Circles of standing stones, like the famous Stonehenge in Great Britain, are fascinating because they’re perfect images of the mysterious past, at once foreign and universal. Huge slabs of stone were placed in an exact pattern, marking or measuring something. But what? What could possibly have been so important that those people would band together to cut, transport, and erect such monstrous stones in carefully calculated positions?
According to most archaeologists, many of the stone circles in Europe and North America functioned, at least in part, as a way to mark the path of the sun from one solstice to the other. Scholars have claimed people needed this information about the solstice so they’d know when to plant or harvest certain plants. But local people would have known all those things even without the circles of stone. Even modern people do. When the serviceberry tree is in bloom in West Virginia, the shad are running; that’s what gives the tree its other name: shadbush. Around here, we know spring is arriving when the red-winged blackbirds return. They always get snowed on at least once, but spring is just around the corner.
There had to be more to the stones than planting advice. Some stone circles marked the equinoxes as well as the solstices; others marked the 16-year moon cycle. They didn’t need that information to plant or hunt. They needed it to be connected to the universe.
Knowing that you can count the days until the sun lines up exactly between two slabs of stone and sends a beam across the center of a third is more than an engineering feat and certainly more than a calendar. It allows humans to participate in the universe, to share in its incredible power and glory. It connects people to the gods.
There are over a thousand stone circles in Senegal and The Gambia, in West Africa, varying in circumference, stone size, and number of stones in the circle. Often there are multiple circles in the same area. While the local people still respect the circles, they do not know how the circles originally funtioned.
I put a stone circle in Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa because there are so many in that area. I assume that in some cases, the circles were used for straightforward counting, such as the number of days until the rainy season would begin. Perhaps the circles had other counting funcions as well: trade agreements, records of events, things like that. But I’m certain they also had a cosmological function. In the story, the chief/shaman stands in the center of the circle, extending his arms so his fingers point to opposite stones. Then he turns, slowly, becoming the hub of the wheel, so it seems as if the stones dance around him. At the same time, the shaman sees his double in the Underworld below him, turning in the opposite direction. The two forces, life and death, must dance together in order for the circle of life in the universe to turn.
The stone circles in Senegal often included a burial in the center.