The Hazards of Tax Day (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-24)

I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum.  Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.

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The Road Between Jerusalem and Jericho and the Road Between Discrimination and Acceptance (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-10)

I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.

First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.

The Wadi Qelt, along the path of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the Judean Desert; the area was only inhabited by those seeking to get away—either from the authorities or for religious isolation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.

Wadi Qelt: the monastery of St. George (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.

I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.

Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.

It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.

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Pic of the Day (2019-02-28): Fading Winter, Receding Ice, and Lost Sleep

Here in South Mississippi it appears that Winter has largely ceded the environment to an early Spring, but with emphasis on precipitation. There does seem to be a LOT of water available up in the atmosphere. Those observations are my excuse to post this POTD of a receding glacier. Sadly, that is the current state of all glaciers. I was reminded of this by looking at my location for this pic on Google Earth, which indicates my position well within the glacier ice. Why? Google Earth’s current imagery of the area (as of this writing) is four years previous (2014-08-02) to the photo (2018-07-11), when the glacier was significantly more extended. You can see this too by zooming way in on the “South Sawyer Glacier” item in the map of POTD sites (note that the icon is where the camera was when the picture was made).

The South Sawyer Glacier; Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

This is the South Sawyer Glacier, at one of branches at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord, some 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The blue color of glacier ice is pretty cool . . . but I am not sure this pic does the scene justice.

So, I resolved to attempt to get a panoramic picture up on this blog, but discovered it is not so easy (without a more expensive account plan). Here is the pic I want in panoramic form (it looks decent on a wide computer screen, but not so much on a cell phone):

The South Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

Turns out WordPress has a virtual reality image option, but this looks weird unless you have a VR headset on:

Facebook has a pretty decent panorama system, but you must upload from your phone which is pretty difficult if you make any serious edits or cropping. I hoped to beat the WordPress limitation by embedding the Facebook pano here. But, alas, you must click on it and go to Facebook for the panoramic action:

Oh Well. So here is a bonus pic of the North Sawyer Glacier. It is a little grimier with a more variegated blue light refraction, but has a more dramatic backdrop. I’ll not even attempt a panorama:

The North Sawyer Glacier; Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-07-11)

In summary:

  • It is getting warmer and glaciers are receding
  • There is too much water in the air in the southern USA
  • I cannot make panoramic pics work as 360-degree panoramas in my blog without a more expensive plan
  • I spent way too much time trying to work around the problem instead of working on stuff I really need to do
  • Glaciers have a blue appearance . . . and are really cool (in case you didn’t get the bad pun above)
  • Glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate
  • You should go see them before they (and you) are gone
  • This post was mostly an excuse to play with the options and get a pic from Alaska on my POTD map

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui: Take Me to the River . . .

But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested),[1] a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.[2]

This addition to my series on Rapa Nui/Easter Island is to call attention to this important study and allow me to add a related personal anecdote.

Ahu Tongariki, Rapi Nui (Easter Island, Chile): guardians of fresh water? (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-13)

As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); note two fallen and broken moai, one fallen to the left of the ahu and a fractured one on top (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with two fallen moai; the water pump referenced in the text is at the water line out of frame below and to right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island): a mostly-buried and barely perceptible water pipe, highlighted slightly in this pic, runs from the short cliff behind the sign, under a line of stones, and off to the left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), showing water sources in the cited study area (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .

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[1] R. J. DiNapoli, C. P. Lipo, T. Brosnan, T. L. Hunt, S. Hixon, et al. 2019. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monument (ahu) locations explained by freshwater sources. PLOS ONE 14(1): e0210409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210409.

[2] Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).


The full “Talking Heads of Rapa Nui” series (best read in order)
Part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World
Part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu
Part 3: The Making of a Moai
Part 4: The Mystery of Moai Moving
Part 5: Hats Make the Moai?
Part 6: The Fall of the Moai
Part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?
Part 8: A Warning to Us All

The Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season*

Continuing and concluding my series on the Winter Solstice, we now turn to the question of its relation to the date for Christmas.

The moment of the Winter Solstice generally occurs on 20-21 December in our current Gregorian Calendar. With Christmas set at 25 December, the relation between the two would appear merely coincidental. But there is a bit of history and controversy about the matter, obliquely referenced by today’s “Doonesbury” comic.[1]  This brief look cannot explore the full and complicated story; so, for the nerds I have supplied endnotes with clues to further information.


Roman Calendar Inscription (Menologium Rusticum Colotianum) with Zodiac, Festivals, and Agricultural Activities; © Institute for the Study of the Ancient World / Guido Petruccioli, photographer

The date of Jesus’ birth is not given by the Bible and cannot be known with any certainty. Many commentators have noted that late December is quite unlikely, given details in the gospels’ nativity accounts—but I will not go into that here. The earliest Christian writers give various speculative dates for the event, but none on 25 December.[2] The second-century church father Origen even decried birthday celebrations in general as a pagan practice (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 8)!

It was in the AD 330s that 25 December was first promoted as a feast day to celebrate Christ’s birth, but only in Rome. By the 380s the date as accepted in Asia Minor, and by the 540s in Egypt. Other churches, especially in the East, continued to observe 6 January, Epiphany, as the Nativity (even to the present).[3]

But why focus on 25 December and why did that date generally prevail? Conventional scholarly treatments argue that the choice was dictated by pagan practice, initiated by the Emperor Aurelian in AD 274. In that year, the argument goes, Aurelian decreed 25 December as the birthday and festival of Sol Invictus, “the unconquerable Sun,” and dedicated a new temple to the god with monotheistic overtones. What does all this have to do with the Winter Solstice? In the Julian calendar in use at the time, the solstice fell on 25 December. Christians then, it is argued, either: 1) began to celebrate the birth of Christ on 25 December under the cover of the pagan solstice holiday to avoid persecution; or 2) later declared Sol’s birthday to be that of Christ in order to usurp it and suppress pagan practice. The argument makes sense but is not as solid as usually assumed.

No text, for example, explicitly says Aurelian named 25 December as the nativity of Sol. Evidence that the date was in honor of Sol Invictus is extracted from the Chronography of 354, an illustrated calendar codex prepared for a wealthy Christian in that year. The original is now lost, but several manuscript copies have survived. In the calendar section, the day equivalent to 25 December indicates the birthday of Invictus (but without “Sol”) and that games (30 chariot races) were ordered/decreed. Elsewhere in the document, under a Chronicle of Rome, the entry for Aurelian includes (without dates), “He dedicated the Temple of Sol,” and “instituted the games of Sol.”[4]

December in the Chronography of 354 with 25 December highlighted; illustrated facing page from the Barberini MS; Calendar: CM = Circenses missus (‘games ordered’), N = Natalis (‘birthday’), LVDI = games, Senatus legitimus = Senate allowed, Dies Aegyptiacus = Egyptian days (unlucky days)

The assumption that Aurelian established a major cult festival for Sol Invictus on 25 December is based on combining the difference references with the Christian date in mind. While the connection is possible, perhaps probable, it is far from proven.[5] Indeed, scholarly arguments construct a “Christian versus pagan” atmosphere that may not have existed at all. The posited cultural struggle continues to play out today, as seen in several websites dedicated to “proving” that Jesus was really born on 25 December—one way to defeat the pagans.

I see a continuation of the manufactured conflict in contemporary debate about correct salutations of this time of year—thus the relevance of the “Doonesbury” cartoon cited above. The divisiveness present in American politics these days encourages me (rightly) to avoid dogmatic political statements. But for holiday greetings, I am at a loss. I tend to use “Merry Christmas” and “Seasons Greetings” interchangeably without thought, as I did in the 1960s and 70s. But even that has become (in my opinion) unnecessarily burdened. I resent that if I say “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” I am liable to the charge of paganism, or if I say “Merry Christmas,” I am accused of some attempt to impose my beliefs on others. <Sigh>.

Debates like this generally go nowhere when ideology directs argument, especially in religious matters. For the Winter Solstice and Christmas question, I suggest a practical, “real-life” examination. In popular religion—as distinct from “official” tenets and practice—much borrowing of ideas and imagery occur. Such borrowing does not imply doctrinal syncretism or usurpage as much as cultural trends or symbols of comfort. The depiction of angels in Christian art as winged children, for example, does not mean that the artists or admirers of the work were secret pagans with a thing for Eros!

Bet Alpha Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of a Zodiac, with the four seasons (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Sol Invictus, the Greek Helios, is depicted in a fiery chariot with rays emanating from his head. Oddly, his image appears at the center of zodiac scenes on mosaic floors of several Jewish synagogues in Israel. Did the aniconic Jews suddenly become pagan idolaters? Certainly not. So, what’s with those mosaics in so many different synagogues? Maybe . . . they just liked it that way. Popular culture trends are often counter-intuitive and hard to explain. One view holds that the Helios/Sol image simply represents the sun as a symbol of order and not a deity; [6] much like smiling sun faces on grandfather clocks.

Sepphoris Synagogue: floor mosaic with Helios/Sol at the center of Zodiac

Perhaps the most interesting Helios/Sol image is found in a tomb in the necropolis under St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Mausoleum M contains an image, clearly of Helios/Sol, interpreted as representing Christ. Other details of the tomb are interpreted as Christian by Vatican scholars, obviously motivated to find Christianity in the necropolis containing the apparent tomb of St. Peter. They understand, however, that a Christian tomb depicting Christ in the manner of Sol Invictus does not threaten their theology nor invalidate the tomb owner’s faith.

Christ as Helios mosaic, Mausoleum M of the Vatican Scavi Necropolis below St. Peter’s

So, could early Christians have chosen to celebrate the birth of Christ—an actual date unknown to them—at the season when the gloom of winter begins to reverse and the sun’s warmth begins to make a comeback? I think they could; whether or not a Roman Emperor decided to mark the birth of Sol in the same season. I also hope they could use the situation to explain their own views in an inviting way, taking advantage of the halcyon days a holiday can bring.

And, I have decided that I can hear (or say!) “Seasons Greetings” and know why the season itself is special. And if I hear or say “Merry Christmas,” I will also think of why Jesus’ birth is celebrated in this season.

Seasons Greetings!

Merry Christmas!

Happy Festivus!

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*If you get this reference, you are either pretty old or pretty cool (or both).

[1] I have read “Doonesbury” daily since my matriculation at Georgia Tech in September 1974, where the then-weekly student newspaper, Technique, published the week’s strips. I should add, in the spirit of this post, that I do not read “Doonesbury” out of a dedication to its evident political bias, but for its exploration of various elements of our popular culture. My other daily reads are: “Dilbert,” “Pearls Before Swine,” and “Calvin and Hobbs” (now in perpetual rerun).

[2] E.g., by the 2nd century AD Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 1.21. For a fuller discussion, see Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” Mouseion (Series III) 3 (2003): 377, n. 2-3; this is an excellent article (full version here) for a deeper view of things discussed here.

[3] See Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,” 378ff (and be sure to read the footnotes).

[4] For the Chronography of 354, see the excellent online version at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/index.htm#Chronography_of_354.

[5] There are other dates more specifically associated with Sol Invictus; Sol is not named on 25 December, and it is not clear that the games instituted by Aurelian are the ones on that date.

[6] This is the view of Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas,”

The Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days

So today (still, barely, as I write this), 21 December 2018, is the Winter Solstice, making it first day of winter; and tomorrow is a full moon. Though we refer to them in terms of full days, both the solstice and full moons are momentary events: when the sun is at its southernmost point in the sky and when the moon is 180° from (opposite of) the sun, respectively. Those moments occur this year within a 24-hour period. Thus they effectively coincide, as we cannot discern the difference visually. For example, the moon appears “full” tonight, but will not technically be so until tomorrow (December 22) at 11:49 CST (17:49 UTC). And, the sun’s rays penetrate to the burial chambers of the tombs described in my previous post (here) not only on the solstices, but on the few surrounding days as well.

While researching how accurately the ancients could discern these phenomena, I stumbled upon an interesting (to me, anyway) bit of cultural information. It turns out that “halcyon days,” a term now used for a period of calm or peace (frequently nostalgically), originally referred to the few days surrounding the Winter Solstice. For this, we turn to Classical mythology.

Claros: End of the Sacred Way (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A relatively little-known myth referenced by several ancient writers holds that Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus (guardian of the winds), married Ceyx, son of the morning star (Lucifer!), and together they ruled the city of Trachis in Thessaly. Some sources report that they loving referred to each other as Hera and Zeus, which offended the real gods. Ceyx embarked on a journey to consult the oracle at Claros, across the Aegean, and the offended gods allowed a thunderstorm to capsize the ship, drowning Ceyx.

Alcyone grieves on seeing the body of Ceyx; Ceyx and Alcyone – Richard Wilson, R. A. (1713-1782)

In her sorrow, Alcyone hurled herself off a breakwater to certain death, but was transformed by some merciful unnamed deity into a Kingfisher; halcyon in Latin, from the Greek αλκυών. With dead Ceyx also thus transformed, the pair nested and Alcyone laid eggs which were sheltered from winter winds by Aeolus for seven days (Ovid, Metamorphoses 11. 410-748) preceding and after the Winter Solstice (Plutarch, Moralia. Whether Land or Sea Animals Are Cleverer 35). These calm days were called “halcyon days” by ancient sailors (Hyginus, Fabula 65), who greatly revered Alcyone on account of their safe passage at that time.

My own experience of getting out an about in the days around the Winter Solstice have not evoked the phrase “halcyon days” —especially today, as I navigated among hordes of crazed shoppers to and through various local businesses. It seems we have created the very opposite of halcyon days in this season. And as Winter Solstice 2018 heralds the heaviest travel day for Christmas 2018, air, land, and sea-farers in the eastern U.S. are facing treacherous weather. May we fare better than Ceyx and find mercy from a known God.

My comparison of Christmas Chaos to the Halcyon Days of yore brings up the question of the relation of yuletide to the Winter Solstice. Is there a connection? Could be . . .

Next: Winter Solstice and Christmas, Or: How I Stopped Worrying [about How to Express Christmas Greetings] and Love the Season.

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The Winter Solstice and Hope

Today (21 December 2018) the Winter Solstice will occur at 16:23 (4:23pm) CST (22:23 UTC). It is the moment at which the Sun is directly above the Tropic of Capricorn, its most southerly point in Earth’s sky for the year. The Winter Solstice marks the official beginning of winter and is the origin of much tradition and practice in human culture—perhaps to include when we celebrate Christmas (we’ll get to that in a subsequent post). There are plenty of sites that explain the solstices; earthsky.org has perhaps the coolest visual representation here. As usual, Ancient Dan focuses on the ancient and weird connections; and a three-part series is anticipated.

Our modern lives are too indoor, too climate-controlled, and too well-lit for a constant awareness of celestial phenomena. The ancients, however, were keenly aware of such things. Hence our calendar months; though adjusted for the solar year, they have origin in the ever-visible cycles of the moon. The struggle to reconcile lunar cycles with the solar year dominate the history of the calendar and its religious ties. Which heavenly body should dictate human ritual? The moon has a rhythmic influence but the sun rules the sky as the “greater light” (Gen 1: 16).* More importantly, for our purposes, the sun clearly determines the seasons.

Brú na Bóinne: Newgrange, looking NE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The influence of the sun on daylight time and seasons is more pronounced at higher latitudes (meaning more northerly for the Near East and Classical worlds). So, it is not surprising that alignments to solar phenomena are more obvious in megalithic monuments in northern Europe. Stonehenge is the most famous example, but there are others.

Newgrange passage tomb; view of entrance from SE (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

The most interesting are tombs, such as Newgrange in Ireland (see a good overview site here). Newgrange is a Neolithic “passage tomb,” in which a narrow passageway of megalithic stones leads to a built chamber under a tumulus mound of stones or earth. At Newgrange, the sun penetrates into the tomb chamber at sunrise on a few mornings immediately around the Winter Solstice. This phenomenon is facilitated by a “roof box” opening above the entrance that permits light to stream directly down the 60 ft. passageway.

Newgrange; entrance to the tomb passage, with “window box” above (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)

Sadly, photos are impossible in the chamber at Newgrange (crowds and rules). Happily, there is another site that is more remote and less controlled with similar features.

Carrowkeel passage tombs; tomb G in foreground (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

A number of passage tombs on isolated hills can be seen at Carrowkeel, in County Sligo. These are considerably smaller than Newgrange, but with better ambiance than the crowded tourist site. One of them, Cairn G, has a roof-box, as seen in the previous pic. The passage is short (in length and height!) and can be entered by those able to negotiate the large entrance stone. The size makes it difficult to photograph, but I offer the following views:

Carrowkeel passage tomb G; burial chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; looking out from chamber (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)
Carrowkeel passage tomb G; panorama looking from tomb chamber (left) to entrance and roof-box (right) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

From an engineering point of view, it is tempting to ascribe a stress-relieving function to the roof-box (i.e., to take pressure off the entrance lintel). But, roof-boxes are not a consistent design feature of passage tombs. For example, the adjacent Cairns at Carrowkeel (Cairn H, pic below, and K) have no roof-boxes, despite an apparently greater mass of tumulus stones above the entrance.

Carrowkeel Cairn H (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

As at Newgrange, the alignment of the rare roof-box at Carrowkeel Cairn G seems significant. The sun shines directly through it to the back of the tomb chamber at sunsets on days surrounding the Summer Solstice. As there are no written sources in the Neolithic period (these things date to about 3200 BC), scholars must extrapolate the intended significance. It usually goes something like this: the sun was seen as in decline or even dying during its annual reduced time overhead and recession to the south; the Winter Solstice marked the end of the sun’s decline and beginning of its growth; the Summer Solstice, then, marked the beginning of the sun’s decline; and this cycle was celebrated in solar worship and as a form of hope for the deceased.

While I don’t want to recommend Pagan religion, it is interesting to speculate that they may have found some comfort and hope in a generally depressing part of the year. Maybe that aspect is part of why we celebrate Christmas when we do (but, again, more about that later). Certainly Christmas is a promise of redemption in a tough season.

Meanwhile, back to Newgrange. The interpretation usually assumed (as above) holds that the Newgrange tomb is oriented to mark the end of a downturn (death of those buried within?) and the hope of increasing light, warmth, and life with the sun’s reversal. Perhaps ironically, our visit there was 10 days after life as I knew it suffered a sudden and unexpected “death.” But it was at Newgrange that my wife and I met new friends that continue to bring joy to our life as we now know it.

New friends Denise and James Ricks at New Grange (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-16)

Next up: Winter Solstice and Halcyon Days (which sounds counter-intuitive): Click Here!

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Footnote

*Then again, as noted by Pink Floyd, “the sun is eclipsed by the moon” (see here for some eclipse thoughts involving PF).