December 21 st The Science & Mystery of theShortest Day of the Year
The Earth is actually nearer the sun in January than it is in June -- by three million miles. What causes the seasons is something completely different.The Earth leans slightly on its axis like a spinning top frozen in one off-kilter position. Astronomers have pinpointed the precise angle of the tilt at 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit.This planetary pose is what causes the variety of our climate; all the drama and poetry of our seasons, since it determines how many hours and minutes each hemisphere receives precious sunlight.
SolsticeSolstice literally means “Sun Stands Still.” For a few days around the time of the winter solstice, Dec. 19th – 23rd, if viewed at the same time each day, the sun appears to stand still in the sky and its elevation does not seem to change.
Will the sun come back?Ancient people feared that the failing light of the sun meant that it would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or celebrations. Many cultures performed solstice ceremonies. The sun’s warmth and growing powers were seen as key to their survival. As the sun began to return and appear higher in the sky, they rejoiced.
Ancient EgyptIn ancient Egypt, the sun god Ra was the dominant figure among the high gods. In the myth relating the voyage of the sun god over the heavenly ocean, the sun sets out as the young god Kheper; appears at noon in the zenith as the full-grown sun, Re; and arrives in the evening at the western region in the shape of the old sun god, Atum.
Ancient IndiaThe sun was one of the most popular deities among the Indo-European peoples and was a symbol of divine power to them. Surya is glorified in the Vedic hymns of ancient India as an all-seeing god who observes both good and evil actions. He expels not only darkness but also evil dreams and diseases.
The Indo-European character of sun worship is also seen in the conception of the solar deity, drawn in his carriage, generally by four white horses, common to many Indo-European peoples, and recurring in Indo-Iranian, Greco- Roman, and Scandinavian mythology.
Feast of Sol InvictusDuring the later periods of Roman history, sun worship gained in importance and ultimately led to what has been called a “solar monotheism.” The feast of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun) on December 25 was celebrated with great joy, and eventually this date was taken over by the Christians as Christmas, the birthday of Christ.
The Sun Dance: Great Plains IndiansThe Sun Dance is almost always performed near the time of the summer solstice. Most Sun Dances begin with the erection of a circular lodge or corral around a solemnly chosen and cut central pole. During the next 3 or 4 days, periods of dancing, accompanied by singing, drumming, or whistling, are interspersed with periods of rest and meditation. Dancers do not eat or drink during the 3 or 4 days of the dance, although some do chew on roots to keep their mouths moist. Toward the end of the Sun Dance, participants experience visions and receive blessings.
Central and South AmericaIn the Pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and Peru, sun worship was a prominent feature. In Aztec religion extensive human sacrifice was demanded by the sun gods Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca. In both Mexican and Peruvian ancient religion, the Sun occupied an important place in myth and ritual.
Strange StructuresAncient people’s customs and beliefs surrounding the Solstices and Sun Worship are reflected in the strange buildings and monuments, which they left behind.
The Ancients: Huge Efforts to Observe the SolsticesAn astounding array of ancient cultures built their greatest architectures -- tombs, temples, cairns and sacred observatories -- so that they aligned with the solstices and equinoxes. Many of us know that Stonehenge is a perfect marker of both the Winter and the Summer solstices.
Hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout Europe are oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. The blossoming field of archaeoastronomy studies such sacred sites in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East. Recent research into the medieval Great Zimbabwe in sub- Saharan Africa (also known as the "African Stonehenge") indicates a similar purpose.
Great ZimbabweThe arrangement of the walls, the complicated symbols on stone monoliths and the position of a tall tower suggest that medieval Zimbabweans used the complex to track the moon, sun, planets and stars for centuries.Several of the stone monoliths, for example, line up with certain bright stars in the constellation Orion as they rise on the morning of the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice.
Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New MexicoIn North America, one of the most famous such sites is the Sun Dagger of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, built a thousand years ago by the Chacoans, ancestors of the Pueblo people. Even cultures that followed a moon-based calendar seemed also to understand the importance of these sun- facing seasonal turning points.
Newgrange, IrelandAt Newgrange in Ireland a wonderful event takes place for a few days around the winter solstice each year, the passage and chamber of the 5000 year old monument are illuminated by the winter solstice sunrise. A shaft of sunlight shines through the roof box over the entrance and penetrates the passage to light up the chamber. The dramatic event lasts for 17 minutes at dawn from the 19th to the 23rd of December.
Newgrange, a beautiful megalithic site in Ireland is a huge circular stone structure, estimated to be 5,000 years old, older by centuries than Stonehenge, and older than the Egyptian pyramids! It was built to receive a shaft of sunlight deep into its central chamber at dawn on winter solstice.The light illuminates a stone basin below intricate carvings -- spirals, eye shapes, solar discs. Although not much is known about how Newgrange was used by its builders, marking the solstice was obviously of tremendous spiritual import to them.
The Megalithic Passage Tomb at Newgrange was built about 3200 BC. The kidney shaped mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, some of which are richly decorated with megalithic art. The 19 metre long inner passage leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. It is estimated that the construction of the Passage Tomb at Newgrange would have taken a work force of 300 at least 20 years.