Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Winter Solstice

By Alan Caruba

On December 22, 1554 AD, someone took note of a celestial phenomenon during which a full lunar eclipse occurred. It will occur again on Tuesday, the day that marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Today’s astronomers will tell you it is just a coincidence and, indeed, that is all it is.

1554 had not been a good year for Lady Jane Gray who was beheaded after having spent just nine days as queen of England. The Privy Council had someone else in mind for the job. There were the usual battles in England and France where such skirmishes were what passed for politics in that era, but it was not otherwise a particularly memorable year.

For centuries, however, men had been paying close attention to the skies. In Ireland, there is a huge circular stone structure estimated to be 5,000 years old. On solstice, a single shaft of sunlight reaches deep into its central chamber at dawn. It predates the pyramids and Stonehenge, the latter of which was constructed to mark the winter and summer solstices.

Solstice celebrations clearly go back thousands of years in mankind’s history. The Neolithic peoples around the world, from about 10,000 to 3,000 BC, were the first farmers and, as a result, knowledge of the seasons and the cycles of harvest was critical.

The Moon that appeared to diminish and disappear only to reappear was of great interest as it proved an excellent way of marking time. It was, however, the solstice that was regarded as the day on which the Sun was reborn. Rebirth is a common theme in myths dating far back in history.

An excellent telling of the solstice story can be found here. “Ironically, the Earth is actually nearer to the Sun in January than it is in June—by three million miles. The Earth leans slightly on its axis like a spinning top frozen in one off-kilter position. Astronomers have even pinpointed the price angle of the tilt. It is 23 degrees and 27 minutes off the perpendicular to the plane of orbit.”

Clearly, someone was paying attention in ancient times because hundreds of megalithic structures have been found throughout Europe, each oriented to the solstices and the equinoxes. Sacred sites have been found in the Americas, Asia, Indonesia, and the Middle East.

In time, both Christmas and Hanukkah would be incorporated into the winter solstice, but the event was widely celebrated well before these holidays even existed and it was regarded as a time of magic. For the ancient Romans, of course, it was a time of feasting and, reportedly, debauchery, but just about any time of the year seemed to signal “party!” for them.

What lesson can we draw from the solstice of 2010? It is, I think, that the Earth is very old, 4.5 billion years old in fact, and what passes for human civilization is rather new by comparison. For a very long time, men peered into the sky and marveled at the Sun, Moon and stars. In time they began to make some sense of the cyclical change of seasons and apply it to agriculture and other activities.

Now consider the timeline. In 1554 someone recorded the lunar eclipse that occurred on the winter solstice, but it was not until October 1608, over fifty years later, that a device called a telescope was unveiled in the Netherlands. It made Jacob Metius of Alkmaar a tidy sum of money, but it was the genius, Galileo, who would grasp the power of the telescope. He made his first one in June or July 1609.

As this winter solstice dawns, the United States of America, the greatest pioneer of outer space, no longer has a vehicle to continue manned exploration. The Russians, with whom we were locked in conflict throughout the Cold War, now provide our astronauts a ride to the Space Station. There is something profoundly wrong about that.

© Alan Caruba, 2010

3 comments:

TexasFred said...

It's ALL because of GloBull Warming man, are you daft? GloBull Warming causes all of these so-called *seasons* and such...

Save the flowers and smell the whales...

Wait.. What?

Guy said...

Rats ... I got my telescope all set up to watch this eclipse, and about ten minutes before it started, the clouds rolled in and it started to snow. I could tell it was happening because it got VERY dark, but I was only able to catch one quick glimpse of it about half-way through, when there was a little break in the clouds.

Guess I'll just have to catch the next one ... in a few hundred years!

Alan Caruba said...

@Guy, whatcha complaining about? Just wait another 500+ years and you can see it then! :-)