Our next stop was right in front of us as we walked down from West Kennet long barrow. It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to overlook. Standing some 131ft high and covering some 5 acres, Silbury Hill has dominated the landscape for around 4,750 years. Photographs simply cannot capture either its size or its presence. To put it in perspective, the mound is the largest, prehistoric man-made structure in Europe. It was built at around the same time as they were building pyramids in Egypt… and is of a similar size to some of them.
Our pyramid, however, is closer to conical than square, though its original shape was more angular, and thought to have been nine sided and surrounded by a circular ditch… which, of course, has a particular significance to the Silent Eye, working, as we do, with a nine sided enneagram, containing a triangle within a circle.
Once again, the engineering involved is incredible. First a turf mound, just a few metres high, surrounded by wooden stakes. Then over time, drums of blocks, partitioned for stability and in-filled with chalk… all built with primitive tools like antler picks over an estimated fifteen million man hours. The vision, cooperation and organisation required for such an undertaking implies that someone, or some group, was held in the highest respect. That the endeavour was seen as worth the effort, being of higher importance than tilling the land or tending the beasts. Perhaps it was done for the gods themselves.
Having stood for so many thousands of years, it is sadness that once again it is modern man that put Silbury at risk. Shafts had been dug to the centre of the mound, hoping to find the central burial it was assumed was there and fuelled perhaps by the legend that King Sil was buried in the mound with a life-sized statue of him on his horse, made of solid gold. A major rescue operation had to be undertaken by English Heritage after a hole appeared in the top of the mound where the shafts were collapsing. Modern methods were used to map the cavities and explore the interior of the mound before it was stabilised once more, filling the voids with tonnes of chalk.
No burial was found. Why would there be? Is it not more likely that the tale of King Sil and his horse refer to the Sun? Or perhaps the great chalk mound, gleaming white before the grass grew over it, reflecting the light from the sky into the encircling waters was a symbol of the moon. Certainly most theories assign a feminine principle to this landscape and while the part of the male may not have been fully understood, the gravid belly of the female that mysteriously brings forth life would have been revered.
While it is both useful and interesting to know the facts, these ancient sites speak to us on a level deeper than logic, taking us beyond time and culture to a forgotten part of ourselves… a place where we know the wonder of the child, the awe of the adult and the magic of a living landscape that is both home and parent.
It is easy to dismiss the ancients as primitive, their ways as savage and their beliefs as pagan. To many who follow a mainstream religion, paganism is little more than devil worship at worst or mindless fluff for dreamers at best. Certainly the latter is true in some quarters and there are enough tales of the former through history. Yet paganism covers a wide ground, taking many forms and at its heart is the conviction that the earth, the whole of manifest existence and its creatures are sacred and worthy of love and reverence. I see nothing but beauty in that.
Standing in a landscape shaped by those who held the natural world sacred, you cannot help but feel that the fabled wisdom of the old ones had its roots deep in the earth. We may know more than they of how it all works. We may see the genetic kinship and differences between species in our DNA and play with atoms to fuel both our technology and our destructive impulses. The scientific discoveries and advances of the past couple of hundred years are phenomenal and exciting… we all use ‘magic’ every day without thinking, calling it technology. We, as a species, are now capable of both great things and appalling ones on a global scale. But all that is just knowledge. Perhaps what we need is a little more of their understanding in order to serve the world with what we can now do rather than damage it beyond our salvation. To love the earth and sky as we would our mother and father is not so far-fetched, neither primitive nor savage. Now, more than ever before we know their their intricate dance gives us life and sustains us and they deserve our care and respect.