Books, Prehistory, The Reliquary Volume 17 1876-77

The Reliquary Volume 17 1876-77 is in The Reliquary.

Books, Prehistory, The Reliquary Volume 17 1876-77, The Reliquary Volume 17 Page 113

On Arbor Low [Map] I by William Henry Goss.

I have called this paper Arbor Low, because it is written in consequence of a visit by the North Staffordshire Naturalist and Archeeological Field Club, myself with them, to that famous Derbyshire circle, near Hartington, on the 18th of July, 1876.

Had not Mr. James Fergusson, in his Eude Stone Monuments, theorized another origin to this and similar monuments throughout the world, there would have been little more to say about Arbor Low than that it was probably one of the ancient sacred enclosures of the Celtic sun-worshippers, where they offered their sacrifices, and performed their mysterious religious ceremonies ; the open-air temple, or grove nucleus, not of a limited local worship, but of one of the earliest, most natural, and most wide-spread faiths of mankind.

Mr. Fergusson doubts this origin and purpose of the circles, and has written mainly to prove that they are monuments and mementoes of battle-fields rather than temples, and of date post-Roman rather than ancient British. The archaeological data which he has so laboriously accumulated, I accept with admiration and gratitude ; but, while I acknowledge him to be a collector and teacher of facts, I cannot accept his hypothesis without examination and consequent objections. Mr. Fergusson labours to show that these circles may have been constructed in the days of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and that Avebury and others are mere mementoes of that fabulous hero's victories ; the battles of that Arthur of whom it is recorded that the space between his eyebrows was a span, and his whole figure large in proportion, so that he was a handsome well-made giant. Looking at this circular plateau of Arbor Low, with its great fiat stones lying round the edge, and some larger ones in the middle, it is really suggestive of a round table at which giants, such as Arthur, may have squatted down to dinner in ancient days, and gone off without clearing away the dinner things!

Speaking of giants, Mr. Fergusson has shown by his works that he is a giant in megalithic knowledge ; but in his espousal of the Arthurian theory of the origin of these rude stone rings, he has, I fear, put on a rude ring armour of so open a pattern as to have rendered himself vulnerable by the tiny weapons of ordinary mortals.

Another writer is Mr. William Long, to whom archaeological students are vastly indebted for a large accumulation of facts respecting Stonehenge and its Barrows, With this work, and Mr. Jewitt's important volume on Grave-mounds and their Contents, and some others to which I shall refer, it becomes an easy task to re-focus on the subject, lights which such theories as the Arthurian tend to muddle. It is pleaded against the Druidical theory, that these circles and the Druids were not associated by archaeologists until early in the last century ; I shall show that they were associated as soon as really intelligent inquiry was instituted respecting them. But such a plea tells more against the Arthurian than the Druidical theory, in the same proportion that 170 years, or more, bears to five years, the present age of Rude Stone Monuments which is dated 1871. In estimating the value of the origin and age of the Druidical theory, it is necessary to reckon up that of the theories which it superseded.

The megalithic circles had no extant history whatever, that is to say, there was no record of their origin or purposes, until a mythologist invented one in the 12th century for Stonehenge, which mythic origin he placed in the cloudy retrospect of between six and seven hundred years before his own time, and which might as well have been six or seven thousand years for any means he could then have of autlienticating his story. I allade to that of Geoflfrey of Monmouth, in which the erection of Stonehenge is ascribed to Aurelius Ambrosius, or, more actually, to Merlin the Wizard, in commemoration of the treacherous slaughter of three hundred British nobles by Hengist the Saxon on Salisbury Downs. Inasmuch as the erection of the huge masses of Stonehenge appeared to Geoffrey impossible by human means, he peered into the mists of antiquity for a magician, and, lighting upon the Merlin of romances, to whom impossibilities were so very easy of accomplishment, he gave him the job. So when Aurelius wanted to set up a monument on Salisbury plain, Stonehenge was already standing in Kildare in Ireland, and was called the Giant's Dance, and Merlin proposed to the King that it should be fetched to "Wiltshire, because " its stones were mystical and of a medicinal virtue, and if they can be placed here, as they are there, quite round this spot of ground, they will stand for ever." The king consented, and in case the fierce Irishmen should not be for looking on quietly while the Giant's Dance was being taken down from the mountain of Kildare, Uther Pendragon, King Arthur's "fader," accompanied Merlin with 15,000 men. The precaution proved wise, for when they got to Erin, an Irish " youth of wonderful valour," welcomed them with an ancient version of the Marseillaise hymn — ** To arms ! " exclaimed he, " at the head of a vast army," and a battle ensued, in which victory decided in favour of the Britons j and proceeding to the mountain of Kildare, they " arrived at the structure of stones, the sight of which filled them with both joy and admiration. And while they were all standing round them, Merlin came up to them and said, * Now try your forces, young men.' " Then the 16,000 with cables, small ropes, ladders, and engines, set to work -, but they could not stir those vast stones of medicinal virtue. " Merlin laughed at their vain efforts, and then began his own contrivances." The result, of course was that " they with joy set sail again to return to Britain, where they arrived with a fair gale, and repaired to the burial-place with the stones. A great solemnity was held for three successive days ; after which Aurelius ordered Merlin to set up the stones brought over from Ireland, about the sepulchre, which he accordingly did, and placed them in the same manner as they had been on the Mount of Killaraus." Thus did Geoffrey, afterwards Bishop of St. Asaph, write what he called " British History." There was one particular, however, which Geoffrey omitted, and which was mentioned a short time after by another writer, namely, that the stones of the Giant's Dance were brought to Kildare and set up there originally by giants, from the remotest parts of Africa.

This myth of Geoflfrey'B Mr. Fergusson appears to accept as history, yet with a sort of apology for the author, and censuring him for his romantic manner of telling the tale, and mixing up Merlin with it. Yet he evidently clings to it and accepts its dates, for he says, ** The massacre took place apparently in the year 462, and the erection of Stonchenge consequently may have been commenced about the year 466, and carried on during the following years, say down to 470 A.D."

For nearly five hundred years after Geoffrey's time his romance appears to have constituted the history of Stonehenge, but, although it was not replaced by any reasonable theory, it could not escape the ridicule of the enlightened. For example, Samuel Daniel wrote of Stonehenge nearly three hundred years ago : —

"Whereon when as the gazing passenger

Hath greedy look'd with admiration,

And fain would know its birth, and what it were,

How there erected, and how long agone:

Inquires and asks his fellow-traveller,

what he hath heard, and his opinion ?

"Then ignorance with fabulous discourse,

Robbing fair art and cunning of their right.

Tells how those stones were by the devil's forco,

From Africk brought, to Ireland in a night:

And thence to Britannie, by magick course.

From gents' hands redeemed by Merlin's sleight.*'