As we turn the calendrical corner and begin to emerge from Winter, we dwellers in the Northern Hemisphere will see our days lengthen and nights shorten.
Here’s a simple working to waken us
Whether through shamanic journeying, pulling some tarot cards, taking a meditative walk outside, or any other means you have of visiting your “inner council” place of deep knowledge, a useful question for this time is:
“Show me how to best use the energies of the coming year…”
If you like, add a defining phrase, such as “…for the healing my heart needs” or “…to assist those around me” or “…to support hands-on positive change for Mother Earth” or…
Whatever we think we “ought to” ask about, shape this to what calls you…
And, as a potent follow-up question, ask
And, whether you’re asking this of a power animal, or your cards, or a cloud or flame with which you’re scrying, may you hear the answer in your heart
Because wounds healed in spirit
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”
“Spring is come home with her world-wandering feet,
And all things are made young with young desires.”
Spring celebrates the Goddess as Maiden – Kore returns from the Underworld and brings the fructifying principle of nature back with Her. Hibernating animals reawaken, migratory creatures return; plants, busy with root-growth all winter, begin pushing up and out. The sunlight, growing since Yule morning, now graces and warms our days. By Ostara – our Spring Equinox holiday takes its name from the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring – we have nearly three more hours of sunlight each day than at the solstice. Even if the weather’s still wintry, the earliest plants are struggling to rise and the nights are significantly shorter.
So are the shadows. As the sun moves from a southern to a northern declination, we lose the low light angle and long daytime shadows of deep winter. The light gains ascendancy and winter literally recedes. The Vernal Equinox occurs on the first day on which the sun rises north of the equator, falling within a day either way of March 20. This year it’s March 20, today. The days and nights of equal length actually occur a few days earlier, this year on March 16 (sunrise to sunset, this day was still a few minutes less than twelve hours long) and March 17 (the daylight hours exceeded twelve hours by several minutes).
“Vernal” comes from the Latin verb vernare, meaning “To renew oneself in Spring, to be young.” In a seasonal ordering of the Beth-Luis-Nion tree alphabet, Robert Graves connects the Latin vernare to the letter Fearn, between letters Onn and Saille. In his poetic hand, the letters Onn-Fearn-Saille evolve into Anna Fearina Salmaona, “Queen of the Spring, Mother of the Willow,” a lovely image now, when the small willow aptly called red-twig gradually begins budding. If your concept of “willow” tends only toward tall and weeping, watch for this widespread wild version glowing red along Colorado creek beds. A decorated willow-branch archway figures in an Argentinean springtime ritual for mothers and godmothers.
The color red rules in Ostara traditions. Numerous sources speak of eggs being dyed red now to symbolize rebirth, and red is surely a more compelling hue than the tender pastels that dominate modern Easter decor. Zsuzsanna Budapest connects red eggs to the Festival of Astarte (March 17), an ancient Near-Eastern rite joining female/male energies (a nice analogy for the night-day balance). Pauline Campanelli associates scarlet eggs to the Druids, colored red with furze (Onn) blossoms to honor the Sun. Red dye can also be obtained from bark of the alder, named as a tree of resurrection in The Odyssey.
Eggs and the color red were both common burial inclusions. Eggs have been found in or on ancient graves in Hungary, Egypt, Russia, Greece and Britain; red ochre has been found in megalithic graves in Pembrokeshire’s Prescelly Mountains, at the Çatal Hüyük site in Turkey and on the Salisbury Plain, among many others locations. In the funerary context, red is usually interpreted as a charm for either rebirth through reincarnation or new birth into a life-after-death. At birth, we arrive slicked with our mothers’ blood; there is a pleasing symmetry in departing back into the Earth’s womb wearing the same color. And of course Spring, symbolically associated with the East (and the dawn) is as logical a time for rebirth rites as the autumn (sunsets and the West) is for death-rites.
Why the big emphasis on eggs? 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. Foods imported from distant regions and factory farms with artificial light sources now put eggs in the grocery stores year around. An egg is first “born” when its laid, and then again when it hatches. And 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 as well (and they present an alternative to all the seasonal cuteness, though, alas, I’ve yet to see a chocolate snake). Barbara Walker mentions a 13th Century French custom in which a snake was carried up to the baptismal font during Easter week. Hibernating creatures, snakes too begin reawakening in Spring.
The rabbit or hare, the other main symbol at this time, is cited for its fertility. This is more than mythological: The gestation period for a doe rabbit is a mere thirty-one days. By contrast, cats and dogs carry their young twice as long; even squirrels average forty-four days. Rabbits can begin breeding at six months. Mad as a March hare? That “madness” is estrus, sexual frenzy. Ostara Herself was believed able to take the form of a hare, and these animals, especially white ones, were sacred to Her. In British myth, the hare also symbolizes transformation, another reason for the creature’s significance now.
Ostara’s resurrection theme can’t be over emphasized. This is the time for renewal, rebirth, resurrection after winter’s dormancy. In my group, raw, preferably fertile eggs are decorated in circle and taken home to our personal altars (after we all try to stand them on end, of course, a feat allegedly possible only at the equinoxes). If you plan to garden, Ostara is a logical time to bless those seeds; if you do any pruning, save the wood for the Beltane fires. In celebrations, consider meditations and journeys on such questions as “what is awakening now in my life?”
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
— Decorate and balance eggs
— Bless the seeds (or starter-plants) for your garden
— “What is (re)awakening now in my life?”
— “What is coming into balance? What feels unbalanced?”
© 2014 Renna Shesso –
If you share this, please credit and link
Alternative spellings are Eostre, Ostre, Eostara, possibly related to Eos and Astarte, and definitely the source of the word “Easter.” Derived from estrus, from the Latin oestrus, or frenzy.
The quote comes from “From the Night of Forebeing, An Ode After Easter” by Francis Thompson (1859-1907)
Zsuzsanna E. Budapest, The Grandmother of Time
Pauline Campanelli, Ancient Ways – Campanelli has extensive information on coloring eggs with natural dyes.
Robert Graves, The White Goddess
Buffie Johnson, The Lady of the Beasts
John and Caitlin Matthews, The Aquarian Guide to British and Irish Mythology
Luisah Teish, Carnival of the Spirit
Barbara G. Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets
It might be a glass of wine.
Or a piece of bread or a tortilla or an apple.
Or a cup of water (I’m in high-plains Colorado and water is sacred here, even if it comes out of a tap).
Once outside, I speak my thanks aloud, first and foremost. If I don’t say Thanks for what’s going right, why should the Goddess bother sending more? Then – sometimes – I add requests.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I pour out some liquid, scatter my grain-stuffs. This isn’t because I think the Goddess, the gods – or the divine source, or the Higher Power, or by-whatever-name – are literally hungry or thirsty. That’s physical-world stuff.
My offerings are a form of honoring, and an exchange of energy. Offerings and libations – the liquid portion of these offerings – have an ancient tradition worldwide. I think of offerings as a symbolic giving-back of what’s been given to me.
That’s why I use the good stuff. Offerings can’t be some moldy bread I might fling out for the squirrels, or a bottle of cheap vino I keep just to pour on the ground but won’t drink myself. As per an old adage about not cooking with any wine you wouldn’t care to drink, what’s getting “cooked” here are my goals, my plans, my life. This is worthy of good ingredients.
Offerings and libations needn’t be a fancy-supplies-laden practice. They don’t need to be scheduled in advance. This can be a spontaneous practice, fairly casual and brief, because what really happens here is between you and the deities you’re addressing. And when that happens, life-shifts happen, too.
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.
The image – a woman spinning off a distaff – is French, 15th century.
Our calendars call it the first day of Winter, but the Yule Solstice actually signifies the return of the sun and the beginning of the end of Winter — small wonder it’s a time of celebration. Thanks to the Earth’s own axis tilt, the sun has been heading into the south since the Summer Solstice. From the Autumnal Equinox onward, the results have been ominously obvious: As the sun goes farther and farther south, it stays lower in the sky and the days are progressively shorter. Plants wither, animals migrate or hibernate, the Snow Demons reign. In ancient times, if the harvest was poor and the hunting was meager, Hel, the Norse Queen of the Underworld, began calling frailer folk to Her realm, optimistically called the Summerland.
In an age when winter was so potentially lethal (as it still is for some among us), knowing just how far south the sun would go was of crucial importance. The psychological impact would have been considerable — it still is. Hundreds of geographically diverse sites from antiquity, from Stonehenge and Newgrange to Chaco Canyon, incorporate sun-watching markers — stand right here and you’ll see the sun rise or set over that special hill, between those particular rocks, or reach in to illuminate this otherwise-dark place.
When that happens, the sun has stopped moving south and will briefly hold its position, rising in the same spot for a few days. The Latin roots of “solstice” mean just that: the sun stands still. In December, the sun’s southern-most declination (23º 25’ S) is reached around the 19th and held through about the 23rd.
Then the sun begins its move back toward the north. The longest nights grip us from about December 18th through around the 26th, after which the days begin to lengthen. “Sol” to the Norse peoples, “Sulis” to the Celts and “Sunna” to the Old Germans, the Goddess of Many Names begins returning north, gradually bringing with Her the birds and beasts, the green growing plants and the blesséd warmth. Slowly the earth becomes fecund and lush again.
Fertility is the underlying theme behind many Yule-season traditions, with the plants carrying much of the symbolism. In its living state, mistletoe was considered the genitalia of the oak-god, Zeus-Jupiter, and its white berries were equated with semen (Graves describes the berries as having a “spermal viscosity”). Virgil wrote of it as Golden Bough, saying the mistletoe gave access to the Underworld; in fact its Norse name is Guidhel, or “guide to hell.” Mistletoe’s wood is also extremely strong, apropos of its legendary use in spears (another phallic association).
Holly gets its name from Hel or Mother Holle, the Underworld Goddess, its red berries signifying female moon-blood. Linguistically, “holly” also connects with “hole” and the German word Hohle means both hole and cave.
Put this is sexual terms, and the symbolism becomes as clear as a snuggle-inducing midwinter night. Holly and mistletoe displayed together betoken female/male union, a ritual sacred marriage to re-fructify the earth. With a nod (and a wink) to the sexual preferences among your householders and holly-day guests, you might consider hanging the two plants in combination in some doorways, Holly alone hung in other spots, and the familiar Mistletoe on its own elsewhere. Bound to liven up the festivities.
Christmas trees originated with the sacred groves of trees consecrated to the Great Mother. Like caves, circular groves symbolized the Goddess’ vulva; a single tree within the circle represented both Her child and Her lover.
Suddenly the phallic significance of that yule log also seems obvious, if not downright blatant: the folk songs of Provence (fabled retreat of Mary Magdalene) tout the fertilizing prowess gleaned from even the ashes of the French “Noel Log.” Put a simple circle of small pine clippings ‘round the base of a hefty candle and and bring on the generative heat!
Single standing stones were credited with similar powers. With the winter Sun traveling low in the sky even at noon, the stones’ shadows remain at their annual most-virile extreme from sun-up to sundown.
This holiday seems far more sensual than our Fundamentalist friends might prefer for their lone divine birthday party. Jesus wasn’t always a Capricorn, of course. His official birth date didn’t land on Christmas until the 4th century. December 25 — often the first day of northerly solar motion after the solstice’s standstill — was already widely celebrated as Mithra’s “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” The nouveau church fathers, as usual, simply co-opted that date for their own Son. The Winter Solstice also marked the birthdays of Attis, Dionysus, Osiris, Zeus, Cuchulain and other northern hemisphere deities. The annual rebirth of the Norse god Frey was also marked then by the celebration known as Yule, the pagan name by which we know the holiday.
Lest all the emphasis seem to be on the son/sun, please note that Christmas Eve — known of old as Modranect or Mother’s Night — used to be considered an even greater festival than Christmas Day itself. Mother’s Night probably emphasized the act of giving birth, letting the Solstice itself emphasize that which was born: why not have two holidays?
In Yule ritual, darkening the room completely is very effective, as we journey into our own deep hearts on this long night — what inner work, “root-work,” is occurring now? What will we bring forth into the light in the coming months? And then we return, with lights, candles, perhaps a brilliant cauldron-fire (of clean-burning epsom salts and rubbing alcohol) to welcome the inspirations we give birth to.
RITUAL IDEAS and QUESTIONS
– Darken the room and then invite light to return
– Consciously cast off something in your life that feels “dark,” perhaps by writing it out and burning the paper
– Consciously invite in the “light” — ask for inspiration
– Perform a “Birthing,” pulling each person in turn through an arch of legs
– “What inner work — root growth — are we doing now?”
– “What will we take forward into the light?”
It’s hard to begin manifesting something we can’t at least imagine. Let your long-winter-nights dreaming spark forward into waking reality.
Janet and Stewart Farrar, The Witches’ God, (Phoenix Publishing: Custer WA, 1989).
Robert Graves, The White Goddess, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: New York, 1966).
Gerald S. Hawkins, Stonehenge Decoded, (Dell Publishing: New York, 1965).
Lucy Lippard, Overlay, (Pantheon Books: New York, 1983).
The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Published annually.
Renna Shesso, A Magical Tour of the Night Sky, (Weiser: San Francisco, 2011).
Peg Streep, Sanctuaries of the Goddess (Little, Brown and Co: Boston, 1994).
Barbara Walker, The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, (Harper and Row: New York, 1983).
Mountain hot springs. Soaked. Ate a late dinner and went to bed, sleeping erratically. Some hours later, a voice:
“Hey, it’s 4:30.”
“Great. Let’s do this.”
We bundle into robes and step outside and…
There it is: The Milky Way, arching out low over the eastern horizon from Scorpio in the south to Cassiopeia in the north. A dense river of stars. And all around it, in every direction, all the other kajillion stars in the whole galaxy (well, that’s how it felt) plus a pale yellowish Saturn.
Back in my art history classes, we saw every artwork the size of a slide screen – and then later got of the shock of realizing how petite most Paul Klee paintings really are, and how massive and over-powering the Sistine Chapel ceiling really is.
We see constellations in books and in software programs, constrained in size. In reality, they’re vast.
The sheer size of this mountain night sky is overwhelming, breath-taking, awe-filled, exciting. How can I go back to sleep after this?
But I do, seeing something like an after-image of this Milky Way arch across the room’s pitch-black ceiling before I drop of to sleep.
This is my church.
Image of Scorpio, the Milky Way and the Teapot from the Starry Night astronomy program.
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.
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).
…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.
*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.
As people throughout several on-line communities post their expressions of sadness on the passing of film critic Roger Ebert, I went looking back over some of his writings and posts, and found this amazing quote.
It comes not from Ebert himself, but from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo, around June 9, 1888:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.
I’ve recently been visiting with a friend in hospice, someone who won’t be traveling “on foot,” but rather is taking one of those “celestial means of locomotion.” Amidst the vulnerability, turmoil and pain of illness itself, this person has such clarity and calm anticipation of the view forward to their approaching transition.
We’re all just visitors here. And then, back to the stars.
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
* The heliacal setting is when a celestial object first becomes visible just after sunset in the western sky.