Come, you pagans and rejoice - it is December 21, the winter solstice, time to light the bonfires, beg the sun to come back and hand Father Christmas back onto his pagan throne. Not that thoroughly respectable, capitalist Christian chap, Santa Claus, wearing his uniform designed by Coca Cola of neat red tunic and trousers tucked into his booties, who likes kids in a respectable sort of way. No, our indigenous mid winter god, the Father, is altogether bacchanalian, bare breasted in his huge green robe, and holly-haired , who likes sex, eating and drinking vats of alcohol. He probably likes kids as well.
Tuesday 21 December 2021
Winter Solstice: Maeshowe
Here, today in Orkney, the sun rose at 9:05 and will set at 3:15 pm, so soliciting the sun to resume normal duties was an important business for Neolithic Orcadians. Their complicated, astrologically-orientated stone structures bear silent witness to the ingenuity and endurance of the ancient peoples in pursuing their religion. The Ring of Brodgar was constructed 5000 years ago, from monoliths dragged across Orkney by symmonds on seaweed rafts. It predates Stonehenge, built to the same design as Brodgar, and the great Pyramids of Egypt.
This is Maeshowe, a chambered tomb. It has a long, low entrance tunnel that cuts off most light most of the year from entering the central circular chamber. The entrance tunnel is aligned south-westerly, oriented towards the setting sun. On a clear day, the light of the setting sun on December 21st penetrates the tunnel, like the spot of a laser light and illuminates the back wall - like this:
The light builds, then declines as the sun falls behind the horizon. For the rest of the year, the interior can be seen only with the help of torches, illuminating the cunning stonework and the graffiti carved into the walls by a raiding party of Vikings taking shelter from a snow storm, as recently as the twelfth century. But on the day itself, the annual miracle of the light takes place, bequeathed to us by our ancient ancestors, who did, indeed, ensure that the sun came back.