DDBspotlight: Solstices – Of Sky Disks, Polar Nights and Midsummer Festivals

By Wiebke Hauschildt (Online Editor)

The fact that the earth is a sphere is a fact that few people dispute today. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Aristotle realised this about 2,300 years ago, based on an amazingly simple observation: he was fascinated by lunar eclipses. And the shadow, in the form of the earth, which pushed itself in front of the moon, was… round. Aristotle concluded quite correctly that the earth must be a sphere. However, the definitive proof of this theory was only found some 150 years later by a library administrator.

All the knowledge of the whole world, one well and one summer solstice

The Greek Eratosthenes administered the largest library in the world: the Library of Alexandria in what is now Egypt, which housed all the knowledge of the time. He knows about Aristotle's assumption regarding the shape of our planet but wants to know exactly. The earth is round – but is it a sphere or a disk? The solution begins with a well in Syene (today Aswan). Eratosthenes observes that the water level of the fountain is in shadow all year round, except on one single day: at noon on 21 June, the summer solstice, the water reflects the sun. The library administrator concludes that the sun must be exactly perpendicular above him. On the same day in Alexandria, 800 kilometers away, however, an upright rod casts a shadow. Accordingly, the sun is not perpendicular above the viewer. From these two observations, Eratosthenes is the first person ever to calculate the circumference of the Earth and proves that the Earth is a sphere. 

Eratosthenes even drew a very accurate map of the earth: Published in "Handbuch der alten Geographie" (Handbook of Ancient Geography) (1842), SLUB Dresden (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

The Tower of Jericho, Stonehenge and the Nebra Sky Disk

Knowledge of the existence and significance of the summer solstice in June and the winter solstice in December are attributed to prehistoric and ancient societies - one example is the Tower of Jericho, which was built 11,000 years ago. It stands in a village inhabited by settled hunters and collectors. For a long time, it was unclear what this tower was for and why it had been built. Recent research suggests that the tower was built exactly on the spot where the midday shadow reached the village again for the first time in the year at the summer solstice. Thus, the tower could be seen as a "building of power": the power of man over the heavenly body, which now no longer follows its course uncontrolled, rather it is bound to the surrounding landscape by man. 

"Stonehenge near Amesbury in Wiltshire" (Great Britain trip 1930), photo: Walter Leonhardt, SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek (German Photographic Library) (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Another famous example that has long puzzled is the British stone circle "Stonehenge": built over 4,000 years ago, it consists of 80 megaliths up to seven meters high, each weighing over 20 tons. The question of how Neolithic people were able to erect this monument in the first place still remains unanswered. The mystery of its function, on the other hand, seems to have been solved: Stonehenge is an extremely precise solar calendar that is in line with the solstices. On the day of the summer solstice, the rising sun shines directly into the heart of the monument. And the day of the winter solstice is also framed by the same pair of stones every year. Stonehenge is a "place where ceremonies and festivals of the living merged with the universe and the movements of the heavens".

Besides the Tower of Jericho and Stonehenge, the "Nebra Sky Disk" also proves amazing astronomical knowledge regarding the solstices, in this case by people of the early Bronze Age. However, before the sky disc took its present place in the Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte Sachsen-Anhalt (Saxony-Anhalt State Museum of Prehistory), the artifact had to endure a long journey through criminal milieus.

"Steel Stamp for a Medal on the Nebra Sky Disk," Artist: Victor Huster, Landesmuseum Baden-Württemberg (CC BY 4.0 International)

In July 1999, two tomb raiders found the disc on the Mittelberg in Saxony-Anhalt and first mistook it for a pot lid. Further finds at the same site, however, caused the two to take the pot lid with them after all, and then to sell all the finds to a Cologne dealer for 31,000 DEM. After that, the find is offered through middlemen for a million marks, but becomes uninteresting for the serious art trade after word gets around that the rightful owner is the state of Saxony-Anhalt. In 2001, the disc ends up with a couple of fences who want to meet a supposed prospective buyer in a hotel in Basel. The prospective buyer is the archaeologist Harald Meller from the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie (State Office for the Preservation of Monuments and Archaeology) in Halle, and the Swiss police are also involved. One arrest later, the Nebra Sky Disk is secured, whereupon a discussion ensues as to whether it is not a forgery after all.

Today, it is assumed that the disc is genuine and one of the oldest known representations of the sky. Its interpretation, on the other hand, is uncertain. One thesis assumes that the disc was used specifically to determine solstices: With the help of the location where it was found (the middle mountain), the sun and the neighboring mountain Brocken. There are also various other possible interpretations. Archaeological puzzles keep at least this field of research in suspense.

The summer solstice: Fire, festivals and magical figures

In the course of the Christianisation of Europe, the Catholic Church decided to celebrate an important holiday - the birthday of John the Baptist - in mid-June. Biblically logically justified, but also secularly: apparently too many of the new sheep still celebrated their pagan feasts, and one of the most important – the solstice celebration – was a thorn in the Church's side. The traditional fire became the "Johannisfeuer" (St. John's fire), around which people were still allowed to dance and jump during the "Johannisnacht" (St. John's night), only now with the approval of the church authorities. A smooth transition for everyone involved.

"Solstice Fire" (1973), Photo: Fritz Eschen, German Photographic Library (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

Before this religious conversion, Celts and Germans, among others, celebrated the summer and winter solstices as highlights of the year. In general, it can be said that the solstices are traditionally celebrated most intensively where the differences between short, bright summers and long, dark winters are most pronounced. When the sun reaches the northernmost point of its apparent path in the sky, usually around 21st June, astronomical summer and celebrations begin. 

Especially in the north of Europe, where the sun disappears in some nights only briefly behind the horizon, and then rises again, these so-called "white nights" are particularly celebrated. Inside the Arctic Circle, the sun does not set at all on these nights and you can watch the midnight sun - if you are north of the 66th parallel, where the Arctic Circle begins.

"Silhouette of a girl reading on the Neva during a white night" (1964, Saint Petersburg), Photo: Wolfgang G. Schröter, German Photographic Library (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

The most famous summer solstice celebrations are those of Scandinavia. The "Midsommar" festival in Sweden is the second most important festival in the country after Christmas. According to the legends, on Midsummer's Eve, the elves and trolls awaken, as well as the magical powers of nature: the dew of the next morning heals sick people and animals. Swedish people spend the festival with family and friends in the countryside, erect a midsummer tree decorated with flowers, which is danced around. Contrary to Denmark and Norway, which celebrate the "Saint Hans Festival" (also in honor of John the Baptist), the Swedish festival has remained without a religious superstructure.

All festivals have in common the fire that is ignited to drive away evil spirits. In the Estonian equivalent "Jaanipäev", old wooden boats are burnt on the islands, and in the Finnish "Juhannus", huge "Juhannus fires" are lit in glades and on beaches. Despite the proximity to "John", here also no Christian traditions are in the background, but the deity Ukko (god of weather, harvest, and thunder), in whose honour people drink. The old belief is that the more that is drunk that night, the better the harvest will be. In modern times, this has led to many tragic accidents: Every year, up to 20 people die in alcohol-related accidents on the night of Juhannus.

A somewhat less deadly tradition in the northern hemisphere has been established in Alaska: There, a nocturnal baseball game has been held on the summer solstice since 1906: the "Midnight Sun Game," which takes advantage of the 22.5 hours of sunshine during the day there.

"Ukko Island with fishing boats": According to legend, the island is connected by an underground passage with the island of Akka, the island of the original mother. Photo: Curt Biging (1928 - 1930), Museum Europäischer Kulturen (Museum of European Cultures), Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin (National Museums in Berlin) (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Deutschland)

The Winter Solstice: Of pomegranates, a legendary island and National Socialists

The winter solstice, which occurs around 21 December, is when the sun reaches its lowest midday position above the horizon and we experience the longest night of the year (in the northern hemisphere) - a fact celebrated in a wide variety of cultures from ancient times to the present day. From this day on, the nights become shorter and the days longer until the events of the summer solstice are reversed again. 

In Iran, the "Yalda Night" ("Night of Birth") is celebrated as one of the four great ancient Persian festivals: It welcomes the arrival of winter and the victory of light over darkness, as from this time on the days become longer again. This victory is won by the sun goddess Mithra, who is born at dawn after Yalda. On this night, friends and family gather to traditionally eat the red fruits pomegranate and watermelon together, light a fire of light and hope, and read verses by the Iranian poet Mohammad Shams ad-Din Shirazi.

The elements of fire and light in this darkest season of the northern hemisphere are also found in the pre-Christian festival of Yule and the Christian festival of Christmas.The early history of Yule is disputed, as are its connections to Christmas. As early as the 6th century, the Greek historian Procopius of Caesarea reports of a great festival on the mythical island of Thule, when the sun becomes visible again for the first time after 40 days of darkness - and he also speaks of 40 days of the midnight sun, which is why it is assumed that "Thule" refers to the Lofoten Islands, Iceland or the Faroe Islands.

Thule? “Lofoten” (1924-1934), photo: Franz Dubbick, Museum Europäischen Kulturen, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 Deutschland)

Politically, the Yule fest was occupied by the National Socialists, who tried to revive Germanic customs. The Christmas tree and festivities became the "Jultanne" and " Yule fest" to remove Christian references from the festivities. Even today, mainly neo-Nazi groups celebrate the solstices in alleged reference to "ancient Germanic solstice celebrations". A popular meeting place is the extern stones in the Teutoburg Forest as a Germanic cult site. However, the gatherings are usually quickly dispersed by the police.

"Teutoburg Forest. External stones. "Northern rock group from the west" (1939), Photo: Oskar Kaubisch, Deutsche Fotothek (Rechte vorbehalten – Freier Zugang)

The International Holiday of the Solstice

As diverse as the history and traditions of the solstices are, they connect people all over the world. The solstices are part of the cultural heritage, which the United Nations takes as an opportunity to officially declare the 21 June as the International Solstice Day

"Recognising that the solstices and equinoxes symbolise the fertility of the soil, agricultural production systems, cultural heritage and their millenary traditions, the United Nations General Assembly recognised that the celebration of these events embodies the unity of cultural heritage and millenary traditions and, moreover, plays an important role in strengthening relations among nations based on mutual respect and the ideals of peace and good neighborliness."

Solstice objects in the Deutschen Digitalen Bibliothek (German Digital Library)


UN: https://www.un.org/en/observances/solstice-day
Iran Kultur: http://www.irankultur.com/yalda-nacht-iraner-feiern-den-sieg-des-guten-ueber-das-boese/
Deutschlandfunk Kultur: https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/germanisches-neuheidentum-wer-hat-weihnachten-geklaut-100.html
MDR: https://www.mdr.de/wissen/fakten-zur-sommersonnenwende-102.html
NDR: https://www.ndr.de/ratgeber/Mittsommer-Heute-ist-der-laengste-Tag-des-Jahres,sonnenwende106.html
National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.de/geschichte-und-kultur/2022/03/zeitmessung-in-der-steinzeit-stonehenge-war-ein-aeusserst-praeziser-sonnenkalender
Geo: https://www.geo.de/geolino/forschung-und-technik/9750-rtkl-archaeologie-krimi-um-die-himmelsscheibe
Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mittsommerfest#Schweden:_Midsommar
Wikipedia: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonnenwende#Geschichtliches_und_Kulturelles
Welt: https://www.welt.de/aktuell/article106645680/Die-magische-Nacht-der-Sommersonnenwende.html
National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.de/wissenschaft/2021/12/dunkelster-tag-des-jahres-wissenswertes-ueber-die-wintersonnenwende
T-Online: https://www.t-online.de/leben/reisen/reisetipps/id_77105082/stonehenge-zur-sommersonnenwende-geschichte-und-bedeutung.html
MDR: https://www.mdr.de/geschichte/weihnachten-urspruenge-100.html
History.de: https://www.history.de/heute-vor/detail/wintersonnwendfeier.html
Planet Wissen: https://www.planet-wissen.de/gesellschaft/ordnungssysteme/kartografie_das_gesicht_der_erde/pwieeratosthenesgeniederantike100.html
Antiquity: http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/barkai327/