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The Hobbit and Summer Solstice

The earth is rapidly approaching the point of June solstice -- summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere, the point at which the north pole points most directly at the sun, which will take place on June 21 shortly after 10 am California time.

Of course, this is a very important point in the annual cycle of the sun, and was duly marked and encoded in various ways by ancient civilizations. Readers are encouraged to revisit the previous post entitled "The Solar Double Spiral" for a discussion of one important representation of the sun's annual path in ancient art.

It is very likely that this particular symbol is represented by the double Uraeus found on the mask of Tutankhamun, for example. While conventional historians often declare that the Egyptian Uraeus featuring both an asp and a vulture represents political symbolism -- the uniting of the earthly geographic realms of Upper and Lower Egypt -- the authors of Hamlet's Mill argue that celestial imagery is "continuously mislabeled" in political terms, and that the mislabeling of celestial imagery as the Uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt is one of the most common examples of this confusion (see for example pages 162 and 163).

The serpentine path of the sun throughout the year discussed in the post on the solar double spiral also suggests the form of a dragon, and likely also relates to the Norse myth of a serpent that encircles the entire earth (the Midgard Serpent). In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (which take place in "Middle Earth," an English translation of the Norse word "Midgard"), the concept of an encircling "ring" is of course very prominent, as are dragons (especially in The Hobbit). William Lasseter has written a very insightful discussion of some of the themes in The Hobbit (including the hospitality theme, which is central to Beowulf, which Tolkien analyzed extensively in his professional life as a literary and linguistic scholar), which can be found on his blog ScribbleBibble here. He argues that Tolkien's "dragon-imagery embodies the action of self-reflection that emerges in serious intellectual inquiry" -- that Bilbo's confrontation with Smaug is in many ways a confrontation with himself (as is the encounter with Gollum).

Interestingly, the summer solstice plays a role in the entrance into this encounter with the dragon in The Hobbit. At the beginning of the book, Gandalf reveals a map which indicates the existence of "a closed door which has been made to look exactly like the side of the Mountain" (26).

Then, in Rivendell, where the party stays until the night of midsummer (summer solstice and the period of three days surrounding the solstice), Elrond discovers "moon-letters" which give the clue to opening this mysterious door: "Stand by the grey stone when the thrush knocks, and the setting sun with the last light of Durin's Day will shine upon the key-hole" (52). Elrond is able to see this message only because he looked for them on precisely the right day, as he explains:
"Moon-letters are rune-letters, but you cannot see them," said Elrond, "not when you look straight at them. They can only be seen when the moon shines behind them, and what is more, with the more cunning sort it must be a moon of the same shape and season as the day when they were written. The dwarves invented them and wrote them with silver pens, as your friends could tell you. These must have been written on a midsummer's eve in a crescent moon, a long while ago." 52.
The next morning, midsummer's morning, the party sets off from Rivendell -- a place of safety and song and assistance, after which there is the wild and a series of increasingly dangerous incidents leading up to the encounter with the dragon. Thus, it is appropriate that Tolkien has his party leave there at the summer solstice, after which the year begins to decline towards winter, and the days grow shorter and shorter.

Tolkien's work, which is familiar to many modern readers, is an example of the way in which celestial imagery can be encoded in memorable stories. To say that there are celestial themes working alongside the other themes in a piece of literature does not take anything away from the other themes of human existence which are usually present as well (such as the theme of self-confrontation and identity which Bilbo must wrestle with). On the contrary, they add to it. This appears to be what is going on in ancient myth as well (see for example the discussion in this previous post).

As summer solstice approaches, it is appropriate to consider the events in The Hobbit as an accessible modern window into the way that ancient myth encodes truths about celestial events, and is thus linked not only to literature but also to science. Considering the role of the summer solstice in The Hobbit may also reveal a hidden door for us to enter into our own "action of self-reflection" or confrontation with ourselves, as it does for Bilbo.

References to page-numbers in The Hobbit are from the 1978 hardbound Houghton Mifflin edition, reprinted in 1998.

The Solar Double Spiral

The ancient symbol of the double spiral appears to be closely related to the sun's path throughout the year, and to incorporate the subtle complexities created by the obliquity of the ecliptic and the eccentricity of earth's orbit.

In his books The Stars and the Stones: Ancient Art and Astronomy in Ireland, archaeoastronomer and artist Martin Brennan provides compelling evidence that the double spiral is related to the changes in the sun's path throughout the year.

He notes that the shadows cast by a gnomon throughout the year will create a straight line east-west on the equinoxes, but that on the solstices the shadow's path will actually trace out two hyperbolas (this phenomenon is discussed in a previous post here). Brennan explains how this fact may lead to the double spiral design:
At summer solstice the shadows are shortest and the arc is concave. At winter solstice the shadows are longest and the arc is convex. In archaic astronomy, these were known as the 'horns of the solstice.' At equinox the shadow is straight. If the shadows of the sun are correlated over the period of one year in chronological order following their curvature they form a double spiral. In winter the spiral is counter-clockwise and the coils are wide. The shadows begin to straighten as equinox approaches, and after equinox they begin to wind into a clockwise spiral and tighten. They contract until the summer solstice, straighten again at equinox and return to a left-handed spiral again in winter to continue the process perpetually.

The Boyne Valley artists developed the double spiral and displayed it prominently. Recently, an American artist, Charles Ross, arrived at a double spiral in a controlled experiment documenting the sun's path through the year. Using a stationary focused magnifying glass, he placed wooden planks in a fixed position for 366 consecutive days. The sun's rays burned a pattern in the planks which when graphed showed a precisely executed double spiral. 190.
The burned planks on which Charles Ross has performed this experiment can be seen in this photograph on his website, and the spiral pattern can be seen inlaid on the floor of the gallery (click on the third image from the left at the very bottom of that webpage).

Charles Ross has also created three-dimensional solar art called Star Axis in the desert of New Mexico, including a "shadow field" which illustrates the shadow paths throughout the year from one solstice to the other. By visiting this excellent webpage about the project, visitors can select the winter solstice, summer solstice, or equinox position, and then press "play" to see an animation of the shadow movement on those important annual earth-sun positions (to reach the animations, follow the link above and then click "Solar Pyramid and Shadow Field" in the central horizontal menu bar; next click the link which reads "Shadow Field" in the text portion of the page).

This graceful annual solar motion is also related to the analemma pattern created by the earth's tilt, which causes the ecliptic path to move back and forth across the celestial equator throughout the year (crossing at the equinoxes, as discussed in this previous post and elaborated in greater detail in the Mathisen Corollary book). The other phenomenon which causes the analemma's shape to look the way it does is the eccentricity of earth's eliptical orbit, which causes the earth to speed up as it "falls towards" the sun on its way to perihelion around January 4th each year and to slow down as it "rises away" from the sun on its way to aphelion around July 4th each year. Because the earth is moving faster in its orbit on some parts of its orbit, the sun does not "make it" to the anticipated point (for instance, the culmination point or "high noon" point) at the same time on days when the earth is moving faster as it speeds towards perihelion (because it is still spinning at the same rate, an observer on earth will perceive the sun as lagging a little from one day to the next at the same exact time).

The celestial mechanics surrounding the graceful figure-eight shape of the analemma are thoroughly and superlatively explained in the series of pages and animations in this website from Bob Urschel (use the small blue arrows at the bottom of each page to go to the next page -- it will require looking at all of the pages and videos to fully understand this complex process). The video which shows the sun's ecliptic path moving over and under the celestial equator throughout the year, and tracing out the figure-eight analemma as it does so, can be seen here. The first successful photographic record of the analemma, along with arcs showing the sun's path on the solstices and one equinox, can be seen here.

Having established the connection of the double spiral to the graceful annual motion of the sun from one solstice to the other and the equinoxes in between, we can then note the presence of this powerful symbol around the globe. As has already been noted in the citations from Martin Brennan, it can be found in the petroglyphs adorning the megalithic architecture of the Boyne River Valley in Ireland (where the passage mounds have clear alignments to the solstices, equinoxes, and cross-quarter days). It is also found in the New World, such as in the double spiral shape pictured at top which is carved into Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

We have also noted the presence of spiral patterns on the faces of some of the Tocharian mummies of the Tarim Basin. Martin Doutré has made a convincing argument that this very same solar double-spiral pattern found on the faces of some of the Urumqi mummies is directly related to the double-spiral pattern found in many of the mokos or facial tattoos of the Maoris of Aotearoa -- scroll down to the section entitled "Origins of the Early Maori Moko (Facial Tattoo)." For a powerful example of the double spiral, which was often seen crossing the bridge of the nose in men, as well as along the cheekbones and in other areas of the mokos, see this beautiful portrait of Maori Chief Wi Te Wanewha by Gottfried Lindauer (1839 - 1926).

The presence of the double spiral among the ancient inhabitants of Ireland, the Tarim Basin in China, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and Aotearoa or New Zealand can of course be explained by independent and isolated observation of the solar patterns, although it must be admitted that this pattern is extremely subtle and not at all inherently obvious from a casual observation of the arcing hyperbolas of the gnomon's shadow field. It is also possible to explain its widespread appearance as a result of ancient trans-oceanic contact and migration. If it were the only data point to support such a theory, it would not be very strong, but taken together with the extensive other data points which exist in mythology and archaeology, it is a noteworthy addition to the debate.

Finally, William Lasseter has some interesting musings about the possible connection of the serpentine double-spiral to the twisting, spiraling dragons which appear in art and tradition the world over, including in Europe in a blog post here. Interestingly enough, that post also includes the page from Martin Brennan's book explaining and illustrating the double spiral that is quoted above in this post, as well as some very insightful literary analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. For readers who are interested in Tolkien and the connection to the subject of the celestial phenomena, be sure to check out this post about the connections between the crucially important constellation of Orion and the elven king Earendil.

The importance of Orion

Orion is one of the most distinctive and important constellations in the sky. Even if you cannot recognize any other constellations, you are probably familiar with Orion, with his spectacular belt of three stars and his dominant position in the sky during the winter months.

His famous belt is located very close to the line of the celestial equator, which means that from the mental model discussed in the post on the "Undying Stars" (or "Imperishable Stars"), we are looking "outward" towards Orion rather than "upward" from earth when we look at Orion, which means that his constellation is not among the undying stars but is obscured by the sun during part of the year. If you think about the earth's orbit around the sun, and imagine it takes place in a large dining room, the stars in the center of the ceiling would be visible all year around from an observer in the northern hemisphere, but the stars on the walls would only be visible on certain parts of the earth's circuit. The stars on the wall across from the sun would be obscured by the sun until the earth made its way around to the other side of the room, at which time those stars would be visible to observers on the side of the earth that was turned away from the sun (which happens every night as the earth spins).

As the earth makes its way around the sky, Orion rises and sets four minutes earlier each day, until he is rising during the day. Currently, from a latitude of 35o north, he is rising around 9:00 am, reaching his highest point around 3:30 in the afternoon, and setting at around ten minutes before 10:00 in the evening. As the earth continues around the sun and these rising points get earlier and earlier, he will rise and set during the day, until his rising becomes early enough to be seen low in the sky prior to the sunrise: an important date of return and a phenomenon known as heliacal rising (a term derived from the name of the ancient sun god Helios).

The rising and setting times of every star should be the same on any given day of the year: if the earth is back at precisely the same point on its journey, the background of stars on the "walls" and "ceiling" of our imaginary room should look precisely the way they did the last time the earth was at that exact spot. In general, they do -- except for the fact that there is a very slow shifting going on due to the phenomenon of precession. This wobble in earth's axis moves the sky by a mere 1o every 71.6 years (we can round it to 72 years for convenience) -- barely enough to be noticed in one human lifetime (especially since most people aren't observing the stars very precisely under the ages of eight or nine years old).

The motion of precession delays the time of the heliacal rising by about four minutes every 72 years, barely enough to make much difference in one lifetime, but enough that over 2,160 years the date of the heliacal rising will be an entire month later. Another way to think of this phenomenon is that the preceding constellation will be rising on the expected day, while the expected constellation is "delayed." This shift to the preceding constellation is the reason this phenomenon is called precession. The entire process is explained with numerous diagrams of the celestial spheres and earth's annual path in the Mathisen Corollary.

It is quite obvious that very ancient man understood this phenomenon long before conventional history teaches. In Hamlet's Mill, the authors make a compelling argument that the legend of the murder of Osiris by his brother Set is directly related to the failure of Orion to rise on the expected day due to the ages-long delaying action of precession. In Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt, author Jane B. Sellers elaborates on their argument with great clarity and additional insight.

The authors of Hamlet's Mill trace out the echoes of this same legend throughout many cultures over many centuries. Part of the reason for their title is that the Hamlet legend clearly parallels the legend of Osiris: a wicked uncle has killed his brother (Osiris in the Egyptian myth and Hamlet's father in the story of Hamlet), and he must be avenged by the son (Hamlet, and in the Egyptian legend the god Horus son of Osiris).

One of the many fascinating aspects of this particular connection is the name of Hamlet's father. In Shakespeare he is mainly known as Old King Hamlet, but in some of the earlier manifestations that probably served directly or indirectly as the general source for Shakespeare's version, he is known as Horvandillus, Horwendil, Orendel, Erentel, Erendel, Oervandill, and Aurvadil. You can read an English translation of the Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus (probably composed in the early 13th century AD) online: the story of Horwendil and his son Amlethus, as well as the murder of Horwendil by his brother, can be found in Book Three of Saxo's text.

The author's of Hamlet's Mill cite Frederick York Powell's (1850 - 1904) introduction to Oliver Elton's translation of Saxo, in which Powell states: "The story of Orwandel (the analogue of Orion the Hunter) must be gathered chiefly from the prose Edda." In other words, Powell noted the linguistic similarity of the name Orwandel (or Orendel) with Orion. This connection supports the theory that the death of Osiris (which parallels that of Hamlet's father) is related to the failure of the constellation to appear on time after many centuries.

Another fascinating aspect of the name of Orion and Orendel is the connection to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was an accomplished Old English scholar. As early as 1913, he wrote that he was struck by the great beauty of the Old English lines in Cynewulf's Christ which begin:

éala éarendel engla beorhtast
ofer middangeard monnum sended

Hail, Earendel, brightest of angels thou,
sent unto men upon this middle-earth!
[Hamlet's Mill 355 -- part of an extensive discussion of Orendel in Appendix 2]
Tolkien incorporated the beautiful name Earendil in his Lord of the Rings, as an elven king who carries the morning star on his brow and is the father of Elrond. The light of Earendil's star is in the Phial of Galadriel given to Frodo. In Shelob's lair at the end of the book The Two Towers, Frodo spontaneously shouts an elven phrase containing Earendil's name when he draws out the elven-glass of Galadriel.

Most fans of the Lord of the Rings may not be aware of the connection between Earendil and Orion. Now you know.