Of Solstices and Symbols.

December 21 is the Winter Solstice — the shortest day and the longest night of the year. According to this resource, the Gammadion, composed of four Greek “gammas” — probably represented the solstices and equinoxes, or the four directions, four elements, and four divine guardians of the world.
You might notice that this symbol looks like a swastika. Actually, there are dozens of kinds of swastikas because the form of the symbol is an ancient symbol that has been used for over 3,000 years. (That even predates the ancient Egyptian symbol, the Ankh!) Artifacts such as pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that the swastika was a commonly used symbol as far back as 1000 BCE. (from here)
Some swastikas face clockwise and some counterclockwise.
A swastika with arms pointing clockwise was generally regarded as a solar emblem. A counterclockwise one represented the moon, night, and the feminine principle. (from Barbara Walker’s book
Here, for example, is a Native American Sunbird Swastika.
Also, from Barbara Walker’s book,
Named from the Sanskrit “so be it,” or “amen,” the swastika has been a reigious emblem of worldwie occurrence since at least 10,000 B.C. It appeared on the oldest coinage in India, on images of Buddha in Japan, and on Greek and Roman figures of the Great Goddess. On artifacts dating from the thirteenth century B.C. onward, the swastika has been found in Asia Minor, Greece, China, Persia, Libya, Scandinavia, Britain, and Iceland. It was still used as a magic sign in Europe up to the beginning of the twentieth century.
And then what happened to the swastika became part of the worst of human history.
The pentagram/pentacle has also been maligned by history.
The word pentagram comes from the Greek: “Pente means 5 (as in Pentagon). Gamma means a letter. Thus, pentagram refers to a five pointed star, or “any figure of five lines.” It is most often used to refer to a symmetrical, five pointed star, with equal sides, drawn either with a single line or with two closely spaced parallel lines. Their overall shape is like the decoration on the top of many Christmas trees, and the stars on the American flag.
— An upright pentagram is a 5 pointed star with one point aligned upwards.
— An inverted pentagram is a 5 pointed star with one point aligned downwards.
— An upright pentacle is generally defined as an upright pentagram surrounded by a circle, as is shown in the following icon. It often takes the form of a pentagram printed on (or cut into) a flat disk.

— The five points of the pentagram have been interpreted as representing the five wounds of Christ (2 wrist, 2 ankle and 1 side).
— The Roman Emperor Constantine used the pentagram in his seal and amulet.
— It has been referred to as the Star of Bethlehem
— It was used to symbolize the star which allegedly led three Zoroastrian astrologers to the baby Jesus; it was called the Three Kings’ star.
— The English warrior Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur, adopted the pentagram as his personal symbol and placed it on his shield. It appeared in gold on a red background. The five points symbolized “the five knightly virtues – generosity, courtesy, chastity, chivalry and piety.”
— Tarot cards originally had a suit of coins or discs. These were changed in the 19th century to pentacles when the Tarot became associated with the Kabbalah. They eventually became the suit of diamonds in modern playing cards.
— It has been widely used by past Christians as a protective amulet.
— During the burning times when the Christian church burned alive hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the meaning of the pentagram changed. It began to symbolize a goat’s head or the devil in the form of Baphomet. “The folk-symbol of security – for the first time in history – was equated with evil and was called the Witch’s Foot.

It’s interesting how, over time, people forget the origins of various symbols and celebrations. Different peoples and cultures and groups often reconstruct these things to suit their own purposes.
Which brings me back to the Winter Solstice.
In pre-historic times, winter was a very difficult time for Aboriginal people in the northern latitudes. The growing season had ended and the tribe had to live off of stored food and whatever animals they could catch. The people would be troubled as the life-giving sun sank lower in the sky each noon. They feared that it would eventually disappear and leave them in permanent darkness and extreme cold. After the winter solstice, they would have reason to celebrate as they saw the sun rising and strengthening once more. Although many months of cold weather remained before spring, they took heart that the return of the warm season was inevitable. The concept of birth and or death/rebirth became associated with the winter solstice. The Aboriginal people had no elaborate instruments to detect the solstice. But they were able to notice a slight elevation of the sun’s path within a few days after the solstice — perhaps by DEC-25. Celebrations were often timed for about the 25th.
And so we have the celebration of Christmas on that date, even though that’s not the actual date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
I can’t help wondering if today’s intolerances among peoples would be lessened if, in school, kids were made aware of the common origins of so many of our symbols and celebrations that now divide us.

3 thoughts on “Of Solstices and Symbols.

  1. And I recently decided the Sisyphus myth of rolling the rock up the hill only to have it roll down again was really about the seasons and the sun: up for spring and summer, down for fall and winter. Since that’s what the sun seems to do.

Leave a Reply