The King of Stonehenge: A Winter Solstice Story.

20 12 2021

Based on the Bush Barrow Man – displayed in Devizes museum.

They stood in a circle, mirroring the wider circle of the great plain spread out around them beneath the vast blue dome of the sky – a plain of rolling scrubland, a threadbare forest after centuries of occupation and activity now covered in a thin cloak of white: more a hard frost than fresh snow, although old drifts had frozen over where the occasional flurry had snagged on bushes and mounds. A solemn circle of cloaked figures standing out against the white, forms and features gilded by the fires of torches and the setting sun – at its lowest ebb after its slow, steady journey from the summer solstice. Now, on the eve of the longest night of the year, it was like a tallow candle, wick guttering low in its melting pool as it sank over the horizon.

          The gathered stood vigil around an open grave pit. Within, the flickering light illumined a middle-aged male figure wrapped in a deep blue cloak against which a gold lozenge breastplate and belt buckle gleamed, catching the dying rays that shot out across the darkening plain. A once powerful profile caught this final glory. Encephalic brow over deep set eyes now shut beneath still black brows. Cheek bones and chin accentuated by grey-streaked beard. A strong mouth used to issuing commands now silent. Look closer and fine wrinkles about his eyes could be discerned – the weathering of a long, active, and careworn life.

          Around the grave stood two distinct rings of figures – shorter, raven-maned, stouter men and women wore robes dyed a woad-blue; the taller, finer-boned, flaxen-haired ones wore cloaks of pale green-grey. Between them they rhymed with the blue stones and sarsens of the Great Circle, distinctly visible just down the slope from the ridge of barrows – the mighty temple where tomorrow they would greet the rebirth of the sun.

          The blue-cloaks stood restless and uncomfortable amid the pomp and ceremony of the burial. They were more used to using their hands and minds on constructing and maintaining the Great Stones and surrounding sites. Physically distinct from the grey-cloaks, it was rumoured they had first come to the plain with the blue stones – but this had been so far back even the storytellers’ failed to recall the details in more than fanciful terms. Around the fires they told of how a great magician and a band of fifteen thousand warriors had travelled to Hibernia to bring back the stones said to be the work of giants; of how, when the Hibernians had refused them, a great battle ensued and blood had darkened the soft green hills, and the sorcerer had made the stones dance across the land into their final settling place. Whatever the truth the blue-stones – shorter and roughly hewn from a darker, more porous rock – had preceded the taller grey ones, which had been dressed and brought with no less an astounding act of skill and effort from the downs a day’s walk north. The Avenue was said to mark the direction the blue-stones had been brought from the river, the direction the midsummer sun rose, entering the Great Stones via the pair of uprights standing apart from the main circle.

          As the dying light of the sun lingered on the horizon – a bloody eye slowly shutting – the grey-cloaks stepped forward to place gifts in the grave.

          A tall, handsome woman carried before her a ceremonial mace, handle inlaid with a zig-zag pattern. As the torches gutted in the chill dusk breeze, her voice carried across the gathered. ‘Our cherished leader brought together the tribes – forging peace, alliances, friendships, and heart-unions. May this mace remind the ancestors of this great deed!’ The circle made noises of respect and assent, and she carefully placed it on the chest of the man, laying his right hand gently over it. Then, after a private moment when she murmured something and kissed his brow, she stood stiffly up, and returned to the ring.

          Then a man with long silver hair stepped forward and offered a milky spherical stone. ‘Our cherished friend knew the secrets of the sun, moon, and stars, better than anyone – even than myself. His vision helped us to achieve this mighty dream,’ he gestured to the Great Stones, ‘one that has taken many lifetimes of effort. But now it is accomplished. The long line that has overseen the sky temple’s construction and completion may rest in peace, rightly proud of their legacy. And so, the seer-stone can rest now with its bearer.’ He stooped and placed the orb in the man’s left hand, curling frost-stiffened fingers about it. Then, quietly: ‘May it guide you on your journey in the beyond, old friend.’

          The silver-haired man stood up and stepped back, face curtained by his hair, his expression taut, eyes glinting in the torchlight.

          Then a young man stepped forward in his virile prime. The resemblance to the man in the grave was unmistakable – though his smooth features and mien were unwearied by the burdens of chieftainhood. He carried before him a dagger with a handle adorned with golden pins.

          ‘My father was father to many tribes, and many knew him as a strong leader, one who fiercely defended his people, and this land. And yet there was another side to him, which I was lucky to glimpse at times. Yes, he was tougher on me than most, pushing me to become as great, nay, even greater than he. But behind that was an undying love. I realise that now. He could not be like other fathers, and yet he still taught me many things. The tales he shared! When the day’s work was done, and he returned to our hut – to sit by the fire with a warming beaker, a different man would emerge. I remember that man, while I honour the leader. Dear father, may this dagger guard you in your journey beyond the sky.’

          The young man placed the dagger by his feet, spent a moment in contemplation kneeling by his father’s grave, then finally stood up, and returned to the circle.

          And then the blue-cloaks brought their gifts – jugs of beer, a loaf, a sack of grain, a braided talisman – simple, homespun gifts but heartfelt.

          The grave goods were carefully placed around the recumbent form until not a gap was left.

          And then the silver-haired man stepped forward and raised a final toast with a horn – pouring some of its contents onto the disturbed earth at the edge of the grave, before taking a slow, thoughtful sip. With a bow, he passed it with both hands to the handsome woman, who did the same.

Then, to the son, whose hand shook, though none chose to notice it.

One-by-one, each took a turn to the raise the horn.

          Returning full circle to him, the silver-haired man signalled it was time to raise the mound.

          Starting with the grey-cloaked woman, each person gathered cast an oxen-shoulder blade’s worth of mead-splashed chalky soil on the man before returning the back of the line. A chant began, slow and rhythmic, as slowly the mound was raised in the dying light, a mound glowing white in the gloaming.

          And then finally it was done.

          Before them, the white mound rose in the full dark of the deepest night, its soft glow echoing the glint of stars far, far above – the line of barrows a constellation in the chalk pointing the spirit-fire of their newest ancestor back home.  

          Frozen to the bone, the gathered filed back to the huts to the honour-feast. All night long they would tell tales of his deeds, share their memories of the man, the husband, the father, the legend.

          And so, they would pass the longest night of the year – holding vigil to ensure the spirit’s safe passage to the land behind life where, so the tale-weavers speak, the night sky is white and the stars are black.

          Until finally the glow in the east would be seen, and they would gather in the Great Stones to greet the dawn.

          And at the moment the sun breached the barrowed skyline on the shortest day of the year, they would hail its rebirth: the true king of Stonehenge.

Guest Blogger: Dr Kevan Manwaring 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 Herepath: a Wiltshire songline. He is a keen walker and loves exploring the ancient landscape of the Marlborough Downs (where he lives) and beyond.

WINTER Solstice celebrations will be marked at Stonehenge next week. Sunrise will be live streamed from Stonehenge for free.

English Heritage is inviting people to watch from home as the Winter Solstice sunrise is going to be livestreamed from Stonehenge on the morning of Wednesday (December 22). 

Those wanting to mark the solstice at the site in person, which will be subject to any changes in government gudiance, legislation or public health advice, will need to take a lateral flow test before setting off and only travel if it is negative and they feel well. Transport is available from Salisbury or guided tours from London and Bath

Stonehenge Winter Solstice Links:
How to watch the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge 2021 – Salisbury Journal
Winter Solstice 2021 – English Heritage
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Managed Open Access Arrangements 2021 – Stonehenge News Blog
The Rebirth of the Sun: the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Winter solstice: Why do pagans celebrate the shortest day of the year? THE TELEGRAPH
The Sun Stones: The Story of the Winter Solstice at Stonehenge – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tours from London – STONEHENGE GUIDED TOURS
Solstice at Stonehenge. From Past to Present. – STONEHENGE NEWS BLOG
What has Stonehenge got to do with the winter solstice? – METRO NEWS
Stonehenge Winter Solstice Tours from Bath – SOLSTICE TOURS U.K
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

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