My Rediscovery Of The Orion Platform Atop Silbury Hill
Introduction - This Photo And The Recovery Of A Long Lost Neolithic Ceremony
I've never photographed Silbury Hill against a setting Orion before, but having done so I may now be able to explain how the ancients might have used the monument's distinctive flat topped shape. In my photo above Orion is sinking down towards its eventual setting in the west - a striking feature of the spring sky. Looking at the photo I can't help thinking that there must be a vantage point from which (during spring nights) the westering stars of Orion's Belt appear to hover just above the flat top of Silbury Hill, before plunging dramatically down behind it. If I am right, Silbury's architects would have pre-visualised these highly theatrical and symbolic moments and designed the hilltop deliberately to accommodate them. Their intention would have been to showcase and glorify the famous Belt, probably as the centerpiece of a lost conjuction ceremony. Perhaps this service would have been scheduled for the full moon nearest the vernal equinox. This would have set off the blue-white brilliance of the Belt stars against the pure white of young Silbury's moonlit chalk - a magnificent colour contrast and true wonder of the world. Of course I cannot prove that such a ceremony ever did take place, but it would certainly have been possible, and, I suggest, would be entirely consistent with the aesthetic and religions outlook we do know existed back in those times.
I Am Encouraged In This Speculation By Noticing That:
A. The apparent width of the Belt stars, when viewed from the locally dominating Waden Hill area, appears very similar to the apparent width of Silbury's flat top as if this enigmatic platform was exactly designed to reflect and "receive" them. However, there might be a theoretical objection to my idea, because some modern commentators believe Silbury was heavily altered in medieval times, and so was originally a different shape possibly without a flat top. Happily for my theory, though, there are excellent reasons for dismissing this possiblity, and here I state my reasons for thinking Silbury had a flat top when finally completed in the neolithic.
B. Neolithic people in Britain did demonstrably have an interest in the three stars of Orion's Belt. For example, the three henges at Thornborough are laid out in the characteristic pattern of three, with the center henge slightly offset:
There is an authoritative suggestion that Avebury itself possessed three rings arranged in a similar configuration (see Burl, page 186). His plan of the three rings shows the existing central (Cove) stone ring slightly offset from the others, which reminds me very much of the way the star Alnilam is offset from the other two stars in Orion's belt:
On this basis I presume that the Obelisk stone ring (which still exists) would have represented the star Alnitak. The missing stone ring would have represented Mintaka (in passing its worth noting Burl's belief that this ring was dismantled because it stood where the ditch was going to be dug - page 187). Obviously these three stars would have been known by other, and now long forgotten, names in the neolithic. Similarly the three Hurlers stone circles (notice again the middle ring is offset).
At Newgrange in Ireland the crucial Kerbstone 52 has distinctive carvings which it has been suggested refer to Orion's belt:
C. Our neolithic predecessors were obsessed with the number three, for example they buried three ox skulls "tidily spaced along the axis" of the Beckhampton Barrow (Burl page 123), another example might be three skulls lined up in the south-west chamber of West Kennet Long Barrow (Burl page 278) or the fact that Coves were essentially made from three monoliths. The number three can be see as corresponding with the triple nature of the neolithic Goddess. As Professor Meaden explains on page 4 of his "The Secrets Of The Avebury Stones", neolithic people saw her as having "three ages of maiden, mother and wise woman." That is why I think they may have regarded the three Belt stars as sacred, one star for each of the Goddess' three ages, to be symbolically united with the peak of Silbury Hill. For more details of my belief that at Avebury Orion was seen as the Great Goddess please click here.
D. Working out how the ancient stars were placed in the sky is problematic unless you take polar precession into account. This is because the earth's axis slowly and majestically describes a giant circle in the sky which appears to alter the position of constellations over very large amounts of time. To test whether my hypothesis is possible, and to take into account this precession, I configured Stellarium software to show the Avebury sky for 2700 BC (Burl's [page 172] date for Silbury's construction however the ceremony I am positing would have been possible anytime in the third millenium BC) to see if the setting Belt stars would have been visible as a horizontal asterism. I had to judge this from my computer screen, so my results are rough, but I was delighted to find the hoped for ancient horizontal Belt alignment at an approximate (and definitely visible) altitude of 20 degrees, and an azimuth of around 210 degrees. This means that when, viewed from the north north-east, it was possible for the Belt to have presented as a horizontal and ceremonially satisfying line of three stars hovering just above the top of the Silbury.
Therefore, assuming my schoolboy geometry is up to it, if you stand on the top of Silbury (which you shouldn't because of erosion issues) and look roughly in the direction of azimuth [210 minus 180 =] 30 degrees, you would be looking at the expanse of flat plain where hundreds of worshippers would have gathered to watch the celestial ceremony. Such a location would not require a formal platform or other official monument to view the show.
The Lost Ceremony And The Transference Of The Goddess (lots of speculation here!)
The question therefore arises why it was important for the 3 Belt stars to unite with the top of Silbury Hill, I mean what goal could have been so monumentally crucial as to require the enormous construction effort needed to make a flat topped Silbury? I think the answer may clearer if we assume that during the darker, colder months the Great Goddess was believed to have left the earth and taken the form of the "Winter Hag" amongst the stars we call Orion.
I suggest that the problem for the neolithic worshippers was how to propiatiate the Goddess, encourage her to leave the winter stars behind, and then reinhabit the earth to bring back spring and warmth. This is the purpose of Silbury's design with its flat top, it provided a transfer point enabling the Great Goddess to symbolically "convert" from her winter star incarnation and to resume her earthly presence as the Maiden of Spring, who in turn would become the Mature Woman of Summer. This divine transfer from sky to earth would have been ceremonially accomplished by the three Belt stars being subsumed into the flat top of Silbury at the time of the Vernal Equinox. The newly incarnated Spring Goddess would then be free to apply her creative energies to reinvigorating the world, possibly living in Silbury Hill itself.
After this spring transfer, the Orion stars would have been thought of as discarded like an old chrysalis, and left to "fall" into the western horizon and aestival oblivion, awaiting their reappearance later in the year to collect and receive the Goddess in her winter guise yet again. I wonder what kind of autumn ceremony would have been enacted to observe this later mournful but necessary transformation?
It is worth pointing out a satisfying link between the Orion ceremony on the flat top of Silbury, and the three Avebury stone circles mentioned above (in point B). The flat top of Silbury is just visible from within the Obelisk circle (which I indentify above as representing Orion's Belt star Alnitak), and would also be visible from the Cove (whose circle I identify as representing the Belt star Alnilam). Regarding these sightlines (but not their connection with Orion) Drews states on page 44 ".... it certainly appears that the mound was located and built to the necessary height in order to bring the Obelisk and the Cove into view". Of course when he says mound, he means Silbury HIll, and he is saying that Silbury was designed to be seen from the Obelisk and Cove. Drews explains that the Obelisk and Cove henges are connected to Silbury by sightlines, I explain why, the connection is Belt star worship.
All this makes me speculate further, what if the neolithic people across the country built other large but now degraded and therefore difficult to recognise "Orion Hills" of their own, what if Silbury wasn't the only such monument?
The Celestial Consecration Of A Political Class?
If I were to speculate further, it strikes me that any individuals or a group standing on the summit of Silbury during the ceremony would have been seen (via a line of sight effect) as consorting with the stars, or even with the Great Goddess herself. In the eyes of those standing watching from the plain below this conjunction of mortals with the celestial would have conferred enormous prestige on the summit participant(s). This prestige may well have translated directly into a belief in the favoured mortal(s)' divine right to govern Avebury, the tribe and visiting religious pilgrims.
The admittedly whimsical picture below shows my crude imagining of the kind of proceedings I am suggest took place on top of Silbury. To make the occasion more impressive to the spectators below I wonder if the summit participants carried lit torches? Perhaps they also ceremonially processed up a now lost spiral walkway (see Meaden Goddess page 166). The combination of blue-white stars, moonlit hill and yellow torches would have been very beautiful.
The Work Of Jon Appleton And Jamie Blackwater
Only since devising the above ideas I have become aware of Jon Appleton and Jamie Blackwater's own theory about a winter sky goddess over Avebury. Basically, if I understand them correctly, they posit a "majestic figure rising high into the sky ... Her eyes, breasts, arms and skirt clearly defined ... The combination of the constellations of Orion and Gemini effectively created a clearly visible female figure (extending) on either side to include Procyon and Capella as her hands. Rigel becomes her right foot and mightly Orion seems to shrink from his former grandeur to become a child at her feet. They both stand together on Silbury Hill at midnight on midwinter's day." Castor and Pollux are described as representing the eyes of this Goddess.
In their view, this Goddess would have been seen to walk over Waden Hill at midwinter representing "a magnificent, night long, ceremonial spectacle for people in the south circle at Avebury".
There are strong similarities and disimilarites between their ideas and mine. They certainly also posit a stellar representation of a female god over Avebury, and that Goddess is active in the winter. Their Goddess is also strongly associated with Silbury, and incorporates Orion into her very large celestial body. Their scenario also envisages celebrants visible on the flat summit of Silbury. I certainly echo these views, having admittedly arrived at them later, and independently.
We do however have several differences, and as I do not wish to be accused of plagiarism I am going to point these out somewhat pedantically. "My" Goddess is limited to the brightest Orion stars that I identify as being inherently female based on my analysis of the stellar patterns contained in the main rectangle of the constellation. I also originally suggest the Orion stars represent her as a "dead" and skeletal Goddess throughout the months of winter. "My" Goddess is also overtly concerned with rebirth and a spring time celebration of this on the plains surrounding Silbury. "My" Goddess was possibly deemed to descend into Silbury Hill to occupy it as her spring/summer home, allowing pilgrims and worshippers to approach her. "My" Goddess allows her belt to ceremonially horizontally align with the top of Silbury, a hill that would have been specifically engineered to allow this.
The Work Of Freddy Silva
Freddy Silva shares my belief that there was a neolithic spring equinox ceremonial alignment (see his article here) - in his case an alignment between Silbury and Sirius. In his conception, as I understand him, when viewed from near Avebury Henge's Obelisk, Sirius stood high in the sky directly above the top of Silbury Hill.
This is exciting to me because it suggest that my Orion's Belt ceremony might be part of a larger spring service involving Sirius. In this scenario worshippers had at least 2 ceremonial venues open to them, perhaps determined by their status. The service might have had two parts taking place around the same time, both parts involing the veneration of Goddess stars as they appeared to associate with Silbury Hill - (1) Sirius viewed from within the henge, and (2) Orion's Belt conjoining with Silbury's plateau visible from the nearby surrounding plain.
It is also worth noting Silva's view that "A few hours later on this momentous occasion, the Milky Way rolls around to mimic the slope of Waden Hill, and is seen ‘pouring’ itself into the summit of Silbury. A dramatic and perfect representation of sky-ground dualism."
- As is my proposed Orion's Belt Ceremony