One of the most peculiar features of Stonehenge is a small circle of holes tangential to the main circle. Hoyle discovered that it could be used to calculate the date of the fall equinox, which therefore was an important day 5000 years ago. But important how? Are there any clues about that? Yes, not proofs, but definitely clues worth thinking about.
The classical Greek calendar was calibrated so that the Eleusinian Mysteries began at the full moon nearest the fall equinox. The oldest temple of Demeter at Eleusis dates to about 1500 BCE; its architecture is related to that of Crete, which civilization dates back to about 2500 BCE, and legend says that Demeter came from Crete. The Eleusinian myth and ritual, about the loss and recovery of Kore), obviously focused on offering an explanation of death, our one certainty, which we try so hard to be unsure about, and an afterlife, the embodiment of that uncertainty.
In the Second Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Queen Metaneira of Eleusis interrupts Demeter, who has been searching for Kore, while she is about to make Metaneira’s son Demophon (which means “voice of the people”) immortal in the fire, and Demeter then founds the Mysteries. I will save a description of what the main “secret” ritual of the Mysteries was until we get to Boedromion 21, but will mention now that, as you will see, the Eleusinian ritual is the Greek correlate to the story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of a boy rescued from death; both stories go back to a prototype in the kind of literature from about 1500 BCE discovered at Ugarit and Ras Shamra. I don’t know offhand if there is a specific connection between the story of Isaac and the two holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but those days almost always frame the fall equinox, as they do this year.
One cannot figure out how a myth evolved by reasoning backward; that’s like trying to push a string. But given a starting point, the history of the evolution becomes clear. For example, why is there a combination of a city named Thebes and a sphinx in both Egypt and Greece? Consider the myth of Cadmus and Europa: at the end of their lives, they became dragons guarding the treasury of Thebes. Visualize two winged serpents flanking a square object. Now visualize the cherubim, winged serpents, guarding the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem. Same image. What is the connection? The name Thebes is derived from the Semitic root teba, which meant “ark.” In other words, these stories arose from two different interpretations of a bas relief. (I learned all this from the research of some wonderful Russian classicists.)
There was also a variant of the Kore type of myth, in which Theseus and Herakles rescue Helen of Troy from the underworld. So at this point there seems to be a complex of myths associating the fall equinox with the rescue of a young person from death, datable back to about 1500 BCE. Might that association go back even farther, to perhaps 3000 BCE, because of that secondary circle at Stonehenge?
Back in 1973, I was putting together a “Pagan-Craft” calendar—the first of its kind, as far as I know—listing the holidays, astrological aspects, and other stuff of interest to Pagans. It offended my aesthetic sensibilities that there seemed to be no Pagan names for the summer solstice or the fall equinox equivalent to Ostara or Beltane—so I decided to supply them.Summer was easy. The Saxon calendar described by the Venerable Bede was lunisolar. Its last and first months were named Foreyule and Afteryule, respectively, and obviously framed the holiday of Yule. The sixth and seventh months were names Forelitha and Afterlitha; furthermore, when the thirteenth month was added, it went in between them, and the year was then called a Threelitha. Obviously the summer solstice must have been called Litha. (I later discovered that Tolkien had figured this out also.
Another oddity of this Saxon calendar was that the fall equinox could occur in either of two months, depending on the intercalation cycle. Whichever month it fell in was called Halegmonat, that is, “Holy month,” and the other month was given a mundane name. So obviously the fall equinox was special to the Saxons also. Still trying to find a name for it, I began wondering if there had been a myth similar to that of Kore in a Celtic culture. There was nothing very similar in the Gaelic literature, but there was in the Welsh, in the Mabinogion collection, the story of Mabon ap Modron (which translates as “Son of the Mother,” just as Kore simply meant “girl”), whom Gwydion rescues from the underworld, much as Theseus rescued Helen. That’s why I picked “Mabon” as a name for the holiday; it was not an arbitrary choice. I sent a copy of the resulting calendar to Oberon (then still Tim), who liked these new names and began using them in Green Egg, whence they passed into the national Pagan vocabulary.
So, we know “Mabon” was important at Stonehenge 5000 years ago. The knowledge of solstices, equinoxes, and eclipses it encodes may have been inherited from people descended from the inhabitants of the city under the sea. Could such knowledge have survived that long? Remember those Turkish farmers. Their families had always lived there, and they remembered where Troy had been, 3000 years earlier. Humans preserved an astonishing amount of data by oral tradition before writing was invented. The cities that succeeded the one under the sea, themselves now submerged, would have existed much less than 3000 years before the first version of Stonehenge was built; so it is possible (though with an incalculable probability) that “Mabon” is one of the oldest festivals that humanity celebrates, perhaps predating the blossoming of modern religions about 600 BCE by 6000 or more years. I think that’s interesting to think about.
By the way, since the globe has been warming and the sea rising for the last 20,000 years, we are not causing global warming (although our pollution does seem to be speeding the process up a little), nor can we stop it. We are not that powerful.