Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A trip to White Horse Hill and the latest news on Britain's Pagan census figures...

Yesterday, on a trip back from a weekend visiting family in the West Country, I popped into Oxfordshire to explore a prehistoric landscape that had long intrigued me: White Horse Hill. Now under the stewardship of The National Trust, a charity devoted to the preservation of Britain's heritage, the lengthy ridge stretches along a picturesque length of chalk downland, with wonderful panoramic views facing toward the south. White Horse Hill has been a very special place for the local communities who have inhabited this area for millennia. Standing upon its crest and looking out across the landscape, it is easy to see why. The majestic views, coupled with the enigma of how such a phenomenal geographical feature had come into existence, must surely have led those of a supernatural bent to develop rich mythologies and folkloric tales about this place, alluding to the agency of ancestors, gods or monsters. 
Wrapped up to protect from the biting December
winds, here I am at the top of the White Horse (whose head is just
visible); ahead of me is the Dragon Mound, legendary burial
of King Uther Pendragon; believed to be a natural feature,
its top has been leveled out through human agency. 
Throughout later British prehistory - a staggering period of time encompassing the New Stone Age ("Neolithic"), Bronze Age and Iron Age - the communities who lived and died here in Oxfordshire considered the Hill to be of sufficient importance to warrant the construction of a number of impressive monuments upon its crest. The youngest was a hillfort now known as Uffington Castle, apparently constructed in the Late Bronze or Iron Age; the impressive ramparts are still visible, with sheep grazing in and around it, much as they probably would have done throughout later prehistory. Older still was the neighbouring White Horse of Uffington, the geoglyph which gives the hill its name. Recently dated to the Bronze Age, it's a wonderful piece of prehistoric artwork, and most probably had ritual importance of some sort. Despite the steep treck and biting cold December winds, it is possible for the visitor to make their way up to the very top of the great horse, offering a thoroughly enrapturing experience that I would not hesitate to recommend.
Weyland's Smithy, as I approached it from the south-east,
in the winter twilight.
However, the oldest feature of interest on the hill was Weyland's Smithy, an Early Neolithic chambered tomb that when first constructed, would have (most probably) been the center of an ancestor cult that helped the local communities cement their connection to the land, which they had only recently begun to turn over to agriculture. Significant members of the community would have had their bodies excarnated before being placed within the tomb's chamber, quite possibly accompanied with certain magico-religious rites. At least a mile's walk west of the aforementioned two monuments, the tomb can be reached by way of a winding country road, which I traversed as the winter sun was setting and flocks of crows swooped across the sky; a wonderfully atmospheric experience. Although I have visited other chambered tombs from this era before - such as West Kennet Long Barrow and the Coldrum Stones - I think that Weyland's Smithy has to be my favourite, largely due to its enigmatic position in the landscape and its largely complete, albeit reconstructed, nature. Now situated within a grove of trees and surrounded by ploughed farmland, it is difficult to envision what the tomb would have originally been like, making a phenomenological study largely impossible, but it is instead possible to comprehend something of how recent spiritual seekers - most notably members of the Pagan movement - might approach this "sacred site", for them a place of pilgrimage. Their presence is obvious, with runic images having been chalked onto some of the megaliths, and carved into neighbouring trees; a Heathen link to the fact that the pagan Anglo-Saxon communities of this area associated what was even then an ancient monument with Weyland, the blacksmith deity. 
The megalithic entrance to Weyland's Smithy; although largely
reconstructed, it helps to give an impression of the original
Early Neolithic architecture.
White Horse Hill is hardly the household name that Stonehenge, and to a lesser extent Avebury, has become in recent decades. I for one consider this to be a great shame, for it is one of Southern Britain's great prehistoric gems, and I think that it would be nice if it was better known among the contemporary peoples of Southern Britain. As it stands, knowledge of the hill and its wonders are probably restricted to the local inhabitants, and to sectors of the Pagan and archaeological communities. Perhaps in future years, in an improved economic climate, The National Trust might be able to open up a visitor's centre on the hill, near to the car park, allowing the story of this fascinating place to be presented to a wider slice of the public. 

Pagans in the United Kingdom: The 2011 Census Results

Also of interest to many of my readers will be the newly released information that has just been published from the 2011 United Kingdom census which was undertaken last year. According to the respondents of this nation-wide survey, on which the "religion" category was optional, around 80,000 people currently either describe their spiritual path as "Pagan" or use a related term, such as "Wiccan", "Thelemite", "Shaman" etc. That's roughly double the number who did so the decade before: in the 2001 census, around 42,000 inhabitants of Great Britain and Northern Ireland had decided to classify themselves as "Pagan" or something similar, a number that made it the seventh largest religious group in the country but which many analysts thought was surprisingly low.

Inside the chamber of Weyland's
Smithy: place of ancestral spirits ?
I very much doubt that the actual number of self-described Pagans has doubled in the U.K. during this relatively short period; far more likely is that increasing numbers of the Pagan community are becoming more comfortable in publicly admitting their faith, explaining the statistics. This of course goes hand in hand with the increasing governmental and social recognition of contemporary Paganisms as a valid and harmless - if perhaps eccentric - form of religious belief. We can see the symptoms of this in the popularity of television series such as Charmed or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and in The Charity Commission's 2010 decision to recognise Druidry as a religion deserving of tax-exempt status. Ultimately, I would suspect that the country's Pagan community is actually much larger than the census indicates, with many Pagans choosing not to fill in the "religion" section - seeing it with suspicion as a form of government surveillance - while those who follow a dual-faith observance might describe themselves simply as "Christian", "Spiritualist" or "Jewish", even if they blend those beliefs with Pagan elements in a syncretic manner. Clearly, this is an area where sociologists of religion can delve further.

For more information, check out the latest blog post over at The Wild Hunt site, an excellent Pagan-run blog all about... well, Paganism.

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