The Rebirth of the Sun: the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge

11 12 2020

The Winter Solstice sunset at Stonehenge is, alongside the Summer Solstice sunrise, its defining alignment. For thousands of years it has been witnessed and celebrated by the countless pilgrims who have trekked to the unique monument. The story of Stonehenge is part of the vaster epic of the sun.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice with and without the pilgrims

4.63 billion years ago our sun burst into life – a nuclear reactor fusing 500 million tonnes of hydrogen each second. Its parentage was grand and mysterious – a dense cloud of interstellar gas and dust experiencing the passing shockwave of a supernova. From this immaculate conception the solar system was born. The resulting nebula eventually coalesced into our glorious sun, father of the planets in our solar system family and bestower of fortune on his favourite offspring: Earth. Here conditions in the Goldilocks zone between the extremes of intense heat and cold proved favourable for another explosion – this one of biodiversity. A perpetual work in progress, the natural selection of evolution eventually produced homo sapiens, a hominid that was the best of many drafts.

Enter, a mere 200,000 years ago, humankind.  

            For a long time our ancestors scratched a living – although some no doubt proved excellent hunters, expert gatherers. Some were even good at art. But then the Ice Age came – the ultimate lockdown. When the survivors emerged, stiff-jointed and blinking at the sunlight, the land had changed – scoured and shaped by the retreating glaciers. Strange stones were left upon the chalk in the south of the (now) island that became the ‘British Isles’, a chip off the proto-continental blocks, Laurentia and Gondwana: the wayward offspring of the Old and New Worlds, as they became.

            Around 6000 years ago our restless hunter-gatherer ancestors started to settle down and began to grow crops and husband livestock. Some of them eventually decided a particular spot on Salisbury Plain would be perfect for a big white circle of packed chalk, glowing in the moonlight amid the scrubland. The bank and ditch enclosure of the henge was formed with antler picks and oxen-shoulder blades, and lots of sore backs and elbow grease. Just as they were catching their breath from a serious bit of landscaping, some irritating priest decided it would be rather nice to have a timbered circle (of which the Aubrey Holes remain). Then another bright spark, perhaps trying to outdo the first decided that some strange blue stones from 250 miles away would be even better. With much to do the eighty stones, each weighing a backbreaking 4 tonnes each, were transported from the Preseli Mountains in Wales to the sacred plain of Salisbury. These were placed within the henge, with an entrance way pointing towards the midsummer sunrise.

            At the mirror sight of Durrington the south circle was aligned to the midwinter sunrise. Both sights – the henge of the living, the henge of the dead – defined by their relationship to the mighty sun.

In the third phase of Stonehenge’s 1500 year construction the mighty sarsens, or ‘grey wethers’, scattered over the Wiltshire Downs but clustered in a particularly attractive clump in what is now West Woods were transported the ‘workers’ camp’ at Durrington, before being dressed and dragged to the ring on the plain. Here 60 were place in an ingeniously interlocking outer ring of trilithons, with an inner horse-shoe of 15 more. These were aligned to catch the ball of the sun like a gigantic baseball mitt as it rose over the outlier Heel Stone at the time of the summer solstice sunrise – the longest day of the year, when the northern hemisphere is tilted (at 23 degrees – approximately the angle created between an outspread index finger and thumb) closest to that fiery nuclear fusion reactor, 147.35 million km away. The photons generated there take 8 seconds to reach Earth – golden strings pulled taught to the plain, guided by the Avenue, as though to the bridge of a vast violin. Each year two major chords are played upon it – the summer and winter solstice, each note lingering for precisely half the year. Minor chords are played upon it as well, modulated by the respective ‘bridges’ of the trilithons and surrounding monuments – the equinoxes and various lunar and celestial cycles. The deeper chord of the winter solstice is drowned out annually by the sometimes vast numbers who converge to the summer solstice glorious crescendo – but those who are wiser know the quieter, stronger power of the midwinter music. And the ancestors knew too – for they made sure to align Stonehenge to it in an alignment of equal importance to the midsummer one.
            The winter solstice sunset, framed by the inner trilithons, is a breathtaking cosmic drama, re-enacted every year – the ultimate mystery play. And not wishing to miss out on a good party, the people of the Neolithic came from far and wide (as the large quantities of charred animal bones left over from midwinter feasts at Durrington attest) to witness and celebrate the rebirth of the sun, when after three days of  apparent stillness upon the horizon it begins its six month journey back to its northernmost point. From generations of observation the stone-builders knew that the solstitium, the still point, marked the turning in the sun’s annual migration (or rather our migration around the sun): from this nadir the days will start to get longer. The light and warmth will return. This was of huge significance to the ancestors, and it is no less so for dwellers of the northern hemisphere, affected as we are by the cold and dark in all kinds of ways. Our planetary sun lamp is the antidote to our collective seasonally adjusted disorder. We bask in it. Even if we cannot feel its warmth on a chill day, we can feel uplifted by its presence. It reminds us that however dark it gets the light will vanquish it – our solar hero will save the day.

Winter Solstice Ceremony at Stonehenge led by senior druid, Arthur Pendragon.

            And so witnessing the winter solstice at Stonehenge – whether at sunrise or sunset – is to commune with those who designed and raised the stones, and who have been bearing witness for millennia. It is a humbling and inspiring experience, one that puts our lives into perspective, and realigns us to a vaster cycle – allowing us to all dance to the music of the spheres

Dr Kevan Manwaring (Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2020) is an author, lecturer, and specialist tour-guide. His books include The Long Woman (a novel which features Stonehenge and Avebury), Lost Islands, Turning the Wheel: seasonal Britain on two wheels, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and more. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of Wiltshire, where he lives with his archaeologist partner.  www.kevanmanwaring.co.uk

For everyone’s safety and wellbeing, this year’s winter solstice celebrations at Stonehenge have been cancelled. English Heritage will be live streaming the event for free online.

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Links:
Watch the winter solstice LIVE from Stonehenge, wherever you are in the world! ENGLISH HERITAGE FACEBOOK
Winter solstice: Why do pagans celebrate the shortest day of the year? THE TELEGRAPH
Solstice at Stonehenge. From Past to Present. – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
What has Stonehenge got to do with the winter solstice? – METRO NEWS
Celebrate Winter Solstice at Stonehenge – HOLIDAY EXTRAS
Solstice and Equinox Experience Tours – SOLSTICE EVENTS UK
The Stonehenge Sostice Pilgrims – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Stonehenge, the Winter Solstice, and the Druids – INTERESTRING ENGINEERING
Respecting the Stones.  Managed Open Access –STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tours – STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS

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