Bryn Celli Ddu: Greeting the Summer Solstice in Wales

This prehistoric burial chamber in Wales is aligned with the summer solstice.

Bryn Celli Ddu, a Neolithic burial chamber, is located on Anglesey Island in Wales. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Among the many prehistoric monuments in Wales, Bryn Celli Ddu deserves special attention. One reason is that it is largely intact; the other is that it has an alignment with the rising sun on the summer solstice. On that morning (if the sun is shining, of course, which is always iffy in cloudy Wales), a shaft of sunlight pierces to the center of the burial chamber.

I had the good fortunate to celebrate the summer solstice at Bryn Celli Ddu with a group of modern-day Druids. It was one of the most remarkable religious rituals I’ve ever attended, in large part because of the setting.

Archaeologists believe that Bryn Celli Ddu (which means “Mound of the Dark Grove” in English) was built in two stages. In the early Neolithic Period, a henge (a type of earthen enclosure) was constructed around a circle of stones. At a later point, a chambered burial tomb was created within the henge and covered with a mound about 85 feet in diameter.

In the center of Bryn Celli Ddu is a chamber where human remains and artifacts were found. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Today the grass-covered burial mound looks much like it likely did thousands of years ago. And on the summer solstice, people gather at the site to mark the longest day of the year, an echo of rituals that happened here millennia ago.

The modern-day Druids who lead the ceremony are inspired by the original Druids, who (according to the Romans who encountered them in the first century C.E.) were the priests, teachers, and judges for the ancient Celts. Known for their love of nature, and trees in particular, they were said to undergo as many as 20 years of training to fulfill their roles.

The early-nineteenth century saw a resurgence of interest in this tradition, particularly on the Welsh island of Anglesey, which was the heart of Druid territory. Today the Anglesey Druid Order has an online Druidry Course and offers public workshops and events. They include a summer solstice gathering at Bryn Celli Ddu.

On June 21, my friend Jenifer and I got up at (gulp) 2:45 am to make it to the site in time for the ceremony. There we mingled with about 200 other attendees, some dressed in the long robes of official members of the order and others in ordinary clothes.

At the summer solstice, modern-day Druids gather to celebrate the longest day of the year. (photo by Lori Erickson)

For someone like me who is curious about spirituality in all its many forms, the experience was the equivalent of doing crack cocaine. The beautiful setting amid green fields, the excited anticipation in the air, and the cast of characters who looked like they’d stepped out of a novel all added to the drama.

The sky was cloudy, unfortunately, and so we didn’t get to see the dawn’s first rays penetrate into the burial chamber. But there were prayers and songs and even a brief wedding ceremony, followed by the lighting of a torch. Then we all turned to face the rising sun, greeting the dawn on the longest day of the year.

Participants in the summer solstice ritual greet the rising sun at Bryn Celli Ddu. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Standing there, I was struck by the fact that I was participating in one of humanity’s oldest religious rituals. For countless millennia, people have tracked the movements of the sun and marked the longest day of the year with special ceremonies. Amid the crowd that morning, I felt a connection to those who had built Bryn Celli Ddu and the many other prehistoric monuments that dot the Welsh countryside.

After the ceremony, I enjoyed visiting with some of the people in attendance. They included curious locals and tourists, as well as those who have followed the Druid path for decades. After the service, some were making plans to go out together for breakfast, just like people do after church services in the Midwest. (It made me think of the Buddhist saying: After the ecstasy, the laundry.)

A narrow opening leads into a passageway that connects to the burial chamber at Bryn Celli Ddu. (photo by Lori Erickson)

But even as we went back to our ordinary lives, I think all of us kept something of the wonder of the experience with us. The ceremony had connected us to the cosmic wheel of creation in a renewed way. We’d stood in the darkness together and waited and prayed for the light. That’s pretty much part of every religion, isn’t it?

I think, too, that part of the power of the ceremony was that it was held in Wales, a nation famous for its overcast skies. It’s no wonder the Welsh Druids honor the sun, given how capricious the sunshine is in their native land. More than most, they know how precious it is.

I’ll be pondering what I experienced in Wales for a long time. And if I get back to Wales on June 21 another year, I know where I’ll be at dawn.

More information on Bryn Celli Ddu

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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy Rover, Near the Exit, The Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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