Cover art of Beaghmore Stone Circle Complex and other photos by Isla Skye
“The landscape itself is important. This is a liminal zone, between land and water, sea and sky . . .”Elly Griffiths
One of the most frequent questions people ask regarding stone circles is when were they first built. And why, of course! Well, the ‘why’ part is a rabbit hole we could explore for a very long time and I have previously given some of the explanations I feel might be correct in past posts.
That said, it might surprise people to learn that Neanderthal people built stone circles over 175,000 years ago. Recently discovered evidence from Bruniquel cave, near Toulouse in south-west France suggests that these circles served a ritual role and were associated in some way with symbolic thought. The circle of course is one of the oldest magical symbols and is used in ceremonies linked to spirits and altered states of consciousness in every indigenous culture you might care to name.
David Lewis Williams writes in his excellent book, The Mind in the Cave, that cave art may have been created in altered states of consciousness by ancient shamans, here is no way to prove that this is also the case for the Neanderthal stone circles but the similar efforts and their construction in deliberate darkness is intriguing…
So, what about stone circles constructed by Homo sapiens? Well, first of all it is worth mentioning that there are certain circles which have had controversial dates proposed for them. These are also circles which may or may not be natural, as well as circles where it is impossible, as of yet, to prove a date conclusively. However, the stone circles at Gobekli Tepe in Turkey are currently believed to be the worlds oldest. These ancient monuments date to before 9,000 BCE and even today only 5% of the site has been excavated so there may be even older circles yet to be discovered.
We can then include Napta Playa in southern Egypt where a stone circle has been dated to at least 4,500 BCE. This circle is built over a cow figure carved into bedrock so the initial ritual site is even older. The site is associated with the Goddess Hathor whose symbol was that of the cow.
In his book, The Origin Map, Thomas Brophy, the NASA astrophysicist, argues the circle includes a representation of the Milky Way as it was in 17,500 BCE and maps of Orion at 16,500 BCE. Once we move into the timescales of 4,000 BCE to 3,500 BCE we find complex archaeo-astronomical function encoded in the circles such as those found at Cromleque dos Almendrse in Portugal, Gozo in Malta and, of course, Lough Gur here in Ireland.
Returning to the oldest stone circle at Gobekli Tepe, scientists have found that the stones had a ritual function which includes them vibrating when struck. Traces of alcohol have been found in large stone vats at the site, as well as deposits of animal bone. This would seem to indicate a place of feasting and trance if we follow similar parallels in other hunter gatherer societies…
Like most stone circles, the indigenous Australian arrangement at Wurdi Youang is more oval than circular in shape. The site is aligned to the solstices and equinoxes and a recent proposal that it is over 11,000 years old would make it contemporaneous with Gobekli Tepe as the world’s oldest astronomical circle. The site is considered one which was used for spiritual ceremonies and initiation rites.
As I have written about in previous posts, although many Irish circles also have a calendar function they are strongly associated with spirits and fairies in folklore and myth. The sites were considered portals to the Otherworld and places where altered states of consciousness could be achieved. Sometimes a particular type of stone was chosen to mark entrance points or to align to cardinal directions, such as white quartz.
A good example of this is found at Castleruddery stone circle, Co. Wicklow.
The choice of stone is also associated with a specific type of resonance in many indigenous cultures. The story of Tiamat is one of the world’s oldest myths. Tiamat the serpent Goddess of chaos was slain by Marduk in order to bring forth stability. The story has many variants but in essence the serpent goddess is broken into pieces which then instigate life and order.
One symbolic theory regarding stone circles is that they too represent the coiled snake broken into parts and by the passing of sun cycles we are able to measure time and bring order to the year. There are always deeper levels to these myths, of course, and the idea that Tiamat represents the unconscious mind before thought is another fascinating interpretation.
I also feel that Marija Gimbutas was right when she wrote that this myth was an archaic remembrance of the destruction of Goddess worshiping societies by patriarchal cultures. But that’s a story for another day!
Strangely enough, even though we have no snakes in Ireland the Goddess Brigid is often associated with serpents. Another strange quirk is the amount of serpent decorations in ancient Irish art. The work of Dr. Mary Condren and her book The Serpent and the Goddess does this subject better justice than I can, though.
Ultimately, the serpent and cycles have always been symbols of both the Goddess and time. These two attributes seem associated with ancient stone circles in my own view. The circle is almost holographic in its own way; a representation of a larger version of itself and a way to return to a starting point from where everything began.
Are stone circles meant to track such personal and universal cycles? As the stars wax and wane and constellations turn perhaps they are telling us that we too will someday return to our origins and ancestors. The stones in this context are the map to show us our way home and through this eternal return there is never separation from our past and future. Is time itself, then, also a circle to which we all belong?
David Halpin is a writer from Tallaght, now living on the Carlow/ Wicklow border. He has been writing about Irish Forteana and spirituality for over thirty years and has had his articles published in magazines and books throughout the world. David’s photographs of Ireland’s sacred sites have been published in journals and articles worldwide and in 2020 were included in An Taisce’s annual report on the Irish landscape. David is also a reviewer of esoteric writing and as well as publishing for The Occult Book Review, he also contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online publications. His articles have appeared in The Wild Hunt, New Dawn Magazine, Coire Ansic, and he is a regular contributor to Ancient Origins. David also runs the blog, Circle Stories, where he focuses his writing upon the topics of consciousness and folklore.