The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian


Chambered Tomb


Winter solstice: See the light on the darkest day

Ancient monuments become giant cameras, catching sunlight in a moment of mystery and wonder.

It is time to pray for the return of the sun. In this deep midwinter, we can start to imagine what the winter solstice meant to the ancient inhabitants of Britain who built Stonehenge and Maeshowe, and who aligned these mysterious buildings to receive the remote rays of the sun on the darkest day of the year.

This is the holiest time of the year – if you happen to share the beliefs of these ancient pagans, which, in fact, are obscure because they left no writings or even much in the way of figurative art. But the winter solstice must have been deeply important to them because on this day, and this day only, sunlight creates startling effects at Britain's late neolithic and early bronze age monuments. Most astonishingly of all, it enters the long narrow entrance passage of the burial mound of Maeshowe on Orkney's Mainland island and glows on the back wall of the inner chamber. The building becomes a giant camera, catching sunlight in a moment of mystery and wonder.

The architecture of Maeshowe is one of the marvels of these islands. Inside the earthen mound is a profoundly impressive chamber made of massive blocks of stone arranged in powerful lintels neatly layered, perforated by accurately rectangular openings. There is a precision to the stone construction and its plan, with symmetrical side chambers. When later Viking warriors broke into the chamber they wrote runic inscriptions on its stones, adding to the strange atmosphere. But it is at the winter solstice that Maeshowe consummates its mystery with the astronomical spectacle of the sun piercing its dark sanctum of death.

Light in darkness, life in death, the moment when the sun begins its return journey towards midsummer. Truly the pagan midwinter is a moving celebration. But, as we rush around buying presents, do we remember the true meaning of the winter sun festival?
goffik Posted by goffik
21st December 2010ce

Comments (3)

"Surely no house on earth could be as desolate as Maeshowe on a midwinter day, so dark and so drained of the sweetness of existence. But in the midst of this ultimate blackness a small miracle takes place. When the sun sets over Hoy on the afternoon of the solstice, about three o'clock, a single finger of light seeks through the long corridor that leads into the heart of the chamber and touches the opposite wall with a fugitive splash of gold. This never happens all the rest of the bright year. After a minute or two the glow fades. But it is as if a seed of promise had been sown in the womb of death itself."

from "A Winter Tale" by Orkney writer George MacKay Brown from his collection of stories called The Sun's Net.

Howburn Digger Posted by Howburn Digger
22nd December 2010ce
Also by GMB, a poem about Maeshowe

Circle of light and darkness, be our sign
We move in the shadows.
Brodgar has burned on the moor a dance of sun

Ring of quern and plough, contain
Our tumults of blood.
The stars’ chaos is caught in a strict rein.

Wheel of life and death, remove
The sweet warm breath.
Ingibiorg flowers in stone, all beauty and love.

Round of sun and snow and seed,
Out of those skulls
Breaks the first green shoot, the full ear, then the bread.
tjj Posted by tjj
22nd December 2010ce
Poems by George MacKay Brown on Maeshowe and Skara Brae can be found in the TMA Megalithic Poems thread here - Alternatively, if you key George MacKay Brown into the SEARCH THIS BLOG box here - the poems should (hopefully) come up a bit more quickly. Littlestone Posted by Littlestone
22nd December 2010ce
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