A Guide to Creating a Sacred Site Aligned to the Sun
Article by Jon Alswinn
The ancient peoples who practiced the religion of the sun used their extensive knowledge of astronomy to build megalithic sacred sites in precise alignment to the solstices and equinoxes all around the world. Some of these sites were even built at similar latitudes even though they were separated by vast distances.
Today we have modern tools that predict where the sun will rise and set at a given time. There are various degrees of precision involved with different methods of alignment, but it all depends on how complex your desired alignments are, and how accurate you need your site to be.
For example, the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Newgrange in Ireland required extremely precise alignments, but a simple circle with an entrance that is quite wide (e.g. over 1.5m) does not require the same level of precision.
Although it’s possible to build a site with multiple alignments (Stonehenge is one example), for simplicity, below we will explain how to create a circle with just one alignment.
This isn’t an overly technical explanation. Further reading is provided at the bottom of the page if you want to learn more about precise calculations and scientific details.
First you need to decide where your site will be. A lot depends on your circumstances, such as the number of people that will attend, how far you can travel for the occasion, whether you have private land available, or if you’re going to camp somewhere or even rent a space to hold your ceremony.
It can be good to visit a few places and choose the best available.
Using Google Maps in satellite mode can help you find suitable areas. Having a big flat open spot is good for seeing sunrises/sunsets, but may not be very private.
Google Earth (available in Chrome, desktop, and mobile versions) can help you see how hilly areas are. It also has a basic sun position setting (best viewed in ground-level mode).
Suitable public areas can include natural spaces such as parklands and beaches. Many public parks allow for temporary structures to be erected, especially for religious purposes, but may require permits. Again, you’ll need to consider a number of factors, being sure to observe any legal restrictions and stay safe at all times.
Getting the Alignment and Center Point
Once you’ve decided the location, or while you’re considering potential locations, you need to work out the alignment of your site.
There are many ways to find out what time and angle the sun will rise/set at a particular location.
This site provides the time for exact locations, and visually displays the sunrise/sunset angles over a Google Maps background (can be helpful to see if there will be trees in the way): http://suncalc.net/
We also recommend the following apps for phones, but there are many others available:
Sun Surveyor – this app exists as both free and paid versions for both Android and iPhone
SunPhos – this is an Android only app with relatively low cost
The free version of Sun Surveyor visually displays sunrise and sunset angles and incorporates a compass.
Note that a website/app that gives the angle of the sunrise/sunset in degrees (e.g. 59.57°) is as it would appear exactly on the horizon (technical term: zero degrees altitude). If the sun is obstructed (for example by hills or trees), the angle at which you first see the sun will be slightly different than what you read on the website, likewise if you are on top of a hill and the sun rises/sets at a lower altitude. But the stated angles can be useful as a guide.
When visiting a location, by knowing the angle of the sun you can use a compass (either a real one or on a smartphone), to see generally where the sun will rise/set. If you don’t have a compass you will need to check the sunrise/sunset by seeing it physically.
To check for a clear view of the sun at your proposed location:
Determine where the center point of your circle would be (where the fire would be).
Position yourself at the approximate center point.
Using a compass (and/or watching for the sun if doing it at sunrise/sunset), orient yourself to face the angle of the sunrise/sunset.
Check if there is a clear view and appropriate privacy.
If there are visual obstacles, try moving to get a better view.
If you still can’t get a good view, go to a different site and repeat the process.
When you have the right spot, place a marker (e.g. a stone) at the center point as a guide for when you create your circle.
Place a second marker to create a straight line between the center point and the sunrise/sunset. This is the alignment you can base your circle upon.
Even without knowing the angles or using a compass, you can still use this fail-safe and easy method: go to the location a day or two before the ceremony and mark the sun rise/set with a couple of rocks (or other markers). You can position a marker at the center point of your proposed site, and watching for the sun, use another marker to align it with the sun the moment it reaches the horizon (or reaches just above any trees/hills on the horizon).
Make sure you don’t try to check the alignment too long before the ceremony, as the position of the sun changes.
If viewing the sunrise/sunset physically, you can use the shadows cast by your markers to verify the alignment.
Using the sun’s reflection on water (e.g. the ocean, a lake), can be a good option for getting the alignment if your site is next to water. (Public domain image found here.)
How to Build an Aligned Circle
After working out the alignment, you can create a circle around the center point. It’s up to you what size you create, but it could be determined by how many people will be there (if your ceremony involves everyone entering the circle, you’ll want the circle to be large enough for everyone to fit!).
Below are instructions for building a circle using wooden stakes, which you can adapt to your situation. You could use sand to mark the circle, a dirt mound (probably only allowed on private land), an unbroken ring of stones, or even opt to not have a circle at all but just align some stones or wooden poles to the sunrise/sunset. There are countless possibilities. You can try getting inspiration from our page Sacred Sites Aligned to the Sun.
As the solstice and equinox ceremonies involve the use of a small bonfire, it is important to find out if there are any fire restrictions in your area. You may opt for a portable fire pit, with a protected grill to catch embers, instead of a bonfire. Here is a link on how to create a safe firepit – but there are many more options on how to build one. Ensure safety always comes first.
Depending on the complexity, a ceremonial circle can take a few hours to set up, so be sure to give yourself enough time. It can take longer if you’re never done it before.
Rope (at least one as long as the diameter of your circle)
Compass (most smartphones have built-in compasses)
Protractor (can be handy to work out additional angles for markers in your circle)
Have one person hold the rope at the center point, or just tie the rope to a stake in the center. (If you have a corkscrew tie-out stake, tie the rope to the rotating ring.)
Measure the rope to the edge of your desired circle (the radius). Remember to ensure a safe distance between the firepit in the center and the edge of the circle.
If the ground can be easily marked (like bare dirt or sand), you can tie a second stake to the end of the rope and walk around the center, tracing the circle’s circumference on the ground.
Place a stake on the circle’s edge where the sunrise/sunset line intersects the circle (alignment worked out earlier as detailed above).
Place a stake on the circle’s edge on the opposite side, creating a straight sunrise/sunset line passing through the center of your circle (you can use one long rope pulled tight to make sure it’s straight).
Depending on the ceremony, the entrance to the circle will be at either of these two outer stakes.
To make an aligned path for the entrance, use a long rope measured beyond the circle and in line with the sunrise/sunset. Add stakes either side of this to create a marked path.
Continue to add stakes measuring with the radius rope around the edge of the circle, until your circle is complete.
Remove the rope and the stake that had marked the entrance (and any other stakes you may have used for measurement purposes). If you want to double check your alignment 1-2 days before the ceremony, don’t remove the alignment stakes, as they can be a guide.
Where to Go from Here
As mentioned, this is just a basic guide for one type of aligned site. There are so many possibilities which can be determined by your circumstances.
Creating a space to celebrate the solstices and equinoxes can be a very enjoyable activity to participate in. And when a focus on the spiritual meaning of the path of the sun is also incorporated, you can make full use of these times of year and benefit even more greatly.