We arrive at the Winter Solstice as passer byes, or as pilgrims, as contemplators or as seekers. Maybe we dread it. Maybe it’s our favorite. Maybe it passes by us and we don’t even notice. We move through the threshold of this season transition whether we pay attention to it or not. There’s depth of meaning waiting to be plunged into if we are willing to soften our edges, cultivate a gentle gaze, and look into the darkness, receive what it offers, and generate the newness that wants to be born through us. The magic of the Winter solstice casts deep, wide, and wild.
When Winter arrives in the Northern Hemisphere, Summer arrives in the Southern. One of the deepest teachings of the earth is that she’s never one thing, but always a multiplicity. The way that the earth expresses who she is is through biodiversity, complex networks of interconnectedness continuously becoming more forms and less forms at the same time, and polar opposites always completing and complementing each other. The earth reminds us that when it’s one thing on one side, it’s the other thing on the other side.
The solstices are like the Yin & Yang symbol. One not only completes the other, but also contains the other. One is always pregnant with the other.
When the Winter Solstice arrives, darkness peaks, and the light peeks from within it. The sun dies as it descends into the night of the year, but this moment of death is also its rebirth. As soon as darkness triumphs, the light begins to return. The same principle holds during the Summer Solstice when the light reaches its climax, and from that moment its power begins to wane.
Ancient cultures celebrated the Winter Solstice as a moment of hope – a sacred portal into the most dangerous period of a cold world that lacks resources, accompanied by the sun’s rebirth, the promise that light will slowly strengthen and stretch, warmth will eventually return, food will grow again, and a chance at not only surviving, but thriving, will increase.
Stories and rituals evolved celebrating this transition, weaving hope into fear, seeing possibilities in the void, and spreading the wisdom of the necessity of rest and rejuvenation for the health and well being of life.
What we now know as Christmas originated in myths and pagan practices that celebrated the Winter Solstice as an enveloping darkness that gives birth to the light.
The archetype of the Great Mother creating a child independently, on her own, and then giving birth to her son who is the child of love, the source of light, the radiance of the sun, saturated the ancient world.
From this Great Mother Goddess, through evergreen decoration, through holly and mistletoe, through the Solstice Tree, to the Siberian Shamans who dressed in the Amanita Muscaria mushroom colors (red and white) after consuming it, and brought the people messages from the spirit world as gifts, the Winter Solstice is rich in symbols and myths that were later appropriated by the church.
Christianity, with its patriarchal agenda, turned the darkness into evil. The feminine principles, the lunar qualities, the mysteries of the night, the vastness of the unknown were treated as demonic. We see the results of that in our culture today in many ways. One expression of it is the way that our capitalistic culture devalues rest, and sees growth as a straight line, always demanding more, when in fact, growth is a cycle that requires times of rest, of decay, of nothingness, in order for renewal to take place.
This has caused much of the destruction of our world. We have treated the earth, the plants, the animals, and other humans as resources to be exploited, used, and extracted, all for the sake of growth, all for the sake of money, all to serve the very few who sit at the top.
The winter solstice brings us into relationship with both darkness and light, inviting us to connect to every part of us, to weave the seen and the unseen, to dive into the ocean of the unconscious, as Jung says, and to deepen our conversation with our shadow as we learn to see it, as we befriend it, as we integrate it.
Goddesses such as Pre-Greek Nyx, who is the embodiment of night, calls us into her embrace during this season. In ancient times she was a beloved, most important presence, and the one who gave birth to light. The patriarchal forces slowly turned her into the mother of all evil, the light becoming her destroyer.
The Cailleach, who is the Irish crone goddess of Winter, takes over the land, destroys in order to recreate, breaks down in order to reformulate, rages her storms, and wreaks havoc so that the world can renew itself. The story tells that her ferocity is so fearsome, animals flee into hiding, which, of course, helps protect them from the intensity of her weather and the danger of frost. She is a destroyer and a protector.
The Winter Solstice ignites the magic of renewal through transformation, as it spins the wheel of the year into a new cycle, igniting sparkles in the night, and sparking the inner fire of alchemy as we are chased by the ferocity of frost and the intensity of storm inward.
Ancient goddesses of Winter and darkness are not simple characters. Their archetypal power is accessed through the recognition of complexity, through the serpent’s vision that slithers and twists and turns, a vision that is never straight, never direct, always moving. Serpents were sacred symbols of the divine feminine. They are creatures that take us into subterranean worlds. They guide us into the wisdom cultivated as we turn toward the unconscious and integrate the shadow. They too have been demonized by the patriarchy.
In the depth of darkness we might learn a thing or two about ourselves and about each other. In the depth of darkness we can envision and reconsider who we are becoming and where we’d like to go – personally and collectively. In the depth of darkness, deep in the burial ground, deep in the land of the dead, we may teach ourselves to align in configurations that can catch the light in particular ways, and bring on the radiance of the sun, of the soul, into view, rebirthing from within the tomb that is the womb.
Newgrange in Ireland is a stone age monument, a passage tomb, an ancient temple, constructed about 5200 years ago. As the sun rises on and around the Winter solstice, it reaches a certain angle, and the light shines through a window along a long passage. At the end it reaches a large stone which bears a carving of a threefold spiral. It is as if the sunlight, as it wanders on the floor of the passage and all the way to the carving on the stone, wants to tell a story.
The Stonehenge in England was structured to align with the sun on the Solstices. It most likely took neolithic builders about 1500 years to build this great monument to the sun. The myth says that the wizard Merlin magically brought those stones to England from Ireland, and that those stones were arranged by giants.
Arthurian legends are filled with pieces that connect King Arthur to the Winter Solstice, saying that he was born on the longest night of the year. An ancient Druid holiday called Alban Arthan, which means “the light of Winter” or “the light of Arthur,” celebrates the sun child who is born on the shortest day of the year. The light that is born belongs to the Great Bear constellation that shines in the sky during this time of year. Arthur or Art is Bear in Gaelic.
Bears have been symbols of Winter in many cultures around the world. The bear invites us into the darkness of the cave, into hibernation, into the dream world. The bear teaches us to rest. In the cave we envision what’s next as we shed skins and identities no longer needed. As the bear we make the cave our temple, and sleep becomes the offering we place on the altar of life.
The mythology and metaphors of the Winter Solstice are rich, potent, and transformative. There are so many stories and symbols to play with and work with as we arrive at this threshold, in the space between the years, in the death and rebirth place of the sun, in our own sacred ground of shadow, in the alchemical dance of the conception of light within the year’s longest night.
If you’d like to dive deeply into ceremonial work to welcome the Winter Solstice, to create a sacred space for this moment of transition, to contemplate, to meditate, to breathe, and to move, join us for the Winter Solstice Somatic Ceremony. It is a powerful, transformative journey into yourself through archetypes, stories, and reflection. It’s filled with ritual practices to help bring the season into your body.
It is all online and all prerecorded, so you can take your time, do it at your own pace, and deck the new season with boughs of meaning.
Come listen to a story about the great Norwegian bear, while resting in restorative poses, journal or start interesting conversations with family and friends through a wide array of prompts, chant, meditate, move with your breath, invoke the Phoenix, enliven your inner world with the Egyptian falcon Horus, explore the Cailleach, Nyx, and the Great Mother Goddess in greater depth, reflect on the year that is ending, and envision the year being born.
And here’s a FREE gift for you – a spell to bring a dream from the depth of darkness into reality.
May the darkness of the Winter Solstice be a source of inspiration for you. And may the light that you conceive within it bring gifts of insight, renewal, and wisdom for you and others.
All my love,