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  The Ring of Brodgar, Stenness

Temples of Sun and Moon
True tradition or romantic addition?

Picture Sigurd TowrieGlance through antiquarian accounts of the Stones of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar and you will see repeated references to the "Temple of the Moon" and the "Temple of the Sun" - allegedly traditional names for the two stone circles.

But are these in any way authentic?

Given the persistence of placenames and traditions in Orkney, it seems unlikely these "temple" names - if they were used - have completely vanished from common use.

Instead, I would argue they were romantic additions - antiquarian terms in the same vein as those found throughout Britain, e.g., "Druid's Circle" and "Sacrificial Altar".

One of the earliest accounts linking the Stenness stone circles to the sun and the moon was written around 1695.

In A Brief Description of the Isles of Orkney and Schetland, Martin Martin describes both stone circles as temples and states:

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

We cannot put too much weight on Martin's statement. We don't know who his "several inhabitants" were. Had he referred to "the vulgar" - a term he uses elsewhere to refer to "common" Orcadians - then we could be more confident about the validity of the names.

Instead, we are left wondering whether Martin was misinformed by a well-meaning minister, or laird - someone perhaps influenced by the ideas of "druidical temples" drifting up from the south.

Although much later, a fine example of this was the antiquarian F.W.L. Thomas, who, in 1851, had no doubts as to the validity celestial titles and decided to add his own.

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..."

Thomas was not the only one inventing names.

In July 1801, the parishioners at the Stenness kirk were treated to a lecture on the neighbouring standing stones by Rev Agnew. Not content with temples of the sun and moon, the esteemed minister added the Stone of Mercury, the Stones of Saturn and Jupiter, and the Stone of Venus into the mix!

Returning to Martin, elements of his description are remarkably similar to an earlier account. Although not copied verbatim, it was clearly influenced by Rev James Wallace's 1693 A Description of the Isles of Orkney.

Wallace, a church minister from Orkney, briefly describes the two stone circles but does not assign them the temple label. Neither does he mention of any tradition of sun or moon worship. Instead he agrees with the suggestion that they were:

"High-Places in the Pagan Times, whereon sacrifices were offered."

In 1772, Sir Joseph Banks visited Orkney and one of the stops on his itinerary was a "walk to Circles of Stone temples of Sun and Moon".

Here we see that the terms were still being used descriptively, something that changed when George Low, in his A Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Schetland in 1774, well and truly attached the "temple" labels to the stone circles.

In a passage detailing the Odin Oath, he states:

"[They] 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..."

Although Low's account bears the hallmarks of someone who has dealt with the common people, just how influenced was he by earlier accounts?

Were the titles Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon traditional? Names that were remnants of an ancient folk memory concerning the role of the stone circles?

I doubt it very much.

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