Nothing could ever quite match the lure of an old road that winds and dips over hill and dale — and heaven knows where it leads to, or for how many ages it has been traveled by human feet. One such ancient track, known among the country-folk as "The Pilgrim's Way," which runs in these days for 120 miles from Canterbury in Kent (England) to Winchester in Hants, is discussed by a writer in a recent number of The Listener, who describes its stages thus:
It may become just a space on the bare turf, or a bridle-path between hedgerows, or a lane, or a main road; and it may leave the chalk for a time to find pines and heather; but it is always the same at heart, keeping to its own rules. It seems to have a sense of purpose; you might almost say a life of its own. . . .
We cannot say how old the road is but we do know that parts of it, at least, date from the Stone Age.
The road has all the characteristics of a primitive track. It goes as direct as possible and yet it somehow manages to maintain an easy gradient. Though it is continually rising and falling, you are hardly aware that you are going up or down hill. It never takes a sharp turning but avoids gullies or other natural obstacles in a gradual curve. For the whole of its length, except for a single lapse, it clings to the sunny side of the Downs. Nearly always, whenever it goes near an old church, it passes along the south side — the sure sign of an ancient path paying deference to a site that may once have been pagan.
It is this last possibility that is of interest to us and is the reason of our mentioning it here; for "pagan" remains are often relics of the ancient Mysteries, echoes of which are coming back to us today. The writer in The Listener goes on to discuss the erroneous belief that the road, although known as "The Pilgrim's Way," could have been the one traveled by Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, for they followed the old Roman Road known as Watling Street. Nor, he points out, could it have been the route of medieval Christian pilgrims, who certainly followed the main road at the foot of the downs, where they would encounter the archbishops' manor-houses and the monastic houses that would have given them food and shelter. The "Pilgrim's Way," on the other hand, "keeps clear of all towns and practically every village," and only counts a few isolated chapels and other such places along its way.
Where did the old road lead, probably in times so far gone that they have passed beyond the memory of man or the reach of history? If you follow a general line on the map from Canterbury to Winchester, you will see that the road comes, at its western end, to within a few miles of Salisbury Plain, that amazing stretch of desolate land, bare of trees and shrubs and having but "a mere coating of turf interspersed with tufts of heath and dwarf thistles," which for ages has enfolded in its ancient silence the remains of stupendous temples — Stonehenge, Avebury, Woodhenge, and the mysterious Silbury Hill. Indeed, it is believed that the road did originally lead to Salisbury Plain, but that its western portion later fell into decay through disuse. Could it have been that the road, around which still hangs an air of ancient mystery, was used by prehistoric pilgrims who came to celebrate some long-forgotten rites at this spiritual center?
Countless generations of men have gazed upon Stonehenge with amazement and awe, and, if they moved among its mighty trilithons, have felt that they were treading upon holy ground. There, if anywhere, they have felt the sacred touch of antiquity, the ageless mystery of the unknown. But Stonehenge is by no means unique. There is hardly a region of the world that you could name, that is without these curious monuments of gigantic stones: and quite generally they are regarded with spontaneous veneration by the inhabitants round about. The recital of these places gives a list truly astonishing — in the British Isles alone there are some 200 of these mysterious stone circles; and besides the famous alignments and dolmens at Carnac in Brittany, similar remains can be found in Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Portugal; and on through Palestine, the Crimea and Circassia, Arabia, Persia, Central Asia and India, Australia and Madagascar, Algeria and Morocco, and even in Peru, to say nothing of the Serpent Mounds in North America — a chain of sacred centers that engirdles the globe.
Who built these incredible structures? Archaeologists are frank to admit that they do not know. They seem inclined to think of these builders chiefly as men of the New Stone Age, or possibly of the Bronze Age, which they place some 1500 to 1000 years b.c. But this only increases the puzzle, for these primitive men are supposed to have been entirely without our modern cranes and tackle.
But let us suggest a different picture. Imagine a race of gigantic men, inhabiting widely scattered portions of the globe in an age of incalculable antiquity. Picture them, by means known only to themselves, lifting into place the great trilithons, the menhirs and dolmens, arranging the now mysterious circles and alignments, and fashioning the cromlechs that served as temples of initiation. There is good ground for believing that earlier races than our own were of gigantic size. The Bible, which contains many glimmerings of ancient truth, refers repeatedly to these giant races. In Genesis are the familiar words, "There were giants in the earth in those days" — the days before the Flood (the Atlantean Deluge); and later the Israelites had to struggle with the Sons of Anak, "the sons of the Giants" — i.e., the succeeding sub-race. Canaan was "accounted a land of giants; giants dwelt therein in old times." "And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." Goliath of Gath, the champion of the Philistines, was a man "six cubits and a span" (about ten feet) in height. These Bible references are not mere baseless legends.
There is an old authentic record that follows the course of a company of Initiates, in an age when Europe was geologically different from what it is today, who left Egypt and journeyed in a north-westerly direction, by land, over what is now the Straits of Gibraltar, then through Southern Gaul, where later the Phoenicians had their settlements; then still north to the present Brittany, and again by land over what is now the English Channel into the northwestern extremity of the then new continent. And the object of their journey? To supervise the building of "menhirs and dolmens, colossal Zodiacs in stone, and places of sepulcher to serve as receptacles for the ashes of generations to come."
A curious corroboration of this legend is in the traditional belief that it was Merlin the Magician who transported the great stone circle to Stonehenge from Ireland, the stones of which had previously been brought to Ireland from Africa by giants. Merlin (a type figure of the great Adepts of old) was said to have achieved this feat by his incantations, and after having transported the stones to Salisbury Plain, by his "word of power" caused each one of the huge rocks to move into its proper place. But don't let us laugh at tradition and folklore. They often preserve germs of historical fact.
Has the Bible anything to say about these Adepts of the past? Well, to go back to Genesis:
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
Renown, meaning not only fame, but honor and spiritual greatness. They were the progeny of the "sons of God." For according to the same ancient record alluded to above, these were the days when great Schools were founded, for the preservation of essential knowledge and its dissemination among mankind; and these "mighty men" were undoubtedly those who became spiritual instructors to the youthful humanity of our present Race. Stonehenge and Carnac in particular were two of these temples of the Mysteries; and to this day men cannot walk among their majestic ruins without sensing the sacredness of the rites that must have been celebrated there: rites based upon knowledge of the celestial bodies and their relation to our earth and to ourselves, its inhabitants.
Stonehenge, and other such temples in Celtic lands, are inseparably connected with the Druids, who in their day were spiritual leaders of the people, taught the immortality of the soul, and whose "original country," mystically speaking, was "the region of the summer stars." The Druids undoubtedly used these archaic temples for their sacred rites, but it was their spiritual forebears who had built them in the dateless past. The key to the riddle for archaeologists is in the fact that the Druidic doctrines were the same as those of the original founders: they knew what they were doing.
The orientation of the temple to the rising sun of the summer solstice has made it plain to generations of researchers that ceremonials of deeply religious significance took place there; generally these have been attributed to one or another "Sun-cult," or "Dragon-cult," as though referring to something alien and strange, and having no relation to our modern forms of worship. Those terms are still in use today. But now there is a new note of respect towards whatever may have taken place in these ancient temples; as admitting a kinship of the spirit between those prehistoric worshippers and ourselves. Our studies in psychology and our researches into the nature of man have enabled us to perceive that the viewing of the sunrise from within the sacred enclosure of Stonehenge in the quiet of a midsummer morning must have subtly influenced the consciousness towards a sunrise of the spirit, as the splendor of the rising orb flooded the world anew.
As to the deeper significance of these seasonal observances, we are at least willing to recognize that here are mysteries as yet unplumbed, but nevertheless belonging to all mankind — even though as yet 'unpublished' to his waking mind. Our very presence on this planet, in sight of our companion planets and the starry multitudes of the Zodiac, must lead us to reflect upon a science that, in days of old, taught man his kinship with the stars through a knowledge of the real character of our own day-star and its relation to the solar elements in our own nature. Influenced by such knowledge, men looked out upon all their brother beings, in all the kingdoms of nature, with a new insight and a realization of oneness with them all. Could not this knowledge be revived among us now? After all, who knows but what it is already coming back to us as enlightenment broadens our sympathies and sharpens our insights into the meaning of things?
We live on a storied planet, rich in the memorials of an undreamed-of past; but a past that is still with us, and has left its mark upon all the generations of men. The more we can learn about that past, the more we will understand the purpose of our being here. Like the old road over the Kentish hills, there is a path that leads to the temple of wisdom, and that wisdom is "Eternity's sunrise."
(From Sunrise magazine, October 1951; copyright © 1951 Theosophical University Press)