As December 21st approaches, I reflect on the significance that the winter solstice held for indigenous peoples and mark it in my own life as a way to attune, as they did, to the order and rhythms of nature and the cosmos. Having studied Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the ancient Maya, for forty-five years, I use them as my general reference here. But all indigenous cultures the world around, from Egypt to Indonesia, had rituals based on the summer and winter solstices.
Without instrumentation, the ancients developed their understanding of the world by observing the movements of the sun, moon, planets and other celestial bodies. The sun was viewed as the creator because it was known to be the source and sustainer of all life—an observation that is, of course, accurate, whatever name we attach to the sun.
For the Maya, Ajaw K’in, “Lord Sun” and his movements were therefore of primary concern. His risings and descendings made the day, and his journeys made the seasons. They didn’t take continuance for granted. Were the sun not to rise—perhaps from not being fed properly with prayer, incense and blood (considered the sacred sap of life; without it, there is death) the world would end. Every day, the sun’s ascension from the underworld was considered a rebirth. His dying, indicated by his descent at dusk, was seen as the necessary precursor for his rising or rebirth. The cyclical pattern established the model for everything that lives.
Every morning, for hundreds of years, generations of sun priests got up well before dawn and stood on the steps of a temple facing due east to observe and mark the position of the sun, sighted initially to distant poles on the horizon, and temple rooftops later on. From June to December the markers showed the sun moving in a southerly direction. Then, on December 21st or 22nd, the winter solstice, something astonishing happened. (The exact date can vary by a day depending on the location and year). The sun “rested.” It stood still. The next day the journey began again, now in the opposite direction. Continuing their observation, on the summer solstice, June 21st or 22nd, the sun paused again and began “his” journey southward.
The significance of this “turnabout” for the ancients was that it indicated a time of rest and changing direction. It was a time for renewal, new beginnings, and rebirth. Logically, since the sun and the other celestial bodies (all perceived as gods) were so orderly in their journeys, the way to honor them and encourage their continuance was to emulate them. As a consequence, ritual practices derived from the notion “As above, so below.” One of the reasons why I was attracted to the Maya was that they, more than any other culture, to a remarkable extent, modeled every aspect of their lives on the order, patterns and processes they observed in the sky and in nature. And they sustained that perspective and rituals for millennia.
For me, the winter solstice serves as a reminder to appreciate and align with the order of the universe, and pause to reassess my life’s journey. Is what I’m doing on purpose? What can I eliminate in order to better focus on what truly matters? Are my priorities consistent with my authentic values and goals? Am I doing at least one thing every day to realize my potentials, goals or dream? And might this be the time to prepare for or take a new direction?
The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.
About This Image
Title: Sunset Over The Gulf Of Mexico
Theme: Winter Solstice and Renewal
File #: DC1444
Location: Indian Rocks Beach, FL
Just being at the right place at the right time with a camera.