(Parts of this article were originally published in Pagan Dawn, Samhain 2011)
A popular saying in Orkney is that you only need to scratch the surface of the land and it bleeds archaeology. It is also an incredibly spiritual place. The two are probably connected – Orkney is one of the places in the UK where the Neolithic transition from hunting and gathering to farming really took off, so some of the earliest monuments are found here.
Orkney consists of an archipelago of almost 70 islands. About 7000 years ago, when the sea levels were much lower than today, there were just a couple of larger land masses. When the sea levels rose (with global warming), all that was left above water were the tops of the hills – forming the islands. The largest of the islands is named, in typical Orkneycentricity, as Mainland.
The main concentration of Neolithic ritual monuments in Orkney is on the narrow isthmus which runs between the Harray and Stenness lochs in West Mainland. Although ritual sites occur all over Orkney, this thin strip of land is the only place where henges were built.
The largest of these henges is the Ring of Brodgar (OS Ref HY294133), which also has an internal stone circle and dates from around 2500 BCE. A henge is defined as a circular monument consisting of an internal ditch and external bank with one or more “entrances”, although Brodgar does not have a recognisable external bank. The stone circle may originally have had about 60 stones, it currently has some 36 stones, some of which have fallen or been broken. At a diameter of 104ms, this stone circle is the third largest known (only Avebury and Stanton Drew are larger), although it was probably the henge ditch, dug into the bedrock to a depth of 3m and a width of 10m that was more imposing and which took more hours to construct.
As with other large henge sites elsewhere, particularly those in Wessex, Brodgar lies in a low-lying landscape surrounded by hills, the topography thus forming a natural cauldron of land, possibly reflected in the construction of the henge – with the monument perhaps being intended as a symbolic world in miniature, a microcosm in which power and energy could be created and manipulated. With wet and marshy land to either side of Brodgar, adding to the liminality of this site, it is possible that Brodgar was the focus of the ritual landscape – it certainly remains the favourite choice of Pagan couples getting married in Orkney today. In the mid nineteenth century it is recorded as being known as The Temple of the Sun and couples would visit to perform a complex "engagement" ritual (refer to "Orkney Wedding Traditions" blogged on 9 July 2012).
The Ring of Brodgar is very much my “cathedral”. I find it the most sacred site in Orkney and an incredible privilege to live only 3 miles from. I love performing ritual there, whether it is the eight open rituals we now celebrate which anyone is welcome to attend, or sacred weddings. I go to Brodgar whenever I really need to contact the Gods because I find them the most accessible there.
My spiritual journey really began a couple of weeks after I moved to Orkney. As stated in my previous BLOG, I had assumed that I would be getting my dream job, in fact I had been invited to apply. Just days after moving here, I learnt that I hadn’t even been short-listed for interview. My world literally collapsed and I spiralled into a major panic about what I would do and what I would live on, knowing that I couldn’t go back, I had resigned from my job in the south and a replacement had been found for me. I was totally shocked.
Whenever trauma happens in my life, I feel at the most distant from the Gods. This appears to be a common religious / spiritual experience. In Christianity it is illustrated by the “Footprints” story … a man dreams he is walking along a sandy beach side-by-side with God, a metaphor for his life because as he looks back he notices that sometimes there are two sets of footprints and at others, the most traumatic times, only one set. He asks God why this is so, questioning whether it was because God abandoned him at those most trying times, so leaving him to walk alone. God replies: “No, my son, those were the times that I carried you.”
Some Pagans tell a different version, a feminist, edgy version ... a woman dreams a dream and in her dream she is walking along a sandy beach with the Goddess. The woman looks back at their footprints and also notices that sometimes there are two sets of footprints and at others, the most traumatic times, only one set. “Ah,” says the woman, “that must be when you abandoned me, Mother!” The Goddess shakes her head. “Ah,” says the woman, “then that must be when you carried me, Mother!” The Goddess shakes her head again and says: “No, my Sister, those times when you can see only one set of footprints are when we both went a bit insane and hopped along on one foot for a while …”
I prefer this version. It is less comforting, certainly, but it reveals a different relationship with deity, one in which we are mutually reliant and in which we co-create each other. It offers no explanations for why when we are low, we feel most alone. It just is. Accept it.
What I do know is that, for me, after trauma comes a new blossoming of spirituality, trauma becomes a growth period for me. Perhaps, most of the time, I am simply too dumb to grow without trauma?
Back when we first moved to Orkney, I spent a lot of time at Brodgar. I sat on one of the fallen stones and meditated. I think I may have become a feature on the tourist map for a while. In waiting at Brodgar, letting the others come and go, I got to experience the place with a fresh intimacy and I met the genus loci, the spirit of the place. She was a tiny brown woman, thousands of years old, and she kept changing her age, sometimes wizened and sometimes very girlish. She didn’t say anything to me, possibly because I wouldn’t have understood her language, and she was quite wary of me, but she was definitely some sort of guardian spirit of the stone circle. I felt she was Neolithic and one of the elders of the tribes. She is still there and looking after the place.
Our first Samhain in Orkney was a full moon night and both myself and my husband went to Brodgar in the small hours of the early morning when it was still pitch black, very cold, and we were totally alone. This was the only time I have ever been in the centre of the stone circle. There are all sorts of signs asking folk not to go into the centre and for good reasons: the heather is ecologically sensitive and home to lots of protected wild creatures. It simply wouldn’t survive an onslaught of thousands of tourists tramping across it. Don’t do this yourselves please; as stated, I did this once only, by myself and without anyone knowing (until now!) so I wasn’t encouraging anyone else to do it, and I walked extremely carefully and slowly – giving the little wild things time to scurry away. That night I gazed up at the full moon and had an epiphany moment: I needed to pray and only three words could I utter: “Sorry” and “Thank you”. It was all that a prayer ever needed to be and totally genuine. The energy from the moon shot through me and I understood what it meant to draw down the moon.
I have been known to stomp off to Brodgar by myself at night after an argument with Mark. The return journey is 6 miles in total and I usually come back sodden wet, exhausted with sore feet, and feeling very sorry for myself. What I like is the fact that I can walk around at night by myself without any fear of being attacked (by humans) and I note that Brodgar exerts such a strong pull on me that my first thought is always to retreat there for solace whenever I need it. The Gods still don’t answer me when I am there in anger but I suspect they are keeping out of the way of my temper because they are back in my head by morning (although usually not until I have apologised to Mark).
To the north of Brodgar and uphill, just visible on the near horizon, lies the Ring of Bookan (OS Ref HY283144) which is usually interpreted as another henge site but has no obvious entrance. In the centre is a cist suggesting that Bookan could instead be an eroded chambered cairn or possibly even a disc barrow. Looking downhill to the south from this site provides an amazing vista over the whole ceremonial complex. I am not convinced this site is a henge myself because it doesn’t feel hengy enough!
To the south of Brodgar lies the third henge of the complex: the Stones of Stenness (OS Ref HY306125), dating from c3000 BCE. This henge is 44 ms in diameter with a ditch that was originally 2ms deep and 7ms wide. There are now four stones still standing, of the original twelve, although these may not be in their original settings, and a central “hearth” from which an acoustic effect is still easily produced. There may have been other stone and timber settings initially. In the mid nineteenth century it is recorded as being known as The Temple of the Moon (possibly because of the crescent moon shape that the remaining stones make) and couples would visit to perform a complex "engagement" ritual (refer to "Orkney Wedding Traditions" blogged on 9 July 2012).
There are a number of standing stones around Orkney, including some on the outer islands. There are three in the Brodgar area: the Comet Stone by Brodgar (OS Ref HY295132), the Watch Stone by Stenness (OS Ref HY305126), and the Barnhouse Stone to the south-east of Stenness (OS Ref HY312122).