What do the Temple of Karnack in Luxor, Stonehenge in England, Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru have in common?
Answer: They are all constructed, in part, to align with and mark the winter solstice. At Stonehenge, the central altar and “slaughter stone” are aligned precisely with the rays of the sunset on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
The winter solstice, which occurs this week, is the day of the year with the least number of daylight hours for people in the northern hemisphere, and the most for those in the southern hemisphere. The exact timing of the solstice varies somewhat from year to year. This year, it occurs on Thursday December 21 at 16:28 GMT. It occurs because the vertical axis of the earth is not aligned perfectly perpendicular to the sun, but inclined about 23.5 degrees. This results in the hemispheres getting variable periods of daylight as the earth rotates during its annual journey around the sun.
There is much speculation as to why these various ancient civilizations chose to erect such monuments to mark the solstice. Clearly, they saw it as a pivotal event in their lives. They would have perceived the life-giving sun to be gradually withdrawing from their lives through the previous few months and then, on this particular day, and for no reason they could comprehend or control, re-emerging with the promise that life would continue once again.
Whatever their motivation, these structures should remind us that the peoples of the past were keen and respectful observers of the natural world. They recognized that the rhythms of the cosmos, even if beyond their understanding, were key to their survival. The ability to cultivate crops, find game and the essential need to store food and prepare for long winters was closely tied to their understanding of natural climate cycles. Observing the natural world was therefore not a casual pastime, but an essential survival skill. For these reasons, they were much more attuned to nature than those of us living in an era where, for most of us, technical advances have reduced diminishing daylight to a minor nuisance.
However, the solstice is in some ways a great leveler of humanity. It has been a feature of our collective life experience since human beings first walked the earth. It is also one of the very few events that occur at the exact same instant each year for everyone on the planet. It is therefore an event that transcends geography, culture, economic advantage, national boundaries, or even time itself. It links us all and reminds us that there are much greater forces at play in our lives than anything we can hope to control or even fully understand.
It also brings hope. It is the time of year when, through no effort, merit or intent on our part, light begins to re-emerge into our lives and, with it, the promise of new life in the spring. It is a time when, like nature itself, we should stop, rest and look hopefully forward.
It’s in that spirit that I wish our faculty and students a restful, safe and restorative break from the routine of busy lives, and very best wishes, as we will again come together to engage the new year.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education