By Mama Donna Henes
The Winter Solstice is the shortest day, the longest night of the year, the culmination of the gradual withdrawal of the sun. By mid fall, there is no denying the apparent disappearance of solar light. It is most definitely getting darker and darker. And the rays of light are becoming ever more indirect, their energy and warmth barely reaching us below. Their glow is weak and wan, a diluted wash. Insipid. Depressing. All season long, the sun continues on its wayward course away from us, slithering ever further south. Further and further away from us. Until we are left standing here alone in the dark.
Wrapped in the dark womb of the weather, it is not difficult to imagine the terrifying prospect of the permanent demise of the sun and the consequent loss of light, the loss of heat. The loss of life. Without the comfort of the familiar cyclical pattern, the approach of each winter with its attendant chiaroscuro would be agonizing. The tension intensified by the chill.
With the death of the sun, the world would be cast back to the state that it occupied before creation, the classical concept of chaos. The black void. The Great Uterine Darkness. It is from this elemental ether that the old creatrix goddesses are said to have brought forth all that is. Tantric sages refer to this as the condition of the Great Goddess in Her aspect of “Dark formlessness when there was neither the creation nor the sun, the moon, the planets, and the Earth, and when the darkness was enveloped in the Darkness, the Mother, the Formless One, Maha-Kali, the Great Power, was. . .The Absolute.”
This sacred spark of creative potential that is contained within the primordial womb is one of humanity’s oldest concepts. The visual symbol which represents it, a dot enclosed within the circle, is also extremely ancient. Still in common use today, it is the astronomical notation for the sun.
Among the most archaic images of the sun is the brilliant radiance that clothes the Great Goddess. The great Mother of the pre-Islamic peoples of Southern Arabia was the sun, Atthar, or Al-Ilat. In Mesopotamia, She was called Arinna, Queen of Heaven. The Vikings named Her Sol, the old Germanic tribes, Sunna, the Celts, Sul or Sulis. The Goddess Sun was known among the societies of Siberia and North America.
She is Sun Sister to the Inuit, Sun Woman to the Australian Arunta, Akewa to the Toba of Argentina The sun has retained its archaic feminine gender in Northern Europe and Arab nations as well as in Japan. To this day, members of the Japanese royal family trace their shining descent to Amaterasu Omikami, the Heaven Illuminating Goddess.
According to legend, Amaterasu withdrew into a cave to hide from the irritating antics of Her bothersome brother, Susu-wo-no, the Storm God. Her action plunged the world into darkness and the people panicked. They begged, beseeched, implored the Sun Goddess to come back, but to no avail. At last, on the Winter Solstice, Alarming Woman, a sacred clown, succeeded in charming, teasing and finally yanking Her out, as if from an earthy birth canal, and reinstating Her on Her rightful celestial throne.
Other cultures see the Goddess not as the sun Herself, but as the mother of the sun. The bringer forth, the protector and controller, the guiding light of the sun and its cycles. According to Maori myth, the sun dies each night and returns to the cave/womb of the deep to bathe in the maternal uterine waters of life from which he is re-born each morning. The Hindu Fire God, Agni, is described as “He who swells in the mother.”
It is on the Winter Solstice, the day when the light begins to lengthen and re-gain power, that the archetypal Great Mother gave birth to the sun who is Her son. The great Egyptian Mother Goddess, Isis, gave birth to Her son Horus, the Sun God, on the Winter Solstice. On the same day, Leta gave birth to the bright, shining Apollo and Demeter, and the Great Mother Earth Goddess, bore Dionysus. The shortest day was also the birthday of the Invincible Sun in Rome, Dies Natalis Invictis Solis, as well as that of Mithra, the Persian god of light and guardian against evil.
Christ, too, is a luminous son, the latest descendant of the ancient matriarchal mystery of the nativity of the sun/son. Since the gospel does not mention the exact date of his birth it was not celebrated by the early church. It seems clear that when the church, in the fourth century AD, adopted December 25 as his birthday, it was in order to transfer the heathen devotions honoring the birth of the sun to him who was called “the sun of righteousness.”
The return of the retreating sun, which retrieves us from the dark of night, the pitch of winter, is a microcosmic recreation of the origination of the universe, the first birth of the sun. The Winter Solstice is an anniversary celebration of creation. Since the earliest of human times, it has been both natural and necessary for folks to join together in the warmth and glow of community in order to welcome the return of light to a world that is surrounded by dark. And through the imitative gesture of lighting fires, like so many solar birthday candles, we do our annual part to rekindle the spirit of hope in our hearts.
DONNA HENES, Urban Shaman, has been a contemporary ceremonialist for 30+ years. Mama Donna, as she is affectionately known, is the author of four books and a CD. She writes a weekly column for UPI (United Press International) Religion & Spirituality Forum and publishes the highly acclaimed quarterly journal, Always In Season: Living in Sync with the Cycles.
In addition to teaching and lecturing worldwide, she maintains a ceremonial center, spirit shop, ritual practice and consultancy in Exotic Brooklyn, New York, Mama Donna’s Tea Garden And Healing Haven, where she works with individuals and groups to create personally relevant rituals for all of life’s transitions.