They say that nature abhors a vacuum, and so does the curious mind. It's impossible to resist speculating on the reasons for these sites' existence. If you're a tourist who visits these places, they're intriguing. If you're a pagan who assigns spiritual meaning to them, it's a compulsion. If you've been bitten by the standing-stones bug - megalithomania - then it's a way of life.
If you've been touched by the Land and consider Places to be your cousins, it's irresistible.
So, until there are improvements in archaeology or someone invents a time machine, everyone is an expert. And since the why's and wherefore's of stone circles have been preying on my mind for a bit, I think I'll indulge in a little speculation of my own.
I promise not to mention a Universal Cult of the Great Goddess, honest.
I'm going to start with the human condition. One of the defining things about being human is that we are self-aware. Other things - trees, creatures, stones - might well be aware, but we definitely are. To the human mind, there is a basic difference in thought between what happens to me and to not-me.
Different belief systems over time have wrestled with this fundamental dichotomy. In the Judaeo-Christian mythos it is mirrored in the separation of God from the world, and ultimately resolved by the sending of the Messiah. There's another fundamental dichotomy in that mythos too, that of good and evil, but in many ways this is the same split, with good taking the separated, celestial position of God and evil the degraded, physical, Earth-bound position. In Eastern religions the split is called yin-yang and the goal becomes achieving balance. In some pagan paths, especially Wicca, the split becomes the gender divide, and it is resolved by gender union (cf. the Great Rite).
All of these are abstractions of one thing into another. That's why you have to learn religion, especially if it's been hidebound in dogma. But they're all metaphors: they address that split in tangential ways.
Okay, time for speculation #1: That to a low-tech tribal people where everyone depends on everyone else for their survival, the distinction between me and not-me is blurred to a degree by the existence of an extended-me: the tribe. The tribe isn't directly me - it doesn't yell with pain when I stub my toe - but it is much closer than anything else. My identity is, in part, my tribe's, and what happens to them happens also to me.
The thing that has struck me most, in looking at circle sites, is the scale of their architecture. The stones are arranged on a human scale; they don't aspire to tower to heaven, or attempt to boggle the mind by covering huge areas. Fantastic intricacy isn't a feature of their design, unlike Gothic churches or Indian temples.
But what is fairly consistent is that the stones are roughly person-sized (not usually more than double or less than half a person's size) and are arranged as you might stand a group of people.
Move among the stones, and you experience the same sort of perspective and motion as if you were moving among people. Stand inside a circle and note how different the feeling is from outside the same circle, as your peripheral vision tries to resolve the stones into people watching.
Individual sites are often linked, along lines or into formations, by other sites or single stones. There is, in addition to this human scale, a relationship between the sites and the land, and that link is intimate.
During the total eclipse of August 1999, I was standing on a hillside gazing at the rainy bellies of clouds along with my wife and a loose crowd, waiting for totality. As it got darker, I noticed that the people became very still. As dusk finally descended, it became hard to make the individuals out. They became lumpen sillhouettes, startlingly like the stones of local sites.
When, at the darkest point, children started taking flash photographs, I was half-expecting to see stones, not people, illuminated by those flashes.
As the false night lifted, we were treated to a rapid dawning; the blue-black sky with its weird orange horizon resolved through grey to white, and the stones turned back into people.
This rapid dusk and dawn was a rare chance to rush through two of the most noticeable transition times, almost as if my consciousness was slowed down so that night appeared to pass more rapidly. Interesting stuff always happens at the interfaces. Magically, dusk and dawn are interface times, as is midnight and midday. On a larger scale the solstices and equinoxes, and cross-quarter festivals like Samhain and Beltane, mark the transition of time. The best landscapes are where the sea and land meet or where stone pierces the sky; the most interesting chemistry takes place across membrane barriers. In life, birth, death and puberty are transitions too. They're the punctiation, what turns life from a monotone into a song.
The scale of the architecture and the visual effects surrounding the stones at transition times has convinced me that the stones were intended in part to represent people. Not specific individuals - if that were the case then there would be detail carved into their faces. I am certain that if our neolithic ancestors wanted to carve the faces of those stones, they could have. The Egyptians acheived beautiful detail with stone tools.
I speculate that the stones represent anonymous people, or at least people whose identities change at different times or visits. In short they represent the mass of ancestors who, crowding away down through history, defined the tribe.
At the same time, the stones are not dressed. They are rough lumps of rock, mostly, set among the land so that their location works with the terrain and with other sites. They are made by man, and represent man, but they are of the land.
In this way, I feel that some megalithic sites represent an attempt to address the me/not-me dichotomy directly, without metaphor, in such a way as to allow someone uninitiated to "get it" just by being there. They are bridges, places whose aesthetic nudges the mind into fusing its own identity and that of its tribe with the vastness and implacable correctness of the natural process.
It is impossible to consider the meaning of megalithic sites without considering what it was that our ancestors actually did there. Of course here we are into pure speculation, unless we can muster up that time machine in the near future. But here are some thoughts:
Missing Stones - A common feature of West Country circles is a missing stone - a space in the circle where one stone is absent and always has been. This is presumed to be an entrance point, and to have evolved into the elaborate avenues of stones that can be found at sites like Avebury and Stanton Drew. But is that all there is to them? It is my opinion (pure speculation, remember) that the hole may have been filled by a human officiant - a priest or chief or shaman or judge or whatever - and that the living officiant formed a link between the stones, representing the ancestor biomass, and the persons inside the circle, whatever it was that they were doing.
Of course it is also entirely possible that the circles had non-religious uses . One example that always makes me smile is that of a cattle-corral, so different from the conventional interpretation of the site's purpose and just as valid a speculation. I personally feel that the corral is unlikely (when was the last time you saw farmers' architecture displaying such wonderful subtlety?) but that other uses would be highly likely. If the site was a focus for tribal identitiy then it seems credible that judgements were made there, that any council that these people may have had met there. Judging by modern visitors' habits, feasting would also have been high on the list!
The connection between these uses is one of gravitas: what is done at the site is done under the eyes of the Ancestors and the Land. Gods, as they always have, sit somewhere between the two. With such a weight of authority, it is impossible to resist the idea that sites may also have been used as oath-places. Swear to yourself and you may break the oath. Swear to your family, and you are less likely to fail. Swear an oath to the whole of your people as far back as can be imagined, to the heroes and heras of your line, to your gods and to the very Land on which you live, and by gum, you'll keep it.
Like I have said several times, this is all speculation. I can't prove anything I have said apart from the most obvious observations. Most of what I have suggested has been drawn from the aesthetic experience of being at some of these sites. In my mind, the aesthetic, sensual and spiritual faculties are closely allied, so close that they sometimes blur.
To me, what our ancestors did isn't vital. It's terribly interesting, of course, but it's not the goal. To me, the structure of these sites encourages personal experience. How you process that experience, what you do with it - that's up to you. Just remember not to override your experience with your preconceptions, or you'll just be transplanting something into a new place, and psychopomp drama is already all too common.
If your impressions of the site lead you to elaborate ritual, so be it. If they guide you to silent contemplation in the driving rain, or to ecstatic dancing until you trance from exhaustion, go with it, take it as far as you wish.
One thing is clear, though. To last this long, these sites were respected by their creators. We should do the same.
First of all is the Rollright Trust, the guys who own and look after the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire. Well worth a visit, and if you can spare the time, always in need of volunteers. I think volunteering makes a much nicer offering to the spirits than anything else.
If you're after an online gazetteer of sites you could do a lot worse than visit this site which covers the entire UK. Submit photos and descriptions if you can, to help fill the blanks.
The responsibility of care that we have inherited towards these sites is something that a lot of people take very seriously, especially ASLaN - the Ancient Sacred Landscapes Network. If you're a pagan who visits ancient sites, read their stuff!
And if you do visit these places, take a look at my twin sister's site damage report database. Your help is needed!
And to finish, an odd link: Stone Circles in Gambia for the travellers among you.