Why pagans party at Stonehenge on solstice

Solstice, it only happens twice a year.

This past weekend, as happens every summer solstice, something special reportedly happened at Stonehenge. As the Associated Press reported:

Thousands of neo-Druids, New Age followers and the merely curious flocked to Stonehenge on Sunday, beating drums, chanting and dancing in celebration of the longest day of the year.

The ancient stone circle at the prehistoric monument in southern England is the site of an annual night-long party -- or religious ceremony, depending on perspective -- marking the northern hemisphere's summer solstice.

"There has been a great atmosphere and where else would you want to be on midsummer's day?" said Peter Carson of English Heritage, who is in charge of the monument.

Camera flashes bounced off the stones through the night until patchy rays of sunlight peaked through the clouds at 4:58 a.m. BST (0358GMT). A weak cheer went up as dawn broke and an estimated 35,000 people, some of them wrapped in blankets, greeted the sunrise.

Police arrested about 30 people on charges including drug offenses, assault and drunk and disorderly conduct, but said the event was largely peaceful.

"They come for a complete range of reasons," said archaeologist Dave Batchelor of English Heritage, the site's caretaker. "Some belong to the Druidic religion and think of it as a temple, others think of it as a place of their ancestors, or for tranquility and others come to see it as a way to celebrate the changing of the seasons."

The AP reporter goes on to discuss the mystery surrounding Stonehenge. Is it an ancient burial ground or the temple of some sun-worshipping society? And how in the world did its creators ever relocate from up to 150 miles away those several-ton stones that dwarf the stage props in "This is Spinal Tap!"

But what the reporter makes no mention of is why Druids feel a religious connection to Stonehenge. Or, for that matter, what exactly a Druid is.

All I know about Druids comes from Spaceballs, but I'm pretty sure the troubles of the Druish Princess Vespa has little to do with what went on at Stonehenge Sunday. Those neo-Druids consider themselves the ancestors descendants of a group that figures heavily in Celtic mythology. The Druids were reportedly wiped out by the Roman Empire in the first century. But their pagan legacy lives on.

Peter Berresford Ellis writes in A Brief History of the Druids:

Many will remember being taught at school that the Romans saw the Druids as bizarre, barbaric priests who indulged in the most horrendous human sacrifices, searching for auguries in the entrails of their victims. According to others, they were simply ancient patriarchal religious mystics, generally portrayed in white robes and beards, who worshipped nature, particularly trees, and who gathered in stone circles to perform religious rites at the time of the solstice. To some they were powerful magicians and soothsayers.

Well, that explains why neo-Druids would congregate at Stonehenge every year, though I'm still not sure what solstice or stones have to do with this religion. And it would have been nice if the AP could have helped the reader out a bit with this one.

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