Grim’s Gates – the first English name for Stonehenge?

by Dennis on April 11, 2007

Our thoughts on Stonehenge and our attempts to fathom its mysteries are coloured to an extravagant and unreasonable degree by the sole name by which we refer to the place – Stonehenge. It is a constant point of reference, consciously or otherwise, but it is a complete dead end as far as further understanding of the site is concerned, unless we start to broaden our horizons and minutely examine all the evidence that is available to us.

The monument did not begin life as a work in stone, nor was it ever a henge, so to have in mind a “stone henge” as a reference point when we are studying the place is a fairly pointless exercise. The monument has been awarded other titles over the years, such as the Giants’ Dance, the Tomb of Boadicea, the Temple of Caelus and others, but none of these have gained widespread or long-lived acceptance. To refer to it as a temple, for example, is a self-defeating exercise that relies on a pretty baseless assumption, because no one has ever come close to proving that it functioned as a temple.

When we employ the “first principles” of Marcus Aurelius and examine the name Stonehenge, we discover that it is a Saxon or Old English name that may have meant the “stone gallows”, the “hinged stones” or perhaps the “hanging stones”, in the sense that some stones (the lintels) appear to be suspended in the air. These three possibilities are our modern interpretations of the word “Stanenges” that was first used by Henry of Huntingdon in 1130 when he wrote of the place in his History of the English People.

So, the name “Stanenges” or Stonehenge has three potential interpretations, all of which are different. It does not automatically follow that hinged stones are one and the same thing as a stone gallows, nor are stones hanging in the air necessarily hinged or else designed specifically for use as a gallows. It seems that the name Stanenges or Stonehenge reflects an impression that the architecture made on an observer and is an attempt to describe to someone else what the place looked like, rather than a serious reflection of its history or function.

Nonetheless, Stonehenge has stuck and has firmly lodged itself in our consciousness as the only possible name by which we can refer to the monument, something that has proved a considerable hindrance to our understanding of the place during any period of its long history. I suggest that this is because we have not yet looked closely enough at the name and because we have all been swayed by the “official” views on Stonehenge that brook little dissent or intrusion.

For now, let us concentrate on this one aspect: if the name Stonehenge was an attempt to describe the architecture, and if this one name can be interpreted in three or more ways, then it is perfectly reasonable to ask if there were ever any other names by which it could once have been known. To make life easier for ourselves, we’ll confine ourselves to the broad Anglo-Saxon period and to the use of Old English, but the sole purpose of this speculation is to discover if there could ever realistically have been a more meaningful name than Stonehenge for the famous monument on Salisbury Plain, one that might be more in accord with what little we now know of the place.

An obvious and immediate objection to this approach would be to say that to conjure up an Old English name out of thin air that just so happens to fit in with the latest archaeological discoveries at Stonehenge is blatant cheating that proves nothing and achieves nothing. Of course, it would be utterly futile if we were to rely only on our imaginations and on nothing else to provide evidence to fit a theory, but this will not be the case; instead, we shall rely solely on accredited evidence from the past.

We know that the remains of the Neolithic flint mines in Norfolk made such an impression on the Saxons that they named the place “Grime’s Graves” after their god Grim, while a reasonable variation on the name “Grime’s Graves” is the term “The Devil’s Holes”, a title that reflects the nature of the mines or openings into the earth, as well as the dark nature of the Saxon god Grim. Before we continue, we should bear in mind that the name “Grim” meant hooded or masked and it was used to describe one aspect of the god Woden or Odin.

With the precedent of Grime’s Graves in mind, what impression did the curious structural design of the place we now call Stonehenge make on the Saxons who first encountered it? Are we to suppose that as far back as the sixth century, perhaps, a group of Saxons appeared over the brow of a nearby hill, took in the unearthly sight before them, then simply muttered something like “Ah, the hanging stones” before wandering off? Perhaps – perhaps not.

Unless the native people in the area were able to provide another name and explanation for the place, which is admittedly a strong possibility, then the Saxons would have been left to fathom the purpose of the unique stone monument for themselves. Even if the locals did provide a name for the place, then we know that the Saxons viewed such ancient monuments with deep suspicion and foreboding, so they are likely to have chosen a name for the monument themselves, irrespective of what they’d been told by anyone else. There is a third possibility, which is that the locals had a name for Stonehenge that the Saxons wholeheartedly agreed with, but for now, let us simply explore a likely Saxon name for the monument that may have predated the term Stanenges or Stonehenge.

If the Saxons thought that the lunar landscape of the collapsed Neolithic flint mines in Norfolk was such a disturbing sight, then it is highly likely that they viewed the massive, brooding structure on Salisbury Plain in a very similar light. If they thought that the collapsed shafts in Norfolk were the work of Grim, a god strongly associated with the dead, then it seems highly likely, if not inevitable, that they would have thought exactly the same thing about Stonehenge, standing as it did in the middle of what was patently a funerary landscape.

If the stones were the work of Grim, then what of the manner in which they had been arranged? Would early Saxon eyes have discerned any meaningful design in the arrangement of the sarsens? One of the most fundamental elements or characteristics of Stonehenge is the arrangement of uprights capped by lintels in the outer circle, allowing people to wander inside the monument, so the most obvious notion that springs to mind is one of the few things which cannot be argued about the place i.e. the gaps between these uprights acted entrances to the centre. As such, it is entirely possible that the monument was once known or else referred to as Grim’s Gates, while the word “gate” itself is an Old English name that may well date back to such a period.

We’ve already seen that the Saxons viewed these ancient structures with misgiving. We know of a Saxon execution at Stonehenge, we know of at least one group of Bronze Age barrows close to Stonehenge that was isolated by a Saxon ditch and we know that at least one interpretation of the name Stonehenge is that of a gallows, or instrument of death. With all this in mind, then it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that Stonehenge was once viewed as being the work of Grim, the Devil, or some deity associated with the dead.

But what of Grim’s Gates? Is there any historical evidence whatsoever to suggest that after the Romans left, anyone ever interpreted the architecture of Stonehenge in terms of gates or other apertures? Most certainly.

The aforementioned Henry of Huntingdon is often quoted as being the first person to mention the name Stanenges or Stonehenge, but what else did he have to say about the place, if anything? He wrote “Stanenges, where stones of wonderful size have been erected after the manner of doorways, so that doorway appears to have been raised upon doorway…” After this, he goes on to say that “No one can conceive how such great stones have been raised aloft, or why they were built there”, but despite his clear bafflement at why Stonehenge had been built, the fact remains that he thrice mentions doorways, specifically as the impression that the architecture of the place had made upon him.

With this in mind, I suggest that the term “Grim’s Gates” was once used by some Saxons to describe Stonehenge long before Henry of Huntingdon published his history in 1130. I know of no historical record of such a thing, but as the Douai drawing of Stonehenge has recently come to light, I would not completely rule out the future discovery of the term “Grim’s Gates” in relation to Stonehenge, either in some manuscript or else carved into a stone at the monument itself.

The Laser Scanning Project at Stonehenge in 2002 brought to light a great many prehistoric carvings, but only something like one square metre of the monument was studied in this fashion, leaving the rest of the monument in comparative darkness. I have a fascinating and demonstrably genuine photograph clearly showing some other highly unusual carvings at Stonehenge that I’m waiting for permission to publish, carvings that I’ve not seen on display elsewhere, so it may yet transpire that the term “Grim’s Gates” one day takes on a physical reality outside this journal.

However, it may be that we do not need to wait for that day, because there is a strong case that it is already upon us and has been for nearly a thousand years. At the risk of going over some of the evidence more than once, consider the following:

Some miles north of Stonehenge is a vast earthwork known as Wansdyke, or Woden’s Dyke, while in the nearby Vale of Pewsey is a Neolithic long barrow known as Woden’s Barrow. Just a mile or so to the west of Stonehenge is at least one cluster of Bronze Age barrows inexplicably surrounded by a pentagonal Saxon enclosure. Thanks to the Channel 4 programme Murder at Stonehenge and the clear, detailed descriptions offered by Mike Pitts in his book Hengeworld, we know that Stonehenge was a dark, remote place of execution in the seventh century, something that classifies it as a “grim” place by any standards and these are just some of the Saxon elements we know of. To put it in non-academic terms, the whole twilight landscape for miles around reeks of the god Woden, one of whose main attributes was a “Carrier off of the Dead”, and at the heart of this bleak setting was a vast, sprawling burial ground, whose epicentre was a brooding, awe-inspiring stone monument like no other on Earth.

Woden possesses a rich mythology, but the central episode in his life came when he chose to hang himself from a tree in a successful attempt to gain wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. So important and pivotal is this bizarre episode that Woden is virtually defined by it, as he became known as “The God of the Hanged” or “The Lord of the Gallows”. Just as a Christian mention of the Cross is synonymous with the figure of Jesus hanging from it, then so was a gallows virtually inseparable from Odin. Or Woden. Or Grim.

Hanging Man Tarot

If we came across an account by a Crusader who claimed to have gazed upon the cross and the grail, whether such an account was credible or not, we would immediately know that he was speaking of the True Cross and of the Holy Grail. By the same principle, Henry of Huntingdon is speaking of THE Hanging Stones, if only because there aren’t any others. Not only that, but the word he uses is an Anglo-Saxon one as opposed to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin Chorea Gigantum or Giants’ Dance, while there are other Anglo-Saxon names for ancient structures in the region that specifically refer to Woden, the “Lord of the Gallows”.

With this in mind, just as a mention of the Cross automatically implies the presence of Jesus, so it is impossible to see Henry of Huntingdon’s mention of Stanenges or “The Hanging Stones” as anything but a reference to Woden, especially as the word is of an Anglo-Saxon origin that predates the Norman era of his book, which was published in 1130. Our three modern interpretations of the word Stonehenge are virtually meaningless as far as furthering our understanding of the monument goes, but when we place “The Hanging Stones” in the context of the precise setting of a Saxon execution, which took place amid an ancient graveyard with nearby place names derived from the name Woden that survive to this day, it takes on a different aspect altogether. In my opinion, Henry of Huntingdon as good as spelt out a clear memory that Stonehenge was the place of Woden, or Grim, even if he did not realise as much himself, while he went on to speak of his impression of doorways – structures that are by clear implication, “Grim’s Gates.”

So, let us try to picture a gloomy alternative reality where neither myself nor my Eternal Idol journal exists. In this scenario, say in 2004, someone discovers a manuscript that unquestionably dates from Anglo-Saxon or early Norman times, while one page of this ancient book depicts the unmistakable lintels and uprights of Stonehenge – furthermore, the accompanying text carries a specific reference to “Grim’s Gates.” Now, I suggest that even if any further verification were deemed necessary, it would not require a genius to immediately work out the connection between a Saxon word for a stone gallows, a Saxon god who was the “Lord of the Gallows”, the known Saxon fear of ancient British burial places, a cluster of barrows close to Stonehenge isolated by a Saxon ditch, the huge earthworks nearby named after Woden, Woden’s alter ego of Grim and Henry of Huntingdon’s multiple references to doorways at Stonehenge.

Once this new name for Stonehenge had sunk in, the place might become known or perceived as “The Devil’s Portals” or some such, just as Grime’s Graves were The Devil’s Holes. How would we, or rather, you, begin to look at Stonehenge in a new light, broadly speaking? Would your general perception of the place alter in any way?

You might think that as Grim or Woden was a Sky God, it was something of a coincidence that in the seventeenth century, Inigo Jones should have interpreted Stonehenge as being the temple to a Caelus, a Roman Sky God.

You might think that as Grim or Woden was a “Carrier off of the Dead”, there was something particularly insightful about Professor Mike Parker-Pearson’s stated view that Stonehenge was somehow connected with funerary practises, even though the two were separated by three thousand years or so. Still, the Mesolithic Pits in the car park at Stonehenge are separated from the later stone monument by over 5,000 years, yet this has not ruled out the archaeologists suggesting a link between the two.

The lethal stretch of A303 adjoining Stonehenge might become known, in common with many other such places, as the Devil’s Elbow, while you might also begin to wonder at the yearly fatalities that occur within sight of the monument.

If the monument were known as “Grim’s Gates”, then by implication, the area within the sarsen uprights or portals would be a dark netherworld, where the “Devil’s Own” were buried in the form of the skeletons and many cremations. If this place were viewed as some kind of gloomy domain of a deity such as Grim, then it would make (far more) sense for people to congregate within its bleak confines once a year on Midsummer’s Day to watch the rays of the blessed sun reach inside a place of shadows.

If Grim or Woden had one notable “gate” at Stonehenge, then it would have been formed by the Great Trilithon whose uprights captured the rays of setting Midwinter Sun as it sank in the west, where a mile or so away, the Bronze Age barrows were enclosed by a pentagonal Saxon ditch.

The principle god in the Saxon invaders’ pantheon possessed the title “The Lord of the Gallows” for very good reasons that we’ve already explored. With this in mind, is it likely that when they unexpectedly came across what they saw as a colossal set of gallows made from stone, the Saxons viewed it as a tangible sign that the land on which it stood belonged to them by right? For people long accustomed to hanging others from a beam placed across the top of two wooden poles, the sight of as many as thirty-five gigantic stone gallows or crossbeams in the heart of an ancient landscape of the dead must have presented a truly mind-numbing spectacle, one that would have seared itself into their collective consciousness. By the same token, did the native peoples have good reason to view Stonehenge as a potent symbol of their own national pride and resistance? Did either side, not just the Saxons, view Stonehenge as an echo in stone of the portent seen in the sky by the Emperor Constantine just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD?

Stance Vaticane Raffaello

Other than that, you might begin to wonder about the origin of the mediaeval story of the Devil building Stonehenge and throwing a stone at a passing friar. On the same subject of the Devil, nearby Avebury suffered a prolonged onslaught when its stones were systematically destroyed in mediaeval times because they were believed to be the work of the Devil.

You might begin to wonder why King James the First, a monarch so obsessed with witches and with the Devil that he personally wrote a book on demonology, was sufficiently intrigued to commission the first investigation into Stonehenge.

On their website providing information on the Neolithic flint mines, English Heritage specifically refer to Grime’s Graves as “The Devil’s Holes”. If, as seems highly likely, Stonehenge was once viewed as a place sacred to Woden, Odin, or Grim, then it is very hard indeed to avoid the conclusion that people in later ages saw Stonehenge as a place of the Devil or of Devil Worship, whatever that may mean in reality. It is one thing for other prehistoric monuments such as the Devil’s Arrows in Yorkshire to be named in such a way, but quite another for the most famous, instantly recognisable and enigmatic prehistoric monument in the world to acquire such an association.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the one million or so visitors Stonehenge receives every year, you might also be tempted to look through various articles related to Professor Richard Atkinson and his excavations at Stonehenge, substituting “The Devil’s Portals” for any mention of Stonehenge. And so on and so forth.

In brief, to rename Stonehenge as Grim’s Gates or the Devil’s Portals, as the historical evidence suggests, would certainly not answer every question we have about the place, but I think that it would make the period after the Roman occupation slightly less murky and impenetrable than before. This has just been a quick survey of some of the more obvious points, but I strongly suspect that there is a very great deal more that we can learn about Stonehenge if we really apply ourselves to an in-depth study of Grim’s Gates and the Dark Ages.

Below is an illustration of Stonehenge or Grim’s Gates that was executed by Lucas de Heere in 1574. Does it simply show a nobleman on a horse with someone leaning on a stone in the foreground? Or does it remotely bring to mind the tale of Woden on horseback, leading the Wild Hunt in search of lost souls? Is the man in the foreground leaning against a stone? Or is his back to the man on horseback because he is trying to get behind a stone to evade being seen and captured at a grim and foreboding place of the dead? It is unlikely that we”ll ever know one way or the other, but it is reasonable to ask if Lucas de Heere was even remotely aware of the story of Woden on horseback leading the Wild Hunt in search of lost souls when he painted the mysterious monument that would soon captivate King James the First, the monarch for whom Macbeth was written.

Finally, Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1682) once wrote “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.” Considering with the huge amount of detailed evidence available to us, ascertaining the original Saxon name for Stonehenge is one of the least puzzling questions about the ruins, regardless of how uncomfortable the implications may be.


Words by Dennis Price (c) 2007.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

slumpy April 11, 2007 at 10:22 pm

Interesting, and provocative, as always.

My thoughts on the Saxon interpretation of Grime’s Graves and Stonehenge is that far from being somewhere used initially to worship that particular God, it would be more likely that they would see the landscape and the monument as a manifestation of that God in that place. Each deity would have had their own ‘turf’ as it were – sun worship at some of the Durrington circles, moon at others – rising at some, setting at others – plus wood spirits in the forests, water spirits within rivers etc, very much in the way we have churches, chapels, syangogues, mosques, all kept sensibly apart so as to not antagonise two potential warring factions and ultimately getting the blame! If the Saxons understood the antiquity of Stonehenge [ie, pre-Roman], they could have done an Atkinson, and regarded the primates on these islands as savages, unable to conceive such a thing, and attributed it directly to the most convenient [for them] alternative.

Surely it all comes down to Saxon interpretation – how did they regard the rough-edged, clumsily-arranged stones compared to the smooth columns and marble edges of the remains of the villas strewn across the south of England? Did they understand that a lot of time separated the stones and the villas? They may even have seen them as from time before Man – I have no idea on their brand of religion as far as origins etc, but I could see them thinking that Rome had been around forever, and now they’d gone away they’d left behind the relics of time before time.

Grim can indeed be used as a word to describe the interior of Stonehenge. The central area is dark and gloomy for most of the daylight hours averaged over a year. In winter some areas of grass do not see direct sunlight for weeks on end. It is not a ‘happy’ place, even filled with revellers – it is overbearing, claustrophobic and domineering. Certainly not a place you would choose for a party – no weddings, no celebrations, except maybe of death. A place to commune with the Gods possibly, a surprisingly private place surrounded by bank and ditch, and with stones mostly blocking all but the smalled slivers of light, where rituals dreamed up by desperate shamen were carried out, with only the sky to see what’s happening.

As for renaming it, officially renaming something never makes it so. People have long memories and short tempers, and will call it Stonehenge out of sheer obstinacy!

PS, Odin was actually a tramp with a penchant for crisp white linen!
‘The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul’ by Douglas Adams, starring Dirk Gently, the holistic detective.

Dennis April 12, 2007 at 12:22 am

I’m glad you found it interesting and I hope that others do as well, while I’m not preoccupied with putting forward a theory just for the sake of it, because anyone can do that. Whether it be Neolithic archery, Atkinson’s motives, Inigo Jones’ Altar Stone, the original Saxon name for Stonehenge or anything else, my sole concern is in the truth of the matter. Having said that, the names “Grim’s Gates” and “The Devil’s Portals” are growing on me, if only because the more I look at a picture of Stonehenge as best I can through the eyes of a sixth century Saxon, the more these names seem to fit, but perhaps it’s just me.

slumpy April 12, 2007 at 9:51 am

…and mere hours after reading and writing here, I get a copy of Paul Ashbee’s Earthen Long Barrows of Britain, and the first words I read when I flipped it open were “Hanging Grimston”.

At least in Kent, it seems that the Saxons were happy to get involved with Bronze Age barrows, even reusing them, yet anything megalithic was looked at totally differently. The Romans weren’t bothered, so why the Saxons? Even earthen barrows were left alone for the most part [Julliberrie's Grave more likely to have been an earthen barrow than a chambered megalithic] and yet there seemed to have been an concerted effort to undermine the stones’ footings and to bury the evidence.

Quite what the thinking behind it was, who can guess?

Dennis April 12, 2007 at 10:07 am

I had never heard of the place until now – I’m sure I won’t be the only one interested in reading any further information on Hanging Grimston, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

slumpy April 12, 2007 at 1:34 pm

I believe it’s a northern barrow group complete with timber mortuary house…in fact !!

It’s a very common word for places names, in various forms…but how about the phrase “Hanging on like grim death” ?

Dennis April 12, 2007 at 2:08 pm

Once again, I’m obliged to you for presenting this information so that we can all share it – as for the term “hanging on like grim death”, I’m not sure it’s strictly relevant, but it’s certainly a colourful expression that (coincidentally) captures the spirit of things.

Littlestone April 14, 2007 at 4:41 pm

What slightly worries me about your hypothesis, Dennis, is that you seem (correct me if I’m wrong) to be implying that the Anglo-Saxons could only have seen Stonehenge as a place of execution (with or without the Woden connection). That seems to be a view of the ‘Dark Ages’ which I thought had now been generally superseded by a more informed picture of Anglo-Saxon culture.

I’m far from being an expert in Anglo-Saxon studies but I’ve noticed that one of the re-occurring characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon people (gleaned from the sparse literature of the time) is a considerable degree of accuracy when describing places or events – indeed, sometimes those descriptions are more accurate than much later ones of the same place. For example in the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, there are the passages, “Stood stone houses; wide streams welled, hot from source, and a wall all caught, in its bright bosom, that the baths were hot at hall’s hearth…” Also, from the same poem, “…bound bravely the wallbase with iron…” It beggars belief that The Ruin is still thought by some to be about Stonehenge when neither of the two passages quoted above can possibly be describing that structure. Those passages do, however, accurately, describe what the poet might have seen at Bath. Similarly, in the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon, one sees (through a heart-wrenching description of defeat on the battlefield) a degree of accuracy that would put Owen, Sassoon and other World War I poets to shame. I could also quote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as another source of accurate description (and meticulous record-keeping) but that would be labouring the point. Suffice it to say that the Anglo-Saxons were more than capable of giving a place an accurate name to fit their perception or understanding of that place. In the case of Stonehenge I would suggest that they saw the structure as a place where stones seemed ‘to hang’ (hence the word Stonehenge) not a place of public or mythical execution (which I suspect would have given rise to a similar though differently constructed word).

My understanding is that the Old English word ‘heng’ is the past tense of the word ‘hang’ meaning here ‘suspended’. In other words, Stonehenge literally means ‘stones that are suspended’. I’m not sufficiently versed in Old English to be able to give a reliable suggestion for an Old English word to describe ‘hanging stones’ (ie gallows stones) but I’d venture to suggest that, if the Anglo-Saxons did see the structure as an elaborate (if rather impractical) gallows, they would have called it something like Hengenstanen (hanging stones). I would also like so say that reducing the Anglo-Saxon perception of Stonehenge to a place of execution is to rather do the Anglo-Saxons an injustice. The Anglo-Saxons had a rich culture which is evidenced in their poetry, prose and visual arts. Far from being blooded warriors or cowering peasants of some ‘Dark Age’, where dragons and the dark forces dwelled under each and every barrow, the words and wisdom of those people show that they were well-versed in politics, had leaders who were respected during their lifetime and who were sent to their afterlife in a way equal to any culture on earth. The Anglo-Saxons were craftsmen and wordsmiths of incredible skill (the treasures from Sutton Hoo are just one testimony to that) while Beowulf is not only an astonishing piece of literary genius it also happens to be older than the oldest piece of Japanese literature – a little known fact due, perhaps, to the ongoing tendency of some to see our Anglo-Saxon forefathers as uncouth hordes arriving here from the continent and destroying everything in their path. On the contrary, they had developed technologies (folded steel for example) a thousand years before they became known elsewhere, while the words and wisdom of these people still echo down the ages and are heard each and every time we open our mouths and speak.

The following is the well-know passage from the Venerable Bede’s, A History of the English Church and People. Bede writes about King Edwin’s Council of 627 which was only some 100 years after the first large-scale Anglo-Saxon ‘invasions’ of these islands. It was a time when Germanic paganism was still to give way to Christianity and a time, perhaps, before the Anglo-Saxons had even set eyes on Stonehenge. Yet the words spoken by one nobleman at that Council still stand as an example of the sophistication, culture, sensitivity and eloquence of the people of the time – a people far removed, I would suggest, from grim Woden worshippers.

“Your majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thanes and counsellors. In the midst there is the comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through the other. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but what went before and what follows, we know nothing.”

Dennis April 14, 2007 at 5:14 pm

Bloody hell – that made my eyes water and no mistake! I’m flattered that you thought my post was worthy of such examination, so I’ll try to do it justice in a reply. It might take a couple of days, but better late than never. In the meantime, thank you for providing us all with food for thought…

slumpy April 14, 2007 at 8:34 pm

To add another coincidence, I ate at the Hanging Gate pub in Combes in Derbyshire today!

Dennis April 14, 2007 at 10:03 pm


Dennis April 15, 2007 at 1:12 am

In response to Littlestone’s earlier comment: there’s no question that when the inclination took them, some Anglo-Saxons were perfectly capable of describing places in highly detailed and lyrical terms; some of them may well have once described Stonehenge in such a fashion. However, the first (apparent) description we have of Stonehenge is supplied by Henry of Huntingdon and it is my case that one memory of one early Saxon description of Stonehenge survives in what he has to say about the ruins.

I see your point about Stonehenge being an elaborate and impractical gallows from a Saxon perspective, but this is surely as far as mere mortals are concerned? Their sheer size suggests that they were built by a non-human agency i.e. Merlin or giants, so I’d say that the impracticality you mention actually strengthens the case for them to be associated with a mighty god such as Woden.

Otherwise, just because the Saxons seemed to have viewed one striking monument in a particular light, identifying the location with Woden or Grim, does not automatically imply that the entire Saxon era can only be defined in terms of Woden worship or the Dark Ages and I would not seek to argue this.

However, the view that Stonehenge was somehow a baleful, shunned site with an intimate connection with Grim or the Devil would be in accord with what we know of the Saxon execution there in the sixth century. It might also be relevant to the pentagonal enclosure dug around the barrows to the west and it certainly goes a very long way towards explaining why King James the First, of all people, should have been so fascinated by Stonehenge.

Otherwise, I must admit that I’m not totally convinced by the apparent sophistication of the “grim Woden worshippers” of 627 that you mention. It’s a matter of personal perspective, but I would point to Grime’s Graves for a start, then to the sheer size of Wansdyke and Woden’s Barrow before going on to consider the many other surviving place names in Britain associated with Woden or Grim.

Finally, there’s also the matter of Woden’s name surviving to this day, with no sign of being replaced, as one of our days of the week i.e. Wednesday. Nearly fourteen hundred years down the line, it strikes me that Woden or Grim long ago made an indelible impression upon our cultural and physical landscape, while all the evidence suggests to me that Stonehenge was once the epicentre. As with everything else, however, I’m prepared to be persuaded otherwise.

Andy Marlow April 15, 2007 at 4:06 pm


I find myself largely agreeing with your contention of the association of Woden with Stonehenge.

The Anglo Saxon’s came from areas of Northern Europe, which themselves contained the visible remnants of a megalithic culture, though not on the same scale as the monuments of Salisbury Plain. The barrows, stone circles and standing stones of Northern Europe may very well have been understood as elements of a landscape dedicated to funerary rites and rituals of death. I find it hard to believe that the continental antecedents of the Anglo Saxon’s did not weave these monuments, and the distant folk memories and stories of their original use into their own creation myths and religion. Woden’s mysterious nature and association with the dead and the unpredictable and destructive supernatural forces of the wild hunt seem to link him very directly to the old religion. The primacy of the Grim aspect of the high god Woden amongst later Anglo Saxon culture could be a reflection of the significance that the Anglo Saxon’s placed upon the old religion and possibly the fear of its continued potency.

If this were the case, then the Anglo Saxon’s would have arrived on these shores already able to interpret the landscape in which Stonehenge stood and would have recognised the monument for what it was; a ritual place of death from the dawn of time.

Moreover, the sheer scale of Stonehenge and the extent and complexity of the landscape in which it stands may well have led the AS to view the monument as being the origin and epicentre of this old religion. A religion with an apparent morbid preoccupation with rituals of death and burial. A place of singular power and significance and one intimately linked with Woden.



Jasmine April 15, 2007 at 4:17 pm

Very intriguing article indeed. With the image of the March lunar eclipse still fresh in my mind, I immediately thought of Lionel Sim’s Lunistice proposition. Odin/Woden was also known as ‘Murder of the Moon’ and ‘The Man in the Moon’, and DA Mackenzie in his 1912 book Teutonic Myth and Legend (can be found at writes about ‘Odin’s ‘moon-car’. You mention that the Woden/Grim aspect also meant hooded or masked – isn’t that what happens to the moon during an eclipse? The evocative image of the dark veil of the world’s shadow falling across the moon’s face is very much a masking or hooding.

Dennis April 15, 2007 at 4:54 pm

Thank you very much indeed for this, Andy. There are no two ways about it – we’re both obviously of pretty much the same mind about this matter and from what I can see, the evidence seems to support it. Once again, the more I look at Stonehenge through what I imagine are early Saxon eyes, the more the place seems to be “Grim’s Gates” or “The Devil’s Doorways.”

Dennis April 15, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Sorry about that, Jasmine – the comments and replies seem to have got muddled up and it’s beyond my limited technological abilities to alter it. Anyway, I’m very pleased that you found the post intriguing and it’s hard to think of a better compliment for an original piece about Stonehenge. Having said that, I was in turn fascinated by what you had to say about Woden and the Moon, so thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to write in; as a result, we can all all profit from what you’ve told us. It’s now becoming very difficult for me to think of anything else apart from Woden as far as the Anglo-Saxons and Stonehenge are concerned, while Grim’s Gates have taken on a new significance with what you’ve said about the Moon. Wonderful!

slumpy April 20, 2007 at 8:12 am

Reading a 1960 copy of Archaologica Cantiana, I came across a paper on Kent place names, and I confess to having not thought of them before.

“Wormshill, an ancient possession of the Kings of Kent, the hill where they worshipped the heathen Woden” and “Woodnesborough…the centre of a Saxon province and where the King of Kent once had a palace”.

There are more non-Woden village names equally as old [or possibly more] scattered around East Kent, my favourite on the isle of Thanet, called ‘Thunorhlaw’, the only evidence of a place of worship for the God Thunor.

But back to Wiltshire, it also states that the word Stoke as used in place names usually denotes a secondary settlement, meaning that Winterbourne Stoke was a Saxon village.

Littlestone April 20, 2007 at 5:25 pm

Dennis, may I first say how much I enjoy reading your Journal, as well as reading the many informed comments posted here by others. I hope, however, that you will allow me to disagree with you occasionally, not with the intention of undermining your ideas, or anyone else’s, but in a healthy tradition of debate, mutual respect and the meeting of minds.

Henry James (1843-1916) wrote of Stonehenge, “You may put a hundred questions to these rough-hewn giants as they bend in grim contemplation of their fallen companions; but your curiosity falls dead in the vast sunny stillness that enshrouds them, and the strange monument, with all its unspoken memories, becomes simply a heart-stirring picture in a land of pictures… I can fancy sitting all a summer’s day watching its shadows shorten and lengthen again, and drawing a delicious contrast between the world’s duration and the feeble span of individual experience. There is something in Stonehenge almost reassuring; and if you are disposed to feel that life is rather a superficial matter, and that we soon get to the bottom of things, the immemorial grey pillars may serve to remind you of the enormous background of time.”

“A heart-stirring picture in a land of pictures” is a sentiment I wholeheartedly share. I’ve never seen Stonehenge as anything but a wondrous structure whose purpose remains largely unknown. Perception, applied here to Stonehenge, is an interesting concept. Some will see Stonehenge as a ‘heart-stirring picture’ while others will see it as dark and foreboding (the name given to the ‘Slaughter Stone’ is perhaps symbolic of that darker perception). Many of those involved in the Foamhenge project said how they were stunned by the beauty and harmony of Stonehenge as it may have once appeared. Foamhenge, of course, was a reconstruction of how Stonehenge may have looked when still relatively new, not how subsequent generations have seen it – ie a windswept ruin standing on Salisbury Plain. Indeed, in support of your hypothesis, the majority of paintings of Stonehenge do paint the structure in a sombre light. But that again is all about perception is it not? Perhaps ‘imagination’ would be a better word to use when examining how those, past and present, have perceived Stonehenge, but allowing our imagination to lead us to a conclusion about a place (or indeed a people) is a dangerous road to follow (one sees evidence of that danger on the news every day with regard to the countries and peoples of the Middle East).

Just how easily our perception of a place can be influenced is perhaps demonstrated by your illustration of Lucas de Heere’s watercolour of Stonehenge. The illustration as it appears in your entry gives the impression of Stonehenge as a dark foreboding place. Your illustration, however, is in black and white; but if one looks at the painting in its original colour (re: the March 2007 Archives of ) the impression one gets is quite different. In colour the painting shows a Stonehenge not of dark foreboding but a Stonehenge on a sunny day, standing proud and welcoming. A man on his horse is seen nonchalantly trotting into the centre of the structure while a visitor, already there, casually leans against one of the stones looking on. In the bottom right-hand corner of the picture there appears to be a rabbit scurrying comically off the page. In other words, different presentation, different perception, different conclusion.

Perhaps, to arrive at an accurate understanding of how our Anglo-Saxon forefathers saw Stonehenge (if that is ever possible) one must look at the evidence and the evidence alone. Forgive me for being blunt but the evidence for Stonehenge ever being called Grim’s Gates does not seem to exist. Henry of Huntingdon simply writes, “…at Stonehenge, where stones of extraordinary dimensions are raised as columns, and others are fixed above, like lintels of immense portals; and no one has been able to discover by what mechanism such vast masses of stone were elevated, nor for what purpose they were designed.”* Further, as far as I am aware, the only solid evidence of Stonehenge ever being used as a place of execution in the Anglo-Saxon period is the execution of circa 700AD, and that was a decapitation not a hanging. One execution at Stonehenge cannot lead us to conclude that it was ever seen as a frequent place of execution (mythical or otherwise). Future evidence of more executions having taken place at Stonehenge cannot be ruled out however and if such evidence is found that will no doubt lead to a different interpretation of the place. Meanwhile, it may be relevant that, “Although Doomsday Book shows that Stonehenge was on a royal estate, it was not the meeting-place of the local hundred court. Nor is it close to a boundary, and although roads went close by, it was not at a crossroads. So it was probably not an Anglo-Saxon `killing-place’…”**

However, and again in possible support of your hypothesis, “…people who saw in the stone trilithons a similarity to the two-post and crossbeam gallows typical of the period may have given the monument its macabre name – England’s first example of gallows humour?”** This quote suggests that Stonehenge was seen as a gallows but that suggestion is based on the interpretation of the word ‘Stonehenge’, and that interpretation remains unresolved. One might even say that because the name ‘Stonehenge’ is so ambiguous it confirms that the structure was not predominately associated with Woden in the Anglo-Saxon mind. As further evidence of that lack of association I would suggest that, if Stonehenge was the epicentre of a Woden cult, we would expect to find a reasonable number of place names with the Woden element immediately surrounding the structure (or if not surrounding it then fairly close by). Perhaps I need to study maps of the area around Stonehenge more carefully to find those place names but from my limited knowledge one has to travel some 10-15 miles into and immediately around the Vale of Pewsey, before there is evidence of a few Woden-related place names. That would seem to place Stonehenge well outside the epicentre of any possible Woden cult.

Andy, in his excellent comment to your entry, makes the point that, “…the Anglo Saxons would have arrived on these shores already able to interpret the landscape in which Stonehenge stood and would have recognised the monument for what it was; a ritual place of death from the dawn of time.” You may be right Andy, but then again that image does not take into account the possible presence of ‘native’ peoples in the area, how those peoples may have viewed Stonehenge, and what influence they may have had on the Anglo-Saxons. Nor does it take into account Anglo-Saxon knowledge and understanding of the ‘Celtic’ customs and beliefs practiced both here and on the continent – a knowledge gleaned over centuries of cross-cultural exchange long before large numbers of Anglo-Saxon settlers ever set foot on these islands.

Finally, if there was only the slightest remnant of ‘Celtic’ culture remaining in the immediate area of Stonehenge (and I believe there was more than that at Alton Priors and Avebury when the first Anglo-Saxons settled there) those early Anglo-Saxon settlers would have been faced with a choice – either to impose their own perceptions on the ancient structure of Stonehenge or to accept (indeed continue to believe) that it belonged to a different religion and to a completely different tradition than their own. As I said in my earlier post, it is doing the Anglo-Saxons an injustice to assume they were unable see Stonehenge as anything other than a place of execution – they were far more cultured than that. It is also my belief that at places like Alton Priors/Alton Barnes and Avebury the two cultures (‘Celtic’ and Anglo-Saxon) found a way to co-exist without the need to demolish or denigrate each other’s belief systems; that of course is just my belief – I do not have hard evidence to prove it and so remain open to corrections and alternative ideas.

* Translation by Thomas Forrester, 1853


Dennis April 21, 2007 at 12:59 am

I’m truly delighted that you enjoy reading this journal, so if just one person writes in to say as much, I regard this as a success. I enjoy reading the comments made by others as well, although I wish that more people would do so as there’s invariably food for thought in what they have to say. As for you disagreeing me, you are perfectly welcome to say as much in extremely blunt terms, as is anyone else. Again, I don’t take this position just to be charitable or to democratically publish opposing views, but because I’d be a fool not to carefully consider what others have to say.

I personally don’t believe for a moment that Stonehenge is anything like the impenetrable mystery that it is made out to be, because there is a mass of archaeological material available for inspection, Professor Atkinson’s rampages notwithstanding, while more continues to come to light on a regular basis, either from the Stonehenge Riverside Project or else from further-flung discoveries such as those of the Archer and Bowmen. I keep trying to bear in mind that there are many people reading this journal for whom Stonehenge is an almost completely unknown quantity, so this is why I try to cover as much ground as possible i.e. the Saxons, Atkinsons excavations, the Stonehenge Riverside Project, Inigo Jones and so forth, because most people just see what’s in front of them on the site in the here and now, but little else.

As for the matter of disagreements, they pale into insignificance when comments such as yours are accompanied by material such as the Henry James quote, something I’d never read before, but I think it’s wonderful and I’d imagine that anyone else reading it will think along the same lines. I’ve spent years and years listening to what my fellow archaeologists say about Stonehenge and I will continue to do so, but I’m equally interested in what others have to say about the place because again, there is invariably something there that provides food for thought.

As for the matter of the sombre paintings, they weren’t really intended to support what I had to say about the Saxons and Woden. I just find it a constant source of wonderment that all these years later, Stonehenge can continue to inspire so many people in so many ways. Some feel disposed to write about the place in prose, poetry or song, some paint the ruins, others photograph them or draw them…I don’t know of any other manmade structure of comparable age that possesses such a potent ability to evoke wonderment and I suspect that this was something that the original builders were fully aware of.

As for what you say about imagination, the best I can do is to quote the late, great Carl Sagan, when he said “Imagination takes us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” In addition to this, I very much doubt that the original builders of Stonehenge could have conceived of our modern fixation with supposedly insightful academic analysis of ancient monuments i.e. quoting sources, supplying references and all the rest of what is dubiously termed the “scholarly method”.

It’s one thing to get your facts right and it would be madness to proceed otherwise, but we can only ever be aware of a limited percentage of facts as far as the distant past is concerned. If we attempt to gaze into and understand the past armed solely with a bare handful of (often disputed) facts, while at the same time willfully refusing to use our imagination, something that our ancestors clearly possessed in abundance, then we might as well give up here and now.

To me, such an approach is closely akin to deliberately placing oneself in a cultural and sensory isolation tank with just a keyhole to peer through; it’s like trying to experience the sensation of swimming with dolphins by staring at them through the periscope of a nuclear submarine; it’s like trying to experience the sensation of flying by glimpsing an albatross through the window of a passing 747. There are more fruitful ways of going about such things.

You definitely have a very good point about the de Heere watercolour of Stonehenge, so on reflection, I’d go so far as to say that the black and white image on the page is misleading as far as my argument is concerned. I just did not think about it, but I still stand by what I say about the impression that Stonehenge would have made upon the Saxons who first encountered the place. There is nothing else like it in the world and I’m still stunned every time I visit the place. As far as visual impact goes, it’s on a par with the Egyptian pyramids and as it’s something shaped like a gallows in the centre of a landscape of the dead, I find it hard to conceive that it was viewed as anything other than a prodigy.

I had this in mind when I wrote of Henry of Huntingdon’s description. I’m sure that you’ve read a great about Stonehenge, so you’ll have come across the many archaeological mentions of folk memories, garbled memories, ancestral memories and all the rest of it, concerning places as far flung as the Preseli Mountains in south Wales and entities such as “the ancestors” whose ages are unknown, but who, it’s assumed, were once alive in the dim and very distant past of the people who built Stonehenge. There’s also the matter of the ox-skulls deposited in the first ditch at Stonehenge that were as much as 500 years old when they were buried. With all this mass of vague memories floating around, memories that nonetheless seem to have some firm basis in reality, Henry of Huntingdon’s specific mentions of portals and “hanging stones” in whatever form strike me as being a clearer indicator than most of a place once called “Grims Gates”.

It’s doubtless my fault, but I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Stonehenge was a place of regular executions throughout the Saxon period and I’ve got no reason to think that it was. I simply think that it was viewed in an extremely baleful light by some Saxons for some of the time, while the single execution so far discovered there supports this. Nor am I concerned by the other place names for Woden or Grim being 10 – 15 miles away from Stonehenge, but I made a mistake in describing the place as a geographical epicenter. I had meant to describe it as being the physical feature (in the region) most readily identifiable with Grim or Woden for reasons I’ve gone into, but “the moving finger writes and having writ, moves on”. There’s no point in me luring it back or canceling half a line by editing it, because that would be cheating and it would be a sorry state of affairs if I couldn’t tolerate being publicly corrected on a matter of fact.

Moreover, I was very pleased indeed when someone sent me a link that you can read here to an online edition of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine. Of particular interest to me was page 514 which features a detailed review of a pamphlet entitled “Woden’s, Grim’s and Offa’s Dykes” written by Major P.T Godsal in 1913, while the text refers to “the various Grim’s Dykes (plural) in Wiltshire”.

In addition to this, I’d forgotten about a huge Devil’s Dyke a few miles northeast of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain. It’s either Bronze Age or Iron Age, but so far I’ve been unable to find out just how old the name for this earthwork is, nor have I been able to discover if in this case, the Devil is linked with Grim. Be that as it may, there’s more than enough evidence for me of Woden and Grim in the region around Stonehenge to suggest that at some point, as Henry of Huntingdon seems to imply, some Saxons identified the “hanging stones” or Stonehenge with their dark God of the Dead, Grim.

Its inconceivable to me that the Saxons didn’t immediately give the place some striking name to compliment its unique appearance, so “Grims Gates” seems to fit the bill extremely well, but I’m not out to persuade anyone further. Ive made my case and it will stand or fall accordingly, unless some other archaeological evidence comes to light that alters the picture one way or the other. In the meantime, informed comments such as yours are always welcome, because I stand corrected on a couple of points and because there is much else for us all to mull over besides.

Goormachtigh Michel April 24, 2007 at 10:35 am

The meaning of the word Stonehenge

When the proto-English saw the monument they must have asked the local Welshmen what it was. The Welshmen must have answered with a word in Welsh.

We can safely assume that the language on the spot was proto-Welsh some 4000 years ago. Professor Stephen Oppenheimer found a genetic connection between the Welshmen and the Basque people. He has but a little problem: there is no trace of Basque in Wales or its neighbourhood.
Languages and their words can be extremely old. The keyword to decipher the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs was found by Champollion: it was the word RA. It means “sun” in Coptic. The Coptic language was the ancient language of Egypt before Arab was introduced in the 8th century. It was still used by the Christian part of the population in the 19th century. The extensive study of hieroglyphs revealed that the word “ra”,”re”, is at least 5000 years old. The name of pharaoh Ramses is in fact to be pronounced Rai-mem-ses and means “Child of the god Ra(i)”.

What word for Stonehenge was possibly given by the local Welsh?

A good candidate is CAREGON(i). The word is of Gallic origin (and that includes Welsh). It is believed that it was CARRO in the Gaul language and that its meaning was: “object that is to be laden”. So: it means car or wagon , but also boat, ship. It was adopted by the Romans as CARRUS (wagon with 4 wheels). In Spanish, the related word is CARGO (special ship, just for loads). In northern Italy (named by the Romans Gallia Cisalpina – (Gaul on this side of the Alps) the word CAREGON exists. It means “chair”. In the Italian Alps there is a mountain named “Caregon del Padre Eterno” – “Seat of the Eternal Father”. All those words refer to the same function: “something laden”.
As Stonehenge was not erected for the pleasure of the later tourists, we can almost be sure that it was build in honour of an ancient god. The monument was therefore supposed to be “laden by the presence of god”. The full name then would be CAREGON + the word for (the) god. The meaning: “Seat of god” or (place) “laden with god”.
One can compare with the word “whisky”. The original Old Irish, Gaelic word was uisceabeathadh (living water) from “uisce” (water) + bethad (alive). Only the first part of the word was adopted by the English.
With their limited knowledge of Welsh the proto-English understood “arego+on(g)” or “caregos” + “hongi-”. Caregos means stone in Welsh, hongian means “to hang”. So: stone+hang = Stonehenge.

A false interpretation of a foreign word is a common thing in languages. A classic example is the French word “vasistas”. It means “spyhole”, “peephole”, “small peep-window”. During the Middle Ages, the Germans had the idea to make a small window in their huge wooden doors. When someone knocked on the door, the gate-keeper opened the small window to have a look outside and asked “Wass ist dass?” – in English: “What is that?”. As the French did not understand the sentence, they changed it into the word “vasistas”.

Of course, there is not a shred of evidence that Stonehenge’s original name was “place laden with god” or “god’s chair”. It is however tempting to believe that Stonehenge is not a literal translation of its original name. In England, churches in ruins are not named “heap of stones”, or “rubble-place”. It’s clear that the monument was some holy place. The region was also not deserted. Local people must have remembered the Welsh word for the monument. So the word was passed on, generation by generation. The word CAREGON or similar can be a good candidate for the original Welsh name for Stonehenge.

Goormachtigh Michel April 26, 2007 at 7:22 pm

Grim druids and gates.


Written in Latin for the first time: druids, druidae ‘Celtic priests’
This word was imported from the Gallic languages: *druid, Old-Irish *drui, plural *druid, meaning ‘sorcerer, fortune teller’.
First possibility: ‘drus’ = tree. The word seems to be PIE (Proto-Indo-European) = *deru, *doru, *dru = tree. It occurs also in Gothic triu ‘tree’, old English treow, probably also in the tribal name Treveri, ‘tree’ + ‘wier’ (house) = ‘villagers of the forests’. This explanation does not satisfy me as it limits too much the function of the druids. We know that trees were important in their religion, but no so important to name them after their function of ‘tree-manipulators’ or similar. That’s why I prefer the second possibility.
Second possibility: “he who knows the truth’. DRU-: Gaul *derwijes, from *derwos ‘true’, old-fashioned Welsh derw ‘true’, Irish derb ‘certain’. + -WID : ‘wise’, ‘to know’, related are: wissen (German), weten (Dutch). So: “wise men” Also was thought of *druwids ‘very wise’ with intensification prefix dru-.
(lit. Stuart Piggot (1993) “The Druids”, London.


Etymology: ‘angry, cruel, bitterness, temper’. Old Saxon: grim, Middle High German: grim, (Low German: grim), Old Fries : grim, Old English: grim, Old Norse: grimr, New Dutch: grim, Old Dutch was not attested.

Dennis April 26, 2007 at 10:14 pm

Hello Michael,

Thank you very much for your learned contribution to these matters, while the linguistic aspect of the name “Druid” is something I’ll be looking into later on, although I doubt very much I can improve on what you’ve written.

If anyone is interested in this matter of early or proto-English, then I strongly suggest they visit Michael’s excellent site.

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