WINTER SOLSTICE: SUN ALIGNMENTS AT ANCIENT SITES, MUSIC AND THE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS
Ever since December 1980, when I first went with my father on a tour of the Boyne Valley, I have been fascinated by the extraordinary ancient monuments along the valley of what, since ancient times, is one of the most sacred rivers in Ireland. There was no visitor centre then, and we were let in to the passage tomb at Newgrange by the caretaker, only too delighted to tell us about the phenomenon of the rising sun lighting up the interior of the chamber on the winter solstice. Although Prof. Michael J. O’Kelly, in 1967, was the first to witness and record this phenomenon in modern times, there had been local traditions relating to it for many years before that. This year the sunrise at Newgrange will again be live-streamed on December 20th, 21st and 22nd.
An article in the Winter 2021 edition of Archaeology Ireland tells the story of how Covid restrictions last year presented a unique opportunity to conduct a detailed survey of the different phases of the rising sun entering the passage and chamber, with special cameras set up inside the 5,200 year old structure. Amongst other interesting finds, it was discovered that direct sunlight in the chamber is evident for more days centred on the winter solstice than previously known, with the last traces captured on the 8th of January.
The Irish band Clannad recorded a song called ‘Newgrange’ on their 1983 album Magical Ring which tries to capture in words and music the mystery of the solstice experience at Newgrange
While the winter solstice sunrise at Newgrange is well known to many people all over the world, what is less well known is the relationship of the nearby passage tomb of Dowth to the winter solstice. There is considerable evidence that the southernmost of the two passage tombs at the mound at Dowth was aligned to the setting sun on the winter solstice. Although for many years a huge hedge has obscured the full observation of this phenomenon, Anne-Marie Moroney published a beautiful book in 1999 which included photographs of the setting sun lighting up the ancient chamber. Dowth.Winter Sunsets was the result of many years visiting and making observations at the site and has many interesting photographs and drawings. The band Coscán composed two reels inspired by the alignments of ancient monuments in County Meath to the sun and at Dowth in particular, ‘A Reel Around The Sun/The Dowth Reel’
Although clearly a major event in the lives of people millenia before the development of Christianity, the winter solstice is closely linked to Christmas. The Benedictine monk and scholar Seán Ó Duinn in his book Where Three Streams Meet wrote of how the Christian liturgical calendar was based on the solar calendar, which in turn is centred on the four seasons of the sun, the two equinoxes and the two solstices. There are no documents to tell the exact date of the birth of Christ so early Christians fixed the date within a few days of the winter solstice. The Gospel of Luke says that St. John the Baptist was six months older than Our Lord, so his birth date (June 24) coincides with the summer solstice. Working back nine months from each date, the date of the conception of Christ corresponds with the spring equinox while that of St. John the Baptist coincides with the autumn equinox. The whole focus of Ó Duinn’s book is to show the continuity between the megalithic, the Celtic and the Christian streams in Ireland’s heritage, and he does this brilliantly through a detailed analysis of Early Irish literature, folklore and Christian texts.
Equinoxes and solstices, however, are global events which, despite different time zones, happen at the same time all around the world. They are astronomical, based on the earth’s orbit around the sun and the tilt of its axis. The solstices and equinoxes are celebrated in many parts of the world, with most of the contemporary celebrations having very ancient roots. Our ancestors lived closer to nature and the movements of the planets than most of us do today, tracking the movements of sun, moon and stars across the sky and using them as a calendar.
In Peru, as in Ireland at Newgrange, the winter solstice was live streamed from the old Inca city of Machu Picchu this year. Being in the southern hemisphere, their winter solstice takes place on June 21st. In 1989, under the supervision of the wonderful lecturer in Trinity College, Dublin, Ciaran Cosgrove, I did a special study of Machu Picchu. Ciaran lectured in Latin American literature and we had studied the work of the Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda. He wrote a famous poem called Alturas De Macchu Picchu/The Heights of Macchu Picchu. Ciaran agreed to my doing a special study of the discovery and archaeology of the famous Inca city which tied in with Pablo Neruda’s long and visionary poem.
The stunning city of Machu Picchu, high up in the Andes mountains, was discovered, cleared and excavated by the American explorer and historian, Hiram Bingham,in 1911. In 1930, he published his account of the discovery, with beautiful illustrations, in Machu Picchu:A Citadel of the Incas. In Trinity College, the book had to be ordered in the morning from a book repository a few miles away. When I received it at the library in the afternoon, I opened it up only to discover that it could not be read as it was. Because of the printing process in earlier times, when a number of pages were printed together on one sheet and then folded in to the book, the pages were still all closed up together in groups. I brought it back down to the librarian, who looked astonished when I handed it over to her saying ‘You’ll have to cut the pages in that for me please.’ The book had been in the library since 1930 and nobody had ever read it before.
Although the main building at Machu Picchu took place in the late 15th century, over 4,000 years after Newgrange, structures that were aligned to the sun were of major importance. The Incas who built the city were sun worshippers and the intiwatana (‘the place where the sun is tied’) was a large stone structure where Bingham believed a high priest would ritually ‘tie’ the sun at winter solstice. People believed that the sun was disappearing because the days were getting shorter and the priest tying the sun to the intihuatana would cause it to return.. These structures were at the heart of every major Inca city of this period and, although the Spanish conquistadores never found Machu Picchu in the 16th century, they destroyed the intiwatana at other cities because of its central importance in the pagan rituals of the Incas. The intiwatana also served as a sundial, allowing the Incas to calculate different times of the year, and when to sow and reap crops.
The stone masonry at Machu Picchu is of extraordinary quality, and some of the finest masonry is found in the Temple of the Sun. This building was constructed so that the rising sun at winter solstice peeks through a gap in the mountains and shines through one of the windows to hit a natural stone inside. This stone formed a type of altar but was also the roof of one of the most finely constructed burial chambers at Machu Picchu, which Bingham called The Royal Tomb.
The Incas not only worshipped the sun but also saw mountains, rivers and stones as sacred, something that is spectacularly captured in the structures and setting of the city of Machu Picchu. In many ways, it seems extraordinary that two structures as far apart in time and space as Newgrange and the Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu should both be built to capture the rising sun at winter solstice and both be linked to royal burials. In other ways, perhaps, it is not so surprising as humanity’s dependence on the sun and reverence for ancestors is timeless. The winter solstice is still celebrated all around the world and many countries, including Ireland and Peru, are fortunate enough to have wonderful sites from times past at which to celebrate the event. It always feels like a major turning point in the year, when the shortest day of winter has passed and the days begin to gradually lengthen into spring.
Ireland and the Andean countries of Latin America also share a love of traditional music. In the 1980s, I attended a concert with my brother, Conor, and Ciaran Cosgrove at The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, where the Bolivian band Rumillajta played the beautiful Andean tune ‘Alturas’ on pan pipes and other instruments. You can hear the Chilean band Inti-Illimani play the tune on Spotify.
While Andean music may be very different to Irish music, they share something of the same spirit and the low whistle can be a beautiful instrument on which to play the music of the Andes. Brían MGloughlin and my brother Conor did an arrangement of ‘Alturas’ which we played in our band, Murphy in the Underworld, and years later I recorded a version of the tune with the band Coscán, who play mostly Irish music.
In 1981, the Chilean progressive folk/rock band Los Jaivas recorded an album inspired by Neruda’s long poem called Alturas De Macchu Picchu.