How might Stonehenge have been experienced and used by people in the prehistoric past? 

 As archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes observed in 1967, ‘Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires’. This includes an astronomical calculator or observatory demarcating the seasons, a place of healing for pilgrims, a hot spot for magical rituals, a gathering place for community festivities and worship, a spaceship landing pad, as symbolic of female genitalia, shrine to the fertility of Mother Earth, and a 21st-century focal point of ‘New Age counterculture and environmental activism’ (Nayeri). 

Taking a more focused, if less colourful, stance, Heath (137) suggests we compare ancient structures like Stonehenge to modern ‘big science’ particle accelerators and large array telescopes because form follows function. In other words, like particle accelerators and large array telescopes, Stonehenge is uniquely suited to some specified purpose, and once we have identified purpose, experience and usage go hand in hand. But what if Heath is wrong? What if, at least with Stonehenge, form does not follow function, but function follows form? What if, because of its form, Stonehenge possesses a unique, magical agency or potency that manifests in being experienced and or used as diversely as Jacquetta Hawkes has suggested? 

The British anthropologist, Alfred Gell, suggests this could be the case (Layton).  In Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Gell notes that when assessing ‘art’ in an anthropological context, we must move beyond semiotics and ‘sign vehicles’(Jamieson). Instead, we must consider such art as imbued through human intentionality, an act of the mind, will, or belief that initiates causal sequences of events, which may or may not play out as intended (Gell, 16), with the power to invoke an emotional response in observers as if such art were a living presence.[1] Building upon James George Frazer’s work on sympathetic magic (which relies on imitation, or mimesis, and a belief that like produces like), Gell (101-103) concludes that with the benefit of human intentionality, the intrinsic mechanism between visual cognition and subtle psychological insight instils art, which outwardly, may have an obvious practical purpose (such as a canoe or knife), with an inner magical force that, through thought control, acts as social markers, reinforcing or challenging power structures, hierarchies and cultural norms. 

Following Gell’s theory, we might view a Māori meeting house not only as a cultural symbol or statement of ancestry and descent, as is often touted, but as a vehicle of collective power which both displays and cements the groups’ vitality whilst, at the same time, effectively disempowering that of others (Layton, 454, and Gell, 251-258). True, the meeting houses were houses and used as such. But the effect of such structures in the minds of those experiencing or using them extends far beyond that. In this regard, Gell (258) concludes that rather than viewing these houses as houses or even as symbolic of other things, we ought to view them as a cognitive process, an ‘external (and eternal) disposition of public acts of objectification’, ‘an evolving ‘consciousness’ that ‘transcends the individual cogito and the coordinates of any particular here and now’. 

Frazer examined numerous myths from multiple cultures across various time periods and discovered repeated fundamental similarities or patterns that he believed somehow originated in the human mind. These patterns, which he called archetypes, operate on a ‘faith in order as the underlying principle of all things’(Frazer, 15439). Although Gell (100-101) found Frazer’s rationale for the causation behind these repeated patterns inadequate, he nonetheless found Frazer’s work beneficial once tweaked. Frazer’s patterns relevant to Stonehenge and its many suggested uses or experiences include ritual sacrifice undertaken for purposes of physical or spiritual renewal, fertility and regeneration rites, especially regarding the mother-goddess, communal seasonal festivals to celebrate the various phases of the passing year or to ensure, through magic ritual, a bountiful harvest. 

Like Gell, psychologist Carl Jung built on Frazer’s work (Uytman), suggesting these common patterns or archetypes, which he determined are pre-existent, inherited, and precede conscious understanding, reside in our collective unconscious (Robertson, 148); for Jung, archetypes do not determine the content of experience but provide an array of possible images to be actualised and constrained in form (Adams, 107).[2] Jung believed that true archetypes or symbols (to be contrasted with signs, which merely stand in a concrete one-to-one relationship to something else) are imbued with psychic energy. In other words, symbols which are not reduced to signs or dead abstractions are ‘alive’ and ‘pregnant with meaning’(quoting from CW: 6; 817, Robertson, 148). Although these symbols are collective images, they manifest through one’s personal conscious, so we must expect variations on the theme (Adams, 108). Indeed, citing ancient Egyptian history, Jung reminds us that during shifts of the Platonic month (approximately 2,000 years long), psychic energy manifestations change on a large scale (Jung, 1958, 11). 

The mandala or circle, which Jung thought to be a special category of symbol or archetype, is of interest to Stonehenge because, at least since 2550 BCE, the site has comprised a series of concentric stone and earth circles (Fagan, 154). Jung has noted that, at least in a ritual context, the circle operates to focus consciousness, perhaps not unlike how the Māori meeting houses funnelled the consciousness of men and women to bolster the vitality of one group whilst diminishing that of others. Jung also noted that concentric circles are especially efficacious in shutting off the outside world whilst holding whatever is happening inside the circles together (CW: 9 355-56). He also noted that the four directions, east, south, west, and north, are often integral to this psychic structure, which in ritual, is often used to initiate contact with the gods; perhaps the apparent alignment of Stonehenge with the winter and summer solstices (which have shifted over the course of millennia), might have facilitated such contact in bygone days.[3] In both a ritual and nonritual context, Jung noted that the circle was considered a place of safety, a place where men felt protected from being flooded by the unconscious. In this sense, the circles would, in essence, cast a magical spell on the individuals involved (CW 9: 360-61).

As mentioned earlier, Gell (101) suggested that magic occurs through a mix of intentionality (an act of the mind, will, or belief) and mimesis. Jung, believing psychic energy can only appear in consciousness in the form or guise of images and symbols, also was well aware of the relationship between magic and active imagination, or the intentional stimulation of those symbols and images in the unconscious (Adams, 110 and Greene, 77-8 and 93). 

Put all this together and suppose that, for whatever reason, the prehistoric people who successively built and used the concentric circles of Stonehenge intentionally (either consciously by mind and will or unconsciously through belief)  imbued them with psychic energy in keeping with the archetype of the circle. In that case, it only makes sense that that energy would manifest in the consciousness of people who later experience those circles in an array of possible images constrained by its form, including fertility and regeneration rites, especially regarding the mother goddess, an enclosed space for communal seasonal festivities, a place of magic ritual, a place of healing, as well as a 21st-century focal point of ‘New Age counterculture and environmental activism’. The latter is particularly interesting given that Jung considered the circle as the symbol of ‘the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between man and the whole of nature’ (Jung, 1964, 240). Likewise, even the suggestion of Stonehenge as a spaceship landing pad would seem anticipated by Jung. He specifically wrote about the manifestation of such psychic content involving spaceships and flying saucers as associated with the circle archetype, especially in its capacity to protect men from being flooded by the unconscious and, perhaps even more intriguing in this respect, time slips where future, present, and past are ironically unified (Jung, 1958, 27). 

In summary, it is unlikely we will ever agree on how Stonehenge was experienced and used by people in the prehistoric past, at least not if we accept Alfred Gell’s anthropological art theory, which suggests  Stonehenge is imbued with a certain magical agency which, through cognitive processes (perhaps not unlike that suggested by Jung and Frazer) will manifest in many different forms or themes. If Gell is right, then it would seem that, as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes has suggested, every age will enjoy Stonehenge as it deserves or desires in keeping with the various archetypes or repeating patterns inherent in its form.

[1] For Gell, art includes objects that (1) are made to be seen, (2) come into existence through human agency, and (3) fascinate, compel, and entrap or delight the observer. Arguably Stonehenge, a visually imposing man-made structure covering an area seven-and-a-half times the size of New York City’s Central Park, fascinates over a million visitors yearly, qualifies as art in this sense. [2] Whilst Gell was influenced by Jung’s work regarding the impact of the collective unconscious on the material world, he was concerned it was not fully developed enough to support his own theories (Gell, 88).  [3] Unhewn stones like those at Stonehenge, were believed by primitive cultures to be natural dwelling places of spirits of gods (see Jung, 1964, pp 232 – 39).


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