Every winter I look forward to the solstice, which usually falls around the 22nd of December. The official date this year was the 21st and it made a palindromic number: that is, it reads the same forwards and backwards — 21.12 or 12.21 — whichever way you write it, day first or month first. The prospect of each day from the solstice onwards bringing increasingly more sunlight is pure delight. Of course the balance will tip in the other direction come June in this inevitable cycle, but right now, I am totally savouring the coming of more sun, more light to banish winter’s darkness! Hoorah!
Stonehenge in the UK is the site most associated with the solstice, but I came upon a prehistoric complex in Ireland dedicated to the winter solstice while googling Neolithic sites. The complex is called Brú na Boínne (Valley of the Boyne in County Meath) and it features 3 gigantic mounded structures, the largest of which is Newgrange, and many smaller ones. It is the largest collection of Neolithic structures in Europe. The walls and roofs inside the mounds are of enormous stones like those of Stonehenge. Most are carved — the most commonly recurring motifs being concentric circles, spirals, and maze-like loops, combined with lozenges, triangles, and zigzag lines. There is even one with seven suns. The combined recurring circles and angular lines remind me of the artwork of a dear friend, except she paints in magnificent colours.
Newgrange faces southeast, so that at dawn during the solstice, the sun sends a shaft of light through a small opening called a “roof box,” illuminating the cruciform space inside from 15 to a few more minutes. This spectacular illumination occurs over a period of several days before and after the solstice, not only on the day of the solstice itself. Complementing Newgrange is another mound, Knowth, which catches a shaft of the setting sun through a similar box structure and sends it all the way across a similar cross-shaped interior.
These mysterious structures of gigantic slabs of rock covered by earth mounds have continued to arouse tremendous awe since they were first excavated in the 1960s. Archaeologists portray Neolithic humans as living in small groups of 10 to no more than 100 people. It is astounding that they were able to achieve the social organization (perhaps among several widespread groups) and technical skills to source such gigantic stones and transport them over huge distances. And, moreover to design and build structures based on their astronomic observations and that these structures have endured (and remained watertight) for thousands of years. Newgrange is estimated to have been built around 3200 BC, centuries earlier than Stonehenge.
The mounds are called passage tombs, because of cremated remains found in basins inside. But the mounds are also believed to serve as ritual and festival sites — in particular to celebrate the “rebirth” of the sun as a promise of renewal of life and regrowth. I would imagine that Neolithic humans – who had already begun to grow crops — were most certainly aware of the vital link between the sun’s light and their food plants.
For the wonder of these prehistoric structures and the ingenuity of their creation; for the art on the rock faces and the aesthetic design of these structures; and most of all — for the sun staying longer above the horizon, each day just that tiny bit longer, I am profoundly grateful.
From the Neolithic to our times, humans have been appreciating and celebrating the sun and its life-giving light in diverse ways. With the sun’s “rebirth” and its light banishing darkness, many take hope from this ever-recurring cycle that good will eventually triumph over evil, knowledge over ignorance, tolerance over hatred, and peace over war. May it be so. May it please be so.
Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a hopeful New Year!