‘Tis the season when the Earth’s tilt causes our hemisphere to lean as far away from the sun as it possibly can without totally losing touch and tipping over. It’s a balancing act that, to the ancients, must have brought on a bit of anxiety when both their sun and moon appeared to have stopped in their respective tracks.
We’re actually closer to the sun than we will be, say, next June — so proximity to source obviously doesn’t have a whole lot to do with it. No, it’s that tilt, that 23 degree and 27 minutes off earth’s plane of orbit around the sun that causes recent mornings to be, as my favorite meteorologist Tom Waits so well puts it, colder than a welldigger’s "arse."
This particular cosmological angle of repose also serves as a muse of sorts in that herein comes to light the poetry of our seasons. There is an inclination, as it were, toward momentary raptures. We are in a perfect "list" to the starboard with the bow of spaceship earth flawlessly cutting through swells of solar surf.
Seemingly, the process plays no favorites. While we are huddled about and hunkered down in response to the absence of precious sunlight, our counterparts in Brisbane, Sao Paulo and southern Madagascar are awash in life-giving luminescence. At some level, there is an evenhanded accounting wherein each hemisphere receives its full and just allotment of sunbeams.
And it’s in the knowing that elemental forces are at work — or, quite possibly, play — that we are able to anticipate change and, by custom, stow away sandals and shorts and pull out boots and britches. Historically, humankind, through sacrifice and revelry, has attempted to stay on the good side of the energies involved. Physics aside, genuflecting to unseen omnipotence brings with it a rather cool cachet. And, if you’re really with it, you get to dress up.
So, if you haven’t already picked-up your goatskin from the cleaners, well, by the time winter solstice arrives at 5:22 p.m. late tomorrow afternoon and those festivities that celebrate the shortest day of the year and the sun’s lowest arc in the sky truly get rolling, you just might feel a bit underdressed when you pull into your neighborhood solstice ceremony.
At the root of these rituals are ancient fears that the failing light might not return unless anxious vigils or raucous revelries convince lesser gods and goddesses of our overall worthiness. If and when these interventions achieve their desired effect, and near as anyone can tell they always have, there is much rejoicing at the rebirth of the sun.
There is honor in the celebration of the timeless and eternal. It’s about moving to those rhythms that mark annual changes to our space, about joining in the cosmic dance. So fire-up the Yule Logs on Solstice Eve and join in celebration with those spirits that have gathered at Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon to recognize and ritualize the return of light.
It’s actually rather astounding how many indigenous cultures erected their most monumental architectures in alignment with the cosmos. Tombs, temples, and sacred observatories dot the historical landscape in a manner that marks the passage of the sun, and as has been recently discovered at Chaco, also the moon.
In fact, it is high upon the cliff-face of Fajada Butte, the beacon of Chaco, that the celestial calendar known as the "sun dagger," the only known site in the world to mark the extreme positions of both the sun and moon, flaunts its magic. Involving extensive labor and a high degree of astronomical vision, the structure and its evident purpose, boggles the senses.
Specifically sized and placed stone slabs allow sunlight to play upon petroglyph spirals in such a manner as to mark the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumnal equinox by distinct image. It is unique in that it does this not by using those points where the sun rises and sets but, rather, by utilizing the changing height of its daily zenith.
Ancestral Pueblan builders with an almost shamanistic sense of pattern recognition, complexity, and sophistication chiseled the glyphs and positioned the slabs in such a fashion that tomorrow afternoon, at the exact moment the sun stops its southern journey and begins its six-month trek back northward, two daggers of light will bracket the larger of the two spirals. This, some 800-years after the fact!
Of late, the dagger site has begun divulging yet additional secrets as to its larger role in the archeo-astronomy of Chaco Canyon. In a manner of speaking, it is a blueprint as to the alignment of the "major houses" within the greater Chaco cultural community and the ceremonial and agricultural roles played by lunar and solar cycles.
Enigmas remain, to be sure, in the shadows of the massive ruins at Chaco. But the mindset that the northwest New Mexico prehistoric site served primarily as a trade and redistribution center has lost much of its validity. The true power of Chaco, it turns out, lays in its recognition of an ordered universe.
By directing landscape to honor celestial patterns, the Chacoan architects fashioned sun and moon and shadow and light into pure expression. With no written language, what remains is a text written in the vocabulary of elaborate construction and the knowledge of darkness interrupted by time.
So now, in our own time, we conjure the magic perceived by those whose extraordinary patience allowed them to recognize repetition on the grandest of scales. They knew not of 23-degree tilts or gravity-induced orbits or hemispheres in counterpoint.
But what they had discovered was the cycle of the heavens and a spiritual compass with which to orient their lives. They learned that they were of sun and moon and land and they would open their arms to others of their tribe to make pilgrimages to this sacred site – a space of a most immaculate alignment.
They would come to learn, however, that daggers of light upon rock and the positioning of great architecture along heavenly grids could not, in themselves, guarantee the absence of apocalyptic climatic and cultural change. By 1300, the great ceremonial center of the vast Ancestral Pueblan empire would be abandoned, its many secrets intact.
Hoisting a goblet to these far-seeing builders, however, should be intrinsic to any Winter Solstice ritual worthy of the name.
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