Thursday, 23 June 2016

Here Comes the Sun

It doesn’t matter who or what you believe in, this time of year is celebrated the whole world over because of one thing, and one thing alone – the Sun. A couple of days ago people celebrated the solstice, the astronomical point in the Earth’s orbit where hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere and of night-time in the southern hemisphere are at their greatest.

You don’t need to believe in any god or deity to realise that this happens every year. Ancient civilisations knew this as well. They used the solstices and equinoxes to mark specific times in their calendar and determine when their year begins and when to plant and harvest crops, etc. They were points to celebrate. Just when these celebrations began to be associated with deities will never be known, but over the centuries the ritual elements of these celebrations became more important. People around the world have different myths and stories about the importance of the summer solstice. And just like people today who celebrate summer with a holiday so did the ancients, a religious holiday.

Here are some stories of the summer solstice that embrace lgbt aspects.

One of my favourite stories is that of Apollo and his young lover Prince Hyakinthos. My own retelling of this story is found here. Another favourite story concerns the camp young Roman Emperor known as Elegabalus. He was the hereditary high priest of the Syrian sun god, which was worshipped in the form of a meteorite. I retell that story here. When he brought the sacred meteorite to Rome he built an elaborate temple to house it. He also created a festival in its honour at the summer solstice. For three successive solstices Elegabalus brought out the stone and paraded it though the streets of Rome in as splendid a manner as its arrival in 218. The event was depicted on coins from his reign (pictured below). It wasn’t long before the Roman senate and the military ganged up and assassinated the 18-year-old emperor and shipped his beloved lump of rock back to Syria where it vanished from history.
An earlier emperor fared better and used the solstice to commemorate another imported god. During the time of the Emperor Hadrian the Egyptian goddess Isis was introduced into the Roman Pantheon. Recent archaeological research has suggested that Hadrian used both the summer and winter solstices to plan the lay-out of some of his villas.

One of Hadrian’s villas, some 30 kilometres east of Rome, has an elongated vertical slit above the entrance doorway and the summer solstice sun shone through it and illuminated a niche inside the entrance hall. This niche probably contained a statue of Isis.

In another of Hadrian’s buildings, a temple, the solstice sun shines through a series of doorways which produces an illuminated passageway. This would have been used during ritual celebrations of the solstice. Many archaeologists support these ideas and suggest that these and other examples of seasonally-aligned buildings should be studied more closely. So far only more ancient buildings like Stonehenge have been studied.

An even earlier emperor planned whole cities aligned towards the sun. Alexander the Great built many cities wherever he conquered. Historians have previously believed that these had no uniform plan but in the last couple of years a theory has been put forward to suggest that Alexander deliberately planned several cities that had streets aligned to point to the rising sun on his birthday just after the summer solstice.

When was Alexander’s birthday? Ancient sources record that he was born on the 6th day of the New Year. Their year began on the day of the first new Moon after the summer solstice. Modern astronomers have calculated that this event occurred on the equivalent date to our 14th July in the year Alexander was born. Alexander was born six days later.

The most famous of Alexander’s cities was Alexandria on the Nile delta in Egypt. Research carried out by Luisa Ferro and Giulio Magli has suggested that Alexandria was planned around one specific road, called the Canopic road. This led from the Nile to Abukir Bay. The rest of Alexandria radiates out from this road. At either end were constructed city gates which came to be known as the Gate of the Sun (as the eastern end) and the Gate of the Moon (at the western end). Just like the Sun illuminated the niche in Hadrian’s villa on the solstice, so it did on Alexander’s birthday along the Canopic road. To the people of Alexandria this was proof of Alexander’s power as a living god.

Alexandria became the model for other Hellenistic cities which are also aligned to astronomical events. Again, archaeologists are generally supportive of this idea though some offer coincidence as some explanation – as I’ve said in the past, I don’t believe in coincidence.

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