On the wheel of the year listing pagan holidays, Litha is perhaps the most problematic.
This hit home to me when I read a blog post recently, from someone who was going to Stonehenge on Midsummer’s morning, to celebrate Litha in the manner of their celtic ancestors. Bloggers aren’t known for accuracy, but what really stuck in my craw was reading today on the CNN news site, that Stonehenge was built – possibly – by the Druids. This is of course, all bullshit.
These are all common beliefs about pagan holidays, Litha being no exception. But the facts show that none of that is true, and so I’m reminded of another religious group who believe in myths about their ancient gods, and ignore science and the facts … fundamental Christianity. A group which pagans as a rule, do their best to avoid similarities.
As one of the pagan holidays, Litha has a problem with Stonehenge
To begin with, Stonehenge wasn’t built by the Celts, nor is there any evidence that they worshipped here. Litha wasn’t the name of the Midsummer celebration, it’s a Saxon term name of the month describing the last half of June and the first half of July, and not in use till thousands of years after Stonehenge was abandoned. Finally, there is no evidence that I know of that points to a Midsummer celebration at Stonehenge.
If you take it as fact that Stonehenge was built to align with the Midsummer solstice – and even that has more than reasonable doubt – it certainly wasn’t a celebration. That took place at Durrington Walls, a couple miles away on the summer solstice. If there was anything going on at its more famous neighbor, it was likely a highly codified ritual, or to use a modern phrase, organized religion. It certainly bore no resemblance to what takes place at Stonehenge on Midsummer’s morning.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence to point to celebrations on Midsummer, or if you choose the pagan holidays Litha, and others, at Durrington Walls and other ancient sites. Bronze and iron age revelers weren’t particularly tidy, so if there was a celebration at Stonehenge it must have been a solemn affair. Totally unlike the anything goes celebration at Stonehenge today. If the ancients witnessed what goes on there today, they’d likely see it as sacrilege.
The celestial celebrations at Stonehenge
The current theory about Stonehenge has the important alignment taking place at the winter solstice. Great you might say, you’ll show up at sunrise on that morning instead. While it’s open on the morning of the winter solstice to anyone who wishes to visit, the problem with that is that the alignment is at sunset the night before. Those thousands of dedicated pagans are showing up about twelve hours too late to miss the crucial moment their ancestors might have designed it for.
Stonehenge was started about 3,500 B.C. It was completed in phases, the last being about 1,500 years later, or about 1,600 BC. Now keep in mind, these people had no written language. In fact the people who started Stonehenge aren’t the same people who completed it. And none of them wrote down what they were doing. There is no evidence that a thousand years after it was begun, the people finishing the job had any clue about what those who started it were trying to accomplish.
And so it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty that what you might do there had any resemblance to what it was designed to be for. And certainly not in a crowd of ten thousand thousand people.
We do know it served as a cremation graveyard, as did many of the ancient sites of Britain, Ireland and the rest of the world for that matter. And it’s surrounded by other monuments to the dead, and countless undiscovered burials. When the ancient Britons were building Stonehenge for their dead, the Egyptians were building the pyramids for theirs.
Pagan Holidays: Litha, and the problem with the Celts
The Celts reached Britain after Stonehenge was finished, and the Celtic culture which gave rise to Druids didn’t rise up till 300 BC, more than three thousand years after Stonehenge was begun.
Did the Druids use Stonehenge, as they found it? It’s possible, but there are no records of it, and more tellingly no archaeological record of it. Besides, Druids preferred the grove and the highlands to the open plain.
Also, Midsummer isn’t a Celtic holiday, and until the twentieth century, in Britain it wasn’t even considered a pagan holiday.
Was there a universal ancient pagan religion?
There was no ancient religion adhered to en masse in the British isles. There was no pagan religion standing opposed to encroaching Christians. Instead you had many religions based on an individual community’s needs, changeable at particular times, worshipping gods which we might not even recognize as gods today. When we find evidence of commonly recognized gods in ancient Britain, they tend to be northern European, not celtic.
In that, modern paganism does perhaps get it right. Modern paganism allows anyone to create their own religion. Just add incantations, the name of your favorite god and water. Shake well.
And in the process, neopaganism falls into the same trap as evangelical Christianity.
As religious fervor spread throughout Britain and the United States in the 18th and 19th century, the reins that tried to hold Christian beliefs in place started to slip. By the end of the 19th century, personal charisma overtook Biblical knowledge or insight, resulting in a religion strong on faith, but lacking in a firm foundation.
A person with enough charisma can spread an opinion until a large group of people accept it as a belief.
And so we believe the place to be to worship in the manner of our Celtic ancestors is Stonehenge, not because the historical evidence gives it any credit. But because popular writers write it, and enough people choose to believe it.
Wicca and Litha, and how the wheel of the year came to be
Then there’s paganism’s witchy relative, Wicca. The Wheel of the Year and pagan holidays, Litha specifically came in large part from Wicca’s founder, Gerald Gardner. He in turn was expanding on the work of Margaret Murray, then renowned for her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.
Murray was one of the leading Egyptologists, among other things, but unfortunately, she wasn’t well schooled on European witches or the witch trials, transcripts of which she used extensively in creating her theory.
Her concept involved a branch of witchcraft which had gone pretty much unchanged and undetected throughout the centuries, and that a careful reading of the transcripts of the witch trials made it possible to understand their belief system. She listed the days sacred to witchcraft, based on an Irish king from the 10th century who wrote about the four Druidic fire festivals. These were held in February, May, August and November. Of those, May eve or Walpurgis, known in Britain as Roodmas, and All Hallow’s Eve were the two main ones, based on the activity of herdsmen, rather than agricultural.
Which is ironic considering the large number of vegetarians celebrating a way of life where survival, and sacred days depended on eating meat.
Murray might have known her shit when it came to Egypt, but she was out of her depth when it came to the history of her own country. Though most historians disagreed with her book, they had enough respect for her work in Egypt and other subjects, that they held their fire for the most part. It was only after her death that they tore her theory to shreds and by then her story of a surviving witch cult had stuck.
Gerald Gardner expanded on that notion, making the claim that he had met up with this cult which led to his part in the Bricket Wood coven. According to Wiccan legend, the current wheel of the year and the pagan holiday Litha came into being as a compromise between Gardner and Ross Nichols, head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Their goal was to create a codified system of sabbats, and in the process increase the number of celebrations which made the new religions more sociable and, well, fun. In short, they were looking to create a more social spiritual path, and in so doing, fudging the facts, dispensing of the ancient knowledge that didn’t fit their scheme.
The current naming of the holidays occurred around 1974, and I’m sorry, but I have a problem with any religion whose official names of sacred days is younger than myself.
Traditional celebrations of pagan holidays, Litha and others
Are there any ancient traditions associated with the pagan holiday Litha? In parts of Europe there are fire celebrations on Midsummer, but it should be noted, even when evidence exists that these occurred in pagan times, it wasn’t a celebration of the witch. Instead if there were witches involved, the fire was meant to keep them away, not something for them to join in on.
In Britain these can’t be definitively placed before the 13th century, and it’s entirely possible they are based on Christian tradition, rather than pagan custom. Certainly it wasn’t handed down from the builders of Stonehenge. If the Celts and Druids worshipped at Stonehenge, they were simply doing what Pagans accuse, somewhat derisively, what Christians do, which is making religious sites of those who came before them their own.
Why does all this matter to the pagan community?
As in the case of the evangelical Christian who follows a leader based on charisma, (or something that just feels right), a lot of pagans accept what they’re told in a book or lecture as fact, and there are a lot of charlatans out there. As the Bible says, beware false prophets.
Margaret Murray’s theory of an existing witchcraft cult has been thoroughly debunked. Gerald Gardner drew on her work, and others in a way that created a system not based on ancient truths, but at best, an attempt to create a new religion, familiar but more palatable to modern tastes. There also those who make the case, and not without evidence, that Gardner was also driven by human ambition, ego and quite possibly, the desire for fame and wealth. He was perhaps one of the first wealthy lay ministers who founded his own congregation, after all.
Those who have come afterwards, whose thoughts shape modern paganism almost always have a commercial element. Wicca and modern paganism are two of the first religions whose evangelical needs have from the beginning, been for profit. It can easily be argued that most who become involved do so not from other believers, but from purchasing a book.
So how to celebrate the pagan holidays Litha and others?
How do you adhere to the old ways when the old ways were never written down and impossible now to ascertain?
Paganism is indeed a nature religion. But it wasn’t practiced in ancient times by people heading to the countryside eight times a year. It was practiced by people who lived in a way where the line between nature and civilization was incredibly thin. Choices we face today, like choosing to be a vegetarian wasn’t a moral decision, it was life and death. These were a people who regularly practiced animal sacrifice, and the occasional human as well. The gods they worshipped demanded these things, and who is to say that when you call the name of those gods now, they don’t demand the same?
Yes, the ancient gatherings were community gatherings. But each member of the community had a job to do. If they failed in theirs, the whole community could collapse. The weak were a drain on the whole. There can be no doubt it was a brutal way of life, so far removed from the free spirited celebrations at Stonehenge as to be unrecognizable.
These people weren’t just remembering their ancestors, they were bringing them out of their grave and celebrating right beside their remains.
A lot pagans fall into the category of “spiritual but not religious.” But they idealize ancient ways where the punishment for not believing was either death or being ostracized and pushed outside of the community, in a time and place where that quite often meant death as well. Our clear cut moral codes, liberal or conservative differ greatly from their beliefs, and it’s hard to see how you can reconcile the two.
There is a great body of evidence that the Celt not only condoned homosexuality, but promoted it as a preferred way of life. Which should resonate with the LGBTQ community. Except to accept that part of their society means also accepting the concept that slavery, as well as human sacrifice is acceptable as well, just as accepting the good of Christianity also means accepting those passages of the Bible which we find abhorrent today.
That was the crux of the ancient pagans. They believed, and worshipped however they needed at the moment to survive. Because to them nature wasn’t a benevolent mother goddess, or randy horned god. Nature was certain death if you were exposed to it without means of survival. And you didn’t just pray for a bountiful crop, but also the death of your enemies.
To glean the good from a culture and ignore the evil is to yearn for a golden age which never existed, and that urge is as old as history.
So what is a traditional Midsummer solstice celebration?
Midsummer is a traditional time for gatherings of the community, but it’s just as traditional in your own living room as at Stonehenge. The crops are in the ground and it’s a chance to take a short break and rest before the hard work of tending to the fields and the harvest takes place. It’s a time to pray that nature is kind this year, and brings enough sun, and enough rain – though not too much, to make it all work, and that the community survives.
Stonehenge was an amazing accomplishment, but in the end, we know almost nothing about it. Those who built it had disappeared long before Caesar set foot on the island. We’ll never know exactly why it was built, and how it worked. We don’t need to, but at the same time, we don’t need to invent meaning simply to have a place to have a pagan party twice a year.
Most of all, if you want to invent your own spiritual path, it’s your choice to do so. All too often, pagans are as derisive about Christians as the Bible thumpers are about the heathens. As the Bible says, and both sides should remember, if you live in glass houses ….