WINTER SOLSTICE: SUN, MOON AND WORSHIP
by Conrad F. Goeringer
December 17, 2020
Mr. Goeringer presented this talk at the New Jersey Winter Solstice Luncheon.
One of the best ways to learn about any culture or period of history is to see what days of the year it honors. We’re here to celebrate something called the Winter Solstice; and not by coincidence, this is also the time of year when one of the world’s major faiths, Christianity, marks the birth of its god man Jesus Christ. So, if you pick, up the “Dictionary of Quotations” collected by Bergen Evans, you find that nearly every reference under the heading of “CHRISTMAS” pertains to religion. You’ll find Byron’s “Hymn for Christmas Day,” Martin Luther’s “Cradle Hymn,” some angelic references from Tennyson and Charles Wesley.
But I like the “Crown Treasury of Relevant Quotations,” arranged by Edward F. Murphy. Evans was a minted PH.D. from Harvard with a follow-up at Oxford, a seminal classicist. Murphy is altogether different; he takes irreverent quotes by Dorothy Parker (on drinking) and even Reggie Jackson on baseball. Evans is literary journals; Murphy writes for Playboy, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times. I like his quotes about Christmas and, for sure, Christianity. He chooses a gem from A.A.Milne, for example:
“I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas. If he is the jolly old gentlemen he is always said to be, why doesn’t he behave as such? How is it that the presents go so often to the wrong people?”
There’s a quote from John Andrew Holmes, who observed: “The Christmas season has come to mean the period when the public plays Santa Claus to the merchants.” A line from Dylan Thomas informs us that the poet received a stocking full of cigars, cherry brandy and other delights. My favorite is from the acerbic P.G.Wodehouse, who admonishes:
“The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny. If the chosen object is of leather, the leather must look as if it has been well greased; if of silver, it must gleam with the light that never was on sea or land. This is because the wariest person will often mistake shininess for expensiveness.”
But we’re Atheists, and if we celebrate anything at this time of year, it is probably the Winter Solstice. Any excuse to party and indulge, right? So, I’d like to talk to you briefly about the Solstice, what it is and how it came to be, and the fact that unlike the last Solstice time, this year has something special in store for us. We celebrate the solstice today, but it actually occurs on December 21 at 8:37 a.m. EST. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, that is when the sun reaches the lowest point in its annual apparent journey across the sky. If you went out every day of the year (or even once a week), and carefully plotted the position of the Sun around midway, you would find that at the Summer Solstice, the sun is highest in the sky. The rays of the sun beat down on earth at their most direct angle, so the hemisphere receives the most energy per unit of the earth’s surface. This heats up the air, and this is what gives us the warm months of our summer. During the winter, the opposite occurs. The sun is low in the afternoon sky, the rays are spread out, the earth and air cool. All of this is made possible by the fact that the earth is tilted about 23-degrees from its elliptical path around the sun.. We’re actually closer to the sun when it is winter in the Northern hemisphere than we are during the summer, at perihelion. And that is because our path around this closest star is a very slight ellipse, not a perfect circle.
Just four days after this Winter Solstice, on Monday, December 25 -- the day which non-orthodox Christians consider to be the holiday of “Christmas” -- our part of the country is going to be treated to something a bit amazing, a partial solar eclipse of the sun. As seen from our area of the earth -- this time, mostly the United States and parts of Canada, our moon moves across the face of the sun. Were you out in space in the right position, you would see the moon totally obscure the sun. That happens on earth, too, and if you travel to South Africa next June and the weather conditions are favorable, you’ll see a total eclipse of the sun.
Solstices and eclipses are both grand displays of nature, and part of how we evolved -- the sun and the moon are two of the engines which have driven evolution on this planet, and they are part of the elaborate story behind how human beings came to invent a perplexing array of religions.
Take Solstices. We find abundant cross cultural evidence that this time of year, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, was an important marker for so many different ancient societies. They built temples, monoliths, even laid out entire cities aligned with the motions of the sky; and the solstice was one of the most important. They also considered the skies the realm of powerful, supernatural entities which often became components in their religion. The Sun was frequently a major deity. The Egyptians called him Ra, and believed that human beings were born from his tears and that he created the first couple, Shu and Tefnut. The Greeks believed in Helios, who drove the sun across the sky from east to west in a golden chariot. Eskimos invented Malina, a Sun goddess who lived together with her brother, the moon-god Anninga.
Even Neolithic peoples were acutely aware of the sun and the moon. Until last year, the oldest recorded map of the moon was one drawn by Leonardo daVinci about 1505. That was until a Canadian archaeologist discovered a rock carving depicting the surface of the moon in a prehistoric tomb in Knowth, County Meath in Ireland that is nearly 5000 years old.
What made the winter solstice so special? Well, it marked the mid-point of winter, and it was one of the four cardinal points of the year, the others being the summer solstice, and the two equinoxes; and in many cultures, all of this had a special metaphysical significance. It was all part of a sensibility about the orderly periodicity of the universe, the oscillation of the yearly cycle, a process of continual birth, death and renewal. All of this mirrored itself in the lives of animals and human beings, too. There is good reason to suspect that funereal rituals and belief in some kind of afterlife evolved, in part, from the perception that nature renewed itself; that crops and plants grew again after the dormancy of winter.
Equinoxes and solstices were “marked” by the alignments of temples, graves and habitations all over the world. The Anasazi Indians who inhabited Chaco Canyon in New Mexico drew precisely aligned petroglyphs to construct an accurate and precise calendar. Throughout Britain, many of the 900 (and counting) known stone circles and monoliths which likely served as ceremonial temples have curious alignments to events like the winter and summer solstice. The same is true of some of the stone circles and other monuments throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
In Mexico, for instance, there is an abundance of ancient sites where astronomical alignments seen to be an important feature in the construction of temples. These places were likely more ceremonial than scientific, so they weren’t “observatories” in our modern sense of the word. They were ritual venues and celebratory centers which honored the cosmic significance not only the solstices, but the rising of other celestial objects, too, such as the Pleides or the star Capella, that had both a calendric and religious significance. In Mesoamerican cities like Uxmul and Monte Alban, there were often separate temples built and carefully aligned to mark the summer and winter solstices.
Even though this time of year focuses our attention on the sun, the Christmas day eclipse involves another important body in our sky, and that is the moon. Without the moon, solar eclipses would not occur. There is also the probability that you and I wouldn’t be here either, because the moon has played such an important part in the evolution of all life on this planet. Without the moon, there might still be waves and sloping beaches, because these are the result of storms and other wind patterns which, in turn, are driven by the heat from the sun. There would still be high and low tides, but they would only be about half of what we have today thanks to our moon.
Some scientists have suggested that without the moon, there would not have been those tidal pools and other mechanisms that energized the so-called “primordial soup” of chemicals out of which elementary life started. Even if that isn’t the case, life on earth -- if it arose -- would be very different if our planet did not have its moon. Because the moon torques the earth and exerts other influences on its rotation and orbit, the tilt of the earth’s axis might not have occurred, and we might not have the seasons we know today. Some very different bio-communities may have evolved. The length of the day might be considerably different. The moon has been slowing the rotation of the earth ever so gradually for billions of years; so if the moon weren’t around, that process would be taken over by the sun, but it would be much slower. With faster rotation come higher winds on the surface of a planet -- Jupiter, which rotates every ten hours is a good example. Without our moon, winds of up to 100 mph would be common. Life, if it evolves on a moonless earth, could take longer, and it would have to adapt to higher wind speeds. One astronomer suggests that those high winds would mediate against tall life forms that are not stabilized by their weight or deep roots, and so tree dwelling life would have a very rough time of it.
With only a few hours of sunlight every day, life forms would evolve different biological clocks and rhythms. Animals that exist today and which depend on the present cycles of nature, such as turtles and salmons, probably wouldn’t exist. Low waves would make surfing a ho-hum sport. The earth would probably be bombarded with more space debris -- just look at the cratering on the moon! There would be no lunar calendar, no fables about werewolves, no theme for love songs, none of those wonderful autumn moon rises, and no eclipses,
But the moon does exist, and it allows us to see eclipses, like the one on December 25. It so happens that right now the moon is about 1/400th the distance from earth that the sun is, and it is about 1/400 the diameter of the sun, so the propitious mathematics means that on occasion the moon will pass in front of the sun, obscuring it completely. That allows astronomers to observe features like the sun’s corona that otherwise are lost in the solar glare. Now, the orbit of the moon around the earth is an ellipse, not a perfect circle, so that means that sometimes the moon is just a bit too far away to totally obscure the sun, and you have what’s known as an annular eclipse. Other times, if earth isn’t positioned just so, we have a partial eclipse of the sun -- as we will on December 25.
Just as they did with the sun, ancient peoples from all over the earth had myths and legends about the moon and eclipses. Many believed that an eclipse was an omen of impending disaster, or the downfall of a ruler. Some developed rituals on how to counteract the effects of an eclipse, like banging pans, shooting arrows into the sky and firing cannons. The earliest record of a solar eclipse comes from ancient China, October 22, 2019 BCE, and it is recorded that “the sun and moon did not meet harmoniously.” Two astronomers named Hsi and Ho reportedly were beheaded for failing to predict this event. Millennia later, in the waning days of the empire, the Chinese Imperial Navy blasted its ceremonial canons during an eclipse.
The Bible has one certain reference to an eclipse, found in AMOS 8:9 where God is throwing one of his customary Old Testament style temper tantrums against human beings and talking about lamentation and earth quakes and mourning and wrapping peoples’ genital areas in sackcloth, and making people bald -- that’s actually in there, in verse 10 -- and He adds, “that I will cause the sun to go down at noon and I will darken the earth in a clear day.” It is likely that the writer of AMOS, who often referred to contemporaneous events, was talking about the eclipse of June 15, 763 BCE that was recorded by the Assyrians. If god did cause this event, well, it was scheduled to occur anyway, because you can take PC planetarium software that costs about $100, and punch in the numbers and you’ll actually see a rendering of the sky, and the eclipse from that part of the earth on June 15, about 2760 years ago.
The most famous eclipse of ancient times actually ended a war between the Lydians and the Medes, two Middle Eastern kingdoms that had been slugging it out for nearly five years. There is a record that their respective armies were locked in fierce battle when “the day was turned into night.,” and that was the solar eclipse of May 5, 585 BCE.
It’s interesting that during most of ancient times, and even into the modern age, eclipses have been considered omens along with other celestial events, such as the appearance of comets, The Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War often cast eclipses in the same category as other calamities such as earthquakes. And there is the 17th century writer of poems and madrigals, John Milton, who in his classic “PARADISE LOST” informs us...
As when the sun, new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air,
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the Moon,
In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations and with fear of change
There is another chapter in this tale of romance between the sun and the moon, and this has to do with fertility, blood, the mystery of life and the possible origin of early religions. . At Stonehenge and other monuments, not only are the movements of the sun embedded in the layout, but so are those of the moon. There is a “moon circle” of rocks, based on the lunar calendar; and as with the sun, cultures throughout the world have bestowed a special significance on the moon, usually as a symbol of fertility, female wisdom and periodic order in the cosmos.
This moon calendar is important; it runs 29.53 days from full moon to full moon which is a period known as the Lunar Synodic Month, which means that it is out of sync with other calendars. And there is compelling evidence to suggest that this lunar month was closely associated with the menstrual cycle in women, and became entangled in a whole elaborate tapestry of beliefs having to do with menstruation, duality of the sexes, procreation and fertility. The human female menstrual cycles average between 26 and 30 days, so let’s settle on 28. Monthly bleeding marked the time a girl came of procreative age; and it also underscored an important difference between men and women. Women had children, women reproduced, and there is a good deal of literature which discusses how this fact became part of the folklore, rituals and religions in early societies. And again, there is a cross-cultural similarity here that’s worth noting.
The Maoris believed that menstrual blood coagulated to form human souls; so did Aristotle. The Roman scholar Pliny (who lived from 23 to 79 CE) wrote that menstrual blood was “the material substance of generation.” And this idea that a human being somehow “congealed” out of the menstrual fluid persisted well into the medical schools of the 18th century.
South American Indians believed that all humanity was formed from “moon blood” at the time of creation. In the creation mythos of Mesopotamia, the Great Goddess Ninhusag fashioned human beings from clay and her “blood of life.,” and Mesopotamian women constructed ceremonial fertility charms from clay and their own menstruation. There has been some interesting writing to suggest that the Biblical story of Adam was rooted in older female-oriented myths of creation involving moon blood. Moses ben Maimonides, the 12th century Jewish philosopher who became Rabbi of Cairo, wrote that the worship of the moon was the religion of Adam.
Almost universally, the Moon is a female symbol. Plutarch informs us that Egyptian priests considered the Moon as “mother of the Universe.” The Babylonians gave precedence to the moon over the sun in their theology. The Greek lexicon uses “menos” to signify both “moon” and “power.” And the first century Greek biographer Plutarch declared, “The effects of the moon are similar to the effects of reason and wisdom, whereas those of the sun appear to be brought about by physical force and violence.
The Moon Goddess was giver of life but in some culture She executed the role of destroyer, and roamed the dark skies of night looking for souls to devour. Some ancients considered the moon to be the realm of the afterlife. But it was mostly as a symbol of life, regeneration and fertility that she is best and most widely known. The ancients knew that the moon controlled the tides of the sea; and it was said that she also controlled the tidal oscillations of life itself.
There is a residue of moon Goddess worship today in Christianity, and it is the cult of the Virgin Mary. It’s interesting that one of her most evocative forms, as the lady of Guadalupe, shows her surrounded by rays and standing on the horns of the crescent moon. The main shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe is built over the ruins of an ancient Aztec fertility temple. Some things never change...
It was Frederich Nietzsche who said that Christianity denaturalized the world by constructing a religion where the god or gods were remote and distant. As it spread throughout the western world gaining cultural and political hegemony, the Christian church absorbed many of the symbols and ritualistic trappings of those earlier pagan belief systems and cultures. Solstice, sun and moon were no exception. The thirteen months of the lunar/menstrual year were detested by Christianity, and some have suggested that this may account for superstitions and hostility to the number 13.
The pagan practices, including the celebration of solstice, though, have lived on, even unconsciously. We decorate at this time of year with evergreens, Yule logs, the custom of giving and receiving gifts -- and all of this dates back to those earlier, pagan rituals and customs which, we though, we had left so far behind. The American Puritans and other Protestants knew this, which is why they didn’t celebrate Christmas.
The Solstice is a reminder of many things, including those ancient sensibilities of nature and cycles, and the belief systems which arose from them. Christianity had its roots in earlier religions. It never had a monopoly on themes such as resurrection and the renewal of life, a God man-Savior born of a Virgin, and saints and sub-deities who rule over certain times of the year. Christianity is the Johnny-come-lately kid on the block, and even most of its fervent adherents have little idea of how it really began.
I think that the solstice should remind us that we are very much a part of the natural world. An eclipse, even the partial eclipse that we’ll be treated to on Christmas day, is a spectacular reminder, too.
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