A talk I gave towards the end of the day at the 2015 Winter Solstice program arranged by The Goddesses of Shining Light. Note, it's a quick sketch, not a scholarly treatise! (In a couple of places I refer to things said earlier in the day.)
The Ceremonies of the Ancient Celts and Druids
As mentioned earlier, by doing ceremony here and now we are connecting with generations and centuries past. And as far as we know, those ancient ceremonies were not so very different from those which we have conducted here today. It happens that by now we know quite a lot. In areas that were occupied by the Celts in both France and Britain, archaeologists have found enough evidence of ancient seasonal festivals to give us an idea of the way they were conducted.
Actually one can't really separate the Celts and the Druids. The Celts were the people, Druidry their religion — though not everybody officiated in the religion, just as not everyone in our society is a minister or priest. ‘Druids’ was the name for the priests and priestesses of that culture. (They also had roles as bards, healers and seers.) It is clear from traces of old stone circles that remain that, contrary to some assumptions, Druidry was a cult of the moon as well as the sun, with a matriarchal, fertility side. Nevertheless the sun was of great and obvious importance, being vital to life on earth. The ancient circular structures were sometimes oriented to stars such as Sirius, but most often to the midsummer sun or to the sun's birth in midwinter — that point in the cycle that we ourselves have reached at this time.
Modern research suggests that both the Celts and their Druidic practices evolved from Neolithic times, with input from the early Britons when the Celts arrived there. This proto-Druidry then evolved into what we now think of as classical Druidry — that is, the Druids whom Caesar described, and the image that comes to mind when we ourselves think of the ancient Druids.
It appears that Druidry and what we now call Wicca were two branches from the same trunk, two versions of that original religion. After the Romans spread their Empire throughout Europe and imposed their own religion, the original religion went underground for centuries. Both strands became secret for a long time, and still have elements of secrecy today, revealed only to initiates. During this long underground period, the old religions were kept alive by a secret oral tradition. That last is disputed by some people; but, having studied both Druidic and Wiccan traditions and taken part in their ceremonies, I'm persuaded that there is reason to believe it.
As you know, there has been a great revival of these ancient traditions. New versions of both religions have arisen. The ever-emerging archaeological evidence increasingly supports the opinion that the ways of Neo-Pagan worship do indeed echo the old ways.
Just as we have done here today, people gathered in a circle. These were, and are, nature religions. When possible, people gathered, as they still do, outdoors — sometimes inside a stone circle they had already created, or within a grove of trees. In cold weather they gathered around fires — often, of necessity, indoors. Parts of Europe can get very cold indeed.
In their circles they honoured the four directions, as we did in the Temple of Diana today, and the elements associated with those directions. They danced, they sang, they feasted. They told stories and recited poems. Their poems were their stories, put into verse to make them easier to remember. It was always an oral tradition in those days, and depended on being memorised. It was surely natural enough to preserve and disseminate it in the same way when it went underground.
Their festivals were seasonal, and each one was a farewelling of the old season just past, and a welcome to the new one just beginning. They used this time to symbolically banish the ills of the previous season, putting those things behind them with the season itself — just as we today burned in the fire the lists of things we no longer want in our lives, creating an opening for new and better things to come.
Winter was very important in those old agrarian societies. Preceding Winter Solstice were the harvest festivals, in late Summer and at the Autumn Equinox. If you hadn't reaped and stored a sufficient harvest, Winter became dangerous, even fatal. The whole community could starve. People lived and behaved as communities then, not just as separate families. When they got through the winter, it was a time for great public rejoicing and thanksgiving. It was very literally a time of rebirth into light and life as the days now gradually started to get longer, moving toward Spring, when the crops would grow again and young animals be born. Winter Solstice was the beginning of the ancient New Year.
It is also known as Yule, and of course in the Northern Hemisphere it happens in December. Its significance as a time of new birth gave rise to the assignment of that time of year to Christmas and the birth of the Christ child.
The Druids call it Alban Arthan (the Light of Arthur) linking it to King Arthur. Today we are most familiar with one version of the Arthurian legend, the medieval or Romance version. In fact the story can be traced to nine different versions of Arthur, some historical, some magickal, some mystical, and some to do with the fertility of the land. There are parallels with other stories, such as that of Osiris. I'm sure we could find many parallel stories around the world. These ideas are deeply embedded in the human psyche — certainly in areas where the Celts lived and thrived. There is even an astronomical version, to do with the Northern Hemisphere constellations of the Bears, representing Guardianship. The name Arthur means Bear. The seven brightest stars of the Great Bear are known as the Plough, and Arthur then becomes the ploughman, preparing the ground for seed.
Whatever the story, whatever the origin, whatever the details, whatever the interpretation, one thing is constant. Arthur is always a saviour, appearing at just the right time to save the land from the forces of darkness. In that sense he is also the newborn Sun God, and therefore synonymous with Winter Solstice in the Druidic ceremonies.
Ross Nichols, one of the founders of modern Druidry, says, in The Book of Druidry, that Alban Arthan is,
Essentially a death-birth — the death of the old sun and temporary victory of the dark, the birth of the child-sun from darkness on the horns of the moon, the seed-period of life-spirit. [The] tiny light-seed or the first ray of [the] Light is represented as coming from the horns of Night as mother. All Christmas and New Year celebrations are from these ideas.
Here, of course, Christmas and New Year are six months away, but this is our Winter Solstice, or Yule, and the deeper significance is similar. A modern Australian Wiccan, Fiona Horne, in her book, Witch: a personal journey, has this to say about Yule:
The Goddess gives birth to the Child of Promise in the longest night.
From the greatest darkness emerges the strongest spark.
Reaching down deep into the psyche, in the face of greatest adversity, results in tapping into true unconditional joy.
Yule is the time of the Great Feast when the last of the winter stores would be used up in joyful abandon and defiance of fear, resting secure in the knowledge that the Mother will always provide.
Gifts are exchanged and people share cheer and courage in the longest night. The Goddess rewards our optimism and trust with the birth of the sun.
And that is one difference between the ancient ceremonies and this one. Fiona Horne suggests staying up all night with candles lit, to see in the dawn. We're not doing that here, as a group, but you might choose to do it for yourself, if you wish. The ancient peoples, I like to believe, would in some places have kept vigil together by firelight. And, as we heard earlier, there were places where they waited in total darkness for the return of the light.
Finally, Horne says:
Make plans for the coming year. As the Sun/son gains in strength, so dreams gain strength to manifest in reality.
You might not choose to stay up all night and see in the dawn; but you can reflect, before you sleep, on the things you wish to bring in as the light returns, holding them as promises to yourself. And of course, you don't have to stay up all night in order to greet the new sun tomorrow. It will rise at 6.38.