Winter Solstice - Chanting the Dead back to Life

Pentre Ifan, Wales
Pentre Ifan, Wales


 When I visited Wales a couple of years ago to do research for my book on the connection of fairy tales and stone circles, I could delve right into the spirit of the Neolithic worldview. Finally I was able to put a face to some of their celebrations. While I am always learning new things with the help of folklore about our ancestor’s take on life, I would like to share what insights I gained into their celebration of the winter solstice.


 Our Neolithic ancestors built Megalithic sites to practice astronomy and hold rituals. Then, they put their understanding into stories. In Wales, I learnt that not just the sites themselves were sacred, but also their interplay. Entire landscapes were created to be sacred temples. Man-made sites such as dolmens, standing stones or cairns were perfectly aligned with natural peaks or islands out in the ocean. Together they formed a large network of interrelated places that mirrored what happened up in the sky. With this, they could actively take part, witness and be touched by the celestial movements down on earth. To them, it was one big creational system and by observation and celebration they were physically part of it. Each of the sites once had an individual function, but together they created something even bigger: geometrical shapes of a deeper meaning, such as for example the “vesica pisces”. This shape looks like a lens and is formed by two circles with the same radius that intersect, in its middle area two equilateral triangles form. In geometrical design, the vesica pisces is also the beginning point of the flower of life. So, this shape represents the coming together of heaven and earth and was created in the landscape with the intention to bring forth “portals” of birth.


 If I wanted to get a better understanding I needed to physically explore such a landscape on location. The well-documented work of archeo-astronomer Robin Heath[1] on the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire helped me in this endeveour. And my family.


These are my notes from the trip. They ended up as an unused chapter of my book. A very touching folk tale by the Roma beautifully illustrates the hopes for resurrection the Neolithics put into the winter solstice.  It might give us an idea, how they celebrated this important night, this beginning of the new.


Excerpt from my unused chapter:

 I am lucky, my family is always ready for a new adventure, so we rented a little cabin and packed up our outdoor raingear. The Preseli Hills are a landscape which today is only farm- and hilly moorlands and the home of the wild Welsh ponies. It was already mid-October, so the weather did not exactly give us a warm welcome, rather we were met by the heavy winds of an approaching storm. The wind nearly blew us over and our feet were wet as soon as we stepped out of the car onto the grassy hills. We first hiked up to Carningli Hill, a place called “mountain of angels”, where the Neoliths used to observe the sky and the cycles of the sun and the moon. Here, the tangible realm met the intangible realm and our ancestors regularly consulted the angels, as the name and local legends conveyed. This landscape was truly mystical. Despite our footwear turning out to be inappropriate for the Welsh moorland, we often felt we were entering the betwixt-and-between land of folk tales. As we were up there, the sky cleared up due to the heavy winds and allowed us to witness the correlation between the Neolithic sites all around us. Folklore reported on beautiful fairies and little people dancing nearby the sites. From where we were standing, we could see Pentre Ifan, a large dolmen. We knew that another smaller dolmen, Llech y Drybedd, just north from it, near the shore, would guide the gaze across the ocean precisely in a straight line over to the “island of the dead”, Bardsey Island. This island was said to be a gateway to the otherworld. There, the dead were once brought by ship to wait for their resurrection.


 When at the midwinter solstice the sun “died” at its lowest point of the yearly cycle, the rays of the sun could be seen to enter the small dolmen’s chamber of Llech y Drybedd. So, when watching from the large dolmen Pentre Ifan the sun could be seen to set right behind Bardsey Island, were the dead waited. As the bringer of new life, the sun’s bright rays kissed them at the very moment of the winter solstice. It was time to be reborn. This sacred moment was witnessed by the living, who were  alert and ready to support the miracle. Maybe they even chanted the songs that helped the divine in her midnight blue robe do her job, just as in this old folk tale from the Roma?


     The old Man and the Sun Boy

 Late at night, an old man dragged himself through a forest. In one hand he carried a lantern, its candle nearly burnt down, and in the other he held a stick on which he leaned. Exhausted he went deeper and deeper into the forest, every step heavier than the one before. The light of the candle only glowed weakly, and when his legs could hardly carry him any longer, the old man came to a house that stood in the middle of the forest. White smoke rose from it. He dragged himself towards it and knocked on the door. At the same moment the wick of the candle extinguished and the old man collapsed.

 The door opened and an old, strong woman in a midnight blue robe stepped out. She took the old man on her strong arms and carried him into the house to the fire. There she sat down with him and weighed him like a child in her lap, singing quietly: "La Lu-nahnah, La Lu-nahnah, Mm-MmMm".

 Hour after hour she sat and cradled the man who was sleeping and sang her song, and with every hour the latter became younger. The thin, white hair gained color and fullness, the matte, old body tightened and the wrinkled skin on the face smoothed. Slowly, the old man became a man and the man a youth and still the old woman swayed him and sang: "La Lu-nahnah, La Lu-nahnah, Mm-Mm-Mm". In the end, the young man turned into a golden-haired young boy who slumbered quietly in the lap of the singer.

 But then the night was over. The old woman plucked three of the golden hairs from the boy's hair and threw them onto the stone floor. "Pling, pling, pling", did it as they fell on the floor. From this the young man woke up. Hurriedly he jumped down from the old woman's lap, ran to the door, opened it ... and ascended to its heavenly orbit as a radiant golden morning sun.


 At the end of their night-long chanting, our ancestor’s ritual must have come to an end when the first three golden rays of the reborn sun fell onto the stone of the site: “pling, pling, pling.” It was the moment of relief, the moment of joy and resurrection.


May the winter solstice bring you the same new hope for a blessed new year as it did for our ancestors!


If you like this story, please share it with your family and friends.


[1]  Temple in the Hills and Bluestone Magic by Robin Heath, Bluestone Press 2016 and 2010

Copyright Andrea Hofman, 2019

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