The Night Sky

That’s Witchcraft

It isn’t even closing time and witchcraft is already afoot in the field next door, though nobody at the Red Lion in Avebury seems in the least bit surprised. This alone speaks volumes about the average English village but even the most unsystematic inspection of Avebury reveals that it is nothing of the sort. It isn’t just an odd place; at the centre of an enormous stone circle – fourteen times the size of Stonehenge – and arranged around the inner perimeter of a precipitous bank and ditch six storeys high and five thousand years-old, the village transcends ‘odd’ altogether on its way to ‘truly astounding’. The great 17th century antiquary, John Aubrey put it best when he noted that Avebury ‘doth as much exceed in greatness the so renowned Stonehenge, as a cathedral doth a parish church’.

The henge at Avebury was originally arranged as one large circle of stones which, in turn, contained two smaller rings known as the Sun and the Moon Circles, hinting – if not screaming – at astronomical alignments. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley, who cheerfully bent the facts into spurious theories about Avebury’s purpose, was the first to designate the inner rings in this way and the description stuck, along with his attribution of the ring to the work of Druids.

Even though only a fraction of the 600 or so stones that were planted around the site remain, there are still enough to line up and point to anywhere you fancy in the sky, so Avebury’s well-developed fringe of pseudo-archaeologists have plenty to inspire Stukeley-esque conjecture. Joining the dots is easy here, but there are solar alignments and, ironically, one of the most convincing of those is at the Cove – the centre of Stukeley’s ‘Moon Circle’ – and the location of tonight’s witchcraft.

Leaving the pub in my own slightly eccentric orbit, I notice the bob and swing of hand-held lanterns on the far side of a dark field punctuated with sarsen monoliths. Despite tonight’s full moon rising over the clutch of thatched cottages at Avebury’s centre, there seems precious little light about and I stumble over a short wall, up and down kerbs, over a stile and across rough ground, cursing the darkness with every step. Perhaps I’m not really cut out for the dark arts of witchcraft, but what I am really here for is the full moon and to get a sense of how it may have been important to our ancestors, so I have come to pay my respects at an Ogam Observance, a neopagan ceremony that marks the exact moment of the moon’s zenith. Tonight, that moment turns out to be at three in the morning and, though I am willing, my hotel is a mile up the dark road north, on which motorists observe only the reckless pursuit of Swindon; a hazardous how-do-you-do for the hapless moonlit pedestrian, so it was with some relief that I discovered Gordon Rimes, a 61-year old Wiccan priest and – as it turns out – a day job as a balloon artist of some standing, who told me that there was more than one ceremony on the bill tonight. Some Wiccans are having an ‘Energy Raising Circle’ as the moon waxes towards its peak and Gordon has invited me to come along.

Neopaganism seems to come in almost as many flavours as there are people who follow it, but there are a few things that every one agrees on and the moon is one of them. It’s a reconstructed faith but there’s a heavy presumption that it broadly follows ancient beliefs and those ancient beliefs are assumed to have recognised the Sun and Moon as celestial powers.

There’s some evidence for the assumption; the Abri Blanchard bone fragment, between 12 and 20,000 years old and engraved and cut with notches, was recovered from a cave in the Dordogne region of France and then gathered dust in the bowels of a French museum for nearly fifty years. It was uncovered by amateur archaeologist Alexander Marshack, who had been commissioned by NASA to mark the Apollo missions by researching what the moon has meant to various cultures throughout history. Marshack believed that the notches cut into the palm-sized fragment of reindeer bone in a series of twists and spirals represented a stone-age attempt to count the phases of the moon over a two lunar month period. This extreme claim has never been proven and his theory has as many detractors as supporters, but nearby, roughly contemporary, cave paintings at Lascaux are also marked in a way that suggests some early astronomical observations. It’s not a huge leap to acknowledge that when Avebury was in use during the Neolithic and Bronze Age, 10,000 years or so later, the moon was being used all over the world to mark time.

I stumble across the field and find Gordon in a long green robe and a fake fur jerkin laying out lanterns at the cardinal points of a small imaginary circle. A larger, wilder flame flickers in the centre and on the eastern side, two lanterns form a metaphorical doorway through which all exit and enter. I am invited to either remain on the periphery and watch, or join the circle and participate. I decide to join in.

Drawing an imaginary gateway on the side of the circle, Gordon invites me in. Immediately, the four elements are beckoned to come and join us in the moonlight. We all join hands in the circle. We walk, gather pace, then run clockwise around the circle. The others begin to sing but I don’t know any of the words and have lost the tingle by the time we come to a halt.

After a moment of reflection, off we go again, wheeling around hand in hand, singing, invocations flung out into the night like bats lobbed from a fast car on a roundabout. The vortex grows wilder still, hands are released and we fizz around like unstable electrons. The circle is briefly chaotic and Gordon acquires a puckish effervescence in his eyes.

I’m not really given to singing and dancing in public – not even in a dark field with a limited audience, so I’m grateful as things settle down a bit and offerings are made, but even here there are surprises. When we met earlier, Gordon confessed that he doesn’t always play it by the book and some Wiccans probably take issue with his interpretations of pagan rituals.

His choice of offerings – traditionally cake and ale – could raise a pagan eyebrow or two. On the one hand, we drink mead from a chalice – which seems old-school-spiritual enough, even though Gordon boasts that he bought it in Morrisons for £3.74, but for ‘cake’, we pass around a bowl of ready salted crisps.

At almost midnight our hosts wind things up by scattering the remnants of crisps to the four elements and thanking them in turn – air, fire, earth and water – each to a chorus of ‘hail and farewell’. Final words are spoken – ‘merry meet and merry part and merry meet again’ – and we go our separate ways, a little lighter, under the watchful gaze of the still waxing moon.