Monday, 20 June 2016

Video: An explanation of some of the astronomical and mythological symbolism of the summer solstice and the sun's unique position above Orion on this day

In this video, I explain some of the fascinating astronomical and mythical symbolism of today's Summer Solstice, and in particular I point out the very unique occurrence of the sun passing above Orion's hand - in the Milky Way - on this auspicious day.

Today is Summer Solstice, the maximum northerly declination of the sun, which occurs precisely at 10:34pm GMT (11.34pm local time) this evening. The sun's rising and setting positions in the northeast and northwest have reached a standstill and over the course of the next few days these positions will begin to retreat southwards. These are the longest days of the year.

If we could somehow blot out the sun, as happens during a total solar eclipse, we would see that the sun is presently located above the constellation Orion, in his outstretched arm. This is unique to our time. The sun's solstice and equinox positions are slowly drifting westwards through the zodiac due to a wobble of the earth's axis. The effect of this wobble is that the solstice/equinox points complete a circuit of the zodiac just once very 25,920 years.

In a few decades' time, the sun will have drifted out of Orion's hand on the summer solstice, moving gradually into Taurus (the bull constellation). It will not return to Orion's hand on Summer Solstice for almost 26,000 years. Eventually the autumn equinox sun will be in the hand of Orion, but not for another 6,500 years! And then in around 13,000 years, the winter solstice sun will be in the hand of Orion. I know it might be hard to believe, but by that time Orion will no longer be visible from Ireland. He will be too far south and only the stars of his upraised arm will be visible here.

Orion/Lugh/Cúchulainn/Fionn/Nuadu carries the sun across the sky.

There is some fascinating mythological symbolism involved in today's occurrence which I have explored before, especially in my book Island of the Setting Sun. There are several candidates for this constellation in Irish mythology. These include Lugh Lamhfada (Lugh of the Long Arm, or Long Throw), who may have been seen to control the movement of the sun, moon and planets along the ecliptic from his arm. Similarly, Lugh's son Cúchulainn, the chief character of the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, is said to have fired a sliothar (ball used in an Irish game called hurling) through the mouth of a hound/cú (Leo), and was said to have fought best in ford water. Indeed the point where the sun sits on Summer Solstice is that point where the ecliptic intersects with the Milky Way galaxy, the river of the sky. This was Bealach Bó Finne (the Way of the White Cow), and its earthly equivalent was Abhainn Bó Finne (Boyne River). Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have thrown standing stones into the landscape from places like Hill of Tara and Slieve Gullion. I wonder if this myth/folk tale perhaps connects Orion with the solstices - it's possible that many standing stones have alignments towards the sun's solstices or the lunar standstills. If Fionn threw the stones, perhaps this is a reference to the alignment with such astronomical events which are seen to be controlled by this illustrious man in the sky. Fionn's name translates as "Bright Son of the Hazel" or "Starry Son of the Hazel".

"I am a light for every road and journey" - Lugh Lamhfada.

An equally illustrious character from the early Irish myths is Nuadu of the Silver Arm, King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, whose arm was chopped off in the first battle of Moytura. He had a new silver arm made for him by the Tuatha Dé Danann healer, Dian Cecht. Thus he was able to take part in the second battle of Moytura (Mag Tuired) in which the Dananns were victorious against the Fomorians. This myth inspired the famous scene in the Star Wars movies where Luke Skywalker (Orion is perhaps seen to walk through the sky) confronts the evil Darth Vader, who chops off his arm with a light sabre. Towards the end of the movie, we see that Luke is given a metal, robotic prosthesis, similar perhaps to Nuadu's new "silver" arm.

The full moon on summer solstice.
The symbolism of today's event is stark. A giant warrior/god/hunter/man carries the sun aloft across the sky, like an Olympic torch bearer, from dawn until dusk.

Tonight, as the sun sets, a full moon will rise in the southeast, in the other "crossing point" or "ford" of the sky where the ecliptic crosses the Milky Way. Full moons on the day of solstice are rare enough. The last one was in 1967. So today we are enjoying a special conjunction of astronomical events.

The moon will be accompanied in that region of the sky by the planet Mars, currently quite bright, and also the planet Saturn and the bright star of Scorpius, Antares.

See also an earlier post about Lugh carrying the sun on Summer Solstice.

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