December 21 – Reflections on the Solstice

Mass Clock Steventon

The Sun is at its lowest at midday; the sun rises and sets at its most southerly position in the whole year. If it continues, life will be extinguished as the world has no light and no heat.

But on this day the Sun begins its rebirth. From this day on, it begins to rise further north each day, the Sun at noon is higher, its sets further north each day. so the arc the rising and settings make is larger, the days are longer; the Sun is getting hotter too.

Symbolically, solstice is an ending as well as a beginning; a turning point and a promise by whatever Deity or non-deity you go by that the cycle of the world will continue. It will turn, the wheel will turn. Warmth and growth will return. Buds already growing in the earth. They will break out and bring new growth soon.

Culturally, its a time to have a party before the weather gets really cold, its a time to evaluate your past life and begin, like the sun, a new and hopefully better cycle.

Note. so if the Sun is at its shortest and weakest why is not the coldest time of the year? That is because the earth and, particularly, the oceans retain the heat of the Sun, and so it is generally colder in January and February. The coldest day varies and can be from November to March, but more often falls in January, then February, then December, more rarely in November and March.

The Solstice and the East Pediment of the Parthenon

British Museum Shop, reproductions of Hestia and Selene’s Horse from the Parthenon Marbles

At the Summer Solstice, I took a group to the British Museum and, a few days later, to Stonehenge, and managed to ‘integrate’ the two into a solstice narrative. At the BM, over years of trying to explain the sculptures, I have been building in my mind an interpretation of the Pediment that gives, I hope, an original insight into the possible intentions of the sculptors. I don’t know how ‘true’ it is, but I do think it gives an insight into metaphor and symbolism in great works of art. Bear in mind that there is a lot of uncertainty about some of the attributions, and, that the male and female virtues that I am talking about are traditional ones, not necessarily how we would express it in the modern world.

Pediment Sculptures Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash

At the left of the above photography, you see the horses that take Helios chariot into the sky to bring up the sun to light the world every day. Most sun deities are male, and the Sun gives light and life to the world, without it this earth is an inert block of ice cold stone. The next statue is casually laying back and looking fit, relaxed and not looking as if he is in that position because of the impossible triangular Pediment space he inhabits. He is the epitome of male strength, usually identified with Hercules but other people have other ideas and a young Dionysus is another suggestion. Whoever he is he represents male beauty and strength. So this end of the pediment represents the Sun and male virtues. This is the East Pediment of the Parthenon which is orientated to the rising sun, a little north of east.

Next are Demeter, the goddess of fertility, the goddess of the earth. Placed here to remind us that the Sun needs the Earth to create life and sustenance. It reminds us that the universe is not male, the male only works in conjunction with the female. Demeter is cuddling her daughter Persephone, the Goddess of Hades. She reminds us that life is a cycle of death and life. Plants die, turn into soil and create the conditions for future life.

Next is Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera, wife of Heracles (Hercules). She is the cupbearer to the Gods and gives them the ambrosia that keeps them forever young. She is the Goddess of Immortality, a reminder that the universe is eternal.

Next to Hebe is a void where there was the central statue of the east pediment depicting the Birth of Athena (according to Pausanias who wrote a guide in the 2nd Century BC to the Temple). Athena was born from the head of her father Zeus- a virgin birth. Athena therefore is, in some ways, the greatest of the Olympians, as she has the virtues of her female sex and the virtues of her father’s masculinity (and, dear Gods, hopefully not the massive ‘Me Too’ vices of her father). She is therefore, wise, nurturing, just, intuitive, decisive, a leader; an ideal combination of male and female.

Zeus (sitting) Hephastus to right (looking back with Axe)  Athena just visible above Zeus's head
Zeus (sitting) Hephastus to right (looking back with Axe) Athena just visible above Zeus’s head

I posted about the quite extraordinary story of the Birth of Athene earlier in the year and said

‘So Zeus eats Athena’s mum, Metis, who is pregnant with her. Sometime later he has a cracking headache. Hephaestus, the disabled artificer God hits Zeus over the head to clear the headache. Zeus gives birth to a fully formed Athena from the split in his head.’

Hestia, Dione, Aphrodite, Horse of Selene’s chariot

To Athene’s left is Hestia (Vesta for the Romans). Her name means “hearth, fireplace, altar” and she is the goddess of the domestic sphere, of the comforts of home, of a warm fire enjoyed by a loving family.

The next set are two beautifully draped women languidly leaning on each other, and these are Dione, with her daughter Aphrodite – the Goddess of Love. Dione is the daughter of Gaia and Uranus daughter of earth and sky. So, here, counterpoised to Hercules, are epitomes of women. Women of power, creation and love.

Finally, we have the exhausted horse of Selene. Her chariot takes the moon into the sky, positioned opposite to Helios and the Sun. Selene is the Moon goddess, and the Moon is beautiful, powerful as it gives us the tides and fundamental to the life of humans as she presides over the menstrual cycle. Compared to the movements of the Sun which any fool can work out, and which are relentless (symbolising Justice) the movements of the Moon are mysterious to most of us. So Selene is beautiful, powerful, creative and the Goddess of Intuition.

So, if you put it all together the East Pediment of the Parthenon shows that the world is a union of the male and the female, balanced between the two with Zeus and Athene in the middle, with Athene holding the main part because she, in her person, represents both the male and the female.

Of course we know that the Athenian society was a patriarchal one with women mostly kept in the domestic sphere. But here, at least, women were given an equal billing in the organisation of the Cosmos.

Sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon
Sculptures from the east pediment of the Parthenon

I must end by warning the reader that this is only my interpretation. I am not a scholar of Ancient Greece. I have come to my own conclusion based on spending a lot of time looking at the marbles, doing Solstice Virtual Tours, and mostly informed by the labels in the gallery, with of course, some reading including Mary Beard’s book entitled ‘Parthenon’ and the BM’s guide book. In particular, I have not incorporated into my ‘story’ the sculptures that were in the gaps that do not survive or only in fragments scattered throughout the Museum world. Mary Beard was cleverer than I, not reaching conclusions on the basis that we don’t know. But what we do know is that in the centre is Zeus and Athene and at the edges are the chariots of the Sun and the Moon. And so fitting to celebrate the Solstice.

This evening, 21 December 2022 I am doing my London Solstice Virtual Tour

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