In his Naturalis Historia, xvi, 249, Pliny the Elder informs us that the Druids cut mistletoe using a golden sickle. I’m not aware that any such artefact has ever been discovered, while as a non-metallurgist, I don’t know if it’s feasible for a soft metal such as gold to be given an edge that would allow a blade to cut something as robust as mistletoe. Be that as it may, we know of many other wondrous and perhaps unlikely things devised by the ancients, such as the mysterious Claw of Archimedes, so a golden sickle is perhaps not out of the question.
The precise words used by Pliny are “falce aurea” (ablative case), so the word translated as “sickle” is “falx”, a third declension feminine noun. However, when we look into the matter more closely, we discover that this word carried a variety of meanings, as it came to refer to any one of a variety of curved blades with the cutting edge on the inside. To my mind, this has distinct echoes of another Latin word pertaining to the ancient Druids, ‘specus’, which is invariably translated as a cave, but which also has a variety of possible meanings that I’ve gone into elsewhere on this site. All this and more suggests to me that the classical accounts of the Druids remain brim full of possible insights into this ancient priesthood, contrary to what you will certainly be told elsewhere, but I digress.
Pliny tells us that the Druids were particularly interested in the Moon as far as certain of their ceremonies were concerned, so it strikes me as a pleasing coincidence that certain phases of our satellite could easily be viewed as a sickle, or else as sickle-shaped, while it frequently takes on an amber or golden hue, depending on the weather conditions when it’s observed.
The illustrations above have been rotated, but as this sequence of a lunar eclipse (below) shows, the same shapes in the same orientation can appear in our skies, and clearly have done over the millennia that Stonehenge was in active use.
So, it’s inevitable that I’ve found myself wondering about the mass of newly discovered axe carvings at Stonehenge, as many of the blades engraved into the sarsens seem identical in shape to an observable phase of our Moon, a heavenly body that was of great interest to the ancient Druids. Anyone who has looked into the matter will also be aware that the Moon was apparently of great significance in some of the earlier stages of Stonehenge’s history, but I’ll leave it to someone else to list all the lunar aspects of the monument, if they feel so inclined.
It seems to me that there are some tantalising possibilities here, but I cannot say if all the matters of interest that I’ve highlighted add up into a meaningful whole. It seems unlikely, I admit, but I cannot help but be struck by the various coincidences I’ve noticed. At least one part of my thinking is non-negotiable, because I believe it’s wilful ignorance at best to maintain that neither the Druids nor any proto-Druids had anything to do with Stonehenge, but this is a matter I’ve gone into exhaustively over the years. Otherwise, the points that particularly interest me are these:
- Pliny wrote that the Druids habitually used golden sickles during the course of some of their ceremonies, when they gathered mistletoe from oak trees.
- He wrote that these ceremonies were timed to coincide with the influence of the Moon.
- He wrote that the thing cut by these curved blades was known, in the language used by the Druids, as “The All Healing”.
I think it’s unlikely that Pliny or his sources would have described the blades or cutting implements used by the Druids as sickles, if in fact something more like an axe were being used, but as we’ve seen, the word ‘falx’ was used to describe a variety of implements. Furthermore, Strabo described the Druids as using another curved blade, which appears in the English translations as a sabre, but I’ve been unable to look into this properly. However, we know that the Druids put their victims to death in a variety of ways, using sabres, arrows, impalement, burning and nailing them to trees, so the mention of another curved blade is probably just a coincidence.
Be all that as it may, I cannot help wondering if the ceremony described by Pliny is a faint echo of certain events at Stonehenge in prehistory. Admittedly, the links are tenuous, but something about them nags at me and makes me cast around for every scrap of evidence that might be remotely relevant.
I don’t doubt for a moment that Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of the building of Stonehenge, something I’ve presented here many times before, ultimately derived from an oral tradition that carried the bare bones of the matter through the millennia, before it was committed to writing in the book that Geoffrey states was given to him by his friend Walter, the Archdeacon of Oxford. As part of this account, Merlin stated the following to Aurelius Ambrosius:
“If thou be fain to grace the burial place of these men with a work that shall endure forever, send for the Dance of the Giants that is in Killaraus, a mountain in Ireland. For a structure of stones is there that none of this age could arise save his wit were strong enough to carry his art. For the stones be big, nor is there stone anywhere of more virtue, and, so they be set up round this plot in a circle, even as they be now there set up, here shall they stand forever…For in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments. Giants of old did carry them from the furthest ends of Africa and did set them up in Ireland what time they did inhabit therein. And unto this end they did it, that they might make them baths whensoever they ailed of any malady, for they did wash the stones and pour forth the water into the baths, whereby they that were sick were made whole.”
Merlin begins by saying that “in these stones is a mystery, and a healing virtue against many ailments…” but he concludes by implying that the giants who built Stonehenge could be cured of any malady by washing the stones, then pouring the water into baths. So, one aspect of Stonehenge was regarded as being a panacea, or universal remedy, while the Druids gave mistletoe a name that meant precisely the same thing. All this makes me wonder how many ‘panaceas’ were prized by the builders of Stonehenge or the Druids, if the two are worth distinguishing; I am not an expert on these matters, but I would assume that universal remedies have always been pretty thin on the ground, which in turn makes me wonder if there’s any connection between Stonehenge and mistletoe. A few remote possibilities spring readily to mind, but even by my liberal and speculative standards, they’re not particularly convincing.
At the end of all this, I’m left contemplating Pliny’s account, which tells of Druids cutting a thing they’ve named a panacea, or universal remedy, with an instrument possessing a curved blade, while other elements of this ceremony include the Moon, oxen and the colour white.
As such, my mind wanders to Stonehenge, a place that was certainly linked with the Druids, oxen and the colour white (among others), where an instrument with a curved blade has been cut into something later described as a panacea, or universal remedy. Is there a valid connection? Can we thereby read anything further into the newly-discovered carvings? The truth is that I don’t know, but the suggestions refuse to go away.
Otherwise, despite the similarities between the crescent Moon and the blades of the axes cut into the stones, the fact remains that there is more to the blades than just the curved cutting edges, because there are the hafts that remind me of mushrooms. Are these symbols upside-down? I don’t know if our Bronze Age ancestors would have regarded an axe as being the right way up in any way, but the blades of these symbols are uppermost, whereas with the dagger engravings, the points are downward. For some reason, a vision of the inverted oak stump at the centre of Seahenge keeps coming to mind, which some have suggested is linked to death, so the recorded Druid belief in a life “ad inferos” comes to mind, as does Stonehenge’s noted association with the dead. I note also that Seahenge was constructed with the use of at least 50 different Bronze Age axes, which seems a surprisingly large number, so I find myself wondering about the 42 axes engraved on one stone at Stonehenge, with 59 on another.
There are some faint chinks of light here, I feel, but most of the subject matter is baffling. The bulk of the engravings at Stonehenge are low down on the stones, by way of contrast to much of the later graffiti, so I have to ask myself whether it’s more convenient to make such markings while seated, or while standing. If I were to ever leave my personal mark at such a place, I think my preference would be to work while standing, but that is undoubtedly because I would want my ‘personal seal’ to be at eye level and therefore to be immediately apparent to anyone else who wandered that way. Whoever put the axes in place at Stonehenge clearly had very different ideas and I must admit that I can’t begin to understand their reasoning; the best I can offer, for now, are the similarities I’ve outlined above.
By one of those cosmic coincidences, I noticed this feature describing a Breakthrough in world’s oldest undeciphered writing on the BBC last night, just as I was putting the finishing touches to my first draft of this post. As you’ll see, scanning technology has been employed in the attempt to analyse these tablets and it seems that the researchers are looking for assistance from the general public, so it may be that one of us has more luck with proto-Elamite than with the mysterious hieroglyphs at Stonehenge, until such time, perhaps, as Stukeley’s “eternally to be lamented” tablet of tin comes to light.
My grateful thanks as always to Juris Ozols and MOJO Productions of Minnesota for the invaluable assistance with illustrations.