Winter – 4

Mid-winter is the nadir of the year, and although winter does not ease its grip on the land for several months yet, at least the long, slow, lengthening of the days begins.

I have no idea how arbitrary the date of 25th December is for our celebration of Christmas day (Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 7th, due to the difference between the Julian (old) calendar and the Gregorian (new)), but it seems to equate well to the winter solstice on 21st December, in that by the 25th it would be apparent to observers that the days were just beginning to lengthen. Is that when our ancestors celebrated? Did they all collectively hold their breath until the priests could confirm the days were getting longer again? Or did they just work on the basis of ‘it’s the Solstice today. Let’s go for it!’? I’m inclined to think it would be more the latter, with the priests declaring ‘It’s today! Time for excessive eating, drinking and unbridled sex!’

Or perhaps a bit of chanting and a sacrifice or two. Who knows?

Would our Neolithic ancestors have kept a calendar in the sense of checking off every day the way we do? I suspect not. Tools such as aligned stones would have done the job for them, confirming it was now the shortest day or the longest one. I don’t suppose there would have been any need for more refined measurements – it would be obvious to them when fruit or nuts or grain were available to be gathered. Obvious when they would need to slaughter livestock. And for that reason, I think points in time such as the solstices would be marked purely by ritual and / or celebration.

We don’t really know how they marked it, of course. We know a lot about how the Victorian writers supposed it was marked – the sacrifices, the wild dances, the bacchanalia, (and it is curious how many of their illustrations seemed to include young maidens dancing wildly in flimsy shifts) – and there is more than enough written about variations on this theme by those who see themselves today as druids, as followers of the old religion. What this old religion is, though, is a somewhat hazy and fluid animal, dragging in everything and anything from ley lines and animist gods through to Morris dancing, via witchcraft, mind-enhancing drugs, depending on who you speak to. Again, we don’t know.

In many ways, it drops comfortably into the melange of New Age beliefs, essentially being whatever the believer wants it to be…although that is something most of us could also plead guilty to, no matter what religion, if any, we follow.

It may well have been marked differently in different parts of the country (I’m really just thinking of Britain, at the moment) – different rituals in the much milder climate of the south west than in the far harsher one of the north, for example. And over the millennia they probably will have changed, being influenced by both outside factors (contact with others who did things differently, perhaps the slow change of climate) and inner ones (changing ideas about gods, relationships to ancestors, size of population).

But when Christianity came along, it substituted its own story of hope and celebration for what was there before, which is why we have it then rather than around March, which is when the internal evidence of that particular Bible story would place it. As the followers of every new religion always do, they found it impossible to prevent an old festival taking place, so instead they usurped it for their own ends.

Myth, Science and Religion

Religion begins as science, as an attempt to make sense of the world. The birth of religion marked the dawn of humans as rational, analytical beings. This was humans moving beyond the worries of simply surviving from day to day, and reaching that point in evolution where they looked with wonder upon the world around them and asked: How did this come into existence? What is it that controls the weather and other variables? By observing the natural world around them, the cycles of day and night, the seasons, the migrations of the animals, they would have concluded that these patterns suggested a grand design and order.

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An assumption would probably be made that all this was controlled by benevolent beings, but beings who might need propitiating occasionally to keep them sweet; the odd ritual here, perhaps a sacrifice of some sort there.

And if that was so, perhaps they could be propitiated in a somewhat greater way, to grant other boons?

It would not be long before someone claimed a channel to the gods to relay their desires and instructions, and so the priestly class would be born. Self-interest? Quite likely. After all, we see that in most religions today, so why not?

Religions then, over the years, spawned new religions, the spark being reinterpretation rather than inspiration.

We think we see echoes of old religions in myths. Myths are the fragments of history we know, combined with assumptions about how our ancestors acted and thought, frequently combined with scarce written evidence, which may or may not be biased or wholly inaccurate. When our written sources include stories of monsters and miracles, we should probably be advised to treat them cautiously.

Myth-makers frequently come with an agenda, although depending upon your point of view that is not necessarily a bad thing. If you are looking for a scientific analysis of the lives of our ancestors, it’s probably best to give myth a wide berth. Or at least to be very, very, careful what you take from it. But in a way, it does provide an alternative world view that many find preferable to both the stark realities of day to day life, as well as the cold dead hand of religion. After all, if you’re using your imagination, it’s easy to plan your myth-world much the way you’d like it.

And perhaps myth does offer us a way of getting inside the heads of those people, at least superficially.

One assumption we can make is that there would be similarities in the thought processes of those people, with the thought processes of us today. It is perfectly reasonable to assume they would react in similar ways to us, to pain and fear, to pleasure, warmth and cold. Our reaction to the unknown tends to be to populate it with characters or situations based on our experiences, and they probably did the same.

Stonehenge is aligned with the solar calendar. This we know. It’s science. And we know a considerable amount about the geography of the area around Stonehenge at the time it was built, through archaeology and science.

What we don’t know is how it was used. Just because it was aligned with the rising sun at summer solstice and the setting sun at winter solstice, does not mean we know what took place at those times. We assume our ancestors worshipped or venerated the sun there, especially at the time of the solstices, but we do not know that. Were there sacrifices? Did they hold special ceremonies connected with fertility or birth or death? Was it perhaps just like a club where they turned up now and again and got drunk and held orgies? It could be, since there is no hard evidence for anything.

Believers in ley lines also claim it is at the centre of an intricate system of lines connecting natural (‘holy’) locations with important (‘holy’) sites such as churches, wells and crossroads. Pseudoscience? Coincidence?

Our assumptions, though, lead us to think that because of the immense effort required to build the structure, it must have been an incredibly important site, and we are surely justified in concluding important ceremonies were enacted there.

Whatever they were.