Column: A Pilgrim at Stonehenge

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Pagan Perspectives

My suitcase is an antique, a big red leather monster. It doesn’t do anything that modern luggage is supposed to do. Suitcases today have wheels and collapsible handles, so that there’s no difference between carrying one change of pants or twenty. Mine doesn’t have that, and I kind of like it that way. Suitcases are meant to be picked up and carried, hefted with one’s own arms and back. You’re supposed to carry your own burdens. If they prove too heavy, pack lighter.

This is easy for me to say at home when I dig it out of the closet and annoy my wife with my regular impersonation of Harry Bailey. I don’t want one for one night, I say, while she rolls her eyes. I want something for a thousand and one nights! But right now I find myself longing for a suitcase designed to be rolled down the cramped aisle of a train or airplane, especially when I hear a woman’s voice cry out from behind me.

Another woman, sitting next to her, reaches for her arm. “Oh, dear, are you alright?”

“Well,” says the first, “I’ve just been hit in the head with that man’s bloody suitcase…”

She is middle-aged, holding a small white dog in her lap, and rubbing her forehead. I start to apologize profusely. She waves me on, and I struggle down the rest of the aisle. There is not a single empty seat in this railway car. I cross into the passageway between the carriages and peek into the next: it doesn’t look any more promising. Three other passengers are already leaning against the walls around the toilet trying to make the best of it. I take a spot right in front of the exit doors, already feeling like a buffoonish American tourist, and wonder what the hell I am doing here.

It has been a long morning.

Stonehenge [Photo Credit: garethwiscombe/Flickr]

I must look ridiculous. On my best days, I am still a 300 pound man who hasn’t had a haircut in five years, and this is not my best day. On the flight from America, I was forced to watch Suicide Squad on repeat for nine hours. I have had no time to find my room in London, much less to drop off my bags and exchange money at a rate better than the highway robbery of the airport. And I am running an hour behind to an already tight appointment.

If I had been smart, I would have come in a day early and gotten all these necessities taken care of before I set off for adventure. But I am not smart; I am a romantic. And so here I am, standing in the forbidden zone between the carriages, clutching my monstrous suitcase and hoping that someone will get off at the next station so I can steal their seat. I only pray it’s not in the same row as the woman with the dog.

But then I see the English countryside out the window, barren and frosty and beautiful, and I remember why I chose such an impractical itinerary. It is December 18th, 2016, my first day in England, and I am on my way to celebrate the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge.

It is not actually the Winter Solstice yet; that’s on the 21st, when thousands of people will turn up to Stonehenge to see the sun set between the pillars of one of the trilithons. I don’t expect the gathering today to be so well attended. Claudia belongs to a group called the Cotswold Order of Druids, who have a two-hour reservation of Stonehenge for their personal Solstice ritual, and through her I got an invitation to come along. I imagine the Neolithic builders would be confused as to why anybody would insist on worshiping at their complex on a day other than the solstice. Did you notice the thing with the sunset? We worked really hard on that. But holding the ritual on the “wrong day” doesn’t bother me at all; my family coven almost never has its rituals on the actual day of the solstice either. Celestial events have the frustrating tendency to happen during the work week, so we always celebrate them on the nearest Saturday instead.

The train lets me off in Salisbury, the railway station nearest to the stones. Outside the train station a man in an olive green double-decker bus ushers me aboard, assuring me that it’s the fastest way to Stonehenge. I hope he’s right; my appointment with the Druids started ten minutes ago. I take a seat up top, the first of many such seats I’ll take during my time in England, and find a pair of earbuds on my cushion and a coterie of teenagers sitting behind me. The driver’s audio tour of medieval Salisbury doesn’t hold my attention; I have never been one for guided tours. I get that from my father, who believes that any good vacation depends on the whims and wits of the traveler.  I spend most of my time staring at my phone, watching the minutes creep by. The bus gets paralyzed for ten minutes by a Christmas handbell choir blocking the street, and I wonder what the laws are in England regarding vehicular assault.

When we finally get to the Stonehenge visitor’s center, I grab my backpack –filled with books I will never find time to read while traveling, and of whose weight I am becoming more and more conscious – and my ponderous red suitcase and run down the double-decker’s steps as fast as I can, hoping I’m not too late. Among the people milling about outside of the visitor’s center – a strange edifice, a sloping metal veranda covering three buildings made of glass, metal, and wood, the sort of thing where millions of pounds were spent to make it look ramshackle – are a group of people I certainly hope are the Druids. They look the part – cloaks and old-fashioned dresses, carved staves, flowers in their hair. I approach a woman who looks to have served several tours of duty in the Goth movement.

“Uh, hello,” I say. She looks at me with dark eyes framed by thick mascara, past a nose with studs on either side of the bridge. “I hope that my broad American accent charms her, or at least makes her take pity on me. I’m looking for Veronica – do you know if she’s here?”

“We’re all wondering where Veronica is, dear.”

Veronica Hammond is the Archdruid of the Cotswold Order of Druids, and also the only person supposed to be at this gathering with whom I have spoken before – Claudia introduced us on Facebook. Claudia herself told me that she wouldn’t be able make it to the ceremony, dashing my plans to talk to her about Deryck afterwards. Despite that, the muscles in my shoulders relax for the first time since I left St. Louis. I look around at the druids, and with them I feel, if not at home, then at least reminded of home. I am not with my Pagans, but I am at least with Pagans, and that is comforting in itself.

I set my suitcase down and unzip it enough to pull out some clothes. At the moment, I’m wearing black slacks and a black t-shirt I got from the Lightning Across the Plains festival, which looks like a souvenir from a black metal concert. (The aesthetics of Heathenry and heavy metal music are remarkably similar.) My clothes make me the odd man out in this crowd of robes and cloaks and holly crowns. Thankfully I have appropriate garb with me – though not due to my own foresight.

Veronica left a note on the Facebook invitation: We will be going in the daytime when there are tourists visiting in their hundreds, so we have to appear to be orderly and professional. As we are going in under the name of the Cotswold Order of Druids, we are expected to wear robes, cloaks or any other suitable garments, preferably white. I panicked when I read it. I was already in St. Louis by the time I saw it, and had left all my ritual supplies at home in Columbia – I hadn’t even considered that I might need anything besides regular clothes. I’m going to show up in a t-shirt and be banished from Stonehenge, I thought, shunned by druids the world over. I began working out a plan to cut up a bedsheet before my five AM flight – and then stopped in my tracks. I opened the trunk of my car. Inside, a little crumpled, lay my beloved green cloak, which I bought at a Heartland many years ago. I smoothed it out, admiring the brass clasp pinning it together at the collar, a souvenir I brought back from Iceland. My cloak, my constant companion on my pilgrim’s progress. I hadn’t meant to bring it; as it happens, I don’t own an umbrella, so I keep the cloak in the car in case of rain. But I knew as soon as I saw it in the trunk that it would have to come with me to England.

I pull the cloak over my head, along with a creamy white robe I stole from my father’s dresser in St. Louis. The Goth woman watches and turns ever so slightly away. No matter – in my pilgrim’s costume, I blend in well enough that any tourist would take me for a genuine Cotswold Druid, at least until I opened my mouth.

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge [Courtesy English Heritage]

One woman with auburn hair weaves in through the throng of druids wearing a crown of holly leaves; in one hand she holds a staff with vines of ivy crawling down its length, and in the other, slips of paper. She offers me one, and I unfold it:

O the rising of the sun

And the running of the deer,

The singing of merry Pagans

Gathered in the bower…

“The Holly and the Ivy,” a Pagan version anyway. My wife and I had used our own version as the basis of the Sabbatsmeet Yule ritual the year before – the only time I’ve done a ritual that was truly “sung through.” It makes me smile – I’m always happy to steal something back from Christianity.

Eventually Veronica arrives, and although we have never met in person, she hugs me and introduces me to everyone in earshot as though I were a long-lost nephew. “Everyone, this is Eric Scott. He’s come here all the way from America this morning just to be with us!” She is graying and vivacious, and from the moment she appears, she takes command of the disorganized mob of Druids and ushers us all towards the busses to Stonehenge proper. I stick near Veronica, and we end up near the front, past the safety line on the floor of the bus. I stuff my things behind me and squeeze against the wall, trying not to jostle a gentleman seated nearby with a large skin drum balanced on his knees.

“Why didn’t you tell somebody about your luggage?” Veronica asks. “Somebody would have stowed it in their car for you.”

“I’m afraid I never think to ask favors from strangers,” I say.

“I hardly think of us as strangers,” says Veronica. “Too late now, unfortunately, but that’s alright. I’ll be leading the group into the stones, at the head of the line, with a few people following – our banner-bearers and gatekeepers. You follow right behind them, near the front. You’ll be our special guest.”

Behind me a Morris troupe’s band begins to play, hand drums and banjos, guitars and pennywhistles, and in the old English folk music I can hear the ghost of Tom Kaczmarz, one of the old men of my family coven, dead now for five years or more. I feel as though I am too young to be haunted by the dead, and yet every so often Tom’s ghost walks with me, as he does now, playing his spectral pennywhistle, Morris bells jangling on his ankles. The music plays us around the bend, to where at last the stones lay ahead of us, standing in the middle of a field so plain as to make one think the stones themselves had leveled the land around them, made them impervious to time, an illusion shattered only by the busy highway passing too close behind.

In the aged agelessness of a place like Stonehenge, one gets taken in by the hope that the sight before you is the same sight enjoyed by every visitor over the centuries, that every pair of eyes sees the same stones. It’s a false hope, because every place, even those that seem immune to time, faces constant shaping: men with pickaxes and flashlights and archeological logbooks shape them, traffic commissioners in London plan highways next to them, they are worn away by the rain, by the glacial advance and retreat of lichen among the pocks in the stone. Still, the hope remains. I think of Deryck, the oldest name in my lineage, whose Druidic name was supposedly Sylvester, walking up this hill to the stones. Did he see what I see? When he was here, with his Druids, did he crest this hill, see this ring of rocks, feel the same weight as I do now?

Veronica leads us to the threshold of the stone circle, but we veer, spinning now in a great curve around the edges of the trilithons. I turn and see the druids unfurling behind us, a line of robes and cloaks and knit caps to keep out the cold. The Morris dancers, clad in tatterdemalion black and red and blue, their faces painted in dark, inhuman hues, spin and twirl in time to the drums. We are close enough now to the stones to touch them, but I do not touch them. My restraint is less due to fear of clandestine agents of English Heritage bursting from the crowd to arrest me, but rather due to the superstition that to touch these mossy remnants of a world long past would be to shake myself from the dream, to find myself back on the plane, Harley Quinn still leering from the flickering screen ahead.

In a few moments, when the ritual begins, we will go around the circle and introduce ourselves; most of the druids come from the Midlands, near Oxford or Birmingham or Stratford-on-Avon. Stonehenge is not next door for them, but it’s close enough to reach in a few hours’ drive. How strange that seems to me, to be so close to such a mythic place. Stonehenge exists so much in the collective Pagan unconsciousness that that it’s still a shock for me to discover the place actually exists, sitting in the middle of an Amesbury field.

We claim this place as ours, though we have no claim to it. Our traditions, still newborns, did not raise these stones. Yet perhaps what has been made sacred remains sacred, even when memory has left it mute. We find such a place, ancient and alien, and we clothe it in our own rags. The stones belong only to the stones – but what the stones mean, that’s something we make for ourselves.

Our snake of druids bites its tail and stops outside the only place where the lintels connecting the plinths of the outer ring of stones remains intact. The gatekeepers take their places. They open the door, and Veronica steps through, followed by other Druid leaders. The gatekeepers cross their staves to ward the rest of us away. We stand there together, our breath curling in the midwinter air.

I see two ravens sitting on the lintel of a trilithon, watching me.

The gatekeepers gesture for me to come forward.

And I am surprised to hear myself saying words beneath my breath, the words that have ever been my invocation to magick: This is the circle, this is the space between the worlds. Here be magick, and here be love. So mote it be.

I approach, a weary pilgrim with a ridiculous red suitcase in my hands. The druids uncross their staves, and I step through the gate, step through to Stonehenge.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.