Mind the clouds, feel the solstice

The summer solstice began with a gloomy, grey-streaked sunrise at Stonehenge this morning.

Around 17,000 people, fewer than the expected 25,000, gathered to greet the longest day of the year with drinks, chanting and spiritual openness. An hour-long downpour at 2am took some of the fun out of the party, but as the sun struggled to make itself seen, a chorus went up: "Feel the solstice!"

Today was the seventh solstice that druids, hippies, pagans and the curious have been able to celebrate at the stone circle since it was re-opened for sun worshipping in 2000. Fears of "hippy invasions" and the Pagans for Peace movement in the 1980s led to years of restrictions and a police guard at the site.

For more Stonehenge, 5,000 years old and bewildering as ever, try the English Heritage website - www.english-heritage.org.uk (external - login to view) - and the informative work of the Megalithic Society - www.stonehenge-avebury.net (external - login to view) - which keeps a voluminous website devoted to the big stones and the circle at Avebury nearby. Where did it come from? What is it for?

Stonehenge isn't the only place for a solstice. The Mayan temples of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico are known for their alignment to the sun, its equinoxes and climaxes. At Chíchen ĺtzá, you can watch the shadow of Kulkulkan, the feathered serpent god, slide down a set of stairs. According to this Nasa website of ancient observatories (www.sunearthday.nasa.gov)

"At the appointed hour, the setting sun casts a shadow of a serpent writhing down the northern steps of the pyramid. The sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid's main stairway and causes seven isosceles triangles to form, imitating the body of a serpent 37 yards long that creeps downwards until it joins the huge serpent's head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway."

At Fajada Butte, an ancient site in the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the summer solstice produces a thin "sun dagger" that passes along a holy wall. For more on festivals of the sun, try this map-heavy guide - www.traditionsofthesun.org (external - login to view). In the Republic of Sakha in northern Russia, also known as Yakutia, the solstice marks the climax of Ysyakh, the annual festival of fertility.