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Article ID: 3524
Age Group: Adult
Posted: June 23rd. 2001
A Pagan Pilgrimage: The Destination in the Journey
by Peg Aloi
This begins an ongoing series detailing my travels in England last year in June, when my travelling companion Berta Daniels–the photographer who shot these accompanying photos–went to a number of sacred sites and events the week before and the week after summer solstice
Part One: The Return to Stonehenge
Dawn breaks within the ancient circle of huge stones, erected many miles from where they were hewn, brought there under mysterious circumstances no one has ever been able to fully explain. Solstice Revellers, some pagans, some hippies, some students, some young, some old, come together to observe the shortest night and longest day of the year, that potent time which showcases the alignment of this magical monument: Stonehenge. From the east, first light appears and those who have stayed awake greet the lightening sky with awe, feeling, perhaps, that they share in what their ancestors may have felt, hundreds, or thousands, of years ago...the lintels and monoliths possess great power, having served as repositories of the rites of generations, having stood sentinel at countless solstice eves and dawns...
The British Isles and Ireland are full of stone circles, some large and some small, some only composed of several stones, some containing hundreds of stones in one structure, some the size of a child’s sandbox, some encircling entire villages. But of the virtually hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stone circles erected over the millennia, none has captured the human imagination to the extent of that large and dramatic structure on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire known as (dramatic pause, Nigel): STONEHENGE.
Legend has it (and some archeological research bears this out) that Stonehenge was built to align visually and astrologically with the rising sun at summer solstice. And so over the years, as far back, perhaps, as the ancient Celts, and in more recent times, during the Druid revival of the late 1800s, on into the days of modern neo-pagans and witches, the summer solstice has been a time when visitors from all across England and often the rest of the world would gather in this sacred place, to rejoice, sing, dance, pray, meditate or simply observe the shift in season with other people of like mind. In the mid-1980s, solstice celebrations began to get too rowdy, and English Heritage and the local constabulary decided to close Stonehenge to solstice revellers because of an increase in vandalism and violence. This so-called “solstice ban” was meant to ensure public safety and protect the stones from damage, but as you can imagine it was not a popular decision among those who felt great love and respect for this place and sought only to observe their rites in peace.
Last year, for the first time since 1984, the stones were once again opened to the public. When the announcement was made, the news spread like wildfire across the globe and British pagans rallied to ensure that all who attended be on their best behavior, so as to prevent any problems which might force the ban back into effect. I was fortunate enough to attend this event, and to also go to a small, privately-arranged Druid rite on the Saturday following solstice, to greet dawn from within the stones with a small group of forty or so people. Small groups have always been able to gain access to the stones through prior arrangement, but the days of solstice partying or meditating were put to an end when the stones, and some of their visitors, were seen to be in danger. Although in the years since the Solstice Eve ban was enacted, many trespassers were arrested for peacefully protesting their right to enter the stones (and some, frankly, for simply being drunk and disorderly), it was decided in 2000 that, thanks to the efforts of pagan and especially Druid groups in Britain (and special thanks to Arthur Uther Pendragon, a biker and Druid whose peaceful protests on behalf of pagans to gain Stonehenge access got him arrested more than once), the stones should be available to any and all who wished to visit. And so, from 11 pm solstice eve until 8 am solstice day, the stones were free and accessible to all.
From all media accounts, it was a peaceful, even jubilant, time. Despite the bad weather (it was very cold and rained hard most of the night, and the sun was not visible the following day), spirits were high, and revellers danced and drummed and made friends with the many police who were there. Many volunteers from both English Heritage and the National Trust were there (two organizations who manage and maintain public and privately-owned sacred sites in Britain), also helping keep the peace. Although I did see one man cut through the fence and enter illegally before the gates were officially open, complaining he was “tired of waiting” when the 11 o’clock opening time was delayed by a half hour or so (and those standing nearby tried to talk him out of it, saying he’d spoil it for all those who waited patiently), there were virtually no other incidents other than a couple of boisterous types who climbed onto the lintels of the large stones. Since the stones have been damaged over the years by vandals, climbing on them is forbidden. For the most part, when anyone saw someone climbing on the stones (and it should be said that not everyone there was an earth-loving pagan who respected the stones), they politely or impolitely asked them to get down. The police were a strong and visible presence, but most of the ones I saw or spoke with were friendly and enjoying themselves (though cold, wet and tired like everyone else).
To set the scene: first of all you must realize something like 10,000 people were expected to attend. So the carpark set up to accommodate them all was placed strategically over a mile away from the stones themselves. So we walked among other revelers to await entering Stonehenge on solstice eve. Because of the inclement weather, only about 3,000 people showed up. It still seemed quite enormous. After the afore-mentioned incident with the fence-cutter (this happened on the east side of the stones), everyone was asked to enter gates on the North side. An incredible array of people were there, many of whom I spoke with: environmentalists, new age travelers with their dogs and covered wagons, performers, witches and pagans and druids, oh my, and plenty of assorted people who just wanted to see what would happen on this momentous occasion when it was finally okay to enter the stones without breaking in.
A magical gate was set up just inside the metal fence, where spears and staves covered with ribbons and flowers were help up as a canopy, and sage bundles were burning to smudge people as they walked in. As we entered, several children stood nearby, shouting to all who passed “Are you Druids?”All around the entrance point, people were playing music, talking (“Why are you here?” I asked some random passersby; “Because it’s solstice!” most of them answered), juggling, hawking jewelry or other wares, walking dogs, selling sandwiches out of their cars (“Salmon sandwiches! The Salmon of Knowledge!”), drinking and talking, discreetly smoking pot (the police made not a single arrest on this front although they had MANY opportunities, and this added to the general consensus that the police were being extremely cool. This despite the fact that a number of people there seemed bent on making the police seem as if they were being fascistic or overly-aggressive. This may have been based on past experience. But this year? Nothing of the kind. The police were sweet as cherry pie. Then again, where I come from, the cops would all be wearing guns at an event like this.
Once the crowds passed through the entry, it was pretty much a free for all. Drumming circles sprang up, with one inside the stones drawing the most people. It was crowded, and hard to see, but it was also nice that not too much overly-bright electric light was placed near the stones (mostly it was out by the main tourist gates and on the road to the carpark). I saw guitars, harps, flutes, bagpipes, fiddles, and an array of other instruments. Mostly it was fascinating to just walk around and observe others. Some prayed quietly or just stood with the backs or hands touching the stones, wanting to partake of their potent energy. Because of the cold rain and wind, a lot of people grew subdued around 3 am. Berta and I, exhausted from our travels and not dressed for the weather, braved the walk back to our rental car to catch some shut-eye before dawn arrived.
Dawn, when it came, was slow and grey. No sun shone through the clouds, and yet the feeling over the plain was different: calmer, softer shadows, a sense of being able to see the surrounding land and know where one stood within it all. We walked back to the stones. Berta elected to leave her photographic equipment behind in the car, so she could just be a participant, and we watched around us as, with daylight approaching, people began to shake off their low energy and prepare for what dawn inside the great stone circle brought us. Those who’d stayed in the circle were wet and cold, battle-weary. The police were as polite and helpful as the night before but the weather had slowed their smiles a bit, too. Yet despite the misery of the climate, the exhaustion, there was a feeling of triumph: we came here, and we were welcome, and it was all right.
When we arrived at the circle people were peering through the stones on the eastern side to see if they could see the sun through the clouds. After a while the musicians gained a second wind and started to play again. An impromptu circle dance began and people grabbed a hand as it went by them, to take part in the building spiral. Rather than reach a peak, it simply ended slowly, organically, much like the ebb and flow of visitors to Stonehenge over the ages, which waxes and wanes but never truly dissipates. After that, people seemed content to either stand near the stones, silently, or in conversation, and some, like me, walked around and among the stones, to touch them and be among them on this incredible occasion. One woman had a bag of elderflower blossoms, and was gently tossing them in people’s hair. When I came near here I smiled and silently indicated she should put them in my hair. She said “Ooh, they’re lovely in your hair” and I bent my head to allow her to throw more on. (My mother later told me she saw TV footage of people at Stonehenge and she could have sworn she saw me, in a dark cloak with small white blossoms in my hair, walking around the stones...but I suppose it could have been anyone).
Once I was a bit more awake I talked to a few people, doing brief interviews with stewards from the National Trust and English Heritage. When 8 am came and went, and an unspoken signal gradually went around that visitors were expected to leave, most of us simply stayed on. In fact it was not for another hour or so that people started to actually make a move. Grey weather or no, it was simply an amazing thig to be within the stone circle on solstice day, and we did not want it to end.
But end it did. As the crowd dwindled (I stayed almost until the end, playing American journalist with my little notebook and chatting up the cops), a couple of brave folksingers got up and played some songs of protest (“So let’s cut down the trees and build a shop, come on, chop chop!”), and a few people made halfhearted efforts at “resisting” eviction from the stones. But all in all it was quite peaceful.
Just before I left the circle, I walked round one last time, and touched some of the stones again. To be there among just a few people, to look upon the stones so closely (I had only been here once before and visitors are normally kept quite a distance away behind a fence, even after paying an entry fee), felt so overwhelming to me, so significant, and yet I could not articulate then (or now) precisely what it was I felt or thought. Just this, perhaps: even though we may never know who built this monument, or why, or how, clearly it is as powerful and important to us now as it was to those who went to such great lengths to construct it. If coming to this place even begins to give us a window into the ancient world, and inspires us to view our own world with perhaps just a bit more wonder, and respect, and joy, then who can say how many more holy and magical places exist in the world, undiscovered and unknown to us, waiting for us to find them, to uncover them, or to simply, quietly, notice them? A famous poet once said we might find heaven in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour. Why might we not find the vastness and grandeur of Stonehenge, in those places we make holy and magical merely because we love them, and honor them? All sites are sacred. So mote it be.
Links to articles about Solstice 2000 at Stonehenge: http://homepages.tcp.co.uk/~ait/news00.html#ind
Future installments in this series will include:
- Glastonbury: Arthur, Avalon, and the Heart of New Age Britain
- The Rollright Stones: Struggle and Success
- ASLaN: Stewards of the Sacred and more!
Media Coordinator - The Witches' Voice
Saturday, June 25, 2001
Email: [Staff Page Link]
Photos: All photos in this series are by Berta Daniels and used by permission (©2000, Berta A. Daniels). Photo above is from Averbury.
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