Stonehenge, the Winter Solstice, and the Druids

The Winter Solstice marks the return of the Sun. The Druids and people from around the world gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the midwinter and welcome longer days.
Susan Fourtané
Winter Solstice at Stonehenge/ Photo by  Nik on Unsplash

The Sun has existed in the universe for much longer than any life on Earth. From ancient civilizations to the present day, humans have made sense of the Sun in a variety of ways. 

In the northern hemisphere, the Winter Solstice takes place on or around December 21st each year. The Winter Solstice marks the moment when the northern half of the planet is tilted at its furthest point away from the Sun.

The Sun is then at its lowest point in the sky, resulting in the shortest day and the longest night of the day. In the southern hemisphere, it is the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year. 

To celebrate the Winter Solstice, in the morning of December 22nd, people gather to watch the Sun rising over Stonehenge, in England. 

Significance of the Winter Solstice and the role of the Sun 

The word 'solstice' comes from the Latin solstitium, which means 'sun stands still.' This is because the apparent movement of the Sun's path north or south stops before changing direction. 

Despite the Summer Solstice and the Equinoxes are also celebrated, the Winter Solstice is the most important day of the year at Stonehenge. Stonehenge is the great prehistoric stone circle set in a complex prehistoric landscape in Wiltshire, England which is built on a solstitial alignment.

The celebration of the Winter Solstice brings together England's New Age Tribes such as the neo-Druids, the neo-Pagans, and the Wiccans with tourist and travelers from around the world who come to Stonehenge to celebrate and experience the Winter Solstice. 

Solstice alignment 

At the time of the Summer Solstice in June, when the Sun is over the Tropic of Capricorn, the Sun rises and shines through the center of the stone circle at Stonehenge. 

The Sun rises along the axis of the sarsen monument to its left. Thanks to archaeological excavations today we know that the Heelstones were two: each standing on either side of the axis. There were other stones in front of the circle either side of the alignment and this would give the impression that the Sun was following a corridor between the stones. 

During the Winter Solstice, this alignment is repeated when the sunset is visible through the center of the stone circle when you stand with your back to the entrance and the Avenue dropping away behind you. 

For the builders of Stonehenge, the mid-winter solstice was presumably more important. As farmers and people rearing domestic animals and growing crops for food, the midwinter sunset marks the turning of the year. The days would get longer and the weather would improve. Soon, spring would come again and with it their life and work would be easier. 

Tim Daw, owner of Britain's first Druid long barrow tomb built in over 5,000 years explains the Winter Solstice alignment at Stonehenge: 

The history of Stonehenge: Building Stonehenge was a masterpiece of engineering 

Stonehenge was built in the Neolithic period in Wiltshire, England. It is the best-known prehistoric monument in Europe, one of the Wonders of the World, and a World Heritage Site.

Stonehenge/ Photo by Alec Foege on Unsplash

Before Stonehenge was built, earlier structures in the form of totem-pole like posts were erected in the Mesolithic period, between 8500 and 7000 BCE. It is not clear if these posts are related to the monument of Stonehenge, though.

Although the exact date when Stonehenge was built cannot be determined, it is known that Stonehenge was built over 5,000 years ago.  

Up to this date, there is no concrete proof as who built Stonehenge or how it was built. Archaeologists have found in the area over 250 ancient object and tools of the everyday Neolithic life. However, the technology and tools used for building Stonehenge remain a mystery and it can only be speculated. 

The first monument at Stonehenge was built in 3000 BCE. It was a circular earthwork enclosure. Using simple antler tools they dug a ditch and the chalk piled up to make an inner and an outer bank.

According to English Heritage, within the ditch was a ring of 56 timber or stone posts. This first monument was used as a cremation cemetery for several hundred years. 

It was about 2500 BCE when the central stone settings was constructed. The circle was made of sarsen stones --a type of sandstone-- and smaller bluestones. Sarsen stone is found scattered naturally across southern England.

Archaelogists believe that the Sarsen stones were brought from the Marlborough Downs, which is 32 kilometers away from where the site was built. The sarsens weigh 25 tons each. The large stone, called the Heel Stone, weighs about 30 tons. The bluestones, though, were all brought from Wales. 

Stonehenge Bluestones: Why did they bring them from Wales? 

The smaller stones in Stonehenge are known collectively as Bluestones and they were brought to England all the way from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales. The bluestones weigh between two and five tons each. 

"Although the stones are quite grey today, they were actually quite blue," says Susan Greaney, an archaeologist specializing in British pre-history and Senior Properties Historian for English Heritage.

She believes that perhaps the people who built Stonehenge were intersting in their appearance, or perhaps the area in Wales where they came from was important. 

It must have been important, indeed. The bluestones were transported over a distance of over 250 kilometers. Most archaeologists believe they were both carried via water networks and hauled over land. 

The Altar Stone is different. It is made of old red sandstone from the Senni Beds. This is a type of sandstone that outcrops across the south of Wales. 

To the north of Stonehenge, there were found large quantities of sarsen and bluestone waste material as well as broken hammerstones of different sizes.

This means the stones were worked into shape there. It is quite likely that the larger hammerstones were used to roughly flake and chip the stones and that the finish and smooth work on the surface was done using the smaller ones.

Analysis of a laser survey revealed that different stoneworking methods were used to shape the stones. It was also revealed that some parts of the monument were more carefully finished than others. The north-east side of the inner faces or the central trilithons were finely dressed. 

The builders of Stonehenge created mortice holes and tenors to fit the upright stones with the horizontal lintels. Raising the stones was certainly not an easy task.

Archaeologists believe that people dug a large hole with a sloping side. Then the back of the hole was lined with a row of wooden stakes. Each stone was moved into position and hauled upright using plant fiber ropes and perhaps a wooden A-frame. 

In order to rise the horizontal lintels into position, they probably used some kind of timber platforms. Finally, they must have shaped the tenors to ensure a good fit into the mortice holes of the lintel. This plan (PDF) shows each phase of the building process at Stonehenge. 

Stonehenge English Heritage
Stonehenge/Image source: English Heritage 

Who are the Druids? Druid Winter Solstice ceremony at Stonehenge 

Many people celebrate the Winter Solstice --the mid-winter sunrise and sunset-- coming to Stonehenge. Some people come from far away. However, it is the Druids, a group of Celtic pagans, who particularly celebrate the day when the Sun returns from its furthest point.

The Druids have celebrated the return of the Sun for centuries. Their celebrations bring awe and mystery to others who gather at Stonehenge for the Winter Solstice as well.  

English writer John Aubrey wrote in the 17th century about the probability that stone circles, such as Stonehenge, were Temples of the Druids, He called his text on stone circles the Templa Druidum. The first Druids were pre-Celtic inhabitants of Britain. 

Druids, who value peace, nature, and harmony, make a pilgrimage twice a year to gather at Stonehenge to celebrate the Summer and Winter Solstices. Druids are a group of Celtic pagans who have adopted the historical site as part of their history. 

The great prehistoric tomb at New Grange in Ireland and the great cairn at Maes Howe in Orkney are also orientated on the Winter Solstice and they, too, receive Druids for the mid-winter celebrations.

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