@David Halpin Circle Stories
We have arrived at the winter solstice, the moment when the most northern point of the earth is tilted furthest away from the sun. This results in the fewest hours of light and the most hours of darkness. The word solstice itself means ‘still sun’ or standing still sun’, depending on your definition preference.
The sun will ‘appear’ to stand still at this point for 3 days after which it will begin to move again and the hours of light will begin to grow. The reason for the sun being said to stand still is because before and after the solstice the declination speed is less than 30 arcseconds per day which is undetectable to the naked eye. To the ancient people this was representative of the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another. Solstice myths often contain this auspicious moment of the renewal of the sun on the 25th of December.
We can find this within the various ‘sun gods’ said to have been born at this time as well as the various ancient traditions which celebrated the re-emergence of both nature and life after the moment of the deepest dark.
Perhaps one of the most controversial sun gods associated with the Winter Solstice is Horus. Around this time of the year you will come across posts about Horus being born at the Winter Solstice and comparisons to Jesus and other similar deities.
This is one of those arguments that seems to inexplicably confuse people when the answer is quite simple to find with a small amount of research. The mistake many people make is to immediately look for an association with the adult form of Horus as a representation of the sun. However, it is Horus in his child form, Harpocrates, who is associated with birth following the winter solstice.
According to primary sources, which is all we should be looking for, such as Plutarch, writing in 65 BCE, “Isis, when she was aware of her being pregnant, put on a protective amulet on the sixth day of Phaophi, and at the winter solstice gave birth to Harpocrates, imperfect and prematurely born.” (Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris)
Writing before the Christian church had begun celebrating Christmas, Marcobius writes, “…at the winter solstice, the sun would seem to be a little child like that which the Egyptians bring forth from a shrine on the appointed day, since the day is then at its shortest and the god is accordingly shown as a tiny infant.” (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 1.18:10)
Egypt has a much older tradition of acknowledging the winter solstice as the alignment at Karnak Temple demonstrates but that’s another subject. So, is Horus in his adult incarnation a pre-Jesus sun god born after the winter solstice? No. But Horus in his child form, Harpocrates, definitely is.
The work of James Frazer and Joseph Campbell are recommended for anyone who would like to explore the psychological aspects of this ‘monomyth’ further.
The American writer, Denele Campbell, has a great article which summarises the various sun gods and solstice links. You can read it here:https://denelecampbell.com/tag/winter-solstice/
It should be noted that the solstice is celebrated as a period known as midwinter but the point of astronomical solstice is only a moment in itself and does not always occur at the same time. Again, we can understand this in a much more comprehensive way using scientific instruments. Our ancestors most likely understood time differently and they certainly utilised their own astronomical, mathematical and construction knowledge in order to frame this time within the structures of their monuments.
Although Newgrange is probably the most famous example, the growing discipline of archaeo-astronomy is discovering more and more ancient structures with celestial alignments.
You may even live near one and don’t even know it.
Examples of ancient solstice celebrations are worldwide and too numerous to list but here are some of which people may have heard of and not known too much about. Beginning with northern Europe we have the pagan festivals of Yule (Jul) which is associated with both Odin and The Wild Hunt. This was also supposed to be a time of heightened spirit activity and a person might encounter supernatural beings, fairies and ghosts by venturing out at night. Many of the Yule attributes are said to have emerged from pre-Bronze age customs of ancestor veneration which may account for these beliefs. This is a wide-ranging topic so I won’t delve too deeply into it in this short piece but there are lots of previous posts to help any interested reader discover the various scholarly findings and assertions relating to Yule.
Another example is the Iranian celebrations of Yalda night which come from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism itself is said to date to before 2’000 BCE so this is another very ancient custom and observance of the solstice. Strangely enough, even though it is not generally remarked upon, there are tantalising links between Yalda night and Yule, not least the wariness of encountering supernatural entities at this time but also in the tribal and familial gatherings, story-telling and feasting.
Two other festivals you may have heard of are the feast of the unconquered sun, Sol Invictus, and Saturnalia. Both of these individual cultural expressions have their own mythologies, traditions and beliefs but are connected through the observance of the solstice and the motif of reversal and rebirth.
The Indian festival of Lohri is a solstice festival but it is different in that it takes places after the month of the solstice has been observed. So, in this instance the celebration of new life takes place in January and it focuses upon the arrival of longer days after the winter solstice. Punjabis celebrate on the last day of the month during which the winter solstice takes place.
These are just a few of the many worldwide customs and celebrations associated with the winter solstice. The chances are that no matter which ancient cultural expressions you research, you will find a winter solstice festival.
Finally, while this idea of renewal and rebirth is demonstrated within ancient structures and monuments, and within the renewal of nature and life, there is also a more contemporary example of acknowledging this time of new beginning.
For many, making new year resolutions and tying oneself to fresh hopes and habits for the coming year is a way to let go of the past of old fears and old scars. As the maxim of ‘as above, so below’ tells us, we too can look to the new year with renewed optimism and dreams and this is really what the solstice celebrations remind us of at the most primal level.