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).

Pic of the Day 2018-10-03: Sela and “The Rock”

A brief mention of “wondrous” landscapes in my graduate Geography seminar last night and tonight’s episode of a daring Bible study series at University Baptist Church have inspired me to return to my recently neglected blog with this Pic of the Day (actually several pics) installment; which also clearly rates cross-listing as a You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour post!   

Brett Harris, new co-pastor at UBC, is leading a study of “Overlooked and Avoided Scriptures,” with frank discussion on seeking the good news in neglected or troubling passages. Tonight was the whole (1 chapter) book of Obadiah, frequently described as a song of hatred against Edom. Edom was a brother nation to Israel/Judah (descended from Esau, older twin of Jacob/Israel) with which Judah had an ugly sibling rivalry. During the study I looked with interest at the translation of Obadiah 3 which makes reference to Edom living in the “clefts of the rock (from which the LORD will bring them down in v. 4). “Rock” renders the Hebrew Sela‘, which also designates a place by that name. I also grabbed a copy of The Good News Bible, a translation known for its line-drawing illustrations, curious to see how it handled Obadiah. It included this illustration:

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The Good News Bible got it right. The site of Sela is still called today (in Arabic) es-Sela. The place was rightly called “The Rock” by its inhabitants: 

Sela:

Sela, at left-center and center, is a deceptively large, rugged, and isolated massif in the mountains of Edom, today southern Jordan; for scale, the end of a paved road might be made out at right center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

The path up, from about two thirds of the way there (You definitely Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour):

Sela: Katy Bynum, Shane McInnis, Gabe May, Jana Barkley

Sela: the entrance path (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela:

Remains of the entry gate of the plateau at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

What passes for a plateau is a jumble of deep crevices, higher peaks, and dome-shaped rocks incised with hints of the structures once built onto, under, and atop them.

Sela: Shane McInnis

One of  Sela’s many rock-cut structures (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)
Sela: Katy Bynum

Sela: hints of former grandeur (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-03-12)

It is truly a “wondrous” landscape, with no other human beings in sight, which practically forces you to contemplate what once was there and what happened.

Sela: Stacey Figueiredo

Wonder(ing) woman at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)
Sela: Shane McInnis

Wondering man at Sela (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

The site is unexcavated but surface finds indicate its most intense occupation was during the Iron II period, the time of the Israelite kingdoms and Obadiah. Sela also appears in 2 Kings 14:7 and 2 Chronicles 25:12 (often translated “a rock), where ten thousand Edomites were thrown from the top by the Judean king Amaziah.

Sela:

View from near the top of Sela; there is that road again, and just below the end of the road (at center) stands my lovely wife, wondering what possessed us to climb “The Rock” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

Did Obadiah’s prediction of doom for Edom and Sela literally occur? Ironically, it may have been by the hand of the same enemy that vanquished Judah and occasioned the prophet’s railing against the “brother” nation for not rendering aid. The enigmatic last king of Babylon, Nabonidus (555–539 BC), is known to have campaigned near Edom. An unreadable monumental inscription in Babylonian style, surely commemorating a conquest, can be seen on the lower slopes of the Sela massif. 

Sela: Nabonidus Inscription

An inscription, in the rectangular frame on the stone face at top center, features a Babylonian king (almost certainly Nabonidus), symbols of Babylonian deities, and an illegible cuneiform text (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-12)

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The Lost Derelict Aircraft

As I noted in my last Derelict Warplanes I have Known post, some of the best “derelict aircraft” discoveries are serendipitous. And some serendipitous ones have surprises.

It was 9 July 2004, during a family vacation to Hawai‘i. Earlier in the day we had climbed Diamond Head, the extinct volcano overlooking Waikiki Beach, and explored some World War II bunkers. Then we decided to go as far as possible around the North Shore of Oahu. No one else was around as we reached the end of the paved road at Mokule’ia Beach. Not far beyond, we topped a small rise and were shocked to see debris from an apparent plane crash—and no small plane; it was a major wide-body commercial jet! A large jet engine (most of it) was just out toward the beach from us, a few airliner seats were sitting about, and a pile of broken bits were collected as if for sorting.

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Parts of a jet engine on Mokule’ia Beach; Oahu, HawaiʻiHawaiʻi (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Confused by the expected sight, it took me a few moments to realize something was not right. Not that I am an expert on crashes, but the debris field was too compact and too recognizable. There was no sign of fire. The wreckage was apparently that of a Lockheed L-1011. That didn’t make much sense because major air carriers had phased the L-1011 out by 2001, and it was only used by third-world airlines by 2004. A partial airline name and logo were visible on the aft fuselage (the forward part of the airframe was nowhere in sight).

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Aft fuselage with partial airline name and logo on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

A crane was attached to the to the aft fuselage as though cleaning up the site. But I had heard nothing of a crash. Had we really been so absorbed in our Hawaii vacation not to have seen such news? Also, there were no NTSB people with clipboards around. In fact, no one seemed to be there . . . until we noticed a lone guy nearly asleep in a fold-up chair in the shade.

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Assorted plane crash debris, apparently collected, on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The man was a guard. Having disturbed him, our access to the debris was limited (darn it). But he also confirmed my growing suspicion: this was a film set. He said it was for a “movie” called Lost. I managed to get a few pictures seen here (they are not great—I had finally retired my old 35mm film camera and digital photography was still iffy).

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Inverted aft fuselage of Lockheed L-1011 on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

That fall, ABC debuted its hit TV series Lost. The whole family became fervent fans and reveled in our recognition of the early episode scenes. In the end (if you watched the whole series, you know what I mean), we had mixed feelings about Lost, but it was a great ride we might have missed if not for the derelict plane . . . that wasn’t really.

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As close as I got to the engine on Mokule’ia Beach, Oahu, Hawaiʻi (9 July 2004; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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Adada

With the conflict between Turkey and POTUS in the news this week, I felt prompted to feature an unusual and unappreciated site in the former, long on my list of potential “You Don’t Get This on the Bus Tour” and/or “Pic of the Day” posts.

Adada (lat/long = 37.572972, 30.984000): the city has an unusual but melodic name, probably Pisidian in origin (modern uses of the term, however applicable to my thoughts below, may not be fit for a family-oriented post). The name first appears in the now lost writings of the geographer Artimidorus of Ephesus (2nd century BC), quoted by the later geographer Strabo (Strabo 12. 570). 

Adada: Acropolis
The “Acropolis” at Adada, from the Agora (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The site of Adada in the mountainous region Pisidia of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) is an underappreciated delight where encountering other human beings is a rarity. There is a nicely paved agora/Roman forum and adjacent Acropolis reached by well-preserved steps.

Adada: Acropolis and Roman Forum
Adada: Roman Forum from Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Looking NNE from the acropolis, the remains of several buildings preserved to roof height can be discerned between the scattered oak trees a few hundred meters away.

Adada: Bouleuterion from Acropolis
Adada: View NNE from the Acropolis (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The closest building is the Bouleuterion (city council house), but I am more fascinated with the three between it and the small theater. They are ruins of temples dedicated to the Roman Emperor Trajan, the Roman Emperors (presumably collectively), and the Emperors in conjunction with Zeus-Serapis. 

Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan
Adada: Temple of Emperor Trajan (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Of the former, there is not much left aside from a single wall. The Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors is better preserved, but with the roof and entrance scattered about on the surrounding ground.

Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors
Adada: Temple of Zeus Megistros Serapis and the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The Temple of the Emperors is the most photogenic, with entrance door frame standing, two walls fully intact, and the part of the rear cornice in place.

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Adada: Temple of the Emperors Taken at Latitude/Longitude:37.575976/30.985520. km (Map link)

Adada: Temple of the Emperors
Adada: Backside of the Temple of the Emperors (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Aside from the aesthetic quality of Adada’s remains (I love good ruins in deserted locations!), the site evokes thoughts on the nature of Roman Emperor worship. Why did the ancients occasionally deify their rulers and, in the case of Rome, build temples to them? Was it genuine conviction that the rulers were gods, or was it mere political expediency? Or (as I rather suspect) was it a fair dose of the latter, carried forward by the human nature to adore heroes, align ourselves to alpha-leaders, and idolize celebrities (of all kinds) who make perceived contributions to our lives while ignoring their foibles (especially after their death)? 

Emperor Worship was a tool of the Imperial Roman government since (before?) its inception. Asia Minor (modern Turkey) led the way in institutionalizing this practice—no doubt initially for political ends. Perhaps to encourage local acceptance of the practice, or maybe as a natural religious evolution—both possibilities are disturbing—in many places Emperors were identified with popular local cults; particularly as Zeus who was equated with pre-Roman (and even pre-Hellenistic) local deities.

Adada’s temples provide us with a spectrum of this phenomena. It may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the same dynamics of politics, religion, and human nature can be seen in our own times. It might be worth noting that refusing to give the Emperor the honors due him, in the eyes of Rome or its local agents, was tantamount to rebellion (as for the Jews of Jerusalem in AD 66) or disloyalty (as for early Christians that refused to worship him). Perhaps the lesson is this: there is a potential cost for attempting to rise above humanity’s baser instincts. 

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Ancient Dan on the ruins of the Temple of the Emperors at Adada (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

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