Archive for the ‘Druids’ Category

Did the Summer Solstice Exist in Prehistory? The Strange Case of the Missing Ritual.

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

With the summer solstice upon us, I – along with many other modern-day Druids – will celebrate the longest day and the height of the solar year in a solstice ritual. This connects me to the ebb and flow of the land around me and also provides a link to my prehistoric ancestors, who undoubtedly did the same thing so many years ago. Or so I had always assumed. I took for granted that people in the past marked the longest day of the year but, after a little research, I am no longer certain that they did – at least, not with the same importance as we do today.

At this point, you are probably thinking about Stonehenge – the most famous summer solstice aligned monument in the world. It may not have been Druids who built the place but everyone knows that their Neolithic and Bronze Age forebears gathered each year within the circle of stones to mark the rising of the midsummer sun. Case closed. Except new research suggests it’s actually anything but and has led the lead excavator at Stonehenge to say that there is absolutely no evidence that anyone was even there at the summer solstice, much less celebrating the sunrise.

The problem stems from the fact that anything aligned to the north-easterly direction of the rising sun at the summer solstice is also aligned to the south-westerly direction of the setting sun at the winter solstice. For years, kill-joy archaeologists have argued that Stonehenge was designed and built so that anyone approaching the stones via the avenue would have had a perfect view of the sun setting at the midwinter solstice; seemingly sinking within the stone circle itself. This, they point out, would have been far more dramatic than approaching down the avenue on the summer solstice to stand at the centre of the stones, then turning around and watching the sun rise along the route they had just trod. As far as dramatic choreography goes, it was a good argument but, as is so often the case for kill-joys, nobody listened.

In fact, a similar arrangement occurs at the Dorest Cursus where anyone observing the setting sun on the midwinter solstice from within the western terminal of the earthworks would observe the glowing disc descend behind (or, in their eyes, perhaps within) a round barrow located on an adjacent ridge. But nobody thought to compare the two so this titbit of information never entered the debate.

Nevertheless, the unease continued that we were getting Stonehenge all wrong. Then, more recently, the prehistoric festival site for the solstice ritual at Stonehenge was unearthed at Durrington Walls. Could this tell us the time of year that people came to party? In a circuitous way, it did.

People clearly liked to eat at these occasions and the meal of choice was pork. Masses of pig remains litter the site. But these remains tell us something else. Most of the pigs were around eight or nine months old when eaten. Assuming that they had been born in the early spring months (which is the farming system Neolithic people used), diners were eating the pigs at the winter and not the summer solstice. Those kill-joy archaeologists had been right all along: Stonehenge was a winter and not a summer monument; leading the excavator to utter his conclusion that nobody was even there during the summer months. I began to feel uneasy about my own celebration; surely there were other sites aligned to the midsummer sunrise to replace Stonehenge.

There are. But not many. In Brittany, the La Table des Marchands tumulus has a summer alignment. At Carrowkeel in Ireland, the romantically-named Cairn G is another, with a light-box to channel the light into the tomb. Bryn Celli Ddu in Wales is a passage tomb that also sees the first rays of the midsummer sun reach deep into the chamber. I did think about adding Cueva de Menga in Spain to my list but the tomb is slightly askew and it is more likely that it aligns on a prominent mountain nearby rather than the sunrise. Leaving aside examples from further afield, the total is not that impressive and all seem to be a celebration of death rather than of life. Mind you, such dichotomy seemed to be a feature of much Neolithic ritual.

Moving into the Bronze Age, it is the midwinter solstice that seems to increase in importance with house entrances, burial clusters around existing mounds, and even major field boundary walls (which also align to the north-west, of course) facing the rising sun at midwinter. There is almost nothing that indicates people marked its summer equivalent. The Iron Age is the same, except the focus of entrances shifts to the east – to align with the equinoxes rather than the midwinter solstice. So even the ancient Celts – from whom the first Druids emerged – seem to have ignored the summer solstice.

Looking at the Classical accounts of Iron Age Druids, there is nothing to suggest that they celebrated the summer solstice and even a rather damning passage to suggest that it might have been avoided altogether.  An obscure comment by Lucan in his epic poem Phasalia states that, although Druids held daytime rituals, they did not do so when the sun was at its height. This probably relates to the height of the sun during the day (i.e. at midday) rather than the year but Caesar tells us that the Celts treated days, months, and the year as equivalents, each starting with a dark half before moving to their zenith. Therefore, Lucan’s comment could be taken to mean that Druids avoided rituals at midday – when the sun was at its height during its daily cycle – and also at the summer solstice – when the sun was at its height during its yearly cycle.

So where does this leave me and all the other Druids who celebrate the summer solstice? Maybe we should stop? But then I reflect: this is our tradition, our way. Stonehenge is not just some ancient relic but a pulsating centre of modern spirituality that is as relevant to our times as it was to those who lived long ago – and long may it remain so. Maybe those in the past did not mark the day as we do – maybe they even avoided it – but this is our time and our life and we should forge our own spiritual journey. So I will rest easy as I am celebrating this year’s event and just enjoy the day, regardless of whether it is authentic to the past or not. Happy Solstice everyone!

Oak Apple Day: Echoes of Our Druid Past

Friday, May 27th, 2011

Oak Apple Day or Royal Oak Day is a festival celebrated in Britain on 29th May to mark the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after the interregnum of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic. Its roots, however, like those of the oak itself, might go far deeper.

First, however: the recent history. On a bleak 3rd September in 1651, Charles II lost his last battle against the same men who had signed his father’s death warrant. Knowing that his only hope was to flee, he escaped the skirmish and, seeking refuge with Catholic royalists (who were used to hiding their priests from the puritanical regime of Cromwell), he evaded capture. It was at Boscobel in Shropshire that Charles disguised himself first as a woodsman and, when a crossing of the River Severn into Wales failed, hid in a hollow oak for the day to avoid marauding soldiers.

When Charles regained his throne in 1660, he remembered the oak tree that saved him and declared 29th May as a public holiday in its honour. Everyone wore sprigs of oak upon their lapel or else oak apples, which are galls formed among the leaves by a parasitic wasp. These small round ‘fruit’ give the day its name.

Although the holiday only lasted until 1859, when it was abolished, some aspects of the tradition still survive in parts of the country, where they seem to have merged with customs of those other great lovers of the oak: the Druids. Perhaps some aspects of this great tree move us in similar ways.

For the Druids, whose name may mean ‘wisdom of the oak’, the oak is never more sacred than when mistletoe grew upon its branches. Drawing an analogy between the sticky substance extruded from mistletoe berries and human sperm, the Druids believed that mistletoe enhanced fertility in animals and people alike. In effect, the plant produced the sperm of the oak. We remember something of these beliefs when we kiss under garlands of mistletoe at Christmas.

Charles II was clearly no Druid and yet his Oak Apple Day began to take on saucy overtones. Anyone not wearing an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves had their bottoms pinched in what became colloquially known as ‘Pinch Bum Day’. Harmless fun. But perhaps also a conflation with the Druid’s mistletoe ceremony and its overtones of fertility. Even the oak apples people wore looked slightly rude.

At Castleton in Derbyshire, a man garlanded in flowers still rides through the town on Oak Apple Day, invoking a pre-Christian nature spirit as much as Royalist sensibility, despite the Stuart costume he wears under the mass of flowers. At Great Wishford in Wiltshire, people exercise their ancient right to collect branches of oak from nearby Grovely Wood. (It is surely a coincidence that Druids carried branches of oak to their rituals.) At Aston-on-Clun in Shropshire, a tree at the centre of the village is dressed in flags, which remain in place until the following year.

For the more masochistically minded, the pinch on the bum for not wearing the requisite oak decoration could be replaced by a jolly good thrashing with nettles. Grammar school boys from Wem in Shropshire used to insist their teachers sit on nettles for the day, before running out of school grounds to wreak havoc. In fact, they started a rhyme, which went “29th of May is Oak Apple Day. If you don’t give us holiday, we’ll all run away”.

Since Britain now has a bank holiday on the last Monday in May, their wish came true but its origin is now largely forgotten. It would be good if the traditions of Oak Apple Day gained wider appeal but, rather than focus on the return of the monarchy, we should honour the oak tree itself. Held sacred from Druid times and still the symbol of our land, it has provided us with food, shelter, and protection. And let’s not forget, the day is also an excellent reason to pinch someone’s bum, unless that is, they are wearing an oak apple on their lapel.

St Dwynwen of Wales

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

January 25th is St Dwynwen’s Day in Wales. She is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine and people in Wales give cards and gifts to their loved ones on this day. Dwynwen’s story, although mythical, is full of tragedy and deliverance but also contains elements that hint at ancient traditions, perhaps even harking back to the Druids who once occupied our land.

Dwynwen was the youngest and most beautiful daughter of King Brychan of Brycheiniog, the county in which I live. Many suitors sought her hand and none more so than Maelon, a prince from the north.

Maelon sweet-talked Dwynwen incessantly until, at last, she fell in love with him. Maelon, achieving his aim, quickly asked King Brychan for her hand. The King was shrewd and, unlike Dwynwen, was not taken in with Maelon’s sweet words and so refused the match. Dwynwen, distraught, fled to the forest.

Maelon followed Dwynwen into the trees and, here, his true colours became apparent. He swore aloud that he would abduct Dwynwen and take her by force. Dwynwen heard Maelon’s threats and, with the prince almost upon her, knelt down and prayed for deliverance.

At once, an angel appeared by Dwynwen’s side holding a golden cup. Putting the cup to Dwynwen’s lips, the girl drank of its contents and her love for Maelon left her. Looking up, there was Maelon just a short distance away, except that now he was encased in a block of ice.

Dwynwen felt sorry for the prince and asked the angel how he might be freed. The angel offered Dwynwen three wishes and the first she used to free Maelon. With the second, she asked that the dreams of true lovers should always come true (and this is why she is the Patron Saint of Welsh lovers), and with the third she asked that she would never marry.

Dwynwen had her wishes granted and, setting sail of the coast of Wales – and letting the wind carry her where it would – she reached a tiny island off Anglesey, now known, after her, as Llanddwyn.

She built a church on the island and lived in sanctity there until she died on January 25th, around 1,500 years ago.

The well in which Dwynwen drew her water is said to have healing properties, for lung and bone diseases, but especially for those suffering from a broken heart. Some would sleep out on a rock beside the well before bathing in or drinking its waters the following day.

Nearby is another well containing fish that are said to divine the future. At one time, a woman lived near this well and, like the Sybil of Delphi, interpreted the future from the movements of the fish. This tradition has echoes of the ancient Druids, who once had their centre on Anglesey and told the future from the movements of similar animals. Perhaps the Druid traditions had become enmeshed with those of St Dwynwen over the ages.

Although St Dwynwen is little known outside Wales, she is undergoing a revival in the country of her birth. Her lifelong wish was that people were kind to each other and found happiness in love. It is a message that is as relevant today as it was when Dwynwen first landed on the rocky shore of Llanddwyn.


Images of the Sacred

Friday, August 13th, 2010

This is the fifth of five edited extracts posted on the Gate this week from my new book, Prehistoric Belief: Shamans, Trance and the Afterlife. After the Bronze Age yesterday, we now move into the Iron Age, the time of the Celts when witches and Druids began to control access to the spirit world.

During the late Iron Age at Larzac, in France, Severa, daughter of Tertiu, took a lead sheet and scratched onto its surface a most extraordinary tale. A coven of witches had been cursed by another and sought the help of a wise woman to negate the spell and diffuse the tension. The lead was then moulded around the top of a burial urn containing a woman. Could the burnt remains have been the person who had made the curse, her death being the price for peace? It is a rare glimpse of the shadowy world of Celtic sorcery and magic and the role that women played within it.

Although Severa did not record it upon the lead sheet, the women of the coven might have sought their power from a more elevated female group. Many representations of goddesses, for example, show them grouped into three and this might have mirrored the arrangement of women in the covens. The Larzac tablet mentions eight, possibly nine names, which would give three groups of three, a particularly significant number throughout the Celtic world. Although we do not know the names of the individual triple goddesses, they were probably Mother or Earth deities (‘Matronae’ in Celtic), although some may have related to springs and wet places (‘Saluviae’ in Celtic). One of the most sacred springs was the source of the Seine, in France, where people left modelled body parts, perhaps as part of a healing ceremony. It is striking that in many shamanic communities, healing is achieved through removing an intrusive spirit, thought to enter the body unbidden, which is drawn out and negated by being thrown into water (water is often seen as a portal to the otherworld). The carved body parts in the Seine spring may have accumulated as people tried to cast off invading spirits, using a model as a surrogate for their own afflicted body.

As Caesar was conquering the Celts of Gaul (modern-day France), he recorded the names of many Celtic gods but, unfortunately, used only their equivalent Roman names to describe them. More helpfully, he also noted that the Celts consider that they are all descended from a single ancestor god, whom Caesar called ‘Dis’. Other Roman commentators were a little more forthcoming about the Celtic pantheon and Lucan records the names of three: ‘Teutates’, the god of the tribe, ‘Taranis’, the god of thunder and the sky, and ‘Esus’, the good or sun god. A later commentator on Lucan’s work adds a little more detail by revealing that each required sacrifices to be offered in different ways: Teutates by drowning, Taranis by burning, and Esus by hanging. Each seems to equate with one of the traditional elements – water, fire, air – with the Mother goddesses providing the fourth: earth (and possibly their own form of sacrifice as many bodies were placed into disused storage pits).

In charge of the sacrifices were the Druids, who, with the diviners or (O)vates, and the Bards, formed the priesthood of the Celtic world. It is likely that they formalised the roles that had previously fallen to the community shamans, although, as the witch covens demonstrate, it is likely that other people held roles that also required regular interaction with the supernatural.

According to Caesar, the centre for Druid learning was Britain, perhaps focussed on Anglesey in Wales. Training to become a Druid was arduous and could last several decades. Emphasis was placed on memory rather than writing since this was considered the best way to develop the brain; entire tracts of history and lore had to be learnt by rote. Work was undertaken in groves, woodland clearings, and the association between Druids and trees may reflect the origin of their name, thought to mean ‘knowledge of the oak’.

Whilst there are references to female Druids, most sources tell of women’s role in divination. Perhaps the most renowned was Veledā, the seer with so much power that, over time, she became akin to a Goddess. To divine the future, Veledā may have watched the flow of water across the surface of specially made ‘spoons’. These have been discovered across the Celtic world and comprise a flat surface, often etched into four quarters, with a hole for the water to drain. It is likely that the flow of water across the quarters would have meant something to the observer.

Many Celtic women were buried with mirrors in their graves and whilst this might seem a suitable accoutrement for the fairer sex (one Roman historian records how he had to berate his mistress for painting herself like a Celtic hussy), it is likely that they had a deeper meaning. Mirrors are used in shamanic practice to induce trance and, rather like the modern crystal balls, if they are used to focus concentration, shapes begin to appear on their surface. This may be why many mirrors had phosphenes (the shapes of trance) engraved on their surface, emphasising their role in accessing the wisdom of the otherworld.

Other methods of divination were not so benign and there are records of women cutting open the body of a sacrificial victim and discerning the future within the entrails. Siculus, another Roman historian, records only that the seers performed the sacrifice (without stating whether they were woman) but helpfully notes that the convulsions of the limbs and spurting of blood were considered significant. At other times, women merely slit the throats of captives and drained the blood into cauldrons. It is revealing that cauldrons were often deposited into lakes and bogs and perhaps there was a circularity about draining the liquid of a person before placing the entire assemblage into water.

Whether witches or Druids, it is clear that Iron Age women were no wilting wallflowers and that they were intimately involved in the spiritual life of the tribe.