OF SOLSTICES, STONE CIRCLES, AND GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST--REALLY, REALLY PAST
In the past week I have spent a great deal of time reading, thinking, and finally writing about one of the most universally recognized phenomena of all of human history and, more importantly perhaps, prehistory--the solstice event. By some great irony, purest chance, or sub-conscious master plan I just happened to arrive at the point in my new novel in the People of the Stone series, THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, where I was forced by my characters to get involved with the prehistoric expression of the winter solstice among the Hopewellian moundbuilders of the Ohio, Illinois, and Mississippi valleys some two thousand years ago. The irony was that I found myself both reading and writing about this important event on the exact day that it was actually happening. Needless to say, I could not help from getting immersed in the widespread literature, both from my own book sources and the internet, which seek to tie this celestial event to almost uncountable and universal methods of observing and celebrating--present and past--this important solar and lunar event. While the observance of winter and summer solstice is nearly universall, there is no doubt that the myths, legends, and actual practices relating to the mid-winter solstice with the themes of rebirth and renewal that it represents is by far the more significant ceremony. That prehistoric native Americans were as cognizant of these major solar events as any other ancient society cannot be doubted from what we have learned as archeologists in the last century, and we will look more at this below. But first, let's take a look at some general information about the way prehistoric peoples related to these heavenly happenings.
EARLY SOLSTICE RECORDING METHODS
For my purposes, coming at this solstice thing from the viewpoint of anthropologist, archeologist, and now novelist, it has always been obvious that early peoples, often quite early peoples, placed a critical significance on this event. In the absence of written records and short generational memories the reckoning of time on an annual basis could only be done by observing and making a significant event at some annual, immovable point from which all time itself could be measured. What easier method could there be than recording the same point in an annual cycle at which the two most observable and important sky objects--the sun and moon--shifted in their relationships to each other, i.e. the length of the day relative to the night. Relying solely on lunar changes and movements was effective for short term time measurements, but these were not totally regular on an annual basis. One of the first requirements of any advanced society, especially ones based on agricultural cycles, would have to have been keeping exact records of the movement of the sun and its relationship to the changing seasons. Ceremonies built around both solstices and the mid-solstice equinoxes would have been the surest and easiest method to measure all time beyond the lunar months. The ability to predict eclipses and other significant celestial events would have given even greater power to those who could successfully predict them in advance. But in order to do this, exact records based upon a recurring 365 day annual cycle over even relatively short periods was necessary. In the absence of written records there had to be a dependable, non-degradable, and repeatable way to keep these records over long periods. Many societies came to the same conclusion at different times in different places. This was to build some large device, usually of stone but not always, to record in the same exact place the movement of the sun in its annual passage across the sky. These recording places were most commonly a reflection of the two orbs, whose movements were being recorded, that is they were circles. Other counting methods were undoubtedly devised at different times and places, but many of these would have been lost or unrecognized. Woodhenges, medicine wheels, standing stones that were later removed as pagan relics or for some later culture's building requirements, or the use of some other unique method that has been lost.
Book shelves have been filled with volumes relating to Stonehenge and many other important solstice measuring and recording sites around the world. Anthropologists have been aware of the cultural and institutional significance of solar renewal ceremonies--from Druid mid-winter rites to Christian son (oops, I mean sun) annual Christmas heavenly birth pagents--from their earliest recordings of cross-cultural myths. Archeologists around the world have also come to learn that one of the first elements to look for in any large ceremonial structure, be it pyramids, earthen mounds, or any other standing, non-residential structure is its potential for solar and lunar alignments, particularly during solstice events. That ancient peoples had a detailed, even profound (witness the Egyptians and Mayans) knowledge of the movements and predictive capabilities of heavenly bodies is one of the great discoveries of twentieth century archeology. The depth of that prehistoric knowledge continues to surprise us as more and more ancient archeological sites are shown to have such significance, and we continue to learn how prehistoric peoples looked to the heavens to measure their own lives.
PREHISTORY AND NATIVE AMERICAN SOLSTICE RITUAL
When looking at ancient North American solar calendar recording evidence much has been learned in recent years. While a great deal of this reasearch has logically focused in the Southwest, where monumental architecture is most evident, some of the great early sites of the MIdwest have fallen into neglect. In a previous blog entry I discussed the importance of Squier and Davis and their recording of the many large, now mostly destroyed, earthen embankment and mound complexes in the greater Ohio Valley. One can only guess at how much more modern researchers could now make of possible solar and lunar recording potential at these sites if they sitll existed. However, at places like the Great Serpent Mound of southern Ohio and the equally if not more unique stone serpent mound (see earlier blog entry on the mystery of the stone mound in this blog series) on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia, there are clearly demonstrated solstice alignments that have been recorded. How many of the other great mound sites, such as Cahokia's Monks Mound and others might demonstrate explicit and more subtle solar and lunar alignments is not yet clear. There is no doubt, however, that these Hopewellian peoples were, at least in their later phases, in contact with the more advanced knowledge of the central Americans coming across the Gulf of Mexico or along its coastline. How much of those cultures' more explicit knowledge and recording methods filtered up the Mississippi valley during the widespread contacts in that direction during Middle Woodland Period cultures can only be surmised by what we have learned in recent years. That knowledge includes the recent research in such places as Chaco Canyon and with the as yet difficult to date "Medicine Wheel" sites of the western U.S., which indicate a fairly advanced abiltiy to calculate and record solar events, including the solstices as well. But as to the Hopewell, people, more specifically, we can certainly assume that they were just as capable of recording these events. Have their sites been lost because they were mainly of earth and not stone construction? There is observable evidence of this from Squier and Davis' records, for sure. These were obviously fairly advanced agricultural peoples, who would have depended greatly on measuring the movements of the two most important heavenly bodies. Like other early peoples around the world, Sun worshippers always celebrate the mid-winter renewal of light with traditional ceremonies of gifting, feasting (the harvests were over) and other rituals of birth or rebirth. Unfortunately, these are not always readily visible to even the advanced methods of modern archeology.
When it came time in the newest novel of the series, The Corn Maiden's Gift (Look for it in the Fall of 2010) to deal with how the natives of the Hopewell period might have related to this event, it was interesting to speculate about their possible ties with the great, monument building sun worshippers from Central America. While the extent of their contacts cannot be known for certain, I believe from what we do have left of the great moundbuilding cultures of our own heartland that their own methods of recording and celebrating the critical solstice events would have been as essentially meaningful to them as to any other peoples, before or since. The archeolgist in me laments the loss of many potentially important sites, or the time to investigate them. The novelist, however, cannot let such a thing stand in his way. I can only use the information we have--and that is siginificant, I believe--to weave into this exciting new tale of those lost people's lives the same wonder and hope we all feel in this singular and event-filled time of our own annual celestial cycle ceremonies. MERRY CHRISTMAS (or should I say Have a Happy Solstice) TO ALL, AND TO ALL A GOOD NIGHT!
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