Today, December 21 (2015), is the day of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year and the astronomical beginning of winter. In amongst all the Christmas-themed messages deluging social media today in the last few days before the holiday, it was nice this morning to see some references to the solstice, a traditional event of note and celebration across many world cultures since the Stone Age, and so I decided to do a solstice-themed post for tonight. This photo, by modern photographer Mike Peel, depicts a group of people gathered around and inside the world-famous monument Stonehenge at the crack of dawn three years ago today, on December 21, 2012. The site, erected by ancient peoples some 5,000 years ago, does seem to have some astronomical significance. Its stones are aligned to catch the summer solstice (June 21/22) sunrise and the winter solstice (December 21/22) sunset in precisely the right place. As you can see from this photo, December 21, 2012 happened to be a clear day, which I imagine doesn’t happen all that often in southern Britain in December.
I find this picture fascinating because in a way it unites humankind across great epochs of time. When we see the ancient weather-beaten stones of Stonehenge we naturally think of primitive peoples, whoever they were, erecting this giant monument as a way to place themselves in the context of their larger world: the physical environment around them, the sun and stars in the heavens, and even the afterlife–there are ancient graves around the site which probably have some significance. (Of course I don’t buy the ridiculous hogwash theories about aliens or paranormal forces; this is the stuff of very tired New Age pseudohistory). But this picture shows modern people also doing exactly the same thing. Notice the woman holding up a cell phone to get a picture, and the top of a guitar case held by a long-haired fellow at the lower right. Notice even the clothing of these modern people: their hoodies, jumpers and stocking caps sport camouflage patterns or evoke ancient pattern designs mimicking, evoking or reinterpreting images found in the natural and spiritual world. These modern people, most born in the late 20th century, have come to this ancient site for the occasion of the winter solstice because it means something to them, just as it did to our ancestors 5,000 years ago. What exactly it might mean would differ from person to person, but there’s some reason why everyone chose to come here.
Some aspects of the human character never change, and some places on Earth are timeless. Stonehenge is one of those places. Thousands of years ago people greeted the Winter Solstice among these stones, perhaps with bonfires, incantations, feasts or some other kind of ritual. Today people are still witnessing the solstice here, with modern conventions, but a deep vein of continuity runs across this distant gulf of time. We are all part of something larger than ourselves, even if we can’t always define what it is. That, I think, is what this picture is telling us.