The story so far.....share your photos and stories about Merlin, druids and paganism to help us create a community Top 50!

Spending time outside – ‘connecting with nature’ – has been shown to boost our mental wellbeing and both the ‘climate crisis’ and ‘biodiversity crisis’ are heightening people’s interests in the natural environment. This connection with places runs deep for some visitors, particularly where the solstices and other pagan events are celebrated such as Avebury and Wayland’s Smithy. Whatever a person’s spirituality or beliefs, the stories of druids and Merlin make a visit to The Ridgeway curious and atmospheric. Read on below to find out more….

Nature-based or earth-centred spiritual philosophies and religions encourage an awareness and reverence of natural cycles, natural forces or energies and all living things. This includes paganism which is associated with the western end of The Ridgeway. The UK Pagan Council explains that ‘paganism has many different traditions, paths and ways of practice including (among others) Druids, Odinists, Shamans, Egyptians, Babylonians, Wiccans, Alexandrians and Gardnerians’. This video by The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids shows how some people experience The Ridgeway.

Animals and trees found along The Ridgeway, such as the raven and hawthorn, are special to pagans and there are also prehistoric sites considered sacred, including the stone circles at Avebury and The Sanctuary (Wilts), Silbury Hill (Wilts) and the long barrows of West Kennet (Wilts) and Wayland Smithy (Oxon). There are gatherings or ceremonies, particularly during festivals such as the summer and winter solstice revolving round ‘The Wheel of the Year’. Ceremonies relate to various themes such as birth/creation and death, fertility and harvest, reincarnation and ancestors, past and future, light and dark, heaven and earth. Rituals and traditions along The Ridgeway include tying small ribbons to hawthorn trees and collecting leaves and flowers to make wreathes which are then placed on sarsen stones.

The Ridgeway’s prehistoric monuments are thought to concentrate energy, built to connect heaven and earth through physical alignments or orientations of the monuments to the sun, moon and stars. This video shows an Autumn Equinox sunrise casting light into the West Kennet long barrow (Wilts). The Spring Equinox (20th-23rd March) takes place when the sun rises exactly in the east, travels through the sky for 12 hours and then sets exactly in the west. Summer solstice (20th-23rd June) celebrates the longest day of the year which some consider is the highest energy point of the year. Sunlight has been shown by modern medical science to stimulate the pineal gland which produces the ‘happy hormone’ called serotonin and some religions suggests this gland is the ‘third eye’ which leads to spiritual enlightenment.

At the time of these monuments being built, it is thought ‘the heavens’ indicated times to sow seeds, harvest, honour the dead and so on. These structures may have functioned as calendar, ‘giant sundial’, ‘astronomical calculator’ or gateway to other realms and indicate considerable astronomical knowledge and surveying abilities. David Furlong points out that the Obelisk stone, once standing over 20 feet tall in Avebury stone circle (Wilts), would have cast a shadow on the sunrise of the equinoxes towards the western entrance to the henge. The Sanctuary (Wilts) is considered another ‘sundial’. Nicholas R Mann has also shown that the ‘sky maps’ of Neolithic people were different to what we see today. At around 3,300BCE, he suggests the Milky Way would have become level with and visible around the entire horizon of Avebury each winter, with the stars of the Southern Cross and Cygnus pointing to the North and South poles to put Avebury at the centre of the universe!

A branch of paganism known as The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids describes how ‘the skies are an open book where the stories of the ancestors are written in cosmic clarity each night….we are able to access information about the past and future in the stars’. They ‘believe that walking the old tracks or hiking across the land can bring benefits that are spiritual as well as physical’. They seek to be sensitive to earth and water currents, ley lines and earth chakras as well as exploring electro-magnetic, ultrasound and acoustic properties of sites. Places such as Wayland Smithy (Oxon) can be a place for spiritual re-birth, whereby lying in the darkness of the burial chamber to deprive the senses is followed by returning to the bright world outside.

The first modern person to identify as a Druid was the antiquarian William Stukeley (1687-1765). Influenced by an earlier antiquarian John Aubrey (1626-1697), Stukelely proposed that the stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge were created before the Romans as ‘temples’ by ‘Ancient Britons’ for their Druid priests. Julius Caesar himself wrote that he came across druids and found them to be one of the two most important social groups, alongside the ‘nobles’. He said they were concerned with ‘the stars and their movements, the size of the cosmos and the earth, the world of nature’. It is thought that ancient druids were religious leaders, legal authorities, adjudicators, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors. The earliest known references to druids date back to the 4th century BCE.

Druids are sometimes associated with magic and the famous magician Merlin, advisor to legendary King Arthur, can be an important figure for druids. Local legend tells that Merlin asked Wayland, the Saxon god of metal working, to make the king a sword that we now know as Excalibur – perhaps this famous sword was made at Wayland’s Smithy (Oxon)? Another local story blames Merlin for  turning sheep to stone on Odstone Down in front of Ashdown House (Oxon)! Some say he is buried in Merlin’s Mound in Marlborough (Wilts) near The Ridgeway!

Note: Endorsement of any particular religion, belief or argument is not implied by the content of this webpage. Other religions, viewpoints etc will be reflected by other Top 50 webpages as the year progresses. The Ridgeway is a public space where we hope everyone is respectful towards each other and follows the Countryside Code. Everyone is invited to share their photos and stories to help us create a community Top 50 that reflects the diversity of people who care about and enjoy The Ridgeway.

Note: More information about Wayland’s Smithy is available in other Top 50 entries.

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