Yule, and Heading Off Into the Dark of Winter

Winter Solstice marks the official threshold of a journey undertaken by Witches, Pagans, Heathens and other polytheists all over the planet, and shared by all of our ancestors going back to the deepest reaches of memory and time. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, this journey begins tomorrow morning, Thursday the 21st.

The Star of Ishtar

Because of a random 23 degree tilt to our planet, we experience our four seasons. A deep fluctuation of heat and cold, and an increase and decrease in the length of our days and nights. At this time of year, on our half of the globe, we experience long nights, short days, and a dying off of many life forms as the world grows colder. Learning to predict this fluctuation, and learning how to explain it to other people, is possibly the basis to some of the oldest religious and spiritual practices we have on this planet.

The bruisy purple-black of Fall gives way to the blasted icy white of Winter. The world is mostly dead, and we walk among the hoarfrost encrusted bones of its corpse.

At Summer Solstice, a pendulum begins to swing back down from it’s highest point. Silently, behind the flashing brilliance of the Sun’s rays, the clock of the universe ticks incrementally onward. Crops shoot towards the sky, swell, ripen, and give up their fruits. The Sun moves across the sky and the days grow shorter and shorter. The leaves change color. Animals migrate away. Much vegetation dies off. Rains, and then mushrooms and mold, creeping over the dead bodies of plants and animals that fed you just a few months ago. Suddenly, frost appears on the ground on your morning walk. The bruisy purple-black of Fall gives way to the blasted icy white of Winter. The world is mostly dead, and we walk among the hoarfrost encrusted bones of its corpse.

Amaterasu emerging from the cave, Ama-no-Iwato, to which she once retreated. (Unknown)

At Winter Solstice, the sun appears to die. If you were to watch the sun rise and set every day (as ancient people did) you would see it travels North and South along the Eastern and Western horizons. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the closer we get to Winter Solstice, the further South the Sun appears at sunrise on the Eastern horizon, rising lower and lower in the sky, and setting further and further South on the Western horizon, as if each day is a harder struggle than the last, the Sun barely able to ride a few degrees across the sky before descending back into the Underworld.

All of this results in shorter days and longer nights, culminating at Winter Solstice when the Sun appears to rise and set in the same places three days in a row. The event is helical or dictated by the movement of the Sun, and not a date on the calendar, so the days shift, but currently, this usually happens between December 19th and 23rd in our calendar year. What dates and times other civilizations have referred to this as have changed over the millennia, as have the astrological constellations that match up with it, but this ebb and flow of light and heat with cold and dark is older than our species.

In ancient civilizations, people thought the Sun was, in fact, dying and coming back to life. Many civilizations would party, feast, pray, sacrifice animals (and sometimes people), hold ritual, jump bonfires, clean and purify, make love, play music or any combination of these events for the duration of the three days the Sun appeared to die, in hopes of either enticing the Sun to come back or appeasing whatever forces seemed to be suppressing the Sun. Nearly all civilizations in the Northern hemisphere celebrate a New Year, or calendar resetting between Fall Equinox and Spring Equinox, many at or near Winter Solstice.

Roman disc in silver depicting Sol Invictus (from Pessinus in Phrygia, 3rd century AD).

After those pivotal three days, the Sun can be seen to begin to travel North again on the horizon, the days becoming longer. But it could be three to five months before real light and heat reached your life, and things begin to grow again. Until then, you and your family and your community must find a way to make it through the Dark. It was completely normal, in all parts of the world, until the advent of electricity, to think of the Winter months as a literal journey through the dark. It was completely normal to have family members die off, livestock dies off. An Underworld journey. Ancient people’s attempts to understand these life-altering astronomical and geological forces give us a wonderful heritage of spiritual traditions. And some of our most cherished fables, myths, parables, Goddesses and Gods all celebrate Holy Days at this time of year.

It is important that we understand the science of this phenomenon because it is entrenched in our biorhythms, and as an organism native to this planet, we are subject to its influences. But if we integrate this cosmic rhythm into our lives consciously, we can take advantage of the cycle of different types of energy. We can work with the seasons instead of against them. The nature of the types of Goddess, Gods and archetypes we work with at this time of year speak keenly to the energy of the season. Witches can work with a collection of themes: the death/birth or defeat/triumph of a Solar deity, a deity who delivers a “blessing”, Death and The Underworld Journey, and the resetting of the calendar or Time and deities involved with Time.

Mithra

Druids call Winter Solstice Alban Arthuan — The Return of the Sun God. The “Crowned and Conquering Child” is born at this point in the year. When this is a “He”, we call Him Horus, Christ, Mohammed, Mithra, Tammuz or Dumuzi, Ra, Baldr, Sol Invictus, Jupiter, and Buddha. They are often described as having a brilliance around their head, or their forehead is marked with a Sun or shining light. And either they must kill the Solar God who came before them – often their own fathers or brothers, or they themselves will be killed or sacrificed when the Wheel spins to the other half of the Solar cycle. For Witches, this is demonstrated by the alternating deaths and rebirths of the Holly King and the Oak King. Many other powerful Gods have feasts at this time of year as well; Shango, Tonantzin, Zoroaster, Herne, Dionysus, and Antu, and they all are associated with “light without heat”; the Spiritual Fire, often being a direct emanation of the Godhead (whatever that is for their civilization or culture).

There are feast days held for nearly every major Goddess in every pantheon during the six week period around Winter Solstice.

When this Solar Deity idea is expressed as a She, we see a very similar theme. Goddesses who possibly have a birthday at this time of year are Amaterasu, Lucia, and Inanna, all Solar Goddesses. Light and fire Goddesses honored now are the Agni (the Hindu and Tibetan Goddesses of Fire and Light), Hathor-As-Sekhmet, Red Tara, St. Lucia, Juno-Lucina, and Pele, to name a just a few.

However, there are feast days held for nearly every major Goddess in every pantheon during the six week period around Winter Solstice.If a civilization did not yet understand the timing around pregnancy, any babies born at this time of year would have been seen as a miracle of life in the deepest hours of death. For those groups that did understand the process of gestation, this cycle would take on an even more potent force. Babies born at Winter are created nine months earlier, at Spring Equinox. They would have literally represented the seed of Springtime resurgence born here, at the beginning of the Sun’s new cycle. Goddesses honored at this time of year were usually seen as “The Source” from which all boons would flow. They either embodied spiritual enlightenment and wisdom or were the Great Mother Source, birthing one of the Holy Gods listed previously. Isis, Mawu, Yemoja, Neith, the Virgin Mary, Freyja, Parvati, Hathor and hundreds of other “progenitrix” or “virginal” creator Goddesses all have feast days here. Many are credited with “willing” the world into being. Modresnacht (Mother’s Night), a twelve day, thirteen-night feast, lasting from Winter Solstice to the New Year, was documented by the Venerable Bede in the 6th Century and is still observed by Pagans today.

If this Goddess did not produce a physical child, then She induced or oversaw the acquisition and dispensation of Wisdom or spiritual enlightenment; “light without heat.” Sophia, Athena, St. Cecilia (who is probably the Greek philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria), Sekhmet-As-Law, and others. An interesting astronomical correlative; just a few days after the Winter Solstice, Earth is the closest it will come to the Sun in its orbit. Closest to the light, without the heat. The point is called the perihelion, and currently, we usually reach it around January 2nd on our calendar.

One of the great Underworld Journeys depicted in myth is the Abduction of Kore/Persephone by Hades. There are many versions of this myth alive in the world today. The versions thought of currently as “traditional” are, in my opinion, skewed to a patriarchal bias. They are the versions that we actually have written documentation of, but they are from the late Greek period when the culture had swayed far from its chthonic roots. I think it is accurate to its time period, to be sure because Greek Goddess culture was being systematically wiped out. But for ritual work, I prefer a version of the myth where Kore/Persephone has agency, and that this is a Journey She is taking consciously. She is still heading into the void of the Unknown, but it is a willing experiment to grow from a girl into a woman. In this version, she does not meet Hades, but Hecate, who is the Crone to Her Maiden. Demeter still mourns. She is still a Mother, watching Her child become an adult and Her own person. But Kore/Persephone Becomes Her fully realized Self on this Journey.

Catherine Wheel symbol, sign of St. Catherine.

Another powerful myth to work with is the Underworld Journey of Inanna/Ishtar. As the Goddess descends into the Underworld and the Lands of the Dead – Her twin sister’s realm – she leaves behind her seven tools or pieces of clothing until She is naked, and brought before Her sister Ereshkigal, She is judged and killed and hung on a hook for three days. Sacred non-binary gendered beings come to help Her, and also find Ereshkigal in pain, “as if She was about to give birth” according to the sacred texts. Inanna eventually makes Her way to the surface world again, sending her philandering husband Damuzi back to the lands of the Dead to take Her place (He shares the punishment with His twin sister Gesht-Inanna, which creates the seasons) (For a longer look at this myth and the work we can do with it, go here ).

Africa provides us with possibly our oldest, incredibly moving Underworld Journey taken at this time of year, the Death and Resurrection of Osiris, wherein Osiris is killed by his brother Set – who’s name means the Adversary, as in the boundary, the thing that stops you, chaos, the unknown. The battle between the forces of life and order and death and chaos are illustrated here. Isis and other Egyptian Gods and Goddesses put him back together again, just long enough for her to become impregnated by him. Osiris is only seen in the lands of the dead after that.

Which points to another theme of this season: Death. Brumalia was a Roman festival lasting a month, observing the last 30 days of the old Sun’s cycle, celebrating Saturn/Chronus and Ceres/Ops. When it ended, Saturnalia began one of the more infamous Winter Solstice holy days. Gifts were exchanged, often meant to be jokes, or, even the relieving of a debt. Gods of death and time like Janus, the Norns, and the Kalends are all celebrated now. A festive celebration where gifts were exchanged and slaves sat with their masters in honor of the forces of “Chaos”, but a chaos hearkening back to an older time where people were equal and no one owned anything. An Original Chaos. Before the order imposed by humankind. They saw this death and resetting of the Sun and the Year as a necessary part of the cycle. Giving reality back over to itself. Resetting themselves, their relationships to each other, and to the land.

The common Pagan name for Winter Solstice is Yule, which means “Wheel”. Arianrhod, whose holy day is this month, is a Welsh Goddess, whose other names, “Silver (arian) Wheel (rhod)”, “Silver Circle” and “Star Goddess” tell us a deep story. Cær Arianrhod, Her castle, was thought to be the Cær Sidi, the collection of stars at the top of the sky that never dips below the horizon, or the constellation Coronæ Borealis (the Northern Crown). She presided over Anwynn, the Lands of the Dead, Fate, and Reincarnation. Like so many other deities of Time, She looked backward and forwards, watching as the stars wove themselves back and forth over the horizon.

It is hard to overstate the role these Gods and Goddesses would have played in the lives of people who were looking into the face of primal chaos. It was at this time that the Wheel of the Year was “reset”, and spun again.

The Norse God Ullr, with his bow and skis.

Beyond the most obvious correlatives, many of the figures acknowledged at this time of year bear interesting symbols denoting they carry some hidden wisdom from the past on how we have prepared for this dark journey, or even simply that they are connected somehow to our experiences at this time of year. For those who work with Tarot, I advise spending some time with Temperance, The Wheel of Fortune, The Devil and The World. (I’ll publish a longer Tarot piece soon.) Meditate on these figures and record your insights. St. Catherine, who was to be martyred on a spiked wheel, is witnessed in late November. This is an interesting image for those who practice Tarot. The Wheel of Fortune card is ruled by Jupiter. The Norse God Ullr, St. Catherine, Red Tara, and Ishtar are all depicted with bow and arrow. For those who work Astrology and Tarot, note that currently, the constellation associated with this time of year is Sagittarius, the Archer.

So what can we do with all this incredibly rich symbolism? Look within. During Winter, we sleep longer, our metabolism slows down, and our serotonin production drops. In the modern world, we can’t stop everything in our lives, but taking more time to turn inward and do some personal work is completely in line with the energy of this season. Meditate. Record your dreams. Practice divination by looking into the New Year for yourself and your loved ones. Allow yourself to slow down, and take care of your body, your physical dwelling, and your material possessions. As we move into Winter, Western Astrology points to the sign of Capricorn, ruled by Saturn. Both of these figures are concerned with the physical body, the bones, the fundamentals of material well being. Look at yourself. Hold yourself with love and acceptance. What things no longer serve you in your life? Let them go into the Death of Winter. What are forms of yourself holding you back? Let them be destroyed by the natural cycle. See the original form of yourself. The skeleton of your Truth. See your birth, your personhood shinning brilliantly into the world. Witness the natural power you were born with. Witness your agency to choose to become something monumental. See yourself as the Source of Light, and see yourself as the brilliant Light, shinning out of the Darkness. What is the Light you will bring, or be, in the World? We all need to shine, now more than ever.

1: (how far it moves each day is dependent on where you are on the globe and how close we are to a Solstice or Equinox. There’s a cool article about that here. At the North Pole, the Sun sets sometime around Fall Equinox and won’t be seen again until Spring Equinox).


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