Winter Solstice, unfolding

Whenever you celebrate Winter Solstice, ENJOY! This is a multi-day unfolding.

Rather than measuring minutes & seconds of daylight, our ancestors celebrated the return of the Sun as it began moving again, coming north as seen along the horizon at dawn or sunset. Their sacred sites were created to mark the solstice extreme points, from which you could then observe the return motion away from those points.

“Solstice” means the sun (Sol) standing still (stasis) – Thanks to Earth’s axis-tilt, the Sun reaches it southern-most point and then STAYS THERE for two-three days, before our tilt starts bringing it northward again. * 
Sun’s southern-most standstill dates, this year: December 21-22, 2015 at 23º S 26‘.

This year, the northern motion – the Sun’s return – can first be measured (though maybe not seen by the naked eye) on
* Wednesday, Dec. 23, as the Sun’s declination shifts to 23º S 25‘.

By Distaff Day, January 7, the Sun will have come a full 1º back northward – clearly noticeable if you’re using markers in the landscape (like Stonehenge), sunbeams within sites (like Newgrange or Fajada Butte) or shadow-casting markers (like a sundial). 
Marking the Solstice can be super-simple: Just mark where the rising or setting Sun’s light strikes a wall inside your home.

* Shortest days/longest nights:
December 18 thru 25, 2015 – 9 hours & 33 minutes
*Earliest Sunsets – the first week of December: 4:50pm
(before the Sun’s standstill)
*Latest Sunrises – the first week of January: 7:25am
(after the Sun’s standstill)
*Sun enters Capricorn, the so-called “first day of Winter”: Sorry, but thanks to the Precession of the Equinoxes, the Sun doesn’t get out of Sagittarius and into Capricorn until about January 20.

We measure lots of minutia now – length of days down to the second – because we can, but that doesn’t mean it needs to rule us, or our ritual dates and choices. Since I’m most thrilled with the return of the Sun and its light, I personally want to see that motion back to the north, but I’m also thrilled to celebrate with friends throughout this season, whatever the theme, date, or rationale.

Bless the root-growth and hibernation of the long dark nights, and bless the returning light!

Image: The Sun card from the “Golden Tarot of the Renaissance”

Spinning the world into creation

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New Years 2014:
I stepped out at midnight to look south and up, to Orion and his belt, always prominently placed in the Solstice-New Years season’s midnight sky. Orion’s three-star belt is easy to find, and usually the “sword stars” below it are clear, too.

But in other lore, the sword stars and the belt above them represent Freyja‘s distaff, the spinning tool that holds the not-yet-spun flax: Here the sword-stars are the shaft and the belt-stars are the fiber-holding prongs. The distaff was the feminine version of a staff of office, especially in the hands of a völva, the shaman-seeress. For her, it was a seidhstafr and represented her spiritual office, and her ability to access the realm of spirit. Rather than fibers, for the seeress the seidhstafr-distaff held potential. As the spinning can direct concentration, the distaff directed the will.

The goddess Frigg was a domestic spinner. Frejya is a the spinner of magic.

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The image – a woman spinning off a distaff – is French, 15th century.

Mars and Venus on a hot Solar date

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Venus and the Sun conjuncted a few days ago.  Now, as Venus edges out a bit to the east of Sol, she meets Mars, who’s moving into one of his rare-ish solar conjunctions.

For now – April 6 and 7, 2013 – Venus and Mars are conjunct just east of the Sun, as loosely depicted above by Titian, c. 1530*.  The amorously conjoined planets are too close to the Sun to be visible to the naked (and unprotected eye): less than 1 degree from each other, and less than 3 degrees from the Sun.

Sun-Mars conjunctions are kind of a big deal, since the Sun gets together with Mars less often than any of the other planets, even big slow-moving Saturn or Jupiter.  Mars only conjuncts the Sun every 25-to-26 months.

Even Johannes Kepler, modern master of comprehending planetary motion, struggled to formulate a theory to express the movement of Mars… Like a wayward friend on the day you need help moving, Mars shows up when he feels like it.

Mars-Diego Velazquez    A

Especially in contrast to the elegantly predictable eight-year cycle of Venus, Mars is more like the guy your parents don’t trust to bring you home on time.  This is part of what fuels Mars’ reputation as  war-like and rebellious.  And his depictions in art?  Think Renaissance-era Sexy Fireman calendars.  That Bad-Boy mystique has some serious mileage on it.

Mars and Venus don’t meet often either.  After this encounter, they go their separate ways until late February 2015, but then separate again.  They have a near-miss in early February 2017, but Venus retrogrades away at 5 degrees.  They finally reunite in early October 2017, this times in the predawn sky and far enough ahead of the Sun (23 degrees) for splendid viewing.

But right now, Sun, Venus and Mars are clustered together.  The grouping will separate over the coming week, but for now I’ll be opening my awareness to how this might feel – my desire for harmony and beauty and love (Venus) mingling with my various passions and life-force exuberance (Mars), and my ability to conjoin and embody these qualities, and then step it all forth as my presence in the world (Sun).

Mars also has a less martial, more verdant, identity.  One astrologer friend views Mars as the Green Man.  Another astrologer friend quotes Dylan Thomas

…the force that through the green fuse drives the flower…

May Mars in his ancient aspect of wildwood Mars Silvanus carry His instigating spark into this arriving Spring.

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*Titian’s “Mars, Venus und Amor,” plus a sky-shot via Starry Night astronomical software, and a vintage Sun.  PS: Mars and Venus were conjunct the Sun in 1530, too.  Did Titian know?  Or care?

“Descanso de Marte,” Diego Velázquez, 1640.

Some phrases lifted directly from the Night Sky book, © 2011.

Sun Conjunct Venus, Now!

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March 29, 2013 – Venus is conjunct the Sun!  Whee!  Gorgeous Evening-Star action will be coming soon!

Last year, on June 6, 2012, Venus quit her Evening Star status, passed across the face of the Sun (RARE!) and moved into her Morning Star position, rising ahead of the Sun each day.  Now – after 9.5 months as a Morning Star – Venus’ orbit has taken her around behind the Sun (as shown above, in a view not visible to the naked eye).  Now, from our Earthly perspective, the two are in line.  Conjunct.

Over the coming weeks, Venus continues in her orbit, moving onward, right-to-left, counterclockwise behind the Sun, getting further to the left/east of the Sun, as seen by us Earthlings.  That means Venus comes back into view as an Evening Star.  She’ll be visible again in mid-May.  Here’s some up-coming 2013 Venus-coolness:

  • Mid-May: Evening Star Venus becomes visible.  Not a specific date, so just watch… this will be Venus’ heliacal setting* reappearance.
  • May 26: Venus, Mercury and Jupiter form a tight triangle of mutual conjunctions, (hopefully) visible in the western sky just after sunset.
  • June 10: Mercury, Venus and a very slim New Crescent Moon, low in the WNW at sunset.
  • June 20: Summer Solstice, AND Sun conjunct Jupiter, AND Venus and Mercury conjunct near Gemini’s Castor and Pollux.

– from Renna Shesso

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* The heliacal setting is when a celestial object first becomes visible just after sunset in the western sky.

Spirals, and Spring fever

sun-dagger

Almost Spring!  This Wednesday is the Spring Equinox, the halfway point in the Sun’s journey between Winter’s southern-most extreme (short days, long nights) and Summer’s northern-most point (long days, short nights).  Equinoxes, this one in March and its opposite in September, mark the midpoints, when day and night are equal.

Those spirals above? That’s the “Sun Dagger,” a petroglyph on Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon, a remote site in New Mexico.  Angled noon light marks the sun’s seasonal passage: at Summer Solstice slicing the large spiral’s center (top), at each Equinox bisecting the smaller spiral (center), and at Winter Solstice bracketing the large spiral (bottom).

The Solstices are times of contrasting extremes: heat or cold, light or dark, sun far north or sun far south.  The Equinoxes are – in sun-terms – times of balance.  Days and nights are of equal length, and the Sun is “balanced” along the horizon: It rises due East and sets due West.

Chaco Canyon and its extensive ruins are something of a monument to Equinoxes, with alignments to that twice-annual sun-balance embedded throughout the vast site.  Chaco was also the “only culture known in the world to align their buildings to the Moon’s cycle.”*

Spring Equinox is a spring-feverish time as we break out of Winter.  Here in the Rocky Mountain West, Ostara can bring new buds or blizzards, or both.  Mama Earth kicks off Her blanket of snow, and starts to stretch and wake up… and then maybe curls back under Her snow-covers again for a few days.  But from Wednesday onward, the days will be longer than the nights… She’ll be wide awake and leaping up soon enough.

On Wednesday, I’ll watch sunrise and sunset, and note my shadow’s shape at noon.  Balance.  But meanwhile, the weather can’t make up its mind.  The winds are wild and the clouds are crazy… well, me, too.  Spring fever sets in, an undercurrent of anti-hibernation sensory awareness.  So I’ll explore my imbalances and move gently to adjust them, but I might enjoy them, too.  “Dance like no-one’s watching…”  The world is new again.

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* Anna Sofaer, quoted in the video “The Mystery of Chaco Canyon.”  More on Chaco, and understanding and working with Moon and Sun cycles in A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.  Chaco Canyon is an Ancient Puebloan site, c. 850-1140 BCE, and is designated a National Historic Park, covering nearly 34,000 acres.

Saturn – Casting Circles, Setting Boundaries

320px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_Circle

I saw Saturn this morning, a bright jab of light in the pre-dawn, south-western sky, and a nice bonus while rolling the recycle bin out to the curb.  For eons, this slow-moving planet marked the edge of the universe, and only the steady backdrop of the stars was farther away.  Until 1781, when Herschel discovered Uranus, Saturn symbolized the boundary, the end, finality, limits.

My inner hippy rankles at “limits.”  It took years to wrap my head around the idea that boundaries can be good.  Saturn’s broader themes?  Shape, edges, form, definition, limits (established, challenged, questioned, exceeded, discarded).  Limits as “good boundaries” and personal identity in general.  These aren’t bad things.

When I cast a circle, I’m defining space. The line is drawn.  The magical circle is a vessel, a container formed to hold energy for a particular use.  We’re embraced here, outside of time, for the duration of a ritual, shamanic journey group, or healing ceremony.  Without the will and the ability to create sacred space as a purposeful energetic container, this work couldn’t take place.

In spiritual workings, we know with certainty that our well-defined circle, as a magical boundary, is not only acceptable but necessary. Why, then, is it so hard to carry some of this action into our personal lives, creating reasonable, healthy boundaries for ourselves?  If a circle can be cast magically for group use — even among relative strangers — why doesn’t this ability transpose more readily to setting personal boundaries?

Some people who would never violate the conventions of sacred ritual space (where group mores are powerful) may be disrespectful or oblivious about personal boundaries among individuals, one-on-one.  And some people — lots of us — can readily cast a formal group circle but aren’t as clear about casting a circle-of-self.  If my personal autonomy is ill-defined by me, it’s easily ignored by others.

Aren’t we, individually, distinct energetic containers as well?  This isn’t about whether we can have empathy with others, be open and friendly, or be emotional accessible.  It’s about knowing we have the right to choose to be open, or not, and to what degree.  Having healthy boundaries isn’t just a right, it’s a communal agreement toward personal sanctity and public civility.  It’s an opportunity to see myself — and each of us — as unique expressions of sacred space.

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The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886

Ostara Egg-time, coming up…

ostara-egg1

There’s a kid version of Easter eggs: bright jelly beans and foil-wrapped chocolates (with “maple-flavored” creme filling, gack), hidden in the house or maybe outside, weather permitting.

And there is the designer version of Easter eggs, a la Martha Stewart: natural dye-stuffs used to subtly color the organic eggs laid by my own prize-winning hens… eggs not hidden but instead used to decorate a table laid for an intimate 20-person champagne brunch.  Right.

Somewhere in between these two there’s a happy pagan version.  It still involves organic eggs.  And probably chocolate.

Our group has been decorating eggs for nearly twenty years now.  Some are shown above.  Only the intensely red one was actually dyed.  The others shown are fertile, raw, natural, and decorated using colored pencils and metallic markers, focussed intentions and an occasional dash of glitter.  They’re blessed in ritual, taken home to personal altars.

Why the emphasis on eggs?  An egg is “born” twice: once when the hen lays it, and again when it hatches.  Excellent symbolism.

And excellent timing.  For our ancestors, eggs were scarce during the winter months — hens need sunlight (and the Vitamin D it provides) to produce eggshells, so back then, when the hens began laying plentifully again, Spring had really returned.  (Factory farms with artificial light sources now put eggs in the grocery stores year around.)

While we tend to associate eggs with birds, remember that eggs are also laid by snakes.  By shedding their old skins, snakes symbolize regeneration and transformation.  Like other hibernating creatures, snakes begin reawakening in Spring.  They also present an alternative to all the seasonal cutesiness, though, alas, I’ve yet to see a chocolate snake.

Shape Magic: Lemniscate, Analemma, Möbius strip

analemma

These symbols are cousins to each other.  I have a new Tarot class starting, and I’ll be speaking about the lemniscate – the horizontal figure-8 symbol for infinity – found on some cards.  In the Major Arcana, the Magician and Strength often contain lemniscates, and the Two of Pentacles traditionally incorporates a large lemniscate entwined around the two discs.

RWS-01-iRWS-08-viii

The shape dates back to Greek Neoplatonist philosopher-mathematician Proclus.  He called the shape a hippopede, or “horse-fetter,” the twist of rope used to hobble a horse.  One loop around each front hoof and voila!  The horse’s power is commanded, which can play into potential Tarot meanings.The analemma is the same shape in grand, celestial terms.  It’s the figure-8 found on the side of a globe, its northern- and southern-most ends – at the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, respectively – marking the solstice extremes of the Sun’s motion, where the Sun “turns around.”  More spectacularly, the analemma is also the Sun’s motion as seen in the sky over the course of a year.  Viewed daily, same time and vantage point, the Sun’s position shifts higher and lower, farther east and west.  Over the year, we see a lop-sided figure-8 emerge, as in the photo above.

By comparison, the Möbius strip is simple, earthy, physical.  It’s just a strip of paper, its ends joined to create a ring but – vital! – with a twist in the paper so that the outer side becomes the inner, and vice versa: It has no end.  Find Möbius strip details here.  Flattened out, the Möbius strip is the origin of the recycling symbol.

So far, these symbols may read like math or science, but spiritually their meanings expand: The Sun’s motion and our ability to track it and celebrate its turning points; the perpetual continuity found in the lemniscate and the Möbius strip; our awareness of our earthly presence, expressed in the recycle symbol, and so much more.  Symbols are our visual tools, and in these, What goes around, comes around.

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Analemma photomontage credit to Jailbird, via Wikipedia Creative Commons shared use.

More on the spiritual applications in the Night Sky and Math for Mystics books.

More analemma action: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120920.html

Grandmother Moon, Sister Moon…

Image

…Daughter Moon, Moon of Myself,

Thank you for the blessings in my life…

This is the prayer I speak to the Moon.  Full Moons like the one coming this evening are a great time for this simple ritual, but so is any moon-time.  If the Moon isn’t visible, I’m happy to talk with a planet or star instead.  I’ve had great chats with very-visible Jupiter in recent months, and with a particular star in the Big Dipper.

I greet the Moon (or other celestial light) and then proceed to say “thank you.”  For life, breath, food, warmth, an incredible circle of friends, a happy car with a great heater, for students, for clients, for health and vitality, for the chance to stand outside – or dance – “beneath the diamond sky.”  (thanks, Bob Dylan)

This is my most often-repeated ceremony these days, super simple.  Maybe I pour a libation, maybe I share a food offering first. Then speak my Greeting and my Thanks, and eventually a respectful Hail and Farewell.  That’s it.

This practice started years back:  On impulse, I stepped outside and just began.  So much spell-work is focused around asking for more.  I could use more of some stuff, sure!  But what if I began by saying “thank you” for what I already have?  Two MAJOR things happened that night:

  • First, that “cat” I saw out of the corner of my eye as I invoked, who wandered into the yard and sat down nearby to watch and listen? It was actually a young fox.  She hung around for months, but that was the night we met.
  • Second, once I began clearly and out-loud saying “thank you” for what I had, more of that good stuff started flowing in, consistently.  Unless the ________ (Goddess, the gods, Higher Power) knows I appreciate what they’ve already delivered, why should they hurry to send more?  I began saying “thanks,” and the flow in my life altered perceptively, as of that night.

Many friends are writing Gratitude notes, in journals and on Facebook.  While I value reading what others share, for me these practices work best when done live, physically, under the dome of sky.  That’s when I’m most clearly living it, breathing it, speaking and hearing it, feeling it deeply through and through.

So, tonight,

Hello, Moon!…

The infamous Mercury Retrograde… February 23!?

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Believe it or not, even 20-30 years ago, you rarely heard the phrase “Mercury retrograde” outside of rarified astrological conversations. Now it’s part of a common meme about boggled communications, and little planet Mercury has become the preferred scapegoat for anything not coming through clearly, i.e. “This is so messed up! Mercury must be retrograde!” Generally spoken by people who have no knowledge of or interest in either astrology or astronomy.

Yes, planet Mercury does symbolically deal with communications. It also rules commerce, deals and mysterious workings between the worlds, and has plenty of trickster assets ALL the time, not just during its retrogrades, those periods of apparent backward motion.

Recommendation #1: Before you blame Mercury ever again for any communication glitches, find it in the sky. Isn’t it simply polite to make the acquaintance of the little planet we’re so fond of heaping blame on?

  • Mercury will be visible in the western, sunset sky for a few more days.  If you spot two bright objects W-SW, the higher is Mercury, the lower is Mars.
  • Mercury will reappear in the eastern, pre-dawn sky around mid- to late March.
  • Mercury is often faint, low to the horizon, and pale in the light of the rising or setting sun: in other words, hard to spot (aka clever and illusive).

Recommendation #2: Put that Mercury retrograde energy to good use.  Got a pile of old baggage that could use some insight and discussion? Retrogrades are great for dealing with stuff out of the past.  If communications with others seems chancy right now, maybe try some journaling or sketching for your eyes only.  Old baggage sucks. This is a way to set that stuff down and move on.

In 2013, Mercury will be retrograde from:

  • February 23–March 17
  • June 26–July 20
  • October 21–November 10

There are Mercury stories and more great Mercury-working ideas in A Magical Tour of the Night Sky.