Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Summer solstice celebrations at Stonehenge, banned by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1988, were once again allowed by Tony Blair’s administration.

Summary of Event

In pre-Christian Celtic society, Druids were an intellectual class of religious priests who also served in the present-day roles of philosopher, judge, educator, oral historian, astronomer/astrologer, seer, and medical doctor. The etymology of the word “Druid” is conjectural, but the word is believed to derive from the Greek drus (oak tree) and Indo-European wid (to know, or to see). Druids indeed derive knowledge and understanding from oak trees—that is, from nature. Druids were associated with oak foliage and mistletoe, and they performed religious rites in oak groves and often within ancient stone circles, the most famous of which is Stonehenge in southern England. Although the Druids were described in classical sources from Pliny the Elder to Julius Caesar, their own traditions forbade them to employ the written word, so all ancient and classical commentary on the Druids comes from the perspective of outsiders. Religious groups;Druids Druids Stonehenge Summer solstice celebrations [kw]Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice (June 21, 1998) [kw]Summer Solstice, Druids Celebrate the (June 21, 1998) [kw]Solstice, Druids Celebrate the Summer (June 21, 1998) Religious groups;Druids Druids Stonehenge Summer solstice celebrations [g]Europe;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] [g]United Kingdom;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] [g]England;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] [c]Government and politics;June 21, 1998: Druids Celebrate the Summer Solstice[10050] Blair, Tony Straw, Jack Thatcher, Margaret Everard, Clews Maughfling, Rollo

Caesar, in book 6 of Commentarii de bello Gallico (52-51 b.c.e. commentaries on the Gallic Wars), notes that both male and female Druids conducted worship to various gods and nature deities, adjudicated religious questions, and administrated over bloody human and animal sacrifices. As Roman influence declined and receded from the British Isles and Christianity came to northern Europe, Druidic practice declined, and people either stopped following Druidic rites or did not publicly identify themselves as Druids, performing their religious rites in secret and in obscure locations.

Given the importance in Druid culture of astronomy and the movement of the heavens (which even dictated when mistletoe was harvested for Druidic ceremonies), the summer and winter solstices as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes were the principal dates on the calendar during which Druidic practices were conducted in earthworks, stone circles, and avenues, especially at Stonehenge. Carbon dating reveals that Stonehenge was likely built in three main periods between 3100 and 1600 b.c.e., and access to Stonehenge was virtually unfettered for centuries. By the nineteenth century, self-described Druids held open ceremonies at the winter and summer solstices, and tourists were even allowed to rent chisels to chip off pieces of the monument. In the 1960’s, as the counterculture movement developed worldwide, the number of self-described pagans and Druids who gravitated to Stonehenge, especially for the summer solstice, increased geometrically, and there were often many thousands of people camping near Stonehenge for several weeks around the summer solstice. Since the late 1970’s, the public had been barred from actually touching the stones.

By the early 1980’s, it became quite common for thousands of people to attempt to access Stonehenge during the summer solstice. There was concern about the stability of the monument, which includes upright slabs that weigh 20 to 40 tons each and horizontal slabs that surround five trilithon archways (a structure made of three stones, two vertical with one horizontally set on top), forming a horseshoe. From the center of the horseshoe—originally a nearly closed circle—one can look straight toward the heel stone, which dominates the access avenue, to see the sun at dawn on the summer solstice. During the 1980’s, there were a number of violent confrontations between Wiltshire police and various groups of pilgrims: modern-day Druids and pagans, sundry tourists, and others. Finally, in 1988, a major conflagration with more than one hundred arrests resulted in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher characterizing the Druidic worshipers as “medieval brigands” and banning access to Stonehenge at the summer and winter solstices. Druidic solstice celebrations for the next decade occurred instead at a busy highway several miles away but within sight of Stonehenge, or at various locations in London, especially at Parliament Hill.

Druids gather at Stonehenge in southern England on June 21, 1998, to celebrate the summer solstice there for the first time in ten years. The British government banned groups from celebrating the summer and winter solstices at the sacred site after clashes with police in the late 1980’s.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

When Prime Minister John Major, the Conservative successor to Margaret Thatcher, stood for reelection in 1997, his Labor opponent, Tony Blair, promised to restore access to Stonehenge at the summer solstice if elected. Blair won the election and was true to his word. In the summer of 1998, Druids again had legal access to Stonehenge at the summer solstice, though only in limited numbers. Blair delegated responsibility for the project to Home Secretary Jack Straw, who determined that there would be a four-mile exclusion zone for a four-day period around the summer solstice, and English Heritage would issue passes to only one hundred people, including members from pagan and Druidic orders, local residents, and academic scholars. Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge in 1998 and since then were more peaceful than those in the early and mid-1980’s. Occasionally there would be as many as two hundred people who sought entrance without passes and who inevitably clashed with the smaller Wiltshire police presence.

Significance

Unfortunately, some people incorrectly believed that since 1998, Stonehenge was once again free and open to the general public at solstice, which was indeed not the case. However, Clews Everard, director of Stonehenge for English Heritage, was pleased with the behavior of solstice visitors, and the number of passes issued each year continued to increase. The number of arrests dropped into the single digits for several years. Meanwhile, Archdruid Rollo Maughfling of the Glastonbury Order of Druids, who successfully worked for a decade to gain solstice access to Stonehenge for his fellow believers, and Maughfling’s successor, Archdruid Dreow Bennett, were annually issued passes at the summer solstice so that they could conduct religious ceremonies to greet the morning sun as well as marital and other ritual ceremonies. Religious groups;Druids Druids Stonehenge Summer solstice celebrations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Capt, E. Raymond. Stonehenge and Druidism. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Artisan Sales, 1979. A “modest introduction” to Stonehenge and the Druidic religion with astronomical charts and illustrated charts of the site of Stonehenge.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carr-Gomm, Philip. The Rebirth of Druidry: Ancient Earth Wisdom for Today. London: Element Books, 2003. Largely a reissue of the 1996 publication, The Druid Renaissance, this text is a collection of essays that connects ancient Druidic traditions with modern practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ellis, Peter Berresford. A Brief History of the Druids. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002. Comprehensive and well-researched, a definitive study of the Druids within the context of Celtic culture. Contains extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Miranda J. The World of the Druids. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005. Largely chronological study of Druids from prehistory to the present. With museum-quality plates and illustrations, Green notes repeatedly that ancient Druid culture will inevitably be conjectural to a degree because of the oral tradition and emphasis on memorization and recall rather than on printed texts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herm, Gerhard. The Celts. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. This general introduction to Celtic life is readable and includes attractive illustrated plates. However, the arguments in chapter 6 (“When Atlantis Sank”) are problematic and derived from a single scholar, deducing a prehistoric Atlantean civilization in the present area of southern Denmark.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lonigan, Paul R. The Druids: Priests of the Ancient Celts. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Directly addresses the priestly role of Druids in ancient Celtic culture, showing its basis in seminal Indo-European traditions while comparing Irish and Roman cultic practices.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Markale, Jean. The Druids: Celtic Priests of Nature. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1999. Markale uses sources from classical antiquity to explain the influence of Druids not only in the religious and spiritual domains of ancient Celtic culture but also in areas of natural science, intellectual inquiry, and cultural behavior and values.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Piggott, Stuart. The Druids. London: Thames and Hudson, 1968. Piggott’s text, definitive in its time, uses archaeological, iconographic, and epigraphic evidence, as well as secondary commentary from classical and Old Irish texts, to provide a comprehensive introduction to Druidic culture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powell, T. G. E. The Celts. 2d ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1983. Using scholarly work from history, archaeology, and linguistics, Powell describes the wide swath of Celtic life, art, and religion from Great Britain and Ireland to France, Spain, and the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reid, T. R. “Britain Opens Up Ancient Site for Holiest Rite.” The Washington Post, June 22, 1998, p. A1. Review article by noted international journalist and National Public Radio commentator concerning the historic reopening of access to Stonehenge at the summer solstice.

United Nations Votes to Protect Freedom of Religion and Belief

Categories: History Content