14 December 2008

The Winter Solstice: Neolithics to Christians

The word solstice comes from the Latin: "sol" for sun and "stictere", to stand still. Did you know that in January the Earth is about 3 million miles closer to the sun than in June? It doesn't affect our climate in any way though. After all, 3 million miles is nothing in astronomical terms. Rather, it is our planet's curious 23 degree tilt that gives us our seasons. On the winter solstice our hemisphere is tilted farthest away from the sun than at any other point during the year, giving us the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. And there's more than that happening, astronomically speaking. From Wikipedia:
On the night of winter solstice, as seen from a northern sky, the three stars in Orion's Belt align with the brightest star in the eastern sky Sirius to show where the Sun will rise in the morning after winter solstice. Until this time, the Sun has exhibited since summer solstice a decreasing arc across the Southern sky. On winter solstice, the Sun ceases to decline in the sky and the length of daylight reaches its minimum for three days, during which the sun does not move on the horizon. After such a time, the Sun begins its ascent into the northern sky and days grow longer.

This special time of the year has been celebrated the world over from time out of mind. We're not really sure which ancient culture first began to study and honor the solstices and equinoxes, as there are monuments relating to these dates in nearly every ancient culture, but it's likely to have been of marked importance since Neolithic times. For the record, "neolithic" means new stone and refers to a particular stage of human technological development starting around 10,000 BCE. This period saw what is historically referred to as the "Neolithic revolution" in which farming and metal toolmaking reached previously unknown heights of sophistication. These advances allowed for intense population growth and the development of settled communities which leads us, via the ancient Sumerians in what is now termed the Middle East, to the first examples of recorded history. So, it would stand to reason that the Sumerians were among the first to recognize the solstices and equinoxes.


The first peoples to make monuments related to the winter solstice, however, came from Europe. Or, perhaps more accurately, the oldest surviving monuments known to modern archaeology that relate to the winter solstice come from late Neolithic and Bronze Age sites like Newgrange in Ireland and hundreds of henges and other monuments in Britain. Newgrange is one of my personal favorite ancient places, far closer to my heart than Stonehenge and several centuries older than said henge. It is older than even the great pyramids of Egypt at about 5,000 years of age. The huge monument was built to receive a ray of light into a deep chamber on the morning of the winter solstice that fell on beautiful spirals, solar discs and other symbols. At no other time of the year was this space illuminated which gives us a good indication of the significance of the winter solstice to those who built this ancient site. After all, the Neolithics were the first to perfect farming; the timing of the seasons was crucial to their very survival.

But, as stated above, the ancient Europeans weren't the only Neolithics to honor the solstices and equinoxes in stone. Sacred sites relating to the winter solstice alone have been found all over, including the Americas, Asia, Indonesia and the Middle East. Most notable, in my opinion, are the Chaco Canyon sites in New Mexico built by ancestors of the Pueblos and the Hopi and the Great Zimbabwe, AKA "African Stonehenge", site. These ancient sacred sites, and many others the world over, have fairly precise alignments involving the winter solstice. It gives me shivers to think of the ancient sites not yet discovered!

As the winter solstice sees the return of the sun after the longest night of the year it naturally lead to the incorporation of the worship of sun gods and no holyday holds more sway over us today than that of the ancient Greco-Roman period. The ancient Greeks celebrated the Chronia, in honor of Chronus, around the time of the winter solstice. Eventually, as is typical of the ancient Romans, the holyday was Romanized and became Saturnalia, and Chronus became Saturn, a deity of--you guessed it--agriculture and the harvest. The festivities were marked by the usual sacrifices, the exchanging of gifts, legal gambling-even by slaves, and a symbolic reversal of the roles of slaves and their owners (meaning the slaves were still doing all the work but things were a little more laid back than usual) and general partying all around. Originally the holyday was only celebrated for a single day, 17 December, but gradually grew in length due to its immense popularity. It was such an important and popular festival that, despite the efforts of more than one Caesar to shorten it, the celebrations eventually spread to encompass an entire week.

Saturnalia is tied up with such an important decision that a little Christian history is warranted to explain it. To understand this you must know that Saturnalia was eventually superseded by the festival of Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god imported from Syria, which borrowed many of the characteristics of the previously celebrated holyday. During the reign of Julius Caesar a great number of calendar reforms were instituted, one of which firmly placed the winter solstice, the celebration of the return of Sol, on 25 December. Later in the 4th century CE the Emperor Constantine, who considered Sol to be the same deity as Jesus, perhaps quite naturally decided upon 25 December as the birth of the savior of his new religion. So what was once Saturnalia became the festival of Sol Invictus and then became the celebration of the birth of the new sun god, the Christ child. So it would seem that some of the old Saturnalia traditions would quite naturally have survived in the more recent celebrations of Christmas, namely the gift giving and the general emphasis on food and drink.

And so, to honor his return and ask his favor I say a short prayer to Sol.

In these dark days of winter, and dark economic times of social unrest, may the light of the returning sun bless us all. Whether we honor Chronus, Saturn, Sol, Jesus or no god at all but simply welcome the return of warmth may we all be filled with the joyous potential of the season. As the calendar year turns and a new president takes the helm of my country may we all benefit from the better times to come.

Edited on 21 December: It has occurred to me that, given all the dates and facts being thrown around in the above, it might be good if I listed some sources. Duh! You'd think I'd never written an essay before. So, here are some of the sites I consulted for this post:

Free Republic
Wikipedia entry for Sol Invictus
Wikipedia entry for Constantine the Great
Wikipedia entry for Saturnalia
Wikipedia entry for Winter Solstice
Solstice at Candle Grove.com
December at Religio Romana
I also consulted "The Golden Bough" and a couple of other books that I'm too lazy to run upstairs to fetch. I've also read a lot about this subject over the years so I just consulted my memory and my pineal gland.

11 comments:

Concha said...

many blessings

Lavanah said...

Perhaps it might be better to state that the Sumerians were the first to leave records of recognizing the solstices? While the people of my lady Inanna most likely did recognize and anticipate the solstices and equinox, lack of records does not equate lack of knowledge.

May the light of the returning sun continuously brighten your life!

Livia Indica said...

Thank you Concha. And the best to you and yours as well!


Lavanah, I thought I was pretty clear: These advances allowed for intense population growth and the development of settled communities which leads us, via the ancient Sumerians in what is now termed the Middle East, to the first examples of recorded history. So, it would stand to reason that the Sumerians were among the first to recognize the solstices and equinoxes.
I didn't say they were the first, just among the first which leaves room for others.

May the light of the sun shine upon you!

Princess Haiku said...

You have written a great Solstice post and I look forward to the return of the sun. It's hard to keep one's spirits up with all of the darkness.

Livia Indica said...

Princess Haiku, you are quite right. In times like these, with the coldness of our government and the bitter coldness of winter bearing down on many of us it is indeed hard to appreciate the slowly growing light to come. But it is important to remember that there are many in the world, and even many in the U.S., who are much worse off than some of us. We may not have a lot of fancy presents under the tree but at least we have a tree under a roof with wood on the fire and food in our bellies. That's more than some in this world can say.

May the light of the sun shine on you and yours.

Griffin said...

At which point... cue the Beatles with Here Comes the Sun?!

Yes the pagan roots of Christmas or Yule as the old Britons used to call it before the Christians changed it. I didn't realise it was Constantine who created Christ's birthday on the 25th December, but it must have made it easier for the early British church to overlay it on Yule.

Livia Indica said...

Ha ha! Yeah, I could go for some Beatles right about now! As Constantine was he first official Christian emperor I imagine his idea really did help get the movement rolling.

Greg Fletcher-Marzullo said...

Hey, Livia,

Thanks for leaving a comment on my blog, so I could come on over and check out yours!

I heartily second your solstice prayer and hope you have a wonderful celebration.

I'm trying to come up with food ideas for the day, and I'll probably take my Italian drum outside and sing a traditional song to the sun.

Livia Indica said...

I hope you don't get too cold drumming outside! May the returning sun bless you and yours!

Yewtree said...

The Romans celebrated Juvenalia on 25th December, and this festival was definitely pre-Christian, though it seems that Dies Natalis Sol Invictus may have been created in response to Christmas.

Livia Indica said...

Sol was imported to Rome from Syria around the year 219. The official celebration of Sol Invictus was instituted in 274 and was proclaimed as the dominant Roman state religion by the Emperor Aurelian. Constantine established 25 December as the official birth date of Christ sometime after he became emperor in 306. So, yeah, there was a tug of war going on between the early Christians and Roman pagans and part of this struggle reveals itself in the holidays of the time of the winter solstice.

Nero instituted the youth festival events of Juvenalia in 59 CE. The celebration of his coming of age consisted of games and theatrical performances and was usually celebrated sometime around the winter solstice. However, this was not a public affair but was celebrated in a private theater on pleasure grounds and only the most elite of citizens took part. Later emperors celebrated the event but on different occasions and it later consisted of chariot races and wild animal fights instead of plays, dancing and singing.