Lunar Standstill on Lewis – 2006
by Jill Smith
I have written and spoken for many years of my experience of the major moon standstill at Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in 1987 [see my books The Callanish Dance (Capall Bann) and Mother of the Isles (Dor Dama Press), and my article in GA8]. I had learned that the low southerly moon of the standstill year rises from the body of the sleeping mountain as though she is giving birth to the next nineteen-year cycle. That experience of seeing the huge deep-orange-coloured moon rise from the dark silhouette of the Sleeping Beauty mountain, move along her body, rise above her and look down on her face before moving away from her to the West, is something seared into my memory for ever.
Frighteningly quickly it seemed, those 19 years passed; a lot of life and experience rushed past and once again we were approaching another major lunar standstill – and there aren’t many of them in a human life-span. How different for the stones of Callanish which have stood watching for 5,000 years, and for the mountain herself lying there through an age of geological time, embracing the moon every 19 years. Perhaps that is why she is known in Gaelic as Cailleach na Mointeach or Old Woman of the Moors; not because she looks old, but because she has been there so long – so long in our time-scale anyway.
It is the June full moon which is the lowest full moon and the most spectacular to watch, but I had a wonderful build-up to the June experience. I was asked by the Society of Ley Hunters to go with them on a trip to Lewis in March 2006. I organised a number of events for them and took them on some field trips, but the reason for them wanting to go at that time was to experience the very lowest moon of all although this was not a full moon but the waxing half moon. Would we see it? In March? In the Hebrides? The Sleeping Beauty is very elusive anyway. Very often cloud hides her completely and you cannot imagine where she possibly can be. At other times cloud hides the mountain ‘behind’ her which gives her an apparent pregnant form when seen from a certain vantage point, ‘losing’ her pregnant belly. So, seeing her any time is something of a privilege. It often seems you have to perform some task to prove yourself before she will appear!
Anyway, early on the morning of March 22 a whole group of us were at the Calanais stones. In the dark. In the snow after days of sunshine and rainbows. There was thick cloud and we did not see the moon, but standing there for hours was for me a very profound experience. The power and energy of the time was very focussed. It was like a deep meditation. Every so often a camera would flash or a torch shine and show fine snow which was falling like faerie dust.
Then we came to the night of the low full moon in June. Many people had gathered this time. Probably about 200. Many pilgrimages. I had been helping with a tour of a group of Australians led by my friend Lynne Sinclair Wood (author of Creating Form From The Mist, Capall Bann). She had been part of the group of people at Callanish in 1980/81. This June night she was connecting spiritually with a group of Aboriginal women working within their own cultural tradition at the same time in Australia.
There were many photographers and film-makers with their tripods and equipment; many people there for their varied personal and spiritual reasons; drummers, singers and musicians. It seemed all very good-natured and harmonious but I felt I needed a little distance from such ‘busyness’, so after greeting many people I knew, I went with some friends to sit on a rocky outcrop to the south of the stones where we weren’t in the way of others and they were behind us. Before us was the landscape, the loch and the mountain. Nature creating a stage set!
We watched and we waited. It grew darker, but that far north it doesn’t get completely dark in June. The outline of the mountain was black, still visible against the darkening deep blue sky. The weather had been hot and though much of the sky was clear and there was a fantastic sunset, there was hazy cloud above the horizon, which made it seem possible we would be denied the sight of what we had all come to see.
There was much attention paid to the sunset and we found it strange that so many people who had come for the moon were standing with their backs to the mountain, seemingly ignoring her and the lunar energy in the presence of the blaze of solar glory. But maybe I’ve just seen a lot of sunsets at Calanais and not so many standstill moonrises!
At one point as we watched, a group of local people came round distributing bible tracts. It was the Sabbath, which is very strictly held on Lewis. I thought it was good that they came amongst us with a smile, rather than sitting dourly behind net curtains muttering of hell and damnation as some do! But I wanted to say that most of us don’t worship the stones, the mountain, the sun or the moon. My concept of Goddess is not some female version of God.
No-one really seemed to know when the moon was due to rise. Every estimate was different. We sat…the evening was so utterly wonderful whatever happened. Some people began to leave, but then some time after midnight, an orange glow appeared above the mountain. Could it be? It deepened and grew more noticeable. A richer orange – then suddenly a sliver of bright orange-gold appeared from the now very dark mountain. We shouted, we screamed, we cheered. In a while someone blew a conch. The mountain had truly given birth to a new lunar cycle.
Slowly more and more of the moon emerged from the mountain and the dark cloud: a deep rich orange moon in such contrast to the black of the mountain and deep, deep blue of the sky. Slowly it moved along her body and once again rose above her, struggling sometimes with the cloud, but much of the time winning!
Then there manifested something I do not remember from before; maybe because in 1987 I had been sitting on the ground by a stone in the eastern ‘arm’ of the main circle. But this night the moon’s orange light reflected on the dark water of the loch in an astonishing way. With the movement of the water and the spits of land crossing into it, it created a ladder. A ladder of deep orange reflected moonlight climbing up from the land on which we were to where the mountain herself was and to the great orange orb of this incredible full moon. A ladder between realities. A stairway to heaven!
Later the moon disappeared once more into the cloud. People sat on a settee(!) at the end of the avenue hoping to see the moon re-appear in the centre of the stones. I don’t think they saw it. But what an experience we had had. What a night that had been. What a glorious, incredible experience!
And then it was July! I returned, this time with my son, another chance to see the almost-as-low, almost-as-full standstill moon. Many more people gathered at the stones; many different, some the same as June. I needed, as before, to watch for several nights to see how much lower the moon gets each night. A couple of nights before the low moon it is still so high it is almost impossible to believe it will be low when the special night comes. That night was on July 9th, the night before the full moon itself. It was a glorious evening: clear sky, the mountain etched against the clear blue, sometimes a darker silhouette in shade, and then suddenly showing all the detail of the ancient rock as the lowering sun shone on her.
People arrived quite early, and by late evening there must have been a hundred or more again, including a group of Christians singing noisily. But almost inevitably, as the evening drew on, a low bank of cloud moved across from the west, settling behind the mountain just where the moon would appear.
It grew darker. It seemed we would be denied. Then a brilliant streak of red-gold appeared through the clouds. We raced to the rocks at the south and saw the deep red-orange moon above the mountain’s belly. What a gift! Later the moon and the clouds played hide and seek, but we saw a lot of the moon as she slowly moved towards the west. This was another glorious and deeply moving experience. Once again there was a ladder to the loch. This time the water was even more still and the ladder incredibly narrow and straight.
Eventually the moon disappeared completely into the cloud, but I felt complete in myself, and so pleased for all those who had travelled, some on very long journeys, to be there that night, each having their own experience and their own tale to tell. The energy of Lewis in July is different from that in June. In June each day and night we heard the cuckoo and endlessly the snipe, that strange sound which reverberates deep into my being and is one of the things which binds me profoundly to the Islands.
But how wonderful it has all been. It has been a blessing to be able to go from England to the Hebrides three times in one year for such a depth and richness of experience. Everyone there on those nights shares a bond with the moon and the mountain, as we all move into the next cycle of our own lives.
This article was first published in Goddess Alive magazine, Issue 10.