One of the interesting things about a solstice, whether you’re talking about winter or summer, is that it’s the only time in the entire year when the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for three consecutive days.
If you happen to know any Latin though, the name itself is a bit of a giveaway because ‘sol’ means sun and ‘sistere’ means standing still.
But at the time of the Winter Solstice – which of course is around now – what it all meant to our forebears was that the great cosmic wheel of the year, known as ‘Iul’ or Yule in Anglo-Saxon, stopped turning briefly as one cycle of the sun ended and a new one began. It also meant that people were forbidden from turning their physical wheels either, whether that be cartwheels or butter churns, until the sun had returned.
So each year at the Winter Solstice on 21/22 December when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky, thus marking both the shortest day and longest night of the year, what it symbolised to them was the rebirth of the sun. This was a time when the pagan Goddess of old became the Great Mother and gave birth to the new Sun King three days after he had been sacrificed to ensure the fertility of the land for another year, in an ongoing cycle of birth, life, death and re-birth.
From that point onwards, the Sun King would continue to grow in strength until coming into his full power at Midsummer, the time of the Summer Solstice on 21/22 June, which marks the longest day and shortest night.
For in the eyes of our ancestors, the standstill at Solstice time wasn’t just a physical phenomenon – it was also a deeply spiritual one, with those three days (three being a magical number in the ancient Celtic world) being a time to reflect on what had happened during the last 12 months and on what you wanted to happen over the next 12. Good advice for people living in any age really.
Another point, which interestingly still has its echoes in the present day, is that, traditionally, it wasn’t so much the day of the solstice itself that was celebrated. Instead it was the evening before, which was seen as a time of birthing something new. And that tradition is still followed in countries like Germany and Spain to this day, where Christmas Eve is the most important date in the festive season.
But there are other pagan remnants still in clear evidence today too. There’s the habit of decorating our houses with holly, ivy, mistletoe, Christmas trees (pine) and even yew, which when taken together, again symbolise the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. There are the customary Yule logs, which were burnt to ensure good luck – even if, these days, most of them are made from chocolate cake rather than oak.
And then there are the Christmas wreaths on our doors representing Yule and the wheel of the year. Plus enough feasting, drinking and gift-exchanging to sate us all as, whether knowingly or not, we continue to follow ancient mores that for thousands of years honoured the return of the sun and the circle of life.
An association that I particularly like though is the apparent link between Santa, his reindeer and shamanism. Santa, it seems, isn’t quite the harmless old man that he’s generally made out to be.
On the one hand, he is believed to represent the pagan God who is the consort and protector of the Goddess. On the other, his traditional garb of red and white is also said to symbolise fly agaric mushrooms, which were sacred plants to ancient medicine people as they helped inspire hallucinogenic dreams.
Because they’re poisonous when fresh, however, the best way to eat them apparently is to get your nearest friendly reindeer to have a munch on them, before drinking down their delicately infused urine. In which case, just like the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh and distributing gifts to children round the world, you’re more than likely to end up doing a bit of journeying yourself, only of the psychedelic variety, in order to come back with the odd insight or two from the spirit world.
Following the deer trods
Interestingly though, it seems that reindeer are much more important to ancient British culture than most of us might imagine. Thousands of years ago, our hallowed Isles were, as countries like Canada and Russia still are, part of the Boreal forest, the great, endless wood that stretched from one end of the northern hemisphere to the next.
And up until about six thousand years ago when agriculture took hold and most of the trees were cut down, there were lots of reindeer in our lands too. Visual evidence still remains, in fact, in the shape of a carving in the Cathole Cave in the Gower, South Wales, which amounts to the oldest rock art in the British Isles.
Even more excitingly though, it seems that this image could actually represent our ancient, antlered reindeer goddess, Elen of the Ways. While beyond a single herd of about 150 in the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland the reindeer may now be gone from our shores, the goddess’ name lingers on attached to springs, wells and place-names up and down the country, ranging from the Ellen river in Cumbria to St Helens in Lancashire – her name was apparently appropriated by the Catholic Church, as was its wont, and ascribed to one of its pantheon of saints.
Anyway, just how do I happen to know all this stuff, you may question? Towards the end of last month, I attended a fascinating one-day workshop by British shaman, Elen Sentier, who was running an introductory session on British Native Shamanism. Although I’d read quite a lot about the practice elsewhere in the world, including anthropologist Carlos Castaneda’s iconic works about studying to be a shaman under Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian from Northern Mexico, I really fancied learning more about our own indigenous variety.
And interestingly, it seems, the ancient pagan ways, which Elen calls ‘following the deer trods’, have, in some rural communities at least, never actually gone away – instead they simply went underground. Elen’s dad was a shaman while her mother was a witch, and the community that she grew up in on Exmoor in the 1950s all followed the old ways, bringing their children up to do likewise – she calls them ‘awenyddion’ or spirit keepers.
And much of this age-old wisdom is codified still in the folk songs and stories of our ancient land, providing layer upon layer of meaning. But only if you care to see it, of course.