A group of researchers has just begun a two-week excavation at the well-known Stonehenge site in England in an attempt to discover, once and for all, the meaning behind the mysterious ruins. According to current scientific dating, Stonehenge dates back to about 3000 B.C., but it has perplexed archaeologists for years as to the purpose of its creation. Who created it and why? Why was the structure a venerated destination for thousands of years, being built, taken down, rebuilt and expanded a number of times.
What was Stonehenge?
There are, of course, many theories that have circulated since studies began hundreds of years ago. According to the BBC, the most popular hypotheses have regarded Stonehenge as a:
- Gigantic calendar – The arrangement of the stones is such to allow for astronomical observations, including the summer and winter solstices.
- Religious worship site – Some have said that the heavenward pointing stones connected man with the spiritual, as well as their circular placement. It created a type of shrine or sanctuary.
- Monument for the dead – This theory states that the stones represented a permanence of ancestry that could be memorialized.
- Extraterrestrial landing site – Some in the 1970s believed that beings from other worlds would come to this site.
- Healing center – The latest theory, and the one supported by the latest researchers that are currently excavating at the site, is that Stonehenge served as a healing center for the sick and otherwise afflicted who would travel for miles around to be supernaturally cured from their ills. It was a kind of “prehistoric Lourdes.”
Scientists studying the ruins seem to argue for one or the other theories, and reject the others. I confess I’m not an archaeologist in the least kind, but I believe that Stonehenge could have served all of the above purposes that different researchers have concluded that the site was built for.
Nibley Spoke of Stonehenge
Hugh Nibley associated Stonehenge, as well as the rest of the megalithic stone circles found in many parts of Europe and other parts of the world, to the temple. In one of his latest analyzes Nibley spoke of the ruins in Avebury, another henge which is much larger and older than Stonehenge and just 20 miles to the north of the more famous site:
Since death cannot be denied, what hope is there for the hereafter? The Egyptian answer, as everybody recognizes today, was to start all over again and have a new life. That meant a new creation. How was that to be effected? There is one glowing example which no one can overlook—the sun. And the Egyptians, like other ancient people, made the most of it. Stick close to the sun was the idea, and do what he does. Get yourself a place in his boat, as a crewmember, attendant (shms-Re), or member of the family. To prolong your own life, you must get in on the action—you must be present at the only time and place that the sun, completing one cycle and reaching its lowest point at the solstice, without a split-second hesitation, reverses its direction and begins its upward climb [solstices].
This means that everybody in the world had to come together at a special place—the exact center of the cosmos, since it was the point of convergence for the pilgrims’ roads from every point on the horizon. And for the beginning of a new life cycle, you must start with the creation all over again. The creation drama is a standard feature of temple worship. Everywhere, as far as we can trace the records and the ruins, there have been great gatherings of the race—the panegyris, or “everybody in a circle,” in every part of the world. Many have recognized the phenomenon, but no one can explain when or how it began. Eduard Meyer thinks it started with animals in their periodic meetings to disport and reproduce. Megalithic circles marking the great ceremonial assemblages are found by the thousands and go back to the Stone Age.
I had the good fortune to be stationed near Avebury in Hertfordshire at the end of World War II and had ample time to examine the vast establishment. That was before it was discovered by the tourists. The stone circle, [was] 1400 feet in diameter… From the air (I had to pass over it slowly in regular and frequent glider flights) one could behold traces of prehistoric roads, marked by standing stones, leading from all directions. That is the general layout of countless megalithic ceremonial centers, over ten thousand of which are known…1
On another occasion, Nibley said:
The temple is the great teaching institution of the human race; universities are much older than we might ever expect. A university began as a Greek Mouseion, a temple of the Muses, who represented all departments of knowledge… The Egyptians called it the “House of Life.” It was an observatory, a great megalithic complex of standing stones (later columns and pylons), with amazingly sophisticated devices for observing and recording the motions of the heavens. A study of Stonehenge shows that it was a computer of great accuracy, a university set in the midst of sacred groves — botanical and geological gardens and groves; it was a “paradise,” a Garden of Eden, where all life is sacrosanct.2
To get the general picture we have to see this institution which is so very important. We’ll call it the panegyris here. Pan means “everybody,” and gyris means “a gyroscope,” around in a circle. This is when everybody meets in the big circle, the cosmic circle. “In ancient times at holy shrines, each believed to mark the exact center of the universe… represented as the point at which the four quarters of the earth converge… one might have seen assembled at the new year… the moment of creation, the beginning and ending of time, vast concourses of people would come together.” That’s what you have at Stonehenge and Avebury and well over a thousand ancient megalithic centers scattered all over Europe. They are also in Asia. There are lots of them in Palestine. “Vast concourses of people, each thought to represent the entire human race in the presence of all its ancestors and gods….”3
Nibley continually repeated these same things:
I spent eight months in 1943 and 1944 preparing for the invasion of Europe, at Grenham Lodge, not far from Avebury, near Marlborough, on the plains of England. This is one of the oldest (2600 B.C.) and largest monuments of Europe, 500 years older than Stonehenge. It’s enormous. Much excavating has been done there. On days off, I had a chance to inspect it, and I was electrified by it…
At this same time “in other parts of the British Isles people were already putting up great stone circles for ceremonies. At Stennes in the Orkneys [in Scotland halfway to the North Pole] twelve steepling columns stood in a ring” — as Jacob did in Israel, whenever he made a covenant (Genesis 31:45–46).
Twelve steepling columns stood in a ring. . . . In Ireland the chambered round cairn of New Grange with its quartz walls with a passage aligned towards the mid-winter sunrise was placed inside a circle of over thirty massive blocks of stone. In the Lake District, source of many stone axes, people were going to splendid stone circles with names that peal like a prehistoric role of honour: Long Meg and Her Daughters, the Carles at Castlerigg, Sunken Kirk, the Grey Horses. Rites inside these sacred rings differed but in every region where there was a fair-sized population circular enclosures were the foci [notice the focus, the center points] of ceremonies, megalithic rings in the north and west, henges of earth or chalk in the stoneless areas of lowland Britain.
That is how they differed in form, but they always have the ring, and they always do the same thing when they come together. It is vastly older than the pyramids, is beautifully done, and contains magnificent things…
The point is that our ancestors were doing all this far back in time… In the earliest times, everybody seemed to be doing the same sort of thing, building the same kinds of structures….
“Avebury became almost a metropolitan centre to which people came from miles around to trade and to settle disputes, to worship in the marvelous stone rings that expressed the barbaric pride of the natives.” And the remains are not a few. There are piles of stuff to show what was going on at these places. They were all doing the same sort of thing.
Death and regeneration are the themes of Avebury. The presence of human bones, the pieces of stone, the red ochre, the pockets of fertile earth, the antlers, the shapes of the sarsens, the architecture of the avenues and circles, all are consistent with the belief that Avebury was intended as a temple in which, at various times of the year, the large population could gather to watch and take part in ceremonies of magic and evocation that would safeguard their lives…
Gordon Childe [the great Scottish prehistorian] thought of Avebury as a cathedral, Stuart Piggot as an open sanctuary associated with a sky-god… Jacquetta Hawkes wrote of fertility rites involving the earth and the sun although “what those mysteries were we shall never know.” However generalised these observations there is agreement about a religious centre… linked with the earth, the sun [the heavenly bodies in their motions], ritual objects and dead bones [i.e., with the ancestors, and scholars all agree on that]. Not many years ago Patrick Crampton went further, suggesting that Avebury was not only a temple of the powerful Earth Goddess but also a “city,” the first “capital — religious, cultural, commercial — of most of southern Britain.”
So these concepts are very old. I myself was enormously impressed by the size of the stones, weighing sixty tons, set in a great circle 350 yards across. It was an amazing accomplishment that they dragged them to the site. It required great work, concentration, and leadership…
The enormous ditch around the stones is thirty feet deep, dug out by use of only deer horns. For ritual reasons, they could not use anything else.
I used to fly over the area frequently. You could see radiating from the site great table stones, and the great prehistoric roads that led to the site, from hundreds of miles to the north. From everywhere, people came to Avebury, nearly five thousand years ago, to celebrate the very thing we do in our temples today — the continuity of life. 4
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was the habit of English country gentlemen, fired with the scientific interests of the former century and the romantic sensibilities of the latter, to survey, sketch, describe, and speculate about the many and mysterious prehistoric stone circles, avenues, passage-graves, and mounds on their estates and elsewhere. In their papers read before local learned societies and in their letters to antiquarian journals, they debated endlessly without reaching any consensus of agreement as to whether those often imposing monuments were the work of some mysterious unknown race or that of the ancient Britons, Druids, Romans, Saxons, or Danes. But on one thing there was almost unanimous agreement, namely, that the most impressive of the structures were temples. In the light of local folktales and legends, immemorial rustic seasonal festivities, and other quaint customs and observances, supported by occasional illuminating passages from classical and medieval writers as well as the Bible, they could imagine vast concourses of people gathering at these great ceremonial centers at times set by sun, moon, stars, and the growing and harvesting seasons, to celebrate a new lease on life for the individual and the society…
[An article from July 1980 Scientific American] finds “a succession of what we can only call cathedral architects” at work in the third and fourth millenniums B.C. “Most emphatically,” he writes, these “megalithic rings in general [were] sacred and secular meeting places,” and he sees” an impelling faith” behind the immense effort and skill that produced them—”some powerful religious belief including belief in an afterlife.” He notes that though the building activity stopped by 1000 B.C., “the general population” retained folk-memories of what went on, and he finds it “more than possible that the Druidic priesthood . . . used them as temples.” Finally he notes that even Christian churches in some places did not disdain to build upon their ruins. 5
So what were these people doing? They were building temples, sacred places where they could go to commune with diety and perform their sacred ceremonies, rites, and ordinances.
If you’ve made it this far in the post, congratulations. Probably 95% will have dropped off by now. Who cares about that old wreck Stonehenge, right? It has nothing to do with me. Well, it has much more to do with us than we might casually admit or recognize. Nibley saw it, he recognized it, and largely thanks to him our knowledge of the temple is placed squarely in the milieu of religious worship since the beginning of time.
The similarities between the restored ordinances of the LDS temple and the various theories that exist about Stonehenge go much deeper than first appearances:
- Gigantic calendar – The temple has always been a place where, as Nibley said, “one gets one’s bearings on the universe”6. The temple is a model of the universe7. Even the newest member of the Church recognizes the vast number of cosmological symbols which adorn our temples, on the outside and within. The temple connects us with the heavens, the planets, the stars, the orbits, the motions, the dwelling place of God. The temple is the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:17). It connects us back to God.
- Religious worship site – As Nibley extensively noted, Stonehenge was a religious site, as were all the other stone circle creations of man in ancient times. They were places where man got in touch with the Gods. God spoke to man there, and man to God. It represented the center of the cosmos, where God dwells. It was where people traveled far or near to worship deity. This is precisely the same of our modern-day temples.
- Monument for the dead – I don’t think there is a greater monument or establishment to the dead in all the world than the Latter-day Saint temples which dot the earth today. 99.9% of the work that we do there is for the salvation and redemption of the dead, so that they might receive the ordinances of the gospel of Jesus Christ that they had no opportunity to in mortality. The gates of hell have not prevailed. They have been thrown open wide by Jesus Christ, and many thousands upon thousands are being redeemed every day in holy temples scattered across the world, dedicated to the work of the Lord. Billions of names have been gathered in preparation for the work. Around the year 350 A.D. Cyril of Jerusalem gave the following as part of the instruction in the early Christian prayer circle practice, hinting at a kind of vicarious offering of the atonement for the dead:
After that we remember the dead—patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs—that God might grant our petition through the joining of our prayers with theirs. Then we pray for … all of our own people who have fallen asleep, believing that the greatest possible benefit can come to the spirits on whose behalf (hyper hon) the petition is made.
I have often heard people ask: What good does it do the departed spirit, whether the person was good or bad in life, to be remembered in the prayer? … Ans. By doing for them and for ourselves what a loving God requires (exileoumenoi), we make available (prospheromen) the atoning sacrifice which Christ made for our sins.8
- Extraterrestrial landing site – This might seem out of the realm of relationship with the temple, but it is not. Extraterrestrials are none other than beings or personages from another place. We do not believe in the aliens of popular folklore, the little green men with oversized heads and eyeballs. Modern revelation to prophets and apostles has revealed that there is other life in the universe besides us, and it is the very same life as we are – people. God’s creations are as innumerable as the sands of the sea, and each of them have human beings living on them, sons and daughters of God, just like us (Moses 1:35). Latter-day Saints believe that God and angels have visited the earth anew since the beginning of the restoration (JS-H 1). Indeed, from the very beginning of time, this earth was populated from people from another place (i.e. heaven). We believe that the temple is a place where God and his angels can come to this earth and commune with the saints. They walk the halls. They witness the ordinances. They interact with the patrons. They facilitate the work, both inside and outside the temple. They have been seen countless times in temples since Kirtland. God and his angels are not absent from the his work on the earth.
- Healing center – The latest theories, especially those of the current excavators, surrounding Stonehenge are that it was a place of healing, where people could gather who had ailments, and the sanctity and supernatural powers of the spot would help cure them. LDS temples today have prayer rolls in the temples whereupon the names of people who are sick and afflicted (either physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually) may be written, and for whom prayers are then offered up in the temple.9 We believe the words of James who said, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). As part of the same instruction from Cyril in the fourth century on the early Christian prayer circle we read:
We pray for the common peace of the church and the well-being of the world (kosmos), for kings, commanders, and allies, for the sick and afflicted, and in short for all who need help.10
Stonehenge is not something that is so unrelated to our present situation that we cannot understand it. It has served the same purpose that many sacred spaces have since the beginning, and which has been restored in its true and correct form today in the Latter-day Saint temples, the house of the Lord.Notes:
- Hugh Nibley, “Temples Everywhere,” 2005, <http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=insights&id=418> [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Temple,” <http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=transcripts&id=58> [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, “The Heritage of Cain,” Ancient Documents and the Pearl of Great Price, 5 [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, “The Circle and the Square,” Temple and Cosmos, 163-69 [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, “What is a Temple?”, Mormonism and Early Christianity, 371 [↩]
- ibid., 357-58 [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 2nd ed., 282 [↩]
- Link to LDS Content on the prayer roll. [↩]
- Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 2nd ed., 282 [↩]