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The Mysteries of Stonehenge by Nikolai Tolstoy

My lifelong enthusiasm for Celtic studies began about the age of twelve, when my inspiring preparatory school headmaster suggested I read Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels.  I at once became engrossed in Scottish history and that of the Gaelic Highlands in particular. A prior love of the stirring tales of King Arthur combined with this enthusiasm to lead me into an abiding desire to establish the historical origins of the Arthurian legend.

By fortunate chance my five exceedingly happy years of undergraduate studies took place at Trinity College Dublin. Although my course was in Modern History and Political Theory, I was able to study Middle Welsh and Old Irish under the guidance of the formidably bearded Professor David Greene. I enjoyed a close friendship with his convivial colleague James Carney, and was privileged to know many of the giants of Celtic studies in those distant days, including Rachel Bromwich, Kenneth Jackson, Myles Dillon, Kathleen Hughes, and Nora Chadwick.

the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-1 Stonehenge (Courtesy Flickr Waaghals, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

All my allowance that I could spare was devoted to building up a collection of books on the subject – a pursuit which became something of an obsession. Indeed, Susan Gregory, my unforgettable companion of those halcyon days, in conversation with my stepfather Patrick O’Brian once gently criticized the extent to which I dwelt upon ‘ye olde folks’! Meanwhile, browsing in the entrancingly cheap Dublin bookshops permitted me to amass the beginnings of a library of books on Celtic studies. Today the collection has increased to several thousand works, and it is with some gratification I note that my 45-page bibliography to The Mysteries of Stonehenge comprises in its entirety books and off prints on the shelves around me as I write.

I must here confess with shame that my command of spoken Irish and Welsh remains rudimentary. Although my wife and I found our first home in the forested heart of Welsh-speaking Powys, I have since enjoyed little opportunity to use the spoken word. In any case, my desire to master those two ancient languages remained focused on the ability to study early medieval texts.

Apart from the riches of Dublin bookshops, I obtained many rare treasures in London from Griff’s, the Welsh bookshop in Cecil Court, and became close friends with its owners, the Griffiths brothers.  One summer vacation while still at TCD, I devoted myself to studying Teach Yourself Welsh.  Proud of my fancied progress, at my next call at Griff’s I began the conversation in Welsh.  Ever polite, William Griffiths inclined his head on one side with an expression indicating increasing bafflement at every word I spoke. Eventually, he enquired diffidently: ‘Was that Russian you were speaking?’ Realizing that learning from phonetics was far from representing (at any rate in my case) the path to fluency, I abandoned any attempt to become a Welsh speaker.

My early interest was confined to efforts – often sadly jejune, as my youthful publications attest – to recover ‘realities’ lying behind our sadly deficient sources for Dark-Age history. This interest continues, and I hope to publish before long investigative studies of the historical Arthur (assuming there was one – as I believe there was), and the originally distinct mystery of the Holy Grail.

the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-3 'Merlin re-erects the Giant's Dance' (Courtesy British Library, Egerton MS 3028, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

However, my focus shifted considerably when in 1967 I bought Anne Ross’s classic Pagan Celtic Britain. Among other revelations, it made me realize that much I had assumed to be historical (such as the birth-tale of Arthur at Tintagel) proved to be mythical – in the authentic sense of the word. From this period my researches expanded increasingly into other spheres of knowledge: above all, Indo-European studies, together with comparative religion, mythology, and cosmology. At an ancillary level, I pursued investigations into the ultimate origins of religious belief, whether in anthropological or philosophical terms.

Shortly after I married my dear (and patient) wife Georgina in 1971, my researches became of a sudden directed into a very different course of study. The national controversy provoked by my Victims of Yalta culminated in my book The Minister and Massacres, which was subsequently suppressed at the instance of an apprehensive British Government. By curious chance this occurred exactly two centuries after the previous book to have been officially censored – which was no less than Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man!

However, I had in the meantime completed a study of the Merlin legend. The Quest for Merlin was published in 1985, in which I argued for an historical Merlin, whose legendary career and prophetic powers strikingly resembled those of Siberian shamans. In fact, my fascination with the Celts had never abated, and eventually I became free to pursue broader researches culminating in publication of my current book The Mysteries of Stonehenge.

Over years of research it increasingly dawned on me that detailed examination of the earliest surviving Welsh and Irish literatures might provide access to a vastly older prehistoric past extending to the Bronze and even Neolithic Ages. While archaeologists have established with increasing accuracy how and when colossal megalithic structures like Stonehenge were erected, their explanations why such laborious feats were undertaken of necessity derived largely from informed speculation. However, scholarly works such as the classic Celtic Heritage by the brothers Rees, and more recently Proinsias Mac Cana’s The Cult of the Sacred Centre and John Waddell’s Archaeology and Celtic Myth pointed the way towards a radically distinct approach.

the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-4 Navel of Ireland at Uisneach (Courtesy Flickr Abi Skipp, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

It is hard now to recall the evolution of my labours over the years, but two critical points glimpsed at a formative stage of my researches stand out. The first was the twelfth-century imaginative ‘historian’ Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fanciful account of Merlin’s transporting the gigantic monoliths of Stonehenge from the hill of Killare in Ireland. Killare lies beside Uisneach in Meath, a site famed in Irish medieval literature as the umbilical sacred Centre of the island.  Clearly, Geoffrey’s tale reflects misunderstanding of an archaic tradition that Stonehenge represented the corresponding Centre (Navel) of Britain. The fact that a mere handful of monoliths were to be found at Uisneach could have confirmed a belief that the originals had been removed to Uisneach’s ideological counterpart at Stonehenge.

the-mysteries-of-stonehenge-2 Possible routes for transportation of the Stonehenge bluestones (Courtesy Pearon, Stonehenge p. 279, The Mysteries of Stonehenge, Amberley Publishing)

Again, archaeologists have established that the smaller (though still massive) ‘bluestones’ of Stonehenge were originally transported to the spot by a miracle of prehistoric engineering from Preseli Mountain in remote Pembrokeshire (Dyfed). Clearly, there must have been something exceptionally holy about their original site, but what that was could only be subject for conjecture. That is, until the significance of an episode in the early eleventh-century Welsh tale of ‘Pwyll, prince of Dyfed’ struck me.

The story tells how the nobles of Dyfed, becoming alarmed at the failure of Pwyll’s queen Rhiannon to produce an heir to the kingdom, repaired to Preseli Mountain to seek a solution. Following the assembly, Rhiannon duly gave birth to a princely son. The gathering implicitly took place on a significant date in the pre-Christian British calendar. In early times the person of the king embodied his realm, so that extinction of a royal dynasty brought about sterility of the kingdom as a whole – the Wasteland of the Grail romances. All this suggests the motive for the transfer of the bluestones, which were believed to be imbued with magical power (mana) ensuring the perpetuation of the Monarchy of Britain, which in turn was focused on the mighty national Centre at Stonehenge.

These factors led in turn to a succession of comparable discoveries, which after long years were finally published in my detailed study The Mysteries of Stonehenge. Together, they reveal much of pre-Christian myth and ritual, prominent among which were the Celtic doctrines of the soul and divine kingship, and explain how much of this cosmology came to be deliberately absorbed into Celtic Christianity.

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Nikolai Tolstoy's new book The Mysteries of Stonehenge is available for purchase now.