by Helen Benigni
Athough Stonehenge is surrounded by mystery and clouded in the mists
of time, there is one practical use of the ancient monument: it is an astronomical
observatory that measures the movements of the sun, the moon, and perhaps,
the stars. The findings of astronomy may not lead us to the exactitudes
of Neolithic life and the construction of the monument and its origins,
but what is clear is that Stonehenge is still a viable and useful calendar
of extreme accuracy. With the use of computers, Stonehenge, an absolute
peak of astronomical genius, might be used as such today.
Moreover, an ancient bronze calendar tablet discovered near Coligny, France in 1897 believed to be the calendar of the tribe of Celts called the Sequani, sheds amazing light on the use of stone circles and in particular, Stonehenge. The astronomy of the ancients is easily understood and made applicable to today's night sky by understanding the basic principles upon which the text of the bronze calendar, called The Sequani Calendar, and Stonehenge is based. Keeping in mind the diversity of the stone circles of the ancient world and the diversity of the belief systems of Celts, especially in the myths of each tribe, certain basics of Druidic belief are a simple and clear beginning to understanding the calendar systems of these ancient astronomer-priests.
In 1988, Alban Wall published a paper in the Epigraphic Society Occasional Publications (Vol.17) that summarizes the similarities of Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar. According to Wall, both Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar are luni-solar, both are based on a 19 year cycle or the Metonic cycle of the moon, and both have months that basically alternate between 30 and 29 nights. Both can be expanded to 235 months that are divided into light and dark halves which begin at the first quarter moon. The months, or as the ancients called them, "moonths" have the full moon marked on the eighth night of the light half of each lunar cycle and the new moon as the eighth night of each dark cycle. On The Sequani Calendar, the full moon is designated as the Oenach or people's holiday and the new moon is the Druid's Holy Night.
Each marks the solar year holidays at the solstices and the equinoxes as well as the cross-quarter days the same as they are celebrated in Neo-Pagan circles today: Winter Solstice, Imbolc, Spring Solstice, May Day, Summer Solstice, Lugnasad, Fall Equinox, and Samhain. These well-known solar holidays were easily adapted to the Roman calendar that we use today, but the moonths were never transferred to our calendar as they involve the precision that a luni-solar calendar demands in order that each lunar cycle remain one moonth or month. Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar, as mentioned above, both retain the luni-solar months and yearly cycle so that they follow the moon and the sun with "extremely close reconciliation of lunar with solar time" (Wall 30). To do this, The Sequani Calendar allows for an Intercalary Moonth every two years and six months. Both, however, give special prominence to the solstices.
The year on Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar is divided into two distinct halves: a light and a dark half. The light half begins at the Winter Solstice when the new light of the year begins on December 21st, and the dark half begins at the Summer Solstice with the disappearing of the longest summer day on June 21st. In their Winter Solstice Oenach, the new year is celebrated on the full moon or eighth day of the moonth of the Winter Solstice. Similarly, the Summer Solstice is celebrated on the mid-point of the lunar cycle of the Summer Solstice moonth. The holiday celebrated in the dark half indicates special observance of the Summer Solstice in the darkest part of the moonth which is the eighth day of the dark half of the moon or the Holy Night of the new moon. Light is welcomed as the light in the darkness and cold of winter and darkness is welcomed as the relief from the long summer days.
Alban Wall observes that both Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar differ from most other luni-solar calendars in their special prominence given to the solstices, their amazing accuracy of the reconciliation of lunar with solar time, and their division of the year into two halves with their year beginning on the Winter Solstice. Moreover, both calendars differ from all other luni-solar calendar systems relative to the marking of the special days of the moon in each moonth such as the beginning of the moonth as the first quarter or sixth day of the waxing moon, the full moon on the eighth night of the first half of the moonth and the new moon of the eighth night of the dark half of the moonth. They also differ from all other calendars as to their marking of the Winter and Summer Solstices.
Wall remarks that "It is highly significant that no lunar calendar other than the Coligny system, anywhere in the world or at any time in history, began its months at the first quarter moon- except the one embodied in the stones and holes of Stonehenge" (32). In the first century B.C., the historian Diodorus Siculus remarked that in the regions beyond the lands of the Gauls, there lies an island where the moon god visits every nineteen years, "the period in which the return of the stars to the same place in the heavens is accomplished; and for this reason the nineteen year period is called by the Greeks 'the year of Meton.' " Here, states Siculus, is a "notable temple which is spherical in shape" (quoted in Wall 32).
The fact that Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar alone begin their moonths on the sixth day of the moon and that the island culture referred to by Siculus in his description of Stonehenge uses the Metonic cycle of the moon is strong evidence to correlate these highly developed systems of calendars which might have taken eons to develop and perfect. Siculus' statement as to the genius of the accomplishment that marks the stars returning to the same place in the heavens in the Metonic cycle might draw another important parallel between Stonehenge and The Sequani Calendar: if the stars are measured on The Sequani Calendar would it not then be highly possible for the stars to be marked by Stonehenge? Why wouldn't a group of highly educated astronomers and creators of a calendar system in stone and bronze include a map of the stars in their calculations of the cycles of the moon and the sun in their stone circles?
Wall has designated that the outer circle of Stonehenge, or what he calls the "Sun Circle," is used to count the days in the year by advancing a marker stone two holes each day, probably at Sunrise and Sunset in the ceremonies of the Celts. This circle gives a total of the days of the solar year if done thirteen times to equal 364 days. The next two inner circles of Stonehenge, traditionally called the "Y" and "Z" holes designate the lunar moonths by advancing one hole each day, first around the "Y" circle, then around the "Z" circle. Wall calls these the "Lunar Circles." The next inner circle, The Sarsen Stones, symbolizes the 29.5 nights of the moonth, one megalith being half size. The magnificent Trilithon horseshoe represents the phases of the moon, and the Year Dial of stones within them is used to count the nineteen year cycle of 235 months. Where then could the stars be measured on this ancient calendar?
A group of researchers including myself, Eadhmonn Ua Cuinn and Barbara Carter, have translated the original reconstruction of the calendar found in the headwaters of the Seine at Coligny. Using the reconstruction of the bronze tablets done by Eoin MacNeill for the Royal Irish Academy in 1926, our group translated the calendar by silk-screening concentric circles to represent each moonth of the first year. Using computers to translate the astronomy into the year 2001, Barbara, our astronomer, was able to identify the stars, the moons and the sun marked in the ancient text. Eadhmonn, a master stone-carver and artist, and a crew of graphic artists, including Mark Butervaugh, designed the Celtic circles for each month, and I researched the goddesses and gods that told the story of the stars, the moon and the sun from their Iron Age references to their Neolithic roots using my training in comparative mythology.
As we move through the second year of the calendar for reproduction for the public, we are gaining a keener awareness of the stars presented in the text. The Sequani Calendar marks a star of primary magnitude at the beginning of each moonth designated as the PRIN. These twelve primary stars appear on the Eastern Horizon shortly after sunset when the moon is a first quarter moon in its sixth day of waxing, the first day of each moonth for the Celts. They are easy to identify as they are the brightest in the night sky and appear first to the naked eye. The constellations of these stars are deities of the Celts, and as they travel the night sky through the seasons, their stories are told. In turn, groups of constellations in each season tell the stories of the seasons of the year.
Although the year is a circle without beginning or end, the beginning of the light half of the year appears at the Winter Solstice in the first lunar cycle of the year called Samonios. The PRIN, or first magnitude star to guide us on the first quarter moon, is the twin stars of Castor and Pollux, the Divine Twins of both Greek and Celtic mythology. In Celtic mythology, the twins symbolize a strong birth, a single birth from one egg containing mortal and immortal life. Twins such as Fiachra and Conn in the Irish tale of the "Fate of the Children of Lir" and Nissyen and Evnissyen in the Welsh Mabinogion exemplify the Divine Twins. In the second moonth, Dumannios, the guiding star or PRIN is Sirius and in the third moonth, Rivros, it is Regulus. Both these stars as well as Orion are representatives of the Great Goddess of the Winter Sky: Brigantia in Britain, Brigit, in Ireland, Brighid in Wales, and Brigantu in Gaul. Brigit is a goddess known for nurturing new life.
In the fourth and fifth lunar cycles of the year, the moonths containing the Spring Equinox, the gods of sacrifice, Esus, Teutates, and Taranis are represented in the PRIN of Anagantios which is Arcturus, a reddish-orange star that signals a time of blood-letting and self-sacrifice. Known cross-culturally as The Dying Gods, these deities exemplify that self-sacrifice is the highest form of love. In Ogronios, the fifth lunar cycle, the rising star of Vega denotes resurrection. Vega is the first star of the Summer Triangle, a symbol not only of resurrection or of the Vulture and Raven appearing in the heavens in flight, but of the coming of the Great Mother Goddess of the summer, the Mistress of Birds, Water and of the Earth.
The next two lunar cycles of the year, Cutios and Giamonios, the sixth and seventh moonths, complete the Summer Triangle with their primary stars of Deneb and Altair, respectively. Cutios, whose PRIN is Deneb, the Swan, is a month for celebrating the gift of the waters of life as represented in Sequana of the Seine River and namesake of the Sequani; Boann, goddess of the River Boyne in Ireland; or Danu of the Danube in central Europe. Like the Raven goddesses, the water-bird goddesses are one aspect of a Triskele of Goddesses that make up the Great Mother Goddess of the Neolithic tribes represented in the night sky as the Summer Triangle. Giamonios, the moonth of the Summer Solstice, whose PRIN is Altair, is the another bird aspect of the goddess. Altair is most closely associated with Lugh, the eagle, who is the son of Tailtiu, the goddess of the earth. With the Summer Triangle complete, the Triskele reaches its full power.
In Simivisonnios, the eight lunar cycle, the constellation of The Plough is upright signaling the month of the first harvest of fruits and vegetables. Altair is still the guiding star of primary magnitude and Tailtiu is the goddess who declares Lugnasad be in honor of her son, Lugh. Marriage contracts are renewed or dispelled, fruits of labor are shared, and feats of physical prowess and gamesmanship become displays of a productive life. Lugh, symbol of the mastering of life, is an all-wise deity, guarding our fruits of labor. Likewise, in the month of Equos, following Simivisonnios, the gaming and horse-racing so important to the concept of the Divine Horse in Celtic mythology continues. The PRIN of Equos is Equuleus representative of Epona, the horse goddess. Known also as Macha in Ireland and Rhiannon in Wales, the horse goddess is a symbol of independent strength, prowess, and physical challenge. In the Otherworld of the Celts, horse-racing, feasting, and other such pursuits represent the ultimate peace and stability that attention to Epona brings us.
The last season of the year, the Fall, is perhaps the most derivative of ancient ritual and therefore often considered the beginning of the year by Neo-Pagan cults today. The ancient rituals of the Neolithic tribes at the onset of winter are clearly retained in the rituals of the Sacred Calendar of Eleusis for the Greeks and in The Sequani Calendar for the Celts. The PRIN marked on The Sequani Calendar for the ninth moonth of the year, Elembivios, is Capella, keeper of livestock and guardian of wealth, and the guiding constellation for the last two moonths, Edrinios and Cantlos, is the river in the sky, Erindanus. The rituals of the ancients involve the high priest, or what the Indo-Europeans called the "pont-dheh-ker," who is responsible as a transgressor of souls into the otherworld of death and winter as well as a guardian of the wealth of the tribe; that wealth must be blessed and stored for the winter as the seeds were originally stored by the ancient tribes of Europe and the Mediterranean.
In Celtic mythology, this ancient high-priest of the forests and all important deity of the tribes is known as Cernunnos. As the elliptic has moved from South to North in the night sky, the PRIN, or guiding star of the month, Capella, appears on the Eastern Horizon on the sixth day of the waxing moon to guide us through Elembivios with the protection, vision, and spiritual strength of Cernunnos. Cernunnos accompanies us through the onset of winter. In the moonth of Edrinios, he crosses the river in the sky, Erindanus as the Milky Way meets with the elliptic. To the ancients, crossing the river symbolizes the crossing from one realm into another, from life to death, and in this case, from fall to winter. As seen in the hero's journey in the mythology of several cultures, the river acts as a medium of transfer from one spiritual plane to another.
We arrive through long dark nights of winter to begin the cycle of life again with the celebration of the entrance of the Winter Solstice light. As a full and strong beam of light crosses the threshold of the great mound at Newgrange and the Winter Solstice light is welcomed into the circle of stones at Stonehenge, we rejoice in another completion of the great cycle of the year. The mastery of the solar light, the careful calculation to keep each moonth following the moon's varying course, and the identification of each primary star in a moonth gives us a sense of time and sense about how our ancestors grasped for some identifiable part of eternity by bringing the heavens down to earth. Their and our participation in the celestial will only broaden our understanding of the infinite. Might we now begin our journey through time to re-capture this wonderful sense of the infinite by tracing the stars on Stonehenge?