What was the relationship between the Druids and nature? The excerpt below from Druids: A Very Short Introduction looks at seasonal cycles, the winter solstice, and how the Druids charted the movement of the sun, moon, and stars:
How far back in time European communities began to recognize and chart the movements of the sun, moon, and stars it is impossible to say, but for the mobile hunting bands of the Palaeolithic period, following large herds through the forests of Europe and returning to base camps when the hunt was over, the ability to navigate using the stars would have been vital to existence. Similarly, indicators of the changing seasons would have signalled the time to begin specific tasks in the annual cycle of activity. For communities living by the sea, the tides provided a finer rhythm while tidal amplitude could be related to lunar cycles, offering a precise system for estimating the passage of time. The evening disappearance of the sun below the horizon must have been a source of wonder and speculation. Living close to nature, with one’s very existence depending upon seasonal cycles of rebirth and death, inevitably focused the mind on the celestial bodies as indicators of the driving force of time. Once the inevitability of the seasonal cycles was fully recognized, it would have been a short step to believing that the movements of the sun and the moon had a controlling power over the natural world.
The spread of food-producing regimes into western Europe in the middle of the 6th millennium led to a more sedentary lifestyle and brought communities closer to the seasonal cycle, which governed the planting of crops and the management of flocks and herds. A proper adherence to the rhythm of time, and the propitiation of the deities who governed it, ensured fertility and productivity.
The sophistication of these early Neolithic communities in measuring time is vividly demonstrated by the alignments of the megalithic tombs and other monuments built in the 4th and 3rd millennia. The great passage tomb of New Grange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland was carefully aligned so that at dawn on the day of the midwinter solstice the rays of the rising sun would shine through a slot in the roof and along the passage to light up a triple spiral carved on an orthostat set at the back of the central chamber. The contemporary passage grave at Maes Howe on Orkney was equally carefully placed so that the light of the setting sun on the midwinter solstice would flow down the side of the passage before filling the central chamber at the end. The passage grave of Knowth, in the same group as New Grange, offers further refinements.
Here there are two separate passages exactly aligned east to west: the west-facing passage captures the setting sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), while the east-facing passage is lit up by the rising sun on the same days. The nearby passage grave of Dowth appears to respect other solar alignments and, although it has not been properly tested, there is a strong possibility that the west-south-west orientation of its main passage was designed to capture the setting sun on the winter cross-quarter days (November and February) half way between the equinox and the solstice.
Other monuments, most notably stone circles, have also been claimed to have been laid out in relation to significant celestial events. The most famous is Stonehenge, the alignment of which was deliberately set to respect the midsummer sunrise and the midwinter sunset.
From the evidence before us there can be little doubt that by about 3000 BC the communities of Atlantic Europe had developed a deep understanding of the solar and lunar calendars – an understanding that could only have come from close observation and careful recording over periods of years. That understanding was monumentalized in the architectural arrangement of certain of the megalithic tombs and stone circles. What was the motivation for this we can only guess – to pay homage to the gods who controlled the heavens?; to gain from the power released on these special days?; to be able to chart the passing of the year? – these are all distinct possibilities. But perhaps there was another motive. By building these precisely planned structures, the communities were demonstrating their knowledge of, and their ability to ‘contain’, the phenomenon: they were entering into an agreement with the deities – a partnership – which guaranteed a level of order in the chaos and uncertainty of the natural world.
The people who made the observations and recorded them, and later coerced the community into the coordinated activity that created the remarkable array of monumental structures, were individuals of rare ability – the keepers of knowledge and the mediators between common humanity and the gods. They were essential to the wellbeing of society, and we can only suppose that society revered them.