Magical Winter solstice blessings

June 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm (Magic) (, , , )

The winter solstice occurs today at 3.16am (Sydney time). This is the moment of Midwinter in the southern hemisphere, from which the days begin to grow – albeit infinitesimally – longer and warmer.

At this moment the earth’s south pole is tilted away from the sun, at its greatest angle for the year. The sun rises north of east and sets north of west. It is the longest night and the shortest day of the year – in Sydney the night is fourteen hours and six minutes long, with only nine hours and fifty-four minutes of daylight. In comparison, on the summer solstice, on December 22 this year, there will be fourteen hours and twenty-four minutes of daylight.

There has been some debate about the date, especially as the summer solstice in the nothern hemisphere fell yesterday, the 21st. But because of the time difference, winter solstice in Australia falls in the early morning of Thursday the 22nd. In South Africa though, winter solstice occurs at 10.16pm on Wednesday…

I am wishing all my friends in the south a magical, blessed Yule, and those in the north an inspiring, energising Litha. The winter solstice is about the re-emergence of light from the dark, so it is a celebration of the earth – and our – renewal. Symbolically and energetically it’s a time to honour your inner wisdom, consider the lessons you learned during winter’s introspection and integrate them into your life so you can start to initiate change. This festival of hope and renewal is the perfect time to reflect on the past year, to acknowledge the good and the bad, the dreams you fulfilled and the ones you let die, and the things you still hope to achieve. To celebrate your potential and start dreaming of all the things you want to make happen in the coming year. It’s a time for nurturing your heart and soul, listening to its wisdom, tapping in to the subconscious thoughts that have been buried and learning the lessons of the past so you can emerge from your wintry cocoon and take action to manifest your hopes into reality in the new light and energy to come. (Read more a little further down the page.)

Sabbat times for 2011 (Australian EST time)

March 21 – 10:21am Autumn Equinox in the southern hemisphere
June 22 – 3:16am Winter Solstice in the southern hemisphere
September 23 – 7:04pm Spring Equinox in the southern hemisphere
December 22 – 4:30pm Summer Solstice in the southern hemisphere

It is interesting that In Australia winter is considered to start on June 1st, whereas in other parts of the world it starts on a different day, and from a nature perspective, with Yule//Midwinter/Winter Solstice marking the middle of winter, it is considered to start at Samhain, which falls around May 4 in the southern hemisphere.

Dr Nick Lomb, Curator of Astronomy at Sydney Observatory, explains: “In Australia winter starts on 1 June. Nobody knows for sure why that is but it is believed to be due to the NSW Corps changing from winter to summer uniforms on 1 September in the early days of the Colony. In northern hemisphere countries, traditions are different and seasons change according to the equinoxes and solstices. There is no right or wrong date, but whatever works for the country. The Australian scheme with winter spanning June, July and August implies the coldest days are in the middle of July and that matches observations. So the scheme works well here.”

And why, if the winter solstice marks the turning point of the sun, with each day after that becoming longer, are our coldest days often in July? “There is a lag between midsummer and the hottest days and between midwinter and the coldest day,” Nick says. “This is because in summer the ground, the oceans and the atmosphere all need time to heat up and come into balance between the heat received and the heat radiated. Similarly in winter they need time to cool down and come into balance.

For more information, visit the Sydney Observatory. Their Facebook page is here.

Or visit the Melbourne Planetarium.

The winter solstice falls around June 21 or 22 in the southern hemisphere and December 21 or 22 in the northern hemisphere. It’s the longest night and the shortest day of the year, and marks the transition between darkness and light, both literally and metaphorically, as well as emotionally and physically.
Mythologically, this was when the goddess gave birth to the sun god, who was reborn as an infant and began to grow towards manhood, reaching full strength six months later at the summer solstice. It represented the return of the light, and life force, to the world.
Astronomically, this solstice – which comes from the Latin word solstitium, from sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) – occurs when the sun is as far north as it goes, or, in the northern hemisphere, as far south, before it turns and heads back towards the Equator. At the time of the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the sun will be overhead the Tropic of Cancer, making it Midsummer in the north. At Midwinter in the northern hemisphere, the sun is above the Tropic of Capricorn, the furthest latitude south it reaches.
Of course it’s the earth that moves in relation to the sun, not vice versa, but it’s much easier to imagine the sun moving through the sky, alternating above each hemisphere as it creates our seasons. During the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the South Pole is tilted away from the sun, at its most extreme angle (around 23.5°), so the sun’s rays are less intense and the southern lands receives less daylight and warmth, while their northern counterparts receive their day of greatest light.
The winter solstice, also known as Midwinter, Yule, Alban Arthan (the light of the bear), Wassail, the Winter Rite, Festival of Dionysus, Saturnalia and Birth of the Sun, marks the middle of winter, and in most parts of the world it’s cold, bleak and wet, even snowing, at this time. It’s the lowest point of the Wheel in terms of energy and light, with the sun rising later and night falling earlier.
This is a quiet, reflective time – animals hide away to hibernate, seeds lie underground, closed up and cold, and nature withdraws so it can rest in order to regain its strength before it begins to regenerate. Energetically people feel tired and unmotivated too, more inclined to snuggle up on the couch with a good book or go to bed early than to leap up and take action to pursue their dreams.
Winter is for rest and reflection, conserving your energy and acknowledging sadness and loss – of dreams, of friendships, of parts of your self. It’s a good time to work with the element of water, which is associated with emotions, cleansing and letting go. Stand outside in the rain, arms outstretched to the sky and face gazing upwards, and let the water wash away any fears, regrets, sadness or painful memories. There’s something so liberating about being outside in the wildness of a storm and letting the elements wash away all that you want to let go of, but you could also dive into the ocean or soak in a scented bath to feel yourself symbolically cleansed and reborn.
Metaphorically, the energy of this season supports washing away what is no longer necessary and creating a fertile base from which to move forward. Get in touch with the things you want to change in your life, whether it’s finding a new job, meeting someone, moving house or transforming your spiritual life, and let go of anything that no longer serves you. You can’t achieve your goals until you’re certain of what they are, so listen to your inner voice and pay attention to the feelings you’ve long buried so you can focus on what’s important.
The bleakness of winter can cause depression, doctors have found, with seasonal affective disorder now a recognised medical condition. A touch of the winter blues is not uncommon because sunlight affects brain chemistry, and its lack can impact on your wellbeing. But the winter solstice is a day of hope, the turning point in this time of darkness, introspection and dreaming. Considered the dark night of the soul that gives birth to the creative spark, it marks the point where the dark half of the year relinquishes its hold to the light half. After this longest night, the days will slowly start to lengthen, the strength of the sun will slowly increase, and the energy, within and without, will slowly begin to build.
The midwinter festival is about the re-emergence of light from the dark, so it is a celebration of the earth’s – and our – renewal. It’s the perfect time to examine and acknowledge your potential and start dreaming of all the things you want to achieve. This is a day of rebirth, transformation and healing, a time to nurture yourself, and to rest and relax in preparation for the rush of growth in the spring.

Ways to celebrate
In the northern hemisphere the winter solstice celebration of Yule coincides with the modern season of Christmas, whose traditions were borrowed from the ancient solstice festivities. Pagans had marked this day with feasting, gift giving and candle-lit trees for centuries before the coming of Christ, honouring the goddess as she gave birth to the sun god, welcoming the sun, and celebrating the turning of the wheel of life from the barrenness and death in the fields to the rebirth of the crops promised by the lengthening days.
In Ancient Egypt at this time they celebrated the birth of Horus, son of the goddess Isis, with partying, feasts and presents; the Persians maintained fires all night to honour their solar god, protect the sun and keep the forces of darkness at bay; and in Ancient Rome, the solstice celebration called Sol Invictus, the Day of the Unconquered Sun, took place, which honoured the birth of their sun god Mithras, the saviour who brought light to their world.
But with the spread of Christianity this day of light and transformation was turned into Christmas, to take the spotlight off the sun god and put it on to the son of God. In 350CE, Pope Julius I declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25, to make it as painless as possible for the pagan Romans, who remained a majority at that time, to convert to the new religion.
All the same traditions continued, traditions that live on today in the Christmas tree that’s decorated at this time, the presents we put under it, the huge family meals we cook and the recognition of the birth of the son of God as opposed to the sun god.
To mark the solstice and absorb the energy of the season, decorate an evergreen tree, which symbolises the hope of spring’s return. Even in the dead of winter these trees remain green, filled with nature’s life force, which makes them a potent symbol of fertility and vitality. Pine trees were common – and remain popular – because they represent life, potency and rebirth, as so many trees can grow from a single cone.
Have a Yule feast, inviting your friends over to celebrate and exchange little presents. Pots of herbs such as chamomile, rosemary and comfrey, and plants such as sunflower, ivy and elder, encapsulate the magic and energy of the season. Decorate your home with pine cones and sprigs of mistletoe and holly, and drape the table in a red, green or gold cloth, with candles in the same colours.
If you have a fireplace, burn the traditional Yule log (usually pine or oak), lighting it at dusk and letting it burn through the night to welcome back the sun. Keep a little of the burned log to start your fire next year, and collect the ashes of the sacred wood for healing spells and rituals, as they embody the life-giving powers of the sun.
Stay up all night, celebrating, laughing and sharing your plans for the future, then go outside as morning approaches to welcome the first rays of the sun. Toast the dawn, honour the corresponding dawning of your own potential, and give thanks for this energetic reawakening. Or you may prefer to make it a solitary celebration and inner journey, going within with a solo ritual or journalling session to embody the energy of the sabbat on a deeper, more personal level.
In the southern hemisphere, the winter solstice falls in June, six months before Christmas, which can make things a bit confusing. But there is increasing awareness in Australia and other Down Under countries that Christmas is based on magical winter traditions, and many festive-themed events, such as the Winter Magic Festival, Yulefest and Hollyfrost, are now held in the correct season, in recognition that the winter solstice celebration of Yule should not take place in December, in the heat of the southern summer, but in the cool and introspective months of winter.

In your journal
This festival of hope and renewal is the perfect time to reflect on the past year, to acknowledge the good and the bad, the dreams you fulfilled and the ones you let die, and the things you still hope to achieve. In the northern hemisphere New Year’s Eve is approaching, and people contemplate the end of one year and the start of the next, which fits perfectly with the seasonal energy.
Start by reviewing your past 12 months. If you’ve been keeping a journal, re-read it, then summarise the high and low points, pondering how much you have changed, how much you achieved, and where you’re at now compared to last winter. If you haven’t kept a written record, just let your memory drift, and make notes of the events and emotions you recall. If you start feeling nostalgic and introspective, dive right into it and embrace the recollections.
This is a time for nurturing your heart and soul, listening to its wisdom, tapping in to the subconscious thoughts that have been buried and learning the lessons of the past so you can emerge from your wintry cocoon into the new light and energy to come. You’re preparing your soul’s fertile ground for the seeds you’ll soon plant, by drawing on the richness you already have deep within.
This solstice is also a good time to be still and quiet, to look inside your heart and soul and ponder the Mysteries. It’s important for your own wellbeing and peace of mind to allow such introspection and self-examination, to let yourself slow down and decide what it is you really want, otherwise you may find yourself pursuing a goal that isn’t yours or a dream you no longer care about.
At this time of year, in the middle of winter, the land appears to be dormant or even dead, yet it’s not – it’s simply awaiting the touch of the sun to bring it back to life. Likewise you are filled with the seeds of your dreams, and need only recognise them and acknowledge them, and shine the light of your inner strength on them, to awaken and invigorate them. The solstice is a great time to work out what it is you want to achieve, and start outlining in broad strokes the ways to do so.
Light a gold or yellow candle on Midwinter’s Eve to symbolise the sun and its activating energy, and breathe in its vibration and light as you stare into the flame and focus on your dreams for the coming year. Open yourself up to the promise of new growth and achievement, the energy of renewal and the rebirth of your own self and creativity as the sun is also reborn.
Symbolically and energetically it’s a time to honour your inner wisdom, consider the lessons you learned during winter’s introspection and integrate them into your life so you can start to initiate change. And have patience with yourself. There is a regenerative power in stillness, in preparing and being rested and ready for when the energy of growth and productivity of springtime returns.

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Travelling to Faeryland… an article about faery sites…

June 12, 2011 at 9:02 pm (Magic, Magical Places, Sacred Sites) (, , , , )

Travelling to Faeryland

Written for Goddess magazine

Faeryland seems to exist in another dimension, yet there are towns, forests and even whole countries that have long been associated with the fae.

The enchanted forest of Broceliande
In Brittany in the west of France, there is an ancient darkened forest shrouded in mystery and magic, long considered a place of faeries and Otherworldly beings. Thousand-year-old beech, oak and chestnut trees lean in close to each other to whisper their secrets and protect their inhabitants, while lush green ivy curls around wide tree trunks, and intricately twisted tree roots covered in moss provide hiding places for tiny creatures. It is a shadowy realm of mists, myth and legends, where druids once worshipped, Morgaine of the Faeries, King Arthur’s fae half-sister, retreated, and the faery Viviane trapped the wizard Merlin so they could be together forever.
Broceliande Forest, called Paimpont on modern maps, is so eerily quiet and desolate, despite its acclaim as the site of the Grail Quests and the magical court of Arthur, that you can easily believe it was bewitched by a vengeful faery, and still harbours magical beings who can thin the veils between our world and theirs. I rode a bicycle beneath the looming trees, then wandered down narrow paths overgrown with twining vines you have to crouch down to walk through. One led to Tombeau de Merlin (Merlin’s Tomb), a stone dolmen believed to be an entrance to Faeryland, where people leave offerings of flowers, bracelets, babies booties, poems and crystals to petition for wisdom, love and health. Another path led to Viviane’s tranquil Fontaine de Jouvence (Fountain of Youth), which promises immortality to those who drink from it.
Further through the forest is the dramatic Val sans Retour (Valley of No Return), where it is said Morgaine used spells to imprison knights in revenge for her broken heart. At the entrance is the lake called Le Miroir aux Fées (the Mirror of the Faeries), where the Lady of the Lake is believed to reside, and within is a stunning landscape, with a small rocky cliff covered in wildflowers you can clamour up for sweeping views of the valley below.
There are chateaus within the forest’s borders too, and lords who still hunt stags, wild boar and deer, but you can walk for miles without seeing a single person as you tiptoe through this ancient and oh-so-magical enchanted forest, which remains a place of pilgrimage for nature lovers and those lured by its secretive beauty and the possibility of an encounter with the fae.

Visit it: The village of Paimpont lies on the edge of a lake within the forest, and can be reached by bus from the nearby city of Rennes. With its streets named for faeries, stores selling fae artwork, quaint little bars and 13th century abbey, Paimpont is a good starting point for exploring Broceliande.

Read about it: Broceliande appears in many stories, from French writer Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th century Arthurian romance Le Chevalier au Lion to British fantasy author Robert Holdstock’s more recent novel Merlin’s Wood.

Hill of Tara, County Meath, Ireland
The beautiful Hill of Tara, just outside Dublin, is a grassy landscape dotted with earthworks, mounds and ceremonial enclosures. It has a magical, mysterious air to it, and a weight of history that adds power. Considered the spiritual and historic heart of Ireland, there are Neolithic monuments dating back 6000 years, and more recently it was associated with high kings and royalty, becoming the political centre of a thriving civilisation. It’s also where Ireland’s faery race, the Tuatha de Danaan, are thought to have retreated when the Celts invaded Ireland and they withdrew from the world of man into the Otherworld dimension. The passage tomb Dumha na nGiall (Mound of the Hostages), with its tiny gated entrance into the mound of earth, looks like a faery place – and such monuments are still seen as portals to Faeryland today. It’s also aligned to sunrise on the mornings of Samhain and Imbolc, the first days of winter and spring respectively, so it has layers of magical significance.
Within this archaeological complex is a hill fort surrounding two ring forts, and the Lia Fáil (the Stone of Destiny), a one-metre-high standing stone brought to Ireland as one of the sacred objects of the Tuatha. It is considered by some to be a fertility symbol, and others a part of the inauguration of the high kings – according to legend, if the ruler was worthy the stone would roar its approval. There is also a faery tree, where people tie ribbons to request blessings, and two wells with Otherworld connotations.
Today there is an environmental battle raging as activists try to prevent a motorway being constructed through the Hill of Tara, and the Smithsonian Institute has listed it as one of the 15 Must-See Endangered Cultural Treasures in the world. Tara is one of Ireland’s most sacred sites (and that’s saying something!), so I decided to spend Lughnasadh there. I stayed in a little B&B a few miles away, and walked there through fields of corn and hay bales, exploring the enclosure and daydreaming of magical worlds by day, then doing my ritual of thanksgiving as the sun set. Hours later I walked home in the darkness, slightly tipsy from mead, guided by the radiant beauty of the moon and the magical guardian spirits and faeries of this amazing land.

Visit it: The Hill of Tara is 50km northwest of Dublin. Nearby is the wonderful Bru na Boinne complex, which includes the Neolithic passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth

Read about it: In OR Melling’s enchanting Chronicles of Faerie novels, two girls sleep within the Mound of the Hostages in the hope that it will act as a doorway to Faeryland (and it does!).

More faery sites

Glastonbury: This pretty town in southwest England, also known as Avalon, is a place of deep magic. Home to the priestesses and druids of old, the sacred oak trees Gog and Magog and an ancient holy well, it is centred around the Tor, a huge grassy hill that has been described as a faery mound, grail castle and gateway to Annwn, the Otherworld ruled over by the faery king Gwyn ap Nudd.

Findhorn: In northeast Scotland, not far from Inverness and its Loch Ness Monster, is the spiritual community and ecovillage of Findhorn, where people communicate with the faeries and nature spirits to grow lush gardens with larger than normal vegetables and tropical plants not native to the area, despite the stormy, bleak weather and barren, sandy soil.

New Zealand: This beautiful country is filled with faery sites, as the world discovered when it became the location of the Lord of the Rings films, with its dramatic mountain peaks, grassy hobbit mounds and mysterious woodlands of the elven folk. In the South Island, magical Fjordland National Park was the location of Fangorn Forest, and the faery mountain Takitimu has legends of the Wee Folk who have resided there for centuries.

The Black Forest: The home of so many faerytales, as well as the famous Black Forest chocolate cake, this stunning wooded mountain range has long been rumoured to host a race of faeries and elves. Covering the southwest of Germany, the trees in this sprawling ancient forest grow so closely together that they block out the sun, hence the name.

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