Chair’s Report, By Kathi Bailey – Reflections on the Solstice Around the World

As I was starting to draft this Chair’s Report for the June 2017 issue of TIRF Today, I realized it was June 21st – the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere and the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere. The word solstice, I learned, is from the Latin noun sol (the sun) and the verb sistere (to stand still). In other words, the summer solstice is the day when the sun seems to stand still – the day with the most hours of daylight.

I wanted to learn more about the solstices, so I began reading about these important days on the internet. I learned that in many countries prehistoric monuments can be found that are particularly important for the summer and winter solstices. For instance, the ancient Incas in what is now Peru built a tower at Machu Picchu through which the sun’s rays shine at sunrise on the summer solstice. At Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, the ancient Anasazi carved spiral petroglyphs on a cliff behind three huge rocks. Apparently the sunlight shone through a split in the rocks onto the cliff face: “At the summer solstice, a vertical shaft of light pierces the main spiral exactly at its center. On the winter solstice, two shafts of light perfectly bracket the same spiral.”

Mnajdra is a temple site on the island of Malta. Its construction also brackets the sun at key points of the year. At the time of the springs and summer equinoxes, the sun’s rays shine through the main doorway. During the summer and winter solstices, the sun illuminates the huge stones beside the doorway.

The website for Live Science documents additional ancient structures related to the solstices: For example, at the Newgrange Monument in Ireland, “during sunrise on the winter solstice, the sun pours into the main chambers, which researchers have interpreted to mean it was built to celebrate this special day of the year.” The Goseck Circle in Germany was uncovered as a result of aerial surveys in the early 1990s. When the site was excavated, it was found that “that two gates cut into the outermost circle aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the winter solstice, suggesting this the circle was somehow a tribute to the solstice.” At the ancient Mayan city of Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula, there is a small hole in the ceiling, through which the sun shines at the summer and winter solstices.

And of course, the best known of the ancient astronomical sites is Stonehenge, where sunrise at the summer solstice and sunset at the winter solstice can be viewed, framed by the Trilithon – a huge gate-like structure or portal consisting of two vertical stones supporting a horizontal “lintel” stone across the top.

According to author Maria Konnikova, there are many traditions around the world for celebrating the summer solstice. She cites an ancient European tradition of “Litha” as “a day to balance the elements of fire and water.” While many solstice celebrations are of pre-Christian origin, she notes that many were adopted by the early church in Europe. For example, Konnikova notes “St. John’s Eve in Denmark, the Feast of St. John in France, the festival of St. John the Baptist in Spain, Ivan Kupala Day in Russia, and The Festival of Ivanje in Croatia.”

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, June 21st is the beginning of the summer season known as Tekufat Tammuz, the solstice of the month of Tammuz. One tradition is that on this day, no one has a shadow.

Apparently the Chinese concept of yin and yang, representing balance and harmony in life, is related to the Chinese celebration of the winter festival. Darkness and cold (associated with yin) are very powerful at the winter solstice, but the turning point marks a gradual transition to yang (representing light and warmth).

Susan Scutti, writing on the website Medical Daily, notes that the summer solstice was celebrated by many Native American tribes with a sundance: “Symbolic of death and renewal, the dancer was believed to be reborn mentally, spiritually, and physically.”

What do all these solstice traditions and prehistoric astronomical sites have to do with TIRF? In reading about them I found a clear pattern of juxtaposition: beginnings and endings of seasons, fire and water, death and renewal, yin and yang, warmth and light versus cold and darkness. Indeed, language is full of such contrasts that appear as collocations: the tides ebb and flow, the moon waxes and wanes, and in life we give and take.

Such contrasts are a part of daily life in trying to run a charitable foundation. Consider, for example, that in fundraising we experience highs and lows, ups and downs, successes and challenges. At a time of unprecedented programmatic development by TIRF, our financial support has not reached the heights we had set as our goal. For this reason, I implore you – please, when you receive the notice of TIRF’s mid-year appeal, consider making a gift of whatever amount you can comfortably afford. You can donate online with a credit card by clicking here, or you can send a check drawn on a US bank to TIRF (177 Webster Street, #220, Monterey, CA 93940 USA). Your gift can make a world of difference. Thank you!

Best wishes,