evolution of sacred architecture throughout history
pointing to the Mandãla early architectural forms
≈12000BP to ≈4000BP
— Ancestor World —
the megalithic monuments of the Neolithic
RISE OF THE STONE MASTER
Around 12000BP, we sees the arrival of the architect, the ‘stone master’. “First comes the temple, then the city”: it seems to be the human sense of the sacred that actually gives rise to civilization itself rather than the other way around. The Neolithic revolution is initiated: a radical change, fraught with revolutionary consequence for the whole species.
Altering the earth for the first time, the turning of place into monuments is a major, irreversible act—one that must require the overcoming of feelings of sacrilege.
Greatly facilitated by the rise of agriculture and sedentarization, individual megalithic cultures develop with their own artistic style, sustaining vigorous traditions of architecture, ritual, and ideology. Some sites present a remarkable homogeneity of conception down through time, with religious cohesion sometimes maintained over 2 or 3 millennia.
In Europe, the megalithic phase begins later (8000 to 4000BP—with a golden age blooming 5500BP). Megalithic cultures are found most vigorous in Western and Northern Europe (an estimated 50000 monuments erected) and the Korean peninsula. Widely distributed across Europe and Asia, megalithic building are found on all inhabited continents—a tradition known to have survived until the end of the XIXth century.
THE FIRST MAN-MADE TEMPLES
In the fertile crescent of the Middle East, the hilltop sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe is the earliest example of man-made temple so far discovered (beginning 11600BP if not earlier). Coming from a hunter-gatherer society, such monumental architecture must require a staggering amount of manpower and labor.
Temple complexes like Göbekli Tepe are circular ‘walled enclosures’—a term corresponding to the ethymology of the word ‘paradise’: at once the manifestation of the body of the Earth and the communal body of society.
At those sites, the earliest structures are often the largest, most developped, and most sophisticated technically and artistically. A fact betrays the importance of the ‘initial idea’—the critical moment when a creative idea first comes into being.
Through T-shaped pillars of improbable size, we feel the breath and breadth of such a new and revolutionary enterprise. Not just altar stones but living portals, powered by various animal totems in carved reliefs. The T-shaped pillars also display anthropomorphic features that betray their fundamental role as ancestor stones.
Shamanic (animistic and hallucinogenic) ritual activity appears to be the rule of the day—or night, as the case may be. Favored totems are the more formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders and scorpions, with an emphasis on vultures and their related rituals for the dead.
Some carved reliefs appear to have been deliberately erased—likely a ritual deactivation. The temples themselves were eventually and deliberately entombed under thousands of tonnes of earth (requiring considerable time and effort), creating an artificial hill or belly that preserved them for posterity.
If wood—soft and pliable—is good for the living, stone—cold, hard, ancient—is reserved for the dead. Rendered eternal, the monuments ensue spiritual survival for the group. The mastery of prehistoric quarrymen, who know about local geological variations and how to meet the demand of the ‘stone master’, is quite evident. The choice of rock is often very precise, dictated by the function of each stone. Careful and symbolic placement is given to quartz, a material holding magical and hypnotic qualities.
Stones are perfectly integrated in their surroundings, positioned either high up on a hillside or near water in a valley. Visible over a great distance, they occupy the center of a broad vista of land or sea. Monuments change and alter their character according to the weather, the light, the season.
The precise astronomical orientation of important monuments mark and celebrate turning points in the solar and lunar cycles. Equinoxes, solstices, minor and major lunar stand-stills are recognized by highlighting the rising and setting points of sun and moon at those times. Thus the earth is linked with the heavens, the fate of the ancestors linked with the rhythms of the 2 great celestial bodies. The layout of space, the cycling of time, is better understood, mapped, organized.
For the ancient mind, the ‘giving of ground’, the ‘giving of substance to’ that occurs when erecting a monument is nothing less than a rebuilding of the world. It is from and about that central point where one’s origins or one’s ground of being reside. By embodying the archetypal realm and the spirit of the ancestors, they help to 'stabilize the world', bringing psychological and physical security for both individual and community.
For the ancient mind, the land is exteriorized consciousness. Megaliths shape the landscape into a sacred text which hold the memory of the tribal myths. Stones are the physical embodiment of ancestors, the vessels for spirits and deities. The presence of divinity in the stone is not unlike sap rising within wood, causing the tree to eventually flower and bear fruit.
Rites of foundation, burial, dedication, worship, and sometimes ritual sealing, punctuate the life-cycle of the monuments.
These lonely sentinels punctuating the landscape must have been for the tribe an emphatic statement of spiritual and political identiy. Some may hold mundane functions: territorial markers, commemorative stones, symbols of prestige. With their obvious phallic associations, others are the focus of fertility rituals. With their inter-visibility over considerable distances, or in relation with features in the surrounding landscape, they can serve as astronomical markers.
More significantly, standing stones are felt and seen as energetic devices joining earth and sky—not unlike acupuncture points that would be placed at Earth’s meridians. In a general way, they function as antennaes which can gather, concentrate, and focus magnetic and electromagnetic energies. Helped by the use of quartz material, they become batteries or memory banks recording the particular powers directed into them. Altar stones of ancestors and deities.
Beyond the impulse of religious fervour or concern for social order, there will always be the intoxicating excitement of challenging the massive intractability of the rocks.
The stones are often shaped and smoothed by the builders to retain their natural qualities. Cylindrical or rectangular, a lateral bulge reducing progressively toward the top gives them the illusion of greater lightness. The changing light gives them movement and flexibility.
Built at locales of strong geophysical energies, stone circles become the locus of important religious ceremonies. Secondarily, they may also serve as gathering place for political and trading events.
When building a circle, the initial act of ‘giving ground’ may be to erect an upright pillar at the center of a chosen site, hence establishing the ontological axis (pointing to the Pole Star). A direct symbolic reflection of the central gnomon (used in geometric and astronomic calculations) is established. Eventually, the circles themselves may take the role of astronomical observatories—sighting devices to track the rise and fall of celestial bodies.
Uneven placing of the stones around a circle—which may be round or not—is quite deliberate. A beautiful balance and poetic symmetry is accomplished through precise asymmetric placement and a recognition of the unique quality of each stone. Careful account is taken of their type, shape, and size.
A gradations in height can constitute sight lines for elevated natural or artificial features in the surrounding landscape.
The use of certain geometric angles and Pythagorean triangles is quite evident in many layouts—making the case for an early use of sacred geometry concepts. There is also supporting evidence for the application of ideas based on the Platonic Solids—a sophisticated philosophy of sacred science that would re-emerge some millennia later.
BURIAL CHAMBERS AND PASSAGE MOUNDS
The dolmen under tumulus is the dwelling place of ancestors, who for successive generations can be called upon for divine protection, as mediators between the living and the potent netherworld. With chambers generally oriented in the direction of the rising and setting sun, a link is made between those buried between the stones and the course of the great celestial body. Consider the etymology of the word ‘origin’(from the Latin oriri: ‘to rise as the sun’): beyond the foundational role they hold for the community, the dead keeps on nourishing the living, just like the rising of the sun at the origin of each day.
While there is great emphasis on the proper treatment of the dead in small burial chambers, they also fulfill initiatory functions for the living: not only lesser rites of passage but also the royal, shamanic initiations of a select cast of individuals searching to penetrate the mysteries of life and death. If for the dead chiefs buried there, immortality is a reward, for the initiate it must be earned. In the dark damp depths of chambers, trials are undertaken, union with the Great Goddess (hierogamy) sought, and through realization of the Eternal, immortality attained. If the round tumulus shelters the cranium of the dead, it also witnesses the crowning of the realized initiate.
Evolved from those simple chambers, passage mounds play a more collective role. They are built for long-term use and may have multiple chambers set in a cruciform layout. Large stone-cut offering bowls are sometimes found. It has been suggested that some sites may witness physical birth events.
In the ‘Tumb of the womb’, the cyclic, ever-present, all-embracing arms of the goddess is directly felt, experienced, and learned. Beyond the symbols of the goddess and motifs of masculine power found carved in the chambers, it is abstract designs that are favored: processes (evolutive and involutive spirals), elements (earth, water, wind, fire), celestial bodies (sun, moon), serpentine designs, entoptic patterns (dots, arcs, zigzags, grids, lozenges, eye-patterns, cup and ring marks) and other images of shamanic trances.
Passage mounds are often built and orientated so as to mark key points in the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Winter and summer solstice rising are often celebrated with dramatic light effects that appear in the depths of the chambers. To achieve this, the passage may slope upward or undulate from side to side; the use of light-boxes and stone portals may further allow or restrict the flow of light. Eventually, light entering a passage is narrowed into a focused beam of light that only penetrates the inner chamber for a few minutes at these key moments. In the chamber's surrounding gloom may suddenly appears the golden light display of a triple spiral, its vital force re-awakened or re-activated; a free-standing monolith may suddenly transforms into a laser-like shaft of light, a magical rising of potent life-force.
While the winter solstice offers a direct connection to the archetypal realm and the world of the gods, the summer solstice rules over the human realm. At winter stand-still, the newly emerging solar life-force penetrates the dark womb of the earth to regenerate life. At summer stand-still, it shines at the height of its power and the threshold of decline. Both are portals into the mysteries of life, death, and the cosmos.
Megalithic monuments belong to ‘ritual landscapes’ of great complexity and subtlety—where natural landforms of rock, earth, and water, have been enhanced and emphasized by human intervention. The knowledge of the Neolithic sages is a knowledge based on observation, a heightened sensitivity to the environment, and a sense of wholeness. There is an understanding of the role of humanity in the scheme of things, of the total environmental interdependence of life on Earth.
freely adapted from:
Keith Critchlow, Time Stands Still
Jean-Pierre Mohen, The World of Megaliths
Paul Devereux, The Sacred Place
Julian Richards, Magic Stones
Myriam Philibert, La Caverne
IMAGE GALLERIES edited from various sources / see individual image credit when available
mound of the planetary mind
an Earth-Mother temple for our Age