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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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WITH regard to the astronomical year it may be stated that each solstice and equinox has in turn in some country or another, and even in the same country at different times, been taken as the beginning of the year.

We have, then, to begin with, the following which may be called astronomical years:—

Solstitial year.
June - December
- June.
December -
June - December.

Equinoctial year.
March - September -
- March - September

Next, if we treat the intermediate points we have found in the same way, we have the following vegetation years:—

Flower year.
May -
November - May
- May - November

Harvest year.
- February - August.
- August - February.

It will have been gathered from Fig. 7 that the temples or cromlechs erected to watch the first sunrise of the May-November-May year could also perform the same office for the August-February-August year; and in a stone circle the priests, by looking along the axis almost in an opposite direction, could note the sunsets marking the completion of the half of the sun's yearly round in November and February.

Now to those who know anything of the important contributions of Grimm, Rhys, Frazer, and many others we might name, to our knowledge of the mythology, worships, and customs in the Mediterranean basin and western Europe, an inspection of the first columns in the above tables will show that here we have a common meeting-ground for temple orientation, vegetation and customs depending on it, religious festivals, and mythology. From the Egyptian times at least to our own a generic sun-god has been specifically commemorated in each of the named months. Generic customs with specific differences are as easily traced in the same months; while generic vegetation with specific representatives proper to the season of the year has been so carefully regarded that even December, though without May flowers or August harvests, not to be outdone, brings forward its offering in the shape of the berries of the mistletoe and holly.

About the mistletoe there is this difficulty. Innumerable traditions associate it with worship and the oak tree. Undoubtedly the year in question was the solstitial year, so that so far as this goes the association is justified. But as a rule the mistletoe does not grow on oaks. This point has been frequently inquired into, especially by Dr. Henry Ball (Journal of Botany, vol. ii. p. 361, 1864) in relation to the growth of the plant in Herefordshire, and by a writer in the Quarterly Review (vol. cxiv.), who spoke of the mistletoe "deserting the oak" in modern times and stated, "it is now so rarely found on that tree as to have led to the suggestion that we must look for the mistletoe of the Druids, not in the Viscum album of our own trees and orchards, but in the Loranthus Europaeus which is frequently found on oaks in the south of Europe."

On this point I consulted two eminent botanical friends, Mr. Murray, of the British Museum, and Prof. Farmer, from whom I have learned that the distribution of V. album is in Europe universal except north of Norway and north of Russia; in India in the temperate Himalayas from Kashmir to Nepaul, altitude 3000 to 7000 feet.

The Viscum aureum, otherwise called Loranthus Europaeus, is a near relation of the familiar mistletoe, and in Italy grows on the oak almost exclusively. There are fifty species of Loranthus in the-Indian flora, but L. Europaeus does not occur.

In the Viscum aureum we have the "golden bough," the oak-borne Aurum frondens and Ramus aureus of Virgil; and it can easily be imagined that when the Druids reached our shores from a country which had supplied them with the Viscum aureum, this would be replaced by the V. album growing chiefly on apple trees and not on oaks; indeed, Mr. Davies, in his "Celtic Researches," tells us that the apple was the next sacred tree to the oak, and that apple orchards were planted in the vicinity of the sacred groves. The transplanting of the mistletoe from the apple to the oak tree before the mystic ceremonies began was not beyond the resources of priestcraft.

It must not be forgotten that these ceremonies took place at both solstices—once in June, when the oak was in full leaf, and again in December, when the parasitic plant was better visible in the light of the young moon. Mr. Frazer, in his "Golden Bough" (iii. p. 328), points "out that at the summer solstice not only was mistletoe gathered, but many other "magic plants, whose evanescent virtue can be secured at this mystic season alone."

It is the ripening of the berries at the winter solstice which secured for the mistletoe the paramount importance the ceremonials connected with it possessed at that time, when the rest of the vegetable world was dormant.

With regard especially to the particular time of the year chosen for sun-worship and the worship of the gods and solar heroes connected with the years to which I have referred, I may add that the vague year in Egyptian chronology makes it a; very difficult matter to determine the exact Gregorian dates for the ancient Egyptian festivals, but, fortunately, there is another way of getting at them. Mr. Roland Mitchell, when compiling his valuable "Egyptian Calendar" (Luzac and Co., 1900), found that the Koptic calendar really presents to us the old Egyptian year, "which has been in use for thousands of years, and has survived all the revolutions."

Of the many festivals included in the calendar, the great Tanta fair, which is also a Mohammedan feast, "is the most important of all held in Egypt. Religion, commerce, and pleasure offer combined attractions." As many as 600,000 or 700,000 often attend this great fair, "no doubt the survival of one of the ancient Egyptian national festivals."

It is held so as to end on a Friday, and in 1901 the Friday was August 9!

This naturally suggests that we should look for a feast in the early part of May. We find the Festival of Al-Khidr, or Elias in the middle of the wheat. harvest in Lower Egypt; of this we read:—

"Al-Khidr is a mysterious personage, who, according to learned opinion, was a just man, or saint, the Visir of Dhu’l-Karnên (who was a great conqueror, contemporary with Ibrahim—Abraham—and identified in other legends with Alexander the Great, St. George, &c.). Al-Khidr, it is believed, still lives, and will live until the Day of Judgment. He is clad in green garments, whence probably the name. He is commonly identified with Elias (Elijah), and this confusion seems due to a confusion or similarity of some of the attributes that tradition assigns to both."

"The 'Festival of El-Khidr and of Elias,' falling generally on May 6, marks the two-fold division of the year, in the Turkish and Armenian calendars, into the Ruz Kasim and the Ruz Khidr (of 179-80 and 185-6 days respectively.")

This last paragraph is important, as it points to ancient sun-worship, Helios being read for Elias and 179 days from May 6 bring us to November 1. So we find that the modern Turks and Armenians have the old May-November year as well as the ancient Egyptians who celebrated it in the Temple of Menu at Thebes.

The traces of the Ptah worship are not so obvious. Finally, it may be stated that the second Tanta fair occurs at the spring equinox, so that the pyramid worship can still be traced in the modern Egyptian calendar. The proof that this was an exotic
(footnote 30:1) is established, I think, by the fact that no important agricultural operations occur at this period in Egypt, while in May we have the harvest, in August and November sowing, going on.

A cursory examination of Prof. Rhys’ book containing the Hibbert Lectures of 1886, in the light of these years, used as clues, suggests that in Ireland the sequence was May-November (Fomori and Fir Bolg), August-February (Lug and the Tuatha Dé Danann), and, lastly, June–December. (Cúchulainn). Should this be confirmed we see that the farmers’ years were the first to be established, and it is interesting to note that the agricultural rent year in many parts of Ireland still runs from May to November. It is well also to bear in mind, if it be established that the solstitial year did really arrive last, that the facts recorded by Mr. Frazer in his "Golden Bough" indicate that the custom of lighting fires on hills has been in historic times most prevalent at the summer solstice; evidently maps showing the geographical distribution of the May, June, and August fires would be of great value.

Some customs of the May and August years are common to the solstitial and equinoctial years. Each was ushered in by fires on hills and the like; flowers in May and the fruits of the earth in August are associated with them; there are also special customs in the case of November. In western Europe, however, it does not seem that such traditions exist over such a large area as that over which the remnants of the solstitial practices have been traced.

I have pointed out that both the May and August years began when the sun had the same declination (16° N. or thereabouts); once, on its ascent from March to the summer solstice in June, again in its decline from the solstice to September. Hence it may be more difficult in this case to disentangle and follow the mythology, but the two years stand out here and there. With regard to August, Mr. Penrose's orientation data for the Panathenæa fix the 19th day (Gregorian) for the festival in the Hecatompedon; similar celebrations were not peculiar to western Europe and Greece, as a comparison of dates of worship will show.

Hecatompedon - April 28 and August 16.

Older Erechtheum - April 29 and August 13.

Temple of Diana, Ephesus -
April 29 and August 13.

Temple of Min, Thebes - May 1 and August 12.

Temple of Ptah, Memphis - April 18 and August 24.

Temple of Ptah, Annu - April 18 and August 24.

Temple of Solar Disc, Tell el-Amarna - April 18 and August 24.

In the above table I have given both the dates on which the sunlight (at rising or setting) entered the temple, but we do not know for certain, except in the case of the Hecatompedon, on which of the two days the temples were used; it is likely they were all used on both days, and that the variation from the dates proper to the sun's declination of N. 16° indicates that they were very accurately oriented to fit the local vegetation conditions in the most important and extensive temple fields in the world.

This is the more probable because the Jews also, after they had left Egypt, established their feast of Pentecost fifty days after Easter = May 10, on which day loaves made of newly harvested corn formed the chief offering.

With regard to the equinoctial year, the most complete account of the temple arrangements is to be found in Josephus touching that at Jerusalem. The temple had to be so erected that at the spring equinox the sunrise light should fall on, and be reflected to, the worshippers by the sardonyx stones on the high priest's garment. At this festival the first barley was laid upon the altar.

But this worship was in full swing in Egypt for thousands of years before we hear of it in connection with the Jews. It has left its temples at Ephesus, Athens, and other places, and with the opening of this year as well as of the solstitial one the custom of lighting fires is associated, not only on hills, but also in churches.

Here the sequence of cult cannot be mistaken. We begin with Isis and the young Sun-god Horus at the, Pyramids, and we end with "Lady Day," a British legal date; while St. Peter's at Rome is as truly oriented to the equinox as the Pyramids themselves, so that we have a distinct change of cult with no change of orientation.

If such considerations as these help us to connect Egyptian with British worships we may hope that they will be no less useful when we go further afield. I gather from a study of Mr. Maudslay's admirable plans of Palenque and Chichén-Itzá that the solstitial and farmers’ years’ worships were provided for there. How did these worships and associated temples with naos and sphinxes ( footnote 33:1 ) get from Egypt to Yucatan? The more we know of ancient travel the more we are convinced that it was coastwise, that is, from one point of visible land to the next. Are the cults as old as differences in the coast-lines which would most easily explain their wide distribution?


30:1 In Babylonia the spring equinox was the critical time of the year because the Tigris and Euphrates then began to rise.

33:1 See Dawn of Astronomy, Plate facing p. 182, for the lines of sphinxes at Karnak.


Next Chapter: Chapter V. Conditions and Traditions at Stonehenge

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