Merlin and the Making of Stonehenge

8 06 2019

The archaeologists have their ideas about how and why Stonehenge was built. The annals of legend have another story, one that involves Merlin the magician plus the uncle and father of King Arthur.

The story begins not in Neolithic times but in the troubled years of the fifth century, after

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21st Century Merlin at Stonehenge

the Roman legions had withdrawn from Britain. The Saxons had invaded and were advancing rapidly across the land. The native British sought to resist them and to sustain the remnants of Romano-British civilisation. So there was terrible fighting between Saxon and Briton. So much bloodshed that their respective leaders agreed to meet at a spot on Salisbury Plain to try to negotiate a peace treaty.

The thing is, some people take a more hardball approach to ‘negotiation’ than others do. It had been agreed that the leaders should meet together unarmed, but the Saxon chieftains treacherously smuggled in their knives. The leaders stood in a circle in which Saxon and Briton alternated. They began to parlay. But not for long. At a signal, all the Saxon chieftains drew out their knives and each stabbed the Briton standing immediately to his left.

So the Saxons had the upper hand for some time. Till a British prince in exile in France, Aurelius Ambrosius, returned to Britain with his brother Uther Pendragon. Ambrosius won a major victory against the Saxons. Having done so, he desired to honour the British chiefs who’d been murdered on Salisbury Plain, by building a monument in the exact spot where the atrocity had occurred.

He called for advice from a wise man of prodigious repute, Merlin, who told him of a fabulous stone circle that had been built by giants – hence its name ‘the Giants’ Dance’ – on a mountain in Ireland. Ambrosius sent Merlin with Uther Pendragon to lead an expedition to Ireland to steal the Giants’ Dance. There was fighting of course, because the Irish quite understandably wanted to keep the structure in Ireland. But Uther’s warriors prevailed.

There was then the problem of how to transport this huge stone circle. Merlin applied his esoteric knowledge to uproot the stones, transport them on ships, and then re-erect the monument on Salisbury Plain – at the very spot where the Saxon chieftains had so treacherously slain the British leaders.

When, in due course, Aurelius Ambrosius died, he was buried in the Giants’ Dance – or Stonehenge, as it became known. So too was Uther Pendragon. Uther was the father of the future King Arthur. According to the legend, Arthur was expected to be buried there too. But Arthur never dies and is instead transported, badly wounded, to the Isle of Avalon, there to sleep and dream, waiting to return in his country’s hour of need. That being so, perhaps we ought to hope he might return quite soon!

We have this story from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Britain, written in Oxford in the 12th century. You can find a fuller telling of the tale in Kirsty Hartsiotis’s Wiltshire Folk Tales.

One doesn’t want to pull the rug out from beneath a lovely, enchanting legend, but of course there’s no easy way to match up this story with the archaeological knowledge that Stonehenge was built in Neolithic times. But there are elements that do fit. For one thing, the use of Stonehenge as a burial ground. For another, the likely transportation of the bluestones on watercraft from what is now Pembrokeshire in West Wales. An intriguing observation is that sea communications between Ireland and West Wales throughout antiquity mean that this western extremity of Wales could have been colonised by people from Ireland and therefore might, in a cultural rather than narrowly geographical sense, have been regarded as part of ‘Ireland’. Finally, although legend presents Merlin as a magician, the esoteric skills he demonstrates in the story in uprooting, transporting, and erecting the megaliths invite us to view him as symbolic of the engineering experience that some individuals must have possessed in the age of Stonehenge’s construction.

Article by guest blogger and author/storyteller Anthony Nanson

Recent Blog: Druid Leader King Arthur Uther Pendragon, Head of the Loyal Arthurian Warband.

English Heritage: The King Arthur Story and links to Arthurian locations

BBC HistoryKing Arthur, ‘Once and Future King’

Stonehenge Guided Tours offer King Arthur Tours including Stonehenge and associated sites in the South West of England.

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8 06 2019
StonehengeNews

Reblogged this on Stonehenge Guided Trips.

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