Prompted by a discussion with a friend about the preponderance of phallocentric religions. We were trying to think of counterexamples!
Winter is coming. Here in Indiana, we’ll drop to a mere nine hours of sun. I’ve set a lightbox on my desk. SAD lamps might be placebos, but when you’re dealing with brain states, a placebo you believe in is as good as any other cure!
For a long, long time – from a few million until about a hundred thousand years ago – our ancestors mostly lived near the equator. For them, changing seasons didn’t mean dramatic shifts in sunlight, but rather cycles of rainfall, plant growth, and animal migrations.
After the last ice age, though, Homo sapiens spread across the globe. Some ventured far from the equator, settling in the northernmost reaches of Eurasia, Greenland, and North America, as well as the southern tip of South America.
Among these people – inhabitants of extreme latitudes around the world – the winter solstice was likely the scariest day each year.
After the equinox, each day had been shorter than the last. The sun arced ever lower through the sky. Even at high noon, the low sun gave so little warmth. The source of all life on Earth, and it seemed to be dying!
Around the world, all our ancestors were careful observers of nature. Wherever they lived, they learned the rhythms of their homeland: when each plant would bloom, when large herds of animals might trundle over the horizon.
The ancient people of the far north had seen the sun seem to vanish before. Each year, the sun had dropped low in the sky for winter. The days had grown short. Then spring had come, the sun rose high, the days grew long again.
That’s what their grandparents had seen, what their parents had seen, what they’d seen happen before. But no one knew yet why it happened, so they couldn’t be certain that it would happen again. Perhaps this year, on the day after the winter solstice, they’d wake to a gut-wrenching nightmare: sunrise coming later than it had the day before. Perhaps this would be the year that the sun sank and sank, dipping beneath the horizon to never rise again.
And so they threw a festival. That’s often the way of it: we celebrate to stave off fear. Among people at extreme latitudes, the solstice often became a day of worship. A day to praise the most high, imploring the light to come back.
Long after, as Christianity traveled north – the solstice hadn’t been as important in Jerusalem since the sun’s seasonal movements seem less threatening near the equator – their lord’s birth migrated to coincide with the winter solstice. The new converts were already celebrating on this day; Christianity gave them something else to celebrate.
At Stonehenge, the sun rises between the rocks on the winter solstice. Like the birth of Jesus, the solstice was a celebration of (re-)birth.
The previous year’s sun was dying. Sinking from the sky! The winter sunset wanes from the axis of the monument.
On the morning after, a new sun will be born, ready to grow and gain vigor through the year.
The new sun’s first moments – its first rays at sunrise – emerge from between the legs of the monument. A celebration of motherhood, the assembled stones abstractly depict a circle of women: here the legs, the pelvis, the origin of us all.
Like Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde – “The Origin of the World” – at Stonehenge they celebrated the beauty that could birth a sun.