The Beat of Aeonian Drums: A Vision of Ancient Feminine Power
by Barbara Wilder
This essay first appeared in "Sage Woman," Summer 1996.
It was later anthologized in A Mother's World: Journeys of the Heart, 1998.
The fall morning was cool and crisp. For the first time since I'd arrived the sky was cloudless. I walked passed an excavation of Roman ruins overgrown with grass and wild flowers. Though tempted to stop and explore I resisted the impulse and continued on. But after several minutes I became aware of a strange disquieting feeling the ruins had stirred in me. In Italy I had always found the stumbled upon ruins friendly, almost whimsical, but here, they seemed out of place. Perhaps it was just the want of the Mediterranean sun enhancing the ancient stone with its romantic glow. But it was more. The earth seemed almost as if it were rebelling against the stern bridle of Roman orderliness, the land straining against the harness of the overlords of England, always considered so proper, so tamed, was sending signals of a very different kind here in Dorset. I'd been aware since the day of my arrival, one week ago, of an almost pagan sensibility in the rural people here. Now, as I pressed on toward my destination I was beginning to see a parallel between the ancient ways of the people and the spirit of the ground itself.
This morning I had planned to drive to the village of Cerne Abbas to see the Neolithic giant carved into a hillside there. But when I mentioned my plans to the proprietress of my bed and breakfast, she said that if I were truly interested in the pre-historic I should go directly to the Maumbury Rings. I have a rather stubborn nature and usually put off other people's suggestions until I've exhausted my own agenda. But there was something in her look when she shoved the quickly scrawled directions into my hand that made me follow her dictate without hesitation.
Soon I had left the Roman ruins behind me. Passing the train station and the constabulary brought me abruptly back to the twentieth century. But not for long. After walking another half a city block there it was looming before me. A huge ring of earth at least thirty feet high - and three hundred feet long that was completely overgrown with the ever present wild English grass. It was the quintessential front lawn, and the eight year old girl in me rose up, giggling with anticipation. I wanted to run into that Ring and roll down its grassy slopes, but my spontaneity was frustrated by a rusted turnstile gate. The latch was unfamiliar to me, and I had to fiddle with it for several seconds. When I had finally released it and moved through the gate, my enthusiasm was muted by an overwhelming sense of awe. I wasn't more than three feet closer to the grand monument, but I was in another world and time. I walked slowly to the historical plaque at the north entrance and read. Originally, a great stone henge stood in the south entrance, but it was removed by the Romans who, converted the prehistoric religious site into an amphitheater for their games and gladiatorial combats."
Later, I was to learn that in 1705 a young woman named Mary Channing was hanged here in the presence of ten thousand people for the crime of murdering her husband, though there was neither motive nor evidence upon which to base the conviction. In fact, there was strong evidence that she was innocent. Her pregnant condition at the time of the trial won her a six month reprieve, but once the baby was born, the sentence was carried out. In 1705 public executions of women were still immensely fashionable and cause for celebration. Though most often the crime was witchcraft, in other words, activities that threatened the pre-eminence of the Christian God, any crime by a woman against a man was considered worthy of great public spectacle as evidenced by the gathering of ten thousand to watch the new mother, Mary Channing, hanged by the neck until dead.
But as I turned from the historical plaque and looked across the grassy path to the entrance of the Rings I was ignorant of Mary Channing's story. I knew only that this was a pre-historic henge monument that had been transformed by the Romans for their own particular form of barbarism.
Reading the plaque momentarily re-established my status here as a tourist, and I began my ascent with a confident stride. But as I got closer my steps became more halting, and when I stepped up to the entryway the awe I had felt initially reasserted itself, leaving me immobilized before a large grass bowl the size of an American football field. Where the bleachers should stand, and did during the Roman era, was now eroded and overgrown with a thick green carpet rising thirty or forty feet and obliterating from view everything but the crystal blue canopy of sky. Nothing, neither animate nor inanimate, disturbed the pristine landscape until I, a lone redhaired woman in Levis, finally reassembled my faculties and made my way across the threshold.
At that moment all sounds from the outside world ceased, replaced by a hollow swirling sound of silence which grew increasingly intense the farther into the Rings I went. Each step seemed to swathe me in another layer of the Rings' magic. And when, at last, I arrived at the center I knew I had entered the vortex of something very ancient and extremely powerful.
Slowly I turned on this center point gathering in all that my eyes could accommodate, eventually returning to my starting position. The silence rose to a crescendo that forced me down toward the ground until I was seated cross- legged in the organic navel of the place.
The grass was still dew wet and soaked through my jeans. I wondered if I should meditate, but before I could finish the thought a dark, ultra-violet mist rose from the depths of the ground beneath me and enveloped the entire space. Then transparent figures in the deepest shades of vermilion began to bleed through the mist, projected against the walls of the Rings, flickering like images in an early silent film.
Women covered in red paint, some wearing deer heads with antlers, danced around open pits of fire. Holding elaborately carved wands of oakwood, they raised them above their heads, then with precise and powerful movements lowered them to the ground. Drummers sat in niches carved into the sides of the Rings high above the dancers. Everyone and everything was drenched in red paint, or blood. The sound of the drumming grew louder and louder. Everyone and everything was feminine, the dancers, the drummers, the great priest. The blood dripped off them and clung to them. And in their faces I saw a fierceness unequaled in any painting or sculpture or photograph of any human in any society.
I witnessed this all with the full knowledge that I was being allowed to view the gravest, most sacred rite of a civilization whose memory had been buried for thousands of years when the Romans arrived on this soil. A civilization so old that the most ancient Druids had heard only vague whispers of its existence.
Perhaps minutes had passed, or hours, or seconds, when the women, the priests, the drummers and dancers, the blood and the dark violet mist faded back into the deep recesses of the ancient Rings leaving me in the Maumbury Rings of twentieth century Dorchester. I looked at my watch. Ten thirty-five. Only five minutes, but five minutes in another millennium. But which one? How long ago had these fierce and potent women ruled the world? Before the Romans definitely. Before the Druids? Yes, before the Celtic Druids, at any rate. What? Were there Druids before the Celts? Yes, but an earlier form. The Celtic Druids evolved from a much older order in an era when the priests and shamans were all women. When the only thing that could maintain the human race in an untamed wilderness world was the savage ferocity of the feminine energy fighting for the survival of the brood she nurtured. When blood is what linked humans to the gods. When the Great Goddess was mother of all, of birth and death; bleeding periodically, queen of the fields and the caves, guide from the life on earth to the life after death. Wolf woman, fiercely competing with the Titans (floods, ice ages, ferocious beasts, droughts, heat, starvation, death in childbirth, infant death, disease) for the continuance of her issue. Anything and everything was sacrificed to make life on earth work.
It was a matrilineal world, where men's role was limited to hunting and gathering and playing consort to the Great Goddess and her earthly representatives. Four thousand? No. Six thousand? No. Eight, ten thousand years ago, during the Ages of Virgo and Leo and before.
I stood up and stretched my legs. Nothing stirred across the open green, not a bird nor a field mouse, just the grass under the tent of sky. But now I knew differently. I knew the insistent pounding of aeonian drummers resided somewhere beneath the layers of medieval witch hunts and Roman centurions. And I was also intensely aware that this antediluvian rhythm will not cease as long as the earth continues to orbit the sun. Because this is the pulse of the feminine energy, articulated by the earliest peoples of our race held in this cup of earth, this holy grail.
As I walked up to the threshold of the south entrance to leave I crossed paths with a young mother and her vivacious two year old son. He ran ahead of her through the portal where the ancient Henge had stood. He squealed-with delight as he toddled down the gently sloping hill into the Rings and threw himself face first onto the damp grass. I stood with his mother watching him rush into this great earthen womb. "This is a wonderful place for children," I said. "Oh, yes. Lovely," she said.
Could she feel the power here? Had she seen the dancers and the drummers and the festival of blood? Perhaps. Perhaps when she was a child. Perhaps that's why she brought her child here now, while he was still receptive to the magic she remembered only in her dreams.
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