Flashback Friday: Beltane at ‘The Stonehenge of the North’

Festivals, North Yorkshire

We’re less than a week into the month of May. Let’s mark the arrival of this lovely month by celebrating Beltane.

BELTANE AT THE ‘STONEHENGE OF THE NORTH’

May 1st 2016

Not much further than a mile from us as the crow flies, lies Thornborough Henge. It’s a prehistoric monument consisting of three giant circular earthworks. Constructed 5000 years ago by the first Neolithic (New Stone Age) farmers, it was probably an enclosure for their ritual gatherings. The Henge became an important centre in Britain for pilgrimage and trade, although its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

It sends shivers down my spine to think that this ancient piece of our history lies just a short walk from our home.

An ariel view of Thornborough Henges (photo courtesy of Historic England)

We can visit it any time we choose, simply to tramp round and try to imagine it in its heyday, and we’ll have the place to ourselves.  Not on May Day though.  Today is the Gaelic feast of Beltane, half way between the spring and summer solstices.  It’s a day to mark the beginning of summer. Sadly, today is very cold, rather windy and a bit wet.

Back in pre-historic times, rituals were held on this day to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Bonfires, deemed to have protective powers, were lit.  For many centuries these practices died out.  But nowadays, at sites like Thornborough, pagans, Wiccans, New-Agers and lovers of history and tradition gather once more to celebrate the renewal of life and growth.

Today I was there too.  For an hour at least, for the opening ceremony. Brrr!  It was cold.

The Green Man and his horn.

I was strangely moved.  The Green Man, representing rebirth and the cycle of growth was our Master of Ceremonies.  He invited us all to join hands, whether friends or strangers, in fellowship, and shout out three times the invocation to new life. We hailed Brigantia, Celtic goddess of Northern England.  Then at his bidding and as he sounded his horn, we turned to the east and welcomed the summer rains.  We turned south to welcome the sun (who was coyly absent today), to the west to welcome summer winds, and to the north where the wolves apparently are.

Welcoming the West Wind.

Then a man, naked from the waist upwards save for his covering of woad-coloured paint, leapt among us bearing the flaming torches which would offer us all protection over the coming months.

Protective flames.

And that was the ceremony over.  Dancers entertained us.  They seemed to me to owe much to flamenco and to middle-eastern belly dancing traditions, but we all cheered them on with enthusiasm.

I shan’t be there this year for the closing ceremony.  I’m still thawing out.  But weather permitting, I’ll certainly go along next year.  Will you come along too?

I’m sorry to say I’ve not been since. I would have gone this year, but … cancelled … Covid.

Fandango’s Flashback Friday

41 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: Beltane at ‘The Stonehenge of the North’

    1. That’s just fascinating Frank – thanks so much. We never think of pre-history in the context of Nortn America, but of course you have your share too. Yup, one day is enough in the British climate!

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      1. Yes, not that surprised to see a Green Man on a Christian monastic building – no problem with cultural appropriation in the medieval period. Or, was it more assimilation?

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  1. There is usually a Clun Green Man Festival (Shropshire) where the Green Man has a fight with the Frost Queen on the packhorse bridge. Sadly we never got to see the festivities. In Cornwall they have the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival in Padstow where thousands gather. Not this year or last though and I won’t be heading anywhere there are throngs of people now.

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      1. Indeed. But will you be happy to mix with huge crowds? I’m not a crowd person anyway, but I’m still not keen to be too close to people I don’t know.

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  2. I’ve never taken part in something like this, Margaret (though I approve of cavorting. in general 🙂 ) As close as we got was a spot of Morris dancing on May Day. Not us, personally, you understand. Just interested onlookers.

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  3. We pretty much obliterated our own heritage over the last thousand years. It’s amazing that this was spared, even if we can only guess at the ideas behind it. Especially when you see the farming around it – a chain of individual farmers had enough respect not to flatten it. Given a magical, flying camera I’d love to see a snapshot taken every 250 years going way back when.

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    1. One particular farmer had the knowledge and interest in what he saw to Fight the Good Fight. In Victorian times, the third henge was planted up as woodland. Inauthentic perhaps, but it preserved it, and it’s a wonderful little spot for an atmospheric walk – among the bluebells at this time of year.

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