Category: Stonehenge.

Celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge

The mystical site opens to the public this evening — one of only two such occasions a year

By Michael Benedict, The Ottawa Citizen

Surveying the scene around us — people dancing to bongo drums, a man seemingly in a trance holding up an eagle feather to the sky and a pair of witches with garlands — my 14-year-old son turns to me and says, “These people have been playing Dungeons and Dragons waaaaaaaay too much.”

We are strolling among the 4,500-year-old stone monuments at Stonehenge, the mystical World Heritage Site on England’s Salisbury plain. It is dawn and we are very lucky, indeed.

Since 1978, English Heritage has barred the public from walking among the massive stones. To preserve the ruins, visitors are restricted to the pathways that take them around, but not through or onto, the site proper. Except for two days every year, at the winter and summer solstices, when people are allowed to roam freely.

Access will be permitted starting at about 8:30 this evening and until about 8 a.m. tomorrow (sunrise will be at 4:45 a.m.). Admission is free. Last year, nearly 30,000 showed up.

At the winter solstice, on Dec. 21, we are among several hundred wandering among the giant stones at 8 a.m. when the site is open for an hour at sunrise.

Most people are here because of the special access to one of the country’s most popular attractions, whether to take photos, touch the stones or simply experience them closely in a way that now is only rarely possible. But this prehistoric spot also clearly attracts a large group of non-conformists. Take “Dojjey,” dressed in a powder-blue, penguin pyjama suit in the brisk eight-degree temperature. He strums a guitar, singing over and over again, “Hurry up sundown.”

Dojjey, who says he lives nearby, adds, “I can’t go through a solstice without coming here.”

Later, police order him off his perch on one of the stones. Touching is permitted, but climbing onto the rocks is not.

Many of the visitors come annually. Shona Rayward and Noelle Moline are witches living in Hampshire, a county bordering Stonehenge’s Wiltshire. “The solstice is important as a marker of time, a time of celebration,” says Moline who has been observing the winter solstice here for a decade. “We are celebrating our ancestors and the ancestral religion of the land.”

Adds Rayward: “We come to keep in touch with the natural flow of the land.”

In the 17th century, scholars thought Druids established Stonehenge. But that theory was later discredited when it was determined that the site predates the first Druids by 1,000 years or more. Nevertheless, Druids have been making pilgrimages to Stonehenge for more than a century to solemnize both solstices, particularly the summer one.

“We see spirituality in everything,” says Jim Saunders of Reading, one of a dozen or so white-robed Druids parading through the monuments. “These are sacred places of our early ancestors. We feel connected to them.”

Rodney Michael Carr-Smith spent a dozen years among the Squamish First Nation in B.C. before returning home to England. Carr-Smith has arrived at Stonehenge with a dream catcher, a whistle made out of an eagle bone and an eagle feather, among other artifacts from Canada. Transfixed, he walks in a small circle holding up four sticks and blows his whistle, beckoning “the great spirit.” He adds: “Destiny brought me here, to open this place, to invigorate it into a new age of enlightenment.”

It’s easy to understand the magical spell cast by these 50-tonne stones that people were somehow able to transport over long distances and then pull erect to withstand the elements over three millennia. Today, archeologists and historians are still puzzling over the secrets of this prehistoric relic situated incongruously among rolling farm fields and hemmed in by busy roadways.

Since the 18th century, astronomers have believed that Stonehenge’s circular configuration is related to sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset during the winter solstice. The site’s mysteries continue to challenge the experts. Last year, radiocarbon dating of bones found on site determined that Stonehenge was used as a burial ground for the elite in 3,000 BC, some 500 years before the first stones arrived.

Some of these slabs journeyed 400 kilometres from Wales — that is if they arrived via a direct route over land and water, much farther if transported over land only. Stonehenge’s larger stones originated from as far as 50 kilometres away. There is no evidence on how this monumental task was achieved.

One thing is certain. Stonehenge’s hold on the imagination has been a constant over the ages. When Samuel Pepys journeyed here from London in 1668, he wrote in his diary: “To Stonehenge … Came thither and find them as prodigious as any tales I ever heard of them, and worth going this journey to see. God knows what their use was. They are hard to tell, but yet may be told.”

Michael Benedict owns MCB Strategies, a Toronto communications consulting, writing and editing firm.

He visited Stonehenge in December;

his wife’s birthday falls on the winter solstice and she had for years wanted to celebrate it there.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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Category: Stonehenge
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