MONTREAL — It has been suggested that building Stonehenge required 30 million hours of painstaking and mysterious labour by your Druid forefathers. You can experience a similar effect by taking the No. 80 bus.
Or the No. 55, or any mode that takes you north up the broad boulevards of the Plateau to cross-street Mount Royal Avenue, where you can bask in the mystic grandeur of Montrealhenge. This Sunday, the setting sun will roll down into perfect alignment with Park Ave., framed by the apartment buildings and souvlaki joints as though by design, and ragtags from the mountain will gather in priestly and priestessly communion. Their minds will travel back through the eons to share in Uni Consciousness awe, the numinous moment with the life-giver — and their iPhone cameras.
It happens every summer, just before and after the solstice (June 21). Like many intriguing/trendoid urban phenomena, this one was first codified in the epicentre of city-consciousness and urban self-regard, Manhattan. I first stumbled into Manhattanhenge earlier last decade, when innocently crossing Houston St. on the Lower East Side just after 8 p.m. caught me in a vermilion eye-burst of setting sun. It was completely unexpected, and therefore doubly breathtaking.
As near as can be ascertained, the Manhattanhenge phenomenon was first named in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. With the New York gift for New York PR, Manhattanhenge has become a "thing," justly so given the imposing architecture of spires lining any east-west street you cross, the Sun falling perfectly between the pillars, blazing through its red sky-god spectrum.
On May 30 this Memorial Day weekend, thousands of people streamed out to wait for the ideal moment in the arc to photograph it, from good locations (14th St., 23rd St., any major lateral one, or on any well-located rooftop terrace), clumped together like paparazzi, all shooting the same cosmic celeb. Dozens stood in the middle of 42nd St., cursed at by unspiritual taxi and bus drivers.
"Henge" as a word is actually a back-formation from the real one, Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, erected some 4,500-5,000 years ago by the — wait, you've been there? Were you enrobed? Were you inspired by the Spinal Tap homage, when the 18-inch (and sadly, not 18-foot) Trilithon tragically descended to the stage between the dancing dwarfs? Remarkably, despite the global fame of the World Heritage site, a million annual visitors, multiple major excavations and ceaseless study and rumination, the archeological brain trust is still not completely sure what it was.
A temple, a grave monument, an astronomical calendar, a computer, altar of human sacrifice? Stonehenge experts Professor Tim Darvill, of the University of Bournemouth, and Professor Geoff Wainwright, of the Society of Antiquaries, recently stated it might have been a "neolithic Lourdes," for pilgrims seeking healing (from the BBC).
And these modern Sunday pilgrims - are they PAGANS (once referred to as People Against God And Niceness)? How pagan are we? How much of the Druidic hoodoo can be folded into a kind of metropolitan magic to make this bigger than it is? At most, some may indulge in a casual neo-pagan element in our motley new age spiritual quiltery, whatever residual component in our cosmically aligned warlock brain that is ineluctably drawn to otherness. Otherwise, it's curiosity-seekers, photo buffs and people who like the pretty.
Given our own inability to fix a definite meaning to the Ur-Henge, one wonders — what will future civilizations, the next-millennials, misread into this? That we aligned our downtowns and our skyscrapers for mystical purpose? That there was dire purpose behind the plotting of the carpet stores and the high-rises? Hopefully not. As a friend once said, "If aliens had landed in Montreal in the 1970s, they'd have thought Supertramp was the Beatles." A mistake worthy of human sacrifice. Chant it with me: choooooommm.
So fire up the tripods for our own local Henge, which can be added to the growing pile of Torontohenge and Chicagohenge and who knows, Reginahenge.
Of course, ours has characteristic peculiarities specific to the city, given Montreal's inherently supernatural elements and construct.
Yes, many cities have neo-pagans and LARPs (Live Action Role Players) gambolling through their parks playing Goth, practising Wicca and chanting to Celtic Frost. But only one city has both a Henge and a 100-foot illuminated cross erected to fulfil a spiritual vow. It can only enhance the experience as you train your lens up Park Ave. And frankly, during the summer, almost any sunset viewed from Park Ave. is Henge-worthy. That, and the fact that, given the layout of the city's uptown grid, in Montreal, the sun sets . . . in the north.