Druids and moon worship in the sacred landscape of Callanish

Druids and moon worship in the sacred landscape of Callanish

Isle of Lewis, Scotland, Britain.

A member of a druid organisation beats farewell to the sun as she waits for the lunar standstill.

IT HAD been unseasonably hot all day and the great standing stones at Callanish shimmered in the setting sun. These Neolithic giants stood out among the throng of people. The Isle of Lewis might be the end of the road, yet a crowd of nearly 200 had trekked to this ancient site in the Outer Hebrides to bear witness to a most unusual spectacle and sate their spiritual need.

They stood out against the bleached greens and greys of the Lewis countryside. Flame-haired druids beating drums, dowsers with brass rods reflecting the sunlight, pagans, moon worshippers, hippies, shamans and witches were all there, facing west into their sacred landscape awaiting the goddess.

The crowd are encouraged to give thanks to the earth.

It is probable that Callanish (or Calanais) which comprises two other stone circles in addition to the main site - was built some 5,000 years ago as a lunar calendar. The path of the moon, unlike the reliably annual tracks of the sun, only returns to the same point once every 18.6 years. Callanish plots this slow progress, building to a crescendo in the 19th year at the lunar standstill - when the path of the moon is so low that it seems to walk along the horizon before setting within the stone circle.

Callanish's mystery to the expectant crowd is not merely in the stones, but in their setting within a sacred landscape. To the south-west of the stones is a low, undulating hill known to the local people in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach - the old woman of the moors, or Sleeping Beauty as she is more affectionately known. The contours look irresistibly like a reclining woman. At the lunar standstill the moon rises from behind this hill, tip-toes across her supine body and sets four hours later behind the Clisham, another sacred hill.

This moonwalk will happen throughout the summer once a month until September, and will draw hundreds for a number of reasons. Some people come to worship the full moon, others to witness the goddess walking the earth. All come in expectation of a spiritual experience and to feel the energy of the planet.

Grenville Prowse from Cornwall dowses for ley lines amongst the stones.

Margaret Curtis has been studying and uncovering stone circles in Lewis for 30 years and is clear that the purpose of Callanish was to witness this sacred moment.

"It was a ritualistic place. The circles were located so you could view the moon through it and watch the moon rise through mother earth within the confines of the circles."

It is this symbolic rising and setting of the moon - representing birth, death and rebirth - that the pagans and druids also believe. They have come to share in the earth's energy and give praise to the full moon on her journey along the Sleeping Beauty.

"We're archaeology nuts and pagans," explains Constance Moore, from Cornwall. "Pagans believe in the goddess the goddess is the earth and everything in it. And it looks like prehistoric people believed in the goddess and that's why places like this were put up."

Moore and her partner came equipped with dowsing rods. They quickly traced a strong ley line running between the three sites at Callanish. They think that the stones were placed here because of this energy, but also believe that performing rituals here strengthens the earth's energy.

The small village of Callanish is overrun with campers and tents as the population is swollen by the visiting pilgrims.

The goddess, though, was keeping a very low profile. Saturday night, when the moon was almost full, proved a disappointment as the cloud cover was too thick for any moonbeams to break through. Despite intense drumming and long, low drones on the diggeridoo to lift the clouds, the moon remained hidden.

By half past eight the next night Callanish was humming with even more people. Lynne Sinclair-Wood had come all the way from Australia to hold an Aboriginal flag against the stones as the sun went down.

"This is a piece of traditional batik, which has symbolism about planet life and women's stories," says Sinclair-Wood. "I held the flag up until the sun set, so the energy of the old cycles could be released."

Even as she carried out her ritual in Lewis, back home her Aboriginal sisters were conducting similar ceremonies too. They believe that the two places are connected and that at times like this they need to be conjoined. Sinclair-Wood has been coming to Lewis for 27 years and learned her lore from a local woman, who shared with her the knowledge of the stones.

Don't miss next week's lunar standstill photo gallery, showing the spectacular phenomenon in all its glory.

"She taught the old religions and belief," says Sinclair-Wood. "It is all to do with the regeneration of the land, the land is re-energised at the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one and everyone who witnesses it is too."

As the evening crept forward and the sun sank slowly in the north, people hugged the stones and performed rituals. As the moon threatened another non-appearance the atmosphere changed. From around the stones sporadic drum beats began. Ululations split the air as a collective prayer for the clouds to lift flowed out from the crowd.

At midnight, when hope was almost lost, a shimmering light was seen in the west. Gently, teasingly from behind the body of the Sleeping Beauty, the moon began her slow ascent. It was a huge, fat, sleepy, creamy circle, full and enormous - it transported everyone to a time when others would have watched this same event here five millennia ago.

An ancient cry rose from among the stones and joyous shouts echoed around. But then, strangest and most extraordinary of all there came the sound of singing. Psalms Gaelic Free Church hymns flooded the air as God-fearing villagers inched forward into the circle. They had come to remind the "unchurched" that what should be worshiped was the Creator, not the creation.

Slowly, the drums and pipes and whistles changed their beat to compliment the singers. The spiritual did come to Callanish, but perhaps not in the way that the far-travelled searchers had envisaged.
It's really fantastic to be able to hold such a great gathering and to attract positive publicity about it. It is absolutely impossible to do the same in my country. First of all, it probably wouldn't be allowed by the authorities, then the church will probably send some of its priests and followers (with crow bars) to chase everyone away, and then the press will howl about the terrible gathering of awful Satan-worshippers. I really envy you guys...
I'm glad that it was a happy ritual as well.

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