Nicknamed “the world’s oldest clocks,” sundials tell the time of day based upon the position of the Sun in the sky. But time isn’t the only thing these ancient timekeepers tell us. Traditionally, sundials were engraved with proverbs and mottos that invited passersby to reflect on the passing of time, the shortness of life, or random humorous anecdotes.
Although sundials date back to around 3500 BC, the mottos on them didn’t begin showing up until hundreds of years later, in the 16th century. It isn’t exactly known how this tradition first started, but seeing as how sundial makers spent such a great deal of their lives devoted to time and timekeeping, it’s only natural that their feelings about the topic would eventually influence the design of their art.
Sundial mottos can usually be found etched along the circumference of the dial or in the dial’s center, usually written in Latin. Like a watch, sundials are made up of a dial face, but also a “gnomon” or blade, which casts a shadow onto the dial. As the Sun moves across the sky, the shadow moves too, falling on different hour-lines painted onto the dial which indicate the time of day.
Sundial Motto Themes
A number of sundial mottos talk of time, light, and the Sun. Others are a little more depressing and are themed around time’s harsh effects, such as aging and death.
Here are a few of our favorites:
- Be as true to each other as this dial is to the Sun.
- Let others tell of storms and showers, I tell of sunny morning hours.
- I am silent without the Sun.
- Today is yesterday’s tomorrow.
- Grow old along with me; the best is yet to be.
- Amidst the flowers I tell the hours.
- Carpe Diem.
- The kiss of the Sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth; one is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.
- Our last hour is hidden from us so that we watch them all.
- The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here.
Many of these can be found in The Book of Sun-Dials, published by British author, Margaret Gatty, in 1872. The book was inspired by Gatty’s love of collecting and cataloging sundials. It was such a favorite hobby of hers, her family and friends even helped her document the many mottos they encountered while traveling across Britain and Europe.
Thankfully for us in the US, we don’t need to travel overseas to enjoy sundial sayings. Many of us need look no further than our own gardens! More about the history of sundials here.
If you’re ever in the state of Arizona, be sure to visit the town of Carefree, home to the largest sundial in the United States. Its shadow-casting gnomon stands at a lofty 35-feet tall, and is inscribed with the words, Here the sun marks time (this is also the city’s official motto).