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Winter Solstice

Did you hear the one about a Greek Goddess, a Stone Age hippy, a Yogi and lots of cycles?

Once upon a time, somewhere about 4,500 million years ago to be not very precise, our recently formed and fledgling planet Earth was just settling into its stride, minding its own business, gently cooling and taking form in its now-steady orbit around the sun, when something rather fortunate happened: another planet slammed into it.

The planet concerned – named Theia by scientists (after the Greek goddess who according to mythology gave birth to the moon) and roughly about the size of Mars – collided with the Earth, probably at a glancing angle, disintegrating in the process and smashing off a significant chunk of the Earth’s outer mantle, the resulting debris field forming a ring around the planet that fairly rapidly coalesced into the moon. Due to an obvious lack of eye witnesses this is all theoretical of course, but mounting scientific evidence appears to be supporting the theory.

I use the word ‘fortunate’ above because two rather useful things came about as a result of this planetary prang between the young Earth and Theia. First, we got a moon, and a big one at that (compared to others in our solar system). Big enough to create what is in effect a binary planet system with all the stability of motion in space that this brings to both parties. Second, the collision resulted in the Earth taking on a new and rakish tilt, such that it’s tipped at around 23 degrees from its direction of travel, giving rise to our annual seasons as we journey around the sun.

It now seems pretty certain that both the moon’s gravitational effect and the climatic cycles caused by the Earth’s axial tilt are key contributing factors in the conditions that allowed life as we know it to arise on the planet, including us. And so it was that this catastrophic collision, one that so nearly spelled doom for the early Earth, actually turned out to be a Good Thing – though as Bill Bryson points out in A Brief History of Nearly Everything, we should probably be grateful it happened 4.5 billion years ago and not last Tuesday.

Right, so now let’s fast forward to around 3,000 years BC, where some Stone Age bright spark has noticed a curious thing about some natural grooves in the soil that form part of the local landscape. These grooves, he or she observed, just happen to line up exactly with the direction of shadows cast by the sun as it comes up on the longest day of the year in mid-summer and, even more remarkably, as it goes down on the exact opposite point on the horizon on the shortest day of the year in mid winter.

Our bright spark evidently found this deeply exciting, so much so that he/she and a (presumably very large) crowd of his/her fellows felt sufficiently inspired to drag a large number of 72 ton lumps of rock hundreds of miles by hand from what we now know as Wales and build, on that very spot, what we now know as Stonehenge.

Indeed, recent excavations in the area have confirmed that the Stone Age ‘Avenue’ between Stonehenge and Avebury ring was built in line with these naturally occurring ancient grooves in the Wiltshire landscape, caused by Ice Age melt, and which just so happened to be in perfect alignment with the Solstice Axis. Whatever the purpose of Stonehenge was – and it’s still far from clear – what we do know for sure is that the significance of this natural landscape feature was not lost on our ancestors. For them it was a powerful and mystical symbol of heaven and earth meeting at the turning of the seasons, the Summer and Winter Solstices. It was revered as a magical landscape that became a natural focal point of worship, feasting, celebration and burial for thousands of years.

The term ‘solstice’ comes from Latin – literally ‘the sun stands still’ – referring to these turning points of the seasonal cycles caused by that fortuitous collision with Theia. The Earth’s tilt means that we experience a variation in day length as we circle the sun. In our Northern Hemisphere, we have longer days (and therefore shorter nights) through the mid part of the calendar year, peaking at Summer Solstice on June 21 and then getting shorter and shorter until we reach the opposite turning point in the cycle, with the shortest day at the Winter Solstice on December 21. In the Southern Hemisphere it’s the other way round. These variations in the amount of light and heat energy hitting the Earth’s surface at different parts of the year are what give us our natural seasons.

From the midst of our winter season consumer feeding frenzy, it’s perhaps hard for us to connect fully with the importance that the turning point of the winter season held for our ancestors. As they stood witnessing the sunset of a Winter Solstice festival, dancing, swaying or perhaps shivering
on Salisbury Plain in their rabbit skin pants (or whatever bargains they may have picked up on their equivalent of Black Friday), this moment was evidently a powerful symbol of the death and passing of one year, giving way to the birth of the new. Another year passes, another year dawns.

From where we stand now, we know that we inhabit a spherical, rotating, stylishly tilted planetary space ship, orbiting a star in a solar system in the company of our moon – all of which explains an awful lot about an awful lot, including what causes the seasonal cycles. Our forebears may have lacked such scientific and explanatory knowledge as they watched and celebrated the sun and moon tracing their annual patterns in the sky above (what seemed to them) a stationary landscape, but it would appear they were profoundly aware of something we so easily forget. Something that our sciences show up at every turn, but that we so easily lose touch with in our every day experience: that cyclicity is at the core of all matter, of all life.

Everywhere we look, from the sub-atomic world of vibrating particles (perhaps themselves made up, according to contemporary theories such as Super String Theory, of multi-dimensional vibrating filaments of energy), through to biological life cycles of every kind, through to the motion of planets, our galaxy and beyond – everywhere we look, everything is moving in cycling patterns. Life, matter, physical form and all that we know is a massive, complex dance of coming and going, living and dying, upping and downing, inning and outing, round and rounding of cyclic energy. According to some cosmologists, it could even be that the expanding universe we currently observe around us is just the latest outward phase of an endless cycle of expansions and contractions, of Big Bangs and Big Collapses.

And so a final thought. As mystics, yogis and sages of all kinds have been reminding us for thousands of years, we have available to us another ever-present reminder of the cyclic nature of life, albeit on a slightly less grand and a more personal level than a solstice: our very own breath. It’s right under our noses, quite literally. It’s also free and it is (as yet at least) untaxed. Whenever we become conscious of our breath, relaxing, curiously watching it happen without interfering with it, there’s a perfect reminder of the fundamental cyclic principle of life right at the centre of our human experience. Let go, let come, no holding on. At that instant of pause, that turning point before each inward cycle of breath, it seems that life speaks in the same way as the setting sun of a Winter Solstice, speaking to us now as it has spoken so powerfully to our ancestors for thousands of years:

Let go of the old, with gratitude.
Welcome the new, with wonder.
Move, flow, sway in the dancing swirling,
unfathomable cycle of life.

Stephen Hopper, December 2013