Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Solstice Treasure

On the Thirteenth Day of Yule in the year 1153, Earl Harald Maddarðarson of Orkney was travelling from Stromness to Firth when he was caught in a blizzard. He and his companions took shelter from the storm in the famed Neolithic burial mound Maeshowe, where, interestingly, two of his party went mad. This delayed the travelers for so long, reports the Orkneyinga Saga, that they didn't reach Firth until well after dark.

Dating from around 2500 BCE, Maeshowe was well known to the Vikings, who ruled the Orkneys for more than 300 years. Carved into the stones of the mound's central chamber is one of the largest known collections of runic inscriptions in Europe. According to the longest,

Crusaders broke into Maeshowe. Líf Earl's-Cook carved these runes. To the northwest is a great treasure hidden. It was long ago that a great treasure was hidden here. Happy is he that might find that great treasure. Hákon alone bore treasure from this mound.

Maeshowe is famed for its orientation to the Winter Solstice sunset. For the last few years, on the morning of Midwinter's Eve, I've tuned in to the live on-site webcam to watch. What I saw there amazed me.

As the Sun approaches the western horizon, its light shines (à la New Grange) down the passage and illuminates the rear wall of the howe's chamber. The blur of light moves down along the inner wall as the Sun nears its setting. Then, as the Sun reaches the horizon, due to the same mysterious optical principle that is the basis for the camera obscura, the image of the Sun's disc is projected directly onto the wall in such a way that its lower limb touches the ground at the bottom of the stone at the same time that the Sun itself does so on the western horizon.


So as the Sun sets in the southwest on the eve of the year's longest night, it looks down the passage of Maeshowe and beholds itself on the horizon in the northeast, the point of Midsummer rising. At the very moment of its winter setting, the Sun sees itself in its summer rising. The magical intent here could hardly be clearer.

Given its winter solstice orientation, it is deeply interesting that Maeshowe, some 3500 years after its construction, should still be associated in Norse saga with Yule. One wonders just what manner of golden treasure it may have been that only Hákon discovered there and carried away.

This year on Monday, December 21, at 2:43 p. m. local time (yikes!), the setting Sun will once again look deep into the heart of Maeshowe, and once more the golden spark will leap the dark synapse from the old year's last night to the new year's first day.

And the Wheel shall turn anew.

Líf Earl's-Cook was right: to the northwest lies hidden great treasure.

Happy indeed is he (or she) who shall find that treasure.

Maeshowe Live Webcam

2:43 p.m. GMT = 8:43 a.m. CST






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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