When the sun stands still

I like learning word origins, so I was pleased tonight, when reading about the winter solstice, to find out what solstice means. I’ve always had trouble keeping equinox and solstice straight, but if I stop and think about it I know equinox means “equal night,” which is when daytime and nighttime are the same length – which I know is at the beginning of spring and fall. So if those are the equinoxes, the solstices have to go with summer and winter.

So I did know what a solstice was, the day when the day is longest at the beginning of summer, or shortest at the beginning of winter. But I didn’t know why the word solstice meant that, which was why it was hard to remember. This article explains that it comes from the Latin for “sun stands still.” Well, that initially puzzled me even more. I didn’t watch the sun today (I’m not even sure it was visible, as the sky was pretty overcast), but I’m pretty sure it didn’t stand still any more than it does any other day.

The article explains that throughout the summer and fall, the sun’s position in the sky has followed an increasingly lower and shorter arc. Then at the solstice, it seems to rise and set in the same two spots each day for several days, before the arc starts growing higher and longer again. Being a visual person, I’m not sure even that would have made sense to me, if I hadn’t seen a photo of an analemma yesterday.

The analemma shows the sun where it appears at a specified time of day, seen from a fixed spot, over the course of a year. If you had asked me to guess what shape that would take, I have no idea what I would have said, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have guessed a figure-8. If I had realized that it does go higher and lower at different times of year, I would probably have guessed a vertical line.

I like looking up at the sky, but I can’t imagine taking the time and trouble to watch the sun – or the moon and stars – closely enough to figure out those patterns. I often look up at the constellations while walking the dog in the evening, and wonder how people ever managed to come up with the signs of the zodiac to mark the passing months. I notice that their position in the sky changes depending what time I go out. But I don’t watch them closely enough to notice how it also changes with the passing of weeks and months.

I wonder if perhaps this is because I know I don’t need to. I can check any newspaper or look online and find out all I could want to know (and more) about sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and more. I can look in a book on my son’s shelf to find out what constellations I can see at any time of day and at any time of year. I can check calendars to find out when the seasons will start and end for years to come. There’s nothing I need to look at the sky for myself except to take pleasure in its beauty.

People in ancient times who didn’t have all those resources studied the sky intently trying to learn all they could. I suppose even then the average person didn’t track the movements of the heavenly bodies himself, but he trusted the sages who did to tell him what he needed to know to plant and harvest his crops at the right times. And of course there were all sorts of superstition mixed in with it too, since he didn’t know what the sun or stars really were, or what made them move in the patterns they did, or how he could rely on their continuing the pattern followed in the past.

Frankly, I’m rather glad I don’t have to sit outside tracking the sun’s movements in the sky. It might be nice to do in the summer, but not this time of year in Iowa.

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