Catholicism is a Pagan Religion: Examples from Portugal

Catholicsm and paganism have a lot in common. Some evidence from Portugal.

Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.
Catholicism is the only Christian religion that admires body parts of dead people.

For hundreds of years Catholics converted tribal people from all over the globe to Christianity. This conversion was often combined with violence and conquest in a zealous quest to drive out the “false gods” of paganism.

But Catholicism itself is more like a pagan religion than it wishes to admit. During Eucharist, believers eat the actual body of Christ — not symbolic, but the real flesh as dictated by Papal dogma. This is pure magic and no different to the tribal rituals they once abolished. In Lisbon I got caught up in a large procession, Corpo de Deus, where this miracle was celebrated.

Another fine example of catholic paganism in Faro is the Capela dos Ossos, the chapel of the bones. An alter built from the bones of monks as a reminder of the temporal nature of our existence.

If anything all this makes Catholic religion a lot more interesting than the austerity in Protestant churches. The ability of Catholicism to incorporate ancient local customs has been its secret to success over the world.

Wikileaks and the Masked Magician

Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.

By Espen Moe (Julian Assange Uploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Espen Moe (Julian AssangeUploaded by Ralgis) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The WikiLeaks website has created a media storm around the world. The website facilitates whistle blowers from all over the world to anonymously publish material that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Julian Assange, Editor in chief of Wikileaks, is the Masked Magician of the political world. Albeit not hidden behind behind a mask, he exposes the secrets of the diplomatic, military and political world to all who are interested.

On his motivation, the WikiLeaks website states that:

Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people. … the US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government”.

WikiLeak’s philosophy is based on Bergson’s concept of the Open Society, later popularised by Karl Popper. In an open society, the government has no secrets and people enjoy freedom. The open society is an Enlightenment ideal where people have to make their own decisions based on the information available to them.

The idea of the open society is contrasted with the closed, authoritarian, society. Knowledge is closely guarded and people’s freedom is limited by what they are allow to know. In closed society, decisions people make is based on the collective ideal rather than individual choices.

Most traditional societies are closed and do not share knowledge as freely as in the Western world. In traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures knowledge was only passed on to those initiated in certain traditions. Aboriginal culture is traditionally secretive and knowledge is passed on along generational and gender lines.

The reason for secrecy is because knowledge is considered dangerous to those not prepared to wield it. Australian Kevin Solway has compiled a great collection of wisdom from traditional sources called Venom Crystals. The words contained therein are beautiful crystals, but they can also be a venom to the spirit to those not ready for it.


How does Val Valentino, the Masked Magician compare to Wikileaks?
Val Valentino, the Masked Magician.

The material published by WikiLeaks can, however, in no way be called wisdom. The information preciously guarded by governments and organisations around the world is banal and barely goes beyond what can be deduced from public sources anyway. WikiLeaks does not publish venom crystals of information that need to be guarded from feeble minds. WikiLeaks defends the open society in a way that is only possible since the advent of the Internet.

Just like magicians around the world are vexed by the Masked Magician, politicians, business leaders, church officials and military are vexed by WikiLeaks. But just like the Masked Magician has not damaged magic as a performance art, the revelations of WikiLeaks will not bring down our society.

The secrets of politics, religion, war, business and magic are banal. It is only when they are exposed that we can take their keepers seriously and are able to fully appreciate what they do. The words of magician Jim Steinmeyer can be applied to magic and politics:

”… to appreciate magic as an art, you’ll have to understand not only the baldest deceptions but also the subtlest techniques. You’ll have to learn to think like a magician” (Hiding the Elephant)

Levels of meaning in Aboriginal art

How can works of Australian aboriginal art be interpreted?

Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).
Joshua Bangarr, Namarrgon (Lightning spirit).

The descendants of the original inhabitants of Australia have a unique culture passed on through story telling, ceremonies and aboriginal art. Their art  has become very well known during the last decades, specially the iconic dot-paintings of the central desert people and the hatched line drawings of the people of Arnhem Land.

The past week I visited Darwin and the World Heritage listed Kakadu national park in the tropical North of Australia. On the way back from Kakadu we stopped at the Didgeridoo Hut, a great place to buy Aboriginal art in the quaintly named town of Humpty Doo. I bought a nice work with the title ‘Namarrgon’ by Arnhem Land artist Joshua Bangarr.

When I was ready to pay for the work of art, the person at the counter said: “This is not art” and continued to explain the deeper significance of this picture. To say that this is not art because the painting has deeper meaning is an confusing comment. I was tired from a long trip and did not want to argue the point with him, so I will do it now.

His comment is confusing and what he tried to say is that this is not ‘Art for art’s sake‘ (l’art pour l’art). There is, however, no such thing as art without meaning. Art divorced from any didactic, moral or utilitarian function is not art, but decoration. The only difference between Aboriginal art or works from the university educated art establishment of the Western world is that in the former meaning is provided by the tradition the artist is embedded in, while in contemporary European art, meaning is provided by the individual artist. Australian aboriginal art can be analysed on four different levels.

On the first level all we see is the actual painting itself. For the Namarrgon painting this level of interpretation is the actual figure of the lightning spirit. Although the work is painted in acrylic, Bangarr only used the four traditional ochre colours: red, yellow white and black. The painting is not brushed, but created with the stem of a freshwater reed. The hatchings are used to communicate the clan, kinship (skin) and country of the artist. No only the design, but also the thickness of the line is used to differentiate patterns and express who owns this design. The composition of most works in this genre are straight forward two-dimensional representations, such as is the case in this work.

Depiction of namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.
Depiction of Namarrgon in the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, Kakadu.

The second level of meaning is the lightning spirit dreaming story, the mythological level. Ancient depictions of Namarrgon can be found on many rock escarpments around Kakadu and Arnham Land, such as the Anbangbang gallery in Nourlangie, shown here. In the mythology of the Kunwinjjku people Namarrgon is responsible for the spectacular thunder storms in this region, between October and November at the start of the wet season. He has lightning rods emanating from his head through to his genitals. Stone hammers hang from his elbows and are attached to his knees which he uses to create thunder, akin to the Norse god Thor. His body shape represents the Leichhhardt grasshopper, which are considered the children of Namarrgon. The colours used in the work are also symbolic. Yellow is used to symbolise the sun, red for the blood of the earth and white is the colour of body paintings for ceremonies. The colour black has secret meanings.

As we move to the third level of meaning less is known publicly about these paintings because in Aboriginal art, the sacred is closely related to the secret. Dreaming stories are on the surface simple mythological stories of ancestral beings, but on a deeper level they provide clues on how the landscape is organised, the seasonal availability of food and other practical hints on how to survive in the sometimes harsh Australian climate. The appearance of the Leichhardt grasshopper signals to the Aboriginal people, who traditionally did not have a formal calendar, that the time of thunderstorms is about to arrive and that they need to seek shelter from the damaging lightning strikes.

At the deepest, fourth level of meaning, the dreaming stories depicted in the art contain metaphysical truths. Only the elder generation of the people that maintain this dreaming know these truths. Uninitiated balanda (white people) can only guess at the deeper meaning. A friend suggested that the fact that the head and genitals of Namarrgon are connected is a lesson about male psychology. While this seems certainly plausible, Joshua Bangarr did not provide any clues on the meaning of this painting.  This deep secrecy is what is so fascinating about Aboriginal art.

The Praise of Folly: Philosophical View of Limburg Carnival

Some deliberations about the place of carnival in contemporary Southern Dutch society.

Today is Ash Wednesday and in many places around the world, including my home town of Hoensbroek, this marks the end of the annual carnival. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday was the start of the lent and carnival were the last three joyful days before the sombre time of fasting until Easter.

The annual carnival is an important part of the annual calender in the southern parts of the Netherlands and has played an important part in the first thirty years of my life. When I was a boy I was dragged by my parents to many carnival parades and parties. When I was in my second year of university I even had the honour of being known as Prince Peter I of the Klotsköp in Hoensbroek. My last carnival experience was when I visited a party of the Limburger Kangaroos in Melbourne Australia.

Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).
Prince Peter I and the Council of Eleven of the Klotsköp (1989-1990).

Having been away from my home town for ten years now I have obtained some distance from these traditions to be able to place them in some philosophical context. Although it might seem at first sight that carnival is about eating, drinking and fornicating as much as possible, in this article I will argue that carnival plays an important part in contemporary post-modern culture, specially with the disappearance of its religious significance as a preparation to the fasting.1

The essence of the carnival is a praise of folly and it are three days of the year when the normal world is turned upside down. Power over the city or town is symbolically handed over to the prince of the carnival and his Council of Eleven. The council and the prince are cultural mediators of the festivities, creating a connection between the everyday world of the sane and the world of the insane. The Council of Eleven is steeped in symbolism. Their bicorne hats are inspired on the hats worn by jesters and symbolise the foolishness that is central to carnival. Their formal suits are a reminder of the worldly connection of the council who are thus mediating between the two worlds. Every member of the council and the prince wear a chain that symbolises their unity. The regalia of the prince, his sceptre, feathers and other distinguishing features, are an expression of his symbolic power of the three days of folly. The council and the prince are the cultural mediators of the carnival, as it is their task to organise the carnival and bring folly to the otherwise so serious world.

Limburger Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).
Carnaval parade in Hoensbroek 2010 (Photo: Evelien Prevos).

The most recognisable aspect of carnival in most cultures around the world are the costumes worn by the revellers. They replace their identity in real life for a temporary identity, usually signifying a connection with the bizarre world of insane. The costume is a ‘mask’ behind which one can hide their normal identity so that carnival can be celebrated without shame. Although revellers hide their personal identity behind the ‘mask’, it is in fact an expression of their individuality. People take great care choosing their temporary identity and some express themselves in very individual creations.

The temporary loss of personal identity is an expression of a longing to a pre-modern time. Celebrations have a strong collectivist character – to properly celebrate carnival requires a critical mass of people. This is why my most recent experience with carnival in Mebourne was not very satisfying, compared to my home where regular life stands still for several days.

This shows a paradox in carnival. One the one hand we celebrate our individuality through costumes and on the other hand we seek for collectivist experiences. In contemporary society, personal identity is a product of individual development. We can, to a certain extent, choose our identity. This is, however, a fairly recent development. Our identities used to be determined by tradition and heritage. Although we can never fully relinquish our tradition and heritage, we now have great freedom in defining ourselves.

During carnival the idea of a fixed identity is implicitly criticised and our post-modern concept of individually created identities taken to the extreme with the ‘mask’ as a symbol of the fluidity of our identity.

During the the three days of carnival, many towns organise strange activities that are totally deprived of meaning. One such example is the annual Kowrenne (running of the cows) in Hoensbroek. This is a game whereby people run underneath home made models of cows. There is no reason for this activity, nor does it contain any symbolism to something outside the activity itself. These activities are an expression of the collective identity of the people that organise them and therefore have a very strong local character.

Carnival is an expression of Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, the playing man, providing resistance against the individualist aspects of contemporary life by organising a collective experience. The absurdity of carnival is an ode to absurdity, with the fools as the central symbol, mediated by the Council of Eleven. In carnival, people refer back to a time when, as Michel Foucault argues, when sanity and insanity where not opposites, but were complimentary. The absurdity of life is, according to Albert Camus, located in the confrontation between the irrationality of reality and our longing for clarity. In carnival, this confrontation is resolved by giving priority to the irrational. Carnival is thus a purification ritual as a catharsis for the pressures of contemporary life. Even though carnival has, in most regions, lost its connection with religion, it plays an important function in contemporary society.

Expressions of absurdity are not limited to places where carnival is formally celebrated. Many sports events, dance parties and pop festivals show similar aspects. This shows that, as Barbara Ehrenreich beautifully outlined in her book Collective Joy, that we have a deep need for ritualistic moments where we can express the absurdity of life and relieve our selves from having to create our own identity. Carnival shows that we should not take life to seriously and that reason and insanity are not mutually exclusive extremes, but aspects we need to fully embrace in order to be fully human.

Drawings by René Feijten.

[flickr_set id=”72157623097131347″]

  1. This is an abridged translation of a Dutch essay written for the eZine Cultuurwetenschappen

Adelaide Magic Convention

Cards from mouth
Fun with cards.

The two and a half day gathering of magicians and magic enthusiasts at the Adelaide Magic Convention started with a Close-Up show. It quickly became clear that this would be a weekend of card tricks, more card tricks and even some more card tricks.

Magicians have a love-hate relationship with cards; well I have anyway. There are often complaints about the amount of card tricks during conventions and magic meetings, but everybody always gravitates back to them. Playing cards are the piano in the orchestra of magical props. A deck of cards is a piano with 52 keys that can be used to achieve every single effect in the arsenal of the modern conjurer. No other prop is so versatile. However, a lot of card magic is pretty boring because the performer forgets to place the props and the adventures they have into any context. Never ask a magician how magic is performed, but make sure to ask why those four aces keep assembling.

The day ended early because the lecture by Laurie Kelly lecture was cancelled and I decided to have an early night in preparation of the big day on Saturday. The day began with the close-up competition. My personal favourite was Simon Taylor’s session. He was able to place his material in a suitable context, creating interest and also showing some good skill. The main reason I like his work is because we share an interest into adding an intellectual perspective to magic without losing sight of the entertainment aspect.

The first lecture for the day was by American Geoff Williams. I was delighted by his presentation and am working on incorporating some of his ideas in my close-up work. He is, as he puts it himself, no great inventor of magic but works on improvements of known routines. I like his offbeat style, calling a trick I Hate David Copperfield, is a great way to attract attention to what is basically a reworked classic that performed many years ago. Unfortunately, however, he was not able to delight at his performance in the Gala Show later that night.

In the afternoon there were six performers battling it out in the stage competition. Joel Howlett presented his wholesome manipulation act. He ignores the trend towards Derren Brown, David Blaine and Chris Angel type material and follows in the footsteps of Cardini and Fred Kaps. Magicians appreciate this type of material because they respect the amount of skill involved. Almost every magician has at some stage practised front- and back-palming cards, but not many (including myself) have the guts to perform this type of material because it is so hard.

Magicians work extremely hard to hide half of their performance from the audience. Some of the most demanding actions take place while the attention of the spectator is diverted away from the action. However, some really good magic can be performed that barely requires any complicated sleight of hand. One of my favourite card routines I perform at the moment is a souped-up version of the 21-Card Trick. This classic is the first card trick that many people learn and magicians usually loathe as not being deceptive enough. But, the amended version I use requires almost no sleight of hand and get greats reactions when I perform it. Why spend time learning  second dealing, Faro shuffles and other complicated stuff when people can be amazed by the simplest tricks, using nothing but a good script.

I also met an anthropology student with an interest in theatrical magic. We discussed the possibility of writing an ethnology of magic world. To an outsider, a meeting of magicians sounds like a very strange thing indeed. Magicians have their own rituals (initiations and the broken wand ceremony springs to mind) and their own rules of behaviour, specially regarding secrecy.

Second lecture for the day was by English children’s entertainer Terry Herbert. He first showed his well known children’s act, for which a small group of kids was invited. After his performance he talked about his ideas on entertaining children. It was great to hear somebody with decades of experience talk.

I bought his DVD on performing magic for children under five. It is quite difficult to do this because to a child under the age of five everything is magic. Their minds have not yet been conditioned to know that certain things are impossible. A simple game of peekaboo is a magical event for a baby. Most illusions created by magicians are cognitive illusions, i.e. the brain gets tricked into assigning wrong causal relationships to what the eye perceives. But, the brain needs to be trained first to understand what normal causal relationships are and that takes a few years.

Magic without tricks
Magic without tricks

Day two ended with a Gala Dinner with performances from four magicians. The two highlights of the Gala Dinner were a Belgian contact juggler who creates visual magic with with perspex balls and Raymond Crow’s famous hand shadows show. It became apparent to me that both in performances magic is created without using deception. This is interesting to note because as I wrote above, magicians hide most of the effort that is required to create illusions, while in these two cases, all the effort is shown in full view.

Geoff Williams spoke in his lecture about the fact that magicians are basically liars. Ricky Jay was recently interviewed about lying and mentions Jerry Andrus, a magician who never lied in his performances. When he said: “I will place this card in the middle of the deck” than this was always a true statement. In almost all magic, lying is a regular occurrence. But when creating magic without deception there is no need to lie and no need to hide most of the work required to create the magic.

The last day started with a church service. This is the first convention I have attended where a Church Service was on offer on Sunday morning. None of the attendants I spoke to took up the offer so I wonder how many people attended. Those who have read more of my blog know my a-religious stance. But come to think of it, there are very close links to magic and religion and anthropologists still have a hard time distinguishing one from he other. Magic and religion share the same origins – nevertheless I gave the church service a miss.

Magic without tricks
Magic without tricks

My last session for this convention was the Paul O’Neill lecture about the marketing of magic. When he started to explain in detail how to create a website, I left the room and made my way to the airport to catch our flight back to Melbourne.

In an earlier Twitter post I wrote that the convention was not so inspiring. Well, maybe not from a magical technical point of view, but I guess the above post shows that magic never fails to inspire. To share some of the wonders I experienced when watching Raymond Crow, here is a Youtube video of his hand shadows.

Swarm Behaviour in Hanoi Traffic

Asian cultures are usually characterised as being collective in nature. This basically means that people prioritise the objectives of a group over their own individual objectives. Sitting on a fifth floor café, sipping a Bia Ha Noi and watching the Hanoi traffic, I would almost contradict that age old wisdom about collective cultures. As soon as the Vietnamese get on their scooter, in their car or on their bicycles they become the most selfish people around. Much has been written about Hanoi traffic and I think this video illustrates it nicely. Check out the woman with the baskets over her shoulder crossing the road.

Everybody makes their presence known by using their horn, expecting everybody else to move aside when they hear them coming. But, nobody seems to takes notice of the cacophony of beeps, hoots and toots. Nobody actually gives way for anybody else, unless a collision is imminent. When crossing the street in Hanoi you need to forget everything you know about road safety and be like them, be one with the flow, like a bee in a swarm or a cow in a stampeding herd.

Hanoi traffic invalidates everything I have studied about traffic flows many years ago in university. Traffic in Hanoi is not a flow, but a swarm, which has its own internal logic making sure that there are virtually no collisions. I have only seen one accident on the road here, which is a miracle given the many near hits just on this one minute video clip.

What does this say about Vietnamese culture? Does their driving behaviour negate the theory of collectivism? Is collectivism being eroded by their increased wealth? Or is it a reflection of another aspect of their culture?

Larapinta Dreaming—Australian Aboriginal Art of the Central Desert

Exploration of Australian aboriginal art of the central desert, based on an analysis of a painting by Marylin Armstrong.

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, (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. 

The Spirit of Uluru: Culture Clash in the Desert

Essay exploring some of the sources of cultural conflict between the traditional owners of Uluru and the tourists.

View from Uluru at the Imalung Lookout
View from Uluru at the Imalung Lookout.

Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is known to westerners, is a popular tourist attraction. Although the word Uluru itself does not mean anything, it is a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance to the local aboriginal people, the Anangu.

This article  outlines some of the cultural tensions between the original inhabitants and the visitors due to the popularity of Uluru as a tourist attraction.

The modern day tourist travels with a simple maxim: “leave only footprints, take only pictures”, which is is considered the foundation for ethical tourism. For the Anangu, however, this principle conflicts with their idea of respect for a place of prime spiritual significance, such as Uluru. Leaving footprints by climbing Uluru and taking photos of sacred spaces round Uluru is not acceptable in Anangu culture.

Anangu culture, which is codified in Tjukurpa, is based on exclusivity of knowledge. This knowledge is only available to those who are initiated. Because some of the knowledge is coded within Uluru—its geological features illustrate stories from Tjukurpa—even looking at certain parts of the rock is taboo for those who are not initiated. For this reason, the Anangu do not want certain parts of Uluru to be photographed or footprints left on the rock, in contradiction with the maxim of ethical tourism.

This is hard to understand for visitors from Western and Asian cultures as knowledge is generally not considered sacred nor secret (note the minor difference between these two words) by the visitors. The tension is increased by the fact that the tourist dollar is an important source of income for the Anangu. Uluru and Kata Tjuta area—‘Many Heads’, the Anangu name for The Olgas—are part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park which lies in the red heart of Australia, about 350 km from Alice Springs. The area is owned by the traditional custodians, the Anangu, and leased by the Commonwealth of Australia for tourism.

The Ayers Rock Resort, which is like a little Disney Land in the desert, is situated about 18km from Uluru. It is the only place where you can stay relatively near the park and that  caters for all budgets—from camp site to four star hotel. The park is one of the major tourist attractions in Australia with about 300,000 people a year staying in the resort to visit the National Park.

Most of the information presented in this article is sourced from brochures available at the cultural centre in the National Park. The cultural centre contains some are some interesting displays on the meaning of Uluru and Anangu culture. The image below is the 1998 version of the ticket to the National Park.

Park entrance ticket by Kunbry Peipei.
Park entrance ticket by Kunbry Peipei.

The artwork is from Kunbry Peipei, who has this to say about it:

They say that from their home country, all the Liru men came, headed for Mutitjulu. They came to spear Kuniya, all the holes from their spears are there, in the rock. That’s the Kuniya man, speared. This is important law belonging to all Anangu, to all traditional owners. On the ticket, that’s the poor pierced Kuniya man.

Visitors are asked not to throw away the ticket because it is significant to the Anangu who have allowed the Tjukurpa to be used in this way. Use of aboriginal symbols by people who are not initiated in Tjukurpa is a serious thing to the Australian aboriginal. Most symbols are considered sacred and can therefore not be reproduced as one likes.


Tjukurpa is the foundation of Anangu culture. It provides a spiritual basis of Anangu culture, rules for behaviour and knowledge of the environment. It is the law for caring for one another and for the land that supports people’s existence. Tjukurpa refers to the time of creation as well as the present time. Tjukurpa defines the relationship between people, plants, animals and physical features of the land. Knowledge of how these relationships came to be, what they mean and how they must be maintained, is explained in the Tjukurpa. Other Aboriginal people use different words for Tjukurpa. Throughout the Great Victoria Desert the term used is djuguba or djugurba; in the Rawlinson Range, duma; in the Balgo area, djumanggani; in the eastern Kimberleys, ngarunnganni and so on. It is usually translated as ‘Creative Period’, ‘Ancestral Times’, ‘Dreaming’, ‘Dreamtime’, ‘Eternal Dreamtime’, and so on. Moon over Uluru Tjukurpa is more than a dream, it permeates the here and now and contains all the wisdom and knowledge of Aboriginal culture, which developed over tens of thousands of years. Dreamtime only refers to the spiritual level of Tjukurpa and the creation myths that are an important part of it. Dreamtime is only a small part of what Tjukurpa is. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are very important in Tjukurpa. They are visible evidence that the ancestral beings still exist. In the beginning the world was unformed and featureless. Ancestral beings emerged from this emptiness and travelled all over, creating all living things and landmarks in the desert landscape today such as Uluru. Tjukurpa is always surrounded by secrecy. The stories that are known to us are only the surface of the complex system that is Tjukurpa. Details of these stories are only to be known by initiated men or women. Initiation is a very important part of growing up in Australian aboriginal cultures. Knowledge is only shared with those who are ready. As I am not initiated to Tjukurpa, my story on this website is only my interpretation of what I do know about Anangu culture. Tjukurpa stories are depicted in the art of the first Australians. They use traditional symbols which can be read in many ways and because of this, even the secret, sacred parts of Tjukurpa can be painted, but remain hidden from the non initiated. The artist, and the ones who are initiated to the story, are the only people who fully understand the meaning of the work. Anangu teach Tjukurpa to their children and other people through story telling and art. The oldest still surviving examples are the pertographs, or rock carvings. Many places around Uluru there are rock paintings. The paintings are very sacred to the Aangu. There used to be a photo of some rock paintings on this page, but I was asked by the people who maintain the park to remove this, because they are considered too sacred to be displayed in this way. In Aboriginal languages there are no separate words for believing and knowing. In the languages of the western world there is a distinct difference between these two concepts. Religion and science are separated from each other and only what is accepted as scientific is accepted as truth.

Lonely Tree Near Uluru
Lonely Tree Near Uluru

This has been only the case since the 16th century, the beginning of the age of reason. It was René Descartes who was one of the first to clearly distinguish between knowing and believing. According to Descartes, knowledge can only be produced by using the right method, which according to him is mathematics. The problem with strictly separating knowing and believing is that one will always judge all experiences from one or the other viewpoint. Scientists will dispute all spiritual wisdom because they only look at it from their scientific perspective. Religious people, on the other hand, look at things from a spiritual perspective and sometimes dispute scientific knowledge. Both perspectives are equally valid and there is no gain in prevailing one over the other. The Anangu people have their own interpretation of the creation of Uluru, distinct from the geological story told by the Minga (ants), the Anangu name for tourists who crawl up an around Uluru like ants. In the mythological story Uluru was formed by two boys piling up mud and so forming the monolith. The geological story does not deviate that much from the mythological story. According to this story Uluru was formed by an ancient alluvial fan of a river, which is also a big pile of mud. The word myth is used in two contradictory ways. In one sense it refers to a narrative or story, or a series of songs, which is of religious significance. In the other it has the meaning of false belief. In this discussion myth is used in the first sense only, it is believed to be true. Both sides of the creation story are true. The geological story about alluvial fans is true on a material level. The story of the two boys piling up mud is true on a spiritual level. Both are complementary creation myths and both are just as true, whatever true means anyway …

To climb or not to climb?

Most people who visit Uluru only go there to do ‘the climb’ and look at the spectacular sunsets. But there is much more to Uluru than being the largest monolith in the world. Every precipia, cave, gutter and mark on Uluru commemorates the exploits and adventures of the creatures of the Tjukurpa. To the Anangu, Uluru can be read like a book. They do not have the need to build amazing temples for their spirits because all they need can be found in nature itself. Climbing Uluru shows disrespect for Anangu culture. It is like going to a church and sitting on the altar. The existing Uluru climb is the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru. Because this path is of great spiritual significance, Anangu rarely climb Uluru. In a brochure available at the Cultural Centre in the park Tjamiwa writes:

“That is a really important sacred thing that you are climbing … You shouldn’t climb. It is not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. Listening and understanding everything. Why are we going to tell you to go away (and ask you not to climb)? So that you understand this … so that you understand, we are informing you: Don’t climb. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But any way, that is what we have to say. We are obliged to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say: ‘Oh, I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that is right.’ This is the proper way: No climbing.”


Commemorating those who died climbing Uluru.
Commemorating those who died climbing Uluru.

Climbing the rock is also dangerous and many people have died doing so. The plaques on the base of the climb are silent witnesses of some of these deaths. One of the plaques says: ”… it was his lifetime dream to climb Ayers Rock”. The best way to experience Uluru is to walk around it. Passing by the sacred sites and learn about Tjukurpa.

Kata Tjuta

About forty-two kilometers away from Uluru lies Kata Tjuta or The Olgas. It is a vast area of more then 20 square km of enormous red domes. The area is extremely significant to Anangu. Much of the area of Kata Tjuta is associated with ritual information and activities which remain the exclusive knowledge of initiated men and is therefore restricted. Because of this, no details or performances of ceremonies associated with Kata Tjuta are known to the outside world. Therefore I have nothing much to say about Kata Tjuta, except for this picture.

Kata Tjuta.
Kata Tjuta.


Warning sign.
Warning sign.

A great deal of the Anangu Tjukurpa is related to Uluru. There are many sacred sites around Uluru and three of them have been fenced off because of their great significance to the Anangu. Sacred sites are distinct areas where, according to Tjukurpa, only initiated Anangu women and/or men are allowed to go. These places are very powerful and in Anangu law it is both unsafe and forbidden for men to enter or look intently at women’s sacred sites, and for women, children and uninitiated men to enter or look at men’s sacred sites. It is also not allowed to photograph these sites because of their spiritual significance. Judging by the signboards surrounding the sacred areas this is taken very seriously by the local authorities. There are many mythologies surrounding Uluru. The details of all these stories however, cannot be told to the uninitiated. For the Anangu this is one of the most crucial aspects of understanding the Tjukurpa. The knowledge is given to the right people as they grow and become ready to accept the responsibility that such knowledge bestows upon somebody. This is why there are only few stories known about the Tjukurpa surrounding Uluru. Several stories relating to Uluru that be told to the Minga. One of these is the Mala story. Many visible features on the northern face of Uluru are connected to this story. This story is copied from the booklet sold at the Cultural Centre in the National Park. In the Cultural Centre there is also a video display showing some of the inma (ceremonies) related to the Mala story. On the Mala walk, you will see some of the very places where the Mala prepare for ceremony. As you walk through this you will be surrounded by the Mala Tjukurpa.

In the beginning, Mala men, women and children must travel a long way from the west and the north to reach Uluru. When they arrive they camp at separate sites from one another in groups of young men; old men; young and single women; and old and married women. They do this because they are here for an inma. Some Mala men, who come from the west, carry the ceremonial pole, Ngaltawata. They scramble quickly to the top of Uluru and plant the pole in the ground at the most northern corner to begin the Inma. From this moment on, everything becomes a part of the ceremony. Even everyday jobs like hunting, gathering and preparing food, collecting water, talking to people or just waiting, are done now in a proper way for ceremony. This has become law for men, women and children ever since. The Mala are happy and busy. Suddenly people from the west come with an invitation to join another Inma. The Mala must refuse, as they have already started their own ceremony. The people from the west return in great anger at the insult. They plan to wreak vengeance upon the Mala in a terrible way. Across the land comes an evil, black dog-like creature: Kurpany. He has been created by these people in the west to destroy the Mala ceremony. Luunpa, the kingfisher bird, cries a warning to the Mala. It is ignored, and Kurpany attacks and kills many Mala men, women and children. In terror the remaining Mala flee to the south with Kurpany chasing them all the way. There are two signposted walks around Uluru. The Mutitjulu and the Mala walk. Both walks deal with a part of the Tjukurpa surrounding Uluru. The waterholes are considered sacred places because they give life to people, animals and plants. Walking around Uluru one sees all the different colours and textures of the rock which are stunningly beautiful. Sometimes the skin looks like the skin of a gigantic petrified reptile. I walked around Uluru twice and every time I saw new things. At times I was resting, admiring the beauty of the rock, thinking of the ancient stories that are contained in this monolith. For thousands of years people have worshipped this place as a bringer of life and a keeper of secrets.

Final thoughts

A culture can be described by three basic attitudes. First the attitude towards reality, second the attitude towards other humans and last the attitude towards the transcendent. There are major differences between Anangu and western culture in all three area’s.

Attitude towards reality

In the western world, manipulation is the norm for dealing with reality. Engineers – like myself – change the physical world around us. Australian aboriginal people, on the other hand, used to barely change the land around them. In the early days of anthropology, cultures were judged by the way they manipulate reality. Cultures who do not know permanent buildings etcetera were considered primitive. The Anangu do not need to manipulate the land around them too much. They clean the waterholes to prevent leaves from rotting inside them and they practice fire stick farming to control their surroundings, but there is no need for them to manipulate reality to the extent western culture does. They have no need to build elaborate temples because all they need is found in nature.

Attitude towards other humans

Australian aboriginal society is a tribal society. There are very strict rules inside and between the tribes. The key word is initiation. The older somebody becomes, the more they know about Tjukurpa and the more important they are. In western culture this attitude is dominated by self determination. But too much freedom can result in chaos. Knowledge is available to all, the heated discussions on the suitability of certain material for children is a good example of how the pre-modern attitude collides with the post-modern idea of freedom.

Attitude towards the transcendent

The attitude towards the transcendent in western culture is dominated by detachment. When Christianity came to Europe all the old gods and spirits who resided in trees, the land, rocks, water were abandoned. In their place came one God who resides in heaven, far away from the people. In Catholic churches rituals are performed by selected men and the people can only look at these rituals, without any participation.

Carlos Eduardo Hernández Castillo from Colombia wrote to me: “However, I also would like to tell you that I don’t agree with your sentence about the Catholic Church rituals. We participate in the rituals, although they are directed by the priest. Indeed, the most important part of the mass (receiving the Holy Communion) requires the direct participation of the community. Of course, you can decide to just look, but if you really want to enjoy the ceremony, you should participate as much as you can (in fact, you are encouraged to do this).”

In the world view of the first Australians, the spiritual and the material are one and always connected. Rituals are performed by everybody who has passed a certain initiation, men and women both have their own set of rituals or ceremonies. The material and the spiritual are one world in which we live.

Sunset over Kata Tjuta.
Sunset over Kata Tjuta.

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.


  • 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, (2000).
  • Geo Group: Contemporary stone circles,
  • Malone, Cardine, Avebury (English Heritage 1989).
  • Crystal, Ellie, Silbury Hill.