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Greeting the Return of the Sun

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust
December 8, 2020

By Cynthia Friend

Probably the world’s oldest profession was “sky-watcher.” These were the ones who watched, remembered, and knew things. They could answer important questions like, “Is the sun ever coming back? When?” This was before there were numbers—before there was math! Until modern times, people have awaited the first sunrise that follows the longest night of the year with longing and excitement.

Prehistoric sun priests made it their business to understand celestial time. They predicted events. They master-minded the building of architectural monuments precisely aligned to mark the solstices. Either the first rays of the rising sun, the sun’s rays at solar (high) noon, or the last rays of the setting sun would pass between carefully placed stones, strike in through a window, fill a niche, or illuminate the core of a petroglyph. There are solstice markers on every continent except Antarctica. The Big Horn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, Woodhenge in Cahokia in Illinois, and Casca Rinconada in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico are examples on this continent, all constructed centuries before Western Europeans came to these shores.

Ancient solar rituals and feasts had taken place all over Europe for millennia, too, at monuments such as Stonehenge, but these had long since been submerged into the festivals of the Christian liturgical year. The winter solstice celebrations of the Native Americans were soon suppressed too, replaced by the Christian Christmas. But winter solstice festivals were sustained in secrecy, and are still widely practiced by Native Americans.

The Mayan calendars speak of the “sun’s rebirth.” Mayans held the winter solstice to be “the resetting of the great celestial star-clock.” Close in time and place to us, a Passamaquoddy member said that their solstice stories speak of “the frost giants returning to the North.”

In this profoundly disorienting year of 2020, we can reconnect with the great celestial star-clock, and laugh in the faces of the frost giants, by getting up and going outdoors to greet the sun!