Newgrange, Ireland – Credit TJP Finn – CC-BY-SA

Thud, son of Thog, stood on The Rock watching for the Sun to go down. Behind him burned the fire, which he had kept going for the last week. It was working just as his father said it would. Although the Sun set further south each day, its retreat was slowing down. It was being drawn back by fire, a spirit of its own kind. Tonight, if Thud was worthy of the trust passed on to him by Thog and held by the tribe, the Sun would reach its lowest point in the southern sky, pause, and begin its long journey back.

Thud gave The Rock a sharp rap with the butt of his staff, as Thog had done before him. The purpose was to ensure that the Sun paid attention and remembered to come back. It couldn’t be allowed to fall asleep and drop over the edge or it might never return. Besides, it was cold and he needed to be doing something. His job wasn’t over until the Sun rose in the morning. He needed to be certain that the ritual worked.

No one knows for sure how long people have been performing rituals at the winter solstice, but we know for sure that many have and many still do. Maybe not as far back as Thud and his father Thog, but certainly at least 5,000 years.

In Ireland there is a stone structure called Newgrange which has been dated to more than 5,000 years before present. This megalith – literally, big stone thing – is built in a circle, like its famous English cousin, Stonehenge. Both of them are built so as to mark the position of the Sun precisely at winter solstice. Newgrange is a few centuries older than Stonehenge, but they served much the same purpose: to provide a place where people could monitor and probably celebrate the passing of the solstice.

Update: Newgrange is also a burial site. The body there presumably belonged to a person of privilege, nobility of some kind. As was apparently not uncommon amongst those people, it is also the product of an incestuous union, either brother and sister or parent and child. Read about it in this Science News article.

There’s another one in Scotland called Maeshowe. There are hundreds of megaliths all over Europe. All of them mark the solstices or the equinoxes or both. Similar structures exist in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The ancestors of the Pueblo people in New Mexico, the Chacoans, built an array of structures across kilometers of land. Not only did the individual parts have seasonal and astronomical features, the whole extended design did, too.

So far, all the archeological evidence for seasonal and astronomical rites is in the neolithic era. Neolithic refers to the latest part of the stone age. It’s when people began farming, domesticated animals for work and to eat and made great advances in pottery and textiles. The growth of settlements and a small population explosion lent themselves to the development of elaborate societies. They also provided the labor necessary to build large stone structures that weren’t strictly required for daily life.

That wasn’t possible in Thud’s time. It was all he could do to get enough wood to keep the fire going. And nobody was going to drag big stones around for him, as much as they might respect him and the memory of Thog. So we don’t have any megalithic evidence of his labors. Hunter-gatherers don’t leave as much of a mark on the ground as farmers do. But the return of the Sun is equally important to Thud and his tribe as it will be to their descendants living in towns. So he raps The Rock again and hunkers down in his furs, ready to stand vigil on the longest night of the year.


About arjaybe

Jim has fought forest fires and controlled traffic in the air and on the sea. Now he writes stories.
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4 Responses to Solstice

  1. emmylgant says:

    I liked that. There are great megaliths in Karnac, Britanny. I wonder if any of the structures mark solctices.
    There remaims, after eons of time it seems, a strong desire to mark this day, to pay attention, in spite of all myth busters… I do. I don’t sing a dirge but I watch the king go down and remember that I am but a light mote on a sunbeam.

  2. emmylgant says:

    I meant dust mote…but you knew that, didn’t you?

  3. arjaybe says:

    I didn’t know that. Since your comment is poetical, I assumed that your “light mote” was a small version of the sunbeam. Of a kind and part of it, so to speak. But I like dust motes too.-)


  4. Laird Smith says:

    There is a structure in southern Alberta which is at the same latitude as Stone Henge. A neighbor, who is a former University Of Alberta professor, goes to that site twice a year to observe the solstice.
    The site is 5000 years old and was built by the First Nations peoples.

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