The fact of the matter is that there are no surviving records of the specific beliefs of the people who built Stonehenge. Archaeologists have drawn some conclusions from excavations, but many attempts to reconstruct the intellectual or spiritual world of the site’s builders are by necessity conjecture. Some types of conjecture are better supported than others. Obviously, the hypothesis that it was a platform for UFOs to land on is much more poorly supported than the claim that it served as an observatory.
Legends of the Lost spends the first third of the show presenting a fairly standard portrait of the construction history of Stonehenge, from the earliest earthwork to the massive trilithons to the final small bluestones within the more famous megalithic ring, and she describes the monument’s place in the prehistoric landscape. Fox speaks with a number of archaeologists, and her affectless, passive presence offers little more than a sounding board for pretty standard material—though with the caveat that Fox is looking for “the” reason Stonehenge was built, while the site was remodeled several times over its 1200+ years of active construction. One reason its purpose may seem ambiguous and mysterious is that it may have served different purposes across the many incarnations it had over time. When looking for “the” purpose of Stonehenge, it helps to identify which period we are talking about.
Fox views the skeletal remains of the Amesbury Archer, who died around 2300 BCE. Scientific tests suggest that he may have originated in the Alps and journeyed to the Stonehenge area, where he died. Fox speculates that a painful congenital knee condition he suffered means that the only reason he would travel so far is because Stonehenge must have been a healing center.
The claim that Stonehenge’s stones had healing properties first appears in the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Historia Regum Brittanniae of c. 1136 CE has Merlin the magician tell how a lost race of Giants built Stonehenge in Ireland from stones originally of African origin, stones Merlin would later cause to fly to Britain. Anyway, Merlin describes why the Giants built the structure:
They are mystical stones, and of a medicinal virtue. The giants of old brought them from the farthest coasts of Africa, and placed them in Ireland, while they inhabited that country. Their design in this was to make baths in them, when they should be taken with any illness. For their method was to wash the stones, and put their sick into the water, which infallibly cured them. With the like success they cured wounds also, adding only the application of some herbs. There is not a stone there which has not some healing virtue. (8.11, trans. Aaron Thompson and J. A. Giles)
This is the first and oldest claim that Stonehenge was a medicinal site. The claim is probably derived from folk magic of Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Magic stones, for example, were quite popular in the Middle Ages, and the use of stones to make magic amulets that could be dipped into water to create magic baths was common in Late Antiquity. But there is no indication that the belief in Stonehenge’s healing properties goes back to the creation of the structure rather than the later peoples who lived in its shadow and developed their own interpretations of it.
Now, the interesting thing about Geoffrey’s claim is—demonstrably false as it is, since Stonehenge is neither African nor Irish—is that the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland in the Middle Ages were famed for their healing stones, such as the cloch-omra of Imokilly in Cork, which cured cattle of disease. These stones, which continued to be in regular use down to the 1700s, were utilized just as Geoffrey described: water was run over the stones (or smaller stones were dipped into water) and by imagined supernatural means gave to the water the power of healing. Many of these stones were kept in churches.
It is almost certain that this was a pre-Christian pagan practice, but it survived because the Church Christianized it in the British Isles, as evidenced by Adomnán’s medieval hagiography, the Life of St. Columba (before 704 CE), which has the titular saint (lived 521-597 CE), who battled an early form of the Loch Ness monster, also endorsed healing stones: “he took a white stone from the river, and blessed it for the working of certain cures, and that stone, contrary to nature, floated like an apple when placed in water” (1.1, trans. William Reeves). In a second instance (2.34), Columba bestowed the power of healing on a stone from the River Ness, and when dipped in water, healed. A dying man drank from such water “and instantly returning from the verge of death recovered his perfect health and soundness of body.” In both cases, the healing stones were used to outdo the Druids, with the implication that Druids performed similar rituals with healing stones.
These accounts predate Geoffrey’s application of them to Stonehenge by three centuries and demonstrate that the claim Geoffrey made grand by ascribing to Stonehenge was, for his audience, simply a bigger version of a kind of folk magic already widespread.
The name of the Friar’s Stone at Stonehenge may conceal, as a few have suggested, an older attribution to Freyja, the Norse goddess of sex, war, beauty, and death. Though, for all the times I’ve seen the suggestion in books, I’ve never seen evidence presented in favor of it.
None of this takes us back to the time when Stonehenge was built. Instead, it strongly suggests that we are looking at remnants of the old belief that the Druids built Stonehenge, one that goes back perhaps to Antiquity, if the famous passage in Diodorus Siculus' Library (3.13) describing a round temple of Apollo used by the Hyperboreans opposite the Celts (of Gaul) in an island in the far north can be, as some suggest, taken for a description of Stonehenge. That account, derived from Hecataeus of Abdera, reports events from c. 300 BCE. But that’s still 1300 years after Stonehenge’s final phase of construction.
The rise in New Age and neo-pagan beliefs in the twentieth century led to a renewal of claims that Stonehenge’s stones have healing powers. The claim, though, that their healing powers are sonic in nature is not old. It comes from recent efforts to identify the source of the bluestones used at Stonehenge. Their source has been identified as Perseli Hills in Wales, where there is a healing spring in the village of Maenclochog, whose name means “ringing rocks.” By a long daisy-chain of inference, Paul Devereux concluded in 2014 that because stones at nearby Carn Menyn make sounds when struck, and the village in Wales is named for his, then the people who built Stonehenge knew this and chose the rocks for this reason; therefore, some like music professor Rupert Till recently claimed that because Geoffrey associated Stonehenge with healing, therefore the sound is the source of the belief in healing due to the influence of—wait for it—Jung’s collective unconscious. On the other hand, Devereux famously, if ridiculously, claimed Stonehenge was designed as a giant “prehistoric glockenspiel,” and made no claim about healing powers.
As you might guess, there are many different leaps of logic that require facts and evidence that simply do not exist or cannot be recovered, not least the fact that modern Welsh folklore does not prove an accurate guide even to the early Middle Ages (see: King Arthur) let alone the world of 2000 BCE. It also gives the lie to the oldest sources, which all associate the healing properties with water, not sound.
There are many who have studied Stonehenge’s acoustic properties, including Bruno Fazenda, Aaron Watson, and David Keating. Whether the stones were placed to improve acoustics for speakers at the center of the circle is an interesting question, but not one relevant to our question today, about healing. Fox investigates instead the question of whether the sound made by bluestones has healing properties. I will just note that a lot of the claims stem from accepting Diodorus over Geoffrey, since Diodorus described the round temple as being a place of endless constant harp music.
There are also many scholars who have attempted to link Stonehenge to healing, including Timothy Darvill—who appears on this show—and Geoff Wainwright, but all of the theories suffer from the problem I described—trying to link medieval legends to prehistoric events. Consider, for example, the fact that in the 500 years between the fall of the Mycenaeans and Archaic Greece, nearly half of the old gods vanished without a trace, and all but scraps of mythology faded away, despite the fact that there was, at the popular level, cultural continuity. Now try to imagine how much changes over thousands of years.
And now we have Megan Fox crashing all these ideas together alongside her preexisting belief in magic powers. With Darvill as her guide, Fox—who started the episode confessing her tendency to fall into fantasy—hears about Geoffrey of Monmouth but falsely states that Geoffrey specifically identified the bluestones at the center of Stonehenge as being possessed of great power. Geoffrey did not say this. He specified no type of stone—it is Welsh lore that attributes power to the bluestones.
Fox claims that myths often have a “kernel of truth,” and therefore she plans to investigate whether the sounds made by knocking on bluestones can “heal the human body.”
Fox claims to be the first person to engage a neuroscientist to test whether the sounds made by knocking on bluestones can influence the brain and promote healing. She does some science-like stuff involving monitoring brain waves while recordings of sounds play. At the end of the episode, Fox learns that the test results indicate some mild increase in the amplitude of alpha waves. Meh. Without controls or more than one subject, there really isn’t anything to gain from this result except the mildest of suggestions that certain tones are relaxing. But if you can get that from hitting the rocks in situ in the ground, as Fox did, what is the purpose of building Stonehenge when just throwing the stones on the ground would produce the same results?
After this lab experience, the show goes off the rails when Fox meets a New Ager named Maria Wheatley who teaches her about dowsing and ley lines. This is mixed into a discussion of continuing Druid and pagan practices in modern times. Neo-Druids are fake modern pagans who have created a New Age religion that pretends to be the lost wisdom of the real Druids, whose beliefs are only partially known from outsider accounts. Dowsing, tested over and over, remains a fake science produced by the ideomotor effect. Ley lines are another modern hoax, invented by Alfred Watkins in 1921 (!). They simply do not exist before this and claims for their antiquity find no support from ancient sources. Nevertheless, Fox concludes from her “feelings” after dowsing for earth energy that the ancients channeled this fictitious energy through their monuments and were therefore “more advanced” they we previously knew.
In the lasts quarter of the show, Fox meets “one of my personal heroes,” Graham Hancock. “He is one of those guys who inspired me and inspired this journey,” Fox says. It is the only time in the show that she seems to betray an actual emotion.
Hancock offers a potted view of his claim that a lost civilization (i.e. Atlantis) existed prior to the end of the last Ice Age, and he repeats his frequent claim that a comet destroyed it. Whether or not the comet existed, it implies nothing about the existence of a lost civilization, let alone one with advanced technology. “Historians are not taking it into account at all in their construction of the house of history,” Hancock says. Hancock compares modern knowledge and human history by likening the former to a pimple on the forehead of the latter. “Let’s pay attention to the giant, not the pimple!” he shouts. Fox smiles for the first time. The problem, of course, is that not a trace of this civilization remains. We can find pollen from the first crops and jewelry apparently made by Denisovans, but a supercivilization left not one screw or pot or anything tangible. Oddly, though, none of this has anything to do with the subject of tonight’s episode, and it appears that Hancock’s interview was wedged in because of Fox’s deep respect for him and her desire to shoehorn in some extreme claims about lost civilizations into a show that is otherwise not in any way about them.
Fox concludes by asserting that the stones heal and expand consciousness, though nothing she did actually proves any of that, and as in so many shows, contradicts this statement by suggesting that more data is needed and then ends with a question suggesting that the truth isn’t known. Like every show of its ilk, it literally makes no sense if you discount the emotion and try reading a transcript of its random sentences.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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