How Ancient Cultures Commemorated the Darkest Day

By Nathaniel Scharping | December 21, 2016 3:03 pm
shutterstock_11052742

(Credit: Shutterstock)

On Dec. 21, the northern hemisphere celebrates the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, or the longest night.

While it’s the darkest time of the year, the day also marks a turning point. From here on out, the the sun shines a little longer each day, and we begin the slow march toward spring. Fittingly, the winter solstice is celebrated by cultures the world over as a day of hope and resilience, and has figured prominently in religious rituals.

For the ancient Romans, the winter solstice was marked by the Saturnalia festival, a week-long celebration where traditional roles were upended amid feasting and drinking. Masters waited on servants, gambling was temporarily legal and the social hierarchy was upended.

In Iran, the solstice was marked by the Yalda night, when families gathered to eat, drink and recite poetry with each other. Foods colored red represented the rising sun and the return of life. The Yule celebration, from which the modern Christmas celebration emerged, was observed in Europe by the Germanic people, and involved hearty foods, drinking, decorations and usually some variation of an elf or old man bearing gifts.

While many solstice celebrations have been lost to the ages, we can still see their echoes in ancient works of architecture spread across the globe. On this day sunlight penetrates structures kept dark all year in clear commemoration of the year’s shortest day.

Stonehenge

shutterstock_315697523

(Credit: Andrew Roland/Shutterstock)

One of the most recognizable monuments in the world, Stonehenge, has been found to mark the arrival of both the winter and summer solstices. On the winter solstice, the stones are perfectly aligned with the setting sun, and a crowd of thousands gathers to witness the occasion.

Pagans, for whom the both the solstice and Stonehenge hold special ritual significance, tend to be well represented.

Temple of Karnak

shutterstock_335090300

During sunrise at the winter solstice, the sun shines directly through the gap in the walls seen at the center. (Credit: Pakhnyushchy/Shutterstock)

Located in Egypt amidst a vast complex of ruins, the shrine to the sun god is illuminated during the winter solstice. On this day, the rising sun shines between two pillars, casting a bright beam of light through the complex. The Egyptians were keen observers of the sky, and many of their monuments, including the pyramids, are aligned with the sun or the stars. For them, the winter solstice was a celebration of the god Horus, a deity of the sky, sun and moon.

Newgrange

shutterstock_88159678

(Credit: Pecold/Shutterstock)

A vast circular monument in Ireland, Newgrange predates Stonehenge. The structure measures some 250 feet across and is around 40 feet high, and was likely used as a tomb. Built around 3200 B.C., the monument features a single narrow passageway leading into its center for about 60 feet, with several small chambers at the end.

During the winter solstice, the sun shines down the length of the passage and into a chamber through a special hole built into the roof just above the main entrance. The event lasts for less than 20 minutes and is so popular that visitors must enter a lottery for the privilege of attending.

Goseck Circle

25177975043_07a05eb821_z

(Credit: Pierre Lesage/Flickr)

This series of concentric ditches was constructed in Germany some 7,000 years ago during the Neolithic period. It measures about 250 feet across and once contained a ring of logs with gates used to measure the movement of the sun.

On both the winter and summer solstices, the gates lined up perfectly with both the setting and rising sun, as seen from the middle of the enclosure. Archaeologists believe that the structure functioned as a primitive kind of calendar, allowing its ancient builders to track the course of the sun and the moon. Other, similar rings can be found throughout Europe.

Machu Picchu

shutterstock_162082910

(Credit: vitmark/Shutterstock)

The Inca are renowned for their astronomical skill, and they based a complex series of annual rituals on the movements of the sun, moon and planets. Their attention to the sky is embedded into the architecture, and archaeologists have found structures related to both solstices in Inca cities.

In Machu Picchu, an out-of-the-way cave reveals a subtle surprise for 20 days surrounding the December solstice (which occurred during their summer) — it is only during this time that light is allowed to enter through a small hole in the wall and illuminate the cave. The rocks surrounding the hole are shaped like a condor, a bird that represented the gods to the Inca, and the timing coincides with the month of Capac Raymi, when boys of noble birth would be initiated to manhood.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology
ADVERTISEMENT
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    The Winter Solstice was efficaciously reversed by Europeans mass rutting like crazed weasels. That practice has withered into our long winters of discontent (Youtube v=sE3g0i2rz4w). Night is dark so you can imagine your fears without distraction.

    • OWilson

      Fertility rite venues were probably more popular than esoteric astronomical structures.

      • Warfdude

        You really can’t separate the two. From Asia to India from Europe to Africa from the Americas to Australia, astronomical references and fertility references are intertwined. Archetypes such as the Wheel in the Sky to Saturn, Venus and Mars references, there is always an associate fertility reference. The reference can be a negative one relating to some sort of catastrophe or a positive one referencing the mother goddess that provides and nurtures. Today we often call it mother nature. All cultures have a story about the Golden Age, the garden of Eden and they all have a story about its violent end. The violent end appears to coincide with the need for a calendar to track the seasons. Follow the patterns of the archetypes themselves and they will tell a more accurate historical story (myth in Greek means story with out delineation as fiction or non-fiction, simply story). The stories associated with the archetypes are amazingly similar across the planet. What an amazing coincidence or is it?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

D-brief

Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar
+