Happy Solstice!

By Sheila Connolly

It’s a new year.  But the January 1st date is an historic artifact, set by the Romans, who gave us Janus, looking both backward and forward. Except that a lot of cultures continue to celebrate a date in March (even in the American colonies) because that was when spring began. The Romans started out using March and nobody knows why they switched the dates (one source says around 153 BC).

Dawn at Ballyriree 8:30 am
Dawn at Ballyriree 8:30 am

But I (and some experts) believe that it all harks back to the solstice.  Funny—this year I’ve been more aware of it than I recall from the past.  Part of that was because I was in Ireland close to that date.  The sun rose at 8:30 in the morning and set at 4:30 in the afternoon. Days were short, and the cows went home to the barn for the evening milking in the dark. (No, I wasn’t milking them!)

And then there are the stone circles, which have fascinated me for a long time.  In 2013 there were not one but two new books published about Stonehenge (Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge: A New Understanding, and Julian Richards’ Stonehenge: The Story So Far—the men have worked together on digs), and both covered the history of the archeology of the site as well as recent discoveries and what theories are current.  It’s amazing how interpretations have changed over the centuries, and both authors admit that every new find, every new analysis technique changes archeologists’ interpretation of the monument.  In the total absence of any written documents, a lot of guesswork and interpretation are required.

I was lucky enough to visit Stonehenge when you could still walk up to it and pat the stones, although I understand why that is no longer allowed.  But I’ve sought out other circles, mainly in Ireland. The stone circle in Drombeg is my favorite, and I visit it each time I’m in County Cork. But there are other, smaller ones scattered around as well. It’s fun to hunt for them, since they’re often tucked into private property where there are dogs or mud.

Drombeg Stone Circle
Drombeg Stone Circle

One theory holds that all the circles are some sort of astronomical calculator or predictor, since so many are aligned with the sun or the moon at the solstices, summer and winter.  The predictive aspect may be unlikely, but those alignments could easily be determined after a few years or decades of observation.  The consistency is still a bit eerie, though.

Other circle 2013

Last year I visited a tiny circle (only five stones) I’d never seen before.  One stone has a shallow groove in it. Line up that groove with the stone opposite and you have a precise southwest alignment, looking straight at the setting sun at the winter solstice.  We were there just a couple of weeks short of that, and I set my compass on the stone to check.  It gave me a chill to see it.

The prehistoric inhabitants of Britain and Ireland followed the seasons closely, and must have looked forward to the date when the days began to grow longer.  It meant the sun was returning, and with it warmth and food.  We’ve kind of lost sight of that, but it still matters, just a little. We’ve turned that corner again, into 2014.  May it be a great year for us all!

10 Thoughts

  1. Such fascinating stuff, Sheila. I’ve never been to Stonehenge or even Ireland (it’s certainly on the bucket list, though). The “American Stonehenge” is just a few miles from me, in Salem, New Hampshire, and I’ve never been. I might need to take a field trip soon.

    But as someone who grows food in a northern climate, I can really relate with earlier peoples worrying if the light and heat were ever going to return.

  2. We visited Stonehenge last spring, Sheila. And even though you now visit it from a distance it was a wonderful peaceful place. I saw it on a list of overrated places to visit but I disagree. I love that you’ve found other stone circles!

    1. If you read the books I mentioned, you’ll see that there were many, many other monuments all around Stonehenge, although nobody’s quite sure what they were intended for. Some are burial mounds, but there are others as well.

      1. I remember hearing that when we went to Stonehenge — completely forgot it until you mention it. They even pointed some of them out! And I’m looking forward to reading Buried in the Bog!

  3. There are standing stones in other places in Europe, and some in the US. Not all of them are arranged in circles. The term for the stones is menhir, a French word, and there are thousands of them. If you do a Google search for menhir you’ll find gobs of photos.

    I’ve also been fascinated with these, although have never seen any in person, yet. A British friend, an ex-pat who has lived in Normandy for more than 20 years, has done a lot of research on them. He used to post photos and stories on a blog, but I don’t think he’s still keeping it up.

    Did you know there’s a full-size, astrologically-aligned replica, in Maryhill, Washington? It’s near the Maryhill Museum, which is also a fascinating place.

    A true mystery, the purpose of these incredible tributes to human endeavor.

    1. I did once visit the standing stones at Carnac in France (is that Brittany?). The planning and human effort involved in creating any of these is mind-boggling. I’d love to know more about the US ones–the who and the why.

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