21st December 2010
Short days and tall tales
The winter solstice is upon us once again, accompanied by the bonus of a total lunar eclipse and a full moon tonight (neither of which will be visible to anyone around here due to the opaque snowy skies). Shame really, because this is the first total lunar eclipse to coincide with the winter solstice for nearly 400 years. Oh well . . .
Interesting word, ‘solstice.’ Curiosity about the origins of words leads me as ever to the etymological dictionary (yes, I know – it’s sad: I need to get out more . . .). As suspected, the word has Latin roots: sol is the sun, sistere is ‘to stand still,’ and solstitium is ‘the [apparent] standing still of the sun.’ Inevitably, the answer to any query always arrives carrying the baggage of several more questions. For instance, “Why does the sun appear to stand still?” Thereby hangs a tale, as Shakespeare might have it . . . a tale that seems to have grown taller in the telling.
All becomes clear once you know something about the movement of celestial bodies. I confess that my knowledge of astronomy puts me in the same league as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. No doubt all you Shakespeare buffs will understand exactly what I mean, but for the rest of you it might be useful to know that “Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all Venice. His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them they are not worth the search.” Indeed my knowledge of celestial bodies would, without guidance, cause me easily to speak ‘an infinite deal of nothing,’ so I cover myself by seeking the authority of others.
Research reveals that the simple notion of the sun appearing not to move for three days at the winter solstice is part of a much bigger story, one that has morphed into what we recognise today as the Christmas Story or, more accurately, the Jesus Story, which of course starts with a birth on Christmas Day. Just writing that last sentence puts into my mind the thought that the next few paragraphs might be a bit challenging for some, because it means poking about in established beliefs. But, as always, I speak as I find and wear the cloak of the iconoclast without regret. In any case, belief is a mysterious thing, and comes with its own proviso – each of us is entitled to believe what we like without let or hindrance. I would agree. Belief is a very personal thing, possibly as a result of which there are some very peculiar examples out there.
Some people believe the moon is made of green cheese, and I am pretty sure some believe the world is flat. Some even believe that the Cooperative is Good with Food or that Tesco is here to help. These and other convictions make me question the believers. I want to ask them how they came to adhere to beliefs that to most would seem, at the very least misguided and, at worst, totally barking mad. This brings us of course to the power of inculcation, propaganda, oratory and lies. The power is in the words. They can persuade normally sane people to accept the unacceptable. Whether we are being asked to believe that processed breakfast cereals are good for us or that killing someone of a different faith is justifiable, our convictions are born of the potent messages we hear. Despite the fact that information is becoming increasing easy to obtain, and each one of us now has the means to test the veracity of any given premise, the power of words is still sufficient for most people to take received wisdom at face value.
Not me, however. I don’t trust anything or anyone, not even myself. I need to know what is really going on, and I will always go that extra mile to find out . . . which brings me back to the winter solstice.
Let me tell you a story.
Our species has been around a long time, a lot longer than what we call ‘civilisation,’ which at best is no more than about 6000 years old. What were we like before then? “Very different,” is the answer. For a start, we were in tune with what we might now call the natural world. We understood our place in the great order of things and we probably understood instinctually the interconnectedness of everything. Quite obviously, we were also intellectually advanced, although I must say that intellectualism itself can so easily fall into the Gratiano Trap and end up speaking an infinite deal of nothing. That apart, however, there were many things that were understood by ancient cultures that we, in our take-it, use-it, throw-it-away introspective, soap-opera world, have no clue about at all.
Our ancestors understood, for instance, that all life on this planet relies on the sun. Thus it comes as no surprise that the sun and its worship became something of a central theme that permeates many ancient cultures. As far back as 10,000BC, man has depicted the sun in thousands of carvings and writings and created many social rituals around the movements of this dominant celestial presence. It is easy to see why. Every morning the sun rises, bringing warmth, light and security, banishing the night and saving man from the cold and darkness. Without the sun, no life would have been possible, creating within the mind of man a deep reverence and respect for this fiery orb, making it the most adored object in the history of our species. Such is the way man goes about things that it wasn’t long before he had created a colourful mythology that wove stories around the sun, the moon and the stars, as the ancients developed a highly sophisticated working knowledge of the connections and patterns of all those heavenly bodies.
Stars were catalogued into the groups that we now call constellations, and the relationship between these groups and the sun was stylistically portrayed in the cross of the zodiac, one of the oldest conceptual images in human history. The zodiac figuratively depicted the sun as it passed through the twelve major constellations during the course of a year. The design of the zodiac also shows us the four seasons, the equinoxes and the solstices. Each of the twelve constellations became anthropomorphised as figures or animals, thus adding more shades of colour to the growing mythology. The sun, with its life-giving qualities, was personified in the centre of the zodiac image as the unseen creator, or god (god’s sun, in some cultures) – the light of the world, the giver of life, the saviour of mankind.
In Egypt, around 3000BC, there was a sun god called Horus, and his life was depicted as a series of allegorical myths involving the sun’s movements in the sky. Horus had an enemy, Set. The latter was the personification of Darkness and Night, whilst the former represented Light. Metaphorically speaking, Horus would rise every morning and defeat Set, whilst every evening Set would win the fight and send Horus into the darkness of the underworld. Thus we see that the basic contest of Light versus Dark, or Good versus Evil, has a very long history and is probably the most ubiquitous and enduring duality conceived by man.
There is more to the story of Horus, and this is where it all becomes very interesting. Horus was born on 25th December of a virgin mother (Isis). His birth was accompanied by a star in the east, and he was adored by three kings. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher; at 30 he was baptised, and thus began his ministry. He travelled the land with 12 disciples and was known for performing miracles, such as healing the sick and walking on water. He was known by many other names, such as the Truth, the Light, God’s Anointed Son, the Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God and others. After being betrayed, Horus was crucified, was buried and on the third day rose again.
Is this ringing any bells? Well, there is more. Many other god figures in the ancient world are found to have the same basic mythological structure. There are dozens, the most well-known of which are Attis of Greece (1200BC), Krishna (India, 900BC), Dionysus (Greece 500BC) and Mithra of Persia (1200BC). The sacred day of worship for Mithra was known as ‘Sun Day.’ To the curious, this prompts many more questions. Why 25th December? Why dead for three days, followed by the resurrection? Why 12 disciples? And why is this story so similar to that of the most recent of messiahs, Jesus Christ? It’s time to go back to that Latin word, solstitium, the ‘standing still of the sun.’
Let’s take another look at the zodiac and the astrological knowledge of those ancient peoples. We see that this mythological birth story is a purely astrological concept. The star in the east is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky which, on 24th December, aligns with the three stars of Orion’s belt, often referred to as the Three Kings or something similar. The alignment (albeit slightly wobbly, but not to the naked ancient eye) through the Three Kings and Sirius points directly to the place on the horizon where the sun will rise on 25th December. Hence the Three Kings are guided by the star in the east – to locate the sunrise, the birth of the sun, on that day.
The Virgin Mary is the constellation, Virgo, which is also known as the House of Bread. In astrological imagery, Virgo is depicted as a virgin holding a sheaf of wheat. Thus the House of Bread and its symbol of wheat depict August and September, the time of harvest. In Hebrew, Bethlehem also means ‘house of bread.’ Thus the reference to Bethlehem in our current Christmas story is not a reference to a place on Earth, but to the constellation Virgo, a place in the sky.
In terms of what happens to the sun at this time of year, we know that from the time of the summer solstice, the days become shorter and the sun’s power diminishes. From the perspective of someone living in the northern hemisphere, the sun appears to move south and become smaller as the days shorten. To the ancients, the onset of winter was the death of the sun, fully realised by 22nd December, when the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky. A curious thing then happens. To the naked eye, the sun appears to stand still for three days until 24th December, residing in the vicinity of the Southern Cross or Crux constellation. After this, on 25th December, the sun moves upwards in a northerly direction, presaging longer days, warmth, spring and new life. Thus it was said that the sun died on the cross, was dead for three days and then rose again. However, those same ancient cultures did not celebrate the resurrection of the sun until the spring equinox, or ‘Easter.’ It was at the spring equinox that the sun officially overpowered the darkness, and daylight begins to be of longer duration than the night, signalling warmth, growth, vitality and the abundance of new life.
It is not my place to pour doubt and scorn onto anyone else’s beliefs, but I believe I am entitled to voice my own. My belief is that man’s fundamental understanding of his own world and his place within it not only predates any of our current politicised, organised religions by many thousands of years but also gives us a ready-made blueprint to work with in the future. Although we probably have no chance now of averting the disaster that is likely to overtake mankind before the end of the century, we do have the opportunity to make our peace with this planet, our only home, so that the survivors of the human race might be able to start again after the crash and get it right next time. Thus we must get to grips with reality, and see all things for what they truly are.
Meanwhile, let’s deck the halls with boughs of holly, let’s bring in the mistletoe and the yule log, let’s consider the significance of the winter solstice and look forward to the spring equinox, that celebration of life, awakening and fertility that was once celebrated as Ostara, in honour of Éostre, the goddess of fecundity. And let’s not forget that, even at the time of Horus, Dionysus and Krishna, the winter solstice was the signal for a period of merrymaking and good cheer – I’ll drink to that.