The Quarter Festivals and the Druids

9 07 2019

Public access to Stonehenge currently takes place on four of the so-called ‘quarter festivals’. What exactly are the quarter festivals? And why are these occasions so celebrated by the Druids?

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

Quarter festivals are sets of four dates that divide the year into four equal quarters. The dates when Stonehenge has open access to the public are the solar quarter festivals, defined by the movements of the sun. The summer and winter solstices (usually 21 June and 21 December) are the days when the noontime sun is, respectively, highest and lowest in the sky and so the hours of daylight are, respectively, their longest and their shortest. The spring and autumn equinoxes (usually 21 March and 21 September) are the dates when the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west and so the night and day are of equal length. These observable facts about the sun in the sky have made these points in the calendar sacred times in cultures all over the world – including at Stonehenge, whose axis is aligned to the directions of summer solstice sunrise and winter solstice sunset.

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

Druids: Stonehenge Summer Solstice

But there’s another set of quarter festivals – fitting in between the solar festivals – that were celebrated by the ancient Celts. They’re known as ‘lunar festivals’ because they were determined by the full moon. They didn’t fall on regular calendar dates like the solar festivals, since the cycles of the moon don’t match exactly with the calendar of the year defined by the sun’s movements (in reality the earth’s orbit around the sun). However, in modern usage these four originally lunar festivals have gained fixed calendar dates. Using the Irish terminology, the two most important are Samhain (31 October) and Beltane (1 May), which divide the year into summer and winter halves. The other two are Imbolc (1 February) and Lughnasa (1 August).

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The fixing of their dates links these four festivals to the corresponding Christian festivals and names by which they’re best known in English. Imbolc has become St Brigid’s Day, and the following day, 2 February, is Candlemas. Lughnasa corresponds to the harvest festival of Lammas. Samhain has become Halloween, the eve of All Saints’ Day, also known as Hallowmas. Of the four festivals, Beltane – May Day in English – has perhaps best preserved its pagan origins in the perennial customs of maypoles and may queens, although in modern times it has gained a new significance as Labour Day, the holy day of socialism.

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The lunar festivals were also called ‘fire festivals’ because the ancient Celts celebrated

them with bonfires. The establishment of Bonfire Night on 5 November shifted the fires of Halloween by a few days and attached to them a new political significance. In my view, it’s high time that British custom got over its symbolic need to demonise Roman Catholics (as represented by Guy Fawkes) and moved the bonfires back to Halloween where they belong. In Celtic – especially Irish – tradition there are many stories associated with the lunar festivals, especially with Samhain, when the veil between this world and the otherworld is very thin – a great opportunity for adventures back forth between the worlds.

 

Modern Druids conduct ceremonies on the four lunar festivals in the tradition of the ancient Celts. They also conduct ceremonies on the four, more universal, solar festivals. This makes a total of eight quarter festivals that provide the backbone of the Druids’ sacred calendar. It is thanks to modern Druids’ custom of doing ceremony at Stonehenge on the solar festivals that public access has been negotiated on those days. I understand that the Druids are also conducting ceremonies near Stonehenge on the lunar festivals too, in order to establish a custom of religious usage in this location which they hope in time will enable public access on these four dates as well.

Article by guest blogger and author/storyteller Anthony Nanson.  Sponsored by Stonehenge Guide Tours

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Halloween History, Pagan Beginnings and Stonehenge Sacrifices

28 10 2014

Halloween is a day of tricks, treat, sweets, pumpkin carving, cider drinking and costume wearing; but the holiday has evolved immensely from its pagan beginnings.

Human Sacrifice at Stonehenge by ancient and modern pagans?

It has never been proven that there were human sacrifices by Celtic peoples to celebrate Samhain (sow-en). However, we do know that the Celtic peoples had a great spiritual reverence of Samhain and it was akin to how one views Easter and many of the other “holy days” today.Stonehenge sacrifice

Stonehenge is a well guarded public monument. Hundreds of Thousands of people visit this incredible site yearly. I have no doubt that it would be impossible to sacrifice anyone or anything at this monument without being caught. Besides, in the last 30 years, I have never heard of any sacrifice being committed at Stonehenge during Halloween, or anytime..

Samhain marks the beginning of the Celtic New Year and the beginning of the agricultural year.  The Celtic peoples

Stonehenge Pumpkin

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believed that the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead is at its thinnest on this night. In the ancient past, it was commonly believed that certain kinds of knowledge were available at the time of Samhain, a night when the sidhe or faery people would come forth to walk amongst mankind.

Over 2000 years ago, the Celts, a people who lived in what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland, and northern France, celebrated their New Year on November 1st. The New Year was associated with the end of summer and harvest season, and the beginning of cold, destructive winters. The Celts would often kill and eat weak livestock that they believed would not survive through the winter.

The Celts, who worshiped Pagan gods, commemorated this time with a festival called Samhain (sow-en). This time of year was associated with death for the Celts; they believed that the wall between the living and dead was thinnest the night before the New Year, which allowed spirits of all kinds to walk among the living.

Many of today’s Halloween traditions derive from the Pagan practices of the Celts. During their last night of the year, all manner of order was forgotten. Men would dress up as women, and women as men; people would play pranks such as moving livestock to different fields, or moving gates and fences from their proper places.

Since they believed that spirits of the recently deceased were most likely to emerge and cause trouble among the living, such as possessing people and ruining crops, many Celts would leave offerings of food and drink to the spirits, to either aid them to the afterlife, or ward them way. They would also feast and celebrate the lives of the deceased. People extinguished all of the fires in their homes in order to prevent evil spirits from haunting them.

A central aspect of Samhain was the worship by the Druids, or Celtic priests. The Celts brought crops and livestock to the priests who would sacrifice to the Pagan gods in large bonfires, praying for protection during the winter. During these celebrations, Celtics would dress in animal heads and skins and read each other’s fortunes.

One of the main influences of modern day trick-or-treating was the Celtic believe that faeries would roam about dressed as beggars and would go door to door asking for food. The belief was that those who helped the faeries were rewarded while those who didn’t were punished.

Ancient Celtic celebrations

Not only did the Celts believe the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead dissolved on this night, they thought that the presence of the spirits helped their priests to make predictions about the future.

To celebrate Samhain the Druids built huge sacred bonfires. People brought harvest food and sacrificed animals to share a communal dinner in celebration of the festival.

During the celebration the Celts wore costumes – usually animal heads and skins. They would also try and tell each other’s fortunes.

After the festival they re-lit the fires in their homes from the sacred bonfire to help protect them, as well as keep them warm during the winter months.

Visit Stonehenge at Half Term
Stonehenge makes a great family day out during half term. Stonehenge now has a transformed visitor experience, with a new world-class visitor centre, housing museum-quality permanent and special exhibitions, plus a spacious shop and café.
Visit their website here

Other Spooky events at English Heritage properties

Visit Wiltshire Website for local spooky events
With many a historic building to be seen, it’s no surprise that Wiltshire has its own share of ghosts and spooky goings on. Halloween in Wiltshire can be a lot of fun with some exciting events including Ghost Walks run by the Salisbury City Guides as part of their Spooky Salisbury event, Halloween activities at Longleat with ghost tours, a pumpkin trail and fireworks set to spine-chilling tunes and a Halloween ghost train on the Swindon & Cricklade Railway

Link resources:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/24/halloween-witch-costumes_n_5965920.html
Links: http://www.ibtimes.com/halloween-history-pagan-beginnings-856991
Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/samhain.shtml
Link: http://clonehenge.com/tag/stonehenge-pumpkin/

Merlin says “Tweet us your Stonehenge / Druid / Pagan pumpkin carvings”
https://twitter.com/ST0NEHENGE
#StonehengePumpkin

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