Most people believe that the Sun always rises in the east. However, this is not entirely the case. The Sun rises due east only during the spring and autumn equinoxes. In the summer, it rises slightly north of due east, and in the winter, slightly south of due east. Here is an illustration from the free astronomical software, Stellarium. The dates used are the solstices and equinoxes of the year 2020.
The path of the Sun as the seasonal marker
For the ancients, predicting the change of seasons was a question of survival. This was especially true after the introduction of agriculture, as farmers needed to know when to plant and harvest their crops. However, even before the development of agriculture, the natural cycles of the seasons determined which food was available to gather or hunt. Therefore, it is likely that these skills go back to the very dawn of human history.
There were a few different ways that ancient peoples predicted the change of seasons. One way was to observe specific constellations, such as the Orion constellation. However, grouping stars into clusters is a more advanced option. The simplest method was to observe the sunrise over the course of a year.
Once the first peoples settled down, they would quickly notice that the sunrise constantly moves left and right from a specific referent point, such as a large tree, or a mountain. This is how we get to the concept of the “holy tree” or a “holy mountain.” These objects were often used as markers to help people predict the change of seasons.
Armed with this knowledge, ancient peoples were able to reproduce their observations of the changing seasons anywhere they went. All that was needed were three wooden poles or three stones. Once the positions of these markers were fine-tuned, they would be replaced by larger monoliths or important tribal totems. East became the important cardinal point, and since then, most sacred objects have been facing it.
The ancient symbol Triskelion probably hides the same symbolism. It depicts the yearly path of the Sun on the eastern horizon.
The triptych gates – allegory of the Sun’s path
As civilizations progressed, their architecture and symbolism evolved as well. In their myths, the Sun was now said to pass through the “gates” of the zodiac signs. This symbolism was reflected in the architecture of their temples, which often featured large megalithic gates on the eastern side. The same symbolism can be found in temples from Mesoamerica to Asia, dating back to some of the earliest civilizations in the world.
Very often, the middle gate of a triptych gate is taller than the other two gates. This is because the middle gate represents the equinoxes, which are the two days of the year when the Sun rises due east and due west. The equinoxes mark the beginning of spring and autumn, and they divide the year into two equal halves: the light half and the dark half. In many ancient calendars, only the equinoxes were considered to be the seasons.
In Asia, only the emperor or a high priest could use the middle gate of a triptych gate. This is because the middle gate represented the equinoxes, which were considered to be the most sacred days of the year. The left gate represented the winter solstice, and the right gate represented the summer solstice.
The symbolism of the triptych gate can also be seen in Christianity. Many churches and cathedrals have triple gates. Likewise, the scene of the crucifixion of Jesus follows the same symbolism. The duality of the “penitent and impenitent” thieves only echoes that between the winter and summer, darkness and light, death and life.
The Middle Way
Perhaps inspired by the same ancient teachings, the Buddha taught that the Middle Way is the path to enlightenment. The Middle Way is not a compromise between extremes, but rather a path that avoids both extremes. Two famous Buddhist quotes state: “The Middle Way is the way to the deathless.” (Dhammapada 273), and “The Middle Way is the path to enlightenment.” (Samyutta Nikaya 56.24).