The Callanish Stones- 3000BC

The Isle of Lewis would fit just about anyone’s definition of the wild edge of the world. Located in the Outer Hebrides islands beyond the shores of Northern Scotland, the jagged spear-shaped island points Northeast toward the empty heart of the North Sea. Scotland and the Hebrides form a unique geological feature in Europe as it is a remnant of a lost continental mass that later became North America, and the Hebrides Islands rest on this same mass. The people of this island still maintain many old traditions since lost in the more civilized reaches of Scotland. Peat cutting is still a common activity, and the Gaelic language is spoken in the majority of homes. It is in this wild and remote region that one can find the Callanish Stones, a neolithic complex of stone monuments of impressive size and uncertain origin.



The Callanish Stone formation, on the Isle of Lewis in the United Kingdom.
The Callanish Stones (or Tursacan Chalanais in Gaelic) are a mysterious stone monument site located on the rugged and remote Hebrides Islands of Scotland. The jagged gneiss monoliths predate the more widely known Stonehenge and were erected in the centuries around 3000 BC by the early agriculturalists that inhabited this area. At this time, the climate of the Hebrides Islands was not as cold as it is today, and the islands were able to support large populations of farmers who grew abundant crops. As the islands became increasingly colonized, the dense forests that had previously covered them were slashed and burned to become the breadbaskets of the land’s new inhabitants. It was these people that would eventually organize into the force the erected the Callanish Stones to accommodate their religious devotion and observance of the cosmos. Though the religious beliefs of these ancient people have been lost to history, the pagan religion of their descendants still holds a prominent place in the modern Western imagination.

The myths and superstitions of pre-Christian Celtic peoples have shown impressive resilience in the mythical thinking of the modern United States. Though they converted to Christianity ages ago, the ancient myths of the Celts have informed many of the most cherished aspects of American culture. Mermaids, werewolves and lake monsters all feature prominently in the myths of the celtic Hebrideans. Fans of fantasy literature and tabletop gaming would recognize the many fairies and water spirits that haunt the Hebidrean countryside and nearly every body of water in this area. Still today, the isolation of the islands gives them a magical atmosphere that seems to exist beyond the harsh confines of the modern world. These people existed in a cosmos that was governed by the movement of celestial bodies and interpreted by sorcerers who could commune with the supernatural. These sorcerers are what we now refer to as druids, though this name is highly problematic, as it was a name given to them from the outside by Roman conquerors.

The Callanish Stones likely demonstrate a very early form of the Gaelic belief in sorcery and druidic magic. Through history, these stones were widely believed to be sinners, apostates or even demihuman giants turned to stone. Druidic power depended on specific rituals associated with moving celestial bodies. Tracking these celestial bodies was so important in fact, that the rulers of the time could organize an immense amount of effort in transporting massive stones great distances for this purpose. Though many modern scholars have disputed this fact, nearly all contemporary sources are in agreement that the Celts practiced human sacrifice, and the central altar of Callanish was probably used for this purpose. There is a good chance then that human sacrifice was an important function of the Callanish Stones as well as other megalithic sites in the region. The rulers of ancient Gaelic society depended on their ability to accurately predict cosmic phenomena and correlate their rituals with these events, which is why they took special care to track the movements of planets and stars.

The Callanish stones were clearly arranged to correspond with celestial movement, though scholarly consensus remains elusive and formal studies on the monuments are few. The stones are in a region with abundant prehistoric settlements and megaliths, but the size and sophistication of the stones at Callanish set them apart from any others in the area. The location of the stones lies very near to the point on the Earth where the moon disappears over the Southern horizon at its most extreme point of declination. The stones align in specific ways with the sun and moon and pivotal points of the year, specifically the summer and winter solstices. As these bodies decline in the horizon over time, they follow patterns traced out by stones of declining height. Callanish actually traces these bodies considerably more accurately than Stonehenge, which is remarkable given its extreme age. The significantly higher latitude of the Callanish stones may contribute to this increased accuracy, but clearly the society that built these monuments saw great importance in accurately tracking and cataloging the passage of time in the only way ancient people knew how, through observing the skies.

The Stonehenge formation
The stones at Callanish, much like numerous other ancient sites around the world, allowed the settled agricultural people of Lewis Isle to establish a calendar, predict the passing of years and provide a central point for united religious belief. The ability to predict eclipses was, for the ancient Celtic sorcerers, a source of social and political power. The common people were likely astounded at the seemingly supernatural ability of their priestly castes to predict the future and to affect the physical world through supernatural means. The druids, through careful measurement and observation, could entrance the ignorant masses with their apparent magic. The Callanish Stones mark a pivotal era in the evolution of both religion and science and can help us to understand the way that these concepts have been intertwined throughout history. They are work of remarkable precision and clearly the result of advanced measurement, observation and recording. So little is known about their actual religious function that it does not suit us to speculate, but it is highly likely that this site was a focal point for magic, superstition and ritual sacrifice. In any case, the Callanish Stones are a testament to the remarkable complexity and depth of the human mind's capacity for thinking about itself and its relation to the universe at large.


References


Burl, Aubrey. From Carnac to Callanish: The Prehistoric Stone Rows and Avenues of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.


Hawkins, G S. "Callanish, a Scottish Stonehenge: A Group of Standing Stones Was Used by Stone Age Man to Mark the Seasons and Perhaps to Predict Eclipse Seasons." Science (New York, N.Y.) 147, no. 3654 (1965): 127-30.


“The Ancient People of Callanish on the Summer Solstice 2012”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dyq-T2lJFFk

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