Practicing and exploring what it is to be a pagan means being part of a spiritual movement that has existed since the ancient Greek and Roman times. Most Pagan festivals and sacred locations are meant to celebrate its connection to the cycles of nature through rituals or ceremonies of various kinds. Pagans celebrate up to eight festivals known as Sabbats each year. They comprise the four solar quarters i.e. the two solstices (longest and shortest days) and the two equinoxes (day and night are the same length). All these mark important events in the cycle of life and also symbolize changes in the Goddess and God. If you would like to learn more about the eights Sabbats, my next blog will focus on the holy days of Paganism.
Pagan Festivals are held in various locations around the world. Whether it’s on a campsite in the USA, a forested wetland in Canada or a prehistoric monument in Great Britain, the purpose of the gatherings are always the same; celebrating spiritual traditions based on philosophies from a number of paths that cross in the Pagan community. For the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the sights in Britain due to their history and legends.
Pagan festivals are all about exploring the Pagan philosophy of life and allowing the practitioners to open themselves up to its wonder. It’s a collaboration of people with similar beliefs rather than a religion. There is no holy text, dogma, or formal clergy. Most Pagan festivals have a variety of workshops, training programs, and educational events enjoyed by all practitioners. They gather to worship, feast, sing, and make music.
Not all pagans worship at sacred sites however. Wiccans particularly tend to practice their rituals in private, often indoors, or at least away from public viewing. Druids, on the other hand, tend to conduct their rituals in public and have been known to be “Stonehenge worshippers” (Wallis and Blain, 2003). Since most pagans believe that their gods and goddesses are present in nature, they have no fixed temples in which to worship. When they do gather for their celebrations, they often come together in a circle formation, allowing everyone to play equal parts of the celebration. Because of the natural settings of the stone circles, they have been using these locations for as long as many Pagans can remember.
Stone Circles in Britain have dated as far back as 2600 BC and have been shown to have strong associations with geometry and astronomy (ancient-wisdom.co.uk) possibly as solar and lunar observatories. Although there are hundreds of stone circles, many are used for special occasions that have meaning for the Pagan worshipers of the region. For instance, Avebury stone circle is the largest stone circle in existence and is used during the summer solstice ceremony. Whereas, the Uisneach Hill in Ireland is thought to have been where the first Beltane fires were lit, a celebration that takes place on April 30th in the evening, until the sun went down on May 1st. This was done in celebration of the second half of the ancient Celtic year. And, in Scotland, there is the Ring of Brodgar, which is located in Orkeney. This is a location that is often used for Wiccan hand-fasting ceremonies (see my previous blog – Wicca – A Modern Religion with an Ancient Past).
One very noteworthy stone circle that must be discussed is Stonehenge. Stonehenge has been a gathering site for thousands of years for various celebrations and ceremonies, but it’s only in recent years that people have congregated in large numbers for the worshiping of the solstice. Located in Wiltshire, UK, it is probably the most famous prehistoric monument in Britain. The exact reason why Stonehenge was built is unknown but theories range anywhere from the worshiping of the sun and moon to that of human sacrifices. Even as far back as the seventeenth century, speculation of the use of Stonehenge existed. For instance, English antiquarian by the name of John Aubrey believed that the British Druids built Stonehenge. This belief was enforced by the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley (Cusack, 2012) despite there never being has evidence to support this fact. Human burials, festivals of thanks, animal sacrifice, or pathways to the gods all of these uses are possibilities. But it’s quite likely that we may never know why or by whom Stonehenge was built.
The location has become so popular that there is now a festival that takes place every year, (see link below) which brings a sense of spiritual bonding experience rather than a party-going atmosphere. In attendance are Neopagan practitioners (as I mentioned in a previous blog, are the modern-day Pagans which includes the Wiccan community and Druid practitioners along with others) who conduct ancient rites and rituals. In 2001, an estimated crowd of 14,500 people celebrated the summer solstice at Stonehenge (Wallis and Blain, 2003).
One individual who attended a Pagan ceremony at Stonehenge described her experience as such:
‘A woman dressed in an embroidered light-blue robe steps forward and lifts the chalice from the altar. In it is water from Chalice Well in Glastonbury, and three drops of All-Heal, a Druidic healing essence made from mistletoe harvested from an oak tree. The lady in blue slowly circumnavigates the ring of people, offering each one of us a sip of the chalice as she passes. When everyone has had a sip, she lets some fall onto the ground, an offering to the Goddess.’ (stonehenge.co.uk)
It is said that Avalon is the spiritual heart of British Paganism. Located near the town of Glastonbury, the history, mythology and mysteries of British Paganism has existed since at least the fifth and sixth centuries (bardsongpress).
In 1971, the Glastonbury Festival was first held to celebrate the summer solstice, but was banned afterwards, due to the very large, unruly crowds. However, after much discussion with the heritage site, the Druids of the area were given permission to once again use the location. Now, this annual event takes place in the fields at Pilton five miles away from Glastonbury. Overlooking the area is Glastonbury Tor, a magnificent holy hill with an old church tower at its peak. Glastonbury Tor remains a site for Pagan ceremonies and pilgrimages that include the Summer solstice and Beltane. Worship there predates Christianity and its pagan history predates the written record (glastonburytor.org.uk). Glastonbury Tor, which is encircled by seven levels of terraces, which many believe, is an ancient ritual labyrinth that corresponds to a magical diagram (sacred-destinations.com). At the foot of Glastonbury Tor the red and white wells flow and mingle together as they have done since before men and women trod the sacred land. It is one of the greatest mysteries of the Isle of Avalon that two different healing springs, one touched red with iron, the other white with calcite, should rise within a few feet of each other from the caverns beneath Glastonbury Tor. It is believed that both wells have healing properties in their flow.
Legend has it that when Joseph of Arimathaea, the man who is credited with burying Jesus after his crucifixion, built the Glastonbury Abbey nearby and founded the community of Glastonbury in 63 AD. When he first visited the Isle of Avalon, it is said that when he awoke from a nap one day, and his walking staff had grown roots into the ground. It blossomed into a holy thorn, that to this day, still thrives on the grounds of the abbey. It is said that below that thorn, he buried the Holy Grail, thus connecting the myths of the Holy Grail between Paganism and Christianity. The nearby town of Glastonbury is thus sacred to both religions as well as many others who can feel the energies of Avalon just behind the veil (Glastonburyabbey.com). Then, in 1191, the bodies of King Arthur and his lady Guinevere were allegedly found buried on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. And because many Pagans have worshiped Arthur as a god, it has been a very popular location for worshipers.
There are several other sites that are sacred to pagans, wiccans and druids, as well as those who follow a different spiritual path, but unfortunately, I am unable to list them all. If you are interested in learning more about the festivals, I have included a small sample of what there is to offer.
Cusack, Carole M. “Charmed Circle: Stonehenge, Contemporary Paganism, and Alternative Archaeology.” Numen: International Review For The History Of Religions 59, no. 2/3 (February 2012): 138-155.
Glastonbury Abbey at www.Glastonburyabbey.com
Glastonbury Tor at www.Glastonburytor.org.uk
Hutton, Ronald. 2006. Witches, Druids and King Arthur – Hambledon Continuum, London.
North, John. 1997. Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos. London: Harper Collins
Sacred Destinations at www.sacred-destinations.com
Stonehenge.co.uk – Your Guide to Stonehenge at www.stonehenge.co.uk/ceremony
Wallis, Robert J., and Jenny Blain. “Sites, sacredness, and stories: interactions of archaeology and contemporary paganism.” Folklore no. 3 (2003): 307. Literature Resource Center.