from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Merrivale & the moor's white winter grasses

the veil of midwinter

snow upon snow
the moor's white winter grasses

at the threshold
of the greater silence

one unseen bird
calls us to the wild and hidden edges
of this world

Roselle Angwin


Today I was due to lead my pre-solstice Dartmoor workshop for the turning year, but, to my immense frustration, here in the gentle South Hams I find myself utterly snowed-in, our lanes impassable to cars (though I'm appreciating the hush, and the quiet solo walking nonetheless). So the next adventure will be for the vernal equinox, on March 20th.

I'm touched and honoured that two of the would-be participants braved it and went out anyway to our beautiful site of Merrivale. (Thank you, Brian and Robbie. Robbie came - what, 80 miles? - and over the snowy Bodmin Moor to make it.) It's a constant joy to me that one lights a touchpaper in some way and it rips into flame; so my 'Ground of Being - re-imagining the world' days have taken on a life of their own.

Merrivale is an utterly magical site. It consists of, primarily, two double long stone rows (and a vestigial single one off to one side), a small stone circle, a ten-foot-high menhir and various cairns and kists, probably all from the Neolithic. A little off to the north are a number of low stone walls marking later Bronze Age huts; in the days when these were erected the climate would have been gentler and the summers hotter than now for these early agriculturalists, living in cleared land in the great forest of Dartmoor.

The stone rows are aligned east-west. There are a number of theories as to their origin and purpose: a great terrestrial 'calendar', using astronomically-sophisticated stone markers to predict equinoxes and solstices (creating alignments to the most southerly point and most northerly point of the setting sun's annual journey in the west); alignments to mark the 'earth currents', 'serpent energy', or 'leylines' (Merrivale is only one of hundreds of interconnected sites in Britain, some of which supposedly mark out a great landscape giant, or zodiac constellations – according to which theory you subscribe to); or the remains of a serpent temple, like the much larger one at Avebury, in which the processional row/s of stones leading to an inner sanctum (the stone circle) were walked at certain times ceremonially.

It seems to me that none of these purposes is contradictory or mutually exclusive; quite the opposite, in fact. The leyline theory has been very well developed since Alfred Watkins first brought it to contemporary eyes in 1925 with The Old Straight Track. I could write a whole book myself on the follow-on from this, but for now let's leave it that Watkins found that many of Britain's ancient and significant megaliths and monuments, including the later siting of hilltop churches and chapels on ancient pagan sacred sites, suggested an alignment with each other and/or with the sun or a star. There are similarities with the Australian Aboriginal ideas of Songlines; and if we take an Oriental perspective on dragon-lines, we could see the leylines as being meridians of energy concentrated in specific nodal points (and measurable as electromagnetic force): the circles, menhirs and hilltop sites representing these concentrations of energy, rather like chakras.

All of these seem plausible to me; and I find the serpent temple idea a kind of synthesis of them all. Plus there's a neat and beautiful added extra in the serpent temple theory: as at Avebury, the processional rows seem to be laid out in alternating taller/thinner 'masculine' and shorter/squatter 'feminine' stones, implying its use as a symbolic ceremonial way of bringing the opposites together in order to transcend duality, perhaps at a significant time of year, such as Beltane, May 1st, with its fires – the Celtic midsummer, when earthly man and woman would also symbolically come together. I need to check this out, but it doesn't seem impossible to me that Merrivale is actually sited towards a May 1st sunrise, which might well make sense if the earlier proto-Celtic Goddess-focused Neolithic culture also centred their ceremonies on this date.

Pre-Bronze Age there is a mass of evidence to support this view that the spirituality of the time was focused on a Goddess-based culture with the earth revered as the great mother, and the serpent as one of Her sacred symbols: as in other older-than-Christian traditions, a mark of wisdom rather than something to be reviled/feared/suppressed. (I point you to the Caduceus, the healing staff of medicine, around which twine two snakes.) It seems to me that St George and his dragon-slaying has a lot to answer for, as does the notion of the 'evil' serpent in the Garden of Eden, if one assumes in both cases that the dragon (interchangeable with the serpent) is a symbol of the Old Religion, the pagan. (More another time on St George, St Michael and the dragon. Or see my book, Riding the Dragon - myth and the inner journey.)

The Neolithic peoples were acquainted with the most sophisticated principles of Pythagorean geometry – before Pythagoras. This is a bit staggering to our modern minds, which have a tendency to imagine that our ancestors lived brutish and crudely barbaric lives – though I am not wishing in any way to glamorize their time, they showed, in their monuments and artefacts, a profound understanding of cosmic principles.

And so, and so. The snow this morning brought vast numbers of little birds into the courtyard; the five territorial robins spent their time jouncing and jumping at each other while the finches and dunnocks and tits got on with the business of eating. The day seemed to call for the haunting plaintive 'white' music of Officium: the ancient plainsong of the Hilliard Ensemble woven around with the pure ethereal jazz sax of Norwegian (is he?) Jan Garbarek. I noticed again the beauty of the album cover, and of the little poetry quotes from Max Frisch, and Pound's 'Cantos'. And now this short day has wound down into the black-and-whiteness with which it started; and I shall go and check that my caramelly-fudgy-Christmas cake (thanks Dan Lepard of The Guardian) hasn't burnt while I've been thinking of things a bit further back than the two hours ago of insertion of cake into oven.

Thank you, Eloise, for the photo

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