Standing Stones

By Nel van Weijdom Claterbos

A lonely spot on the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost isle of the Outer Hebrides, with Iceland to the north as nearest neighbor; to the south, Ireland; and to the west, the wide Atlantic Ocean: the name of the place is Callanish. Near it are the few houses of the village of the same name, and behind these the shining water of a sea arm. Besides this, there is nothing but treeless hills covered with peat.

And there they are, sharp and dark against the light-grey sky, the wide circle of standing stones with rows stretching from that circle to the four points of the compass, the one to the north much longer than the other three and double, like an impressive avenue. In the surrounding silence these stones transmit something of that far, unknown past in which they were erected. They stand there testifying to human thought of many, many thousands of years ago, thought that must have proceeded along majestic lines. Giant stones were used for a giant project: within a radius of four kilometers no less than twelve ruins of megalithic structures have been found.

Who were the builders? History has no answer. Legend has it that the stones were brought to Lewis in many ships. They were accompanied by a great priest-king, lesser priests, and a gang of "black men" who set up the stones. When the building was complete the "black men" and some of the priests sailed away, while the great priest and his remaining assistants established a cult at the stones. The priests wore cloaks of colored feathers and the chief priest always appeared with wrens flying by him. (Otta Swire, The Outer Hebrides and Their Legends.) This story makes one think of those surrounding Quetzalcoatl, the god-priest of the Toltecs, whose name means "feathered serpent," serpent being a universal symbol for a wise one or initiate.

If, as this legend indicates, Callanish was built under the supervision of an initiate, then the greatness that underlies these megalithic structures can be explained, for clearly the Callanish complex was erected as a temple. It may also have functioned as an observatory, for though present investigations have not yet led to definite conclusions, the results unmistakingly point to cosmic purposes: during equinoxes from a point within the circle the rising and setting of the sun as well as the moon can be exactly ascertained. Together with the other stone structures in the neighborhood, accurate observations can be made. Professor Alexander Thom has so far discovered eleven such possible observations, including the potential of observing all cycles of the moon accurately enough to predict eclipses of the sun and moon. The fact that the moon every 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours describes an orbit seems to have been known, even though at Callanish the moon hardly rises above the horizon. All this would indicate a profound knowledge concerning the universe, though the proofs of it are not yet worked out as satisfactorily as in the case of Stonehenge.

Among the native traditions of Callanish, there are some that point to a connection with Druidism and the worship of the sun-god Bel (Baal). One of these was still current at the beginning of this century:

On the first day of May (Beltane) all fires on the island were put out. The new fires were lit from one started by an old priest. He lived on a spot, now part of Callanish village, a little way north of the Stones, and a tree in a field there was reputed to be the place where he obtained the fire. The fire was distributed by the priest within the stone circle . . .
About a hundred years ago, certain families in Callanish were known to be "of the Stones," and though the Ministers had expressly forbidden reverent visits to the Stones on the days of the old festivals, they still made these visits in secret, "for it would not do to neglect the Stones." At Midsummer sunrise, "the Shining One" was thought to walk up the avenue, heralded by a cuckoo's call.
The cuckoo, it is said, also gave its call in time to convene the Druidical May Festival. Nowadays, each cuckoo, on first reaching Lewis in the spring, is supposed to fly to Callanish and give its first call from the Standing Stones. -- Gerald and Margaret Ponting, The Standing Stones of Callanish (pamphlet), 1977; pp. 12-13.

This suggests that from very ancient times Callanish has been a holy place that is still respected even in these days; and that in times far beyond the horizon of what to us is history it was a temple and an astronomical observatory. A temple has always been a place where people were instructed as to human nature, their relation to the universe, and their destiny; a place where a man is conscious of his unity with godlike powers. If we think of man as part of the universe around him, not as an alien element but a vital "atom" that participates in its life in full measure, then it is a most natural matter that temple and observatory should be two parts of one thing, with man himself as the connecting link. In more illumined times than ours it was held that temple instruction led, for those who were spiritually ready for it, to an active and conscious setting out on the pathways that connect our earth with the sun and planets and beyond -- which meant initiation.

Standing stones, witnesses of thousands of years in the past, what did they see? During long ages of oblivion the surrounding peat grew gradually, covering them finally halfway, until in 1857 the proprietor of Lewis had the peat removed as an act of respect for the past. But long ago, before the peat could gather, in a different climate, did not human beings like ourselves come together here for high purposes? Pondering this, one thought rises up from deep within: those wise men who inspired past civilizations must be part of the human host now as well; it is unthinkable that they would be lost to humanity. And if they still are part of mankind, may they not be ready at this very time to impart something of their knowledge to us if we only give the right knock on their invisible temple door? Silent standing stones, in your solemn, mysterious circle, how you are a challenge to present-day thinking!

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press)

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