The Power of Ritual
stone club ritual heligan

It’s late March, 2023, and I’m standing in a field on the edge of the Lost Gardens of Heligan. It’s the classic Cornish spring day: dreary, drizzly, bone-bitingly damp. Mist drifts over the hedgerows. Above, the sky’s a mass of steely cloud. But this is no ordinary March day. This is the Spring Equinox – and the The Pillars of Wonder are celebrating it in their own special way.

A sound fills the morning air: an elemental note, somewhere between bass drone and ambient hum. The sound builds, and an eerie convoy materialises from the mist: a white-robed maiden, a wolf-headed man, a troupe of Morris dancers in day-glo balaclavas and a faceless Green Man, his head a tangle of willow branches. Each bears a banner adorned with a strange symbol – along with a portable Bluetooth speaker emitting its own drone in the key of A. 

Solemnly, they circle the field, finally congregating in the centre, where the Green Man holds aloft a silver censer. There’s a fiery flash, and the Green Man twirls the globe over his head, sending sulphur-yellow smoke billowing over the field. And then it’s over. The strange troupe departs. The field is silent again, save for a lone cackling rook and the rustle of the wind through the trees.

“Well, that’s not what you’d expect on a Monday morning, is it?” chuckles a man in a sensible cagoule who’s somehow got mixed up in the procession. “My wife and I just came to see the gardens. We haven’t the foggiest what this is about. It’s certainly, er, different!” he adds, as he heads off to the cafe in search of a reassuring pot of tea.

It seems a fair question. What precisely has transpired on this mizzly March morning? An ancient ritual? A resurrected Cornish rite? A sound installation? A piece of pagan performance art?

“It’s all those, I suppose!” explains artist and musician Matthew Shaw, who, along with his partner Lally Macbeth, runs Stone Club – the popular membership group for prehistory enthusiasts. “Fundamentally, I’m fascinated by rituals: what they are, how they come into being, what they really mean to people.” 

The Pillars of Wonder Spring Equinox

“The Pillars of Wonder was borne out of that fascination,” he continues. “We wondered what would happen if we created our own rituals marking significant points in the calendar: the Equinoxes, May Day and so on. But really this is a musical experiment. I believe music and sound can transform your experience of a landscape, and we wanted to see what would happen when we combined our own invented rituals with these compositions made for a very specific place and point in time.”

Shaw’s musical collaborator (and the second Pillar of Wonder) is Richard Norris, the ambient musician, producer and sound engineer best-known for his musical collaborations, The Grid and Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve. 

“I think there’s been a huge resurgence of interest in this kind of thing since the pandemic,” he says. ”For me, it’s about reconnection. People were stuck inside all that time, cut off from other people, from the world outside. And now there’s this desire to be out in nature, to reconnect, to feel grounded. As human beings, we crave that connection, whether we know it consciously or not. Community is important, shared experiences are important, coming together is important. The Pillars of Wonder is our attempt to recreate that.”

The third and final Pillar is the artist Jamie Reid. Celebrated for his artwork on albums from artists ranging from the Sex Pistols to Afro Celt Sound System, Reid’s artwork has long explored his fascination with nature, ritual, symbols and magic. 

Fittingly, it’s Reid’s designs and slogans (‘Nurture Nature’, Love is Contagious’, ‘The Two Pillars’, ‘Immerse Yourself In Nature’) that emblazon the The Pillars of Wonder’s banners, signs and costumes. And – though it’s only really visible from the air – the procession takes place on a gigantic piece of Reid’s art. In early 2022, a field of wildflowers was planted at Heligan in the shape of one of his recurrent symbols, The Ova – a 100m-wide circular motif incorporating the A for Anarchy, V for Victory and O for Compassion. 

“Jamie’s artwork is fundamental to The Pillars of Wonder,” Shaw explains. “He’s such an incredible imaginative force, and really, that’s what we’re trying to explore: the power of creativity, connection and community.”

The equinox marks the end of a year-long series of events on The Ova which has involved collaborators from Gwenno to the National Wildflower Centre and The Sensory Trust. A book commemorating the project will be released in 2024, and the wildflower circle will remain as a permanent Heligan fixture in the years to come.

For The Pillars of Wonder, however, the party’s just getting started. They’re making a pilgrimage across the UK throughout 2023. In April, there’s a corn dolly burning in the village of Lewes, East Sussex. In May, there’s a Mayday rite in Kingston, Devon, involving the unveiling of a newly commissioned maypole. In June, a procession’s planned for Glastonbury, with further events to be announced for autumn and winter. Each will have its own unique soundtrack (“probably in a different key”, notes Shaw) and ultimately, the tracks will be collated into one epic album, which, perhaps, people might use as the soundtrack for their own future rituals. And after that, who knows?

“For us, the important thing was just to set it in motion and see what happened,” says Shaw. “I think there’s this perception that a ritual is a bit like a play: there are things you do and words you say, and that’s just how it is. But for me, rituals are like a laboratory. They’re places to experiment and explore. I don’t want to know what happens next. I don’t want to be told what I can and can’t do. Rituals should be about the strange and the unexpected. I want to be surprised. I want to be moved. Above all, I want to feel magic.”

Originally written for Brewing Folk