You could not wish for a more spectacular setting for a stone circle. Perched high above the sea, with views to distant mountains in every other direction, it is a magnificent site. A slight rise to the seaward side blocks the view of the modern quarrying and, from within the circle, there is no visible trace of the modern world at all.
It is easy, here, to rebuild in imagination the fallen stones. There were once thirty of them standing, now only eleven remain upright. Even so, they have a presence impossible to capture on camera. It is a place to simply sit in wonder. To sit and wonder too what our forebears were thinking when they quarried Penmean-mawr in the 1920s, decapitating the 1500 ft summit by the simple expedient of destroying Braich-y-Dinas, the Iron Age hillfort that crowned it… which was one of the largest in Europe. No trace of the hillfort now remains… but looking around the area, it is evident that the stone circle was not a solitary feature, but part of a much larger complex.
The circle itself has been dated by some to the Bronze Age around 1500 BC, by others, including Burl, to around five thousand years ago. It scarcely seems to matter. The circle, around eighty feet wide, sits upon a rubble base within a raised embankment. It is not a true circle, being flattened on one edge as if to avoid the ancient trackways that cross close by. I am not at all certain that is the reason… there is more than enough space to build a full circle had that been required, without encroaching on the tracks. Alexander Thom and Robin Heath, two of the most interesting people to read on the subject, have posited that there were mathematical and astronomical reasons for the shape. ( You can find a very informative article on flattened circles here.)
The circle is entered through a four-stone portal, but as you approach from below, one of the stones draws your attention straight away. It is known as the Stone of Sacrifice, for the hollowed bowl at its head. During excavations at the site during the 1950s, a fine burial cyst was found, scattered around with stones and quartz crystals. Within the chamber was a food vessel containing the cremated bones of a child ages between ten and twelve. Another cyst contained a similar burial of a child a couple of years older, buried with a riveted bronze knife. This has led to tales of child sacrifice at the site… yet no sign of sacrificial offerings has been found.
We visit ancient sites whenever we can. Child burials seem to be a common feature at many of them and all of them seem to be carefully buried, often with precious objects and in decorated urns. That would seem to imply that they were buried, with love and respect, in the most sacred of places. If there were child sacrifices, it would seem that this was both rare and honourable within their culture. While it appears abhorrent to modern thought, human sacrifice was a feature of many early cultures. For the most part, it was not originally seen as a thing of terror, but a gift to the gods of the most precious thing the clans could give… life. As there is no evidence of sacrifice at the circle, though, it seems more likely that these children were placed there either through love or perhaps to mark a belief in the cyclical nature of life. Were they affirming, by their presence, a belief in rebirth drawn from the seasonal changes and renewal of the land itself? Were they placed there as messengers to the gods? We may never know. Curiously though, a local tradition says that should a newborn baby be placed within the hollow of the Stone of Sacrifice, it will be granted a long and lucky life.
But it was the Druid we had come to see. And he was unmistakable. The robed and hooded figure watched as we approached as he has watched for five thousand years…which means that he was never a Druid. That is a Victorian misnomer, as the circle predates the Druids as we know them by millennia. But it begs the question of where the Druids began…not,perhaps, by that name, but by their function as the wisdom-keepers of the people.
Modern man sets great store by its labels and titles, delineating, defining and confining each section of society by their position, mores, or beliefs. I do not believe that such labels matter… but function does. Those who served the gods on behalf of a community were its priests long before the word was ever dreamed of. Our legends and myths abound with tales of bards, wizards, shamanic practices, wisdom that seems to come from the dawn of time and priestly, magical, mystical figures… all of which are united in the archetypal figure of Merlin. There may never have been Druids at Meini Hirion, now known as the Druids Circle, but those who cared for the people here served the same Purpose, regardless of the rites they used or the Names of those they served.
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