Monday, December 21, 2009

The Longest Night of the Year

Magnet # 123: Red Artemis Vase

Material: Ceramic

Purchased By: Me

Happy Winter Solstice to everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere. Yep, today, our side of the planet is as far from the Sun as it gets, and some are celebrating with Yule festivities. Celebrating at this time of year goes as far back as the Romans, whose festival of Saturnalia didn't actually coincide with the Solstice, but with the completion of Saturn's temple. It also came after a military defeat when the leaders wanted to boost their citizens morales. They had so much fun in their reveleries that first year that they made it an annual event, and it even stretched out to an entire week, despite some emperors' efforts to shorten it. Some traditions began then that have persisted to modern times, such as decorating homes with evergreen trees and boughs of green plants like laurels. People also brought gifts to their friends, such as cakes, fruit, and jewelry. Another interesting part of Saturnalia was that the Roman's slaves were allowed to join in and were free to do and say as they pleased. Some believe that Saturnalia was part of the inspiration for Yule, a Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic pagan celebration that truly began as a way to celebrate the Solstice.  It's believed this was a particularly important holiday to them because the winters in their northern land were so hard on them.  They were far colder and darker than those of the Romans and others who settled along the Mediterranean, and when they had made it to the longest dark day, it was a perfect time to celebrate.  They did so by sacrificing livestock and, once again, decorating with evergreens.  The Celts introduced mistletoe to the festival, which because it had no roots and appeared  high in trees, was believed to be produced by lightning.  People also believed it protected them from lightning, and hung it about the doorways to their home, above their children's cradles, and fed it to the first calf of the season.  The Yule log, which consisted of a tree trunk burned  in the hearth for good luck, also first appeared in these celebrations.  But it's easiest to see just how important the Solstices - both summer and winter - were to these ancient cultures by the structures they left behind.  Most everyone is familiar with Stonehenge in England and how it both Solstices were in perfect alignment with the neolith, but this is not the only structure for which this is the case.  Ireland's Newgrange is older than Stonehenge and perhaps even the pyramids and it is in the perfect position to receive a shaft of light deep in its innermost chamber at dawn on the Winter Solstice.  And then there's Maeshowe in Scotland, aligned to allow in light from the Sun as it set on the same day.  There are many of these structures scattered around the world, even in the Americas.  Given that almost any kind of construction was a major undertaking for ancient civilizations, particularly any that would last thousands of years, these ruins drive home the point of just how important the concept of the Solstice was to our ancestors.  In fact, as many know, when the early Christians were trying to convert pagans, they found it best to combine their celebration of the birth of Christ with Yule for an easier transition.  And it's interesting to see how many of these ancient traditions we still practice today.

I thought this magnet would be appropriate to post today because the Greeks were one of the first civilizations to recognize the Solstice and it features Artemis, their goddess of the night. I imagine the longest night of the year would be particularly appealing to her, as it would give her even more time to hunt, which was her greatest passion.  She's one of the three great virgin goddesses of Olympus, and one of the most beloved gods to early Greeks.  While I prefer her half-sister, Athena, I must admit Artemis is another favorite of mine.  She's a strong female figure who didn't need a man in her life, and I hope she inspired the young girls in those ancient times.  Many stories do depict her as cold, even ruthless, killing those who insulted her, but she also saved some mortals, like the female athlete Atalanta.  And when two sons of Poseidon threatened to destroy the gods of Olympus, it was Artemis who finally devised a scheme to destroy them.  Realizing that only the brothers could kill each other, she tuned into a deer and swiftly ran between them.  When they tried to spear he with their weapons, they ended up striking one another instead, and the gods were saved.  I also appreciate how Artemis refused to be involved in the Judgment of Paris, an event that occurred when Eris, goddess of discord, threw a golden apple into a celebration attended by the gods.  It was inscribed "for the fairest."  The resulting competition between Hera, Aphrodite, and, yes, Athena, helped bring about the Trojan War.  Okay, so she doesn't really tie into any Winter Solstice traditions, but I think she's still the best choice of any of the great gods of Olympus.

Many Wiccans and pagans still celebrate Yule nowadays.  So, if this is the night to observe your holiday, I hope it's a good one.  May your Yule log crackle and your mead be sweet.  And if you're heading outdoors to celebrate the Winter Solstice, by all means, cover up.  For me, this is a good day.  I love the light and I'm pleased to have the darkest days of the seasonal cycle behind me.  Here's to getting closer to the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere!


  1. Kinda off topic, but a comment you made above about our side of the planet being the furthest from the sun made me ponder something... where in the relationship with the Sun is Earth right now?

    As hopefully most people with a high school education should know, the earth's orbit isn't perfectly circular, but elliptical, moving in closer to the sun at one part of the year and further away at others.

    As it turns out, perihelion, when the Earth is closest to the sun, is January 3rd. At that point, the earth is approximately 5 million kilometers closer to the sun than at its furthest point (aphelion).

    So even though our hemisphere is pointed away from the sun (and thus get less energy), we are actually much closer to it than even at the height of summer.

    Just thought that was an interesting bit of trivia.

  2. Oops! I should know better than to mess with science... nice catch.