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Britain's Landscape Symbols and Mysteries: Standing Stones of Callanish


Stone circles and standing stones have always fascinated me, their symbolism and astronomical study undoubtedly render an extra quote to it's complex ritualistic landscape.

The Callanish Stones (or "Callanish I"), Clachan Chalanais or Tursachan Chalanais in Gaelic, are situated near the village of Callanish (Gaelic: Calanais) on the west coast of the isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides (Western Isles), Scotland.


Though there were possibly earlier buildings before 3000 BC, it is said that the construction of the site took place between 2900 and 2600 BC.
A tomb was later built into the site. Debris from the destruction of the tomb suggests the site was out of use between 2000 BC and 1700 BC. The 13 primary stones form a circle about 13 m in diameter, with a long approach avenue of stones to the north, and shorter stone rows to the east, south, and west.

The overall layout of the monument recalls a distorted Celtic cross. The individual stones vary from around 1 m to 5 m in height, with an average of 4 m, and are of the local Lewisian gneiss. The central burial cairn was the last feature added to the site appearing at some stage between 1800BC and 1000BC after which, the site was abandoned and became engulfed in peat
As the cairn appears to have been added to the circle, and chambered cairns are considered to be Neolithic in date, it seems clear that the site in general is also Neolithic.

Archaeologists usually refer to the main monument as "Callanish I", because there are several other megalithic sites in the boundaries

Equinox sunsets ; lunar major standstill ; any clear night, is the best time to visit this site.

There is an outstanding and quite revealing study done by Stephen Whitehead . I will quote some passages which deserve a reading. All rights reserved by the autor

What purpose does the East row serve and why was it built?

Admiral H Boyle Somerville suggested the East row indicated a line to the rising of Pleiades, a group of bright stars which for many cultures had associations with funery rites. At around 1800BC the constellation could be seen rising in the East during the Autumn months. Somerville was an early convert to the field of archeo-astronomy and undertook the the first modern survey of Calanais. He reported his findings in a paper read to the Royal Anthropological Institute and had the same paper published in the British Astronomical Association journal November 1912. My own findings suggest the constellation would have risen some 10 degrees North of the East row position, it would take another hour before the stars rose and crossed the position indicated by the East row. Lines to stars have been largely discounted in the field of Acheo-astronomy in recent times but perhaps this theory deserves closer scrutiny. Much of Sommervilles work centered around lines to stars but he gave us the first evidence that the builders of Calanais where studying the lunar cycles, he found that an alignment accuratley indicated the Northern extreme position of the rising full moon around the time of the Winter solstice during the 18.6 year lunar cycle. He also connected the writings of the Greek writer Diodorus of Siculus to Calanais. There is no evidence Diodorus ever visited Britain it seems he was reporting the tales of an earlier traveler.

In 55 BC Dioddorus wrote: It is said that in this island of the Hyperboreans there is a spherical temple and the moon appears very near to the earth; that certain eminences of a terrestial form are plainly seen upon it; that the god (Apollo) visits the island once in the course of 19 years. During which time the god plays upon the harp,and dances every night from the vernal Equinox to the rising of the Pleiades, pleased with his own successes.

We only know the Hyperboreans lived somewhere far North of Greece, but it's only at the latitude of the Isle of Lewis do we see the moon behave in such a dramatic fashion of which the Greek historian wrote. The work of Gerald Ponting and Margaret and Ronald Curtis, has done much to illustrate this lunar phenomema and the relationship to the range of hills know as the sleeping beauty or the old woman of the moors. When the moon reaches it's southern extreme for one year in every 19 is it seen to rise from behind the sacred hill range and skim the horizon for four hours till it gently sets again behind the Harris hills. This range of hills are as much a part of the monuments as the stones themselves. This landscape is currently under threat from a controversial wind farm development.

No one seemed to take on the mantle of the work carried out by Somerville and Lockyer before him in the years between the wars and beyond. It wasn't until 1963 did a resurgence of interest take place when proffessor Gerald Hawkins of Boston University armed with a computer turned his attentions to Stonehenge. His calculations showed 10 stone alignments to solar azimuths and fourteen to lunar. He also went on to popularise the idea that the 56 holes of the Avbury circle marked the 56 years it takes for the moon to complete it's eclipse cycle. Hawkins also surveyed Calanais and concluded the "Calanais people were as precise as the stonehengers but not as scientifically advanced", not surprising as Calanais pre-dates Stonehenge by 500 years. Hawkins contradicted Sommervilles Pleiades theory and suggested the East row may indicate the Equinoctical moon.


Calanais Plan View


Calanais I (Callanish) Plan View

The Hawkins suggestion intrigued me and led me to study the idea in greater detail. After building the table of moonrise positions for a 19 year period I was able to verify their validity by an eyewitness account in 2002. In my opinion it is most likely the East Row was erected to signify the horizon position of the rising Autumnal full moon (Equinoctial moon, the full moon closest to the solar equinox) in other terms and significantly, the harvest moon. The Autumnal full moon occurs at a different date between the months of September and October each year during the moons 19 year cycle. When the full moon rises at an azimuth of 88, 89 degrees it appears in the exact horizon position as indicated by the Stone row, anything else is extremely close, maybe only a moons diameter or two off. Although the marked moonrise position is accurate in the main over the moons cycle there are years where we see a degree or two deviation. Still, these slight deviations are still unmistakable indicators and don't detract from the event it's self. It is all too easy to dismiss alignments with modern day perceptions of precision. We must remember it is the theatre of the event, the play of light and the ceremonial atmosphere created which is significant and not the critical degree of accuracy. I think it's important to recognise that although the builders studied the heavens and constructed their temples in a scientific manner they were constructing places for ceremony and worship and not solely observatories as some exponents of this line of study have previously suggested. Interestingly, we can see dates for several Lunar eclipses (when the earths shadow passes over the moon) we can only speculate what the Bronze age people made of these events. From the table below we can see the whole 19 year pattern of moon cycles and the individual Autumnal moonrise positions including several eclipse events. It is hoped the table will not only provide evidence to support this theory but will also encourage people to visit the site (or any circle across Britain for that matter) during these dates. During a time when calendars were based on lunations we can not ignore the full moons closest to the equionoxes as for many civilisations past and present they have special significance. Note how the azimuth of 88 89 degrees is the average position for the moonrise and how the moonrise occurs just after the sun sets on the opposite horizon.

Summer’s End, a time of festival

Why would the Autumnal moon be significant to the people who erected the stones? We can find clues to support the idea of a ritual or ceremonial event held at this time of year by looking at other cultural traditions spanning Europe and beyond. Prior to the rise of the Roman empire all calendar systems where based on lunation's, only in the Western world have the lunar cycles been erased from our psyche. This is clearly demonstrated in China. The Chinese Mid Autumn festival to this day takes place at the Equinoctial full moon and is the second most important holiday in China, the Chinese new year being the first. In New Zealand there has been a recent revival of an ancient festival named Matariki, here the combination of the rising Pleiades and the next new moon marks the time of festival and remberance and the start of the Maori New year (May). This festival echoes those of the ancient Celts. There is a Scottish Gaelic word Samhainn or Samhuinn (for the feast). The festival of Samhain is an end of summer celebration and many believe it's the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The Samhainn festival is dedicated to the harvest and the dead and has survived in many guises till this day. We must be careful though, not to directly transpose Iron Age and Medieval Celtic traditions to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, evidence shows the Celts appeared as a society a thousand years after the East row of Calanais (Callanish) was erected. What is demonstrated is the importance of the star and moon cycles in fixing annual festivals to cultures around the globe. Even the Easter festival of the Christian religion is aligned to the moon cycles which is why it falls sometime between late March and early April each year. No doubt a throwback to Pagan times before.

The Sun and Moon in a Theatre of Light

To understand the significance of this event in the yearly calendar we must try to imagine life in the Hebrides 4000 years ago, only by doing this can we begin to understand the hardships and fears people faced. The Bronze age period of stone circle building was a golden era for the Hebrides, a time when it was experiencing a warmer and drier climate than it does today. However, it would be a mistake to imagine life being easy here, the recent discovery of a Bronze Age peat stack discovered on the Isle of Barra paints a picture of life and climate not so different and unrecognisable from now. A Hebridean society, existing as it does today, on the very fringes of Europe.

Summer is at an end, food harvested and safely stored for winter. The mornings grow noticeably colder and days shorten at an alarming rate, a long winter looms ahead. Many families face the coming winter with trepidation, aware not all of them will see the new spring. Have they enough food to survive or will it perish or be stolen, have they harvested enough peat and fire wood to keep them warm, and will their house stand strong, and provide protection through the winter storms the Atlantic Ocean will inevitably throw at them. The Pleiades are spotted in the night sky, a community is busy as it gathers and prepares for a festival as the full moon nears, from miles around whole families make the pilgrimage to the ritual landscape of Calanais (Callanish), a chance to make offerings to the gods and the ancestors in thanks for the harvest and in return for safe passage through the winter. So at Calanais (Callanish) the stage is set, for an hour or so and for a few days every year, a short stone row marks a position on the horizon where the Autumnal full moon rises in opposition to a setting sun in the west, signifying an end to the abundance and richness of summer, hailing the dominance of night over day as winter approaches. At this time Calanais (Callanish) becomes not only the central point of ritual and festivity for the community, but also it would appear the pivotal point around which their deities revolve.
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