by Paul Mountfort


In pagan Europe, as in many other parts of the world, time had a sacred dimension and the year was visualised as a great wheel with eight radiating spokes. The greatest of these were the four 'cardinal points': Autumn Equinox, Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice.

Many of the mystical stone circles and similar sites are aligned to these seasonal milestones. The Neolithic 'tumulus' of Newgrange in Ireland - a giant, hollow, manmade hill supported by mammoth stones inlaid with beautiful spirals - is one of the most impressive examples. It was designed by the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Eire some 6,000 years ago; on the Winter Solstice the light of the low winter sun finds its way through a passage-way into the central chamber to strike an alter stone.

Contemporary pagans also like to find their way to sacred sites to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes. This may be a place of particular personal tradition, a local spot with legendary associations, or a famous location steeped in the history (or the aura) of magic and ritual. In Britain, Glastonbury is one of the greatest of such sites, and a well established gathering place for pagan celebrations.

Although Glastonbury Tor is not known to have been an important site as long ago as places like Newgrange and Stonehenge, its legendary associations in the later Celtic layer of Britain's history are immense. As I sit within the arch of the tower that tops this mysterious, cone shaped hill, thoughts of the Arthurian knights and their tales of triumph and woe filter through my mind.

For those who have read Marion Bradley's famous novel, The Mists of Avalon, the associations of the Tor seem particularly to thicken the air and lend the whole area a fantastic element. Bradley's novel was based on the Arthurian legend which holds that this archipelago of raised land in the middle of Somerset's gently rolling quilt of fields was once the otherworldly 'Island of Apples' from Celtic myth, also known as Avalon.

According to Celtic mythology, Avalon is a location in the Otherworld - a magical realm - that intersects, at times, with this world. It is the home of the sorceress Morgana, Arthur's half sister and seductress, and it was to here that Arthur was transported in his funeral barge after sustaining a deadly wound at the hand of Modred, his son to her. In Arthurian romance, it is said that Arthur still waits here ready to return when the land is in its worst peril.

In the reign of King Henry II the monks of the nearby Abbey unearthed a crude, lead cross carrying a Latin inscription which read: 'Here lies the famous Arthur, buried in the Isle of Avalon.' The body was re-interred in the Abbey and became a famous shrine.

The Abbey is now ruined, and there is a lot of argument over 'fairy-tales' which are told about Glastonbury. This, however, does little to dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of pilgrims who make their way to this magical corner of the English countryside each year to experience its unique atmosphere first hand.

More dampening, perhaps, on this Solstice day is the weather. The sky is a wintry considering that it's June 22, an overcast grey flecked with black crows wheeling and circling in the frigid winds around the tower on the Tor. Those who have made it to this point (sunset is approaching) are the hardy and committed. Wrapped in blankets, and huddled at the base of the tower, we stare out westwards toward the Irish Sea where the sun will begin to sink.

Late twentieth century chaotic weather patterns aside, there was always a sober note amid the ritual and revelry of this, the greatest of the Celtic year's fire festivals. The sense of fullness, mellowness, and ripening which Midsummer symbolised also carried an undercurrent of unease. This was the turning point when the season would begin its gradual decline. The height of summer must contain the seed of winter, as our ancestors knew too well.

Ritual activities at this time included kindling huge bonfires on hilltops as a homage to the sun's passage. Villagers would gather around, and the young men and women in particular stay late into the night, dancing around the fire, and tossing herbs and flowers into the flames. It's a great pity the Christian Church systematically outlawed these customs, I reflect, as the temperature drops another notch. We could do with a solstice bonfire or two.

There were also processions in ancient times, where people would circle the fields with flaming torches to encourage the crops to retain the sun's life preserving rays as long as possible. Another custom, which survived until last century in Ireland, was the rolling of a huge burning wheel down a hillside while the celebrants chased after it cheering and hooting. This represented the sun's approaching descent into the wintry months.

The Celts, along with many other ancient peoples, believed that maintaining these rites was vital to the natural order. If people failed to mark the great points of the year, the web of life itself would be disturbed, and the wheel of the year could collapse and the seasons dissolve into chaos.

Such beliefs have long been dismissed as 'old wives' tales,' but now we find that after several centuries' abuse of the natural world and neglect of the old rites, the fabric of the four seasons is indeed unravelling: global weather patterns are a stark warning that we must reconsider the old ways and their hidden, inner significance.

Another element of Glastonbury's charms involves not fire but water. This is the site of the sacred Chalice Well, now a walled garden where an ancient spring bubbles up from its source and cascades through a garden of fountains. The well itself has foundations that go back a number of centuries - the Celts worshipped at sacred springs, which they believed to embody female goddesses who held in their waters the forces of life and healing.

Today, visitors flock to the Chalice well and nearby White Spring to enjoy the tranquil atmosphere and special properties of the mineral rich waters. It seems likely that the sacred waters are why Glastonbury originally came to be venerated as a site. Moreover, the whole hill area was once surrounded by a marshy lake that has since receded, so it would indeed have appeared as an island that rose mysteriously out of the waters of time.

Sacred to the Great Mother, the Earth from whose veins the waters spring, the Island of Apples (there are still apple orchards growing on its slopes) is believed to have been home to priestesses who guarded the waters and tended the sacred flame. Perhaps it was even as Marion Bardley describes in her evocative novel; a world of enchantment accessible only to those who came in a spirit of reverence.

New Zealand also has many of its own sacred sites rich in associations for the local tribes. The Summer Solstice, too, was celebrated in Aotearoa as Te Maruaroa o te Raumati. The red pohutakawa blossoms signalled the heights of the season; this was the time when the sun-god Ra changed wives. He would leave his summer wife, Hine-raumati, who was the embodiment of the earth, its foods and fruits, and go to live with Hine-takurua, a sea goddess. This symbolises the sun's energies retreating from its fertilisation of the earth and sinking instead into the watery underworld of winter.

Indeed, the ancient traditions of Aotearoa and Europe - Celtic and Maori - are wonderfully compatible. Amid the renaissance of things Maori we should not forget the magical legacies of our ancient Celtic and pagan European past. With these dual elements in our nation's ancestral heritage, we have the scope for salvaging many old customs and rituals, and reinvigorating them for contemporary times.

In our society many of the set, calendar celebrations have, after all, lost meaning. We must now begin to evolve festivals that both celebrate the roots of the European heritage, and yet are native to the rhythm of the seasons in the South Pacific.

As I watch from the top of Glastonbury Tor, the sun sinks into the far off sea. On December 22 it will rise again to its zenith over the southern ocean.

Suggested Reading:

Celebrating the Southern Seasons: Rituals for Aotearoa, Julia Batten (Tadem Press, N.Z: 1995)
Sacred Britain, A Guide, Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer (Piatkus, London: 1997)

First published in Rainbow News Magazine, December 1997. ( Paul Mountfort, 1997)