Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice

The word “solstice” derives from the Latin sol (meaning sun) and statum (stand still), and reflects what we see on the first days of summer and winter when, at dawn for two or three days, the sun seems to linger for several minutes in its passage across the sky, before beginning to double back.

Indeed, “turnings of the sun” is an old phrase, used by both Hesiod and Homer. This time remains at heart an astronomical event, and quite a curious one. In summer, the sun is brighter and reaches higher into the sky, shortening the shadows that it casts; in winter it rises and sinks closer to the horizon, its light diffuses more and its shadows lengthen. As the winter hemisphere tilts steadily further away from the star, daylight becomes shorter and the sun arcs ever lower. Societies that were organized around agriculture intently studied the heavens, ensuring that the solstices were well charted.

Above all other rituals, reproducing the sun’s fire by kindling flame on earth is the commonest solstice practice, both at midsummer and midwinter. Thomas Hardy, describing Dorset villagers around a bonfire in “The Return of the Native,” offers an explanation for such a worldwide phenomenon:

“To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of men when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes, and the fettered gods of the earth say, ‘Let there be light.’ ”




Text extrapolated from the NY TImes

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