image: Wikimedia commons (link).
We are rapidly approaching the exact point in earth's orbit around the sun when the north pole is pointed most directly away from the sun of any point on the circuit.
This point, one of the two solstices in which the earth's axis of rotation is pointed either most directly towards or most directly away from the sun, marks a great "turning point" in which the progress of the sun's rising and setting along the eastern and western horizons ceases to march further and further southward or northward and begins to move back in the other direction.
For those in the northern hemisphere, where angle of the obliquity of earth's axial tilt has been causing the sun to rise further and further south along the horizon, and to arc lower and lower across the sky above the southern horizon (and to stay above that horizon for a shorter and shorter duration as the arc gets lower and lower), the December solstice marks the point where the sun's progress will turn back around and begin rising further and further towards the north, and arc through the sky along a higher and higher path again (making days begin to grow longer as the arc-line rises higher and higher above the southern horizon, keeping the sun above the horizon for a progressively longer amount of time on the way back to summer solstice).
The process of halting and turning around seems slower than the amount of change in position along the horizon that is detectable at the time of the equinoxes. The sun's progress at its rising and setting points along the eastern and western horizon seems to linger or pause at the solstices, before turning back around -- hence the etymology of the word solstice itself, which indicates "sun" and "station," a place where the sun pauses and its progress along the horizon seems to be "stationary."
The reason that the sun's rising point moves very slowly at the solstices (when it is turning around) and in fact seems to pause during the turnaround itself -- as opposed to the equinox points, when the sun's motion is basically whizzing along the horizon and moving a full degree every couple of days -- is easily understood by envisioning the earth as an old-time sailing ship, with the bowsprit representing the north pole and the lantern at the stern representing the south pole, as discussed in this previous post from back in 2011 (the diagrams are pretty "low-tech" but should help to illustrate the concept).
The importance of the solstice points -- and the point of December solstice in particular -- is evidenced by the numerous ancient sites around the globe which contain solstice alignments in their construction, and which continue to this day to mark out the endless cycle of the sun's movement "down" towards the point of winter solstice and its pause and turnaround at the point of lowest descent at the bottom of the year itself.
The importance of the solstice turnaround is also preserved in the world's myth, which incorporate clear celestial allegory to such an extent that they can accurately be described as being completely built upon the cycles of the sun, moon, and stars -- which is why I refer to them collectively as "Star Myths."
However, while the importance of the points of solstice and equinox is well known and widely acknowledged (and is indeed undeniable, given the numerous sites with celestial alignments, going back to some of the most ancient sites we know of today), the reason why the solstices and equinoxes were considered so important is not necessarily well understood.
The most common explanation you will hear or read will be some variation on the idea that "less-technologically advanced early humans" were overawed by the mighty forces of the physical universe and sought to appease them through various rituals, and that later as agricultural technologies developed, people needed to be able to track the seasons for the purpose of planting and harvesting, and continued to imbue the motions of the sun and the other heavenly cycles with deep reverence and religious feeling, because they knew that the crops and thus all life are completely and utterly dependent on the sun for sustenance. If the sun didn't "turn around" at the winter solstice, but instead kept moving lower and lower towards the horizon, daylight would eventually be swallowed up by night-time and all life as we know it would cease to exist.
While all of the above assertions about the awe-inspiring majesty of the natural world and the celestial realms are in fact true, and while the importance of the sun to all life on earth, and the absolute dependence of all life on the sun's cycles (and the importance of that "turnaround") are equally true, I am convinced that it would be wrong to assume that the prominence of the solstices and equinoxes in the world's ancient sacred sites, and the world's ancient sacred myth, can be completely or even correctly understood using the conventional explanations, most of which are variations of the description in the previous paragraph.
I agree with Alvin Boyd Kuhn (1880 - 1963), one of the most perceptive and insightful observers of the allegorical system employed in the world's ancient wisdom as conveyed in myth, that these great cycles were employed esoterically in order to represent spiritual realities -- realities having to do with things unseen, but vital to our understanding of our own simultaneously material-and-spiritual nature, and to our understanding of the simultaneously material-and-spiritual cosmos in which we find ourselves.
In an essay entitled Easter: The Birthday of the Gods, discussed in this previous post, Kuhn presents arguments and supporting evidence that the ancient esoteric system allegorized the interplay of light and dark displayed in the cycles of the earth's daily rotation and in its annual orbit around the sun (as well as in the circuits of the moon and other heavenly bodies) as representative of the interaction of matter and spirit, and interplay between the visible and invisible realms at every level in the universe and within each man and woman as well.
Of the descent towards the winter solstice, and the great turning-point at which the plunge finally reverses after pausing at the point of lowest descent, he writes:
Using solar symbolism and analogues in depicting the divine soul's peregrinations round the cycles of existence, the little sun of radiant spirit in man being the perfect parallel of the sun in the heavens, and exactly copying its movements, the ancient Sages marked the four cardinal "turns" of its progress round the zodiacal year as epochal stages in soul evolution. As all life starts with conception in mind, later to be extruded into physical manifestation, so the soul that is to be the god of a human being is conceived in the divine mind at the station in the zodiac marking the date of June 21. This is at the "top" of the celestial arc, where mind is most completely detached from matter, meditating in all its "purity."
Then the swing of the movement begins to draw it "downward" to give it the satisfaction of its inherent yearning for the Maya of experience which alone can bring its latent capabilities for the evolution of consciousness to manifestation. Descending from June it reaches September 21, the point where its direction becomes straight downward and it here crosses the line of separation between spirit and matter, the great Egyptian symbolic line of the "horizon," and becomes incarnated in material body. Conceived in the aura of Infinite Mind in June, it enters the realm of mortal flesh in September. [. . .]
Then on past September, like any seed sown in the soil, the soul entity sinks its roots deeper and deeper into matter, for at its later stages of growth it must be able to utilize the energy of matter's atomic force to effectuate its ends for its own spiritual aggrandizement. It is itself to be lifted up to heights of cosmic consciousness, but no more than an oak can exalt its majestic form to highest reaches without the dynamic energization received from the earth at its feet can soul rise up above body without drawing forth the strength of the body's dynamo of power. Down, down it descends then through the October, November, and December path of the sun, until it stands at the nadir of its descent on December 21.
Here it has reached the turning-point, at which the energies that were stored potentially in its seed form will feel the first touch of quickening power and will begin to stir into activity. At the winter solstice of the cycle the process of involution of spirit into matter comes to a stand-still -- just what the solstice means in relation to the sun -- and while apparently stationary in its deep lodgment in matter, like moving water locked up in winter's ice, it is slowly making the turn as on a pivot from outward and downward to movement at first tangential, then more directly upward to its high point in spirit home. So the winter solstice signalizes the end of "death" and the rebirth of life in a new generation. 4- 5.
Elsewhere, Kuhn explains that the above allegory also relates to the concept of "second birth" -- the spiritual birth, which follows at some turning-point which is necessarily reached many years after the physical birth into our material body. This explains, according to Kuhn's insight, why so many myths seem to involve the concept of two mothers -- one associated with our birth into the physical body, and the other associated with the "rebirth of life" at the point of our "turning upwards," which begins at the point which is esoterically connected with winter solstice.
For an example of the two-mother motif, see the famous Judgment of Solomon from the ancient Old Testament book of First Kings, discussed in this previous post and in a video which I posted on the web here. This episode, and its clear celestial correlations and spiritual import, is discussed at greater length in my most-recent book, Star Myths of the World, Volume Three (Star Myths of the Bible).
Another example of the two mothers can be found in the account of the birth of Samuel, related at the beginning of the Old Testament book of First Samuel, where we meet the two wives of Elkanah, whose names are Peninnah and Hannah. At first, Peninnah is able to bear children, but Hannah is not (I Samuel 1: 2). It is only much later, and by the granting of her petition by the Almighty, that Hannah conceives a child, as described in I Samuel 1: 17 - 20.
In fact, verse 20 of that ancient text actually says "Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD" (and the margin note explains that the derivation of the name Samuel is "Asked of God").
Mentioning this episode briefly in his essential 1940 text Lost Light, Alvin Boyd Kuhn argues that the second clause in the above verse (translated here in the 1611 King James Version as "when the time was come about") can be understood as meaning "At the turn of the year she bore a son" (Lost Light, 479). And, indeed, a margin note in the King James translation admits that the Hebrew text at this point actually translates more literally as saying "in revolution of days."
Alvin Boyd Kuhn's assertion that this revolution point (literally "turning-again" point) refers to the great turning-point of the year is reinforced by the very name of the second mother herself, in this story. Alvin Boyd Kuhn points out that the name Hannah is cognate with Anna-- and that this name itself makes reference to the great circle of the year, and has come down to us in modern languages in all the words relating to a year, such as annual.
And another clear intimation of solstice purport hides in the story of Hannah and the relief of her barren condition through the birth of God's prophet Samuel: "At the turn of the year she bore a son." 479.
Note that this story clearly works as an illustration of the concept of a spiritual birth which only takes place some time well after the physical birth. In the story, Peninnah is described as bearing children long before Hannah does, and Hannah only conceives when God grants her the petition she has asked (I Samuel 1: 17), and after the text specifically states: "and the LORD remembered her" (I Samuel 1: 19). Peninnah is clearly associated with the physical or natural birth and Hannah with the spiritual and miraculous birth, which is only possible through the divine power from the divine realm.
From this example we can see quite clearly that the great turning-point of the year was associated with a deep spiritual analogy, having to do with spiritual matters and not merely with the turning-around of the sun to bring back life and crops on earth in a physical sense.
Nor is it correct to argue, as conventional scholars often do, that the more basic and fundamental conceptions came first (arguing that early humans may have started off with "more primitive" rituals to help the sun turn back around, for example) and then developed in later centuries into more and more subtle and spiritual understandings (about the awakening of our own spiritual nature, for instance). As the incredibly perceptive Alvin Boyd Kuhn argues in yet a different place, the understanding of the higher world must have been understood in great depth and thoroughness before such an incredible system of esoteric metaphor could have been designed in order to convey it!
Reflection of the realities of a higher world in the phenomena of a lower world could not be detected when only the one world, the lower, was known. You cannot see that nature reflects spiritual truth unless you know the form of spiritual truth. And such knowledge would be an a priori requirement to making the comparison at all! Lost Light, 72.
To argue the other way around, as conventional advocates of the "primitive humans becoming more sophisticated over millennia" try to do, would be akin to arguing that the amazing Montessori teaching devices known as the binomial cube and the trinomial cube were conceived and designed by someone who knew nothing of the function of binomials and trinomials, and then it was later discovered that the wooden cubes that they had built just happened to function perfectly as allegorical representations of higher algebraic concepts!
Thus, as we approach this winter solstice (which takes place at 5:44am Eastern time in North America on the morning of the 21st), you may wish to take the time to consider the profound spiritual message which we grasp in relation to this great revolution-point or turning-again point of the year, symbolic of the awakening of our awareness of our spiritual nature and our connection to the Infinite and Invisible World, which is actually all around us at all times and deep inside of us as well.
And, as we seek to integrate this reality into our lives, there are practices which we can consider incorporating into our own daily motions, if at all possible, including disciplines such as Yoga, meditation, Chi Gung, or many others which have been preserved since ancient times in cultures where the connection to this original knowledge was not lost or stamped out.
As Hannah shows us in the events of I Samuel 1, this second birth comes through earnestly desiring and seeking, and by gracious blessing from the divine realm.