Pagan friends don’t need to be told this is an important week in the annual cycle of life. The longest day, June 21st, the summer solstice, which, following the tradition of the early Christian church of tagging their holy days onto existing fiestas in hopes of smothering the heathen ones, is also Noche de San Juan here in Spain, which is tomorrow, so more of that tomorow. For sure, both the pagan and the whimsical seem to have sway over the Christian when it comes to celebrating this time of year.
So in a state of anticipation, late afternoon yesterday saw Maria and I heading for the pueblo of Güimar, where the Parque Ethnographico, which has been built around six pyramids of unknown date and origin, can be found. Our information was that at the summer solstice you can see the sun set twice from this possibly “sacred” and “ancient” site. We were quite impressed by the lack of traffic on the narrow, winding rounds through the village, surely, the whole town must be up there, waiting for this phenomenon……..then we realized that this year the solstice sunset was also coinciding with the Spain vs Honduras World Cup game. However, when we alighted from the car and walked towards the Park, there was a satisfying buzz of conversation to be heard beyond its walls.
In my mind’s eye I was expecting druids, or at least hippies, but when we entered I was surprised to find a fairly large group (clearly not soccer fans then) of people of all types, and mainly smartly dressed, no flowing robes and not a rasta hairdo in sight. Obviously, people more interested in the scientific rather than the spiritual context of what we are about to witness.
Entry was entirely free, and it was nice to see that quite a few parents were hauling their kids to see Nature’s show. It’s about six years since I visited the Park, and it was also good to note that normally adult entrance is only €10.50……note to self…..go back soon to see if they have any new information there.
We just had time to buy a bottle of water in the bar, which was open, although the gift shop was not (whoa – seemed like a missed opportunity to me. What??? No “I saw the double sunset at the Güimar Pyramids T-shirts??!), when the signal was given that we could follow the guide and enter the Park. As we neared the pyramids we collected special glasses which we were to don to protect our eyes. They were such rich joke material, but really necessary, as we found out.
The sun was already beginning to sink behind the mountains in front of us, and just to the left we could make out some of the structures of the astrophysical observatory. We tried the glasses, and they reduced the sun to a small pinprick. Didn’t seem very impressive at that stage, but looking directly into the sun was still not an option. It was, in reality, still fairly high in the sky, and was “setting” here because we were in a valley. The guide reappeared atop the wall of the middle pyramid, and gave us a talk about the phenomenon and other things, which I could barely hear, so I can’t enlighten you much, but I will try to explain as briefly as I can.
These pyramids have been the subject of controversy over the last fifteen years or so. Back then they were thought to be simply rather well-made, agricultural terraces. Terraces are much used in farming here, but few are so fastidiously put together as these. Somehow, around 1990 Thor Heyerdahl got wind of their existence. He had long had a pet theory that there was a missing link between the pyramids of ancient Egypt and those in Mexico and South America. History and anthropology are full of missing links, aren’t they, which is one reason they interest me, but clearly obsessed Heyerdahl. In a rare display of efficient commercialization (efficient perhaps because funded by Fred Olsen), the current park was created around the buildings, even as digging continued, and it opened in 1998.
Something investigations quickly turned up was that the three, main pyramids had interesting alignment with both the winter and summer solstices. This we quickly observed to be true. Standing along the lower wall, of the second pyramid, as instructed, it was quite evident that the sun was about to set directly in front of us, in line with the pyramids in front of and behind us. We put on our glasses and waited patiently, as the sun sank, and then became just a shimmering highlight against the craggy peak. Juggling camera and protective glasses was no mean feat, but sure enough within about three or four minutes it partly emerged, before finally disappearing, spreading glorious rays of light heavenwards from behind the mountain tops ahead. And that, as I think Forrest Gump said, was that.
Despite spending some time looking online today for an explanation, the only information I can find is that the phenomenon can be observed when in correct position at the site. Presumably it is an optical illusion because clearly the sun does not veer from its path, and play peekabo. I confess to disappointment, but that was because I had preconceived ideas about how I might feel, and we all know we shouldn’t have those. It was interesting, but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a spiritual experience. I’ve been places where I swear I could feel ghosts – the catacombs in Rome, the sunken road in Fredericksburg – or places where I have been awed by things of far greater scale than I can take in, atop those very mountains to see a billion, billion stars or standing before the inconceivable beauty of Michelangelo’s la Pieta – but I felt nothing in Güimar last night except for interest.
The truth is that nothing has been discovered as yet to prove that these pyramids were anything other than agricultural, although some artifacts dating back to pre-conquest times, when the island’s original inhabitants, the Guanches, were cave dwellers have been found in a cave adjacent to the buildings. So, and despite the fact that the Guanches used mummification, so several corpses have been found around the island, no evidence of sacrificing virgins to the sun god or anything remotely like that. In addition, despite his being a man of great courage, many of Heyerdahl’s theories have been discredited or dismissed over the years, which leaves the entire project looking like a money spinning effort. I don’t have a problem with that. We all have to scrape a crust, and I will go back soon to see if there is any new information there before I say any more.