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Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered 


by Norman Lockyer

   Mystic Realms        Stonehenge




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WE have so far considered the circles at Stonehenge, Stenness, the Hurlers and Stanton Drew, and the avenues in Brittany and on Dartmoor. Before I refer to my later work in the south-west of England or attempt to present a summary of the results of the inquiry, I think it will be convenient to turn for a time to another branch of it, for that there is another closely connected series of facts to be considered in relation to the monuments folklore and tradition abundantly prove.

So far in this book I have dealt chiefly with stones—as I hold, associated with, or themselves composing, sanctuaries. We have become acquainted with circles, menhirs, dolmens, altars, viæ sacræ, various structures built up of stones. Barrows and earthern banks represented them later.

The view which I have been led to bring forward so far is that these structures had in one way or another to do with the worship of the sun and stars; that they had for the most part an astronomical use in connection with religious ceremonials.

The next question which concerns us in an attempt to get at the bottom of the matter is to see whether there are any concomitant phenomena, and, if there be any, to classify them and study the combined results.

Tradition and folklore, which give dim references to, the ancient uses of the stones, show in most unmistakable fashion that the stones were not alone; associated with them almost universally were many practices referred to on p. 26, such as the lighting of fires, passing through them, and dancing round them; in the neighbourhood of the stones and associated with the fire practices were also sacred trees and sacred wells or streams.

Folklore and tradition not only thus may, help us, but I think they will be helped by such a general survey, brief though it must be. So far as my reading has gone each special tradition has been considered by itself; there has been no general inquiry having for its object the study of the possible origin and connection of many of the ancient practices and ideas which have so dimly come down to us in many cases and which we can only completely reconstruct by piecing together the information derived from various sources.

I now propose to refer to all these matters with the view of seeing whether there be any relation between practices apparently disconnected in so many cases if we follow the literature in which they are chronicled. We must not blame the literature, since the facts which remain to be recorded now here, now there, are but small fraction of those that have been forgotten. Fortunately, the practices forgotten in one locality have been remembered in another, so that it is possible the picture can be restored more completely than one might have thought at first.

It will be seen at once that from the point of view with which we are at present concerned, one of the chief relations we must look for is that of time, seeing that my chief affirmation with regard to the stone monuments is that they were used for ceremonial purposes at certain seasons, those seasons being based first upon the agricultural, and later upon the astronomical divisions of the year, to which I drew attention in Chapter III. In Chapter IV., when referring to the agricultural and astronomical new years’ days, I indicated a possible relation between the temple worship and the floral celebrations of that time, and later on (p. 40), in connection with the monuments in Brittany, I pointed out the coincidence of fire customs at the same time of the year.

But in a matter of this kind it will not do to depend upon isolated cases; the general trend of all the facts available along several lines of inquiry must be found and studied, first separately and then inter se, if any final conclusion is to be reached.

This is what I now propose to do in a very summary manner. It is not my task to arrange the facts of folklore and tradition, but simply to cull from the available sources precise statements which bear upon the questions before us. These statements, I think, may be accepted as trustworthy, and all the more so as many of the various recorders have had no idea either of the existence of a May year at all or of the connection between the different classes of the phenomena which ought to exist if my theory of their common origin in connection with ancient worship and the monuments is anywhere near the truth.

This question of time relations is surrounded by difficulties.

I gave in the Gregorian dates of the beginning of the quarters of the May year, if nothing but the sun's declination of 16° 20´ N. or S., four times in its yearly path, be considered. These were:—


  May Year. Greek Calendar. Roman Calendar.
End of Winter Feb. 4 Feb. 7 Feb. 7
Beginning of Spring

Beginning of Summer

May 6 May 6 May 9
End of Summer Aug. 8 Aug. 11 Aug. 8
Beginning of Autumn

Beginning of Winter

Nov. 8 Nov. 10 Nov. 9

In the table I also give, for comparison, the dates in the Greek and Roman calendars (p. 20).

There is no question that on or about the above days festivals were anciently celebrated in these islands; possibly not all at all holy places, but some at one and some at another; this, perhaps, may help to explain the variation in the local traditions and even some of the groupings of orientations.

The earliest information on this point comes from Ireland.

Cormac, Archbishop of Cashel in the tenth century, states, according to Vallancey, that "in his time four great fires were lighted up on the four great festivals of the Druids, viz., in February, May, August and November." ( footnote 181:1 )

I am not aware of any such general statement as early as this in relation to the four festivals of the May year in Great Britain, but in spite of its absence the fact is undoubted that festivals were held, and many various forms of celebration used, during those months.

From the introduction of Christianity attempts of different kinds were made to destroy this ancient time system and to abolish the so-called "pagan" worships and practices connected with it. Efforts were made to change the date and so obliterate gradually the old traditions; another way, and this turned out to be the more efficacious, was to change the venue of the festival, so to speak, in favour of some Christian celebration or saint's day. The old festivals took no account of weekdays, so it was ruled that the festivals were to take place on the first day of the week; later on some of them were ruled to begin on the first day of the month.

When Easter became a movable feast, the efforts of the priests were greatly facilitated, and indeed it would seem as if this result of such a change was not absent from the minds of those who favoured it.

The change of style was, as I have before stated, a fruitful source of confusion, and this was still further complicated by another difficulty. Piers ( footnote 182:1 ) tells us that consequent upon the change "the Roman Catholics light their fires by the new style, as the correction originated from a pope; and for that very same reason the Protestants adhere to the old."

I will refer to each of the festivals and their changes of date.

February 4.

Before the movable Easter the February festival had been transformed into Ash Wednesday (February 4). The eve of the festival was Shrove Tuesday, and it is quite possible that the ashes used by the priests on Wednesday were connected with. the bonfires of the previous night.

It would seem that initially the festival, with its accompanying bonfire, was transferred to the first Sunday in Lent, February 8.

I quote the following from Hazlitt ( footnote 183:1 ):—

"Durandus, in his 'Rationale,' tells us, Lent was counted to begin on that which is now the first Sunday in Lent, and to end on Easter Eve; which time, saith he, containing forty-two days, if you take out of them the six Sundays (on which it was counted not lawful at any time of the year to fast), then there will remain only thirty-six days: and, therefore, that the number of days which Christ fasted might be perfected, Pope Gregory added to Lent, four days of the week before-going, viz., that which we now call Ash Wednesday, and the three days following it. So that we see the first observation of Lent began from a superstitious, unwarrantable, and indeed profane, conceit of imitating Our Saviour's miraculous abstinence. Lent is so called from the time of the year wherein it is observed: Lent in the Saxon language signifying Spring."

Whether this be the origin of the lenten fast or not it is certain that the connection thus established between an old pagan feast and a new Christian one is very ingenious: 24 days in February plus 22 days in March (March 22 being originally the fixed date for Easter) gives us 46 days (6 × 7) + 4, and from the point of view of priestcraft the result was eminently satisfactory, for thousands of people still light fires on Shrove Tuesday or on the first Sunday of Lent, whether those days occur in February or March. They are under the impression that they are doing homage to a church festival, and the pagan origin is entirely forgotten not only by them but even .by those who chronicle the practices as "Lent customs." ( footnote 184:1 )

Finally, after the introduction of the movable Easter, the priests at Rome, instead of using the "pagan" ashes produced on the eve of the first Sunday in Lent or Ash Wednesday in each year, utilised those derived from the burning of the palms used on Palm Sunday of the year before.

Further steps were taken to conceal from future generations the Origin of the "pagan" custom due on February 4. February 3 was dedicated to St. "Blaze." How well this answered is shown by the following quotation from Percy. ( footnote 184:2 ) The anniversary of St. Blazeus is the 3rd February, when it is still the custom in many parts of England to light up fires on the hills on St. Blayse night: a custom anciently taken up perhaps for no better reason than the jingling resemblance of his name to the word Blaze."

This even did not suffice. A great candle church festival was established on February 2. This was called "Candlemas," and Candlemas is still the common name of the beginning of the Scotch legal year. In the Cathedral of Durham when Cosens was bishop he "busied himself from two of the clocke in the afternoone till foure, in climbing long ladders to stick up wax candles in the said Cathedral Church; the number of all the candles burnt that evening was 220, besides 16 torches; 60 of those burning tapers and torches standing upon and near the high altar." ( footnote 185:1 ) There is evidence that the pagan fires at other times of the year were also gradually replaced by candles in the churches.

May 6.

The May festival has been treated by the Church in the same way as the February one. With a fixed Easter Sunday on March 22, 46 days after brought us to a Thursday (May 7), hence Holy Thursday ( footnote 185:2 ) and Ascension Day. With Easter movable there of course was more confusion. Whit Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost, was only nine days after Holy Thursday, and it occurred, in some years, on the same day of the month as Ascension Day in others. In Scotland the festival now is ascribed to Whit Sunday.

It is possibly in consequence of this that the festival before even the change of style was held on the 1st of the month.

In Cornwall, where the celebrations still survive, the day chosen is May 8.

August 8.

For the migrations of the dates of the "pagan" festival in the beginning of August from the 1st to the 12th, migrations complicated by the old and new style, I refer to Prof. Rhys’ Hibbert Lectures, p. 418, in which work a full account of the former practices in Ireland and Wales is given. The old festival in Ireland was associated with. Lug, a form of the Sun-God; the most celebrated one was held at Tailetin. This feast—Lugnassad—was changed into the church celebration Lammas, from A.S. hl'áfmaesse—that is loaf-mass or bread-mass, so named as a mass or feast of thanksgiving for the first fruits of the corn harvest. The old customs in Wales and the Isle of Man included the ascent of hills in the early morning, but so far I have: found no record of fires in connection with this date. ( footnote 186:1 )

November 8.

The facts that November 11 is quarter day in Scotland, that mayors are elected on or about that date, show, I think, pretty clearly that we are here dealing with the old "pagan" date.

The fact that the Church anticipated it by the feast of All Souls’ on November 1 reminds us of what happened in the case of the February celebration; later I give a reference to the change of date; and perhaps this date. was also determined by the natural gravitation to the first of the month, as in the case of May, and because it marked at one time the beginning of the Celtic year.

But what seems quite certain is that the feast which should have been held on November 8 on astronomical grounds was first converted by the Church into the feast of St. Martin on November 11. The Encyclopædia Britannica tells us: "The feast of St. Martin (Martinmas) took the place of an old pagan festival, and inherited some of its usages, such as the Martinsmännchen, Martinsfeuer, Martinshorn, and the like, in various parts of Germany."

St. Martin lived about A.D. 300. As the number of saints increased, it became impossible to dedicate a feast-day to each. Hence it was found expedient to have an annual aggregate commemoration of such as had not special days for themselves. So a church festival "All Hallows," or "Hallowmass," was instituted about A.D. 610 in memory of the martyrs, and it was to take place on May 1. For some reason or another this was changed in A.D. 834; May was given up, and the date fixed as November 1. This was a commemoration of all. the saints, so we get the new name "All Saints’ Day."

There can be little doubt that the intention of the Church was to anticipate, and therefore gradually to obliterate the pagan festival still held at Martinmas, and it has been successful in many places. In Ireland, for instance; at Samhain, ( footnote 187:1 ) November 1, "the proper time for prophecy and the unveiling of mysteries." . . . It was then that fire was lighted at a place called after Mog Ruith's daughter Tlachtga. From Tlachtga all the hearths in Ireland are said to have been annually supplied, just as the Lemnians had once a year to put their fires out and light them anew from that brought in the sacred ship from Delos. The habit of celebrating Nos Galan-galaf in Wales by lighting bonfires on the hills is possibly not yet extinct.

Here, then; we find the pagan fires transferred from the 8th to the 1st of November in Ireland, but in the Isle of Man this is not so. I will anticipate another reference to Rhys by stating that Martinmas had progressed from the 11th to the 24th before the change of style brought it back, "old Martinmas," November 24, being one of the best recognised "old English holidays," "old Candlemas" being another, at the other end of the May year; this last had slipped from February 2 to February 15 before it was put back again.

With regard to the Isle of Man Rhys writes ( footnote 188:1 ) that the feast is there called Hollantide, and is kept on November 12, a reckoning which he states "is according to the old style." The question is, are we not dealing here with the Martinmas festival not antedated to November 1? He adds, "that is the day when the tenure of land terminates, and when serving men go to their places. In other words it is the beginning of a new year." This is exactly what happens in Scotland, and the day is still called Martinmas.

There is a custom in mid-England which strikingly reminds us of the importance of Martinmas in relation to old tenures, if even the custom does not carry us still further back. This is the curious and interesting ceremony of collecting the wroth silver, due and payable to his Grace the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury on "Martinmas Eve." The payment is made on an ancient mound on the summit of Knightlow Hill, about five miles out of Coventry, and in the parish of Ryton-on-Dunsmore. One feature about this, singular ceremonial is that it must take place before sun-rising.


181:1 Hazlitt, Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, under Gule of August.

182:1 Survey of the South of Ireland, p. 232.

183:1 Under Ash Wednesday.

184:1 Frazer, Golden Bough, iii., 238 et seq.

184:2 Notes to Northumberland Household Book, 1770, p. 333.

185:1 Quoted by Hazlitt.

185:2 Much confusion has arisen with regard to the Holy Thursday in Rogation week because there is another Holy or Maundy Thursday in Easter week. Archaeologists have also been often misled by the practice of many writers of describing the May festivals as midsummer festivals. The first of May, of course, marked the beginning of summer.

186:1 Mr. Frazer informs me that the 13th August was Diana's day at Nemi and there was a fire festival.

187:1 Rhys’ Hibbert Lectures, p. 514.

188:1 Celtic Folklore, p. 315.


Next Chapter: Chapter XIX. Sacred Fires

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