Too Much Light?

The summer solstice comes whether we want it to or not.  Today is the longest day in the northern hemisphere although, as I write this the sun has not yet risen.  It was a sleepless night, making this day seem even longer than it already is.  Over on Horror Homeroom, where they understand sleepless nights, my piece on the movie Midsommar will appear.  I won’t say here what I say there, or you might not go and read it.  I will say that for a horror film Midsommar boldly sets itself in a sun-bathed atmosphere, making it all the more unsettling.  To see more you’ll need to visit the Homeroom.

There are implications for the longest day.  One of the most obvious is that from here on out days will be getting shorter.  That’s the thing about anticipation—we crave the light when it’s in such short supply in December and January.  This year of Covid, the spring blended into a long stretch of social distancing and isolation, even as the days were growing longer and the weather warmer.  It was like some spokes were missing from the wheel of the year.  Now that summer’s here many people are acting as if the need for caution is gone.  Midsommar may help with that, since it shows that the daylight sometimes shows us what we don’t really wish to see.

Ancient peoples kept an eye on the seasonal changes long before they learned to write.  Etched into the landscape markers like Stonehenge and Avebury and countless others were oriented toward celestial points on the solstices.  Equinoxes were also observed, as well as the half-way points between.  This altering of the earth to commemorate the progressing of the year took great effort, so we must assume it had great importance.  You don’t move boulders unless you feel strongly compelled to do so.  Such compulsion strikes us all as religious.

So it’s the longest day of the year.  What will we do with it?  When we look back at it, will we see what we wished we might have done with all that light on our side?  Will we treat it just like any other day?  The beauty of holidays (of which capitalism recognizes far too few) is that they teach us to stop and reflect for a few moments on the messages our planet sends us.  Our longest day is also a message.  What we do with that information is up to us.

Mother of Stone

One thing we all have in common is mothers.  Whether it’s the mysteries of biology or something more spiritual than that, the connection lasts forever.  The thought occurred to me yesterday as we visited Columcille, one of those places that reflects a vision for a piece of land that transforms the ordinary into sacred.  Columcille Megalith Park is inspired by the standing stones of Celtic lands.  Open to the public for a suggested donation, the park consists of a stone circle and several menhirs (megaliths) arranged along paths through the woods.  Recognized by the Nature Conservancy as a sacred space and outdoor sanctuary, it draws thousands of visitors of all faiths with both recreational and religious rationales.  Throughout the park we found evidence of spiritual interaction with nature left on or near the stones.  But what has this to do with mothers?

One of the areas in the park is the Sacred Women’s Site.  As we lingered there yesterday, I reflected on the sacred nature of all women, and mothers.  That’s not to suggest that motherhood is for all women, but rather that our society has been slow to catch up with the idea that women show us the way.  Men have “had charge” for millennia now and look at where we are; cooperative ventures and peacekeeping efforts crumble as world leaders encourage the resurgence of exceptionalism.  We’d rather have an inveterate liar lead the nation than a politically able woman.  Britain wants to pick up its marbles and let the European Union disintegrate.  We seem to have forgotten that just a century ago a world war ended.  We need sacred spaces like Columcille.  We need to remember the sacred women.

One takeaway from our brief visit was that although there was also a grove for sacred men, that of the women was more peaceful.  The idea of standing stones making a site sacred goes back at least to the Bible.  Stone circles are found from ancient Israel to the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland.  Standing among them, whether modern like Columcille or ancient like the Ring of Brodgar, or yes, the more famous Stonehenge, there is a sense of sacred purpose.  Miles from Stonehenge stands Avebury, a town built around another stone circle.  There the megaliths were divided between female and male stones, with both required to make the ring complete.  Such places require a tremendous amount of work.  When they’re constructed, however, they give us places to think of mothers and the mystery of life.

Comet Tales

Göbekli Tepe, apart from being impossible to pronounce correctly, is a site of embarrassment to historians. First of all, this archaeological site in Turkey is too old. Abandoned around 9000 BCE—some 5000 years before the Sumerians show up with their writing—Göbekli Tepe had already gone through several phases of elaborate building and willful destruction. A large “temple” has been unearthed there with elaborately carved plinths that suggest a mythology at which we can only guess. Conventional wisdom states that the state came first, then organized religion. Göbekli Tepe suggest that it was the other way around—religion came first. We have no writing to go by here, however, just towering monoliths that make us scratch our heads in wonder. We are the apes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

A friend pointed me to an article in New Scientist that suggests one of the Göbekli Tepe “carvings show comet hit Earth and triggered mini ice age.” That’s a lot of ice. And eisegesis. Part of the problem here is that old scientists tend to sweep anomalous evidence off the table. It’s an admitted part of the empirical method. If a single anomaly stands against a host of conventionally expected results, the anomaly goes into the bin as an outlier. Göbekli Tepe, as real as it is, is an anomaly. Reputable books on it written in English by archaeologists and historians do not exist. Embarrassed turning away and staring at shoes ensues. The site is just too old, too sophisticated, and too far outside convention to be dealt with rationally. You can read a lot into an isolated carving, especially when accurate information is lacking.

To give you some perspective: the great pyramids of Egypt date from the Old Kingdom of Egypt, after 3000 BCE (remember, we’re counting backwards here). Stonehenge’s main phase (the famous blue stones) was a couple of centuries later than the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). Göbekli Tepe had closed up shop some 6000 years prior. By comparison, more time had passed between Göbekli Tepe and the Great Pyramid than between the Great Pyramid and us. We, with the internet in our pockets and humans walking on the moon, preparing to go to Mars, are only less than 5000 years from jolly old Khufu. Göbekli Tepe, with its inscrutable carvings, shouldn’t be there. And yet it is. Standard procedure suggests it be ignored. So far, conventional historians have done just that. And in my opinion that’s worse than an ice age brought on by comets written on a stone that nobody can read.

Henging Our Bets

With the discovery of Göbekli Tepe, the history of civilization has received an unexpected prologue. In the view of the archaeologists involved in the excavation, the site can only be religious in nature, indicating that the earliest communal efforts of humans were not for mutual protection or for the benefits of growing crops, but for worship. In an era of angry atheists and nones, this isn’t really welcome news. Many people are ready to flush religion once and for all, claiming that it inspires only terrorists and fanatics to more and more extreme deeds. Well, I suppose Göbekli Tepe can be considered a form of extremism. Massive amounts of energy were required for the building of the site. And it was buried, intentionally, when the builders were finished with it. The news of a new component to the much later Stonehenge complex, the Durrington Walls, has recently been presented. Stonehenge, in England rather than in Turkey, and much closer in time to us than Göbekli Tepe, is a site that has touched the human imagination in a profound way. Still primitive at the time of its construction, Britain was a land already brimming with religious monuments. The new discoveries make it even more intriguing.

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Stonehenge is only a small part of what is now being called the Durrington Walls super-henge. Those who visit Salisbury Plain know that Silbury Hill and West Kennet Long Barrow are both impressive in their own right, and not far from the more famous sarsen stones that appear on everything from coffee mugs to tee-shirts and in movies and television shows of all genres. This part of prehistoric England seems to have been a sacred site many hectares in extent, with various “temples” and monuments dedicated to a religion we simply don’t understand. What is clear is that massive human energies were put into the building, expanding, upkeep, and functioning of this site. People have a deep, and very passionate urge to answer the religious longing that even sophisticated engineering can’t placate.

It could be argued, of course, that we’ve outgrown our childhood need for parents in the sky. Science and rational thought have shown us the way forward and although ancient monuments might be a fun diversion, they really mean nothing. I would disagree. Places like the Durrington Walls super-henge indicate what it is to be human. Clearly, given that even Stonehenge fell into disrepair and lay neglected for centuries, it was not a continuity that stretches, uninterrupted to today. Nevertheless, the effort expended to fill a void we feel should tell us something about what being conscious creatures is all about. Life doesn’t always make sense. The rational cannot explain everything. It would be naive to try to make Stonehenge reveal its secrets, but even standing at a distance (which is the only way you can gain admission any more) you have the sense that you are among those who knew what the human spirit required. Even if pagan and illiterate, they have spoken to us through the ages and we can only continue to wonder at what we’ve lost.

To See the Sky

Stonehenge. The very name evokes mystery and myth. Although archaeology has revealed more about the monument than any mere visual survey, we are still very much in the dark about its origin and purpose. With one exception: we know it was something religious. When we discover artifacts that required a tremendous outlay of human effort in pre-industrial periods, the motivation, according to our current understanding, is almost always religious. Modernity has come to us with a cost. In any case, a recent story in The Guardian highlights the view of Julian Spalding, erstwhile museum director, that Stonehenge might have housed a platform on top of which the real action took place. As might be expected, experts disagree. With its precise solar alignment, one wonders if a roof might have been superfluous, but then again, there is the sky.

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When I begin to feel depressed working in the belly of a concrete bunker with no windows, indeed, no view of the sky at all, I find my way to a room with a view of the outside. I’ve always had a celestial orientation, and looking at the sky—especially on a day with some blue showing—can cure my sadness in a way almost supernatural. I suppose that was part of the reason I wrote Weathering the Psalms; there is just something about the sky. In that book I couldn’t really verify what it was. I still can’t. I know it when I feel it, however, and this perhaps the feeling the Julian Spalding is asking us to explore at Stonehenge. Ancient people directed their worship upward, not toward the ground.

Like all universal statements, however, there are exceptions. Some ancient religions recognized our place as children of the earth. The celestial sphere, however, is part of the package. Our atmosphere makes our world habitable. While the moon is beautiful and Mars inspires wonder, their lack of air spells their hostility toward those who need to breathe deeply and look up into the blue once in a while. Almost Frazerian in its archetypal view, Spalding’s idea has a beauty of its own, whether or not the evidence bears it out. People of ancient times had a talent we lose in our cubicle-infested, results-obsessed world. We all exist because of the atmosphere above us. And when modern views become too much for me, I head outdoors where, sun or not, I find my solace in the sky.

When Darkness Reigns

I recently read an article about the Druids. The fact is, historically speaking, we know little of them. They are mysterious and silent and irrevocably linked in the imagination with the solstices. Cultures throughout the northern climes of the northern hemisphere have always treated the winter solstice with an extreme reverence. It is the day of the year when it seems like light just can’t come in any shorter supply. In the depths of that desperation, offerings are made to ensure that tomorrow, if only by the merest moments, the day will be longer. And so we begin the lengthy climb through frigid days to the point six months from now when light will reign supreme. We don’t know, historically, if the Druids gave the great significance to equinoxes and cross-quarter days that the Celts eventually incorporated into their religion, but we do know that much of the monumental architecture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is oriented toward the sun’s feeblest rays at the winter solstice. Stonehenge, New Grange, Maes Howe, and the list could go on and on. We are waiting for light.

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

Lawrence Hall of Science; photo credit: Tim Ereneta (Wikipedia Commons)

The solstice seems to creep up on me these days. I work in a cubicle with no outdoor light visible. I leave for work in the dark and arrive home in the dark. I’m inclined to offer up prayers to Odin while I while away the hours before an unresponsive computer monitor. Business has already shut down in all but the greediest minds by this time of year. It is time to hibernate and await a brighter tomorrow. Even in the darkness there can be light. This weekend I attended a Hanukkah celebration, and looking at the menorah I was struck once again how fervently we seek light this time of year. Of course, Hanukkah is connected with the rededication of the temple after the desecration of the Seleucids, but is it coincidence that the candles are lit near the solstice? Perhaps I’m getting too old to believe in coincidences.

In the ancient apocalyptic mind, light and darkness were bitter enemies. Of course, today we recognize that people generally use eyesight as a primary way of interacting with the world—of keeping us from danger. With our diminished senses of hearing and smell, we feel vulnerable when we can’t see our potential predators. Light is the key to our successful preservation. Today technology has taken the place of ritual. We have artificial lights to help lengthen our working hours. We eschew the limitations of being associated with the earth’s rhythms. We are the masters of our own domain, and we can keep the forty-hour work-week going on all but the most insistent of holidays. Perhaps the wisdom of the Druids needs to be rediscovered. Perhaps only then will natural light really return.

Windmills of My Mind

Stonehenge may be the best known stone circle in the world, but it is by no means the only one. Not too many miles from its more famous cousin lies Avebury, a village that is built on the site of an ancient stone circle and henge. Far to the north, in the Orkney Islands the impressive Ring of Brodgar stands sentinel over Stromness on Mainland. My students were sometimes surprised to learn that the Middle East also has its ancient stone circles. Some speculate that the town of Gilgal in the Hebrew Bible derived its name from such a circle. In the 1920s a series of large stone circles were discovered in what is now the kingdom of Jordan, and these circles are back in the news as archaeologists try to decipher the purpose of these huge rings. Unlike their European relatives, the Jordanian circles are only a few feet high, but they are about 400 meters in diameter. Eleven are known. Clearly not high enough to pen animals, the circles remain a mystery even today.

Ring of Brodgar, Photo credit: Alex Cameron, WikiMedia Commons

Ring of Brodgar, Photo credit: Alex Cameron, WikiMedia Commons

Most ancient circles have uncertain functions. We don’t really know what they were for, but considering the tremendous amount of labor involved at such sites as Stonehenge and Avebury, clearly they were considered extremely important. Likely religious. Circles, of course, are an embodiment of mystery—they have no beginning or ending. Even pi, a necessary figure in circular calculations, seems to be an infinitely non-repeating decimal value. Adding to the questions of the Jordanian circles is the lack of a decisive date. They seem to be a couple of millennia old at least, perhaps significantly older.

Like the lines on the plains of Nazca in Peru, the significance of the circles can only be fully appreciated from the air. People have long left drawings for the gods, it seems. Circles, however, suggest a kind of utility as well as just a pleasing shape. One of the problems of archaeology, however, is that it can’t always tell us why people built unconventional structures. Archaeologists are sometimes left guessing just as much as the rest of us. The stone circles of antiquity are, in their way, humbling feats for us to ponder. If they were religious features of the landscape, their construction in an the neolithic period points to a significance beyond the level of the great medieval cathedrals of Europe. It seems no wonder, then, that religion has been with us ever since, despite its frequently announced demise. What are the Jordanian circles? Religion often steps in to explain what reason cannot. Given what we know, this guess may be the best solution.

Prehistoric Steps

Britain has always had a share in the great events of the past (speaking strictly from a western hemisphere point of view). Not only did the ten “lost tribes” of Israel end up there (according to some, with apologies to Joseph Smith), but young Jesus traveled there with Joseph of Arimathea (according to others, with no apologies). While these stories are obviously non-historical, Britain does have an illustrious heritage that has left Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas giant in its wake. It is thrilling to read, then, that fossilized footprints from some 850,000 years ago were recently discovered. Coastal erosion, similar to the event that revealed Skara Brae to the world, uncovered the footprints for a short time in Happisburgh, near Norfolk. About 50 footprints were discovered, according to The Independent, with a group comprised of women, men, and children. They were walking alongside a stream, apparently looking for the Pleistocene version of carry-out fish-n-chips at least 844,000 years before Adam and Eve.

The British landscape boasts an ebullient antiquity. Our years spent in the British Isles involved exploring everything from Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall to the Ring of Brodgar on Mainland, Orkney with our friends. It is a land where the past lives on into the present. No wonder some speculated that the biblical past made its way here as well. At least now we know that some very early humans did as well. Homo antecessor, the makers of the prints, visited a Britain replete with elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceri, and hyenas. It is speculated that they may have domiciled on off-shore islands to keep safe from the predators that roamed pre-Roman England. One thing we know for certain about people is that they do get around.

Chirotherium storetonense  trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Chirotherium storetonense trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Homo antecessor is an extinct species. Many of the hominids that contributed in some way to the possibility of our existence are long gone, creating endless headaches for scriptural literalists. Their lives, as The Independent speculates, may have involved being preyed upon by large predators and the constant search for food. They also liked to walk on the beach. I wonder how far they had come on the road to religious belief. Constant fear of predation must surely have played into it. We don’t know how far back the evolutionary chain religion goes, but we do know that it is a profoundly human outlook. You can’t stand beneath the towering Neolithic menhirs of the Ring of Brodgar and not feel it. Sometimes a walk along the shore is all it takes.

Gnostic Agnostic

ACU-Stuckrad-WesternEsotericism-COVER.indd Hidden knowledge is sweet. Belief in it is very old. Kocku von Stuckrad’s Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge offers its own kind of hidden knowledge—well, it’s not so much hidden as it is simply ignored—that even science owes a debt of gratitude to the draw of the esoteric. We are trained to treat such “New Age” ideas with contempt from our tender years, and we are assured that the light of reason has dispelled the gloom of occluded wisdom. Von Stuckrad, however, clearly demonstrates that the desire to explain our world streams from the same font as the belief that a larger, if hidden, reality lies behind what our senses perceive. Such ideas originate in antiquity and continue in various forms up to the present. The impetus to explain it all shows in Galileo’s belief in astrology as well as astronomy and Newton’s fascination with alchemy as well as calculus. Great minds have always been willing to be stretched.

In more recent, and self-assured, days vocal spokes-folk have declared a single way of knowing, and it is empirical and imperial all at the same time. That which cannot be explained rationally cannot be explained at all. Still, our experience of life often suggests otherwise. Sometimes it feels as if science overuses the coincidence excuse, and maybe there is something more going on. The esoteric, without fail, has been assigned to the category of religious thought because, in the current paradigm, the only real opponent to science is religion. If it’s irrational, it must be religious.

Ironically, von Stuckrad’s research demonstrates that the culture that led us to science, in many ways, has its basis in esoteric beliefs. That gnawing suspicion that not everything is explained by numbers and experiments has been with us since the days of Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, and Stonehenge. Each of these monuments (and many others besides) were astounding feats of engineering—and engineering is applied science—while all being profoundly religious. Science in the service of the unknown. Such complexity need not be considered naive; even scientists can be subject to religious ways of thinking. Von Stuckrad does not advocate esotericism in his book; he merely documents it and treats it non-judgmentally. There is perhaps a hidden lesson here for all of us as well. Instead of declaring a single heavyweight champion of all the world, perhaps true wisdom lies in being fully human with all its complexity and contradictions.

Stone Age Henge

At a hotel during a recent excursion, I saw a National Geographic (I think) special on Gobekli Tepe (this is the fate of those of us kept from a daily sustenance of academic listservs bearing the most exciting news). Gobekli Tepe is an archaeological site in Turkey, discovered several years ago by Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute. It is an odd site, dating back to some 11,000 years ago, that consists of megalithic (big stone) constructions earlier than Stonehenge or the great pyramids of Egypt, both dating from the Bronze Age, roughly. The complex of odd buildings seems to be religious in function because they bear no practical purpose, and the implications of the site are that our earliest steps towards civilization have been misinterpreted from the beginning. We have been taught that domestication of plants and farm animals led to fixed centers of living. Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion led to settled life and farming came later.

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The implications of this are rather startling for those of us who’d been working on the assumption that religion developed as a way of keeping the gods happy after people had the luxury of surplus food brought on by agriculture. It turns out that hunter-gatherers learned to live in settled locations because of religion. That is, religion, instead of being just another component of culture, is what led to culture in the first place. In a climate where the most vocal intellectuals insist that religion must be shut down, chopped off at the roots, and burned in the oven of rationality, we see that none of us would be enjoying our urban lifestyles if religion hadn’t brought us together in the first place.

There is no doubt that religion may be taken to extremes, and that when it is, it becomes dangerous. Religion, however, is no foe to rational thinking. Gobekli Tepe is a site of astounding engineering for Stone-Age hunter-gatherers. Engineering is applied science, and so these people were using their understanding of the world to establish a ritual site for the practice of their religion. They needed to live nearby, although they still had to spend their days chasing animals and gathering foodstuffs along the way. Religion made them realize that life together was a necessity for humanity to thrive. We should take a more balanced view before declaring religion a source of evil only. We may never be able to coax the gods into the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a very important function for human civilization. If they are taken in reasonable doses, they might even lead to astounding transformations.

Sea Wonders

There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea, if we are to believe childhood songs. News reports this past week, however, have suggested that just the opposite applies to the Sea of Galilee. According to Science on NBC, a huge stone structure, larger than Stonehenge, rests at the bottom of the lake over which Jesus reputedly walked at the height of a storm. To the untrained eye, this stone pile looks like just that—a stone pile. The problem is that there is no natural source for the mound, and it seems highly unlikely that it was built under the water. This astonishing find is only one of the many underwater structures known that seem to defy conventional chronologies and logical behaviors. If this gigantic cairn was built on land, the means remain a problem. It is one thing to climb a conventional pyramid, complete with ramps and sledges, and quite another to mount a mound of apparently random stones to drop another on top. Perhaps it was built under water after all, like one of those tantalizing toys where you try to land your penny in the cup at the bottom of a tank of water.

Pacman's Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Pacman’s Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Ancient monuments are one of the great fascinations of antiquity. When no rational explanation is forthcoming, a religious one will be declared. Without written records, we know nothing of the real purpose of Stonehenge or Avebury, let alone Galilee-henge. With the pyramids of Egypt we have a better set of data, and we can feel justified calling them religious structures. But why were ancient people building massive rock mounds in what was to become the Sea of Galilee? The place has irrevocable religious associations to the modern mind. Did it possess such connections in the deep pre-Israelite period as well? The false mountain of Silbury Hill, not far from Stonehenge, comes to mind. People are mountain makers.

Cairns have been among the most persistent of human monuments, but what makes this new finding of interest is its location. Baptized in the very lake that holds the headwaters of River Jordan, the mysterious mound has already claimed its sanctity. Who built it, why and when, will take backseat to the fact of its holy location. Archaeologists will eventually dive and probe and will declare an anthropologically sound explanation for this newly found, artificial, miniature mountain. Mountains and gods go together, however, as readily as offering plates and churches. Whatever this newly discovered structure may turn out to be, it will always be a religious site for those who believe.

Ancient Wisdom

The Huffington Post recently ran a story on Stonehenge. Part of the endless fascination with the ancient monument is that no one really knows why it was constructed. Given the tremendous amount of effort the building represents, it is clear that this was important to the cultures constructing it. The article in Huffington cites archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson as suggesting that Stonehenge was a monument to the unification of Britain. While not as sexy as explanations that draw on human sacrifice, precision astronomy, or alien visitation, something rings true about it. In the long course of human development, we’ve had to overcome many, many hardships. At one time humans were relatively easy prey animals for large predators. Our evolution didn’t endow us much in the way of body armor or built-in weaponry. Our eyesight and other senses pale next to various other animals. Even with all these deficiencies, our biggest challenge hasn’t been nature, but other people.

Archaeologists have also been discovering that a peaceful prehistory to humanity does not match the facts. Warfare and strife have been as much a staple of human behavior as the perennial hunt for food and safe shelter. Civilization involved cooperation at unprecedented levels. People had to trust one another and work to maintain the infrastructure that allowed diversification of talents and abilities. Fighting and wars still occurred, of course, but less frequently and with less brutality. With economies of surplus, however, capitalism also eventually evolved. It is an aggressive organism. It is visible in the greed embodied in the thought process that the only good in life is financial and the only worth of humans can be calculated in dollars and cents. It is this thinking that has erected the monuments more familiar to us today in our cities and centers of civilization.

Stonehenge could never have been a money-making venture (not until the development of capitalism at least). It is in the middle of nowhere, in a sense. The Salisbury Plain is fairly empty—no large cities nearby, no grand scenery as one might find in Cornwall or the Grampians. According to the theory, its location has to do with it being in a very rough middle between various regional cultures. Building impressive monuments is very difficult to do if one has to watch constantly over one’s shoulder. I suppose in my Romantic notions Stonehenge will always represent a mysterious past suffused with unanswered questions. For the present, however, Pearson’s explanation seems more than likely—it sounds absolutely vital in a world so dangerously divided as ours. Perhaps it is time to start a truly monumental building enterprise involving every nation. It will give future generations something to wonder about.

Time to build another henge.

Making Light

Back when I was a starry-eyed camp counselor in the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, “Christmas in July” was a chic (in as far as Christians can be chic) trend. Kids lucky enough to be at camp that week were treated to a neo-Christian holiday that included a half-birthday for Jesus and cheap gift-giving. (The fact that Jesus’ birthday, in as much as it can be determined, is mid-way between December and July seemed a strangely mute point.) Our “gifts” were generally manufactured from natural products found in the woods and were a diversion to help the homesick campers concentrate on the truly Christian practice of getting stuff. Interestingly, here on Midsummer (the solstice is actually the first day of astronomical summer, but our pagan forebears were more into astrology, it seems, than astronomy) we are on the second most-celebrated holiday in the northern latitudes. With its midnight sun in the far north, and warm temperatures starting to make a regular appearance, light outweighs darkness for just a little bit, and life is never easier than this. No wonder Midsummer appeals to the archetypal mind.

Of course, Christianity could not accept a purely natural holiday, attributed as it was to the beneficence of heathen gods. In an even more dubious exercise than fixing the date of Jesus’ birth, Midsummer became the nativity of John the Baptist, or St. John’s Eve. While some scholars dispute the historical existence of Jesus (not terribly convincingly), the case against John the Baptist might be a little stronger. The prototypical forerunner, the herald announcing something greater than himself is so uncharacteristic of religious folk that it lends itself to considerable doubt. John is described like Elijah, one of the greatest prophetic figures of biblical times. John’s birthday? Anybody’s guess. Since he is second to Jesus, put his birthday on the opposite solstice. (I realize the solstice was June 20; at this early hour of the morning, I think today may also qualify.)

Back at Easter, historically near the vernal equinox, I found myself at Stonehenge. Knowing I was missing Druid priests by a full set of quarter days, it was still an exhilarating experience. Ancient people welcomed the return of increasing light with religious fervor. The effort it took to move these monoliths to the barren plains of Salisbury is nearly unimaginable. They represent, at some level, the invincible nature of the sun, our warmth and light. In physical, astronomical, terms they had no idea what the sun might be. It was, undoubtedly, the source of light and warmth, and even every lizard and turtle sunning itself on a rock participates in welcoming its return. So we’ve come to the solstice once again. It is the high point of the year. Now we begin our slow descent back into nights that will grow longer until the winter solstice once again reverses the trend. We don’t need Christmas in July–we already have it in June.

Pharaohs of Stonehenge

Stonehenge on Easter Sunday is a remarkably popular place. Tourists from all over the world crowd the pathway around those ancient stones as if they hide some arcane secret in their tumbled, massive form. Stonehenge may be the most iconic location in Britain, surpassing even such modern structures as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Far pre-dating the art of writing, the purpose and nature of Stonehenge involve considerable speculation, but given the unquestionably costly years of labor required to plan, dig, transport, and align the monument, it stands to reason that it must have been religious in nature. One of the standard—perhaps even hackneyed—critiques of archaeological interpretation proves true in this case: if you can find no sensible reason for it, it must be religious.

The main phase of Stonehenge, the one that incorporates the iconic monoliths instantly recognizable today, came under construction some six hundred years after the pyramids of Egypt. In the case of the latter we know their language and we know the motivation behind the structures. More than just buildings to demonstrate the power of the king, they were celestially aligned portals to the afterlife. Although the Egyptians had no word for religion, the pyramids were as religious as the great temples that would soon surpass them in the energy consumption of the empire. In England of the time, we know no names, nor even an accurate assessment of the “nationality” of the inhabitants. Even nations, as we know them, did not yet exist. The builders of Stonehenge surely had something close to our concept of religion in mind. Otherwise, like the great cathedrals of millennia later, it would have been simply a waste of time and resources.

Wiltshire Downs on the Salisbury Plains is studded with ancient locations of significance. On the near horizon, among the eternal green of the English countryside, are dozens of barrows where people of unknown significance are buried. In that respect Stonehenge is emblematic of the individual struggle for eternal recognition. The name Menkaure stirs instant recognition among few. His pyramids stand as eternal monuments to a decidedly faded greatness. Stonehenge and its environs hold the remains of unknown numbers of unknown nationality bearing unknown names. It symbolizes the fate of us all. Yet on Easter, many believers in resurrection crowd in and gaze in awe at a pagan monument to human striving that no one truly understands.

Sacred Geography

Pilgrimage. The concept that certain places are special is deep-rooted in the human psyche. So deeply rooted that we consider it a religious behavior. Even as scientists recognize the need of many animals to return to their birthplaces or areas that they sense beyond the range of human perception, as human beings they feel it too. Even scientists have the urge to revisit that special spot. Otherwise the travel industry would be in great trouble. Pilgrimage is considered a religious behavior, and the sacredness of place has been noticeably in the news this week. MSNBC reported on the find of a skeletal pilgrim to Stonehenge from 1550 BCE. Yesterday the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a story about a temple/mosque dispute in Ayodhya, India. Both of these stories center on the sacred geography of the region.

Stonehenge has been a magnet not only for Druids and New Agers, but for anyone with a sense of connection to European prehistory. In the winter of 1990, under a chilly British sky and gusty winds across Salisbury Plain, my wife and I made our pilgrimage to Stonehenge. The low angle of the sun in the sky in a dusky British December only enhanced the experience of standing near a monument that has become an icon of the mysterious and the transcendent for modern domesticated citizens of a straightforward, technological world. The news story states that the skeleton unearthed was of a Mediterranean teenager, far from home, in the shadow of what was already a famous landmark. Even over two decades on, I can still feel the inarticulate sense of longing I felt at Stonehenge, so near the winter solstice, and I understand why that young boy went there to die.

Meanwhile in Ayodhya, the site of a mosque has been declared two-thirds under the ownership of Hindu plaintiffs who claim the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu god. Naturally objecting is the Muslim population that currently has a mosque on the site. Sacred sites raise emotions and tempers readily. Humans want access to their holy places – this is the power of sacred geography. It is certainly palpable in the Bible, and was obviously present the last time I was in Jerusalem. Whether it is hardwired in our biology or simply born of whimsy, sacred geography will never go away. Either we can learn to share it or fight to the bitter resolution, but no matter how much blood might be shed the site will only grow more and more significant because of that very blood.