Friday 9 December 2016

Stonehenge - What does "Henge" mean, why is it a "Henge"?

Looking across from Stonehenge towards Luxenborough plantation, the block of trees on the right, I was reminded that on the Downs of southern England, and maybe elsewhere, such blocks of woodland on the edges and slopes are known as "Hangers" or "Hangings" from the Anglo-Saxon "Hangra": A wood on a hill-side.

In my opinion Stonehenge gets its name from being a Stone "Hanger" as it sits on the edge of a slope, It is as simple as that. And from "Hanger" we get "Henge" and a whole pottage of word derivations.

From the Google Street view car one can rotate the camera and see the similarity in outline between the wood and stone "Hangers".

View Larger Map

Examples of other local Hanger Woods:


  1. From old french 'frenge' meaning fringe/edge - as you quite rightly pointed out "Stone "Hanger" as it sits on the edge of a slope" - but not a slope a River Valley (now dry!!).

  2. Well, possibly Tim. But for me the "slope" bit seems to be stretching things quite a bit. Hanging woods are generally accepted as those being on much steeper slopes, such as would be below an escarpment - i.e. on the scarp slope - not on the edge of such a slope. I've never come across the term being used for any area of wood, large or small, on a dip slope down from an escarpment, or any shallow slope leading down to a valley.

    Stonehenge has never given me the impression that it "hangs"! Hanging woods survived for the very reason that agriculture was impractical on the steeper slopes. Stonehenge, and other henges, survive for very different reasons!

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    2. Richard - I would disagree Hangers are in varied places and Stonehenge being on the top of edge of a slope is very typical. I have added some more pictures of local Hangers to show the general position and size of them and how similar they are to Stonehenge.

  3. Hi Tim. Mine is a genuine professional interest (now retired)having been involved with trees, woodlands and forestry during all my working life - still am in many ways. So the Stonehenge connection is actually a bit of a side issue. More important for me is the origin of the definition, since it's one of those types which is difficult, even for a professional to describe precisely, but when one is looking at and/or talking with colleagues about such a wood, one knows empirically if it's a "hanger" or not. So at this stage all I can say is that your derivation for "henges" begins with a definition that I am very much unaware of. That's not to say that it's not a locally understood description, but having worked in Dorset for five years and discussed woodlands with neighbouring authorities, I don't recall having come across it.

    So for historical reasons I checked the source of your definition and found that it is actually what is called a "substitute". The main translation appears to be at Personally I would not translate a wood on a hillside as being the same as that at the edge of a meadow, even if it had a more than average slope.

    I checked in Oliver Rackham's "The History of the Countryside" (Paperback, Phoenix Press, 2000 - Page 79)and he writes: "The Anglo-Saxon language is rich in words for woodlands. Some we still use, such as wudu 'wood', graf 'grove', scaga 'shaw', hangr 'hanger; others - bearu, holt, fyr, etc. - are forgotten. There is no evidence as to what different kinds of woodland these meant, and etymologists' guesses are not to be believed."

    Equally, I looked up the arboricultural definition for a "hanging wood":, for which "hanger" is an abbreviation. This supports the description I gave in my first reply, and my practical understanding.

    Stonehenge meaning "Hanging Stone" (John Wood's description?) seems somewhat misleading since we are talking 56 Aubreys to begin with, unless we include the Heelstone as part of that phase or before - perhaps the only stone that could be described as "hanging" being at the top of the sloping Avenue. However, I wouldn't go any where near as comparing with "hanging woods".

    I'd be more inclined to link henge with "hengen" with the meaning "hang up", "suspend", "hang by a thread". Here, I'm thinking in terms of hanging a pendulum where one of approximately 17 feet long would beat out (full swing - from the top of the Great Trilithon) 52 steps of the Megalithic Yard in four minutes. This would take the High Priest from the Sarsen entrance, with lower limb of the Sun on the horizon, to the centre of Stonehenge, leaving another half minute or so for him to reach his station in front of the GT to see the final disappearance of the winter solstice sunset, as only he would be privileged to see it in that way - weather permitting. I think we discussed this aspect some time ago with respect to the visual angle involved, and in connection with your "Twisted Trilithon" hypothesis. I think that would be a far more functional and fitting interpretation of "henge", considering that there existed a ring of 52 posts, outside of the Aubreys, perhaps representing each beat and the 52 weeks - of seven days - of the year, with the final day being the one of the ritual at Stonehenge - followed by feasting and binging, as per MPP!

    I also found this interesting translation:

    Far more in keeping with function (of religion/ritual), rather than physical description.


    1. Perhaps I an not quite awake yet but where are the 52 posts outside the Aubreys? Apart from that very interesting discussion.

    2. Hi Peter,
      A bit cryptic! They are on one of Stukeley's unpublished plans of his 1719 Stonehenge survey, now enigmatically published by Aubrey Burl in his "A Brief History of Stonehenge" (Fig 28, p.264). It's been estimated that there are 52 of these "stations", which apart from being on this plan, appear in no other written description and obviously not identified in any modern survey, that I am aware of. So they are neither stone holes nor post holes - I was just being a bit lazy, bearing in mind that my focus was woodlands, and looking back over my comments, the "perhaps" should have been before the "existed". Possibly someone reading this has an answer. It would be nice if they were "real" but having said that, their presence is in no way critical nor even necessary in the context of the 52 MY paces that I stated.

      There's probably a very simple explanation.

  4. Thanks Richard,
    I t would be interesting to see this survey with these extra holes any chance of sharing. I haven’t come across anything that indicates their presence.

  5. Hi Peter,
    This is a link to the image, as in Burl's book, which I've copied to my store.

    i guess, as it's a case of research that it falls into the category of "fair use".



  6. Thanks Richard,

    Having a think about it.

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  8. A late reply apologies, thanks again Richard for sharing the plan. It looks like a speculative sketch of what he thinks might be there or what the design might be no evidence for that outer ring of posts.
    Haven’t we all doodled our version of a Stonehenge phase in an idle moment.
    However the discussion on hanging woods and particularly the examples in the photos made me think of Tim’s post from a few years ago on timber circles and inverted trees as at Sea Henge. Perhaps Woodhenge and Durrington circles and other timber circles were a recreation of the woodland, it is an idea I have had for years as a reconstruction, but Ai Weiwei beat me to it. (See his trees installed outside the Royal Academy last year.)