Stonehenge is the traditional meeting place for Druids who want to celebrate the summer and winter solstices. In fact, Druids claim that their religion has been marking these celestial events for over 8000 years. There is a growing resurgence in the interest in Druidism, thought to be brought on by the surfacing of spiritual concerns that the mainstream religions fail to address.
In addition, there is more interest in the myths and legends surrounding the Druidic beliefs. As a result, Stonehenge is seeing greater numbers at solstice celebrations. However, while the link between Druids and Stonehenge is practically synonymous, do the Druids really have a claim to the megalithic circle?
Did the Druids build Stonehenge?
The simple answer is no and, apart from a small minority, no Druidic group would ever claim ownership over the site. While Druids feel a strong association with Stonehenge, it’s not because they claim to have built it, but because the circle represents a link to the pre-Christian past, which is where Druidism began. The Ancient Celts, who are thought to be responsible for early Druidism, didn’t expand to Britain until between the third and the fifth centuries. Stonehenge is believed to have been built some considerable time before that; around 1600 BC.
However, the Druids did have enough astronomical awareness to recognise Stonehenge’s significant situation and understand its links to the sun. In addition, the Druidic faith espoused the existence of ley lines; channels of power running through the Earth. Stonehenge was thought to have been built on a convergence of ley lines, making it an especially sacred site.
Yet, the link between Stonehenge and the Druids is practically indelible. How did that association begin?
How did the link with the stones begin?
The link seems to have been forged under the penmanship of a medieval writer, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Monmouth wrote a book entitled The History of the Kings of Britain. The story begins there, as the new British King Vortigern has seized the throne through treason. To achieve peace with Hengist and his Saxon army, Vortigern arranges a meeting with them at Salisbury Plain.
However, Vortigern is double-crossed and the Saxons pull out concealed daggers, slaughter 460 British Lords and capture the king. However, Vortigern is finally released and flees to Wales to build a huge fortress on top of Mount Snowdon with the help of the most famous Druid of all: Merlyn.
At his point, the rightful king, Aurelius, turns up and burns Vortigern alive in his tower, before marching off to avenge the slaughtered Lords. Aurelius defeats the Saxons and executes Hengist. In tribute to the Lords, Aurelius decides to build a monument on the site of their massacre on Salisbury Plain, and seeks counsel from Merlyn, to design an appropriate building.
Merlyn tells the story of an imposing stone circle in Ireland: the Giants’ Round on Mount Killaraus. According to Merlyn, the stone circle is virtually impenetrable and likely to stand forever. It’s desirability is further bolstered by the fact that no one is sure who built it and how they did so, given that the megaliths used are so massive. Aurelius decides to send his brother Uther Pendragon, along with 1500 men, to bring the stones to Salisbury. Uther fails, but enlists the help of Merlyn who completes the task single-handedly.
After his death, according to the story, Aurelius is then buried in the stone circle, followed by his brother Uther. Regardless of the fiction and myth surrounding the events in this tale, it is the first written association between the Druids and Stonehenge – a link that was cemented through this book.
The Men of Oak
However, there is further evidence to suggest that, while the Druids may well have used Stonehenge, the most certainly didn’t build it. The most enduring clue lies in the word ‘Druid’. Translated, ‘Druid’ means ‘men of oak’. The original Druids considered trees to be sacred and the most sacred of all was the oak tree. Consequently, they tended to meet in groves or forests, where they could tune into the power of Nature. It seems unlikely, then, that people for whom trees were so important would build a stone circle in an area that is and was virtually treeless.
It may well be that Stonehenge was used to initiate Druids. In Ireland, the Ancient Celts would leave initiates in caves overnight. Caves were seen as gateways to Mother Earth and the ritual was symbolic of going back into the womb to emerge as a new and wiser being. The circle of stones at Stonehenge may well have served a similar purpose – especially given that there was a further 50% of the structure in its original form.
With the rise of Christianity, the Pagans were seen as the ancient priests of the Britons and as a threat. The early Christians were keen to paint the Pagans as servants of the Devil, in a bid to establish Christianity as the primary religion in the UK. As part of this manifesto, the Druids were painted as savages who conducted bloody rituals and dark magic as part of their services to Satan.
The Christians were also responsible for the association between the Druids and Stonehenge, as they targeted the site as one of the main places where the Pagans conducted their ungodly rituals. Whether they knew it or not, the Christians are also partly responsible for defining the link between the stones and the Druids, although they painted it in a much darker light.
Today, the link is much more pronounced and open; Druids gather at Stonehenge to welcome in the solstices and have been granted the rights to do so. However, there are few Druids who would suggest that they have some legal claim to the site. The Ancient Druids had a strong belief in gateways; natural portals through which they could gain a greater and deeper insight into the world around them. Stonehenge could be viewed as one of these gateways - a portal through which Druids can catch a glimpse of the pre-Christian and nature-orientated past from which their religion originated.