitched as a choice between Kevin Rudd and John Howard, not between liberal and socialistic ideals.

Furthermore, the Australian system prevents small parties from being able to have a say in parliament. It is very unlikely that the Greens will ever have a fair number of seats, so Australian governments will always be a ping pong between Labour and Liberals. This is not good because the two party system severely limits the richness of the political debate.

The current election circus shows that there is no clear policy from either party. Policy making s a reactive contest, trying to outsmart each other with on the run populist options.

Why should I choose to become actively involved in a system I do not support?

Now I am not saying that the Netherlands is a perfect country, but it is the place of my birth and therefore my default citizenship.

Besides my disagreement with the Australian political system there are other reasons, such as jury duty and my emotional binding with the country I grew up in, not to become an Australian. This could be a topic for the future.

Larapinta Dreaming—Australian Aboriginal Art of the Central Desert

Larapinta Dreaming

Marylin Armstrong, Larapinta Dreaming, acryl on canvas (63 x 41 cm). Private collection.

Australian Aboriginal art is one of the oldest art traditions in existence. The Australian continent was populated about 50,000 years ago by the ancestors of today’s Aborigines. The culture of the Aborigines is in many respects unique in that until the nineteenth century they had  very limited contact with cultures outside Australia.1 One of the most striking manifestations of contemporary Aboriginal culture of the central desert area are the iconic dot-paintings, a distinctive style of painting in which an ancient art form is expressed with modern materials and in a modern context.

Aboriginal culture was, before colonial times, largely determined by the natural environment in which they lived. Material culture was limited to simple practical and ritual objects.; spears, baskets, shields, ritual and ceremonial poles were all adorned with culturally specific patterns. Aboriginal artists were strictly tied to the tradition in which they lived and their creativity was bound by conservative traditions and rules.2 The art was expressed using materials naturally available, such as rocks, sand, wood, bark, beeswax, reeds and the human body, including blood. The people of the central Australian deserts expressed their art predominantly in temporary sand drawings, body painting and more enduring rock paintings and engravings.3

The culture of the Aborigines traditionally revolves around what is commonly known as the Dreamtime. This is an primordial mythological period which is the source of all social, legal, practical and metaphysical knowledge. The Dreamtime is transferred from one generation to the next by using landscape related stories called Dreamings. These stories are passed from father to son and from mother to daughter and each story is managed by an individual or by clan groups. Most stories of the Dreamtime are strictly confidential and known only to initiates of the Dreaming. Dreamings are usually stories of mythical creatures, travelling across the land. Landscapes associated with these stories are allocated to family groups and individuals.4 Each location is managed, for example through fire stick farming, by a group of men or women and only they know the esoteric meaning of the place, as expressed in the Dreaming.5

Australian Aboriginal Art

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

Tourist aboriginal art gallery in Alice Springs (Photo: Ian Watson)

The characteristic patterns of central desert Aboriginal art, such as the iconic dots and concentric circles, are a symbolic language used to propagate the stories of the Dreamtime. These symbols are related to the specific language groups and clans that create the art. The art from the central desert people is dominated by dots and geometric symbols while the art of the Arnhem Land people is more figurative enhanced with specific hatching patterns. These are not schools of artistic groups with common ideas, as is the case in Western art, but are culturally, geographically and genetically related groups of artists who draw inspiration from the same Dreamings.6

Aboriginal art is experienced in a very different way than Western painting. The biggest difference is that the traditional art is entirely utilitarian., there is no concept of art  for art’s sake in Aboriginal culture. The works are exclusively manufactured to express the stories of the Dreamtime to pass them on to future generations. Body painting is undertaken for rituals in which events from the Dreamtime are enacted. Sand Mosaics are experienced by a ritually singing and dancing through them, destroying them in the process. The painters of central Australia manufacture their contemporary works, which are  mostly derived from traditional sand mosaics, horizontally on the ground and not vertically on an easel.7 The works of Aboriginal artists in museums is, however, almost invariably displayed vertically, following the conventions of Western art. One exception is the Art Gallery of South Australia where a monumental work of Clifford Possum is exhibited horizontally.

Aboriginal art as we currently know it is fairly new and became appreciated by a wider audience in the nineteen seventies. Geoffrey Bardon, who worked as a teacher at Papunya Tula, brought this form of art to the attention of the Western world. Papunya Tula is one of many settlements for aboriginal people that were established by the Australian government in the middle of the last century. People were forcefully removed from their traditional territories and taken to the settlements. This caused tension and immense stress because the people were separated from their traditional way of life. Geoffrey Bardon observed the importance of drawings in their culture and provided the men in Papunya Tula with materials to express their traditional art with contemporary materials.8 The men painted a mural on a blank wall in the settlement which was the starting point of the now world renowned central and western desert art movement.

The use of new materials has opened up a whole new world for Aboriginal art and has become a distinctive style in the global contemporary art scene. Tradition and contemporary art are also separated in the exhibition space. Contemporary works are exhibited in art galleries while traditional works, such as baskets, boomerangs and painted objects, are exhibited in the anthropological museums. The inspiration for both is, however, the same: the stories of the Dreamtime.

A particular design can only be used by a  limited group of people, the owners of that  particular Dreaming. The designs of Aboriginal art from the Western desert are almost entirely abstract in nature and each painting has several layers of meaning.9 Aboriginal art can thus not exclusively be interpreted from an immanent perspective as the true meaning of the work lies outside the picture itself lies, i.e. is transcendent to the painting. The full meaning of the painting is always more than what can be seen on the surface. To come to the true meaning of the paintings, it must examined at different levels.

On the first level of meaning, the paintings in the western and central desert tradition are dominated by the many dots in both background and foreground. The paintings generally do not include figurative elements, but a culturally specific symbolic language of concentric circles, animal tracks and other shapes.10 The paintings from the early modern period are almost entirely abstract in nature and are close to the traditional sand mosaics  and paintings from which they are derived. The available colour range is traditionally determined by what exists in nature, mainly ochre based.11 The contemporary art of central Australia has more or less detached itself from the strict traditions and uses more colours and contains more figurative elements, as shown by the work discussed below.

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

Interpretation of Larapinta Dreaming

At the second level, the paintings depict the natural landscape that is connected with stories from the Dreamtime. Geological structures are interpreted as affected by the activities of the Dreamtime ancestors that roamed the land in primordial times.12 Sand mosaics were traditionally used to illustrate stories from the Dreamtime and were a vehicle for knowledge about the landscape and communicated the places where water and food could be found.13 Because of the limitations of drawing in sand, a rich symbolic language is used to express the Dreamings. Concentric circles represent a stone or a place where water and food can be found and with two or four U-shaped lines around it, this symbol represents a camp fire with men (two lines) or women (four lines).14  Contemporary Aboriginal painting has lost this function of knowledge transfer because it is produced for an uninitiated audience, but the meaning is still contained within the traditional designs.

At the third level, the designs are seen as representations of ceremonies which are conducted to re-enact the epic journeys of the Dreamtime ancestors. These ceremonies are conducted as part of a cultural calendar throughout the year. At this level, the paintings are multi-dimensional and express a series of events in time in one image.15

On the fourth and deepest level the paintings contain a metaphysical knowledge that is known only to insiders of the Dreaming. Not much is publicly known about this deepest level of interpretation since this knowledge secret. In traditional Aboriginal culture, the sacred and the secret almost fully overlap. The emphasis on secrecy in Aboriginal culture can cause cultural tensions in the contemporary world.16 It is not only forbidden to share knowledge with outsiders, even within the Aboriginal culture there are strict rules on the distribution of knowledge. The website of The Art Gallery of South Australia warns for the esoteric content of the displayed works: “… this site may include images of a culturally sensitive nature. All efforts have been made to ensure that restricted works are not included.”17

There have been problems with the exhibition of works that depict secret stories. According to Bardon the curiosity of art enthusiasts to know the secret meaning of paintings has lead developing more complex and busy designs to obfuscate the deeper meaning of the paintings.18 Aboriginal Artist Tim Leura considers the patterns he paints on canvas to be mere toys. The serious work is painted on the bodies of people or on the ground when undertaking a ceremony.19

Larapinta Dreaming

I purchased Larapinta Dreaming in 2003 from one of the many galleries that are dotted around Alice Springs. Aboriginal art is terribly popular among tourists and it is therefore an important source of income for many Aborigines.

Larapinta Dreaming is painted in acrylic on canvas (63 x 41 cm) by Marilyn Armstrong from Hermansburg near Alice Springs. Marilyn was born in Jay Creek community, in the red heart of Australia. As a child she came into contact with famous Aboriginal painters such as Albert Namatjira and Clifford Possum and in 1986 she started to paint Dreamtime stories herself.20

The most striking element of Larapinta Dreaming is the oval ring of caterpillars, the ‘larapinta’, encircling a collection of emu and dingo tracks. The background of the painting is entirely made of dots in varying colours, except for the central part of the composition. The colour palette of this work contains many bright colours, a recent development in contemporary Aboriginal art.

The back of the painting illustrates the second level of meaning:21

This area got many sacred sites and there is one where the dogs vomit other side is where the women had been meetings, dances and also the caterpillar dreamings where the Aranda people camp is. Marilyn Armstrong, Mbilja Nampitjinpa (Skin Name).

On the second level of meaning, this painting refers to the Macdonnel Ranges, the geological formations around Alice Springs that are reminiscent of caterpillars. This painting is thus probably a reference to an unnamed ceremonial place in the Macdonnel Ranges.

Since I am not privy to the deeper meaning of the Larapinta Dreaming I can not comment on the ceremonial and metaphysical significance, which constitutes the third and fourth level of meaning. I could speculate that since this was painted by a woman, the vomiting might be related to morning sickness of pregnant women and that this painting refers to a place where pregnant women gather and share knowledge with the elders. However, this is pure speculation on my part.


  1. Prior to colonisation, the people of Arnhem Land had contact with people from current day New-Guinea and Indonesia. Ronald M. Berndt and Catherine H. Berndt, The world of the first Australians. Australian traditional life: Past and present (Fifth edition, Canberra 1996), p. 17. 

  2. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 411. 

  3. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 408. 

  4. Bardon, Geoffrey, Papunya Tula.Art of the western desert (Marlston 1999), pp. 2-3. 

  5. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 412. 

  6. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 409. 

  7. Jackson Pollock is an example of an American painter that produced his works horizontally. 

  8. Bardon (1999), p. 22. 

  9. Berndt and Berndt (1996), p. 413. 

  10. Stokes, Deidre, Desert Dreamings (Port Melbourne 1993), p. 9. 

  11. Bardon (1999), pp. 125-126. 

  12. Bardon (1999), p. 6.] 

  13. Cowan, James, Aborigine dreaming (London 1992), p.7; Bardon (1999), p.8. 

  14. Stokes, Deidre, p. 9. 

  15. Bardon (1999), p.8, pp. 132-133. 

  16. See my 1998 article: The Spirit of Uluru

  17. Art Gallery of South Australia, Copyright notice, www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/content-copyright.html (juli 2007). 

  18. Bardon (1999), p. 127. 

  19. Bardon (1999), p. 123. 

  20. ABC, Western Desert Art, (Accessed 5 March 2004). 

  21. The skin name refers to the aboriginal kinship system. 

Does God have a sense of humour?

Does God have a sense of humour?This photo arrived in my mailbox with the subject line: “FW: Someone’s going to hell for this!!!“.

I found this statement a bit strong because, I figured that if God is by definition a perfect being and we are made is his or her image, then God would most certainly have a great sense of humour. He would be rolling on the floor with laughter when receiving this photo in his mailbox!

There is, however, not much in the Bible – or any other religious book for that matter, which would indicate that God, the gods, or whichever way you might swing, has a sense of humour. One story in the Bible that comes in mind though is the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), were Jesus provided the booze when they ran out of wine.

“… and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine.”

Jesus and his disciples were invited for this wedding and it only seems logical that they were drinking and dancing. Following the text, it seems that they already had been drinking when the wine ran out. I love this passage because it shows how human Jesus was — and in a roundabout way that he had a sense of humour.

Therefore, in my humble theological opinion I do not believe that the guys in this photo will go to hell because they have a great sense of humour which will be appreciated by whichever divine being looks upon them.

Pyramidology or pyramidiot?

pyramidologyOne of my favourite past times is reading different theories about the Egyptian pyramids. I am collecting books on this topic from every available perspective—from the factual archaeological approach, to the, sometimes outlandish, alternative approaches.

An interesting spin-off of this phenomenon is the debate between the rational scientists and the proponents of alternative theories, between the Egyptologists and pyramidologists.

Some scientists refer to alternative theories as Pyramidiocy. I agree that the majority of pyramidological theories is based on speculation and unwarranted arguments. The scientists are, however, missing an important point. There is more to pyramidology than meets the eye. The ongoing disenchantment of the world and the decrease of organised religion causes people to search for meaning outside the normal parameters. The Egyptian pyramids, and many other ancient archaeological sites, are a great vehicle for meaning.

They are enigmatic for many reasons: they are enormous structures, built with perplexing accuracy, built by a civilisation that did not have access to modern technology and that left no writing behind regarding their construction and function.

Because historiographical methodology is not able to provide any certain truth about events from the past, there is a lot of room for alternative explanations. While the Egyptologists, for example, are convinced that the pyramids were tombs, pyramidologists point out that there is no evidence to prove this fact. From a methodological point of view, pyramidologists are justified in denying this. Just because there is an artifact inside the pyramid of Khufu that looks like a sarcophagus does not mean that it is a necessary truth that it is a tomb. History can only deal in likelihoods, not in absolute truth.

It is essential for the pyramid to be a vehicle for meaning that the Egyptologists are proven ‘wrong’. Egyptological explanations can not provide meaning because it deals in historiographical, not philosophical truth. Egyptology as a science is necessary rational and dry and stays away from speculation. Pyramidology uses the vacuum created through this exsanguated approach by developing theories that go beyond science. The pyramids thus become a vehicle for meaning, rather than just a huge ancient tomb.

Pyramidology has been around for a while, but has been no more prolific than the second half of the last century. It is an interesting cultural phenomena and scientists should not waste their time on deciding truth or falsity of these theories, but investigate the broader philosophical perspective.

Without Christianity there is no Satanism

Anthony Czandor Lavey (1930-1997), founder of Satanism.

Anthony Czandor Lavey (1930-1997), founder of The Church of Satan.

I have been writing some copy on Satanism for the Dutch Wikipedia in the last few weeks, which has been proven an interesting experience. I established articles on the work of Anton Czandor LaVey (Church of Satan) and Michael Aquino (Temple of Set).

I have come to respect the satanic philosophy developed by Michael Aquino. Satanism attracts a lot of negative attention as soon as the word is mentioned, because of its opposition to Christianity. It is, however, the Christians themselves that have created Satanism. The whole concept of Satan is nothing more than a counter-movement to Christianity. The knee-jerk reactions by Christians when the subject gets mentioned shows that it has the desired effect! LaVey’s Black Mass and Satanic Bible are meant to provoke responses from the establish religions.

Satanism and Christianity

The Satanic philosophy is anti-Christian in that it is a mirror image of Christianity, but because of relationship it is also inherently Christian as it defines itself in opposition. Satanism does not proclaim that one should go around and whack everybody on the head and other forms of unruly behaviour. Satanism a a philosophy embraces personal freedom and places the source of morality within ourselves, while Christianity seeks to find truth in a transcendent reality.

Some religious fellow authors on Wikipedia started to ‘enhance’ the articles I established with nonsense about human sacrifice and other myths about these contemporary churches. Satanism as a religion can only exist in the presence of Christianity. The Church of Satan, Temple of Set and similar institutions could not have existed without the presence of Christianity. Just like religious people create their gods in their own image, they also create the opposite forces.

The Occult in Modern Culture

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

Masconic headstone at Malbork castle.

The occult—literally the hidden—plays a very minor role in contemporary society. This is, however, only a recent phenomenon as esotericism has played an important role in Western culture until the early twentieth century.

Several well known artists such as Mondriaan, Duchamp and Kandinsky were heavily influenced by esoteric traditions. Nowadays, followers of occultism are placed in the same category as those who believe that Elvis is still alive.

The social status of occultism has been demoted. The most important cause of this, according to Gibbons (2003), is the meeting between the Beatles and Maharashi Mahesh Yogi in 1967 and the subsequent mass-popularisation and vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge, commonly known as New Age.1

I concur with Gibbons that the proliferation of New Age as a social movement and the vulgarisation of esoteric knowledge is one of the reasons that esotericism is now not acknowledged as one of the major sources of Western culture. The advent of science has, of course, a role to play as well. History is always a rewriting of past events and in most current histories, the influence of the occult on Western culture is simply ignored. It is no secret that Newton, the genius of modern science, was preoccupied with alchemy. History writing does, however, make the assumption that his alchemy and his physics are two separate entities. In many histories esotericism is viewed as an aberration in cultural history.

During a recent visit to Poland I came across some nice examples of esoteric symbolism. This photo is taken at Malbork castle, a former stronghold of the Teutonic knights. This is a detail of a headstone showing some Masonic symbols. The Teutonic knights were a crusading order of knights under Roman Catholic religious vows. Their Christianity obviously did not prevent them from using occult symbolism, a combination which nowadays would be met with great suspicion.

The serious study of esotericism unveils forces within the history of Western culture that contemporary cultural studies ignore. Whether you are a believer or not, the influence of the occult on Western culture cannot be ignored.


  1. Tom Gibbons, The occult and early modernism, Quadrant (November 2003), p. 82-84. 

Prehistoric Monuments of Avebury and their Spiritual Significance

Avebury is a village South of London where some of the most important Neolithic sites in Europe are located. In this paper, I will describe of some of the monuments in the area and discuss some interpretations of their use in ancient and recent days.

What fascinated me most about these ancient monuments is that they are in use by modern day pagans. Around the area, there are left over flowers and other signs of ritual offerings by the neo-pagans. I had a vivid discussion with Sam Fleming because I do not condemn the use of Neolithic monuments for ritual use. She wrote A plea to practising pagans, an article about the ritual use by neo-pagans of ancient monuments (Fleming, 2000), an article on psychic vandalism around prehistoric monuments. Sam opposes any neo-pagan use of the monuments. Her arguments are that it causes a lot of physical as well as spiritual damage to the monuments.

I will argue in this paper, that using these monuments for ritual purposes is the best way to preserve the monuments as it transforms them from mere ancient curiosities to places of meaning.

West Kennet Long Barrow

West Kennet Long Barrow.

West Kennet Long Barrow.

The West Kennet Long Barrow is one of 27 similar structures in the area. It is dated about 3,500 BC and was used in ancient times as a burial place. The barrow can be entered from the front and there are five separate chambers inside. The contents of the chambers included the bones of at least 46 individuals. Each person was represented only by a few, often scattered, fragments of bone. Many of the people buried were children or infants. It is interesting to note that young children had sufficient status in the society of ancient Avebury to qualify for burial in the tomb (Malone 1989, 76). In many other ancient and certain modern societies children below a certain age or before their formal initiation into adult society, are not considered to have enough status for inclusion in such collective burials.

Inside the barrow were many visible traces of the neo-pagan use of this site. This barrow, which used to be a place of death and mourning has become a contemporary temple for personal contemplation and group rituals.

West Kennet Avenue

The avenue originally consisted of about 100 pairs of standing stones. These stones form a corridor some 15 metres wide with a length of about one kilometre. The stones appear to have been carefully selected for their shape. Generally, stones of two different types are standing opposite each other. Some people interpret these as male and female stones.

West Kennet Avenue.

West Kennet Avenue.

Only a small part of the first avenue is visible today. Through the centuries, many stones have been removed to use for other, more profane purposes. Many stones have been demolished in the 17th century by religious fanatics trying to wipe out all connections with the ancient pagan way of life. On the spot where archaeologists have found traces of such demolished stones we now see small concrete markers. Thinking about all the demolition, the concrete markers are like gravestones, marking the place where the original stone once stood.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill.

Silbury Hill is a remarkable feat of Neolithic civil engineering; standing almost 40 metres high and it is surrounded by a kind of moat which occasionally fills up with water. The depression is the silted up quarry for the material to build the hill. The reason the ancients built this gigantic monument is unknown to us today, and many speculative theories have been put forward: In some neo-pagan circles, this outline is believed to be a Neolithic figure of the squatting pregnant goddess with Silbury Hill itself as the fecund womb, giving birth to all things. To some Silbury Hill is a giant sundial or even a natural battery (Crystal, 2004).

None of these neo-pagan interpretations have a direct link with the intentions of the original builders of the site. They should be viewed as to give new meaning to these structures, within the context of neo-pagan religion. Attaching new meaning to these old monuments is a good way of dealing with ancient sites like this. It certainly gives the place more depth and interest as when one just looks at it as some gigantic Neolithic civil engineering project. The neo-pagan explanations of Avebury are contemporary mythology, countering the disenchantment of our technological world.

Avebury Henge and Stone Circles

Avebury henge.

Avebury henge.

The great circle is formed by a deep henge with a ditch on the inside. The irregular circle has a diameter of approximately 350 metres. The shape formed by the ditch is no way near the geometric perfection of the more recent Stonehenge circle, but more like an amorphous ‘D’ shape, divided by two causeway entrances into four unequal arcs. The bank on the outside of the ditch is also very irregular at the top and curls itself like a serpent around the village. On the inside of the ditch, there used to be a stone circle with erected stones, but most of these stones have disappeared. Inside the great circle, there are two separate smaller circles. Inside each of these circles, there are also erected stones. The original function of the monument is not known and just as in the case of the Silbury Hill; many speculations have been made about the role and use of the circles. The irregular shape of the circle rules out any astronomical function, like the Stone-henge circle. It most likely was used as a central meeting place for the community to celebrate festivals and perform rituals.

Inside one of the circles used to be a big stone called ‘the obelisk’, the original stone has disappeared and is now replaced by a concrete marker. The marker is the focus some neo-pagan activity. Quite a few small crystals, gemstones and other objects are put near the stone, as some offering. We can never know the original meaning of these monuments, but by using them in our way in present time, we can bring them back to life and turn these monuments into places of meaning instead of tourist attractions to keep people from being bored for a day or so. If we only rely on the scientific perspective of these monuments, then we can also easily be detached from them.

An ethical perspective

Neo-pagan offering in West Kennet Long Barrow.

Neo-pagan offering in West Kennet Long Barrow.

Using ancient monuments for neo-pagan rituals is a controversial subject. In modern society, we all agree that preserving ancient monuments is imperative and there are many reasons we do this.

Absolute preservation of monuments is impossible. Everything in the universe is subjected to decay and also megaliths will eventually crumble and disappear. But this damage is inevitable and therefore has to be accepted. Human usage of the monuments causes the greatest damage to any monument. In the case of the Neolithic monuments around Avebury, there are three different users: visitors, archaeologists and neo-pagans.

Archaeologists who research the sites and excavate artefacts from its soil cause considerable damage to the sites. Contemporary archaeologists, therefore, try to unearth as less as possible. The earth is an archive, but paradoxically, by ‘reading’ it, one has to destroy its original configuration. Inherent destruction through research is an ethical dilemma all archaeologists have to consider. One has to balance the benefits of scientific knowledge between the destruction of the original configuration of artefacts. To reduce the adverse effects of excavation, they are done in an extremely careful way, trying to record as much as possible. But one is never able to record everything and destruction is inevitable.

Culture is, always has been and always will be, a continuous process of destruction and creation. When performing neo-pagan rituals, we cause damage. The benefits of pagan rituals to our culture are more important than the damage caused by these activities.

Physical damage should, however, always be avoided, don’t leave rubbish behind, don’t make drawings on rocks or perform any other intentional damaging act. Leave nothing but footprints and take only photographs is a rule of thumb that applies very much to the monuments and their use in neo-pagan ritual.

Spiritual damage

Sam Fleming (2000) writes in her article A Plea to Practising Pagans that neo-pagan use of ancient monuments also causes spiritual damage. She writes how the ‘feel’ of a popular site like Stonehenge has deteriorated. She writes:

“Thus, for me, Stonehenge, while being an undeniably powerful place, has too many decades of tourism and strife etched into its original pattern, and I cannot feel the call of the Mother Goddess at Avebury, for the pattern is irreparably cracked and fractured and I suffer intense headaches whenever I am near the inner circle.”

Using an ancient site for ritual does change the energy of the place. But also this is inevitable like the physical deterioration. Ancient energies disappeared, even long before there was any neo-pagan activity. It is a romantic illusion trying to maintain the spiritual energy of ancient cultures. All we can attempt is to reconstruct these cultures and seek to learn from this, although every reconstruction will be laced with 21st-century cultural influences. The original intent of these monuments is lost forever.

Some final thoughts

It is impossible to make reliable inductions about the belief systems of the people who have built the ancient monuments. Most theories of ancient religion are based on analogies with modern day primal cultures as interpreted by anthropologists who have studied them.

The ideological subsystem of a long gone culture can be reconstructed by studying primal cultures which are still around today and comparing the known aspects of the ancient culture with the contemporary one, assuming that, cetis paribus, when the material elements are the same the ideological subsystem will be similar.

We must guard not to confuse the scientific reality of what we can know for sure about the ancient past and modern day interpretations. They both have their value but only together they can help towards a better understanding of our world. The photo below shows a contemporary work of art, designed by Robert Morris. The work is called Observatory and is inspired by ancient monuments such as Avebury and Stonehenge. For this monument, we do know the intentions of the artist who designed it. Morris clearly stipulated that this object is merely a work of art and should both be used in a ‘practical’ way for any ritual by neo-pagans. The intention of the work is to experience a sense of space when walking through it.

Robert Morris, Observatory (1977), Flevoland, the Netherlands

Robert Morris, Observatory (1977), Flevoland, the Netherlands

Some people also try to re-live the ancient times by constructing their stone circles. Go to the website of the Geo Group to find out more on this subject. How will future archaeologists and other enthusiasts interpret these objects? Will future neo-pagans write about mysterious cultures and magic rituals held at these sites? Ancient monuments have become new spiritual places with an almost entirely different function as in the ancient days.

Learning about the roots of Western culture, our pagan heritage, we can redeem a some of the mistakes that have been made in the name of Christianity (which is based on Judaic and Hellenistic concepts, rather then our own cultural history) of the past fifteen hundred years.

References

  • Bouquet, Comparative religion (Penguin Books 1962).
  • Dames, Michael, The Silbury Treasure: The Great Goddess Rediscovered (Thames and Hudson, London, 1978).
  • Fleming, Samantha, A plea to practising pagans, www.ravenfamily.org (2000).
  • Geo Group: Contemporary stone circles, www.geo.org.
  • Malone, Cardine, Avebury (English Heritage 1989).
  • Crystal, Ellie, Silbury Hill.