It’s not known how long we humans have been marking the solstices but it can’t have been from our very beginnings since, then, our ancestors were firmly within Africa. Their location within the continent was relatively close to the equator where the nychthemeron – the night-and-day 24-hour period – is split always into two unequivocal exact halves. Here, where twilight hardly exists, there’s practically no distinction between seasons. This is because, at the equator, latitude is zero and, thus, the sun doesn’t restlessly roll south to turn and roll north again. So, at our dawn, the solstices – and the equinoxes too – can have had no special meaning. It can only have been after our ancestors began to join the sun in his migrations north and south that they will have noticed the inconstancy of the solar year and its consequences.
But, very soon thereafter, the solstices must have begun to gather meaning as our hunter/gathering ancestors adapted to life in the diaspora. Still, really, perhaps the solstices only truly drew a crowd once agriculture was established. Then, as farmers needed to know when to sow seeds and pastoralists needed to consider husbandry issues, the solstices became increasingly charged. And, as growing numbers of our ancestors became urbanised, food stocks would have needed to be managed to make provision for seasonal variations. Perhaps these were the kinds of problems that brought the fading winter solstice sun into sharp focus at the dawn of human civilisation.
After migrating out of the region around the Congo Basin, our ancestors must have understood with growing clarity that the skies set the terms for earthly flourishing. So, gradually, astrological systems grew out of their observance of the skies, and religion, agriculture, politics, economics all depended on those observances made by a growing social elite: those priests who could read the heavens and understand through them the mysterious magic of right-timing.
Of course the magnificence of the skies must have drawn our ancestors before all that so none of us should imagine that sky-gazing was ever simply about cold, hard survival. Sky-gazing is something we are bound to do and has been a human religious duty for eons. Adoring the sky is a duty, in fact, at the very root of Babylonian religion and, via that, all modern western religion. It is written in the Enuma Elish – the 9000 year-old Babylonian written record of their vastly more ancient creation myth – how humans were created for the sole purpose of offering devotions to their gods who lived in star-temples in the sky.
Our religious adoration of the skies and our mundane observations of their signs are our legacy from our ancestors and we continue to look up and wonder. And the northern hemisphere winter solstice particularly has gathered enormous cultural and religious meaning for us during the endlessly circling years since our hunter/gatherer ancestors left their safe, nurturing African basin in search of the human story. In fact it matters globally because we northerners have been disseminating our worldview by fair means and foul around the world for thousands of years. So it can be no surprise that, two days ago, when the sun halted at his southernmost declination I, like so many others across the world, went out to observe the solstice sunrise.
But, before I get on with that, I’d like to return to the word devotion for a moment. It’s a passive word in English with connotations of loving an immensely powerful and pure thing from afar. Devotion is cerebral mind-love where touching has no place. And this sense is at the root of the word: it’s from the supine of dēvoveō (“vow, devote”) which means that English-speaking devotees (and those who speak Romance languages as well) may aspire to love without the complicating vulgarity of materiality. It’s a notion of love which reaches all the way back to Plato but it’s not one productive of holistic loving and, moreover, it’s a devotional sense of relationship with deity which is not universal. For instance, in Hinduism where Darshan is central practice, a link is created between the object of devotion and the devotee by pujas which are prayerfully physical rituals of hospitality directed towards gods and gurus and the like. One seeks a view of the gods whilst making oneself visible to them. Then, mutual gaze established, one anoints the gods, feeds them, cares for them and generally makes them welcome and, during this process, these gods begin to love their devotee in return. Thus, a reciprocal, materially-loving and yet respectful relationship is established between god and devotee.
Taking all this into consideration, it’s clear that one can adore the skies and the solstice from a distance. One can observe these through a window, watch the sunrise on the television or see a photo. And all this may indeed give rise to a real sense of love for the skies and their phenomena. But loving-the-skies-at-a-distance will not establish a loving link between a person and the heavens. If one wants that bond, one must work at it. And this is why I left my house with the skies heavy and black on solstice morning while an unseasonal south-westerly blew a gale and gusted great breaths of misting rain at me until I was drenched.
At first the eastern horizon was fully obscured. Then, after five-minutes fast walking, a thin band of dreary well-washed yellow smudged the skyline. After that, at each farm-gate to the highest point near me, I stopped and checked the progress of the glow on the horizon which intensified progressively along a spectrum from washed-out yellow to warming ochre until I reached the top of the slope. And there, at my walk’s zenith and the hill’s top, the sunbeams broke out to blaze across the waterlogged farmland until all puddles brimmed with tawny liquid gold.
Here I took off my coat and allowed the solstice rays to touch me. Up here, that south westerly – known to the ancient Greeks as Lips Anemos (divine bringer of quickly-clouding, quickly-clearing skies) gusted and pushed at me, showering me with golden raindrops. I radiated the warmth of this and the sun took it up and we were bound altogether in that moment of elemental bliss.
Tomorrow the sun will be reborn and rise as the Sol Invictus. As evening comes and he drops beneath the western skyline, the full moon will stand against him in the east in glorious fullness. I will be out to see these celestial glories and will let them see me and that way we’ll continue the tradition of awed participation in creation which goes back to humanity’s dawn. It’s the duty I was created for, if we accept that Babylonian view.
Whatever your story, whatever this season does or doesn’t mean to you, I hope you are happy and find peace and joy here. And I send you this blessing (did you know that to be blessed is to receive the equivalent of Darshan from a god?): go out somewhere wild, and alone, and experience the elements on even just a little bare skin. See the elements; feel them with all your senses; let them see and sense you. Together make the oldest elemental magic and, through that, go forward into a renewed and revivified creation.
This week’s blog was sparked by the sun’s conjunction with my south node which reminded me that Jupiter is on his way here too. The transiting north node is coming as well. And they’ll meet in a dance lasting the next several months whilst both squaring my natal nodal axis on and off. Obviously I am bound as an astrologer to wonder about this. The modern idea when interpreting the nodes is that they sign the individual’s path to fulfilled life-purpose which means they are something to do with timing and destiny. But what have they to do with timing and destiny?
I guess the first job is to think about what the lunar nodes actually are, so I’ll start with a little astronomy. Within the ecliptic coordinate system, the positions of solar system objects are defined according to their relationship with the ecliptic. This is the path that the sun appears to trace onto the celestial sphere as we orbit him through the course of the year. A solar system object’s orbital relationship with the ecliptic can be a few things. For instance, it can seem to run parallel to it, or it can seem to intersect it. The moon seems to cross the ecliptic because, at its most extreme, her orbit is inclined away from it by just over 5 degrees. So, during the course of her orbit, she must cross the ecliptic twice and the lunar nodes are the points of intersection.
With the lunar and solar planes tipped away from each other from our earthly perspective, the two nodes have opposing directional and spatial qualities: one ascends as the moon crosses from south of the ecliptic to north of the ecliptic; the other descends as it crosses from north of the ecliptic to south of the ecliptic. The ascending node is our north node – Rahu in Vedic astrology or the ‘dragon’s head’ (Caput Draconis) in western astrology. The descending node is our south node – Ketu in Vedic astrology or the ‘dragon’s tail’ (Cauda Draconis) in western astrology.
Now, the fact is, the ecliptic only exists as a perspective. And the path of the moon’s orbit only exists in the past as a kind of invisible contrail and, in the future, as a trajectory. But, for all that these two paths find existence only in the temporal realm, their relationship, especially at intersection and furthest separation, has very real effects here on earth.
A first effect is the eclipse of either the sun or moon when these line up with the earth every six months across the nodal axis. Then, with either the earth or the moon playing piggy-in-the-middle depending on whether it’s a new or full moon, we lose one or other light for a time while foraging creatures lose out or gain depending on their foraging habits. The eclipses also herald times when the gravitational pull exerted between the sun and moon on the earth is great and, thus, coincide with high tides which can be extremely fortunate or unfortunate, depending again on perspective.
A second effect is the phenomenon known as the lunar standstill. This is the finale of the draconic period and analogous to our perspective of the sun’s behaviour during the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice. But, just as the sun doesn’t actually pause to mark the solstices, so the moon never stands still either. She just appears to from our perspective because her path is elliptical; because it is tilted away from the ecliptic so that the moon has declination, or celestial latitude; and because the lunar nodes precess around the ecliptic. They complete a full revolution, or draconic period, in about 18.6 years.
During these years, the moon appears to travel up the ascending node and down the descending node while the tilt of the lunar orbit first gradually subtracts from, then subtly adds to, the earth’s own 23.5 degree axial tilt until she reaches an additive maximum declination of 28.5 degrees at a major standstill. This, in astrological lingo, takes her a long way out of the sun’s bounds (of 23.5 degrees). As a consequence, once during the 18.6-year draconic period, when the ascending node of the moon’s orbit coincides with the vernal equinox point, she reaches extremes of celestial latitude as last happened in June 2006. Then the azimuth points of her rising and setting on the horizon swing wildly in a fortnight from extremely low to extremely high altitude as she crosses the meridian. This means that, again, there is the potential of extreme tides but, also, possibly very late first sightings of the new moon. Moreover, when the moon is over 4 degrees north of the ecliptic, she occults the star cluster, the Pleiades, and that implies much for navigational activities. As an aside, this perceived behaviour explains the south node’s astrologically malefic nature geometrically insofar as the southernmost point of the lunar orbit is also its apogee. In other words, this is a fallow saturnine place of low return, and of loss.
So, what we have in the lunar nodes are mathematical points whose effects are material but whose existence depends on perspective and whose action takes place in that fourth dimension known more commonly as time. And, because the lunar orbit is one of wobbly predictability, it’s easy to see why the nodes are about destiny: Given its path, it’s inevitable that the moon will come to its next standstill in late February 2025 and that this will be a time when the first sighting of the coincident new moon will come late. But, if this certain prediction is taking place in the fourth dimension, the question now has to be, what is this place? What is time? And this is an important question because the answer impacts the nature of destiny.
Intrinsically, all organisms have a temporal sense and judge time by seeking rhythmic environmental patterns, or zeitgebers, and entraining repeating biological functions to them. This entrainment leads to our pace-making circadian rhythms which are fundamental to life. Moreover, our interior sense of time in matching repeating exterior rhythms – such the rising and setting of the sun, the waxing and waning of the moon – gives us a sense of the circularity of time and a fundamental grasp of the eternal return. And this idea, exemplified in the behaviour of the nodes and most other celestial objects, gave ancient cultures such as the Babylonians their concept of time as a wheeling motion dependant for quality on the relationship between things it connects through intersection as it turns.
But wheeling time is presently dominated by our idea that time is linear and directional with its back to the beginning whilst facing the end. This idea developed in the ancient world when circular time bifurcated to become two. The ancient Greeks recognised these different senses of time as gods and gave them names: Kairos and Chronos. The former had a seasonal nature and latter was about counting and chronology. This linear time is a consequence of the rise of agriculture and the resultant development of writing and number. It is not relational, like circular time, but must exist outside us, as our container, in the lonely dimension of pure mathematics where abstractions rule. Linear time exists, not in reality, but as supra-reality in the symbolic realm.
But pure types are very uncommon and we rarely come across either pure circular time or pure linear time anymore. For example, in modern astrology, the tendency is to meld Kairos and Chronos so that cycles mark the move forward along straight individual paths to destiny. During ancient times, when circular understandings of time dominated, people took circular paths back to similar places each month and year and lifetime. In those times, astrological predictions related primarily to weather-forecasting and to religious-, mundane- and tide-timing. They also indicated the times to prepare and take medicine and make magic. But the idea that the stars directly affected personal destiny – except if one was a figurehead – was not well-developed. This is perhaps not least because, in those times, the facts of an individual’s destiny – as the pattern of a life rather than an ultimate destination – tended to be set at birth so that only large scale events really perturbed destiny’s path. Different times, different worldviews: different interpretations of destiny.
But, no matter whether the understanding of time is linear or circular or a mixture; no matter whether destiny is life’s pattern or its final purpose, the lunar nodes are reference points referring to a connection between the paths of the moon and the sun, as we see it on earth. These nodes might have no material existence but they have material effect. They have clear definite links with material destiny in circular time but, in linear time, these links must be either metaphysical or metaphorical. In mixed circular and linear time, they have material effects which result from metaphysical or metaphorical causes.
That’s the lunar nodes and that’s some of what they have to do with timing and destiny in a large sense. In a small Helen-sense, I’ll do what I love so much: I’ll watch and see.
This year I have Saturn coming for the holiday season. He’ll arrive, fully exact on my natal sun, at 18:48 GMT on 21st December. Hours later, the sun enters Capricorn to ring in the Winter Solstice at 4:48 GMT on 22nd December. This is a personal Saturnalia whether I celebrate it or not and my celebrations will culminate on Christmas day which will be Sol Invictus for me too since I’m being reminded of interlinking Romano-Christian celebrations this year. My reminder of the Return of the Unconquered Sun comes as the full moon, exact at 11:11 GMT at 3 degrees 20 minutes of Cancer, opposes the sun at his rebirth.
Saturn’s conjunction of my sun closes a 29-year cycle whilst opening a new one. The moon’s fullness in Cancer evokes early January 2014 and her point in the full-moon cycle is a return of sorts to November 2013. And I could spend time analysing the minutiae of what all this means for me personally but I don’t think I will. For one thing, I feel that those who understand astrological symbolism will get the drift of where all this culminating completion might be leading. And I think that, while there’s a time and a place for tight astrological analysis, this is not it because these celestial signs are awesome in the truest sense of the word and I’m afraid that getting down to nuts and bolts might diminish the awe somehow. It would be as petty as making the point that baptismal holy water comes from the same source as water for the washing machine. So, instead, I’ll stand back and remind myself that, whatever it means for me materially to have Saturn to stay, it all results from being chosen to entertain a planetary god, and that is an honour.
So I’m cultivating an attitude of anticipation and, at the same time, making preparations to receive Saturn, the sun and the moon. Precedents for such Parousia go back a long way so I know that I can refer to various magical and religious traditions for examples of etiquette. For instance, the Christian church has been marking the season of Advent for many a long year and Christian worship at this time is absolutely centred on ritual making-ready to receive a guest of great importance. Advent – from the Latin adventus – corresponds to the Greek, Parousia, which refers to preparations that surround the prospect of the physical arrival of someone important, official, royal or holy. Parousia has a place in astrology too where it is understood as the presence of a planet at a significant zodiacal point so I can practice some appropriate astrological remediation too.
Still, it’s probably obvious that I’m not wholly delighted at the prospect of Saturn’s arrival on my sun, but some sense of foreboding is to be expected when one prepares to receive a god. The fact is the Christian season of Advent is not traditionally a time of unmitigated joy either. Preparations reflect the trials and complications that surrounded his birth and life, and are also charged with the mythological and historical sufferings of the Jews and their profound cultural and religious yearnings for liberation. Of course, there’s pleasure at the prospect of having Jesus around too but reminders of the travails and journeyings of Mary and Joseph dominate. Much is made of the circumstances that brought Jesus to be born in the right place at the right time and these include unhappy recollections of how Herod tried to thwart God’s will, was himself thwarted by the Magi, and how he subsequently ordered the Massacre of the Innocents because he couldn’t tolerate the rise of a new star when this would necessitate the setting of his own.
Besides these preparations which recourse to mythology, there are physical preparations too. Contrasting chocolate-filled Advent calendars, there are the Ember Days which fall in the last weeks of Advent. These are one group of four religious periods of fasting and contemplation which come at seasonal turning points when the sun prepares to leave the four mutable signs – Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces – for the movable ones – Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn. They come with the Quarter days and are similar in timing to particular Roman religious feriae, or festivals, intended to cultivate their agricultural gods. These weren’t fixed to particular dates but appointed to the right time astrologically by priests and magistrates who chose according to the phase of the moon. For instance, the feriae conceptivae – the fast before Saturnalia – was arranged so that Saturnalia would arrive with the full moon which would enable the Kalends of January to arrive on time too or, in other words, when the first sighting of the new moon marked January’s start.
Because, however he has developed, Saturn is, at root, an agricultural god. He was local to Capitoline Hill in Rome but, over time, cultivated in the way of so many other regional and foreign gods so that he gained in influence and personality. The Romans understood religion in terms of cultivation. They knew that if they wanted the benefits of certain gods, they needed to maintain them actively with just as much care and attention as one lavishes on crops. If they wanted to draw foreign gods away from their own lands, they needed to bait a deity-trap by offering all their homeland comforts. And, in order to cultivate Saturn they needed to remember that he, although presiding by then over agricultural toil, had once ruled the Golden Age – that mythological pre-agricultural age when gods, humans and all nature had coexisted in a time of spontaneous egalitarian plenty. And then they needed to remember how it wasn’t that way any longer and they did this by subverting order – having masters serve servants, allowing gambling when it was usually prohibited and in general having a few fun light-filled days while the sun stalled…and died…
…Only to be reborn on Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus – the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun which coincided with the winter solstice and the sun’s sure return northward. And even this naming of the day and the naming of the sun’s rebirth was an act of religious cultivation. This is because the term Invictus is an epithet – an invocation – with magical function as the correct naming of the apparently dead sun which would reignite his fire and conjure his return.
Saturnalia was a multifaceted consideration and manipulation of the matrix. Through ritual recollection of the mythical Golden Age, everyone remembered how it once was – in the beginning of all things – when choices were still all unchosen and before things got complicated. This means that Saturnalia was the brief release from the tyrannical accumulation of individual and cultural intended and unintended consequences. It was a blessed return to virgin innocence. So Roman society made magic by turning the present order upside down allowing the possibility of release of tension. They also facilitated the chance for wisdom and insight of the kind won by Odin after he’d hung upside down from Yggdrasil for nine days. Of course, there were risks of a complete overthrow of order at this time but this was mitigated by the fact that order (even if this was new order) would be re-established when Saturnalia was over. And Roman suspension of moral censure allowed the honouring and mourning of the old, dead and dying – not because these were better than what had or would replace them but because what had passed and was passing was the substrate in which everything originated. The old was the root, and roots – irrespective of quality – give rise to the possibility of life in the sun. And Saturnalia also ritually respected the truth that the old must necessarily give way to the new, since new shoots – irrespective of quality – are life and hope because they live in the sun.
So I’m preparing to receive Saturn, the sun and the full moon over the holiday season as the Romans and old-time Christians did, and the Ancient Greeks before them in self-similar form. For me it’s all about remembering how, 29 years ago when Saturn last joined my sun, it was all possibility. And I feel nostalgic for that time and wish, in a way, I could go back and try again. And I wish that all the people to touch my life over these years from whom I have moved on or who have moved on from me were still here because the world is not what it was anymore. More than that, I didn’t always mourn what I should have because I didn’t realise it was passing. But, of course, I have a life and a matrix now which I love with all my being. And I wouldn’t have anything any different so I also honour the present order and never want it to change. But, of course, I also have dreams of how it might be. Additionally, I know that things are changing irrespective of my wishes because I know that parts of my present matrix are unstable and I’m going to see them crumble. So I simultaneously fear change and will it on.
And all is absolutely in keeping with the spirit of Saturnalia which was celebrated during a time when the tragic fate of the gods was their relentless immortality. Humans have always been freer than them in this respect. We might each individually have varying allotments of freedom but, mostly, we have some degree of choice even if making a choice and choosing a path carries the equally tragic fate of being required individually and collectively to live and die by what we choose. But, even then, periodically, we can use the magical ritual moment of times like Saturnalia – and (through its similarity) the run-up to Christmas – to turn Fate’s progress upside down and be briefly freed-up to take that frozen moment of glowing candlelight in midwinter to examine – and honour, and despair at, and celebrate – where all the effort has brought us.
…And then we have to move on again – as the Magi foretold – when the sun is reborn as a new star rises in the east.