The Words Of Wisdom On Sundials

The world's oldest clocks not only tell time with the passing of the Sun, but they also tell a tale about the maker or owner. Learn some of the common themes etched in them.

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 indicates 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.

Favorite Sundial Mottos

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.
Sundial with the motto “Carpe Diem” in Landes, France.
Carved slate sundial over the door of  St James the Apostle parish church, Bondleigh, Devon. The Latin motto, Sensim sine sensu is a part of a phrase from Cicero, sensim sine sensu aetas senescit, meaning, “Insensibly, without feeling, life is aging.”

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 to look no further than our own gardens! More about the history of sundials here.

Carefree, Arizona

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).

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Tiffany Means

Tiffany Means is a freelance writer and a degreed meteorologist. She specializes in weather forecasting and enjoys making the subject of weather (and the science behind it) more relatable. She currently resides in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

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Laura B

Really liked this article on sundials.
Entertaining and informative. Will be looking to read more about this topic.

Jim Tallman

Great article! It is good to see an interest in sundials especially during these modern times. I really appreciate this story because I design and make custom sundials for a living, and I have used many of the mottos cited in this piece on them over the years. If you’d like to see my special rainbow sundials, search “Spectra sundial” and check them out – they are unique, authentic and very accurate – and I’d love to make one especially for you! ??

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim Tallman
Michele Campbell

Id like to know, whats the best and most effective way to get rid of moles in my yard?

Susan Higgins

Hi Michelle, we have some good tips here.

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