Solstitial Matters

Wende asks:

Do you have a favorite poet or blessing
that would suit the occasion
of the shortest day and longest night?

Hmm. 'Short on poets and blessings' was my first thought, and then it was 'We could go find some...' from the resident Librarian. So of course I began with the over-informing about how Solstice is a Northern and Southern Thing: at the Equator the day length stays the same, and the thing to watch is the seasons (dry==> monsoon ==> dry) (BUT, says Mr Knowitall, what about the solstice fiestas in Bolivia and Peru, smartass?) In the North(/South?) is where it culturally matters and there's a palpable turnaround that FEELS like it matters.

Earth's axis tilting
circling around the Sun
Winter has begun

So that (I thought to myself) is where I'd start to look for poets and blessings. That got me off into hunting for stuff on 'Nordic' peoples, starting with Scandinavians. The very first bit of blessing I tripped over is ...well... preposterous. Maybe even actionable to repeat. But I love it, so here's

A Year's End Blessing by Minnesota Norwegians

May da ruts always fit da wheels in your pickup
May yer muffs always keep out da north wind
May da sun shine warm on yer lefse,
May da rain fall soft on yer lutefisk,
And until we meet again
May da Good Lord protect us from
any and all unnecessary Uff Das.

There was a 'silly' warning back there, right?

So I toured through Scandinavian traditions and lexicon, finding that Swedish 'Mys' is appoximitely 'cozy', and the Danish-Norwegian 'Hygge' is more like 'snug.' Also explored Tomten, a folklore-based Small Person (a poem by Viktor Rudberg [1881] is a total CLASSIC in Sweden. There's a charming YouTube version. You don't need to know this but by the way Astrid Lindgren, the author of Pippi Longstocking (she late of of Villa Villekula) did a much-loved children's story version of Tomten).

Then diverted to China's Dongzhi (literally 'winter's extreme'). The extremity seems to be the length of the shadow, and it's a family-and-food festival, with offerings to ancestors too. Rabbit hole.

And then I thought: Japan! Solstice Haiku! Look No Further!

at long last it's here
at long last, it's here at last
the end of the year


...which may seem a little lame, but try it in Japanese:

nari ni keri
nari ni keri made
toshi no kure

There are many many many solstice haiku on the interwebs, earnest and heartfelt but most of them not really very good if you're a haiku snob. I've found myself drawn to those that don't mention 'solstice' but still capture the quintessence. Achieve le mot juste status for me. Here are some I especially like:

shortest day
of the longest night
life is choices

(William Sortein)


over my head
or my feet
the winter quilt



landscape bedraggled
shriveled to black then bleached white
cries ice tears then hibernates

(John Anderson)

And then I came upon this, by Wendell Berry. It may be my winner from the day's hunt:

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.


Friday the 15th
...began in the wee hours with thoughts about the geometry of the solstice, and the word gnomon presented itself, so I got up to write it down, and then thought of a long sequence of things to look into, beginning with Up Helly Aa, a (recently-created) Shetland winter celebration that turns out to be not solstice related (it's at the end of January) and then going on to wonder about Orkney and other northern European celebrations. And processed the factoid that under the Julian calendar, the winter solstice was December 25th. Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 declared that Thursday 4 October would be followed by Friday 15 October... all in aid of making better sense of the algorithm for Easter's date. Britain and its colonies didn't adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, and much of Eastern Europe remained on the Julian calendar well into the 20th century... which is all pretty trivial in comparison to the many megalithic and Neolithic constructions that clearly have solsticial connections: Stonehenge of course (the sarsens and bluestones frame the Sun's movement, aligned with the solstices), and Newgrange in Ireland, where the winter Sun shines down a long passageway, peaking at the solstice. The same in several sites in Brittany, some of which we visited in 2014-2016. And I discovered that Goseck Circle in Germany, Maeshowe and the Standing Stones of Stenness in Orkney, and apparently Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu also have orientation toward the solstice.

Some links, which I may get around to annotating:

The winter solstice and a Neolithic temple (Shetland)

Winter Solstice at Maeshowe Chambered Cairn

Winter Solstice at Newgrange - Inside the Passage Tomb

Winter Solstice Illumination of Newgrange Chamber

Newgrange cutaway:


A Salutation to Light in the Darkest of Nights (Lucia celebration in Sweden, 13 December)

Gavrinis Cairn Passageway, Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany, France

Orientations of Neolithic Monuments of Brittany Michael Hoskin, pdf

my photos of the Alignements at Carnac and Table des Marchands and interior

Solstice Gnomons from Daily Kos

Build a Human Sundial for Winter Solstice

Axial tilt (Wikipedia)

Winner of the Desert Award. Taken in Salar de Arizaro, Puna de Argentina, Argentina by John Seager


Saturday 16 Dec

Yesterday's hypnopompia was gnomon. Where the prompt came from I have no idea, but here are some useful links to examples of gnomonia:

Gnomon in Wikipedia

The Gnomon from Sea & Space (practical geometry)

The Sundial Primer (finding True North)

Gnomon: A computational platform to analyze and simulate the development of living forms in 3D (into metaphoric territory)

'Gnomon' Starts Simply — And Then It Goes Sideways (Nick Harkaway's novel)

So I made one: I drove a vertical pole into the ground to cast shadows, and I then added stakes to mark the end of the shadow at various times — which produces a wide parabola. Then I started to notice shadow-forming gnomons everywhere, sweeping out congruent parabolas that are usually unnoticed. And I'm reminded of Phil Coyle's Solid Geometry class in 1959...

A gnomon is a transducer, converting incoming Sun energy [in-streaming photons] into information about time [the sundial] and space [location — think astrolabe, sextant].

Words of Wisdom and Sundial Mottos (Wikipedia)

Analemma, the figure-8 shape sometimes seen on globes:

...a diagram showing the position of the Sun in the sky as seen from a fixed location on Earth at the same mean solar time, as that position varies over the course of a year. The diagram will resemble a figure eight. Globes of Earth often display an analemma as a two-dimensional figure of equation of time vs. declination of the Sun. Wikipedia on Analemma, but I haven't found its practical/conceptual history yet.

Analemma over the Callanish Stones

Analemma the ancient sketch of fictitious sunpath geometry or Sun, time and history of mathematics Richard Kittler and Stan Darula, Architectural Science Review, 2004

Geosynchronous satellite


Sunday 17 December

A Magnificent Gnomon

(Imogen Cunningham Mme Ozenfant [1935])

I'm fascinated by the multitude of ways to see/consider the solstice, to honor this repeating, endlessly repeating exercise in planetary physics, and the mystery of the plane of the ecliptic that the planets seem to bound to, and the determinative 23 1/2 degrees (approximate, varying) axial tilt of the Earth, relative to the plane of the ecliptic. The megalithic response is especially attractive, and so is the relationship with Chinese geophysics: Feng Shui Winter Solstice and Hemispheres

It's really all about Time as we experience it.

The challenges of the moment: how adeptly can we use knowledge of the past to explain (develop a satisfying and continuing narrative of events and processes that got us to the here-and-now). There's a glorious history of the intricate mathematics of predicting the future states of so complex a system of gravitational interactions of planetary bodies (beginning with the history of 'astrology' as so clearly laid out in Boxer's A Scheme of Heaven: The History of Astrology and the Search for Our Destiny in Data. And there's a long history (and pre-history) of Tales that seek to make comprehensible the vastness accessible to our senses, and to our inner CPUs and their operating systems, and our organic (as opposed to 'artificial') intelligence...

Plenty to keep us occupied as we watch the Sun's progress across the canvas of the empyrean through another year.


Winter from Jamie Scott on Vimeo

Steeleye Span:

(Amazon: not available)


Monday 17 December

And just to keep us on our toes, this just in from New Scientist: Mystery of the quantum lentils: Are legumes exchanging secret signals?

Many megaliths are geo-oriented to the equinoxes: Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Chaco Canyon, Stonehenge. In other words, planting and harvesting seasons. Newgrange seems to be the outstanding exception in having the winter solstice as its reason for being (other wise, it's just an impressively large mound of dirt, a neolithic sculpture ... see The archaeoastronomy of the megalithic monuments of Arles- Fontvieille and List of archaeoastronomical sites by country

And what about the 'landscape cosmogram' of Cahokia (1050-1350 CE), 55 million cubic feet of earth, brought in baskets; the archaeoastronomy of the many earthworks suggests rigorously planned orientation, some to cardinal directions, some to limning the solstices and equinoxes.

...At the equinoxes two poles of the reconstructed Woodhenge align with the rising sun in the east. Solstice posts in the Woodhenge align at the beginning of summer and winter at sunrise and sunset. Several of the principal mounds are also on these alignments.

...As you walked out your front door every morning you saw a virtual replica of the orderly universe. On your way to work your path took you through this celestial microcosm. This three-dimensional cosmic diagram was also like an organizational chart of your community's class structure. Your own place in it was literally traced by your moccasins.

...Many of these Native American villages are perceived by their inhabitants as being the cosmos in microcosm, and their own village center is seen as the center of the world.

(from Cahokia: Mirror of the Cosmos Sally A Kitt Chappell [2002])

This is really marvelous: Carn Beg in Ireland

Passage graves from an astronomical perspective

Interpreting Megalithic Tomb Orientations and Siting Within Broader Cultural Contexts Frank Prendergast (pdf)

lots more: Nabta Playa: The world's first astronomical site was built in Africa and is older than Stonehenge

and Tim Minchin again, can't see/hear it too often

and here's my essential for the season: Schütz Weinachtshistorie with Dresdener Kammerchor

Wednesday 20 December

More Nordic folklore:

Dark Days of Winter in Finland

The 13 Icelandic Yule Lads

Happy Christmas/Nowell/Yule/etc. (Yuletide lexicon)

Giotto, 1305 Scrovegni Chapel in Padua