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”

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Christmas Eve – Mother’s Night

T-holly

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.

newgrange-light-box

Newgrange & winter sun.

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.

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Some sources:

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).

Mars and Venus on a hot Solar date

venus-mars-sun-conjCAP

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!

sun-conjunct-venusRS

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.

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