December 22, 2020 at 7:06 pm #73228
The Winter Solstice is upon us—the longest known mythological tradition still celebrated today, stretching back to when humans first linked the cycle of the seasons to the heavens (in fact, the word Yule is descended from the Old English “geol,” apparently derived from the Indo-European base “qwelo,” meaning “go round”—the source of “cycle” and “wheel”—thus denoting the turn of the year).
No other day so clearly illustrates the morphing, merging and melding of mythological motifs across the porous membranes of distinct and disparate cultures.
The construction of Stonehenge in England began around 3100 B.C., though in its first phase this circle may have simply served as a ceremonial burial site; it’s another 500 years or so before we can be sure stones were placed to align with the Solstice.
At Maes Howe (the Orkneys, Scotland), a stone structure dated to 2750 B.C. has a long passageway through which the sun’s rays illuminate the back of the chamber at dawn on the winter solstice. Another megalithic monument that performs the same function is found at a five thousand year old ceremonial site in Newgrange, Ireland. Cahokia, a complex of pyramids outside St. Louis, created by the native “mound-builder” culture almost twelve hundred years ago, includes remains of a “woodhenge”—a circle of posts that line up with the sun on the winter solstice—and similar older, more permanent ritual centers are found in the American southwest, where Pueblo tribes still observe rites marking the Solstice. Across the Pacific, in Japan, the central Shinto myth portrays the Sun Goddess Amaterasu emerging from her cave on the winter solstice.
And of course, throughout the Christian world, Christmas—the birth of Christ—is celebrated at this time of year. Popular Christmas traditions include multiple elements borrowed from pre-Christian solstice celebrations. A prime example is the evergreen tree, which does not lose its leaves and so is able to withstand winter and the vanishing of the sun: the Greeks decorated evergreen trees to celebrate Adonis; during Saturnalia (which begins every year on December 17), the Romans adorned trees with shiny trinkets and replicas of Bacchus in his role as fertility god (they also decorated their homes with wreaths of holly, a plant sacred to Saturn, and gave gifts); at Yule, the Druids tied fruit and candles to evergreen branches—the candles representing the eternal light of Baldur, the sun god—as well as representations of the sun, moon, stars, and the souls of those who had died the previous year.
Similarly, December 25 proves a significant date in Solstice celebrations. On the three days following the solstice the sun appears to stand still (solstice is derived from the Latin words sol—sun—and sistere—”to cause to stand still”); given the instruments available at the time, it was December 25 before the ancients were able to detect that the days were growing longer—that moment “when the light begins to increase”—hence, the birthday of many solar deities. Attis, in some traditions son of the virgin Nana, was born on December 25—his cult, from Phrygia, introduced in Rome some two hundred years before Christ; Dionysus was also celebrated December 25—this son of the Greek Father God, Zeus, had acolytes who consumed his flesh and blood as bread and wine; and Mithra, whose birth was witnessed by shepherds, was believed to have been born on December 25, roughly five centuries before Christ.
No one really knows when Christ was born. It was settled on December twenty-fifth for mythological, not historical, reasons.” — Joseph Campbell, Thou Art That, p. 65
Though some see the date of Christmas as intentional rebranding on the part of Christian leaders, the early Church was neither well organized nor unified behind any central authority. Diffusion—the spontaneous spread of a mythic motif from culture to culture—seems the more likely culprit, with the gradual adoption of Christmas an official recognition after-the-fact of mythological processes already in play.
No mention of the date of Christ’s birth appears the first century and a half of the Christian era. We do know December 25 had been firmly established in Rome as the birth of Jesus by the middle of the fourth century, where it appears on the civil calendar and in a list of Christian martyrs. The Irish church adopted December 25 as the Nativity in the fifth century, but the church in Jerusalem didn’t accept this date before the late sixth or early seventh centuries. Austria, Switzerland, and England embraced Christmas by the eighth century, but the day didn’t take hold in the Slavic regions before the tenth century—hardly a quickening pace. Clergy outside Rome often fought the trend, sometimes for centuries, before recognizing that the solstice traditions practiced for countless generations were simply not going to wither away.
And now today, whether observing Yule or Christmas or one of the other seasonal festivals, all are variations on the same theme. The good cheer, jolly music, sprigs of mistletoe, wreaths of holly, brightly wrapped packages at the foot of trees decorated with shiny ornaments and colored lights common to the season are culturally inflected expressions of five thousand years of human tradition.
The mythic images associated with the winter solstice help us shift our identification from the individual human condition to that which is eternal, bringing us into alignment with the powers of nature that operate in the universe, and in ourselves—thus generating harmony between macrocosm and microcosm. Amid the dark and cold of the long night, we celebrate the birth of hope.
A Merry Yule to All!December 22, 2020 at 10:05 pm #73233
Thank you Stephen for illustrating the Archetypes that underpin the celebration of Winter Solstice amongst all humanity.
Your brilliant exposition of multiple motifs alive in different civilizations, but sourced from the same Archetypal idea, reminds me of a piece written by Clemsy a couple of years ago . I believe he touched upon the similarities between Egyptian as well as Zoroastrian religious beliefs to Christs story, but the involvement of Saturnalia and the Father God Saturn is indeed new knowledge to me as well as intriguing.
I was racking my brain to find a parallel in Indian Mythos and to me there seem to be many motifs of light emerging victorious in a battle with darkness.
But it all falls in Autumn . In fact Autumn seems to be the season for festivals and thanks to diffusion brought about by globalization, it is funny to see people celebrate the victory of the Mother Goddess over the Dark Demon and the return of the Hero Ram , alongside the ghoulish makeover of a Halloween party.
But the myth of Amaterasu emerging from her rocky confinement has brought forth a flood of related stories to the mind.
The first story and the most intriguing is the story of the daughter of the Father of the Sky in Rig Vedas. Goddess Ushuss – The Dawn. She is liberated from the Vala cave by Indra. The Titaness Eos is the Hellenic equivalent derived from the Old Indo Aryan word for dawn – Heosus.
What is intriguing is that Japanese language and Vedic/ProtoVedic languages are totally unrelated from a Linguistic or philological point of view.
The annual ritual of freeing Amaterasu from her cave is enacted in a Shinto temple the Kamikura Shrine. Women are forbidden to go up the shrine.
And the first fire of the New year is passed on by the Shinto priest to a crowd of 200 merry men, who rush down the hill – many breaking their leg – in the process to bring the 🔥 of the living to the World…. a la Prometheus!
Curiously enough in my home state the end of the month of winter solstice is celebrated with great pomp . It marks the new year in a few Indian provinces.
In my State, There is a shrine atop a high hill dedicated to a God where women under 50 and girls who have attained puberty aren’t allowed . On the day that marks the end of the month of Winter solstice ((Makara Sankranthi) , a fire lights up the sky from a distant hill. Lit by the tribals in the forest who had been ritually enacting a myth the transcends the sphere of the Known and binds us all to the cradle of Human civilization – nay, our consciousness!.
The lighting of the fire coincides with the rising of Sirius Star..So thats another exciting loose end to follow😀
Merry Warmth to allDecember 23, 2020 at 10:39 pm #73232R³Participant
Just imagine all the solstices on all the exoplanets in all of creation . Where life evolves to the level of abstract thought and symbolism I would think there would be ways to honor the seasons and the ebb and flow of life they nurture. There were solstices and suns that happened in systems long before our solar systems. These suns lived and died before ours. Their death created the elements we are comprised of. Our sun is a sun coagulated resurrected from their death. The cosmic and solar cycles continue. May our abstractions and symbols be a light that shines as a force in a creative universe. May we grow in knowledge and wisdom. May this growth be a legacy we leave as a gift to future generations for peace prosperity and health. All hail the Spirit of incarnate Life that all of creation participates in … and the mythic metaphoric flame that burns in all …
I bet if we could take one of those ancient tribesmen to the ISS, let them watch an Earth rise or two , explained to them the heliocentric solar system , show them a telescope , they would get it !!! The truth and awe of it all !!!
Merry Yule !!!
Merry Christmas !!!
R³December 24, 2020 at 8:13 pm #73231
Happy Day Captsunshine,
I too was trying to think of any solstice celebrations in India – seems Hindu doesn’t have any specific solstice rite. I wonder if for a major portion of your subcontinent, located on the equator, perhaps the demarcation between increasing and decreasing daylight didn’t really stand out . . .December 26, 2020 at 10:24 pm #73230R³Participant
This wiki article is rudimentary but informative.
Understanding the past is lots of fun.December 25, 2021 at 8:02 pm #73229
Bumping this Solstice thread to the top of the forum given it’s relevance to the season. Feel free to add to it, or just read – and hope you’ve had a Happy Yule!
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