The longest days of the year have arrived. The sun's rising and setting positions have reached their most northerly points along the horizon and these rising points are now "standing still" - hence the word solstice, or in Irish grianstad, meaning, literally, "stopped sun".
The further north you are located from the equator, the longer the days in summer, and the shorter in winter. Here in Ireland, in the Boyne Valley, the sun rises before 5am on Summer Solstice and sets around 10pm. Even in the middle of the night, there is no real darkness as the whole northern horizon remains bathed in light. This is a result of the fact that the sun does not go far enough below the horizon at midsummer for Astronomical Twilight to end.
Something else that's really interesting is happening right now as the sun crosses the sky on these, the longest days. If you could somehow darken the sun, like what happens in a total eclipse, you'd see that the sun is currently positioned directly above Orion. In fact, at Summer Solstice in this modern epoch, the sun appears to be "carried" across the sky by this great anthropomorphic warrior/god/hunter constellation, in his upraised arm. Further to this is the fact that the sun is currently located in one of the two positions where it appears to "cross" over the Milky Way. Astronomers today call the sun's path the ecliptic. This imaginary ring through the sky intersects the Milky Way in two places - one above Orion and the other beneath Ophiuchus, between Sagittarius and Scorpius. It just so happens that in our lifetime, these positions correspond with the location of the Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice sun, respectively.
It is fascinating that the Boyne river, along which the greatest megalithic passage-tombs in Europe were built, has a name that is the same as the old Irish name for the Milky Way – Bealach na Bó Finne, the Way of the White Cow.
In mythology, there are many gods and warriors, but some particularly interesting ones which we examined in Island of the Setting Sun - In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers. One of these is Lugh Lamhfada, Lugh of the Long Arm (or the long throw, perhaps). In the ancient mind, was it perhaps Lugh who was seen to "throw" the sun, moon and planets from his upraised hand?
There are other characters of mythology who are interesting. Amergin, leader of the Milesians, was known as Amergin of the Bright Knee. The star that we know today as Rigel has an Arabic name which means "bright knee". Amergin asked "who but I knows the place where the sun sets, who but I knows the ages of the moon?" The Annals of the Four Masters says the Milesians arrived in Ireland at Bealtaine in 1694 BC. On that date, the sun was above Orion, being carried across the sky. Because of an effect of the wobble of the earth's axis called Precession of the Equinoxes, the sun's position on the ecliptic on a specific day of the year (eg solstices, equinoxes) is slowly moving westwards through the ecliptic. When the Milesians arrived in 1694BC, their bright-kneed leader set foot on the shore of the Boyne river at the moment the sun was being carried by the constellation Orion – that might have been known then as Amergin. Nowadays, the sun's position at Bealtaine has moved so that it is beneath Aries. It is on Summer Solstice now that Orion/Amergin/Lugh appears to carry the sun across the sky.
And then there's Cúchulainn, the warrior hero of The Táin Bó Cuailnge, who battles in ford water - a ford being the crossing point of a river. Was he guarding the ford of the sky, as hinted in The Táin?
a fair man facing your foes
in the starlit ford of night.
It is no mere coincidence that Cúchulainn is a son of Lugh. The Milky Way was known as Lugh's Chain and Lugh used a weapon called the Tathlum, which is described as a concrete ball – made of his enemies' brains hardened with lime. Could this be the moon?
To the hero Lugh was given
This concrete ball – no soft missile –
In Mag Tuireadh of shrieking wails,
From his hand he threw the tathlum.
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 is 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".
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.
Today, as you watch the sun make its way across the sky on the weekend of the Summer Solstice, it would be nice to reflect upon the powerful imagery. The symbolism of the 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. The god of light has the sun in his hand.
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.
Here's a video I made in 2016 about the summer solstice and Orion carrying the sun:
Enter the ‘Ancient Sites’ section of this blog for a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of the megalithic and sacred sites of Ireland. Find out all about the Stone Age and prehistoric ruins and learn more about the possible functions and alignments of these sites. Visit the great temples of Brú na Bóinne, the Hill of Tara, the ancient cairns of Loughcrew among many others.
Explore the ancient myths, legends and folklore of Ireland and their meaning. Read the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, or the place-name myths in the Dindshenchas. Learn about how the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians came to Ireland and how the early texts describe various invasions of prehistoric Éire. Hear about Fionn and the Fianna, and discover how some myths might contain information about astronomy and the stars.
There is no doubt that the ancient megalith builders had a substantial knowledge of the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars through the heavens. Learn more about just how complex and impressive this knowledge was. There is evidence that the people of the Neolithic knew about the 19-year Metonic cycle of the moon, as well as being able to predict eclipses.