Peter Marshall's Blog

Europe’s Lost Civilization: The Society of the Megalith Builders

By Peter Marshall
July 27th, 2020

It’s time to remember the great connection between the earth and the heaven, the microcosm and the microcosm. ‘As above, so below’, as they say in alchemy.

It is important as this time of year to celebrate joyously the Midsummer by the megaliths, particularly close to any stone circles.

One should also celebrate in the great ‘Wheel of the Year’ the other equinoxes in the spring and autumn, and the winter solstice, as well as the cross quarter days in between, since they are markers of the sun’s movement throughout the year, of the movement of life itself on earth.

As I wrote in a book called ‘Nature’s Web’, an exploration of ecological thinking, we are not separate from Nature but part of the whole. We should therefore recognize that Nature has value-in-itself, not merely as a means to our narrow human ends. We should therefore have Reverence for Nature, for the land and sea and the heavens, for the place in the universe where we live.

I have celebrated the rising of the sun at Stonehenge in Britain on the Summer Solstice, when the sun is closest to the earth in the northern hemisphere. I have regularly welcomed in the dawn in the Summer Solstice in the megalithic complex at Merrivale on western Dartmoor where I used to live.

This year, I celebrated the rising of the sun by a circle on a clifftop overlooking the sea in east Devon where I now live. The stone circles, avenues, tombs, dolmens and menhirs (standing stones) in Britain and elsewhere in Europe are usually said to belong to the Neolithic (the New Stone Age) from about 4,500 BCE (that is before the Common Era which was formerly known as BC, before the Birth of Christ) and the Bronze Age (from roughly around 2,500 BCE, following the short-lived Copper Age). The stones went up when people settled down and practised agriculture. But they were probably in places of special earth energy, held sacred already by hunter-gatherer peoples in their annual migrations well before them.

I have written a book called ‘Europe’s Last Civilization: Exploring the Mysteries of the Megaliths’. It covers a voyage in a small yacht with my companion from Scotland to Malta, visiting all the great megalithic sites on the way. It is part of my hypothesis that the megaliths were built by the sea or rivers, including Stonehenge, since water was the principaI means of transportation at the time when inland it was densely wooded. They were later temples in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean and much earlier ones in Malta, but the same method of building stone megaliths took place from the late Neolithic age all down the Atlantic Seaboard and into the Mediterranean as far as the foot of Italy.

I call deliberately the society of megalith builders a ‘civilization’, while popularly it is often seen as a ‘primitive’ product of the Stone Age when men and women were dressed in furs and skins and lived in caves. Nevertheless, it is a civilization, since during the Late Stone Age and the Early Bronze Age many great stone monuments were raised to the sky by members of a society who showed a deep understanding of the movement of the planets and stars, had a complex religion and a rich social life. It was far from ‘primitive’ as is usually understood; instead, I would argue it was highly civilized.

The root of the word ‘civilized’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘civis’, of the city, but clearly many of these monuments were constructed by people living in villages who worked together, shared their wealth and had sufficient leisure time to build such wonderful and magical structures.

Above all, for me it was a great civilization of peace. The monuments were not defended which implies there was no need to since there was no war amongst different groups.

As I have said, the megaliths went up when people settled down to agriculture in about 4,500 BCE in northwest Europe but much earlier in the so-called ‘Fertile Crescent’ in the Middle East. I have personally visited Çatalhöyük near the south coast in Turkey, dating from about 7,000 BCE, which reveals the remains of a large settled town.

I have also been to the even more intriguing monument of Göbekli Tepe in eastern Turkey close to the Syrian border. Its stone temple dates from about 9,000 BCE and has realistic carvings and reliefs of local animals as well as being orientated towards the heavens. It may have been made by settled people or even hunter-gatherers who met there on their annual migrations. In other words, the stones are very ancient and show a profound awareness of our place in the universe and the need to revere Nature as a whole.

Indeed, it may well be that the hunter-gatherers had the greatest ‘civilization’, as some so-called ‘primitivists’ have argued, as they had robust health, practiced no war between themselves, and lived in comparative equality. In many ways, they are a model to us, living in a condition of peaceful, mutual aid, egalitarian anarchy, without coercive laws, state and government.

Even so, I would argue that the Neolithic period of monumental building in stone when people were practicing agriculture was at first the greatest ‘golden age’ as there seemed to be little hierarchy and domination, with communal property and graves, as well as lasting peace. The French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was only partly right when he said ‘It was iron and corn which first civilized men and ruined humanity.’

History changed during the Bronze Age from about 2,500 BCE in Europe, and during the Iron Age from about 800 BCE which followed, when priests and chiefs emerged with classes, hierarchy and private property. We can see then individual burials rather than communal ones. They had rich grave goods which imply the importance given to special individuals.

Many of the stone circles were later called ‘Druid circles’.

The Druids are normally seen as priests of the Celts who may have come to these islands from central Europe from around 800 BCE in the Iron Age. According to the Roman and Greek sources, the Druids wrote nothing down and relied on memory to teach their doctrines, but they apparently believed in the transmigration of souls or reincarnation very much like contemporary Hindus, Jains and Buddhists.

According to Julius Caesar, after the Roman invasion of Britain, the Druid priests formed a separate group in society as political advisers, healers and arbitrators between warring Celtic tribes. Their rites and observances often took place in oak groves and in liminal places near water.

Julius Caesar said they practiced animal and human sacrifices, but this description could be the attempt of conquering Romans to deem them ‘barbarians’ in order to impose their rule, very much like Europeans did in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to peoples they encountered who did not have the same advanced technology and efficient weapons.
The Celts were certainly very warlike and fought among themselves. They may have been invaders in Britain or just had a very strong cultural influence or both. You can see that especially in their art with its interlaced designs.

I lived in North Wales with my family for 21 years, first in a remote cottage in the mountains then by the Irish Sea. It was in the county of Gwynedd, the heartland of Welsh speaking communities. My children are fluent in Welsh and I speak some of the ancient language. Many of my Welsh neighbours and friends called themselves Celts as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon English who conquered them and tried to make them speak English. I am also about a third Irish (I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side) and have sailed around Ireland, written up in a book called ‘Celtic Gold’, so am steeped in Celtic culture and traditions.

I understand that modern Druids are mainly concerned with peace and healing and the reconciliation of warring parties. They take up ancient wisdom and stand in the Bardic tradition and particularly celebrate poetry, story-telling, song and dance. Like the followers of Wicca and the Earth Goddess, witches and neo-Pagans, they wish to follow a spiritual path keeping in close touch with the living Earth and Nature.

I am not a Druid myself. But I’m sure the Celts and Druids took up many aspects of the ancient religion of the megalith builders and took over many of their stone circles for their worship and celebrations. I myself share a similar world view to the ancient megalith builders who lived in peace and co-operation and who seem to have believed in a form of pantheism, that is to say, that God is imminent in nature, or as Spinoza would call it later, God is Nature.

As the Chinese Taoists say, the Tao is to be found everywhere, ever-present in Nature. The Tao cannot be defined but only felt and understood. The modern equivalent is probably the concept of Gaia which I espouse as well as the Tao.

Peter Marshall is a philosopher, historian, biographer, travel writer and poet. He has written eighteen highly acclaimed books which are being translated into fourteen different languages. His circumnavigation of Africa was made into a 6-part TV series and his voyage around Ireland into a BBC Radio series. He has written articles and reviews for many national newspapers and journals.

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