Tag Archives: festivals

Midwinter, Minoan Style

x-knossos-throne-room-3

Minoan civilization lasted for a solid thousand years. As you might expect, their religion changed over that long period. Like their trading partners the Egyptians, the Minoans added new layers over time, creating an extensive and complex religious system that spanned the agricultural cycle and the calendar year. One of the sacred festivals that came later in Minoan times is the Winter Solstice.

In the earliest times, the Minoans celebrated the New Year around the Autumn Equinox, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in the Mediterranean – the time of plowing the fields and planting the crops, which grow throughout the mild winters in that region and are harvested in the spring. But eventually the Winter Solstice became its own kind of secondary New Year celebration. Instead of celebrating the cycle of the green growing things, it celebrated the ending and beginning of the solar year, which was embodied by Dionysus as the solar year-king who was annually reborn at Midwinter.

Yes, I know, Dionysus was originally an ecstatic vine-god, the spirit of the grape and the wine as well as a psychopomp for his people. But as I mentioned, the Minoans added layer upon layer to their religious beliefs and practices over the centuries. So the vine-god who died each year at the grape harvest in the late summer wasn’t considered to conflict with his face as the solar year-king who was born each year at the Winter Solstice. These were just two different aspects of a complex god.

Let’s not forget the other half of the Midwinter story. For a baby to be born, there must be a mother. For the Minoans, this was their great mother goddess Rhea, who was the sacred spirit of the island of Crete itself – their Mother Earth who rose up out of Grandmother Ocean at the beginning of time. Rhea has both a sacred birthing tree (a fir or pine tree beneath which she gave birth, with a star appearing in the sky above it as the infant Dionysus entered the world – this is also Dionysus’ sacred tree) as well as a sacred cave where she gave birth and where she hid her infant to keep him safe. Her sister, the goat-goddess Amalthea, nursed him while the Kouretes (probably originally a Minoan priesthood of Dionysus) guarded the cave, danced for the baby, and drowned out the sound of his cries with the clashing of their spears on their shields.

The Minoans didn’t have TV or movies, and most people probably didn’t own any kind of reading material, so their experience of religion came from public rituals and Mystery plays at the big temple complexes as well as their own private devotions at their home shrines. A few lucky people would have been invited to the Knossos temple complex to witness the Winter Solstice ritual there each year. It turns out, that chair in the “Throne Room” isn’t a throne at all, but a sacred seat where a priestess sat, playing the part of the goddess in rituals at Midsummer and Midwinter. At Midwinter, that seat (which was originally painted red) became Rhea’s birthing chair. The Midwinter sunrise cast a natural, magical spotlight on it as the infant Dionysus was born. That must have been an amazing experience, to be allowed to witness that ritual.

So each year, when I celebrate the Winter Solstice, I view our family’s Christmas tree also as Rhea’s birthing tree. And I look forward to the rebirth of the year-king with the first glimmers of sunrise on Midwinter Morning.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Druidry in Winter

On Facebook, Bobcat asked everyone, “how do your religious, spiritual or secular beliefs guide you to live through the dark (in the northern hemisphere) months of November and December, to engage (or not) with the festivals of late December and early January, and walk the days to the first whispers of new life?”

It needs a longer answer than facebook wall posts allow, and I thought it worth exploring so, here goes

I’ve never lived with a full selection of modern comforts – critically central heating, so I experience the winter, and the cold, very intensely. Feet are my primary mode of transport, so ice and snow impact heavily upon me. The realities of my life mean I am outside for significant amounts of time on a daily basis, so I experience the changes in light and temperature changes very directly. Those physical experiences contribute to my spiritual understanding of winter in its ongoing effects upon me. I have fell runners’ crampons to help me walk, and every day at the moment I celebrate the wonder of human invention. Those crampons keep me on my feet and give me freedom where before had only fear and difficulty.

My spirituality engenders in me an acceptance of what is. I don’t feel any need to fight against the world or resent what it is currently doing. Instead I try to flow with it. I don’t go out at night much in winter. I wear a lot of jumpers. I can’t hold this house at comfortable heat levels for ‘normal’ living. I have to work with the winter and my own body and all the tools I can muster to deal with the cold. There is also a spiritual underpinning to my seeking the beauty in all things and being intent on perceiving what is around me. So although I’m freezing and walking with chilblains hurts, I’m still being enchanted by the beauty of ice crystals on trees and spiderwebs, the mystery of mist, the wonder of sunlight touching snow dusted hills.

The bardic calling and the call to service tend to combine at this time of year and send me out singing, bringing music and what cheer I can to people who need it. I sang in a prison one year. This year there will be old people’s homes. I’ve sung carols in the street raising money for charity before now. In the darker days, community, human contact, music and storytelling seem more important than ever. The human need for light, warmth and company in response to the cold and dark is a very basic one. Commercialmass celebrations (thank you bish for the perfect term) feed on those needs without, I think, actually answering them. So I feel strongly motivated to honour connections, relationships and community events at this time of year, whilst trying very hard not to get sucked into the commercial thing. I end up singing a lot of songs about the birth of Christ, which feels odd as a Druid, BUT, it’s what the people I’ll be singing to want to hear, it’s what I’m being called upon to do, and answering the need is more important than the religious element. There will be times and places to sing my own songs for this season.

I will celebrate the turning of the year – again because for me that’s primarily a celebration of human contact. I stopped making new year’s resolutions a while ago. I realised it was just a seasonal excuse to beat myself up -I was reliably resolving to become thin and more acceptable to the people around me. I will try harder. Give more. Ask for less. I don’t make that kind of promise any more, not least because I no longer feel obliged to crush and negate myself for the convenience of those around me. Instead I’ll take the opportunity to review my life and contemplate where I am going, which results in dedications. I already know what dedication I’ll be making this year, and will share that when the time comes.

There are signs of spring already – the trees make their leaf buds in winter, the catkins are there ready to open. I’ll watch the slow shift from day to day, welcome the changes, honouring the flows as I experience them, and greeting the return of warmth with relief and gratitude. There will be spring cleaning, and clothes shopping, because this year has stripped flesh from my bones like no other.

Bonfire Night

It’s a peculiarly English event, so for you folks in other places, here’s a quick intro to the 5th of November (yesterday, I know but most events happen on the nearest Saturday, so, indulge me…).

Quite some time ago, some very irate Catholics tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and failed. One of them, Guy Fawkes, was executed in a very unpleasant way – hung, drawn and quartered. We celebrate this every year with a big bonfire and lots of fireworks.

What, exactly are we celebrating? The history of religious intolerance in the UK?(Catholics and Protestants having devoted a lot of energy to burning each other at various times.) The plot having been foiled? Or the attempt itself?

Anyone who has seen V for Vendetta (and if not, you should) will have encountered the rhyme “Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot, I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”. Sporting a Guy Fawkes mask, the main character is bent on a re-creation…and relates to Guy Fawkes in a way that sets the whole thing up as anti-tyranny. I don’t think it was – just another plot about power and influence and one group of people being very unhappy with another. When the Catholics were in power, they went about doing very much the kinds of things the Protestants had done. New regime, same old oppression…

The kinds of revolutions that blow things up, tear things down, shoot the old and make way for the new tend to end up with something that looks eerily like the old. Only with a new face, a new title. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, was not much different from a King. Communist China did just as good a job at oppressing its peasants as the Emperors had done. The American war of independence did not (to steal lines from Andy Hamilton) save America from being ruled by some idiot called George, who only got the job because he was the son of the previous idiot called George.

I will be going to a bonfire tonight, because fireworks are fun. I will, as I do every year, spare a thought for the people whose deaths are being marked, and for the ones who might have died, but didn’t. For me, it’s a big reminder of why blowing things up isn’t much of an answer. I’m more interested in evolution, than revolution.

Other People’s Festivals

If you are in need of a respite from other people’s festivals, then please do pay a visit to www.itisiacircle.com – we have a festive special on the 25th, and Monday the 28th ‘At The End Of The Bed’ is a two part story with illustrations, and a bit of a twist on some seasonal myths and traditions.

In a dark, gothic environment, the propsect of something sneaking into your room and leaving stuff, is not a pretty one!

I wish you peace from the mayhem of other people’s festivals. May you have quiet days, without too much of the frequently ugly and careless consumerism that goes with this time of year. As we head into a new calendar year, here’s hoping this is a wiser, more responsible and ethical time for our species.