Solstice: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Newgrange Ireland at the Winter Solstice,

The sun never says to the earth, “You owe me.”
Look what happens with a love like that.
It lights up the whole sky.

Poem: “The Gift” @1350, by Hafez, tr. D. Ladinsky

‘Tis the season, quite literally. We are approaching the turning point of the season, the lever of our mini-universe, wherein the sun will be at its Most. Here in Northern California, it will be at the lowest point to our horizon and the furthest south, which means we’re at the Solstice, baby!

Even though other latitudes and longitudes will feel that dance of the sun differently, everywhere is going to feel the sun at its Most. Those at this latitude, the 90% of humans who live on the majority of the land masses on this side of the equator, will feel this as the shortest day of the year. Tomorrow holds promise because it will be longer (for 90% of us anyway). Folks on the south side of the equator will enjoy the longest day of the year, although they might revel in our revelry, too.

People long ago lived under a differently aged sun, but they also did this dance, and they also experienced the sense of cold/hot, shorter/longer, death/rebirth, and dark/light that we are experiencing. ‘Tis the season to get me thinking all about ancient celebrations of solstice. Fair warning: this is not just a laundry list of the top 12 pagan chants or a random set of ten holiday traditions… I’ve done some of that in previous blogs, and you can google plenty of other examples. This is not just about how Queen Victoria popularized Christmas trees or Good King Wenceslas or Saturnalia or even Stonehenge–let’s go a little broader and deeper than Northern Europe. How old and how omnipresent are celebrations of the solstice? How do we know?

Stone circles in South Africa, photo from

Celebrating Geometry

Circles and triangles. Cuboidal towers and pyramids. The first thing humans needed to do in order to acknowledge the solstice was to track it. Hence, our ancestors created giant solar calendars, and they did so all around the world. Stone circles pop up from Ireland to South Africa. Pyramids were constructed in Mesopotamia (Iran/Iraq), Egypt, Central America, and South America. The Olmecs built a 25m pyramid out of clay (La Venta) three thousand years ago.

Chankillo Solar Observatory in Peru @400BCE, photo from

The Chankillo site in northwestern Peru was a set of 13 towers set along a ridge. The sun shuttled between towers, some time around 250 BCE. The edges are rounded now and the site is deemed “prehistoric,” but it allowed the the time of year to be measured throughout the calendar, rather than just at the solstices.

Pyramid Kukulkán, El Castillo (structure 5B18), photo from

The Mayans lived comparatively recently, but the ruins of Chichen Itza still stand. At the solstice, the sun climbs the stairs until exactly half the pyramid is light and half dark; the sun’s movement on the sides creates a “snake” that attracts human visitors by the hundreds.

Karnak at sunrise. Photo from National Geographic by Kenneth Garrett.

The entire temple complex at Karnak was built to face the sun. What makes Karnak unique is that the entire construction took centuries to create, with over 30 pharaohs contributing major sections. It was dedicated to the “sun god,” as many sites will tell you, meaning it was dedicated to the entity that held sway over the Egyptian food supply, transportation, and source of life. All of these temples which pay homage to the sun remind us that we are humans rather than moles; we depend heavily on our sight and that requires light.

Tomb for the governor at Elephantine (Aswan), 1380 BCE. Photo from

We string Christmas tree lights on everything in December, from bushes to people, looking to stave off what we feel as encroaching darkness. For some, the snow is multi-feet deep and doesn’t melt because the sun doesn’t come out. For me, there’s one pickleball court where the tree shadows don’t retreat because the sun doesn’t climb above them. Shadows are chilly; refrozen snow is no fun. Just ask a car’s underside. The Egyptians didn’t have snow, but they understood it. Even their minor tombs let the sunlight become as dramatic as it could be.

Mongolian dancing in front of the World Tree at solstice. Photo from The Guardian.

His Cult, Your Ritual, My Tradition

The historians will tell you those Egyptian tombs were for the “cult” of Amon-ra. Chichen Itza Mayans “worshiped” snake gods, while the Chankillo observatories were built in “prehistory.” Newgrange was Neolithic. The Mongolian “shamans” danced (still do) at the solstice.

Before going further, let’s talk about terminology. When it comes to ancient times–history reported before, say, 1800–the words often feel vaguely insulting. Everybody before us was treated as primitive. But the word “cult” to an academic only meant a religion focused around something, whereas, to an ordinary person, a cult means something creepier. We don’t call Judaism or Christianity a cult. Even though it is. A shaman is essentially a priest; a religious scholar would point out that shamans interacted with spirits rather than gods, which made them technically not priests. But they fulfilled the role of religious adviser, so they are–for us non-religious-scholars–priests.

Prehistoric means that we don’t have the details about the culture because it wasn’t captured in records that survived. It doesn’t mean they didn’t have a history. This blog is not going to survive a thousand years–will that make it prehistoric in the year 2250?

I point this out because reading about the practices of civilizations which had a lot less technology than ours can make us feel pretty superior. But what would the Mayans think of all the guys dressed as Kris Kringle, ringing the bell in front of the shops? How many times have you heard “Jingle Bells” this week? Is there a “Secret Santa” gift exchange at work? Is there a Christmas movie or show you must watch? Talk about rituals! Linus, that paragon of scholarship, quotes from the Bible to show Charlie Brown the “true meaning” of the holiday … future archaeologists might call that the Cult of the Blanket.

Fanciful medieval calendar, from

The Oldest Calendars in the World

The Mayans understood time and math fairly well. They used base 20 and a calendar system that included a Long Count. One of those turns, a b’ak’tun, lasted 144,000 days or 394 years. That was the one where the new calendar page was on December 22, 2012, and people who didn’t think in base 20 thought it meant the world was ending. Apparently, it didn’t.

Just as there have been multiple ways to track and to celebrate the solstice around the world, there have been multiple claims of representations of the oldest calendars. The Chankillo observatory was built centuries before the Incas and the Mayan arose to prominence in the Americas. Stonehenge and the Pyramid of Giza were constructed ~ 3000-2500 BCE, though it took centuries to build both. Newgrange, a large passage tomb, was designed with a dramatic winter solstice flaring to light up its passageway (see top of post). It was built around 3200 BCE, so it proudly claims to predate Stonehenge.

But there’s a tussle over calendars which might be far older, albeit far smaller. One is in Wurdi Youang, Australia. A set of stones was arranged like a cone, so that one end aligns roughly with the summer solstice, while the other aligns with the winter solstice. This discovery is recent enough and remote enough that it’s only begun being studied in the last dozen years. Scientists have gotten far enough to determine that the stone arrangement couldn’t be random and the alignment likely factors in changes in the earth’s magnetic declinations over the period in question — which happens to be 10,000 years. That would predate Stonehenge quite a bit.

The Wurdi Youang arrangement, photo from wikipedia.

One fellow in South Africa has gone a bit further and claimed to have found a series of stone circles that back to the tens of thousands of Neolithic times. Wikipedia calls these the Blaauboschkraal ruins of the Bokoni people, who were known to be building walls and structures in the 16th century. That’s CE, our era, not the Neolithic peoples. But the tourist trade in South Africa has found these stone circles to be more intriguing because Michael Tellinger, took it a step further. He dubbed the circles”Adam’s calendar.”

Stone arrangements from the 1600s or 300,000 BCE +/-. Photo from

Tellinger is a former pop singer turned politician who ascribed to the idea of ancient astronauts. He claims these ruins might have been created 75,000 years or perhaps 300,000 years ago, by ancient civilizations who unfortunately left no other trace of themselves. Unless they’re Transformers on the dark side of the moon. This is a good example of how you need to be cautious when looking up “oldest calendar in the world.”

Meanwhile, folks up in Aberdeen Scotland think they may indeed have found the oldest known calendar in the world, and it doesn’t involve aliens. The rocks planted along this ridge, however, measure the passages of the moon rather than the sun. If it’s a lunar calendar, my wife points out, that may strongly indicate these were designed by women rather than men. Fair point. These are scientifically dated back to about 8000 BCE.

Warren Field pits and their link to the moon. Photo from wikipedia.

Did the Neanderthals have calendars? At least one scholar looking at the cave paintings in Lascaux also saw phases of the moon. In general, wherever people could build or drag stones or apply paint to walls that lasted for centuries, there exist non-random structures that align with movements in the heavens.

What was all this measurement for, anyway? Villages and cities needed to anticipate when the monsoons would end or when to start planting in the spring. That was no cult; that was survival. Calendars which tracked the movements of the sun played an important role in a civilization’s ability to thrive. The coming of the solstice meant a change of season that heralded longer, warmer days which would mean better planting, gathering, and hunting. It also meant more symbolically the end of the dark, which is where the stories and the celebrations come in.

Tammuz, Orpheus, Jesus, Solstice, Yalda

This may sound familiar. Symbol of rebirth. Shepherd. Went into the underworld to rescue his love–or maybe she went to rescue him–and was caught. So half the time spent “below decks,” and the other half above. This was Tammuz, Dumuzid, one of the gods from Sumeria, cradle of civilization in Asia.

I would show a picture of Tammuz and Ishtar, his wife, but they represented fertility, and when Tammuz was stuck in the underworld, all fertility stopped. So all the pictures of the two of them … well… NSFB (not safe for blog). Still, the story of Tammuz and Ishtar is remarkably similar to the later Greek stories of Orpheus. And the death/rebirth aspect which is how the Sumerians interpreted the solstice is what the Romans took forward into Saturnalia, their twelve-night celebration, which was used by the early Catholic Church to set the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25th.

Hence, we now have the modern versions of the Christmas holiday which resonate with the idea of birth. The solstice is the birth of the new year, whether it’s more formally celebrated on the westerner’s New Year’s Day or whenever on the Jewish or Chinese calendars. The winter solstice is the day the sun decides to start a new journey, and the northern hemisphere (where 90% of the people live) will feel it as a birth of longer days.

Yalda night looks delicious! Photo from

So, for a last look at lesser-known celebrations, it seems fitting to go back Mesopotamia. From the ancient times until today, Persians celebrate winter solstice through Yalda. On the night of Yalda, families gather to eat and enjoy each other’s company. That sounds familiar! Traditional foods include both nuts and dried fruits but also watermelon and pomegranates. Especially those pomegranates which represent, as you may already know, fertility.

Some families also read the poetry of Hafez, a medieval Persian poet, who wrote of life, love, and nature, reminding of us what it is to be human. Sounds like Christmas to me. To read Hafez is to awake the senses. You can almost smell the cinnamon and hear the thump of a drum. Don’t be despondent about the past, says Hafez. Dream of a new sun, a new day, and a ripe pomegranate.

مزرع سبز فلک دیدم و داس مه نو یادم از کشته خویش آمد و هنگام درو
گفتم ای بخت بخفتیدی و خورشید دمید گفت با این همه از سابقه نومید مشو
I saw the green farmland of Heaven and the sickle of the new Moon;
I was reminded of what I myself had sown, and the time of harvest.
I said, O Fortune! You fell asleep and the Sun has risen!
He said, Despite everything, do not be despondent about the past.

The poem Mazra’-ē sabz-e falak (“the Green Farmland of the Sky”) by Hafez

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