The Solstice Lady

Seasonal Lore and History

 A collection of Winter Solstice traditions from around the world. This multi cultural compilation hopes to demonstrate the universality of the celebration of The Return of the Sun. Find myths and stories that were told by our ancestors to explain the loss of the light.  Discover the traditions that have fallen out of custom and the surprising origins of our annual Christmas past times.

There are ancient earth works and stone monuments all over the world that are aligned to observe the times of the solstices.

If one watches the sky from the Northern Hemisphere in December, it appears that the sun rises and sets further and further south on the horizon as Winter Solstice approaches. Near the end of December for nearly a week, the sun appears to rise and set in exactly the same place,

In fact, it appears to be standing still. The word Solstice is derived from the Latin “sol” for sun and from the verb “sistere” which means to stand still. The word Solstice translates to “sun standing still”.

On December 21, the sun, rising and setting in the same spot, was clearly rising lower and lower in the sky- the ancients feared for the very life of the Sun, and for their own lives if the sun were in peril

For three days, the sun hung in the sky, seeming to have stopped all motion across the horizon

On December 25, there was a break as the sun rose slightly earlier in the morning and rose just a bit higher in the sky

How were the ancients aware of these things? Their astronomers and sun-watchers had been observing the skies and marking the passage of the sun, keeping track of the moon and stars.

The earliest calenders we have are on bone and ivory pieces scored in prehistoric time by caveman astronomers, proving that humans have been aware of the cycles of the skies for thousands of years

Enormous, impressive earthworks were constructed all over the world specifically to mark the times of the solstices. Many of these structures pre-date modern history, and in some cases, their function as calenders, or markers, was only discerned by the happy accident of someone being in the correct spot at the correct moment. (or the fortune of not being found and destroyed by usurping cultures)

All of these devices would have allowed ancient star-watchers to map the skies.

I will give examples of all three ways that ancient astronomers used to mark the passage of the sun

The first was to build a structure that used an upright object like the gnomon of a sundial (as in Stonehenge)

The second was to build a Structure that allows in light (as in Newgrange)

The third was to watch the horizon from a certain place every day and track the path of the sun in relation to the stationary surrounding terrain- (as did the sunwatchers of the Zuni) 

 

 
 

One of the ways ancient sun watchers tracked the solstices was to build a structure that used an upright object, like the gnomon of a sundial, to align with the solstice sun

Stonehenge- Wiltshire, England

                            FreeImages.com Umberto Cigognini -- Stonehenge Solstice crowd

                           FreeImages.com Umberto Cigognini -- Stonehenge Solstice crowd

 

The most famous of these constructs is, of course, Stonehenge.

Built over a period of centuries from about 2800 BCE, by people predating the Celtic Druids- the purpose of this neolithic circle mystified scholars for centuries until it was noticed that its alignment was uncanny in tracking the seasons across the sky. It is one of a multitude of medicine wheel style calenders that are all over the world- employing the use of upright structures to mark shadow and light much the same way the gnomon of a sundial tells time by the casting of shadow. 

                photo by Mark Grant -Stonehenge Winter Solstice Sunrise 1980s

               photo by Mark Grant -Stonehenge Winter Solstice Sunrise 1980s

 

Ha Amonga a Maui- Tongatapu Island-  Tonga

In Tonga, near the village of Niutōua, in Heketā, the Polynesians have a piller and lintel style arch similar to those we see in Stonehenge.

Ha Amonga a Maui is named for the Polynesian trickster god, Maui, who captured the sun in a net so he could break half its legs – which was meant to slow it down in its arc. Its name translates to 'The Burden of Maui' for it is believed that the god wore this 35 ton coral limestone arch as a yolk for a time.

Legend says it was built by the god himself but it was built by their 11th king in the 13thC.

There are markings on the lintel of this megalith which align with the Winter Solstice sunrise.

 

Goseck Circle - Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

 Reconstructed in 2005 Goseck Circle is open to the public     photo by J Waller

Reconstructed in 2005 Goseck Circle is open to the public     photo by J Waller

Artifacts from Goseck Henge have been carbon dated, establishing this Neolithic astronomical observatory the oldest in all of Europe. Estimated to have been in use between the 49thC and 47thC BCE, there is evidence that the site was ceremonial as well as being a functional observatory.

 Sketch of Goseck Circle shows line of sight to the Winter Solstice sunrise and sunset

Sketch of Goseck Circle shows line of sight to the Winter Solstice sunrise and sunset

Goseck was laid out in four concentric circles with a mound at the center. Two man-tall wooden palisades of posts ringed the area, with three gates (to the north, the southwest and the southeast).   If one stands at the center of the observatory on Winter Solstice, the rising sun is visible through the southeast gate and the setting sun is visible through the southwest.

It is of interest to note that Goseck Circle is very nearly on the same latitude line as Stonehenge.

 

The second Method employed to mark the solstices was to build a Structure with an aperture that channels light into a chamber

Newgrange- County Meath- Ireland

In Eastern Ireland there is a remarkable prehistoric underground cavern. Covering an area of about an acre. Newgrange has a 18 metre/60 foot corridor to lead to its inner chamber.

At sunrise on Winter Solstice, a stone box over the entrance allows a stream of light to travel the entire length of the corridor to illuminate the central chamber.

 Winter Solstice light streams down the corridor to the light up the chamber far within Newgrange photo credit BoyneValleyTours.com

Winter Solstice light streams down the corridor to the light up the chamber far within Newgrange photo credit BoyneValleyTours.com

 

Fajada Butte- Chaco Canyon- New Mexico

 Fajada Butte at sunset in October of 2011 photo by Joey Kujawski

Fajada Butte at sunset in October of 2011 photo by Joey Kujawski

The imposing Fajada Butte rises approximately 400 ft/ 130 m above the floor of Chaco canyon, an area where the Anasazi Indians flourished from about 400 CE to 1300 CE.   In 1977, a visiting artist named Anna Sofaer happened to be in the right place at the right time and witnessed what is now known as “The Sun Dagger”.  At the southeastern face, near the top of the Butte, she found three heavy stone slabs arranged to allow a channel of light into a spot where there were petroglyphs. Further observation of the site confirmed that on the solstices, a dagger of light was cast into this area to highlight a spiral. (Spirals are common shapes for sun petroglyphs in many cultures) Further affirmation of the importance of this site to the ancients is the evidence of remains of a 750 ft/ 230 m ramp on the southwestern face of the butte, indicating that tremendous effort was expended to make the site accessible. Researchers believe this to be proof that the site was important to the Anasazi for ceremonial purposes

 Winter Solstice" Sun daggers" Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (National Park Service photo).

Winter Solstice" Sun daggers" Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon (National Park Service photo).

In 1989, natural erosion caused a slippage of the carefully balanced site which had sat undisturbed for centuries. As the stones shifted downward, the Sun Dagger was lost.

 

The third method used by ancient astronomers was to watch the sun and moon from a particular place every day and track their passage in relation to a stationary feature or site of the surrounding terrain

 

Machu Piccu- Andes Mountains- Peru

 Machu Piccu- Temple of the Sun aka "The Watch Tower" Photo: Fabricio Guzmán

Machu Piccu- Temple of the Sun aka "The Watch Tower" Photo: Fabricio Guzmán

 The word Intihuatana means "Hitching Post of the Sun" and denoted a place where the sun would be tethered in the annual Winter Solstice ritual.

Performed by Incan High priests, the ceremony tied the sun to the stone so that it would not desert the land.

When the Spaniards conquered, they brought with them the Catholic Church. By 1572, the church had quashed all festivals celebrating Inti, the sun god.   Destruction of all the Intihuatanas guaranteed that the sun tying ceremony died out.  The Festival of Inti Raymi was revived in 1944 with theatrical representations of the old rituals

This Intihuatana, features an upright "Hitching Post of the Sun" which is oriented to the four cardinal directions. This hitching post remains because the Spanish never found Machu Piccu.

 The last Intihuatana of the Incan people is in Machu Piccu, Peru-  photo by David Stanley   

The last Intihuatana of the Incan people is in Machu Piccu, Peru-  photo by David Stanley

 

"Spanish chroniclers reported that there were 16 'Sun Pillars' set around the perimeter of the Inca capital of Cusco at the time of the conquest, although none of them exist today."  https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-observatories-169611

 

Zuni Sunwatchers

The Pekwin or Sun Watcher of the Zuni tribe had the responsibility of observing the position of the sun from the same spot every day, usually at sunrise. 

The location of this spot would be handed down from Sun Priest to apprentice and was usually not prominent or clearly demarcated in any way.

At the Jemez Pueblo in Sandoval County, New Mexico (USA) the approach of Solstice was observed from the roof of the Bear Clan's ceremonial room.

In the early 20th c there was a report of the Matsakya site, a few KM northeast from the modern day Zuni Pueblo. The site was an irregular man made pile of stones about 1 metre/ 3 feet tall. Inside was a flat slab of stone upon which has been carved a rudimentary sun face with feathers to the four quarters. (This site no longer exists. The Zuni stated that it had been vandalized but some scholars believe the site has been moved to regain the privacy and guard objects that were sacred to the Zuni from casual touristry)

 

Kokino- Republic of Macedonia

         Kokino    photo by Darkocv

        Kokino    photo by Darkocv

The archeological results from the region around Kokino indicate there was a thriving civilization there from the neolithic age up to the middle ages (about 6000 yrs).  Kokino itself is considered a bronze age observatory, the significance of which was only uncovered in 2001.

It is believed that the ancient sun watchers would light a bonfire at the summit of Kokino to announce important calendar events to the surrounding areas. (planting time/ harvest etc)

 

 View of the setting sun passing through the notch of the prehistoric Observatory Kokino, Republic of Macedonia

View of the setting sun passing through the notch of the prehistoric Observatory Kokino, Republic of Macedonia

 

Calender 11- Vermont, USA

 Winter Solstice Sun rising through a notch in the terrain, as seen from the central chamber of Calender 11   Photo by Byron Cox

Winter Solstice Sun rising through a notch in the terrain, as seen from the central chamber of Calender 11   Photo by Byron Cox

Settlers in South Vermont, USA, around the turn of the 17th century found ready made 'root cellars' they could use to store their food. It wasn't until the 20th century that the archeological significance of these sites was recognized and studied.

Calendar II is one of more impressive of these sites. Seven huge slabs of lintel stone shape a large central chamber, aligned to true North. On Winter Solstice, the sunrise shines through the back entrance to the chamber as the sun passes through a notch in the distant hill.

It is clear to archaeologists that this chamber was once used for ceremonial purposes but there is no evidence of who built it.  Some believe Calendar II and its neighbouring sites were created by a lost Native American tribe while others suggest that the creators were pre-Columbian, either Celts from Ireland or possibly from Portugal.