PORTALS OF THE SEASONS:
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PORTALS OF THE SEASONS:
A CELTIC WHEEL OF THE YEAR
by Tira Brandon-Evans
How long has it been since you looked at the sky for as much as five minutes? If you are like most people living in the Western World, you have not done so for a long time. Most of us stop looking at the sky, except to see if it is going to rain, about the time we enter grade ten in school. If parents have allowed one unlimited access to television or computers one may never have spent any time at all looking at the sky. Yet, when you do look at the sky you will notice an amazing thing. The sky is larger than the earth. It seems infinite. One may look into the sky forever and never find a place where it stops. It is not surprising that our ancestors of the dawn times saw the sky as a place of endless wonder and mystery. The greatest wonder is that we do not.
Year upon year the peoples of the dawn times looked up at the heavens and over countless millennia they assembled a body of knowledge about the heavenly objects that have become the basis for many present day sciences. There are many who believe that most, if not all, of our religious beliefs were also derived from their observation of the heavens. Let us retrace from the beginning what our ancestors learned by watching the skies.
The most obvious observation is that the sun rises and sets every day. What a wonderful and blessed thing the sun is! It gives us light and heat. All life on this good earth derives from the sun. Our ancestors saw that, unlike the moon which waxes and wanes, the sun was unchanging. It was perfect in its rising and setting. It was so bright one could not look directly at it for very long without injuring one's eyesight.
Another remarkable observation that our ancestors made early on was that from a stationary observation point the sun appears to rise at a different point on the horizon each day. This means that if one stood at a particular point facing east each morning at dawn one would see the sun rise at a slightly different point. If one marked and dated each point in some way one would end up with a calendar. Today calendars and clocks surround us. Radios, televisions and our own computers constantly remind us of the day and time. To the peoples of the dawn times there was no such thing as time as we know it. There were days and nights, moons and seasons, all ordained by the greater and lesser lights of the heavens and mirrored on the earth.
After a time an observer would have come to know that the sun rises most nearly due east at the Spring and Fall Equinoxes. It rises at its most Southeasterly point at the Winter Solstice and at its most Northeasterly point on the Summer Solstice. The result of this is that, unless one lives very near the equator, summer days are longer than winter days while the days near the equinoxes are more nearly equal to the nights. We are used to dividing our year into four seasons based upon the sun's annual motion along the horizon. The Winter Solstice, around December 21, is the beginning of winter. March 21-22, the Spring Equinox, is the first day of spring. Summer begins around June 21, which is the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox, falling on about September 21 or 22, is the first day of Fall.
Our Celtic ancestors divided their year in other ways. The two great divisions of the year are based on the Solstices. These were the Year of the Little Sun and the Year of the Big Sun. The Winter Solstice, also called Alban Arthuan and Mean Geimhreadh, is the first day of the Year of the Big Sun. December 21-23 is the time of year when the nights are the longest and the days shortest. After the solstice, the days begin to grow longer. When the days are long the Big Sun, which is the sun itself, is seen more than the Little Sun of the night, the moon. Conversely, the Year of the Little Sun begins on the eve of the Summer Solstice, June 21-22. The year turns at that point and the nights begin to increase and days gradually grow shorter.
Several stories have survived across the ages that indicate solstices were celebrated or dignified by duels between the Oak King and the Holly King. At Mean Geimhreadh the Oak King triumphs. The Holly King is slain. The Moon King is dead long live the Sun King. The Holly King is the victor at the Summer Solstice. The Oak King dies and the Holly King begins his reign. Originally, these duels may have actually resulted in the ritual execution of a man in order to ensure that the seasons would change. However, from the surviving tales it is more probable that the battles were mock combats.
One surviving custom related to this rivalry is the Hunting of the Wren. Traditionally boys and young men went out on December 26th and killed as many wrens as they could find and then went round their neighborhoods with the poor bodies begging pennies to 'bury the wren'. More recently, the actual slaying of innocent bird life has been replaced by creating wren-like substitutes of feathers or wool. Nevertheless, begging pennies to bury the wren continues in some areas. The wren is the bird of the Holly King and it is possible that the winter duel between two champions was replaced by killing the wren, the Holly King's proxy. The Oak King's bird is the robin and there does not seem to be a similar tradition of killing the robin at the Summer Solstice although we do have a surviving 'nursery rhyme' investigating the murder of a cock robin.
Many Celtic Reconstructionists claim that the equinoxes and solstices were not celebrated, or that their celebration was not as important as the seasons of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh. While there is not as much surviving evidence for the celebration of the equinoxes, many of the stone circles and other Neolithic monuments of the Celtic Isles feature alignments to the rising or setting of the sun at the equinoxes. They certainly watched the heavens and marked the seasons and the moons. What did our ancestors see and how did they incorporate their observations into their ritual lives? We can never know with absolute certainty the answer to this question. Nevertheless, by making our own daily and nightly observations of the heavens we may come to a closer understanding of skies above us and the lights that signal the changing seasons.
The moon is the Little Sun, the great luminary of the night sky. Unlike the unchanging sun, the moon waxes and wanes. Sometimes she may even be seen during the day. At others, she disappears entirely from the night. All of this makes the moon much more mysterious than the sun. Yet, if one observes closely and keeps careful count, the waxing and waning cycle is quite regular. Because we fail to look, we seldom see the tiny sliver of the new moon's crescent. In ancient times, the new crescent signaled the beginning of a new month. From one new moon to the next is 29.53 days. The actual sighting of the new moon may vary, however, from 28 to 30 days depending on weather and atmospheric conditions.
Among our ancestors, it was the custom to salute the new moon. This honoring of the new moon was common among many peoples not just the Celts. Many surviving invocations of the new moon in the Carmina Gadelica clearly indicate that this custom survived into the 20th century. There are also many superstitions concerning the new moon. To see the new moon with empty pockets is bad luck for it means that you will be poor all month. If you have silver in your pocket when you first see the new moon, you will prosper all the month but if you have only copper in your pocket, you will not. Various forms of divination are practiced at the new moon, the most popular is praying for a dream to see one's future spouse. Many people believe it is unlucky to first see the new moon through glass.
There is much controversy today as to whether or not the cross-quarter days should be celebrated on the dates now assigned them or at the first full moon or new moon following the previous equinox or solstice. For convenience sake, it is probably best to continue celebrating the cross-quarters on the modern dates but traditionally they were celebrated according to the moon. Among mainstream religions today many of the holy days are calculated with regards to the new or full moon. Among Moslems, Ramadan coincides with the first new moon after the Autumnal Equinox. In the Church of England, Easter is the first full moon after the March 21, the traditional date of the Spring Equinox.
We originally based our calendars on the moon and her phases. The earliest records of the waxing and waning moon date from cave art executed around 35,000 BCE. Beginning about 15,000 BCE, Neolithic astronomers inscribed amazingly exact lunar calendars on mammoth tusks. These carvings from Gontizi in the Ukraine are clearly and precisely marked to indicate full and dark moons. Our ancestors of the dawn times were careful observers of the moon and her many faces. One of the things they observed was that the solar year and the lunar year do not exactly correspond. There are approximately 365 days to a solar year but there are approximately 29.5 between one new moon and the next. This means that there are only 348 days in a lunar year of 12 months which leaves approximately 17 intercalary days between the lunar and solar years. This was a knotty problem for the ancient folks. In only two years time the lunar calendar is over a month out of step with the solar calendar. To combine the two timekeeping methods is very difficult. Today we do not even attempt it and stick entirely to the solar calendar. Our ancestors of the dawn times, however, seem to have devised various methods of combining the two. Many megalithic monuments throughout the world are aligned to the sunrises and sunsets of the equinoxes and solstices and to moonrises and moonsets on the quarter days.
The last full moon of the 20th Century fell upon the Winter Solstice. Because the moon and sun are out of synch, this will not occur again for another nineteen years. Astronomers have known for many millennia that it takes approximately nineteen years - actually 18.61 years - for the moon to return in the same phase on a particular date. This return to 'point zero' every nineteen years would have been a reassuring sign that all was well in the heavens and was, no doubt, an event that our ancestors looked forward to. This nineteen year cycle may be related to some surviving Celtic traditions. The numbers eighteen and nineteen were of special significance among the Celts. The breath of eighteen maidens, for example, heated the Cauldron of Annwn. In Ireland, eighteen priestesses tended the sacred fire of Brighid at Kildare, each keeping the nightly vigil in turn. On the nineteenth night, Brighid herself tended the fire.
This cycle also predicted one of the most terrifying heavenly events for in the great dance of the heavens the moon and the sun do not dance alone. The earth is one of their partners.
After a time rumors would have spread from generation to generation that sometimes the sun was eaten by a terrible shadow, a devouring darkness, and that when this occurred certain rituals must be performed in order to rescue the sun and drive away the devouring shadow. Today people from all over the world will gather in the areas of the path of totality to observe an eclipse. Even with all of our rational thinking and understanding of the science behind an eclipse, such an event still has the power to move us at a visceral level as few other natural events can. The last solar eclipse at the close of the 20th Century was seen by millions of people across Europe and in the Middle East and there were many, presumably otherwise rational people, who believed that the eclipse signaled the end of the world. If solar eclipses can cause such fear in well-educated 'modern' folks, imagine the fear an eclipse generated in the hearts and minds of our far, far distant ancestors.
There were very few people in the dawn times. They were sparsely distributed across the planet. The path of totality of any eclipse would have been visible to only a small number of folk in any one generation. Weather conditions would have also played a role in restricting the numbers of folk to observe such an event in that on a cloudy or rainy day while the darkness would have been noted the cause of the sudden onset of that darkness might not have been apparent. Therefore, it would have been many generations before anyone noticed that these terrifying incidents occurred on a regular basis and that it was possible to predict when the next eclipse would come. We are not sure when our dawn time ancestors worked this out but there is evidence that one of the functions of Stonehenge was to predict solar eclipses. This knowledge would have been a part of the curriculum for anyone training to be a shaman. Certainly, the secret of predicting solar eclipses was a part of a druid's education.
Lunar Eclipses are not as dramatic as Solar Eclipses but are, nevertheless, quite impressive. During a Lunar Eclipse, the moon changes from brilliant silver-white to a ruddy brown or orange color. Our ancestors said there was blood on the moon and these eclipses caused them a great deal of fear and consternation.
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(From: Portals of the Seasons: A Celtic Wheel of the Year, copyright © 2001, Tira Brandon-Evans. All rights reserved. International copyright laws prohibit reproduction of or distribution of this page by any means, electronic or otherwise, without first obtaining the written permissions of the copyright holders. We retain legal counsel to enforce our copyrights.
Copyright © 2001-2017, Elder Grove Press and content providers. All rights reserved. International copyright laws prohibit reproduction of or distribution of this page by any means, electronic or otherwise, without first obtaining the written permissions of the copyright holders. We retain legal counsel to enforce our copyrights.