MARYHILL — As their sons returned dead or wounded or not at all from heavy fighting across the Atlantic in 1918, people in this small Columbia Gorge town sought to commemorate their sacrifice.
On a visit to the original Stonehenge in England, a Quaker named Sam Hill heard stories of dark doings and ritual killings. What better way to mark the Great War then raging, he thought, than to construct a replica near his estate in Maryhill.
Hill argued that combat between nations was an irredeemable folly and the dead soldiers an offering to the “god of war.” The monument nearly lines up with sunrise on the solstice, just like Stonehenge — though stories about Bronze Age human sacrifices there were almost certainly false and the original structure was likely one of the earliest calendars.
Now, Hill’s testament to the World War I dead stands alone on a reedy outcropping several hundred feet above the Columbia River. Inscribed inside are the names of Klickitat County’s dead. Like Stonehenge, it contains an outer ring of 16-foot-tall stones, an inner grouping of 9-foot-tall stones and five pairs of arch-like stone pillars called trilithons.
And much like Stonehenge, the Maryhill replica draws a coterie of neo-Druids, pagans and wiccans each year on the solstice. On Saturday, about 30 turned out in small groups from Oregon and southern Washington.
Religions that treat the sun as a deity turned to the summer solstice as a holy day. Greeks celebrated their god of agriculture, Vikings planned raids and early governance around midsummer, and Plains Indians, including the Sioux, marked the occasion with a dayslong ritual.
This year, Elise Mesnard, a 24-year-old artist from Portland, Oregon, said she arrived early Saturday and embraced the first rays of sunlight, which didn’t peek around the Columbia Gorge cliffs until about 5:30 a.m.
“It’s a beautiful, meditative area,” Mesnard said.
Egypt Rose, of South Prairie, Washington, got started before the sun came up. She lit a candle and dropped wax figurines into a cauldron: The site is a public park, so the open-fire option she prefers wasn’t legal.
She and seven others chanted to the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra, and circled the Stonehenge monument three times, signifying the banishment of evil and the discovery of renewal on the longest day of the year.
“Personally, I don’t really call it a religion, because to me that involves other people,” Rose said. “It’s hard to describe it that way. I guess some people would call it paganism.”
In New York City, thousands practiced yoga in Times Square. At the original monument Saturday, 36,000 sun-watchers gathered on the Salisbury Plain about 80 miles southwest of London. Couples kissed, dancers circled with hoops, and revelers took part in a mass yoga practice as part of the free-form celebrations.
“We’re celebrating the midpoint,” Mesnard said, “where it’s not gonna get any better than this.”