Contemplating a Winter Ritual on New Year’s Eve

Qarrtsiluni

“Qarrtsiluni means something like sitting together in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Inuit word.

I stumbled on the above somewhere on the internet and copied it down. Today, I did a search on the quote so I could give proper attribution. Well, wherever I stole it, I wasn’t alone. Lots of sources used the same wording without attribution.

Perhaps it emerged spontaneously from the darkness in multiple locations.

It resonated in a particular way. What is that about? It sounded like something I’d like to try. Particularly during the deep dark of winter…solstice, new years, somewhen around then. (Interested in trying it?)

Every year in late fall, when things start to get cold, I’m suddenly hungry all the time and simultaneously lethargic. It’s a Norwegian thing, I think. Conserve calories! Plump up! You’re about to spend the next 4 or 5 months holed up in a long house and want to survive the winter. The skinny are doomed!

I think it’s like that. I had a mental image of 8000 generations of ancestors looking up through the trees at cold solstice skies and, over time, assembling rituals and earthworks inspired by the seasons. By doing something similar, I could tap into a tradition stretching back to the beginning of our species. Climate, terrain, cultures, and polities have come and gone, but the night sky has presided over it all. And we must always have looked up in awe.

Stonehenge at sunset by Mastiello, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License

Nerd

However, being the type of nerd I am, my first question is this: if I’m experiencing some sort of midwinter preset vibe, can I plumb the resonating depth?

My starting point is pretty much always a long view of us as embodied members of a species with an evolutionary history. Our emotions, perceptions, and cognition are not wholly idiosyncratic but of a kind.

We’ve spent most of our quarter of a million years as homo sapiens near the equator. Now that I think of it, a dark, cold solstice mojo would have to have started building when the ice retreated enough to let us move on north into dark, cold winter nights. So it’s really a function of 1) how far north in latitude it’s dark much of a 24-hour cycle, 2) long wave climate cycles, and 3) human migration out of Africa.

First, long nights

Here’s the table.

Latitude (Degrees)Night Length at
Solstice (Hours)
Notes
012.00Equator
1514.00
3016.00
3516.67Tokyo
4017.33San Franciso = 38d, NYC = 40d
4518.00Lascaux Cave, France. Cities in N. America:
https://www.mnmuseumofthems.org/45th/NAmer.html
5018.67Stonehedge, Warsaw
6020.00Oslo, southern most border of
Nunavut, Canada’s Inuit Province
7021.33
8022.67
8523.33Northern reach of Nunavut
9024.00
Northern Latitude, Hours of Darkness, Notes – table by me


The 17.33 hours of darkness here in San Francisco seems plenty long enough, but my relatively recent ancestors lived in even longer darkness.

Second, climate

We are in the Quaternary Glaciation starting 2.5M years ago, in a period commonly called the Ice Age (formally the Last Glacial Period) starting 155k years ago, and having a recent maxima called the Last Glacial Maximum starting 26k years ago and continued until 13k years ago. Ice sheets extended to about the 45th parallel north with ice 2-2.5 miles thick. Miles!.

For reference, homo sapiens, i.e., us, are 250k years old. Ice, we’ve seen it come, and we’ve seen it go.

Fun fact: the weight of all that ice is still felt. Every year some land in coastal Alaska rises over an inch, springing back from being compressed for so long under so much ice. It’s called isostatic rebound.

Third, out of Africa

While it does appear that members of our species migrated out of Africa prior to the Last Glacial Maximum, they didn’t persist. Genetic analysis, particularly of our mitochondria, shows that current human populations all result from the most recent migration out of Africa 70k years ago, perhaps following the retreating ice. This was the wave that survived, mingling with Neadrathals on the way out. We show up in Southern Europe 40k years ago, Denmark 30k years ago, and entered the Americas from the north 20k years ago. All these numbers are estimates and under constant revision as our analytic tools become better and better.

Fun fact. A number of species, including probably a homo species, including possibly homo sapiens, lived through the Last Glacial Maximum in sheltered areas termed Refugia, plural Refugum. I like the word. We may need it again soon. It’s possible that this happened in North America, as well. Give research another 30 years, and we’ll have a much better picture. Lidar and improved methods of genetic analysis are in the process of totally rearranging our view of what’s happened over the last 100,000 years.

Bummer

But bummer. I was hoping for resonance a couple of hundred thousand years deep. It appears I have to settle for only fifty thousand or so! No imagining a great^8000th grandmother looking with awe at the winter night sky through conifers just as I have.

Still, that’s a lot of dark, cold, Solstice nights.

If a generation is 20-30 years in length, then my great^2000th grandparents might have started the process after generations of migration: wondering when it’s going to stop being dark for so long, and, btw, why is it so cold up here?…surviving long winter nights, perhaps popping out from a smoky shelter for a look at the winter sky alight with the aurora borealis, perhaps marking the seasons with wood and stone and starting to use earthworks to chronicle the cycles written in the sky.

Image creative commons from the Store Norske Leksikon

Qarrtsiluni redux

While trying to find the source of my opening quotation, I found the below. It’s the definition of quarrtsiluni I like best. The author doesn’t seem to have any particular qualifications, doesn’t cite any sources, and she could just be making this up. That’s good enough for me.

Qarrtsiluni. Inuit, Iñupiaq / v. / kʌːrʒ.sɪ.luːnɪ / kartz-sih-loo-nih –  Sitting together in the darkness, perhaps expectantly (e.g., waiting for something to happen or to ‘burst forth’); the strange quiet before a momentous event.

The Inuits initially used this to describe their ritual of finding new songs to honor a whale each year. The hunters would go to a special house where no lamps were lit, and would sit there in silence as a group, thinking of beautiful things, anticipating the inspiration which was about to stream into their collective consciousness. And then they made their songs.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Contemplating a Winter Ritual on New Year’s Eve”

  1. Hi Al,
    Great piece as usual. But there is a problem with your chart. In Minneapolis we are at the 45th parallel, but we have considerably less than 18 hours of darkness on the Winter Solstice. We have a bit less than 16. The sun rises shortly before 8AM and sets after 4PM. Maybe 4:15? So we have slightly more than 8 hours of light, thus a bit less than 16 hours of darkness. (Actually there is light before the sun rises, so even less darkness.)

    As for the Inuit, some probably live north of the Arctic Circle, so they would have 24 hours of darkness on December 21. There are definitely Norwegians living north of the Arctic Circle.

    1. Hmmm, well that’s what happens when you use ChatGPT to make you a chart.

      From Wikipedia: At this latitude, the sun is visible for 15 hours 37 minutes during the summer solstice, and 8 hours 46 minutes during the winter solstice. So closer to 15 hours.

      1. Yep, sounds more like it. It seems like ChatGPT might have been figuring 12 hours of darkness at the equator, 24 hours at the pole, so in the middle at 45 degrees, 18 hours. But clearly it’s not that simple.

  2. we did a circle sing with some folks up in Berkeley yesterday evening. rotating song leaders spontaneously improvised multi-part harmonies – it was a trip! I don’t recall envisioning any whales…

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