Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Midwinter at Merlin's Monument

Sun and Stones
Today, 22nd December, is the midwinter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day of the year. Headlines throughout the country will report that the sunrise was witnessed by thousands of pagans and Druids, one of the oldest winter celebrations in the world marking the end of darkening nights.

The midwinter solstice, from the Latin word 'solstitium', meaning 'Sun standing still', marks the longest night with less than 8 hours daylight. This is the moment the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun as the Earth continues on its orbit.

Midwinter sunset at Stonehenge
The one iconic monument that immediately brings the solstices to mind is Stonehenge, a monument surrounded in mystery and myth and yet for all the excavations and words written about the site it remains an enigma. The ring of stones on Salisbury Plain has attracted solstice pilgrims for millennia. Today numbers attending the summer solstice sunrise celebrations at Stonehenge number some 40,000 but significantly fewer numbers attend the winter solstice sunrise celebration; an estimated 7,000 people made the journey to the ancient site this year.

The midwinter solstice occurs every year when the sun reaches its most southerly declination of -23.5 degrees, when the North Pole is tilted furthest away from the Sun, delivering the fewest hours of sunlight of the year, while the sun is closer to the horizon than at any other time in the year. On this day the sun appears to stand still on the horizon for about three days before reversing its direction, growing in strength until it reaches its peak at midsummer. Hence the Teutonic term 'sunturn'.

It is the midwinter sunset that is the significant feature in the design of Stonehenge. At summer solstice pilgrims stand inside the stone circle and watch the sunrise on the horizon above the Heelstone. This misconception was first noted by Dr John Smith, remembered as the 'smallpox inoculator', who was the first to provide a solar interpretation for the Heelstone following his survey in 1770 and it has stuck ever since.

Yet there is no known back-marker at the centre of the stone circle to define the spot where the observer should stand to witness this event; it is a simple matter to position oneself within the circle to frame the Heelstone between two sarsens and photograph the sun rising above the top of the monolith. However, the Heelstone was originally one of a pair with the midsummer sun rising between the two, the solar axis aligning between the two major Trilithons, stones 55 and 56. At no sacred site do you turn your back on the inner sanctum to witness an event outside.

But at the midwinter solstice watchers should be standing outside the stones, perhaps by the Heelstone itself, and witness the sun setting between the main Trilithons to the south-west and sinking into the recumbent Altar Stone. This moment marks the death of the sun which has been growing weaker and weaker since reaching the height of its power at midsummer. The following dawn bears witness to the birth of the new sun.

Antiquarians and Archaeologists
The first mention of Stonehenge appears in the Historia Anglorum of Henry of  Huntingdon in about 1130 AD, in which he refers to the monument as ‘Stanenges’; the name 'Stonehenge' was not recorded until 1610. Henry lists the monument as the second of his wonders, being made of stones like doorways, which no one can imagine, he says, how they were raised or why.

Six years later Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae), calling the monument the 'Giants' Dance', had the answer saying that Merlin brought the stones from Ireland and erected them on Salisbury Plain by magic arts and claimed the kings of Britain were buried inside the stone circle. Geoffrey's tale is dismissed as pure fantasy, a product of an over-active imagination, as the monument was erected around 3,000 BC, yet he placed the event in the Dark Ages, around 500 AD. Although his chronology was hopelessly muddled, had Geoffrey stumbled across a trace of an oral tradition that had survived across millennia?

800 years after Geoffrey's fanciful claims Herbert Thomas identified the source of the Stonehenge bluestones as the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales in the 1920s. The stones of Geoffrey's Giants' Dance had indeed come from the west in an area occupied by the Irish during the timeset of his story, indeed in the ensuing battle the Irish king was killed near St David's, very close to the source of the Stonehenge bluestones. This year a  team of archaeologists and geologists claim to have positively identified the bluestone quarries for the first time at Carn Goedog and Craig Rhos-y-felin. Dating material suggested the quarrying took place between 3,400 BC and 3,200 BC. Is it possible that recollection of an event such as the movement of the bluestones 140 miles from South Wales to Salisbury Plain could survive such a great expanse of time?

In 2008 the Stonehenge Riverside Project excavated Aubrey Hole 7, just inside the Stonehenge ditch, much to the dismay of the Stonehenge Druids. The Aubrey Holes are a ring of 56 pits distributed around the inside of the area enclosed by Stonehenge's earthen bank, named after the 17th Century antiquarian John Aubrey who first recorded them.

This pit contained all the human remains found by Colonel Hawley during his excavations at Stonehenge during the 1920's. In Hawley's time museums were reluctant to curate the remains so they were re-interred in Aubrey Hole 7 in several bags and identified by a lead plaque. Study of the remains suggest that they would have been interred over a period of more than 200 years, interpreted as an elite group, just as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed.

A legal challenge by the Stonehenge Druids, launched for the remains to be returned to Stonehenge, failed in 2011 and now the remains of this select group, possibly the ruling elite of Stonehenge,  grace a cardboard box in a dark room in a museum store instead of their intended esteemed position at Britain's most important megalithic monument. We still await news of the great scientific advance resulting from the removal and study of the guardians of Stonehenge in an act that can only be described as archaeological trophy hunting. It is time for their return.

Stonehenge by William Stukeley 1722

The Druid Revival
As with Geoffrey's story of the movement of the Giants' Dance surviving across the millennia, the concept of astronomical alignments at sacred sites also persists. The phenomena of astronomical alignments at ancient monuments is recorded in the 14th century French work called Perceforest, described, at over a million words, as one of the largest and most extraordinary of the late Arthurian romances. The anonymous author creates a prehistory of King Arthur's Britain in which Perceforest is the first of Arthur's Greek ancestors. The work is notable for its detailed description of megalithic stone temples.

In one episode a round stone temple is described. Through the doorway a ray of light from the setting sun falls on a throne. Placed on the throne is the withered corpse of the last high-priest wrapped in a sheepskin. A similar phenomena occurs at Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland which faces the midwinter solstice sunrise. For a few short minutes the sun's rays penetrate the tomb and strike the inscribed monolith at the rear of the passage.

At Chartres Cathedral, famous for it pavement labyrinth and well known for its Black Madonna veneration, the summer solstice is marked by a gleam of sunlight passing through a small hole in the stained-glass window named for Saint Apollinaire, on the western side of the transept, and, exactly at midday, strikes a gilded metal tenon that rises slightly above the natural level of the floor. This setting is clearly to establish the moment of the Summer Solstice. On the midwinter solstice, a light beam enters Chartres, near its South Porch, and alights on a column leaving the building on a stone wagon featuring the Ark of the Covenant.

The Cathedral at Chartres is said to have been built on the site of an ancient Druidic temple, the sacred mound of the Carnuti, erected in honour of the “Virgo Paritura” (The Virgin who will conceive); is it possible that the solstice alignment was maintained from the original layout of the site?

However, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the claims of a former Druid temple on the site, but before you dismiss this as pure nonsense it worth considering the fact that Chartres is not aligned east-west like most Christian churches but aligned to the solstices like Stonehenge, a pagan temple.

Pagan groups traditionally celebrate the midwinter solstice, the so-called birth of the new sun, at sunrise. The new sun emerging the morning after solstice (standing still) as it starts its journey along the horizon, growing in strength each day, toward the midsummer point. It is a seasonal shift; after the winter solstice, the days get longer, and the nights shorter.

Latter-day Druids have been attracted to Stonehenge since antiquarians such as Aubrey and Stukeley named stone circles 'Druidical temples' and monoliths were so-named  the 'Slaughter Stone' and the 'Altar Stone' suggestive of barbaric rites.

In the 1660s John Aubrey suggested that the megalithic remains of Britain were built by the Druids, and intrigued by this William Stukeley visited Stonehenge in 1719. For the next five years he made annual visits to Wiltshire carrying out a detailed study of both Stonehenge and Avebury. In his book 'Stonehenge Restored to the British Druids', he popularised the notion that the Druids built the most famous of stone circles, and that they were also responsible for the other megalithic monuments that were so well distributed throughout Britain.

Aubrey and Stukeley's works inspired the formation of The Ancient Order of Druids in 1781. One hundred and twenty years later, Stonehenge was the scene for a mass gathering of Druids on the summer solstice in 1905 when the Druids initiated some 250 novices inside the stone circle, returning every year since.

Druid ceremony 1905
But of course everyone knows that modern Druids have no claim on the megalithic monument on Salisbury Plain as it was constructed in the Neolithic period, whereas the Druids do not appear in the historical record until the musings of classical authors on the Iron Age Celtic peoples. Yet antiquarians were aware that these stone circles were built prior to the Roman arrival on these shores. In these times the Ancient Britons were considered a Celtic race with the Druids their priestly class as described in the writings of Julius Caesar.

The Roman Destruction of Stonehenge
At Stonehenge there is no evidence of medieval destruction, it seems that from as long as it was first recorded, outside of early imaginative manuscript illuminations, it was depicted as a ruin. The destruction may have begun in Prehistoric or Roman times; there is certainly no record of the robbing and wrecking that occurred at Avebury just 20 miles to the north. Today Stonehenge has the appearance of a half-wrecked religious house, such as the many abbeys put out of use during the Dissolution.

Indeed, in 1956 Richard Atkinson noted that the distribution of missing and fallen stones is “curiously uneven and looks like the result of deliberate destruction rather than chance collapse”. Atkinson observed that that the stones at Stonehenge were set much deeper, some up to five foot, than is common in other British stone circles and they would not have toppled easily

In excavations carried out within the stone circle of Stonehenge in 2008 Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright found structural evidence for the use of Stonehenge in Roman times, mainly in the late 4th century or a little later and a series of Post-Roman cuts into those earlier features.

Earlier excavations recovered Roman coins, half of which are also of fourth-century date. All together there is a substantial collection of Roman material; 1,857 sherds of Roman pottery from previous excavations, and several items of Roman metalwork. In the past this has been interpreted as the result of Roman tourism; however, Darvill and Wainwright suggest that this material should be reconsidered in the use of the site as a place of ritual or ceremony in the first millennium AD.

Stone 34 adjacent to the Darvill and Wainwright 2008 excavation trench showed clear flake-beds resulting from the removal of substantial pieces of stone, perhaps in later prehistoric or Roman times. In the case of Stone 35a almost all the rock that originally protruded above ground was removed leaving just a stump; certain evidence that some bluestones were broken  up on the site.

Stonehenge - Lucas de Here (Wikimedia commons)
The evidence suggests two early episodes in the destruction of Stonehenge; Roman souvenir taking preceded by purposeful wrecking of the monument.

Classical writers claimed that for the most part the Druids conducted their religious ceremonies in clearings in sacred groves. These ill-defined, dim, rural sanctuaries were regarded by the Romans, always eager to justify conquest, as evidence of the lowest form of barbarism. Tacitus gives us a glimpse of the Druids, the Celtic priestly caste, besieged in their island headquarters on Anglesey in 61 AD. It seems likely that Stonehenge was sacked at around this time.

The Romans may have first found Stonehenge functioning as a Druidical temple, adopted as a ceremonial site for sacrificial offerings and other such acts of barbarism. During the Roman campaign on Druidism in 60- 61 AD in Britain the Legions may have descended on Stonehenge and perceived it as a threat to imperial authority, giving them a powerful motive for dismantling it.

Atkinson noted that the filling of the Y and Z holes, probably the last phase of construction at Stonehenge, is indicative of these events. At the bottom of theses pits there are a few bluestone chips which were probably purposefully placed in the bottom of the pits. This was followed by relatively clean accumulation of debris suggesting the pits were left open. But toward the middle and top of the filling, the number of bluestone chips increases again. Similarly, the numbers of fragments of Roman pottery increase towards the top of the filling matching the distribution of the stone chips indicating that they must be contemporary with one another. This can only be explained in terms of the destruction of some of the bluestones during the period of the Roman occupation.

The Triumph of the Moon
The Roman historian Pliny observed that Druids worshipped by the moon in their sacred groves and were not known to use enclosed temples. However, it is possible that the Druids had adopted open air temples such as Stonehenge prior to the Roman invasion of Britain.

It is without doubt that the First Stonehenge was a lunar observatory. In 1922 Hawley  had uncovered rows of stake holes on the north-east entrance causeway, generally about 0.5m across and 0.6m deep. He thought they might have formed a palisade and paid little further attention to them.

In 1924 he discovered four large post holes 25m outside the entrance causeway and parallel to the stake holes discovered two years earlier. These ‘A posts’ must have been massive tree-trunks about 1m in diameter and spaced an orderly 1.8m apart, their huge girth suggests that they were very tall, possibly 4m or more. Hawley's excavation stopped just short of where the fifth post should be under the Avenue bank. There would have been a sixth but the most northerly hole was lost when the Avenue ditch was cut. At the same time as the construction of the Avenue the north-east entrance was widened and the axis skewed to the solstice line running through the site between the major Trilithons and the Heelstone and its partner on the causeway, around 2,200 BC, a thousand years after Stonehenge I.

It was not until 1972 that Peter Newham proposed that these causeway posts were markers for tracking the northern moonrises. The moonrise, then as now, shifted along the horizon, so the Stonehenge observers had to plant a stake each year to track it; watching the rising moon from the circle’s centre; each stake marked the northernmost position of the rising moon in a particular year. The most northerly stake in the row marking the major northern moonrise, completing the lunar cycle in 18.6 years.

The Causeway post holes (after Castleden)
The existence of six rows of stakes shows that they tracked the moon through six cycles (6 x 18.6), at least 112 years, until they were absolutely certain they had found the overall northernmost moonrise position. The southernmost stake of this row marked the moonrise at what is called the ‘mid-swing’ point. There are no stake-holes beyond this point so we know the observers were not interested in the ‘minor’ moonrises. The large 'A posts' must have served as summaries of the stake-hole observations.

Several metres out from the 'A posts', the builders raised the first two megaliths of Stonehenge, stones 96 and 97. Stone 97 was removed long ago, but stone 96 still stands today, known as the Heelstone, 77m from the centre of Stonehenge. Along with the Station Stones these were the earliest megaliths on the site, possibly found not far from where they now stand, easily identifiable from the later sarsen circle stones by their rough, gnarled, undressed appearance. Newham saw a relationship between this early arrangement of the first Stonehenge megaliths and the car park post holes which date to the Mesolithic. Most archaeologists have dismissed the probability of any Mesolithic activity at Stonehenge, but in their 2008 excavation Darvill and Wainwright uncovered pine charcoal which has returned a date of 7330–7070 BC.

Today it is still believed that the Heelstone indicates the alignment of the midsummer sunrise, as first suggested by Dr Smith in 1770, although this was certainly not its purpose in antiquity. It is clear the Heelstone was intended to mark the moonrise at mid-swing.

At Stonehenge the sunrise reaches its northernmost position on the midsummer solstice, around 21 June each year, standing still between the position of stones 96 and 97 for about three days before heading back southwards again. It is incorrectly assumed by many today that the Heelstone, and possibly the whole monument, was specifically raised to mark this solar event.

Stukeley suggested that the entrance to Stonehenge faced North-East to align with the summer solstice but refused to go as far as saying the Heelstone was aligned to the midsummer solstice sunrise and noted that ‘The interest of the founders of Stonehenge was to set the entrance full north-east, being the point where the sun rises, or nearly, at the summer solstice.’

A few years later John Wood considered the Heelstone marked the point where the New Moon first appears when the Druids began their Festivals. It appears that Stonehenge was a lunar observatory from its earliest days.

The author of the 13th century Gesta Regum Britannie, a verse rendering of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, in Latin hexameter, usually attributed to the Breton monk William of Rennes, in describing the place were Aurelius Ambrosius is crowned following the erection of the Giants' Dance at Mount of Ambrius exactly as they had been set up in Ireland, refers to the King's court as decorated with merely 'nemus et frondes' (woodland and leaves).

This implies Stonehenge was a sacred enclosure in a woodland clearing as such used by Druids.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

Richard Atkinson, Stonehenge, Penguin, 1979.
Aubrey Burl, Great Stone Circles: Fables, Fictions, Fact, Yale University Press, 1999.
Aubrey Burl, The Stonehenge People, Barrie & Jenkins, 1989.
Rodney Castleden, The Making of Stonehenge, Routledge, 1993.
Christopher Chippendale, Stonehenge Complete, Fourth Edition, Thames and Hudson, 2012.
John Darrah, Paganism in Arthurian Romance, Boydell Press, 1997.
Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright, Stonehenge Excavations 2008, The Antiquaries Journal, 89, 2009, pp.1–19, The Society of Antiquaries of London, 2009.
Mike Parker Pearson, Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery, Simon & Schuster, 2012.

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  1. Interesting post. but you don't address the issue of whether Merlin was a druid? As the title of the post suggests, if Stonehenge was Merlin's monument then the issue of him being a druid is essential to druid claims to the monument.


    1. Was Merlin a Druid?
      Good question! The short answer is that Merlin was without doubt a 12th century literary invention of Geoffrey of Monmouth and we can never be certain how Geoffrey envisaged his creation.

      Merlin first appears in Geoffrey's Historia Regum Brittanniae as the fatherless boy named Ambrose (Emrys), whose blood is to be sprinkled in order to make Vortigern's tower stand up. Merlin later appears in Geoffrey's tale as the wizard who moved the Giant's Dance by magic from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. Does this qualify him as a Druid?

      The 'Merlin' of the Historia is quite different from the character of Geoffrey's later work, the Vita Merlini, in which he now seems to be based on the wildman of the north (Lailoken). At some point this northern legend transferred to Wales as witnessed by the Myrddin poems from the Red Book of Hergest and the Black Book of Carmarthen, again, all set in the north.

      There is a complete absence of evidence to support claims that Myrddin was a historical 'bard' of the sixth century; no known early works are ascribed to Myrddin, unlike Aneirin and Taliesin.

      However, reference to Myrddin can be found prior to Geoffrey's works; the earliest known reference occurs in "Armes Prydein" (the Omen, or Prophecy of Britain) dated to the early 10th century. Here, again Myrddin is linked to prophecy; "Myrddin foretells.." So we know Myrddin was not a product of Geoffrey's imagination.

      In my study of Lleu [Lud's Church] from the Mabinogi of Math, Ludd/Lugh bears many similarities with Myrddin; it seemed the further I dug the more in common I found with North European Shamanism.

    2. You're saying Merlin was a Celtic Shaman?
      What evidence is there for shaman building stone circles?

    3. No, not in the sense of modern Celtic Shamanism, I prefer the term North European Shamanism.
      As I stated in my previous comment, after researching the ordeal of Lleu in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi I was convinced much of this was based on Shamanism. Then I stumbled across the writings of the late Leigh Ann Hussey, particularly her article
      The Ordeal of Lleu as Shamanic Initiation
      In Pagan Celtic Britain Anne Ross provides further information on Irish Druids as portraying traits similar to Shamanism.
      Then there's Odin in Scandinavia.
      But who knows who built the stone circles?