Winter Solstice: Yes, the Sun Will Come Back

Front Page / Dec. 10, 2009 3:35pm EST

By Mary Margaret Breed

Our 2009 winter solstice, according to contemporary shamans of the US Naval Observatory, will occur at 8:37 am Eastern Standard Time on Monday, December 21. So it’s the Christmas season, culminating on Dec. 25. Hanukkah, Dec.12, and Kwanzaa, Dec. 26, also approach, along with Sweden’s Feast of St. Lucia, Dec. 13, and many other festivals around the northern hemisphere that involve the lighting of candles and fires or thousands of tiny electric lights.

Few modern earthlings think much about the precise position of the sun in the sky from minute to minute – except at this season and latitude, following our abrupt return to standard time. We complain about going to and from work in the dark. Some of us get sad, or at least pale.

Even in 2009, when we are pretty sure the sun will come back, its scarcity affects us. It’s been part of being human as long as reasoning hominoids have been around to look up at the sky, notice the short days, and think – “what th’ ---?”, especially once agriculture joined or supplanted hunting/gathering.

Without a TV meteorologist to reassure you every night, you could get nervous and hope somebody in the tribe, maybe the shaman, is willing to DO something, or at least make reassuring predictions.

Will it Come Back? – An Ancient Question

That’s what happened, no one knows how many millennia ago, or in how many disparate cultures, according to University of Vermont (UVM) physics and astronomy professor Joanna Rankin, Ph.D., who teaches a course, “History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy.”

Usually expressed as a day, our winter solstice is actually a moment – the instant the tilt of the Earth’s axis most inclines the northern hemisphere away from the sun, causing the sun’s apparent position in the sky to reach its southernmost extreme. “Or, as it appeared to the ancients,” Rankin said, “the sun stops moving away from us and starts returning in our direction.” Solstice is from the Latin sol (sun), and sistere (to stand still) because the apparent movement of the sun ceases before reversing direction.

“It may have been less important to very ancient hunter-gatherer cultures,” Rankin said. “But once we came to depend on agriculture, it was essential to mark the sun’s travel. You needed to know when to plant and when to reap, since if you plant too late your crops won’t mature; too early and they’ll die.”

Ancient Celts in Europe developed an eight-month calendar based on solstices and equinoxes, and intervals between them were also divided. “Remnants of important events on that calendar linger today,” Rankin pointed out. “Halfway between winter and summer solstice is about May 1, when today we still celebrate the return of spring, growth, renewal, and fertility with rituals, such as the Maypole dance, that have ancient roots.” And Christians set Easter, the resurrection of Christ, in that period.

“Our Groundhog Day between winter solstice and spring equinox has similar ancient origins. Hallow’een is a sort of sad remnant of the Celtic Samhain,” she said. Samhain marked the division between the “light half” and the “dark half” of the year, when the separation between the Otherworld and this world was believed to become thin, allowing spirits both friendly and malevolent to pass between. Masks and costumes may have been perceived as protection against evil spirits.

“In early August Celts also observed Lammas,” Rankin continued, “which has been all but forgotten in our culture, but it would have been sensible to plant on Mayday and reap on Lammas.” Around August 1, the first wheat harvest was baked into a “loaf-mass” to present at church.

“A huge amount of decent advice for agricultural societies came from observations of the sun,” said Rankin. “There was no calendar on the wall, so measurements and notations of the sun’s movement were taken as accurately as possible with the tools available to them. They watched horizons for the rising and setting of the sun at extreme halfway points, and cultures in those times made no distinction between life and spirituality.”

Rock, Paper, Circles

Stonehenge and many similar monuments are believed to have been used to both measure and honor the sun and seasons. Newgrange, a huge stone structure in Ireland believed to predate not only Stonehenge but also the Egyptian pyramids, receives a full shaft of sunlight deep in its central chamber at dawn on the winter solstice, illuminating intricate carvings. Sacred sites have been found and studied at widely scattered sites all over the globe, including sub-Saharan Africa, Rankin explained.

Rankin’s course starts with the Babylonians, and includes the Egyptians, the Greeks, and goes through the Islamic renaissance, and up until the 16th century in Europe.

These have become the roots of Western astronomy. “But I feel badly about that,” she reflected. “There were remarkable traditions in west African and native American cultures. It’s not because the Babylonian on his Ziggurat was more learned than the Anasazi on an adobe rooftop in what we now call the Four Corners area of north America. But the Babylonians left records we can interpret, whereas other cultures may or may not have left records, and we might not know how to interpret them if they did.”

“In colonial expansion periods records of the conquered were often destroyed. The Babylonians existed too early to be dominated by western colonialist culture. I’ve spent lots of time in India, and there was an extremely sophisticated culture in the prehistoric Indus Valley. It’s inconceivable they didn’t track the sun. They had agriculture and the same stars, but if they left records they don’t seem to have been found.”

“In central American cultures deities were dedicated to these concepts. Here in Vermont also there are monuments that were probably used for these purposes. A place you can stand and see the sun is really all you need. There’s nothing magical about standing stones such as Stonehenge, which are just markers for the sun’s relation to the earth. Stonehenge as a symbol has resisted deterioration and destruction, whereas medicine circles in the ground in the American west and midwest didn’t survive as well.

The Sky, Then and Now

Rankin’s students study the construction of calendars and clocks of several different sorts and trace the history of the Gregorian calendar in use today. They also look at connections between astronomy and other aspects of ancient culture and how astronomy is connected to art, religion, commerce and science overall. “At least from the Greeks forward, astronomy was as much a humanity as a science,” she said. Course requirements include night sky observations, guided by the widely available and inexpensive “Audubon Guide to the Night Sky,” and at least one paper each on culture and on calendar. They study Aristotle’s “On the Heavens,” make shadow tables and sundials, construct an astrolabe, study planetary theory.

“While Babylonian astronomy drew on traditions and practices that were then old, its remarkable development during this time period made it the most technically developed of the ancient sciences. Indeed, it was classified as a branch of mathematics,” Rankin pointed out. “Of course astronomy has developed a great deal since then, but knowledge of the positions of the sun and the moon are the starting points for every calendar, and this gives us a chance to look at many calendars cross-culturally.” She has the students replicate the calculations and observations made by the ancients.

No one’s really sure how long ago humans recognized the winter solstice and began heralding it as a turning point – the day that marks the return of the sun. Many many cultures the world over perform solstice ceremonies. At the root of all is an ancient fear that the failing light would never return unless humans intervened with anxious vigil or antic celebration.

As she discussed, the basics are important to this astronomer/physicist who studies interstellar pulsar emissions, conducts feminist studies of science, and helps her students understand everything wasn’t invented in the 20th century. In fact, she said, “It’s too bad we’ve stopped reverencing the earth as sacred,” said Rankin. “We purchase our lives in grocery stores. Is that good for us? I am glad to see the beginnings of a back-to-the-land movement.”

And she adds scientific weight to her reassurance to the Herald that, yes, the sun will come back, starting on Dec. 21.

Dec 21, Past and Future

In case you were interested, other events of December 21 include…

Dec 21, 1620. The Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.

Dec 21, 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the first full-length animated movie, premiered.

Dec 21, 1968 Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, was launched.

Dec 21, 1988 A Pan-Am airliner headed for the US exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Dec 21, 1995 The town of Bethlehem passed from Israeli to Palestinian control

And for futurists and end-of-the-world theorists, Dec 21, 2012, is the last day of the Mayan calendar.

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