Visiting Stonehenge and Purchasing Spirituality

I’ve remembered it’s com­ing up to that day again. I went to Stonehenge for the sol­stice once. I’m glad I went, but I doubt I’ll go again. There were a couple of big disappointments.

One was the lack of a vis­ible English Heritage pres­ence. There were an estim­ated 20,000 people there who wanted some con­nec­tion to the past. I would have thought that was a good tar­get audi­ence for EH. At the very least there’s money to be made with the Solstice 2012 t-shirts to be sold. The offi­cial sol­stice blankets for those who for­got to bring one, sol­stice kagouls and umbrel­las for when it rains and so on. It’s also an excel­lent time to attempt guilt-tripping people into join­ing EH to sup­port access to ancient sites. They might have trouble with this last one as they’re not known for sup­port­ing access to Stonehenge on the sol­stice, but it’d be worth a try. The impres­sion I got (rightly or wrongly) was that EH had aban­doned the site for the night.

Drunk man standing on a stone at Stonehenge acting like an arse.

A rev­el­ler wel­comes the arrival of lager and, pos­sibly, the Sun.

The other was the sheer mess around the site. Everyone got a bag as they went in for their rub­bish. It doesn’t have to look like this. After all the fight­ing over access in the 1980s and 90s, is this a place people come are they here to cel­eb­rate or to conquer?

On the plus side I got a les­son in the dif­fer­ence between mod­ern Pagans and New Agers. The Pagans ten­ded to look dig­ni­fied and patient. Quite a few had their cere­mo­nial robes on, but not all. The easi­est ones to spot were those who’d let their beards down for the night.

In con­trast the New Agers were laden with mys­tical kit, and were often very purple. They’d looked agit­ated and annoyed. Every time someone elbowed in the ribs, she’d be wear­ing a pointy hat as if to com­pensate for the clothes she was wear­ing would ideally be on someone taller. There’d also be a purple scarf and purple jumper hid­den beneath at least half a dozen medal­lions. I should have heard them com­ing with the vari­ous eso­teric bangles and brace­lets they were wear­ing.

As sun­rise got closer the New Age people looked vis­ibly more grumpy. I thought this was because the circle was packed solid, but after a while it looked as though they were annoyed that the Sun was blocked by clouds, like it nearly always is. I tend to be short on sym­pathy when I’ve been up all night, so they went from being an irrit­a­tion to being some­thing com­ical. They obvi­ously paid a lot of money for the kit, and paid to get to Stonehenge. They were pur­su­ing spir­itu­al­ity through con­sumer­ism, and the sun had com­pletely failed to respect their beliefs by hid­ing behind a cloud instead of appear­ing at sun­rise like they had paid for.

If I’d writ­ten up my trip the next day, the Pagans would have done well out of it. They’re con­sidered a soft option to mock, but from an athe­ist view I don’t see them as par­tic­u­larly silly. They’re try­ing to con­nect with what it means to be in the uni­verse and part of the cycle of the sea­sons. On the other hand New Agers would have done badly.

The day before I’d been try­ing to pho­to­graph another ancient site. I was hav­ing dif­fi­culty set­ting everything up. It was a busy day with lots of people around. Children would cheer­fully run around scream­ing and adults would inad­vert­ently walk in the way and apo­lo­gise, but there was noth­ing to apo­lo­gise for. It’s not like I owned the site and it was a nice sunny day. I was pre­pared to wait. What I didn’t expect was a bunch of people dom­in­at­ing the tombs I was look­ing at for the next hour.

There were one or two middle-aged men, many more middle-aged woman and per­haps a young couple. They also had a leader and some bloke who was the staff-maker. I knew he was the staff make because the leader of the group spent a long while admir­ing his mighty staff in a loud voice, describ­ing how mag­ni­fi­cent it looked as he held it proud and erect.

I’m doing the leader a ter­rible dis­ser­vice in this descrip­tion as her penis allu­sions were noth­ing like as subtle.

Anyway, my impres­sion of New Age believ­ers was that their abil­ity to take part in spir­itual beha­viour was a deep as their purses. For people seek­ing to reach out and com­pre­hend cre­ation and its mean­ing, they seemed amaz­ingly unwill­ing to look bey­ond them­selves. Add in the elbows and sense of enti­tle­ment at Stonehenge and they looked extremely intolerant.

Maybe this was a self-selecting sample. It’s pos­sible there were plenty of open-minded and inclus­ive New Age believ­ers, but it was the purple ones who were the pains.

With time, and after the bruises had healed, there was more to think about. Much tele­vi­sion and advert­ising is geared to the belief that you can buy a life­style. If reli­gion is, in part, about you then is this some­thing you can pur­chase too? If, after pur­chas­ing the car, the house, the iPod, the clothes and the HD-TV you still feel like you lack some­thing, can you buy the goods to fill that hole? There’s a line in Generation X I think, that we have con­fused shop­ping with cre­ativ­ity.

Put like that it sounds rather sad and fool­ish, but not inten­tion­ally intolerant.

Before I get too smug though, it’s some­thing I’ve fallen for. At the start I was advoc­at­ing selling t-shirts and blankets to exploit a desire for a con­nec­tion with the past. If we have genu­inely moved into a period where shop­ping is self-expression then maybe New Age belief is reli­gion expressed in a way that we’d prefer to not recognise.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. jean novak says:

    Religion has never been dis­tant from the pock­et­book — whether it was the Catholic prac­tice of selling indul­gences or pay­ing for a church win­dow with your name inscribed, or mak­ing lar­gesse dona­tions in your will, it’s noth­ing new.

    It’s spirtu­al­ity that can’t be sold or pur­chased — hence the New Ager’s annoy­ance and disapointment

    or as Paul and John would say; ” Can’t buy me Love”