The two Solstices are the only universal holidays I celebrate. There many personal holidays, almost all anniversaries of whatever happened that day: births, weddings, deaths; the arcs of jobs and love affairs; graduations and engagements; all the milestones of life. (The trick is to avoid Marley’s chains and chests.)
When it comes to the world, I see only two true holidays whose meaning every mind on Earth shares; two that everyone can anticipate and appreciate. These holidays are defined by the star that gives us life. They mark our orbit as precisely as the numbers of a clock mark the hours.
In fact there are four such star-marked days; two major, two minor.
Suffice to say what makes the equinoxes cool isn’t just that day and night are equal length. It’s that, on those days, the sun rises dead east and sets dead west. For everyone on Earth.
Pretty cool if one wants to build stuff aligned on the compass points. Just wait until an Equinox and then sight on the rising or setting sun. (One can also sight on the North Star, but it requires working at night in the dark. OTOH, any cloudless night will do, no waiting for the Equinox.)
If you think about it, our very notion of direction likely comes from the idea of the sun rising and setting, our original timepiece. So much depends on our daily cycle. Plants and animals still use that ancient clock.
We see the sun wheel through the sky, rotating — apparently — on an axis through the Earth. The stars, too, seem to know that wheel. (Of course, it’s because we spin beneath them.)
(Ever notice that NEWS comes from North, East, West, and South?)
If the Sun setting and rising is our first clock, it actually ticks off only the virtual seconds of time. Days are fleeting in the full span of a life (albeit it endless at first and at times).
The minute hand, then, is the Moon, another powerful celestial influence. Tidal pools, due to the Moon’s gravity, may have been instrumental in transitioning life from the sea to the land. We may owe our very existence as intelligent beings to our Moon.
In most cultures, the monthly Moon is a goddess for obvious reasons. Selene to those ancient Greeks who always got there first, but I’m more inclined towards the Roman huntress, Diana (it’s a Wonder Woman thing; her alias was Diana Prince).
If we do owe our ape-descended path to the Moon, then she is, in a very real sense, our Mother.
Finally, the hour hand would be the four seasons. Each a distinct quadrant of a year, each a distinct mode of life: birth, life, withering, death. (Or less morbidly: waking, working, playing, sleeping.)
The seasons come, of course, from the power of the Sun (not just a timepiece, but a life-giver).
[As an aside, I recently posted about entropy. What truly gives us life, isn’t the Sun pouring energy into the Earth. The night sky necessarily emits nearly all of it as high-entropy infra red photons. If it didn’t, that energy would quickly fry us. (A tiny fractional difference accounts for global warming.) What the Sun actually does is pour low-entropy energy into the Earth, which consumes that entropy to sustain life. The Earth discards the low-entropy waste energy into the night sky.]
Some fun with numbers…
Four cardinal points, four seasons, four quadrants. One thinks of the Earth and of humanity upon it. Four is the count of the canonical family (two parents, two children — balanced; zero population growth). Four is the number of choices in the standard Venn diagram. Most rooms and buildings have four corners; again the notion of stability and grounding.
Three, I’ve written several times about. Trinities are central to many religions and many magics. (Trilogies are rampant in science fiction. A tripod is stable on uneven ground.) Mathematically, three points define a plane and a circle (and two spheres). Here one thinks of celestial orbits; Sun, Earth, Moon; morning, day, evening.
(Two has well-known power and universality. Yin-Yang; binary computers; a yes/no choice; male, female; young, old; day, night; hot, cold. The list of pairs, both opposing and cup, goes on forever.)
((One, of course, is the foundation of everything.))
Four times three is twelve, one of the more interesting small numbers.
If one has a dozen somethings one can easily divide them into two, three, four, or six, equal parts. Some civilizations even counted in base 12 (duodecimal), which does offer some advantages over our usual base 10 (decimal).
There are twelve hours on the clock, twelve months in the year, and twelve signs in the traditional zodiac.
Ophiuchus sticks his feet in, and some think that makes him a 13th, but he’s just a constellation photo-bombing the twelve signs. Just look at the fool:Stepping on the tail of Scorpius? Oh, my! That’s not a good idea. Dude’s asking to get his foot stung.
The picture above shows the summer sky, looking straight south at midnight tonight. The yellow line is the ecliptic, where the zodiac signs live and the planets (including the Sun and Moon) roam. (Notice Jupiter over on the left in Sagittarius.)
Scorpius is easy to spot by her upraised claws, the line of her spine, and the curve of her tail. Her heart, the red supergiant Antares, is 15th brightest star in the night sky, and catches the eye in brightness and color.
Notice how the Milky Way galaxy descends from the upper left corner down towards the bottom center. (Few will be able to see it with the naked eye due to light pollution.) See how it passes between Sagittarius and Scorpius? That point between them is the heart of our galaxy.
In the summer, when we look south at midnight, we’re looking towards the heart of our island universe.
I’ve always loved how summer does that, faces into the heart of the galaxy. In winter, appropriately, midnight faces out of the galaxy into the cold dark void of intergalactic space.
At least for those of us in the northern hemisphere. It’s sdrawkcab for those below the equator.
The Solstices are a perfect — literal — example of Yin-Yang.
A fundamental aspect of Yin-Yang, and of life, is that nothing is pure except our ideas.
(The idea of the North and South Poles is of a mathematical point without size. All real points on Earth are some mixture of North and South.)
In the symbol, the descending dark, the Yin, has a bit of light, and the rising light, the Yang, has a bit of the dark. Real life is always a mixture of pros and cons.
Summer Solstice, the canonical beginning of summer, also heralds the end of the light, the days getting shorter.
Winter Solstice, the beginning of winter, also heralds the end of darkness, the days getting longer.
Ironically, the joy of summer contains the sorrow of winter, and vice versa. A perfect Yin and Yang to balance the clock of seasons.
So welcome to summer! (Sorry about the coming darkness.)
The actual Solstice is eight hours from the publishing of this post. (I’m giving you time to buy party hats, bottles of whatever, and snacks.)
The official moment is: 21:44 GMT (16:44 CDT). Or, if you prefer, 9:44 PM GMT (4:44 PM CDT). East coast an hour earlier. West coast two hours later.
Stay star-eyed, my friends!