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  The Ring of Brodgar, Stenness

Temples of Sun and Moon
True tradition or romantic addition?

Picture Sigurd TowrieAccording to a number of antiquarian accounts, the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar went by their "traditional names" until the early 1840s.

The Ring of Brodgar was supposedly known as "the Temple o' the Sun", with the Stenness henge being "the Temple o' the Moon".

On first glance, these titles seem feasible enough, but are they actually authentic and not merely romantic additions of the antiquarians of the day?

I suspect the latter.

Given the persistence of placenames, and traditions, in Orkney, it seems particularly strange that these "temple" names - if they were ever used to describe the rings - completely disappeared from common use in such a comparatively short space of time.

Instead, I think they were simply erroneous terms applied by the antiquarians of the 18th or 19th centuries - romantic additions, in the same vein as the infamous "Druid's Circle" and "Sacrificial Altar".

Lunar and solar links

One of the earliest accounts linking the stone circles with the sun and the moon was written, by the Reverend James Wallace, in 1684.

He states:

"Several of the inhabitants have a tradition that the sun was worshipped in the larger, and the moon in the lesser circle."

But there is a danger of reading too much into this statement - simply because we don't know who Wallace's "several inhabitants" were.

Had he referred to "peasantry" or "the vulgar" - terms found in documents of the period to refer to "common" Orcadians - then we could be more confident about the validity of the names. Instead, we are left wondering whether Wallace was actually misinformed by a well-meaning minister, or laird - someone perhaps influenced by the ideas of "druidical circles" drifting up from the south.

It was around 96 years later that George Low, in his A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland, well and truly attached the title of "temple" to the stone circles.

In a passage detailing the Odin Oath, he states:

"The parties agreed stole from the rest of their companions, and went to the Temple of the Moon, where the woman, in presence of the man, fell down on her knees and prayed the god Wodden."

He then adds:

"..after which they both went to the Temple of the Sun, where the man prayed in like manner before the woman.."

And that is more or less it when it comes to the documented evidence that the use of the names. Although Low's account bears the hallmarks of someone who has dealt with the common people, just how influenced was he by other accounts, in particular James Wallace's?

In 1851, the antiquarion F.W.L. Thomas had no doubts as to the celestial titles.

Referring to the Ring of Bookan, to the north-west of Brodgar, he wrote:

"..the Ring of Bukan, which was of course the Temple of the Stars, seems to have escaped notice, or we might have learned of some more ante-nuptial ceremonies performed there."

But just as we cannot say for certain that the titles Temple o' the Sun and Temple o' the Moon were traditional, neither can we completely dismiss them.

The possibility remains that the titles were the remnants of an ancient folk memory that may correspond to some of the current astro-archaeological theories regarding the original purpose of the stones.

But I doubt it very much.

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