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!