Sacred Alignments: The Spirituality and Architecture of the Solstice
For thousands of years, man has looked to the sky for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom – about who he is, what he comes from, and where he is going. Since long before the emergence of today’s major religions, worship of the cosmos formed a remarkably universal theme in spiritual practices around the world. The sky was a metaphor for ancient peoples, as “both the symbol of the principles that they felt ordered their lives and the force behind those principles.” They connected the clues above to their earthly existence, regarding the sky as “the mirror of our mind’s own eye,” a reflection of our consciousness. [1.0] Wherever ancient man set foot, he built sites to observe and measure cosmic events, and performed rituals to celebrate the intrinsic and indivisible linkage between celestial forces and the human experience. One of the most important of these events was the solstice.
“Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.” - Maori proverb
Let’s begin by reviewing some astronomy to understand what a solstice is. Solstices are solar events that occur twice a year – in June and December – and mark our planet’s longest and shortest days. They result from the tilt of earth’s axis (23.44 degrees) and its annual movement around the sun. In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice occurs around June 21st, when the North Pole reaches its maximum tilt towards the sun. On this day, the sun climbs to its highest point in the sky, shines for the most amount of time, and is at its greatest strength. The date also approximates the start of summer. The Northern hemisphere’s winter solstice occurs around December 21st, when the North Pole is angled farthest away from the sun and receives the least amount of sunlight. Correspondingly, this solstice approximates the start of winter. Solstices are reversed for the Northern and Southern hemispheres, so that the start of summer in the north coincides with the start of winter in the south, and vice versa. To recap, the summer solstice is the longest and brightest day of the year, and the winter solstice is the shortest and darkest day of the year. These events, in conjunction with the spring and fall equinoxes, delineate the four seasons and mark the passage of time on earth. [2.0]
“That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One Thing.” - The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus
Other than kicking off the start of the summer or winter seasons, solstices hold little meaning for most of us nowadays [3.1]. But this indifference was not always so common. For thousands of years, celestial phenomena were observed, measured, and celebrated with great reverence [3.2]. For ancient peoples, the sky was a “tool” that “enabled them to orient themselves in time and space” [3.3]. But as their familiarity with the exoteric (or literal) phenomena of the cosmos developed, so too did their knowledge of its esoteric (or hidden) meanings, and eventually astronomy and spirituality became intertwined [3.4]. In the patterns and cycles of the cosmos, man recognized parallels on earth: the tides, seasons, and qualities of natural life. Yet they also began to see the sky as a metaphor for something more: the journeys of their own souls [3.5]. The linkages between universal and individual, between celestial and infinitesimal, between cosmic and earthly, and between spiritual and natural, is summarized by the ancient concept, “As Above, So Below.” Indeed, the framework of As Above, So Below is key to understanding why ancient peoples worshipped the cosmos. This expression is very old, dating back at least 2000 years to the Hermetic texts, which are believed to be of ancient Egyptian or Greek origin, but may in fact be much older [4.1]. Put simply, the Hermetic texts teach the oneness of God in all things. They integrate themes of mythology, alchemy, magic, and astrology; and share many principles with major religions and philosophies, such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, as well as with more esoteric belief systems like Gnosticism, Transcendentalism, Neopaganism, Zoroastrianism, and the Occult [4.2].
“For those who are awake, the universe is one.” – Hericlitus
Basically, the concept of As Above, So Below means that the same principles and forces that govern the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets also rule the smallest bodies of matter, right down to level of an atom. Furthermore, these principles and forces do not just rule the outer, physical world; they also rule the inner, spiritual world [5.1]. Along these lines, ancient peoples worshipped the sun for both its physical and spiritual properties [5.2]. On the one hand, the sun delivers heat and light essential for the existence and nourishment of physical life on earth. At the same time, it is "but a mere physical vehicle of an even more stupendous Consciousness, which pervades the solar system in layer after layer of unimaginable glory" [5.3]. This dual role of the sun - both as a physical and spiritual epicenter - likely explains the entity's dominant role in ancient spiritual belief systems [5.4]. Indeed, the mystics of ages past taught that the sun is "the only representation of God," the creator and destroyer of all life, and the source of all human energy [5.5]. As such, celestial movements like the earth's rotation about the sun - along with the solstices and equinoxes that form major waypoints along that cycle - symbolize on a galactic scale each of our own spiritual journeys of birth, life, death, and rebirth [5.6].
Image: Sciencefreak (Pixabay.com). Public domain.
“The sun gives light and life to all who live, east and west, north and south, above, below; it is the prana of the universe.” – Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita
While ancient peoples worshipped many celestial phenomena, they assigned special importance to the solstices and equinoxes [6.1]. The word equinox means “equal light,” whereas solstice means “sun stand still.” In autumn, the equinox denotes a time to harvest crops and prepare for winter. Metaphorically, it symbolizes a moment of balance: of growing darkness, the soul’s descent from spiritual truth, and death [6.2]. As the shortest and darkest day of the year, the winter solstice has traditionally been a time to celebration creation and birth [6.3]. The next major spoke along the great wheel of the year is the spring equinox, which represents balance – when day and night are equal, but darkness is giving way to light. As such, the spring equinox is linked to spiritual concepts of spiritual change, resurrection, and ascension [6.4]. Finally, as the longest and brightest day of the year, the summer solstice symbolizes enlightenment, awakening, and a return to the light of Source [6.5]. Following the summer solstice, darkness begins to grow once more, and the journey starts anew. The earth begins another rotation about the sun, and consciousness descends once again from the light of spiritual wakefulness to the darkness of physical being [6.6].
Image: FreeSally (Pixabay.com). Public domain.
“Behold, O Hermes, there is a great mystery in the Eighth Sphere, for the Milky Way is the seed-ground of our souls…” – Poimandres
In keeping with the concept of As Above, So Below, ancient peoples built earthly monuments to study and worship the sky [7.0]. These included temples, shrines, observatories, and sun dials, remnants of which are found all over the world today. The solstice appears to have been a primary focus of sites like the Great Pyramids, Stonehenge, Chichen Itza, the Serpent Mound, Great Zimbabwe, Angkor Wat, the stone statues of Easter Island, Mayan pyramids in Uxmal and Tikal, the Ajanta caves in India, and many, many other locations [7.0]. Two that we’ll pay particular attention to are Machu Picchu and Chaco Canyon.
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” – Hiram Bingham
Machu Picchu is a ceremonial center located in the Andean cloud forest of Peru, 46 miles northwest of Cusco. It was famously discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, who believed (incorrectly) that this was the last refuge of the Incas from the Spanish conquest [8.0]. Today, most archaeologists believe the site was built in the 1400s as a royal estate for Pachucutec, the 9th Inca king, whose name means “he who overturns space and time” [8.1]. The site lies atop a ridge between two mountain peaks – named Machu Picchu (“old mountain”) and Huayna Picchu (“young mountain”) – high above the Urubamba River. It exhibits remarkably sophisticated methods of engineering and masonry, along with extensive irrigation systems, terraces, double jamb doorways, niches, sacred walkways, and usnus (sacred platforms) [8.2].
(Above) Machu Picchu, the "lost city" discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911.
(Below) Machu Picchu contains many geocosmic alignments, including windows that focus the viewer's attention upon distant mountains.
(Above and below): Examples of Machu Picchu's magnificent architecture.
Of all Inca archaeological sites, Machu Picchu also contains possibly the greatest concentration of huacas (sacred shrines) and geocosmic alignments. Multiple buildings and walkways are oriented with solstices, equinoxes, and zeniths, as well as with local land features such as mountains. Some of the most notable examples is the Temple of the Sun (or Torreón), a circular, walled structure that contains a trapezoidal window and horizontal stone slab; at dawn on the winter solstice, light from the rising sun aligns with the edge of the stone slab, as well as with a distant mountain. Another example of Machu Picchu’s alignments is the cave system known as Intimachay, which appears to mark the summer solstice and both equinoxes. A stone pillar known as the Intihuatana seems to align with the zenith – a moment when the sun is directly overhead and casts no shadow. The Temple of the Condor aligns with the anti-zenith sunrise. Even the ridge upon which Machu Picchu sits has a north-south alignment [9.0]. And these are only a few examples – the results of field studies and research continually suggest the possibility of additional alignments [9.1]. While most conventional archaeologists attribute Machu Picchu to the Incas, alternative archaeologists and historians continue to ask thought-provoking questions about the site’s age, purpose, and method of construction.
(Above) The Torreón, a semi-circular structure built atop a natural cave. At sunrise on the winter (June) solstice, a shaft of light enters the eastern-facing window to align with a horizontal stone slab.
(Below) Machu Picchu's intihuatana, the "hitching post of the sun," a slanting pillar that possibly aligns with the solar zenith. Intihuatanas may have been plentiful during Inca times; however, the majority were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors.
(Above) Machu Picchu's most famous "replication stone," seemingly chiseled to conform with the outline of a distant mountain. I found several other stones at Machu Picchu (and throughout the Sacred Valley) that I thought bore striking resemblance to the silhouettes of faraway mountains.
"As great as is the light above us, greater by far is the light within.” – Anasazi Foundation
Chaco Canyon is a collection of archaeological sites in the desert of northwestern New Mexico. The canyon includes the ruins of shelters, large circular houses (kivas), and paved roads that may have been built by the Ancient Pueblo people. The canyon is believed to have first been settled around 6000 B.C., but the buildings whose ruins line the canyon today are alleged to have been constructed between 800 and 1000 A.D. [10.0]. Archaeological evidence suggests the site may have served as a ceremonial center or trade post; some of the artifacts found there include wooden staffs and wands, jewelry, beautiful bows and jars, carved human figures, seashells, feathers, and bones – many of which appear to have come from hundreds of miles away. Even the quarter-million wooden poles used to reinforce the stone buildings were likely harvested in distant lands [10.1]. Chaco Canyon also contains geocosmic markers and alignments, along with associated rock art. One famous example is a spiral that was carved into the rock above the buildings. On the summer solstice, the spiral is pierced by a dagger of sunlight, and on the winter solstice it is bracketed by two daggers. During equinoxes, a shaft of sunlight aligns with the center of a smaller spiral. Down below the spiral, among the collection of great kivas, lies Casa Rinconada. This circular structure contains a single window on its eastern wall through which the sun shines at dawn on the summer solstice to illuminate a trapezoidal niche on the far (western) wall. At another great house, rock art depicts a star, crescent moon, and handprint; some Chacoan experts believe these are records of past cosmic events – perhaps a supernova that would have been visible from Earth in 1054. The sun dagger, Casa Rinconada, and rock art are the most famous examples of sun worship at Chaco Canyon, but others may have existed. Much of the ruins and artifacts have been forever lost to the forces of time, nature, and looters, while others might be waiting to be found by future archaeologists [11.0]. In any case, much of Chaco Canyon’s history is not known today.
(Above) Casa Rinconada, the largest kiva at Chaco Canyon.
(Below) The sun dagger of Fajada Butte marked the summer solstice with a dagger of light through its center. The stone has shifted in recent years and is no longer accessible by visitors. Image in public domain (source).
(Above) Peñasca Blanco rock art of Chaco Canyon may depict a supernova that would have been visible here in 1054 A.D. (Image: Alex Marentes, cc-by-sa-2.0)
"No answer is also an answer.” – Hopi proverb
Worship of the sun and stars appears to have been a central theme of ancient spirituality. Examples of these practices are implied in the architecture, artwork, and mythology left by people thousands – or even tens of thousands – of years ago and all over the world. Despite being separated by time and distance, many of the approaches used are amazingly similar [12.0]. Numerous sites incorporate alignments with solstices or equinoxes. Rock art displays spirals, crosses, and circles, features which seem to reflect understanding of universal and ageless principles [12.1]. And the births, deaths, and rebirths of mythological deities are celebrated on the dates of these cosmic events. Perhaps the wisdom of As Above, So Below is older than we think, originating long before the Greeks or Egyptians embedded them into the Hermetic texts. Maybe the idea that all is connected, and that the same principles and forces apply to all creation – large and small, physical and spiritual – was recognized and understood long before our modern religions or study of science [12.2]. These questions – like so many others about ancient sites like Machu Picchu and Chaco Canyon – remain open and unanswered. Perhaps this is their purpose – to cause us to think, to search, and to understand. In any case, they remain intriguing mysteries for future generations of archaeologists, historians, mythologists, and truth seekers.
Originally published 6/24/2019 here. ©Beyond the Range. All rights reserved. Feel free to republish so long as credit is given.