Would You Eat Your Lunch in a Cathedral?

Musing at Scorhill Stone Circle, England 

We trudged up the bleak hill, brown and barren. My husband, Gary, and I were hiking with a small group in desolate, wild Dartmoor National Park to a place we’d never been, following a faint path through the moor, a track barely visible in the water-logged, peaty soil.  Our guide informed us that people can easily lose their way on the moors—experienced hikers, skilled in reading maps, disappear, their bodies found years later. 

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Clearly, we were entering a dangerous place, a place “in-between” the known and unknown worlds. Specifically, we were going to Scorhill (AKA Gidleigh) Stone Circle, one of the largest and most intact stone circles in Devon: approximately 27 meters (88’) in diameter, originally composed of between 51 to 70 upright stones. Now, only 34 remain.

I saw a knee-high standing stone next to a tiny glistening pool. “Is that an entry marker for the stone circle?” I asked and pointed. Our guide said, “No, it’s just a stone.” But I felt drawn to it. I walked over to the narrow granite slab and greeted it, centering myself for a few minutes. Suddenly my eyes filled with tears, my perception shifted, and I felt myself become a pilgrim on a journey rather than an ambler on an outing. This was puzzling but perhaps not so surprising: the moor was filled with an almost palpable primordialenergy. Silently, I asked permission to continue on this path. I waited for an equally silent response.

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Permission granted, I moved more slowly now, more intentionally, sensing myself a participant in an invisible ritual procession across the moorland. I seemed to be journeying not only through space but also back through time. 

I followed the trail over rolling hills until a large circle of standing stones came into view on the slope below me: Scorhill Stone Circle is its modern name, but I heard within me its true name, “Holy Place between Two Hills beside a River.” Places like this, I somehow knew, were too sacred to be referred to more directly. Just as observant Jews will not pronounce the name of God but use circumlocutions, and the TV character Horace Rumpole referred to his wife as “She who must be obeyed,” so, too, this holy place was respectfully referred to by a description, not a name.

I wept at the sight of this ruined temple. Some of the granite stones were broken, others on their sides. Of the original stones, 23 stood upright, 11 recumbent. In its prime, each stone had been carefully placed in just the right location, forming a circle of energy, an interface for humanity to encounter the Cosmos. Standing in the center of the circle, you can still watch the sun set over the tip of the highest stone, 8’ tall, on Midsummer’s Eve—the Summer Solstice—connecting earth to heaven, humans to seasons and cycles. Other astronomical alignments now lie hidden beneath the sadly shifted stones.

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I approached gently, walking slowly around the periphery, knowing that I had been given permission to come here but not yet permission to enter. While I circumambulated, our guide described the purpose of several of the stones. “Lean against the tall stone in the northwest for accessing creativity. Lean against the shorter triangular one in the northeast for wisdom.” Our guide then strode through the circle and sat against a chosen stone to meditate. 

Although we were far from the nearest settlement, we were not alone. Hikers strolled into the circle, accompanied by dogs on leashes. A family with young children played a game of hide and seek. Someone sat on an upturned menhir and pulled out his picnic lunch. A young couple took photos of themselves posing in unusual positions against the stones.

I watched in horror, seeing with eyes from a different, ancient time. I wanted to raise my arms and scream: “Would you eat your lunch in the middle of a cathedral? Have you asked permission to enter these hallowed grounds? This is a temple, not a playground! This is sacred land, not a photo op!”

But I restrained myself, making do with ranting to my beloved Gary that people need to honor these places, even if they don’t know what they were built for. Ignorance was no excuse for such abysmal rudeness. Who gave them permission to enter this sacred site? Would you barge into a stranger’s house without so much as knocking on the door? Of course, most people never even think to ask.

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As Gary and I talked, I realized that my outrage has a larger source, a bigger circumference: it came from my concern about how we commoditize nearly everything. We modern humans tend to view things as objects for our use and misuse. Using this sacred circle of stones as a picnic ground or a photo backdrop were just obvious examples of how we treat things as commodities. We ask: what can we get out of it—sexual energy, wisdom, a “selfie” photo shot—not what can we do for it. It’s about taking, not giving. 

We commoditize sacred sites. We commoditize Gaia, the Earth herself, seeing her as a source of metals and petroleum and whatever else we think we need and want to take. We commoditize each other.

Even with good intentions, sacred sites can easily be turned into commodities. Stonehenge, for example, has a new visitors’ center aimed at providing a bigger, better commercial—and educational—opportunity to the myriad tourists who want to see the famous monument. In order to provide a more “authentic” experience, the nearby road has been removed. Now you have to either walk over a mile or take a 10-minute shuttle ride. From there, you circle the monument on a carefully laid-out sidewalk with strategically placed benches. 

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You can’t get close to the stones. The sidewalk is bordered by a protective defensive cordon. You can only experience the monument visually, and only from a distance. Unless, that is, you want to take the next step in commoditization and pay extra for a private “special access” tour, one you may be sharing with up to 24 other people. And even then, you still can’t touch the stones. Guards keep an eagle eye to make sure you don’t lean against them to feel their temperature, their texture, their energy.

I know it is a difficult and complex thing to manage the impact of 800,000 tourists a year who want to visit Stonehenge. I presume the management at Stonehenge (and other similar sites, like the Carnac Alignments in Brittany) is intended to protect these ancient sites from being destroyed by their own popularity. But it seems to me the true purpose of these sites has been forgotten or intentionally ignored: they weren’t tourist attractions, they were sacred sites. They are sacred sites. And some still hold the energies with which they were constructed.

At places like Scorhill Stone Circle there are no ticket kiosks, no audio guides, no souvenir shops. There is no management, no control, and no external protection of the site. At such places we have the rare opportunity to interact directly with an ancient sacred site. Standing before the stones in the “Holy Place between Two Hills beside a River,” I realized that with this opportunity comes responsibility. Instead of asking, “What can this site do for me?” I felt compelled to ask, “How can I honor and protect this powerful place?”

Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. Her blog is www.powerfulplaces.com/blog. Her most recent book is Where Heaven and Earth Unite – Powerful Places, Sacred Sites, and You,” co-authored with Ferran Blasco. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com.

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