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January 2005

Neolithic Solar Ritual at Stonehenge: Mad Midsummer or Bleak Midwinter?

DSCN0334  This article was published in 3rd Stone magazine, 2003.

Download the article (pdf).

 This article argues that, from the available evidence and analysis, it seems clear the primary orientation of Stonehenge is to the winter solstice setting sun. Prof. John North argues that this orientation was present at the earliest stages of the monument; certainly, the evidence that it was the orientation to which the monument was primarily dedicated and which received the most intense elaboration from its monumental stages seems incontrovertible.

This raises several questions. It clearly suggests, as Ruggles implies, that any orientation to the summer solstice rising sun is secondary to the main alignment to the winter solstice setting sun. It also indicates that the central orientations incorporated at Stonehenge from its earliest to its latest phases were to the winter sun and to the moon. This is corroborated, not only by Newham and North’s findings about orientations at the early phases of Stonehenge, but also by North’s observation that the Heel Stone-Grand Trilithon alignment "was set up with a double function, for observing two extremes, one of the sun and one of the moon". StonehengeSunrise1980s

Our contemporary desire to party at Stonehenge on summer solstice indicates the degree to which such moments in the seasonal year are still understood by us as times of real power. Perhaps what is needed then, as an answer to the original question this article posed, is for the Wiltshire Constabulary to give the go ahead for a second festival at Stonehenge, but this time on 21 December. We could then gather to watch the death of the sun through the ‘gateway’ of the Grand Trilithon and witness the rising of the moon and stars on the longest night of the year. This would undoubtedly represent a darker and more sombre ritual than the triumphant celebration of the rise of the sun at midsummer. But just as midsummer drumming is a good antidote to Land of Hope and Glory, a midwinter ritual at Stonehenge would not only fully connect us to those who built and used it, it may also give us a much needed ritual alternative at a time dominated by modern festive consumerist excess.

Second photo: Sunrise at Stonehenge, winter solstice 1985 (wikicommons)


The Merriest Days of the Year: Unearthing the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Santa This article was originally published in Science and Spirit magazine in 2000.

It is an abridged version of: Chronos, Saturn, Mithra: Archaeology and the Pagan Origins of Christmas, in Insoll, T. (ed.), Case Studies in Archaeology and World Religion. BAR International Series 755 (1999).

Read the full article here.

Among the vast corpus of ancient Greek myths, the story of Chronos, Father of Time, tells of how time itself came into existence. In later Roman mythology, the god that was most explicitly equated with Chronos was Saturn. And like many of the great pagan mystery cycles, both Chronos and Saturn were associated with a set of rituals - the Kronia and the Saturnalia - that were structured primarily around the seasons. The same is true of the cult of Mithra, which spread rapidly across the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries CE, and exactly reproduced the logic of these other seasonal rites.

If we explore these classical mystery cycles from the perspective of seasonality, the development of the Christian festival of Christmas should not be seen as the heralding of a new religious era. Rather, it appears to be a restatement of the ritual logic of these late antique pagan mysteries.800px-Mithras_relief,_Vatican_Museum

Tracing the evidence for such ritual continuities has major implications for our understanding of the development of Christianity as a world religion, for it puts this development in the context of the far older religious practices from which it emerged. It may also reveal some of the deeper elements of continuity by which religious practice has been - and continues to be - organized.

Photo: Mithras relief, Vatican Museum (wikicommons)


Pursuing the Ingenious - an interview with Lisa Jardine

DSC01029Following Wordly Goods, her critically acclaimed re-assessment of the high culture of the Renaissance, Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, has written a book on the scientific revolution. Ingenious Pursuits explicitly aims to debunk some of our most cherished myths about the significance of that era for modern western European culture.

Download the article (pdf)