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Strange Tales of Hopdoodles and Gnomons
Our trip to Paris provided much food for thought and ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. June 21, the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year never had any special significance to me before, but henceforth I shall remember it.
computer’s screen saver is an image of Stonehenge, the fascinating stuff of myth
and mystery. Who built it? How? Why? There it has stood since about 3200 B.C. on
the Salisbury Plain of Wiltshire, England. Many insist that it was built by the
Druids of ancient Britain even though scientists attribute it to Neolithic
man. It was also part of the Arthurian
Legend. It started as a henge - a system of earthworks. Then two circles of huge stones were added and placed so that the sun appears at a certain spot during the equinoxes and the Summer Solstice. It’s estimated to have taken 600 people to drag each one from a quarry 20 miles away.
I was disappointed when we visited it several years ago with Bill’s English cousin. I wanted to walk among the stones, touch them and muse about the past much as I do. When I visit the cemetery at my family’s Old Home Place. Alas, they were roped off and guarded. A bullhorn in a helicopter circling above was used to warn people to keep back.
Latter-day “Druids” want to take over the site, claiming it as their place of worship. “Latter-day Hopdoodles,” my mother would have said. Hopdoodle was her term for silly people.
The boys and I had read the DaVinci Code, so we visited the lovely church of St. Sulpice which is one of the book’s locales. Even though Dan Brown, the author, asserts that it’s merely a work of fiction, it intrigued the public and created as much controversy as if it were nonfiction. You can even take a guided tour of its Parisian locales. Its exciting plot is full of riddles and mysteries about real locations such as the Roselyn Chapel in Scotland which purportedly has an unopened underground chamber. At St. Sulpice, Brown has a nun murdered by a strange monk who is looking for a deadly secret and uses the church’s gnomon as a clue.
“Gnomon” means instrument of knowledge in Greek and sundial in Latin. The gnomon of St. Sulpice is a very precise instrument by which one can set one’s watch. A priest had it installed in 1727 by a famous clockmaker and astronomers from the Paris Observity because he wanted to broadcast the exact time of day to the parish by tolling bells.
Set between narrow strips of white marble, a brass meridian line runs across the floor in front of the communion rail and up an obelisk surmounted by a globe. High in an opposite window there’s an iron plaque with a small hole in it through which the sun’s rays enter and cast a circle at different points along the line, depending on the time of day and month of the year.
Needless to say, the parishioners of St. Sulpice were not pleased by having a murder occur in their church. Further, Brown wrote that his description of real places was accurate and described St. Sulpice’s gnomon as evidence that a pagan cult had exited on the site and that the gnomon was a vestige of pagan practices. Not so, according to a pamphlet that we bought. What is interesting, according to the pamphlet’s author - rather than Brown’s “absurd fantasies” - is the blending of science and religion and that a purely scientific instrument is in a church, “rather like placing a portrait of Darwin in a place of worship of Christian fundamentalism.”
Just as ancient peoples were interested in the passage of the sun, it was also important to Christians to establish the date of the Pascal (Spring) Equinox and Passover because of Easter. The Latin script on the obelisk’s pedestal reminds visitors of the brevity of their lives: “Behold thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and my age is nothing before thee” and other references about God’s setting the boundaries of time. In addition to zodiac symbols for the equinoxes and the solstice, there’s also a representation of Christ in the guise of the Pascal lamb.
Bill and I returned at noon on June 21, the time of the solstice. The gnomon works. More to come: we mingle with hopdoodles.
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