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Darkness – Birthplace of Light

In Celtic tradition we begin our celebrations on the Eve of the feast day, in the darkness.

In my post Sun Wise I talked about the way the sun appears to go round in opposite directions depending on whether you live north or south of the equator. In either case it is the two poles, north and south, that are the places of darkness. They are the womb which births the light.

Whether or not the ancient Celts knew about the lands south of the equator, they were certainly bright enough to realise this fact about the sun. And they knew that the poles are the womb of creation in this way, the darkness before dawn.

Bosch's Hell

Christianity has made a devil of the darkness and many people are afraid of the dark, partly as a result of the innate myths perpetrated by this religion. The peopled it with nasty beings, all out to do you down, all the critters in Hieronymus Bosch paintings. This is not how it is at all, as the Celts and other shamans know very well.

The darkness is the darkness of the womb, of potential, of creation. The chrysalis where the caterpillar transforms into the soup of Life and then remakes him or herself into a butterfly.

Knowing this is why the Celts work from the pole, the place the sun never travels through, to the dawn, then the zenith ending at the nadir where the sun sets. As I said in the previous post, this is from the north round to the west in the northern hemisphere, and from the south round to the west in the southern hemisphere.

Midwinter is the shortest day of the year, as far as sunlight goes. At the poles, the sun doesn’t rise at all.

–       Remember, midwinter for the north is midsummer for the south! I’m writing from the place where I am, the northern hemisphere and Britain. If you live in the southern hemisphere then the same ideas apply but you transport them 6 months down the line.

Meditations for the season of Sun-Return, the midwinter solstice, often call up these concepts of birth, and of death. TS Eliot’s words in his poem “The Journey of the Magi” are very apt – whatever your spiritual beliefs …

… were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Eliot hits the nail on the head with his usual acumen, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death?”. This is how it is for the shaman. He describes the death as “hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death” and so this transit of the year is for the spiritually aware. Change is like that and this change, from the going down into the darkness to the coming out into the light is just such a one. Richard Bach put it very well, “what the caterpillar calls a nervous breakdown, the master calls a butterfly”. However, we all know how hard it is to see that from the caterpillar’s perspective!

Eliot goes on to say, “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods”. I find this very profound. On the surface we cans see the Christian pulling away the skirts from that which might contaminate. But go deeper. We all feel this as we grow and change, as we re-enter the womb, decompose and then recompose again, are birthed into, what is to us, a new world. We are no longer at ease with the way things were/are. We see friends and neighbours even as aliens, clutching at different beliefs to those we now have. Part of us often wants to crawl back into the womb so we don’t have to live in the new world in which we find ourselves … but we can’t. We have to continue, to live, to grow to change.

It can indeed feel like living in one of Bosch’s paintings. But contemplation and meditation, working the shaman’s way, asking one’s Familiars, one’s Totem group, asking all the elders of the world – all of creation, which is far older than us – to guide and guard and keep us through this time of change really works. It really does help. I do it myself every season and I help others to do it too.

Being brave enough to go down into the dark, to die to the past, to go into the womb of the mother and ask to be reborn … these are the good and beautiful things of this season of Sun-Return.

Sun Wise

at the going down of the sun ... In Celtic tradition we begin our celebrations on the Eve of the feast day, in the darkness.

The shaman works in Middleworld by weaving the colours of Life, the shapes and patterns of Living. It’s what we all do by being alive, by incarnating. We cannot not do this as long as we’re alive, every breath we take affects everything else – ponder on that, get the sense and truth of it into your bones, it will help you know the connectedness of all things.

Weaving the light is seen on all shamanic traditions – not always called that – usually through the medium of the directions: North, East, South, West, for us in the northern hemisphere. Probably South, East, North West in the southern hemisphere.

Why the opposite way round? Think about it. In the north we Celts begin in the place of darkness, which is the north for us. It’s the place the sun never goes to. For us the sun rises in the east, travels to the south for midday then sets in the west. The sunrises in the east and sets in the west wherever you are on the Earth. Because of the way the earth travels around the sun it’s impossible for it to be any other way. But whichever way we watch the passage of the sun the dark place will be at the Pole – north or south pole – the place where the sun never goes.

You may also have noticed that in the north deosil – which is what we call the path the sun travels, the god-path – goes “clockwise”. In the southern hemisphere deosil goes the other way around, “anticlockwise”. We only call it clockwise since we invented watches and clocks, a few hundred years back, not the ancient clocks of land markers, the stars and the stone circles. Clockwise is a modern term and invented in the northern hemisphere and should not be taken as gospel for everything, everywhere.

This makes a mockery of the common prejudice amongst new agers that it’s “good” to go around clockwise and invites the “bad” in if you go around anticlockwise. I was once told by an intense and autocratic “shaman” that if I went round anticlock the sun might fall out of the sky! I was so stunned that an apparently intelligent woman could say such a thing I never got to asking her about all the above … probably a good thing to let her be.

The prejudice for deosil over widdershins is a Christian fable, put up as part of their massive hard-sell of “the new religion” amongst the peoples of the northern Europe, and not one we should encourage to  continue now. It makes it very hard for people to understand reality – e.g. that deosil, sunwise, is the other way around for people living in the southern hemisphere. This, despite many of them having black skin and being shamans and magicians (thank the gods!) does not make them devils … which is what many of the Victorian missionaries called them. That (hopefully) is quite shocking to us now.

Weaving the patterns of Life means weaving in both directions.

Think about the act of weaving. You raise one set of threads – the even numbers we’ll say for simplicity – and pass the shuttle through the gap between the upper and lower threads, making a row of weaving. Then you drop the even-number threads down and raise the odd-number threads. Again, you pass the shuttle through the gap, making another row of weaving. The first row, you pass the shuttle from right to left (say), deosil. The second row you pass the shuttle from left to right.

You go both ways in order to achieve a piece of cloth!

Let’s take another example from the physical world – DNA. One of the major points of DNA is the double-helix. Two spirals. Twisting around each other and exchanging the knowledge of the genes in order to create life and maintain it. It too spirals both ways.

Now an example from the past. The doctor’s symbol in the western world is the caduceus staff. This is a rod with two snakes twining up it, making a double spiral (double-helix). It’s been used for several thousand years and is associated with the Greek gods Apollo and Hermes, gods of wisdom, knowing and the transmission of knowing. In fact, Merlin is often associated with Hermes and sometimes even with Apollo, although his energy is far older than either of them. We humans tend to associate things with what we already know and, for many, the Greek gods are better known than our own Celtic ones, although the Greeks knew of us and respected our ways, calling us the land Behind the North Wind.

So the caduceus staff is another example of the fact that Life, in order to exist, travels its energy in both directions.

So going sunwise, deosil, in itself indicates going in two directions at once. It shows us that life, as Bilbo put it, is to go and to return. To go and to return is the journey of the shaman, the oldest form of spiritual path amongst humanity and still going strong now.

In this Eve of the solstice, the time when the sun appears to stand still for three days – giving us three days in which to contemplate the meaning of life – let’s think about this, take it into our skull-cauldrons and allow it to brew there quietly. On the day of Sun-Return (25th December, when the sun appears to begin to move forward again) the three drops of wisdom may leap out of the cauldron onto our thumbs so we can suck them up.