Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Summer Soltice

Last year I was visiting my friend Steve McKinally in Southampton, UK, on a beautiful late summer weekend. He kindly offered to drive me around the countryside and see some of what makes that part of England so pretty. As an aside he mentioned that we weren't all that far from Stonehenge and would I like to go take a look? As a Yank, I've always had a fascination for the place, always wondering along with the experts, of what the site was used for, was it built by the ancients or perhaps by someone else. Was it mathematically perfect? Did it announce and celebrate the Summer Solstice? Like the pyramids at Giza or the Mayan temples or even later, the beautiful site at Ephesus how did the ancients build these places?

I'll never forget sitting high atop this Roman amphitheater at Ephesus looking down upon the magnificent marble stage. It was a very hot afternoon and while sipping warm water from a well used plastic bottle, an old man with a bushel of white scraggly hair and beard sat down next to me. Now, there were 2000 plus places else where he could have sat, but he chose the seat next to mine and started to chat. It was one of those moments where you knew he was simply a chatterer looking for a friendly ear and here I was minding my own business, sitting high up in a thousand plus year old amphitheater.

It reminded me of that scene from the movie, "Goodbye Mr. Chips," when Peter O'Toole met Petula Clark, ( sorry youngsters look it up); and we didn't marry! At any rate Joseph, as he introduced himself, asked me right off the bat, “So how did they do that?" "Do what?" I asked. "Build that,” he said.

He went on to explain that the marble before our eyes didn't come from the ground in Ephesus and that the nearest place it could have come from was over sixty miles away. Then he mentioned the perfectly round columns on the stage that still stood. "How did they do that? There were no machines to cut the marble much less erect those columns that have stood the test of time. I had no idea where he was going and was actually suffering a bit from the heat in that full sun. "Well he said, I think the ancients had powers that we have lost." He explained that this was a simple theory because man had forgotten processes and skills throughout history. Let's not forget the Dark Ages. I listened. He went on to say something I already knew, “we only use ten percent of our brain power...what if the ancients used more?" I looked quizzically and he just raised his finger and pretended to move objects. Well, who am I to argue about that. It was a moment.

So here we were at Stonehenge, at the presumed Summer Solstice Epicenter and I'm driving down this wide modern road. I thought we'd drive out into nowhere and then have to hike further to find this ancient place. Not the case. There it was, three hundred yards from the road, sitting on a treeless sight for all to see. Turning off the road into the visitor's parking lot were twenty buses and even more cars and people. Steve turned to me and said, "Shall we park?" To which I said "No way, I've seen it, let's go." and the old friend that he is said, “I knew you'd never get out of the car!" If I'm going to see an ancient's sacred place, I want it to be a trek. I've been to Borobudur for god's sake!

As it was a hot late summer day, Steve suggested a cool libation at a wonderful old estate turned hotel and restaurant which I highly recommend if you have the chance to visit. It is a beautiful place and I’m told a favorite of George Bush Senior’s when he visits Hampshire to go fishing. It is called Lainstone House and has this magnificent back porch,as we yanks would call it, overlooking a huge valley/lawn ending in the distance with a a wonderful architectural folly. A perfect place to enjoy a Pimms in true English style. My thanks to Mr. McKinally for his great taste and touring abilities.

Some more facts about the longest day..below.

By Matt Rosenberg,
Jun 17 2007
On or around June 21 each year, the rays of the sun will be perpendicular to the Tropic of Cancer at 23°30' North latitude. This day is the summer solstice1 in the Northern Hemisphere.
On this day, the earth's "circle of illumination" will be from the Arctic Circle on the far side of the earth (in relation to the sun) to the Antarctic Circle on the near side of the earth. The equator receives twelve hours of daylight, there's 24 hours of daylight at the North Pole and areas north of 66°30' N, and there's 24 hours of darkness at the South Pole and areas south of 66°30' S.
June 20-21 is start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere but simultaneously the start of winter in the Southern Hemisphere. It's also the longest day of sunlight for places in the Northern Hemisphere and the shortest day for cities south of the equator.
However, June 20-21 is not the day when the sun rises earliest in the morning nor when it sets latest at night.
Awed by the great power of the sun, civilizations in the northern areas have for centuries celebrated the Summer Solstice, otherwise known as Midsummer (see Shakespeare), the Christian St. John's Day, or the Wiccan Litha.
The Celts & Slavs celebrated with dancing & bonfires to help increase the sun's energy. The Chinese marked the day by honoring Li, the Chinese Goddess of Light.
Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids' celebration of the day as the "wedding of Heaven and Earth", resulting in the present day belief of a "lucky" wedding in June.
Today, the day is still celebrated around the world - most notably in England at Stonehenge and Avebury, where thousands still gather to welcome the sunrise on the Summer Solstice.

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