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.
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?
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.