Sunday, 8 March 2009

Hi followers

Upon logging on today I find I have some new followers - thanks and welcome to Blogosophia! With the snow falling in soft fat flakes outside my window, it's fair warmed the cockles of my heart to meet new friends.

Therefore I feel obliged to post something of interest to my new chums. While I was a student, my interest was very firmly rooted in the phenomenological aspect of megalithic sites. My earliest memory was of visiting what we called 'the boat-shaped tomb' a naveta on the Balearic island of Menorca. I must have been about 6 years old, but the experience of crawling between the ancient orthostats into the edifice has been profoundly enduring. The sounds of the tourists' snapping cameras died away, the heat and scents of the Spanish summer dwindled and I was alone in the cool dark. Rocky floors under my knees scraped and roughened my skin, yet the pain seemed less - as I hunkered down crab-walking into the deep recess of the tomb, I didn't feel scared or anxious, I felt peaceful and safe - only I was small enough of get inside easily enough, the adults could only see the sun bleached stone outside, only hear the ubiquitous 'egg'n'chips' accents while I was in the embrace of the centuries, of the ancestors... So I attach below the seminar I wrote, twenty something years later, but with the experience fresh and unsullied by the passing years.

Phenomenology: The Contemporary Experience of Megaliths

This seminar is going to attempt to account for the experiential and sensual interactions we have with purposefully integrated archaic, physical features in a landscape and address the popularist and enduring contemporary views of such sites as magical ritual centres.

The inspiration for this perspective is thus going to be drawn from three books: Chris Tilley’s The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in landscape Phenomenology, and Symbolic Landscapes, by Paul Deveraux. The third work is Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Religions of the British Isles: Nature and Legacy. This book I recommend as a ‘third way’ and intermediary work, archaeological and academic in premise, but structured for lay reading, it is extremely accessible and I recommend any of Hutton’s works. He attempts to reconcile the academic and the ‘new-age’ views of prehistoric sites as something spiritual and worth understanding as a conduit through which we can access the past.

I choose the first two works as they contrast starkly, and are what one can consider the academic and the lay viewpoints, on how modern humans experience and relate to the natural environment and its archaic megalithic enhancements by ancient peoples.
Let us first examine the current academic perspective favoured by Tilley. One must keep in mind that Tilley is an anthropologist and as such, endeavours to utilise a post-modernist, Interpretive approach. Remember, this is as much about how something ‘seems to us’, as well as ‘what is really there’. So, he applies a meta-physical, philosophical mode of thinking. This enables Tilley to relate what is ‘really there’ with ‘what appears to us’ to be there.

His acknowledgment of Merleau-Ponty illustrates that we may require skills and tools from other disciplines to aid us in understanding and interpreting what we are experiencing. Tilley uses Merleau-Ponty’s definition concurrent with his own motivations in philosophically explaining how we perceive the landscape and I would like to relate this to how we perceive megalithic remnants of past peoples. According to Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology
‘ a philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins- as an inalienable presence; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with a philosophical status... It also offers an account of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ in them.’

I will use East Aquhorthies circle in Aberdeenshire and the archetypal site of Stonehenge. What I want you to do now is to think about a standing stone, stone circle or megalithic environment you may have visited, read about or even just wish you could visit. Now try to become aware of how this mental recapturing of time and place makes you feel. What aspect s of the place do you remember? This should begin to illustrate what Tilley and Merleau-Ponty are describing when they attempt to relate what we physically experience with how it is sensually experienced. What you are doing now is entering a light trance-state. Keep a hold of this notion of reverie or altered state of consciousness, as I will return to it later.
Our physical body is the primary mode of experience: we see, touch; even smell, hear or taste the world around us – the five Aristotelian senses give us a basic interaction with our landscape.

But what about other senses , say, of time and place? Sense of wonder or confusion? Sense of scale and proportion? Sense of history, or something mystical. Is the surface of the monolith smooth or rough beneath your hand? Perhaps you even hear the colours, or see the sounds. This synaesthetic awareness collects together a multitude of abstract sensual experiences to form a ‘real lived’ awareness of your surroundings. Even if two of you are imagining Stonehenge, you will both be experiencing different things, different aspects; maybe one of you is imagining the circle in daylight, surrounded by other visitors, another may be picturing the place at sunset, the rays of light streaming through the gaps in the darkened stones. Are you outside the circle, or inside? Are the stones to your right or left, in front or behind you?

This is what Tilley is attempting to address – one’s meta-physical relation to the physicality of what you are actually experiencing. He calls this an ‘ontological ground for the study of things’. I want you to think about this as you recall and think about what the site you are recalling means to you in terms of what you experienced. It is with this in mind I wish you to indulge me a moment while I recount my phenomenological experience.

It is this sense of ‘lived experience’ of the world that, when I visited East Aquhorthies last year, made me feel and remember the various things I do. In that sense, my recall of the stones as warmed by the evening sunshine, the fragrance of meadowsweet in the air and the sense of camaraderie and fellowship with my dig buddies became part and parcel of how I personally experienced the stone circle. In our reveries, day-dreams or concentrated thought upon these megaliths are invoking a trance state – through which we connect to the unconscious – and begin to enable us to experience these places as would have been experienced by their contemporary peoples.

Tilley says ‘places gather together persons, memories, structures, histories, myths and symbols. Mental and material, symbolic and practical, wild and domestic, they constitute landscapes, collections of space-bounded structures and meanings’. We might bring to mind Levi-Strauss’ Structuralist concept of binary oppositions. Levi-Strauss also noted that not only do we work in myths, but myths work in us.
I sat inside the circle, with my back against a stone. I could see the far hill tops, the woods and fields. I felt timeless and embedded in the here-and-now all at the same time. The mead I had drunk formed the ‘soft-focus’ pictures I hold in my memory. The honeyed taste of the mead became interwoven with my memory of the stones, so that as I recall East Aquhorthies, the honey becomes part of the stone – I synaesthetically taste the stone. Remember, this is about what seems to us to be there, as well as what is actually there.

My ‘situatedness’ in my worldview made me experience that this place as mystical, and in a very un-archaeological way, I romanticised, in my mind the meaning of my experience as profoundly magical experience of being situated within the landscape. This is obviously a subjective and therefore extremely relativist experience, but this relates to a contemporary worldview that places such as these are inherently to be transformative– inside the circle is where the doorway to the intangible world of spiritual awareness – the magical realm.

This brings me to the second and Popularist perspective: the Mythologised Landscape. Here we must remind ourselves of Merleau-Ponty’s notion that phenomenological perspectives concentrate ‘upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world’. Deveraux’s work in the fields of ‘sacred geography’ attempt to reconcile the ancient way of thinking and experiencing landscape with the current wide spread beliefs about sites, like Stonehenge as part of a mythological landscape.

The popular view is of prehistoric use of the monument as a centre of sun worship, as shown in the Channel 5 documentary called the True Story of Stonehenge. This is a ritual that is re-enacted and enjoyed by peoples every year at the summer solstice. Many believe the druids built and used the site as a solar ritual centre. However, anthropologist Lionel Sims believes they may have used Stonehenge as a ritual centre, not only at Midsummer, but at Midwinter. Simms believes that sunset was of paramount importance perhaps the moon was also worshipped there on the longest night – a lunistice: the absolute antithesis of the popular view. What ‘actually’ occurred there is rather different to what is perceived as happening there...

Stonehenge, Ronald Hutton believes, is a ritual centre; this is a site that joins earth and sky, people and the cosmos, the mundane and the spiritual. The popular contemporary belief holds this to be true and has mythologised Stonehenge to be one of ritual, of druidic sun-worship. These views are about empowering the individual, being aware of the otherwise subconscious, making a connection with the past - remember Merleau-Ponty’s notion that this is about making a connection through something ‘direct and primitive’ though anthropologically, we might prefer to call in pre-logical or pre-scientific. What we are engaging in here is essentially non-linear, magical thinking. And where magical thought is concerned, scientific thinking is of no use. We cannot rationalise something that defies logic, though we can seek to explain it.

A state of consciousness that differs significantly from baseline or normal consciousness often identified with a brain state that differs significantly from the brain state at baseline or normal consciousness.’ Deveraux cites Carl Jung who wrote that ‘myth-forming structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche’, this is what is occurring with this mythologised popular contemporary view of megaliths. By forming a mythologized landscape, people are attempting a phenomenological connection with the past by transforming their thoughts – as you recall your experiences in your megalithic sites – you are altering your state of consciousness. This is the other-worldly quality megalithic sites are designed to evoke. By altering your state of consciousness, you can access your ‘unconscious psyche’, making a connection with the ancestors, times past and their legacy. You are experiencing something that transcends time and space and that is what phenomenological perspectives are attempting to achieve – it matter not what is actually there, in a sense – but what seems to be there to you.

That is not to say that we cannot have absolute knowledge about the past, but what we are concerned with here is not only what the megaliths are ’really, actually’ like – but how they seem to each and every one of us individually – we all, each and every-one of us have an inner landscape – it is the phenomenology (of landscape and megaliths) that allows us to make connections across the centuries and millennia – what we must endeavour o do is to be aware of this, and thus, we can experience megaliths like Stonehenge or East Aquhorthies, or the navetas of the Balearics the way our ancestors did.

© Jasmine Bonning 2007

Bibliography and References

Deveraux, P (1995) Symbolic Landscapes. The Dreamtime Earth and Avebury’s Open Secrets. Glastonbury, Gothic Image Pubs.
Hutton, R (1991) The Pagan Religions of the British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford: Blackwell
Levi-Strauss, C (1966) The Savage Mind. London: Weidenfield and Nicholson
Merleau-Ponty, M (1962) Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge
Merleau-Ponty (1968) The Visible and the Invisible. Evanston IL, Northwestern University press
Pennick, N (1989) Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition Aquarian Press
Scarre, C (2002) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe: Perception and Society During the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. London: Routledge (Ch 7. ‘Megaliths in a mythologised landscape’)
Sims, L (2006) The ‘Solarization’ of the Moon:Manipulated Knowledge at Stonehenge accessed at (Feb/March 2007)
Tilley, C. (2005) The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology: 1. New York, Berg


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