Solstitial Directions

The direction of sunrise at the June solstice represents the northernmost limit of the range of horizon, centered upon east, where the sun will rise on different days through the year. Similarly, the direction of sunrise at the December solstice represents the southernmost limit of this range. Likewise, the directions of sunset at the June and December solstices represent, respectively, the northern and southern limits of the western range of horizon where the sun sets at different times of the year.

Everywhere on earth apart from the polar regions, the directions of June solstice sunrise and sunset, and of December solstice sunrise and sunset, fall respectively within the northeast, northwest, southeast and southwest quadrants of the horizon. These four directions divide the horizon into four distinct parts. The eastern part represents the range of horizon within which the sun always rises; everywhere in this range is a point where the sun will rise at some time during the year. Similarly, the western part represents the range within which the sun always sets. In northern temperate zones, the southern part represents the horizon the sun passes over each day; the direction of the sun in the middle of the day. Things facing in this direction will be open to the light of the sun. The north, on the other hand, is a "dark" direction. (The properties of the north and south parts are reversed in the southern hemisphere.)

Each of these four directions, in other words, has distinct properties and, in different human societies, can acquire distinct cosmological connotations. In one type of quadripartite cosmology (perceived division of the world, as viewed from some central place, into four parts), the boundaries between the different quarters of the world are formed by the solstitial directions. One example of this is the worldview of the Hopi people of Arizona. Another example is the layout of the Andean village of Misminay. It can be misleading to speak of a "quartering" of the world, since the four "quarters" are generally nowhere near equal in size: in fact, equal quarters are only possible (depending upon the horizon altitude) at latitudes of around fifty-five degrees (north and south). Closer to the equator, the east and west parts become narrower and the north and south parts wider. At the equator itself, the east and west parts are only about 47 degrees wide, and the north and south parts are 133 degrees wide.

As one approaches the polar regions, the northern and southern "quarters" rapidly shrink away, and in the polar regions themselves the quadripartite model is not applicable at all. Here, every part of the horizon is the rising or setting point of the sun at some time in the year. Indeed, there is a period around the winter solstice when the sun never rises above the horizon at all, and a period around the summer solstice when the sun never sets. The length of this period depends upon the latitude, but it is clearly a critical time for indigenous groups living in northern polar regions, such as the Inuit.

See also:

Cardinal Directions; Solstices; Solstitial Alignments.

Hopi Calendar and Worldview; Inuit Cosmology; Misminay.


References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, 18-27. New York: Wiley, 1997.

-. Skywatchers, 55-67. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

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