Calanais I (Callanish) and the Equinoctial Moon
by Stephen Whitehead
The following article will attempt to establish a relationship between the East row of stones at Calanais I (Callanish), the equinoctial (Autumnal) full moon and the ritualistic or ceremonial importance of such the event. The study is based on astronomical study, field work and knowledge of the ancient civilisations of Europe and beyond. If you'd like to pass comment or have knowledge of similar events elsewhere please do so at the bottom of this page.
Calanais (Callanish) is located on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and home to a fascinating collection of stone circles and standing stones. The remoteness of these islands has helped enormously in the preservation of this ancient and complex ritualistic landscape. Calanais is sometimes referred to as the Stonehenge of Scotland, while the builders of this monument never had the resources of their Southern counterparts the knowledge and understanding of the skies is equally impressive. It is the location and setting within the landscape which stands this monument apart from all others. No where else can we see such a complex and fascinating collection of lines and lunar phenomena documented in stone by a succession of Bronze Age people.
- Calanais (Callanish) a brief history
- What purpose does the East row serve and why was it built?
- Summer’s End, a time of festival
- The Sun and Moon and the Theatre of Light
- Autumnal moonrise table 2002 - 2020
- Autumnal moonrise table 1800BC - 1782BC
- Comments and Debate
A brief history of Calanais I
Archaeological study suggests the erection of the first stones at Calanais I (Callanish) began around 3000BC. The construction started with the tallest of the stones, the central monolith, subsequently followed with the erection of 13 stones forming a flattened circle encapsulating the central monolith. At a later period the North avenue and the South and West rows appeared. The East row was added to the complex around 1800BC some 1200 years after initial work began. 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. The East row at Calanais I (Callanish) consists of five erect stones, many early plans of the site only recorded four, the fifth stone was re-discovered by Margaret and Gerald Ponting in 1977 and was successfully re-erected in its true position by the Monuments Department of the Scottish Development Department in 1982.
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 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
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.
Calanais I (Callanish) Autumnal Full Moon Event
|20-Sep-2002||7:59 PM||108.00||7:27 PM|
|21-Sep-2002||8:05 PM||98.00||7:25 PM|
|22-Sep-2002||8:12 PM||89.00||7:22 PM|
|9-Oct-2003||6:56 PM||90.00||6:34 PM|
|10-Oct-2003||7:00 PM||79.00||6:31 PM|
|11-Oct-2003||7:05 PM||69.00||6:28 PM|
|27-Sep-2004||7:23 PM||100.00||7:05 PM|
|28-Sep-2004||7:26 PM||88.00||7:03 PM|
|29-Sep-2004||7:29 PM||76.00||7:00 PM|
|17-Sep-2005||7:50 PM||101.00||7:35 PM|
|18-Sep-2005||7:53 PM||88.00||7:32 PM|
|19-Sep-2005||7:56 PM||75.00||7:29 PM|
|6-Oct-2006||6:31 PM||84.00||6:42 PM|
|7-Oct-2006||6:35 PM||70.00||6:39 PM|
|8-Oct-2006||6:40 PM||56.00||6:36 PM|
|25-Sep-2007||6:54 PM||99.00||7:13 PM|
|26-Sep-2007||6:57 PM||85.00||7:11 PM|
|27-Sep-2007||7:01 PM||72.00||7:08 PM|
|14-Sep-2008||7:20 PM||98.00||7:43 PM|
|15-Sep-2008||7:24 PM||87.00||7:40 PM|
|16-Sep-2008||7:29 PM||74.00||7:37 PM|
|2-Oct-2009||6:05 PM||90.00||6:52 PM|
|3-Oct-2009||6:11 PM||79.00||6:49 PM|
|4-Oct-2009||6:19 PM||69.00||6:47 PM|
|22-Sep-2010||6:41 PM||88.00||7:22 PM|
|23-Sep-2010||6:49 PM||79.00||7:19 PM|
|24-Sep-2010||6:58 PM||69.00||7:16 PM|
|11-Sep-2011||7:11 PM||96.00||7:53 PM|
|12-Sep-2011||7:21 PM||87.00||7:50 PM|
|13-Nov-2011||7:32 PM||78.00||7:47 PM|
|28-Sep-2012||6:12 PM||90.00||7:07 PM|
|29-Sep-2012||6:27 PM||82.00||7:00 PM|
|30-Sep-2012||6:42 PM||73.00||6:57 PM|
|18-Sep-2013||6:55 PM||94.00||7:32 PM|
|19-Sep-2013||7:14 PM||85.00||7:29 PM|
|20-Sep-2013||7:33 PM||76.00||7:37 PM|
|8-Sep-2014||7:36 PM||99.00||7:01 PM|
|9-Sep-2014||7:59 PM||89.00||7:58 PM|
|10-Sep-2014||8:22 PM||81.00||7:55 PM|
|27-Sep-2015||7:05 PM||91.00||7:09 PM|
|28-Sep-2015||7:30 PM||82.00||7:06 PM||Eclipse 1:0am - 6:24am|
|29-Sep-2015||7:36 PM||73.00||7:03 PM|
|15-Sep-2016||7:26 PM||105.00||7:40 PM|
|16-Sep-2016||7:49 PM||97.00||7:38 PM||Eclipse 6:00pm - 9:55pm|
|17-Sep-2016||8:12 PM||88.00||7:35 PM|
|4-Oct-2017||6:58 PM||97.00||6:47 PM|
|5-Oct-2017||7:17 PM||88.00||6:44 PM|
|6-Oct-2017||7:37 PM||79.00||6:42 PM|
|24-Sep-2018||7:46 PM||103.00||7:16 PM|
|25-Sep-2018||8:00 PM||91.00||7:13 PM|
|26-Sep-2018||8:15 PM||82.00||7:11 PM|
|13-Sep-2019||8:20 PM||108.00||7:48 PM|
|14-Sep-2019||8:32 PM||100.00||7:45 PM|
|15-Sep-2019||8:43 PM||91.00||7:42 PM|
|30-Sep-2020||7:25 PM||102.00||6:58 PM|
|1-Oct-2020||7:33 PM||93.00||6:55 PM|
|2-Oct-2020||7:41 PM||84.00||6:52 PM|
View Table 1800BC - 1782BC
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