“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
So said L.P Hartley in his novel The Go Between and you can see his point.
It’s hard for most of us to understand how people from the past thought and felt about anything. We’d like to believe there’s some common ground between us and our ancestors – surely they cherished their kids like we do, made idiots of themselves for love just as we do.
But think on this …
Imagine a family day out in the 18th century – instead of popping to Alton Towers or Disneyland to queue for three quarters of an hour to be thrown around in a small metal cart on tracks, parents might take the kids to watch a public execution in the morning, grab a handful of oysters from a vendor with poor personal hygiene for lunch, before paying a few old pence to visit Bedlam for an afternoon watching the lunatics beat their heads on the nearest wall.
Or you could be the Roman Emperor Nero and believe it to be perfectly acceptable to persecute a rival religion by capturing its practitioners, pouring pitch over their heads, setting fire to them and using them as night lights at social gatherings.
Yes, times have changed. We all might enjoy watching the Lannisters on TV murder and rape their way to the Iron Throne, but if they moved in next door, we’d be on the phone to the police complaining about the noise and writing strong letters to our local MP about the family’s taste in weapon based furniture.
I was pondering these mysteries of human society when we visited Stonehenge a couple of weeks ago. For you see, even after centuries of study, no one’s quite sure how or why it was built.
There’s much talk of the Summer Solstice – and the site is still open every year to pagans and hippies and those who love the shivery, dew dampened feeling in their underwear that you can only really experience if you’ve drunk a lot of cider and dozed through a long Wiltshire night, before gazing bleary eyed at some big rocks as the sun sneaks lazily over the heads of the local constabulary.
Apparently the Winter Solstice – that shortest day that heralds the slow return of the sun – was much more important to our ancestors, though I’ve noticed it attracts fewer Druids and New Agers and 21st century flower children these days than its warmer cousin does.
Yes, the stones probably had something to do with astronomy, but who built them and exactly why may remain a mystery forever. That’s the problem with Bronze Age Brits – too busy smelting shiny metal into magical swords and hefting stones across the Severn Estuary to bother with writing anything down – no administrative infrastructure, you see.
In case you’re wondering, today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is
Stonehenge, derived from the
So is the place a burial site? A big Bronze Age hospital? An auditorium for musical performances? An early attempt at the Guinness Record for giant domino toppling?
We don’t know, because you see, we don’t share the same priorities as our forebears. And for this – especially when it comes to mental health, gender politics and relgion – we should be most grateful.
With thanks to Kat, the lovely founder of W4W.
And, if you’re wondering what it’s like to see Stonehenge in the ‘flesh’ – surreal is the answer. Not quite as surreal as this, though …