December 11, 2019
Wintertide: Ancient Rhythms
By Tonja Reichley
The deep dark grows and the sun acquiesces his power to the mystery and possibility of the long nights of the season of Samhain, the season of winter in the ancient European calendar.
The primal elements of Air, Fire, Water and Earth join the dance of the ancient rhythms. And so may we. The winds of Air rage without while the Fire of candlelight illuminates the dark nights within. Our ancestors have gathered around the hearth fire to while away the long nights with stories and whiskey and bottomless pots of strong tea. The feminine aspects of Water and Earth are venerated as the moon claims the night with her watery luminescence exulted. The Earth spirals inward with the wisdom to rest and to be, holding seeds of light within her womb.
The Winter Solstice, falling on or around December 21, is an astrological event recognizing the longest night and the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. During this time the sun’s journey is closest to the horizon and rises from the extreme southeastern part of the sky. Alternatively, the moon rises from its most northeastern point. The sun and the moon actually dance through the solstices together, of course: where the sun rises on Summer Solstice is where the moon rises on Winter Solstice.
Solstice means “standstill” and to our ancestors, who lived very intimately with the movements of the sun and the moon, it appeared that they both raised and set in the same location for the three days surrounding both the Winter and Summer Solstice. This may not mean much to us urban dwellers or mid-landers. Although to the northern Europeans, in rural places without the interference of light pollution, you would know yourself in relationship to the place that the sun and moon rise and set each day.
The solstices and the equinoxes were honored by the pre-Celtic people of indigenous Ireland and Europe (and other indigenous peoples worldwide) during the Neolithic era, a time of the sky religions of astronomy and astrology. These astrological events, the equinoxes and solstices, were so important that they were later integrated by the Celtic people and each holds a festival time, halfway between each of the fire festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lughnasa) on the Wheel of the Year.
The Neolithic people, our pre-Celtic ancestors of Europe, lived in rhythm with the sky movements, the stars and the sun and the moon. They built megalithic monuments to honor the significance of this time and these still stand strong, dotted over the Celtic landscapes in the form of stone circles, dolmens, tumuli (cairns) and other megaliths (immense standing stones). To this day it is a mystery how these stones were moved and positioned, thousands of years ago. The most well know Neolithic sites are Stonehenge in England which aligns to the sunrise of Summer Solstice and Newgrange in Ireland which aligns to the Winter Solstice sunrise.
Newgrange is a tumulus (a cairn or a mound) built with astounding astrological and engineering expertise, which has stood overlooking the Boyne River near the east coast of Ireland, just north of present-day Dublin, for over 5,000 years. Built in an ancient cruciform style with a main chamber surrounded by three smaller areas, Newgrange’s entry faces the east where the sun rises on Winter Solstice morning. The sun’s rays enter through a roof-box constructed in the cairn and down a pathway to illuminate the main chamber on the days surrounding Winter Solstice. This is the only time that the sun enters this chamber, as it has done for over 5,000 years. Symbolically, the sun’s entry is the masculine principle, entering the womb of the Earth, the feminine.
The sun penetrates, illuminates, the main chamber of Newgrange which rises about 15 in height with a dry-set stone corbeled ceiling that is still standing after thousands of years. This center chamber, the womb of the Earth, receives the sun and through this the fertile potential of the year is reborn. She receives him and gives him life. This theme, of the feminine empowering the masculine, is represented again and again in Celtic and pre-Celtic mythology. Newgrange is a physical representation of this magical event. Equally as magical, in rain-ridden Ireland, this inner chamber, this womb of the Earth, has never drawn the damp of the Elements, it was so expertly conceived and built. A true honoring of the joining of the sun (the light) and the earth (the dark) for the continuation of life, the rebirth of potential.
Winter Solstice celebrates the return of the sun, reborn through the darkest of night. The sun that has been relinquishing his power since Summer Solstice will begin to grow once again.
Journey with the Cailleach
Come with me, through the mists of time, when the dark was pure and endless, when we lived with the rhythms of the seasons and our days flowed with the dark and the light. Come with me to a time when we sat around the fire to share stories and drink whiskey and endless cups of tea. When we would dream together and sleep long nourishing sleeps. When we would rise with sun and go to bed not long after the fallen light.
This dark seasontide of Samhain is when Brighid, Irish goddess, as crone, as Cailleach, old woman of the land, walked, bent over her blackthorn stick, with her faithful fox companion by her side. Brighid, the crone, the Cailleach, wrapped in dark woolen shawls, the colors of the stones and soil of the Earth, made her way to the womb of the Earth where the inner hearth burned, cozy and bright. Here she would rest, tend to the fire and the ever-abundant cauldron bubbling above it. She would invite us in for a story or a silent and shared cup of nettle tea.
Brighid knew the wisdom of living in rhythm with the seasons. She knew the dark was a time to go inward, to rest and nest. To be quiet, like the Earth. She knew that the Earth would hold her. She knew that her own body was reflected by the Earth herself, the mounds and curves, the flowing sacred springs. She remembered it was good and right to slow down and curl up with her beloved, sit in the dark illuminated by the candlelight. She knew by tending to herself she was tending to the Earth.
So it was that Brighid rested and nested, dreamed and slept through Samhain, the season of winter. Until the Wheel of the Year turned again with the beckonings of Imbolc, the time of reawakenings and moving outward once again.
Yet that time is not yet. Do not rush the cycles. Each has their gifts and their wisdom to remember.
Now is the time of rest and nest. Of candlelight and steaming cups of herbal tea.
Brighid is a triple goddess of maiden, mother and crone. During this season of Samhain, as the above myth suggests, she embodies the energies of the crone or the Cailleach. Cailleach is the Irish word for crone or wise old woman and the land of Ireland herself is often referred to as the Cailleach, the body of the sovereign goddess. This reminds us that the land has infinite primal wisdom and if we slow down and listen and lay with her, we too will remember, restore and reclaim. We will know that by tending to ourselves we are tending to the Earth.
To invoke ancient rhythms of wintertide:
• Gather around a hearth (a candle counts!) and tell favorite stories or myths as you sip on a lovely glass of Irish whiskey (Bushmills is a favorite).
• Write an invocation to the Cailleach, asking for her presence within and without. Place this on your altar and read it daily.
• Go to bed early.
• Bring in fresh holly to decorate your space (keeping in mind Christmas trees have only been around less than 100 years for most of us). Holly holds the energies of the dark half of the year and in Ireland this is still brought as a gift to the hospitable.
• Make an herbal tea to invoke stillness. Here is a delicious blend I call Deep Peace: 1 part spearmint, 1 part fennel, 1 part nettle and 1/8 part licorice. Make a big batch and give as gifts.
• Spend an evening (or many) without any electric lights. Live in the candlelight as our ancestors did.
• Say no to anything that does not feel enlivening. Do it. Say no.
• Spend time dreaming what you would like the next cycle to bring. Write it down. Dream wilder. Dream bigger. Dream some more.
• Be still. Turn off all devices and music, even. See how quiet you can be.
• Take a night walk in the gently falling snow with a candle lantern as your only light.
Tonja Reichley, Herbalist (Bsc, MBA), Ritualist and Author, has been teaching herbal classes rooted in Irish traditions, healing and spirituality for 20 years. She has lived part time on the west coast of Ireland for 15 years, continually learning from the land, the plants, the people and the Ancestors as well as from her teacher Gina McGarry, whom she studied with in a three-month immersion in 2001, in residence in Ireland and continues to learn from. Tonja has led sacred journeys to Ireland for 14 years including a two week Herb School and a two week Priestess School each summer plus herbal pilgrimages for Beltaine and Autumn Equinox.
She is the author of Wild Irish Roots: A Seasonal Guidebook to Herbs, Ritual and Connection and The Way of Brighid Oracle Cards.
dancingwiththewild.com | @tonjareichley