Winter Solstice: Darkness and Not Knowing

My mother’s family is Cornish and many of the old Celtic traditions survived in some form or another in our holiday celebrations. Cornwall is located in Southwest England just below Wales and their mid-winter festivities include the burning of the Yule Log. This remnant of ancient fire festivals marks the passing of the old and advent of the new. At the darkest point in the year a new log was brought to the hearth and burned along with scraps from the previous year’s burning. This is to insure continuity of protection and prosperity from one year to the next and also along through the generations. While I don’t remember any logs being burned in our fireplace, a decorative facsimile flanked by candles, always appeared on the dining room table throughout the holiday season. More recently, we have enjoyed a confectionary version in the form of a Buche de Noel, a cylindrical cake covered with chocolate frosting, sugary holly leaves, berries and tiny marzipan mushrooms.

While most of the Celtic winter festivals are heartening, Solstice is also observed as a serious time of darkness and not knowing. Solstice, from the Latin sun stands still marks the shortest day of the year here in the northern Hemisphere. On or about December 22nd our sun appears to stand still in the sky in that its noon time elevation does not appear to change from one day to the next. This time of stillness and long dark night is also revered as a time for turning inward. The focus now is on being rather doing, while awaiting the return of the light.

In the archetypal realm I have found the image of The Hanged Man in the Tarot to be an interesting representation of this time of year and also of both psychological and spiritual states. Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung believed that this mysterious deck of cards, of unknown origin, reflects archetypal images and profound patterns in the collective unconscious. On this collective level, one could speculate as to the reasons why this graphic image could prove timely for the American empire at this end of 2011 as well as the overall future of humanity and the planet. Dr. Jung also saw the Tarot as a means to traverse the dark and light distances between the collective, the unconscious and the awake and aware conscious mind.

In Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey, Sallie Nichols takes an in-depth look at multiple meanings encoded within the Hanged Man as the twelfth card in the Major Arcana. She prefers the Marseilles Deck since it is one of the oldest designs available today. In her view, this twelfth card represents “suspense” as well stagnation, frustration and some forms of depression. A single upside down figure appears suspended between the poles of two trees above a crevasse which could also be a deep abyss. Both hands are bound behind his back and he hangs there helplessly tethered by a rope around his left foot. In other versions he is depicted with coins, as symbols of worldly values, tumbling from his pockets as he dangles between the polarities of the known old and unknown new. This custom of reverse hanging has been called “baffling”, a word used nowadays as synonymous with thwart, frustrate or confuse. This is also a traditional punishment for “traitors”. As history reveals, anyone whose individual conscience is in opposition to the prevailing paradigm can appear disloyal to the establishment. Often such individuals find themselves “upside-down” in relation to friends, family, government and other Powers That Be. Life as a valued citizen is at risk of suspension. Saul Bellow explored this theme in his novel The Dangling Man.

Individuals, groups and entire nations can encounter a time of trials during which one stage of existence may suddenly or gradually come to an end. Then they find themselves feeling helpless and “hung up” by their circumstances. Times of feeling utterly up-ended and suspended between known and unknown, and disconnected from our roots is a familiar element within the human condition. This twelfth card offers the possibility that at such times the best and maybe only option is to be still, wait, hope and pray. Referring to this experience as a psychological state Jung wrote, “The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation.” In this regard, Nichols believes that the Hanged Man, and potentially “everyman” is supported by Nature’s tree which connects him with the sturdiness of his own inner nature. The potential that this experience can result in something transformative appears in the way that the position of his legs form the numeral four which indicates that completion and solidarity are taking form deep within the unconscious. This archetypal formation implies that the Hanged Man also has an access to grace as he acquires a new understanding and possibly acceptance of that which he cannot change. Major Arcana XII also marks the linear time limits of human reality within our twelve hours of day and night and yearly count of twelve months.

I found a resonant image in the Nordic rune Isa or Ice which is depicted as a single vertical line. As a variation on themes of stillness and suspense, Isa heralds both the frozen state of winter and the winter of spiritual life. This rune speaks to those who find themselves within situations to which they are essentially blinded by some level of white-out. During such times, one may be powerless to do anything except submit, surrender and even sacrifice some long cherished desire. Be patient is the wisdom, for this is the fallow that precedes re-birth. Shed, release, cleanse away the old. This will bring on the thaw. Be still, for what you are experiencing is not necessarily the result of your actions, but of conditions of the time, against which you can do nothing. Exercise caution in your isolation and do not persist in attempting to impose your will. Remain mindful that the seed of unrealized potential is present in the shell of the old. Trust your own process and watch for signs of spring. (Ralph Blum, The Book of Runes, 1983, St. Martin’s Press, NYC.).

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