Monday, June 22, 2009

Stonehenge's pagans aren't a patch on pagans of the past

Stonehenge's pagans aren't a patch on pagans of the past

Modern pagans have got the wrong day and should be celebrating tomorrow on Midsummer Eve, says Melanie McDonagh.

By Melanie McDonagh Published: 6:51AM BST 22 Jun 2009

Stonehenge was probably the place not to be yesterday at 4.58am. The site had been turned into a cross between the Glastonbury Festival and the Notting Hill Carnival, with an estimated 36,500 revellers waiting for sunrise on the Summer Solstice, including assorted druids, Wicca devotees, King Arthur Pendragon (formerly known as John Rothwell), a few recreational drug-users and thousands of people out for as good a time as you can have at that hour of day.

According to King Arthur Pendragon, the police and security guards were going round wishing everyone a Happy Solstice. A druid, Frank Somers, reverently interviewed by the BBC, declared that ceremonies were a means of reconnecting with Nature. English Heritage, custodian of the site, was happy; everyone was happy.

I hate to sound a discordant note, but if you want to connect with the past, the day (or night) to celebrate Midsummer Eve is tomorrow, June 23. That's St John's Eve, preceding the feast of St John the Baptist. That night is still marked with bonfires all over Europe. And it was celebrated with the most extraordinary festivities in England until Henry VIII and the Reformation spoiled the fun.

Read the Tudor antiquarian John Stow on what were called the marching watches of St John's Eve: enormous processions of guilds and militia bearing blazing candelabra stretched for miles through London. It was a saint's day combined with what were probably ancient midsummer customs, a bit of cross-dressing of which medieval commentators approved. They thought it was the solstice, too.

The modern pagan solstice is fiction. The distinguished historian Ronald Hutton, author of the most sympathetic accounts of modern paganism, The Triumph of the Moon and Blood and Mistletoe, demolishes the notion that there's the remotest continuity between pre-Christian paganism and the druids and priestesses performing made-up rituals yesterday. Rosemary Hill, author of a wonderful book on Stonehenge, also describes its recent provenance.
In short, if you want to celebrate midsummer in the genuine, time-honoured way, put the bonfires on hold until tomorrow.

*We're in church fete season. I went to one this weekend, and it was the usual glorious display of heroic amateurism, dangerously dependent on good weather. My small boy failed miserably to knock a coconut off a shy, but he did hit a cloth rat with a mallet, and got a rubbish prize, which made his day. Looking at the home-made bunting, the second-hand clothes stall (hand-knit baby cardigans for 75p), the used book stand (the complete Winnie the Pooh for £3), the passed-on bottles for the tombola, it struck me that it's very much of the moment. It's anti-consumerist: practically everything is donated. Like the Freecycle network (which matches people who have things they don't want with people who want them), it keeps bric-a-brac out of landfill. Like the pre-cycle movement (bet you hadn't heard of that one: it's about avoiding waste by making your own things), it's big on homemade items. But the church fete does its bit without making a fuss, except a bit of bragging in the parish newsletter.

*Cameron Diaz stars in a film about saviour siblings, My Sister's Keeper, released this week. It's about the efforts by a girl, genetically selected to save her sister from leukaemia, to fight off her parents' attempts to use her body. It has been criticised as gross exaggeration. But given that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act made it possible to create children to provide organs or bone marrow for sick siblings, I'd say it's right on target.

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