By Sheila Connolly
It’s a new year. But the January 1st date is an historic artifact, set by the Romans, who gave us Janus, looking both backward and forward. Except that a lot of cultures continue to celebrate a date in March (even in the American colonies) because that was when spring began. The Romans started out using March and nobody knows why they switched the dates (one source says around 153 BC).
But I (and some experts) believe that it all harks back to the solstice. Funny—this year I’ve been more aware of it than I recall from the past. Part of that was because I was in Ireland close to that date. The sun rose at 8:30 in the morning and set at 4:30 in the afternoon. Days were short, and the cows went home to the barn for the evening milking in the dark. (No, I wasn’t milking them!)
And then there are the stone circles, which have fascinated me for a long time. In 2013 there were not one but two new books published about Stonehenge (Mike Parker Pearson’s Stonehenge: A New Understanding, and Julian Richards’ Stonehenge: The Story So Far—the men have worked together on digs), and both covered the history of the archeology of the site as well as recent discoveries and what theories are current. It’s amazing how interpretations have changed over the centuries, and both authors admit that every new find, every new analysis technique changes archeologists’ interpretation of the monument. In the total absence of any written documents, a lot of guesswork and interpretation are required.
I was lucky enough to visit Stonehenge when you could still walk up to it and pat the stones, although I understand why that is no longer allowed. But I’ve sought out other circles, mainly in Ireland. The stone circle in Drombeg is my favorite, and I visit it each time I’m in County Cork. But there are other, smaller ones scattered around as well. It’s fun to hunt for them, since they’re often tucked into private property where there are dogs or mud.
One theory holds that all the circles are some sort of astronomical calculator or predictor, since so many are aligned with the sun or the moon at the solstices, summer and winter. The predictive aspect may be unlikely, but those alignments could easily be determined after a few years or decades of observation. The consistency is still a bit eerie, though.
Last year I visited a tiny circle (only five stones) I’d never seen before. One stone has a shallow groove in it. Line up that groove with the stone opposite and you have a precise southwest alignment, looking straight at the setting sun at the winter solstice. We were there just a couple of weeks short of that, and I set my compass on the stone to check. It gave me a chill to see it.
The prehistoric inhabitants of Britain and Ireland followed the seasons closely, and must have looked forward to the date when the days began to grow longer. It meant the sun was returning, and with it warmth and food. We’ve kind of lost sight of that, but it still matters, just a little. We’ve turned that corner again, into 2014. May it be a great year for us all!