Thursday, June 21, 2012

To Stonehenge for the Solstice

Traveling to Stonehenge for the Summer Solstice was one of my main goals while here in London.  Partly because I thought it’d be a rare opportunity and a good story to have, but I also had a religious interest in the event.  For the past three years I’ve been experimenting with other religions out of both curiosity and desire to join a new religion.  So, attending the Stonehenge Solstice Ceremony was also a way for me to observe the Pagan religion.  I mention this mostly to offer a semi-rational reason for why I would be willing to wait for the sunrise in a field for several hours, during heavy rainfall with only a hoodie, a thin leather jacket and a garbage bag to keep me warm.

When we got to Stonehenge, it was only about 11:30 P.M., so we had a substantial wait until the ceremony would begin.  Throughout the entire night, even during the rain, there was a large party inside the actual stone circle with multiple drummers, dancers and singers.  There were a good amount of people there for “less religious reasons”, but actual practitioners of Paganism were easy to identify.  Amongst all the people bundled up in North Face jackets and waterproofed tarps were others dressed in robes and cloaks while carrying staves.  The color and style of their clothing indicated what branch of Paganism they practiced as well as their status within their faith.  When the rain started about two hours later, a large amount of non-Pagans headed back to the buses to get back home, but the people celebrating inside the circle continued the entire night until the sunrise.  To be fair, I expect that a good amount of those people stayed because they treated the entire event as a party as opposed to a religious event.

The rain cleared up a bit before the ceremony began at 4 A.M.  The sky was still very cloudy, but this did not prevent people from gathering around one of the outer stones.  The ceremony was led by the Head Priest of the Druids, Arthur Uther Pendragon.  In the Druid tradition, he is meant to be the reincarnation of King Arthur leads all major Pagan ceremonies in England.  The ceremony itself was only about an hour long and did not have a concrete schedule or format.  There were specific prayers and chants that Arthur performed, but the more significant part of the ceremony was the performance of music and poetry.  Anyone there who had something they wished to perform in celebration of the solstice was welcome to step forward, whether it was Arthur himself reciting a poem about Druid beliefs, a scraggly man named Hock playing the banjo and singing or a young girl who had typed out a poem on her iPhone.  All of this was very entertaining, but more importantly it was about community.  After each performance, Arthur would thank the person and say a few words about their piece.  Usually, it was about how the performance related to the Pagan tradition, but Arthur really did stress how important being a community was.

Arthur Uther Pendragon - Raised Druid King of Britain
In a Catholic mass, community is mostly fostered through silence and solemn, communal prayer.  It’s very tame and structured, and it’d be a rare sight for someone to come up to the altar and recite their own poetry.  Pagans, on the other hand, foster community through music, dance and even shouting.  It’s very loud and energetic, but the participants have fun, which is not something I used to seeing Catholicism or many other religions for that matter.  They have their moments of reverence and quiet, but largely the ceremony was a celebration of life.  Several times Arthur congratulated and praised the people for showing up and braving the weather and seemed to be just as amazed by Stonehenge as we were. 

What was even more interesting to see was that during the mass, there were two weddings and two knightings.  About halfway through, Arthur asked if there were any couples who were there to be joined.  What was interesting to see was one couple was dressed in regular clothing while the other was in full medieval garb.  Both marriages were very short and consisted of a prayer, wrapping their hands with cords and jumping over Arthur’s staff.  What I was surprised to find out is that these marriages are legally recognized by the British government.  Paganism is considered a “legitimate” religion in England and is entitled to the same rights and respects as any other major faith.  So, while it’s fun to see a man claiming to be King Arthur marry a couple in medieval garb, this was also a legitimate wedding.  The communal aspect of the ceremony showed during this as well.  The second couple had forgotten to bring a rope to be tied around their hands.  When they realized this, most of the people in the crowd quickly began to remove a cord or rope from their clothing to give to the couple so that they could proceed.  This was not a provoked response either, but their way of showing strong support for a member of their community.

As for the knighting, Arthur has the power to induct people as members of his own court in the Pagan religion.  While I was not able to find out exactly how someone gains candidacy for this, the procedure was just as quick as the weddings.  Two times, a man was presented as a candidate for Arthur’s court.  After being introduced, they would kneel in front of Arthur and repeat a pledge as Arthur places his sword over their shoulders.    And then they are treated to a cheering from the crowd and welcomed by Arthur into his court.  The interesting thing to note about this was that, unlike the weddings, you could not simply step forward, nor did Arthur ask if there were any candidates.  Both men had to be presented by other high-ranking priests or priestesses present at the ceremony.  Essentially, the men needed a sponsor of some kind to vouch for them.  But, even with that difference, Arthur was just as happy to oblige the candidates as he did the couples.

The last thing I was to point out about the ceremony is that it really was a very informal event.  Arthur and the Head Priestess had control over the ceremony, but it was an open participation event.  Arthur actually made a specific point to welcome not just Pagans, but people of other religious backgrounds and asked them to contribute a song or prayer at the start of the ceremony.  The only person to do so was a woman who sang a couple Native American songs, but the lack of participation did not stop Arthur from repeatedly encouraging people of other faiths to step forward.  I’d never seen something like this happen at any kind of religious event, but I think that just shows evidence of how both informal and communal Paganism is.  Its practitioners do not seek to make the religion powerful and institutionalized, but are perfectly happy to just be able to practice their faith.

No comments:

Post a Comment