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